Friday, October 24, 2014

Money Angles

I recently reread "Money Angles" a 1984 book by financial writer Andrew Tobias. This book was derived from magazine articles Tobias had written on the general subject of money, investing and personal finance. It is little uneven but overall I liked it.   Tobias moves in moneyed circles and the book contains numerous entertaining stories about the financial lives of his friends and acquaintances with which Tobias illustrates his generally sound advice. It is 30 years old so I found it a little dated in places but not too badly. It did help that I am old enough to have lived through a time when for example "... A 9 percent fixed-rate mortgage is a treasure. ..." (p. 79).   But while the details of things like tax laws or current prices have changed the big picture hasn't changed that much.  There are still many ways to go wrong financially and this book warns about some of them.

This is not a good introductory book to personal finance and investing, it assumes some basic familiarity with the subject and it doesn't attempt to be comprehensive. And I can't really recommend you make a special effort to read it but if you happen to run across a copy you might give it a try.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Yesterday (Tuesday) the market was down as were all of my stocks except for one.  Today the market was up as were all of my stocks except for one.  In both cases the oddball was Ensco (ESV) which seems a little strange.

Ensco owns and leases out offshore drilling rigs.  I bought some earlier this year because the stock (with a 6% yield and low PE) seemed cheap.  This isn't looking like a great pick as the stock has recently gotten quite a bit cheaper.  In hindsight I overlooked a couple of things.  First while a company like ExxonMobil may not suffer too badly post peak oil production as you would expect decreased volume to be offset by increasing prices it is hard to see a company like Ensco prospering post peak drilling as you would expect fewer leases and lower lease rates (as the surplus of rigs pushes prices  down).  Second a low PE doesn't mean much if it is based on inflated earnings.  The earnings a company like Ensco reports are highly dependent on how fast it is depreciating the expensive drilling rigs it is leasing out.  Ensco recently wrote down the value of some of its rigs which means it hadn't been depreciating them fast enough and therefore that its reported earnings have been too high (and hence its real PE was not actually as low as reported). 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Union Square

I recently spent a month on vacation.  Among other things I attended a wedding in San Francisco.  While there I stayed in the Saint Francis Hotel on Union Square in one of the less fancy rooms.  The hotel has some historical memorabilia in the lobby.  I was bit surprised to see the Fatty Arbuckle affair mentioned.  (Fatty Arbuckle was accused of assaulting (and fatally injuring) Virginia Rappe during a 1921 party at the hotel.  He was tried three times and eventually found not guilty after two hung juries.)  This seems like the sort of thing a pretentious hotel might prefer to ignore but I guess they think it's just history at this point.  The hotel is also where Sara Jane Moore attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975 as he was leaving.

The photo shows Union Square.  The hotel is on the corner out of the frame to the left.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Climate Change Evidence & Causes

I recently read "Climate Change Evidence & Causes", a short (32 page) pamphlet produced by the National Academy of Sciences (US) and the Royal Society (UK) which I was sent with a suggestion that I review it. I couldn't find a copyright statement or date but it appears to be recent. As might be expected it is a summary of mainstream scientific thinking regarding anthropogenic CO2 (and other greenhouse gas) emissions into the atmosphere and their predicted effects on the earth's climate. I am familiar with the subject and didn't find anything particularly original or compelling about this write up although it comes of course with the imprint of whatever authority you are prepared to grant to the National Academy and the Royal Society.
The report is rather narrowly focused on climate science. The question of what if anything to do about the predicted warming involves many other issues which the report does not address. For example the most alarming projections are based on an emissions scenario called RCP8.5 in which CO2 levels peak at around 2000 ppmv.  This scenario (which isn't original to this report) is generally labeled "business-as-usual" however it has been criticized as being alarmist and essentially impossible as it assumes burning fossil fuel resources (especially coal) which are not currently (and may never be) economically feasible to extract.  See here and here.  I am not sure who is right but the dispute is important and it isn't addressed at all in this summary.  Another important issue is to what extent active mitigation measures are feasible which the report just mentions in passing " ... or they can seek as yet unproven 'geoengineering' solutions ...".  And of course any attempt to seriously limit emissions will involve a host of complicated political and economic questions.

So I am not sure what this report really contributes to the political debates about climate change.  Most people are aware of the conventional wisdom but don't perceive any imminent threat to themselves personally and so aren't willing  to make any great sacrifices to avert climate change.  So little is likely to get done.

So in summary I doubt this report will have much impact and I don't see any reason to make a special effort to read it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Blog list changes

I have made some more changes to my blog list. I have deleted the links to Vox and FiveThirtyEight as they aren't blogs and perhaps more important I am disappointed in both sites. There are occasional exceptions but most of their content is of little interest to me. I have updated the link to Sailer to reflect his move to the Unz review. Unfortunately the link isn't working properly. The link to Kevin Drum has a similar problem. When I added the link to Drum I thought this problem had been fixed but apparently not. It seems the gadget software is deleting the portion of links after the first /.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Reign of Error

I recently read "Reign of Error" a 2013 book by Diane Ravitch about American public schools.  There are two main factions in US education debates.  The traditional educational establishment as exemplified by the teacher unions which largely supports more of the same and the "reformers" who believe that major changes are needed including replacement of many of the current teachers.  In this book Ravitch presents the establishment case, defending the status quo and attacking the reformers and their proposals.  As long time readers of this blog know I am not a fan of either side in this debate.  Nor did I particularly like this book.  While I generally agree that the reform proposals are wrongheaded I sometimes found her arguments against them unconvincing.  And I don't think her own proposals make a lot of sense.

The problem with the traditional educational establishment is that they have a grossly inflated opinion of themselves.  They believe teachers are very important and therefore deserving of lots of pay and respect.  While these views are understandable in union leaders it makes it difficult for them to respond effectively to the reform arguments that since teachers are so critical to the educational process society should expend much more effort in identifying and weeding out bad teachers and that this would significantly improve our schools.

In truth however teachers aren't very important in that (within the range commonly found in US schools) they have little influence on results.  It matters much more who the student is (again within the range commonly found in US schools) than who the teacher is.  Peers also have more effect on outcomes than teachers.  This means it is difficult to distinguish between below average and above average teachers and that the payoff for replacing below average teachers with above average teachers is not all that large.  So the reformer's obsession with replacing large numbers of current teachers makes little sense.  Slightly below average teachers are difficult to identify and are not doing much harm anyway.   

One way in which differences among students matter is that some students are brighter than other students.  The establishment (including Ravitch in this book) ignores this (apparently for political correctness reasons).  Of course any system for evaluating teachers that doesn't take ability differences into account will be grossly unfair but the establishment's unwillingness to acknowledge that ability differences exist handicaps their response. 

As noted above I didn't always think Ravitch made the anti-reform case very well.  She goes on about how factors beyond a teacher's control (like a parental divorce) can affect student results and that how this makes evaluating teachers on the basis of results unfair.  But this is unconvincing.  What matters is how the inevitable random noise compares to the differences in teaching ability you are trying to detect.  As it happens because these differences are relatively small random noise is a significant issue making ranking individual teachers problematic.  Note student rankings are subject to random noise too but because the differences in performance are relatively larger they are more reliable.

Ravitch also goes on about how charter schools can be more selective about their students.  This is a legitimate point in so much as if charter schools are only admitting bright students this should be accounted for in evaluating their results.  But if charter schools are gaining by excluding disruptive students this is a legitimate advantage which should not be discounted. Keeping disruptive students in mainstream public school classes is a policy decision that could be reversed.  If it has bad effects it is perfectly legitimate to count them against public schools.  Similarly placing students of widely varying ability in the same classes is a policy decision.  If charter schools can do better by tracking again this is a legitimate advantage that should be acknowledged.

I also wasn't convinced by Ravitch's own proposals.  She goes on and on about all the things schools should teach besides the basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills students need to function as adults.  This is fine for the top students who can pick up the basic skills quickly and with little effort but problematic for those who can't.

Ravitch also advocates expanded preschool programs the benefits of which are not as well established as she claims.  She cites the Perry Preschool Project in a misleading way:

... At the time, many people assumed that IQ was fixed and that interventions made no difference.  Weikart set out to prove them wrong.

One might think from this and her subsequent discussion that the Project had succeeded in raising IQ.  But in fact while the Perry Preschool Project claims many wonderful results raising IQ (permanently) is not one of them.  See the discussion at page 16 here:

It is true that the High/Scope Perry Preschool program had a statistically significant effect on children’s IQs during and up to a year after the program, but not after that.  ...

As for the other results one small 50 year old study is not entirely convincing.  Some replications would be nice.

And Ravitch wants to reserve certain positions for professional educators.  But being a professional educator is a lot like being a professional astrologer.  There is no underlying generally accepted scientific body of knowledge involved.  So I see no reason to give "professional educators" and their politically correct fad theories of the moment undue deference.

The book did have some interesting material.  For example it presented data showing that test scores have improved somewhat over the last 30-40 years.  If correct (I have not attempted to independently evaluate and verify this claim) this is a worthwhile corrective to the widespread gloom and doom stories.

But overall this book is pretty long and I didn't find it very interesting.  I don't recommend it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

No Money Down

Felix Salmon recently revisited an argument (Stern v. Salmon) he had with Linda Stern 3 years ago about buying a house with little money down.  Without attempting to address every point in dispute I believe Stern is largely correct.  If it makes sense for you to buy a house, but you haven't saved a large down payment, but you can get a mortgage on reasonable terms anyway, then it generally makes sense to buy a house now with little money down rather than waiting to save a large down payment.

Salmon's biggest mistake is a complete failure to understand that the main effect of a larger down payment is to protect the lender (and society at large) not the borrower.  It does so by reducing the value of the "homeowners put" (the option to walk away from an underwater mortgage, which contrary to Salmon you don't have to be broke to exercise (at least in no recourse states)), which like any put is more valuable when the market price is close to the strike price.  This means low down payment mortgages should be very expensive or unobtainable.  They aren't because they are subsidized by the government.  Salmon ignores this subsidy which obviously affects the analysis when he claims that banks are not charitable institutions.

This doesn't mean everyone who can obtain a mortgage should buy a house, transaction costs are extremely high so you should be confident that you won't need or want to move soon.  But if buying a house with 20% down would make sense then I expect it will usually still make sense with a lower down payment.