History

For context, CAPE is the cyclically adjusted price-earnings ratio.  On that topic, 3rdMoment writes:

While I have great respect for Shiller, I don’t understand his confidence that the CAPE is likely to return to it’s historical average of around 16. There are several reasons why we might expect the average CAPE going forward to be higher than in the past:

1. The average levels of CAPE in most of the last century appear, with hindsight, to have been puzzlingly low. This is the well-known “equity premium puzzle.”

2. There has been a large shift in corporate payout mix, from virtually all dividends in the past, to a roughly equal mix of dividends and share repurchases today. This by itself will add a couple of points to CAPE even if nothing else changes, (as shown in this post by the anonymous blogger who tweets as “Jesse Livermore”): http://www.philosophicaleconomics.com/2013/12/Shiller/

3. Some other accounting changes to the definition of profits might raise the CAPE as well, again see the linked blog post above.

4. Lower information and transaction costs and the rise of index investing have dramatically lowered the cost of maintaining a globally diversified portfolio. This decreases the raw rate of return for any given required rate of realized returns. For example if the costs of investing in equities fall by just 50 basis points, this would allow the required raw earnings yield to fall from 5% to 4.5%, corresponding to a rise in CAPE from 20 to 22, without changing realized returns for investors.

5. The real “risk free” return on treasuries seems to be very low by historic standards. Real returns on other forms of debt also appear low. This lowers the return stocks need to be attractive by comparison.

6. Large corporate cash balances, a “global savings glut,” lower rates of real economic growth, possible “secular stagnation,” all seem to point to the idea that real returns are somewhat harder to get than the past.

Some of these reasons are more certain than others, but taken together they seem to show that we have good reason to expect CAPE levels significantly above the historical average going forward.

Are there any countervailing reasons offsetting the list above, factors that would tend to make CAPE lower than in the past? I can’t really think of any. And I haven’t seen anybody else offering any.

Nine million Americans took a week off in July 1976, the peak month each year for summer travel. Yet in July 2014, just seven million did. Keeping in mind that 60 million more Americans have jobs today than in 1976, that adds up to a huge decline in the share of workers taking vacations.

Some rough calculations show, in fact, that about 80 percent of workers once took an annual weeklong vacation — and now, just 56 percent do.

That is from Evan Soltas, there is more here.  And Evan offers a bit more here.

Sentences to ponder

by on August 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm in Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink

“Always assume that there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and in heart.” This is the counsel Leo Strauss, among the most consequential teachers and scholars of political philosophy in the 20th century, offered an advanced graduate student who had asked for a general rule about teaching.

In a short essay published in the early 1960s, “Liberal Education and Responsibility” (based on a public lecture he gave), Strauss elaborated on his exquisite advice. “Do not have too high an opinion of your importance,” he said, “and have the highest opinion of your duty, your responsibility.”

There is more here, by Peter Berkowitz, via Andrea Castillo.

There are many interesting charts and graphs in the post, and he argues against a belief in mean reversion, along with a discussion of “the original Black Swan.”  It is a difficult post to excerpt, best to read and view the whole thing.

*Finding Equilibrium*

by on August 11, 2014 at 2:58 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

The authors are Till Düppe and E. Roy Weintruab and the subtitle is Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie and the Problem of Scientific Credit.  I very much liked this book, which provides an inside look at the discovery of some key theorems in economics, with an emphasis on the problem of joint discovery.  McKenzie, by the way, is the one who received the least credit, an example of the Matthew Effect.

“There are two things which a democratic people will always find very difficult – to begin a war and to end it.”

– Alexis de Tocqueville

If a captive soldier is known to be in a certain vehicle, Mr. Amidror said, it is permissible to fire a tank shell toward the engine of the car. “You for sure risk the life of the soldier, but you don’t intend to kill him,” he said.

Asked whether it was morally acceptable to risk a soldier’s life in this way, Mr. Amidror said: “You know, war is very controversial. Soldiers have to know there are many risks in the battlefield, and this is one of them.”

That is for Israeli soldiers and it is called the Hannibal Procedure more generally.  The subtext is that an Israeli soldier captured by the enemy can end up being traded for a thousand or more imprisoned Palestinians.  The persistence of the kidnapped state for the soldier may create an intolerable situation for the Israeli public, more than would seem to be the case for a deceased soldier, and arguably it damages morale for future soldiers to a greater extent.

Not everyone likes the Hannibal Procedure:

“The procedure is morally flawed,” said Emanuel Gross of Haifa University, an expert in military law and a former military judge. “We have no right to risk the life of a soldier only to avoid the payment for his return from captivity.”

Instead, Mr. Gross said, Israel ought to stand more firmly against the inflated demands of the captors.

I wonder how the opinion of the median soldier or soldier-to-be on this policy compares to the opinion of the median Israeli citizen.  Our philosopher readers will also note the connection of this debate to the longstanding conundrums over whether a person ceasing to exist can be said to harm that person, a topic discussed by Derek Parfit among others.

The full story is here, interesting throughout.

Who are the Yazidis?

by on August 8, 2014 at 7:48 am in Current Affairs, History, Religion | Permalink

Their supreme being is known as Yasdan. He is considered to be on such an elevated level that he cannot be worshipped directly. He is considered a passive force, the Creator of the world, not the preserver. Seven great spirits emanate from him of which the greatest is the Peacock Angel known as Malak Taus – active executor of the divine will. The peacock in early Christianity was a symbol of immortality, because its flesh does not appear to decay. Malak Taus is considered God’s alter ego, inseparable from Him, and to that extent Yazidism is monotheistic.

There is more here, interesting throughout.

Putin’s Plan A: Long game, squeeze Ukraine, force deep federation, formalize Russian influence & primacy in SE

Plan B: Invade

The link to that tweet is here.  There is more from Ian here.

I find it worrying that Putin is suspending food imports from parts of the West.  (Note that the text of the ban may be deliberately ambiguous.)  Commentators are criticizing the economics of such a move, but I think of this more in terms of Bayesian inference.  Long-term elasticities are greater than short.  Under the more pessimistic reading of the action, Putin is signaling to the Russian economy that it needs to get used to some fairly serious conditions of siege, and food is of course the most important of all commodities.  Why initiate such a move now if you are expecting decades of peace and harmony?  Or is Putin instead trying to signal to the outside world that he is signaling “siege” to his own economy?  Then it may all just be part of a larger bluff.  In any case, Eastern Europeans do not take food supply for granted.

That campaign is one of the more notable events going on in a busy and event-rich world, so it feels remiss not to cover it at all.  Here is John Minnich:

The anti-corruption campaign is one of those steps. It serves many overlapping functions: to clear out potential opponents, ideological or otherwise; to consolidate executive power and reduce bureaucratic red tape so as to ease the implementation of reform; to remind the Chinese people that the Communist Party has their best interests at heart; and to make it easier to make tough decisions.

Underlying and encompassing these, we see the specter of something else. The consensus-based model of politics that Deng built in order to regularize decision-making and bolster political stability during times of high growth and that effectively guided China throughout the post-Deng era is breaking down. It can no longer hold in the face of China’s transformation and the crises this will bring. Simply put, now that its post-1978 contract with Chinese society — a social contract grounded in the exchange of growth for stability — is up, the Party risks losing the public support and political legitimacy that this contract undergirded. A new and more adaptive but potentially much less stable model is being erected, or resurrected, from within the old. This model is grounded more firmly in the personality and prestige of the president and more capable, or so Chinese leaders seem to hope, of harnessing and managing the Chinese nation through what could well be a period of turmoil.

This does not necessarily mean a return to Imperial China, nor does it mean a return to the days and methods of the Great Helmsman, Mao. It doesn’t even mean the new model will succeed, even remotely. What it means will be decided only by the specific interplay of structure and contingency in the unfolding of history. But it is this transformation that serves as the fundamental, if latent, purpose for Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.

The full piece is here, and for the pointer I thank Jim Olds.  “Be careful what kind of anti-corruption campaign you wish for…”

Eduardo Porter interviewed me in addition to his column, here is one excerpt:

What about other consequences of inequality? There is evidence that it hurts mobility, sapping young men’s incentives to succeed. Some have suggested it corrupts our political system and could fuel social unrest.

We know very little about what income inequality tends to cause in politics. We do see that income inequality is up considerably and crime is down considerably. We do know that older societies, as we are becoming, tend to be more peaceful and stable. We also see that a rising middle class often leads to political instability, such as in Thailand or Turkey or Brazil or for that matter the United States in the 1960s. Many young American men may be experiencing a crisis of confidence these days, but the problem lies in the absolute quality of their opportunities, not the gap between them and Bill Gates.

And this:

If we are looking for a remedy, a greater interest in strict religions would help many of the poor a lot — how about Mormonism for a start? Just look at the data. Many other religions prohibit or severely limit alcohol, drugs and gambling. That said, this has to happen privately rather than as a matter of state policy.

Here is the whole thing.

David Brooks writes:

But when the Muslim Brotherhood government fell, the military leaders cracked down. They sentenced hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leadership class to death. They also closed roughly 95 percent of the tunnels that connected Egypt to Gaza, where the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas, had gained power.

As intended, the Egyptian move was economically devastating to Hamas. Hamas derived 40 percent of its tax revenue from tariffs on goods that flowed through those tunnels. One economist estimated the economic losses at $460 million a year, nearly a fifth of the Gazan G.D.P.

Hamas needed to end that blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel. If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish state, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade. Civilian casualties were part of the point. When Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, dismissed a plea for a cease-fire, he asked a rhetorical question, “What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?”

The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy in The Times of Israel, “Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Cairo.”

The full column is here.

Israel’s major problem is that circumstances always change. Predicting the military capabilities of the Arab and Islamic worlds in 50 years is difficult. Most likely, they will not be weaker than they are today, and a strong argument can be made that at least several of their constituents will be stronger. If in 50 years some or all assume a hostile posture against Israel, Israel will be in trouble.

Time is not on Israel’s side. At some point, something will likely happen to weaken its position, while it is unlikely that anything will happen to strengthen its position. That normally would be an argument for entering negotiations, but the Palestinians will not negotiate a deal that would leave them weak and divided, and any deal that Israel could live with would do just that.

What we are seeing in Gaza is merely housekeeping, that is, each side trying to maintain its position. The Palestinians need to maintain solidarity for the long haul. The Israelis need to hold their strategic superiority as long as they can. But nothing lasts forever, and over time, the relative strength of Israel will decline. Meanwhile, the relative strength of the Palestinians may increase, though this isn’t certain.

Looking at the relative risks, making a high-risk deal with the Palestinians would seem prudent in the long run. But nations do not make decisions on such abstract calculations. Israel will bet on its ability to stay strong. From a political standpoint, it has no choice. The Palestinians will bet on the long game. They have no choice. And in the meantime, blood will periodically flow.

There is more here, of interest throughout, via Eric Reguly.

Alan S. Blinder and Mark W. Watson have a useful unpacking of this question, here is the abstract summarizing their conclusions:

The U.S. economy has grown faster—and scored higher on many other macroeconomic metrics—when the President of the United States is a Democrat rather than a Republican. For many measures, including real GDP growth (on which we concentrate), the performance gap is both large and statistically significant, despite the fact that postwar history includes only 16 complete presidential terms. This paper asks why. The answer is not found in technical time series matters (such as differential trends or mean reversion), nor in systematically more expansionary monetary or fiscal policy under Democrats. Rather, it appears that the Democratic edge stems mainly from more benign oil shocks, superior TFP performance, a more favorable international environment, and perhaps more optimistic consumer expectations about the near-term future. Many other potential explanations are examined but fail to explain the partisan growth gap.

The NBER paper is here, an ungated version is here (pdf).

The Demand and Supply of Sex

by on July 28, 2014 at 4:25 am in History, Religion, Science | Permalink

Alternet: The idea that men are naturally more interested in sex than women is [so] ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine that people ever believed differently. And yet for most of Western history, from ancient Greece to beginning of the nineteenth century, women were assumed to be the sex-crazed porn fiends of their day. In one ancient Greek myth, Zeus and Hera argue about whether men or women enjoy sex more. They ask the prophet Tiresias, whom Hera had once transformed into a woman, to settle the debate. He answers, “if sexual pleasure were divided into ten parts, only one part would go to the man, and and nine parts to the woman.” Later, women were considered to be temptresses who inherited their treachery from Eve. Their sexual passion was seen as a sign of their inferior morality, reason and intellect, and justified tight control by husbands and fathers. Men, who were not so consumed with lust and who had superior abilities of self-control, were the gender more naturally suited to holding positions of power and influence.

Early twentieth-century physician and psychologist Havelock Ellis may have been the first to document the ideological change that had recently taken place. In his 1903 work Studies in the Psychology of Sex, he cites a laundry list of ancient and modern historical sources ranging from Europe to Greece, the Middle East to China, all of nearly the same mind about women’s greater sexual desire.

The ancient belief is consistent with the well known fact that in ancient times when a man went to a bordello the women would line up and bid for the right to sleep with him.

In other words, the ancients believed a lot of strange things at variance with the facts (which isn’t to say that the switch in belief and its timing isn’t of interest or that these kinds of beliefs no longer sway with the times). More at the link.