Rich people prefer productive companies while the poor prefer shiny lumps of metal.

Gallup’s poll on Americans’ favorite investments always makes fascinating reading.

Every year, Gallup asks Americans to choose the best investment from the following choices: Real estate, stocks and mutual funds, gold, savings accounts and certificates of deposit, or bonds.In the years since the 2008 financial crisis and housing bust — after which Americans as a group briefly ranked gold as their favorite investment — real estate has once again swung back into favor:

[Gallup]

But as Barry Ritholtz notes over at Bloomberg View, the most interesting thing is that there are some serious differences between the investment styles of the poor and the rich.

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Is there life on Jupiter’s moon?

The hunt for alien life just made a pretty big breakthrough.

Unfortunately — or perhaps fortunately — we’re not anticipating flying saucers on the White House lawn anytime soon. Instead, scientists discovered a (relatively) easily-accessible source of hydrogen and oxygen — which together make water, one of the most basic ingredients for life — on one of Jupiter’s moons.

There is already lots and lots of evidence for the existence of both liquid and frozen water in other parts of our solar system. Frozen water is abundant in asteroidsIn 2009, huge amounts of frozen water were found on Earth’s moon. Some scientists suggest that Mars’ surface has been shaped by the flow of liquid water, and NASA’s Curiosity rover found frozen water in soil samples on Mars just this year. And back in 2000, the Galileo probe found evidence of water on Jupiter’s moons Ganymede and Europa — and scientists believe that liquid oceans of water are trapped beneath the the moons’ frozen surfaces.

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Would you cuddle a stranger for $80 an hour?

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Cuddling feels great. But cuddling also has lots of quantifiable medical benefits. It releases the trust hormone oxytocin, which creates a sense of well-being and happiness, and endorphins, which are a natural painkiller. It also relieves stress, reduces inflammationlowers blood pressure, and may prevent depression.

A way to create and maintain social bonds within families, most cuddling takes place between sexual partners, or between children and parents. But a new slew of businesses have appeared offering cuddling as a paid-for service. And the prices can be steep.

Read More At The Week.com

The London Real Estate Bubble

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In October, London real estate asking prices jumped 10%. In my view is kind of parabolic-looking jump has developed out of quite a silly situation, and one I think is a good exhibit of just how irrational and weird markets can sometimes be.  London real estate prices have been rising strongly for a long while, and a large quantity — over half for houses above £1 million — of the demand for London real estate is coming from overseas buyers most of whom are buying for investment purposes. It is comprehensible that London is a desirable place to live, and that demand for housing in London might be higher than elsewhere in the UK. It is a diverse and rich place culturally and socially, boasting a huge variety of shopping, parks, art galleries, creative communities, restaurants, monuments and landmarks, theatres and venues, financial service providers, lawyers, think tanks, technology startups, universities, scientific institutions, sports clubs and infrastructure. Britain’s legal framework and its straightforward tax structure for wealthy foreign residents has proven highly attractive to the global super rich. With London real estate proving perennially popular, and with the global low-interest rate environment that has made borrowing for speculation cheap and easy, it is highly unsurprising that prices and rents have pushed upward and upward as the global super rich — alongside pension funds and hedge funds — sitting on large piles of cash have sought to achieve higher yields than cash or bonds by speculating in real estate. In some senses, London real estate (and real estate in other globally-desirable cities) has become a new reserve currency. And while this has occurred, price rises have proven increasingly cyclical as both London residents and speculators have sought to buy. The higher prices go, the more London residents become desperate to get their feet on the property ladder in fear they won’t ever be able to do so, and the more speculators are drawn in, seeing London real estate as an asset that just keeps going up and up.

Yet the bigger the bubble, the bigger the bust. And I think what we are seeing in London is a large psychological bubble, a mass delusion built on other delusions. Chief among these delusions is that real estate should be seen as a productive investment, as an implicit pension fund, or as a guaranteed source of real yield. While investors can look at real estate however they like, there is no getting away from the fact that real estate is a deteriorating asset. Sitting on a deteriorating asset and hoping for a real price gain — or even to preserve your purchasing power — is a speculation, not a productive investment. For commercial enterprises buying as a premises for business, or for residents buying as a place to live this is not in itself problematic. But as an investment this can be hugely problematic. It is just gambling on a deteriorating asset under the guise of buying a “safe” asset.

Of course, in the UK where housing has been treated by many successive governments as an investment, and as a haven for savings and pensions, real estate owners have done particularly well. Governments have been willing to prop up the market with liquidity via schemes like Help To Buy and via restrictive planning laws to rig the market to restrict supply. This may make investors feel particularly secure, but governments can be forced — not least by demographics — to swing in another direction. An important side-effect of continually rising prices and a restricted supply of housing is that many people will not be able to afford to buy a home. With the house prices-to-wages ratio sitting far above the long-term average, the next UK government will come under severe pressure within the next few years to allow — and probably subsidise — much more housebuilding to bring down housing costs for the population. The past-trend of government-protected gains may have inspired a false sense of security in investors.

But such a reversal of policy would not in itself crash the London real estate market. After all, London is a unique place in Britain, and the majority of the new housebuilding may take place away from London. More likely, the bubble will simply collapse under the weight of its own growth. Sooner or later, even with liquidity cheap and plentiful, the number of speculators seeking to cash out will exceed the number of speculators seeking to cash in, and confidence will dip. Sometimes, this simply equates to a small correction in the context of a large upward trend, but sometimes — especially when it can be negatively rationalised — it manifests into a deeper malaise.

When this occurs, one probable rationalisation is as follows.  Domestically, many of the relatively low-income artists, designers, technologists, musicians, students, artisans, academics, service workers and professionals (etc) who make London London are priced out, then they will go and contribute to communities elsewhere where rents and housing costs are lower — Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Paris, Berlin, out into the sprawl of the home counties, and deeper into the English countryside, to places where a four bedroom house costs the same as a studio apartment in central London. Where once this would have been culturally, professionally and socially prohibitive, fast, ubiquitous internet allows for people to live a culturally and socially connected life without necessarily living in a big city like London. Internationally, other cheaper cities and jurisdictions will simply catch up with London in terms of amenities and desirability to the global super class. Competition for global capital  is huge, and while London as an Old World metropolis has done well since 2008, it may suffer in the wake of renewed competition from newer, cheaper, faster-growing Eastern metropolises.

When the bubble begins to burst — something that I think could occur endogenously within the next five years, especially if the fast increases continue — speculators, and especially speculators who are heavily leveraged may face severe problems, resulting in a worsened liquidation and contraction, and possibly threatening the liquidity of heavily-invested lenders. As many people at the table are sitting on big gains, they may prove desperate to cash out. Just as many presently feel pressured to get in to avoid being priced out of London forever, a downward turn could be severely worsened as many who are heavily invested in the bubble and scared of losing gains on which they hoped to fund retirements (etc) feel pressured to get out. Such an accelerated liquidation could easily lead to another recession. While I doubt that London prices will fall below the UK average, prices may see a very sharp correction. The psychological bubble is composed of multiple fallacies — that housing is a safe place to put savings and not a speculation, that deteriorating real estate should yield higher returns than productive business investments, that the UK government will continue to protect real estate speculators, that large flows of capital from overseas speculators will continue into London. A bursting of any of these fallacies could begin to bring the whole thing into question, even in the context of continued provision of liquidity from the Bank of England.

What America Really Thinks About Obamacare

When I see discussion of Obamacare in the media and especially on blogs, I often see the impression that Obamcare is a communist scheme to impose socialised medicine in the United States:

Communist

Actually, Obamacare was first dreamt up by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and first implemented at the state level by the Republican former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. (And for what it’s worth, I wrongly judged Republican opposition to Obamacare as an immovable obstacle in Romney’s quest to become the Republican Presidential nominee, but I guess Republicans were far more fickle than I thought). So as its origin implies, Obamacare is not exactly a communist, or social democratic idea. A charge of socialism or communism might be more fairly levelled against Obamacare if Obamacare were a law to confiscate all hospitals, drug companies, biotechnology companies and insurance companies from private hands. But it does no such thing. The opposite, in fact. More principled critics of Obamcare might more accurately describe it as corporatist — guaranteeing revenue streams for the insurance industry through the individual mandate — but that has not exactly been the Republican Party’s line of attack.

Given that opposition by the Republican-controled House to Obamacare is the most significant cause of the current government shutdown, it is worthwhile looking over how Americans actually feel about the law, not least to gauge the extent to which Americans may or may not support the Republicans now that their opposition to Obamacare is having real consequences.

It has long been said that Obamacare is unpopular, and the polls bear this out. A September CNN/ORC poll showed that Obamacare was supported by 43% of respondents, and opposed by 51% of respondents. But here’s the catch: 16% of respondents opposed Obamacare for not being liberal enough. Presumably, they would prefer a single payer system, as is the reality throughout most of Europe an Canada. (Of course, a move to such a system might be more fairly described as socialist, but that is another argument for another day). A sizeable number want something more liberal than Obamacare, and so would presumably prefer Obamacare to the status quo, even if they still claim to oppose it. So the consensus is actually against the Republican position by 59% to 35%. And that is why opposing Obamacare in this fight-to-the-death manner will be received negatively by a majority of Americans. Only 35% of Americans are against Obamacare because it is too liberal, and even then a substantial number of those — such as seniors who receive government benefits, or poor rural Republicans receiving food stamps — may be against shutting down the government to fight Obamacare. The Republicans are fighting a losing fight, and as the shutdown grinds on may be doing irreparable damage to their 2014 election prospects.

More generally, I find it rather puzzling that Republicans — convinced Obamacare will fail disastrously — are going to such lengths to oppose it. Like Prohibition once was, it is now law, and if it is destined to precipitate disaster — by increasing unemployment, by increasing healthcare costs, by increasing strain on the healthcare system, or by any other means — then it will be quickly rejected and repealed in the future.

In The Long Run We’re All Dead

Niall Ferguson’s bizarre attack on John Maynard Keynes which he has now apologised for — claiming that Keynes’ lack of children led to him taking an irresponsible attitude to the long run — has prompted many apt responses regarding the fact that Keynes and his wife tried multiple times to have children, and that Keynes wrote many works that showed an acute thoughtfulness regarding the long run in essays such as Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren. 

But as soon as I heard Ferguson’s remarks, I re-read Keynes’ famous quote in full:

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.

Keynes is actually saying the opposite of what Ferguson implied he was saying. Keynes is saying that economists who say that in the long run unemployment will fall and markets will move back toward equilibrium are making themselves useless. That unemployment will sooner-or-later fall is almost inevitable — eventually storms end, and rough seas become calm again.

But when unemployment has been high for years, and when the unemployed become so discouraged that they drop out of the labour force in vast numbers it is useless to merely quip that sooner or later markets will restore equilibrium. Having soaring unemployment, discouraged workers, rusting skills, dilapidated infrastructure, weak growth and idle capital now and potentially for years to come is a grossly and grotesquely irresponsible position. The effects of mass unemployment are damaging and lingering to families:

The stress of unemployment can lead to declines in individual and family well-being (Belle & Bullock, 2011). The burden of unemployment can also affect outcomes for children. The stress and depressive symptoms associated with job loss can negatively affect parenting practices such as increasing punitive and arbitrary punishment (McLoyd, 1998). As a result, children report more distress and depressive symptoms. Depression in children and adolescents is linked to multiple negative outcomes, including academic problems, substance abuse, high-risk sexual behavior, physical health problems, impaired social relationships and increased risk of suicide (Birmaher et al., 1996; Chen & Paterson, 2006; Le, Munoz, Ippen, & Stoddard, 2003; Verona & Javdani, 2011; Stolberg, Clark, & Bongar, 2002).

And damaging to wider communities:

Widespread unemployment in neighborhoods reduces resources, which may result in inadequate and low-quality housing, underfunded schools, restricted access to services and public transportation, and limited opportunities for employment, making it more difficult for people to return to work (Brisson, Roll, & East, 2009). Unemployed persons also report less neighborhood belonging than their employed counterparts, a finding with implications for neighborhood safety and community well-being (Steward et al., 2009).

Keynes’ point in the quote Ferguson was discussing was that economists should seek ways and means to minimise such damaging long-term effects. So whether or not we agree with Keynes’ philosophical and political conclusions, it is absolutely misleading to claim that “in the long run we’re all dead” was a call for hedonism or economic irresponsibility.

Any serious criticism of Keynes’ thought requires that critics have actually read and understood Keynes and not just absorbed second-hand caricatures of his ideas.

Why the Gold Crash? The Failure of Inflation to Take Off

One of the key features of the post-2008 gold boom was the notion that inflation was soon about to take off due to Bernanke’s money printing.

But so far — by the most-complete inflation measure, MIT’s Billion Prices Project — it hasn’t:

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To me, this signifies that the deflationary forces in the economy have so far far outweighed the inflationary ones (specifically, tripling the monetary base), to such an extent that the Fed is struggling to even meet its 2% inflation target, much less trigger the kind of Weimar or Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation that some gold enthusiasts have projected.

The failure of inflation to take off (and thus lower real interest rates) is probably the greatest reason why gold’s price stagnated from 2011 and why gold has gone into liquidation the last week. With inflation low, investors became more cautious about holding gold. With the price stagnant, the huge gains that characterised gold’s rise from 1999 dried up, leaving more and more long-term investors and particularly institutional investors leaving the gold game to hunt elsewhere for yield.

I myself am an inflation agnostic, with deflationista tendencies. While I tend to lean toward the notion of deeply-depressed Japan-style price levels during a deleveraging trap, price levels are also a nonlinear phenomenon and could both accelerate or decelerate based on irrational psychological factors as much as the level of the money supply, or the total debt level, or the level of deleveraging. And high inflation could certainly take off as a result of an exogenous shock like a war, or series of natural disasters. But certainly, betting the farm on a trade tied to very high inflation expectations when the underlying trend is largely deflationary was a very bad idea, and those who did like John Paulson are being punished pretty brutally.

The extent to which this may continue is uncertain. Gold today fell beneath its 200-week moving average for the first time since 2001. How investors, and particularly institutional investors react to this is uncertain, but I tend to expect the pendulum to swing very far toward liquidation. After all, in 2011 most Americans named gold the safest investment, and now that psychological bubble is bursting. That means that for every goldbug buying the dip, many more may panic and sell their gold. This could easily turn to a rout, and gold may fall as low as the cost of production ($900), or even lower (especially considering gold’s high stock-to-flow ratio). Gold is a speculation in that it produces no return other than price rises. The last time gold got stuck in a rut, it was stuck there for almost 20 years.

However, my case for physical gold as a small part of a diverse portfolio to act as a hedge against systemic and counterparty risks (default cascades, Corzine-style vaporisation, etc) still stands, and lower prices are only good news in that regard. The financial system retains very many of its pre-2008 fragilities as the deregulated megabanks acting on margin continue to speculate in ways that systematise risk through balance sheet interconnectivity. Another financial crisis may initially lower the price of gold on margin calls, but in the long run may result in renewed inflows into gold and a price trend reversal. Gold is very much a barometer of distrust in the financial, governmental and corporate establishment, and as middle class incomes continue to stagnate and income inequality continues to soar there remain grave questions over these establishments’ abilities to foster systemic prosperity.