Saturday, October 13, 2018

Crashed

I recently read "Crashed" a recent (2018) book by Adam Tooze about the great financial crisis (GFC) of 2008-2009 and its aftermath.  I had previously read Tooze's book "The Wages of Destruction" about the economy of Nazi Germany and found it interesting so when I saw this book on the new books shelf at my local library I thought it might be worth checking out.  This was a mistake.

The book is very long (over 700 pages including nearly 100 pages of index and notes) but displays little insight.  There is a old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees which seems to apply.  We are now at some remove from the GFC and so (one would hope) are better placed to identify its important features and effects.  But this book doesn't really attempt to do this. Instead it largely consists of a chronological recounting of events with little real analysis. The failure to develop any sort of convincing theoretical framework means the book is of little help in understanding and evaluating policy alternatives going forward.

For example the book states in several places that the American response to the crisis (although flawed) was more effective than the European response.  However the book doesn't consider the obvious possibility that the American response just appeared more effective because the problems in America weren't as serious as in Europe.    

Again the book seems to vaguely disapprove of the way Europe dealt with Greece but with little consideration of concrete alternatives and their advantages and disadvantages.  When the Euro was introduced many American economists thought it was a mistake because the area involved was too diverse to be adequately served by a single uniform monetary policy.  The book does not really discuss this.

One general view of the GFC is that people want to save more money than the system can safely accommodate.  That is there are more people who want to lend money than credit worthy borrowers.  In such a situation there is a great temptation to pretend certain loans are safe when they are not.  If this imbalance is real than specific regulations aimed at preventing certain types of bad loans are likely to just cause the problem to reappear in different forms.  But this sort of bigger picture view is lacking in this book making it of little value in my view.

To sum up I didn't like this book at all.  It just recapitulates events at length without adding much in the way of understanding.  I would avoid it.        

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Press 1 for English

Back in July, Paul Campos (of the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog) posted a rant in which he derided the  ""press 1 for English" myth" declaring (among other things):

The claim that people are forced to “press 1 for English” is pure racist bullshit, peddled by liars ...

I was pretty sure I had encountered this in the past  but of course it was hard to cite specific examples.  But now I can.  This morning I had reason to call New York E-ZPass service center (1-800-333-8655) and one of the first things I heard was "press 1 for English" (or some close variant).  So more confirmation of my opinion that the left is increasingly living in a fantasy world.

I was calling the service center because yesterday I received an E-ZPass statement which showed a bogus charge for using the lower level of the George Washington Bridge.  This was easy to spot since it was the only charge on the statement and I haven't been in New York State for some time.  Once I got a live person on the line this proved fairly simple to resolve.  She determined by some unspecified means that the charge was in error and agreed to have it reversed.  It was not clear what happened.  She said something about the license plate number not matching so maybe she was able to pull up a photo.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Middlesex Jury Duty

Last Monday I was summoned for jury duty at Middlesex County Courthouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  This is the second time I have been summoned for jury duty since I moved to New Jersey, but the previous time I was excused when I called in the night before.  No such luck this time.  However I wasn't selected for a trial Monday which fulfilled my obligation and means I am exempt for the next three years.

There is an information page for jurors but I don't think it was as helpful as it could have been for first time jurors like myself who aren't familiar with how the system works.  So I will describe my experience in some detail.

The reporting time was 8 AM.  This is earlier than I am used to getting up so I was paranoid about arriving on time.  I left my townhouse around 7 AM.  The drive was about 30 minutes and it took another 10-15 minutes to drive up to the fifth level of the parking garage, walk back down and walk a couple of blocks to the juror entrance.  So I got there about 7:45 AM.  Although the entrance was theoretically open at 7:30 AM when I arrived they were just starting to send people through the metal detector.  So I had to wait in line for the metal detector and then in some more lines to be checked off a list and get my juror badge.  It seemed clear no one would have cared much if I had been a few minutes (or maybe as much as an hour or so) late.

Once you are processed you are sent to the juror waiting room.  This was a big room which appeared to hold about 200 people.  It is important to realize that it is not a courtroom.  So while (as the juror information page states) lots of stuff is banned in courtrooms (like reading books or newspapers) it is all fine (within reason) in the juror waiting room.  So you can bring a book or electronic device to occupy yourself with while waiting.  You should also bring a bag to stuff it all in (out of sight) if you are summoned to a courtroom lest you be asked to leave it behind.  Fortunately I had done this without knowing for sure it was okay.

Once in the juror waiting room you are shown a short movie giving general instructions and extolling the virtues of the jury system and welcomed and sworn in by a judge.  Then you wait around.  Short smoking breaks outside are allowed as long as the staff knows where you are.  From time to time a list of about 40 names is read out.  These people are led away to a courtroom where a jury is selected for a particular trial.  There were 5 such lists (two in the morning and three in the afternoon) read out while I was there.  I was the first name on the second list so there might have been more (but probably no more than one) lists read out in the morning while I wasn't there.      

Once in a courtroom you are told a few details about the case and the names of the parties, their lawyers and potential witnesses so you can make the court aware of any conflicts.  If I understood correctly this was a civil case involving an automobile accident in Pennsylvania (it was unclear to me why it was being tried in New Jersey).  You are also given a list of questions you will be asked so you can look them over and be prepared when the judge questions you.  Then you are called up individually so the judge (and attorneys) can question you (semi-privately) at what was called a sidebar.

I was the first name on the list so I was the first person called up individually.  I was soon excused when I told the judge (entirely truthfully) that I sometimes have trouble staying awake.  I felt a little bad about this as I definitely didn't want to be selected and this felt a little like shirking.  However I also didn't want the judge yelling at me for falling asleep and listening to boring testimony after lunch is legitimately the sort of thing I might have trouble staying awake through.

In any case there were other questions on the list that might have gotten me excused.  One asked if you would give any different weight to the testimony of a police officer.  I expect the answer they want is no but I was prepared to justify at length why I would.  Another was about my view of  "tort reform" and I was prepared to expound at length about the deficiencies of the American tort system in my view.  I also had an issue with the introductory video we were shown which advised (among other things) that we might want to give to more credibility to witnesses who seemed confident.  It is my understanding that academic studies have shown this is bad advice, that confident witnesses are no more likely to accurately recall events than hesitant witnesses and I would have complained about this given an opening.

After you are excused from the panel you are supposed to go back to the main waiting room which I did.  However you are also supposed to check in so they know you are available to be called for another panel.  I didn't do this immediately because I didn't realize I was supposed to (although I expect they told us this several times somehow it didn't register).  I didn't figure it out until after the first panel had been selected in the afternoon so I unintentionally reduced my chances of being picked for a jury a little.

We were given an hour for lunch.  Our parking was covered but only for one interval in the parking garage so driving anywhere would have meant paying for the afternoon parking myself.  Fortunately there are a variety of deli type eating places within a few blocks.  I walked for a while and eventually bought 2 slices of pizza and a coke for about $5.  Which was edible if not great.  Then I walked back and went through the metal detector again in plenty of time for the afternoon session.  

We were repeatedly told we were obligated to be there until at least a certain time (4:12 PM if I remember correctly) no matter what but in practice we were let out a few minutes early once they they were sure no more jurors would be needed that day.  If you are selected for a trial you are required to show up for the duration (absent some sort of acceptable emergency excuse).  A few extra jurors are selected to allow for attrition but don't participate in deliberations unless needed.  For my panel the judge said we should be prepared for the trial to last all week (until Friday) although he was going to try to finish by Thursday.  This I expect wasn't including deliberation time which can sometimes be lengthy.

So all in all a tedious but bearable exercise if you are prepared with something to keep you occupied.  And fortunately my employer will still pay me for Monday as the $5 juror pay isn't going to go very far.      

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Undoing Project

I recently read "The Undoing Project" a 2017 book by Michael Lewis.  It primarily tells the story of two Israelis, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who worked together for many years studying how people make decisions especially bad decisions.  Kahneman received the 2002 Nobel economics prize for this work (shared with Vernon Smith).  Tversky would probably have shared in the prize as well if he had not died in 1996 (at the relatively young age of 59) making him ineligible.

I was disappointed in this book.  It is quite long (352 pages plus notes) and unlike most of Lewis's work I didn't find it to be particularly entertaining.  It contains a lot of biographical material about Kahneman and Tversky which (while intermittently interesting) isn't especially relevant to their professional work.  It is repetitive in places (for example colleagues and students describing how brilliant they were).  It abruptly introduces other characters and then drops them without really integrating them into the narrative.  It contains chapter notes at the end of the book but no index.  It suggests that their work was very important but doesn't really explain why.

Nor did I think it was especially instructive.  It isn't technical enough to be a good introduction to Kahneman's and Tversky's professional work.  I have previously reviewed books by Ariely, "Predictably Irrational" and Thaler, "The Winner's Curse" which discuss related work on decision making.  While I didn't recommend them either they would provide a better introduction to the field.

In short I would skip this book.  It isn't a good introduction to this subject area and I didn't find it compelling as entertainment.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Chasing Hillary

I recently read "Chasing Hillary" by Amy Chozick.  Amy Chozick covered Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign for the Wall Street Journal and her 2016 campaign for the New York Times.  In this 2018 book she gives a long (375 page) first person account of her experiences.

Chozick mentions several times Hillary's inability to give an inspiring explanation of why she was running for President.  One could similarly ask what was the point of this book.  It is pretty useless as history as it assumes you already know the big picture of what happened.  A college student assigned to read this book 20 years from now would not learn much about American politics between 2006 and 2016. 

The book contains a lot of autobiographical material.  In many ways it is more about Chozick than Hillary.  But it does not really succeed as autobiography either.  Chozick doesn't seem that important or interesting.  And she presents herself as such a caricature of the insanely ambitious (and insecure) career woman who only cares about getting her byline on the front page of the paper that you begin to wonder if she is writing self-parody.

And while the book is amusing in places it is far too long to succeed purely as entertainment.

The book describes a toxic relationship between Hillary and her press corps which is largely Hillary's fault as she (and her campaign aides) make no effort to hide their utter contempt for the reporters covering her.  While somewhat understandable this was a bad mistake on Hillary's part as just a little judicious flattery would probably have paid off in better coverage. 

Chozick criticizes the way the New York Times covered the material hacked from the Clinton campaign and released but doesn't explain what she thinks they should have done instead.  Hillary's speeches to Goldman Sachs were a campaign issue, once the transcripts were obtained (albeit illegally) and published on the internet I don't see how the New York Times could avoid discussing them (especially since authenticity doesn't seem to have been an issue).  Of course if Hillary wasn't  willing to release the transcripts herself she probably shouldn't have given the speeches.  It used to be fairly easy to tell different things to different audiences but it is a lot riskier now.

In general I think the Russian meddling wasn't a big deal.  It was well known during the campaign that Putin preferred Trump to Hillary.  Prior to this election being known as the candidate preferred by the Russians wouldn't have been considered an advantage (and in fact there is little reason to believe it helped Trump more than it hurt him). 

So in summary unless you are a real politics junkie you can safely skip this book, it doesn't contain much of lasting value and isn't that entertaining.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Pension Guaranteed

The fourth post I made to this blog (which I started in 2009 after getting laid off from IBM) was about the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) which is an US government agency which insures private pensions up to certain limits.  These limits were of interest to me as I was planning to start taking an early retirement pension from IBM later that year.  For people who have started collecting a pension before their plan fails the insurance limit is determined by the year in which their plan fails and their age at that time.  This means the limit increases from calendar year to calendar year (due to an annual inflation adjustment which is sometimes 0) and on birthdays (due to a formula which guarantees larger amounts as your age increases from 45 to 75). 

The upshot was that when I started taking my pension later in 2009 as planned less than half of it was guaranteed but as time went by the guaranteed amount increased in a somewhat irregular way until on my birthday in 2017 it exceeded the amount of my pension (which is fixed).  My pension plan was (and remains) in pretty good shape so I wasn't all that worried that it wasn't completely guaranteed.  Still you never know what the future will bring so it is nice that it is now 100% covered.

The PBGC maximum monthly guarantee tables can be found here.  Note there are some additional limitations (none of which apply to me) that can reduce these amounts.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

XIV Implodes

XIV was the ticker symbol for an exchange traded note (ETN) designed to move inversely to the VIX index (a measure of volatility in the S&P 500 index) on a daily basis.  So if the VIX index were to go up 10% XIV would ideally go down 10%.  Or if the VIX index were to go down 10% XIV would ideally go up 10%.  This is a simplification, an exact description with numerous warning and caveats can be found in the lengthy prospectus.   One of the warnings (see page PS-16) was:

... The long term expected value of your ETNs is zero. If you hold your ETNs as a long term investment, it is likely that you will lose all or a substantial portion of your investment. 

Nevertheless with historically low volatility holding XIV would have worked well in 2016 and 2017.  At the end of 2015 XIV closed at 25.8, at the end of 2016 XIV closed at 46.75 and at the end 2017 XIV closed at 134.44.  So for 2016 XIV returned 81.2% and for 2017 XIV did even better returning 187.6%.  This didn't go unnoticed and despite the above warning XIV began to attract long term holders.  Some them thought they had found the road to riches and invested most or all of their available funds. 

Then in February 2018 volatility returned to the market.  On Friday February 2 XIV opened at 126.5.  After a bad Friday for the S&P 500 XIV opened Monday February 5 at 109.57.  After a worse Monday for the S&P 500 XIV opened Tuesday February 6 at 10.49 losing all the gains for 2016 and 2017 and more in one day.  These losses caused the ETN sponsor to terminate the fund eliminating even the theoretical possibility of regaining the lost ground over time.

This of course came as an unexpected and costly shock to those investors who had invested heavily in XIV.  It seems to me that they had basically made 2 serious and avoidable mistakes.

First the fact that XIV had done well in 2016 and 2017 was no guarantee that it would continue to do well.  There are thousands of securities trading in the US markets and an infinite number of strategies for buying and selling them.  So at any given time there are bound to be many securities and strategies that have done well recently out of pure luck.  Also the more popular a strategy becomes the harder it is for it to achieve extraordinary returns as its popularity will move prices against it.  If for example someone noticed that stock prices tended to be low at 10 AM and high at 11 AM and lots of people tried to buy at 10 AM and sell at 11 AM this would drive up prices at 10 AM and reduce them at 11 AM until any excess profits were eliminated.  For this reason no widely known strategy should be expected to reliably produce outsize returns.  I should note here that this argument doesn't apply to index funds because they are trying for average returns not outsize returns.

Second if you have a strategy that has positive expected return but will occasionally suffer substantial losses it is unwise to invest all your money in it as it is very difficult to recover from losing most (or worse all) of your money.  If you lose 50% of your money it takes a 100% gain to get back to even but if you lose 90% of your money 3 consecutive 100% gains still won't get you back to even.