Taleb on Overstabilisation

It’s nice to know that Taleb is preaching more or less the same gospel that I am.

Via the NYT:

Stabilization, of course, has long been the economic playbook of the United States government; it has kept interest rates low, shored up banks, purchased bad debts and printed money. But the effect is akin to treating metastatic cancer with painkillers. It has not only let deeper problems fester, but also aggravated inequality. Bankers have continued to get rich using taxpayer dollars as both fuel and backstop. And printing money tends to disproportionately benefit a certain class. The rise in asset prices made the superrich even richer, while the median family income has dropped.

Overstabilization also corrects problems that ought not to be corrected and renders the economy more fragile; and in a fragile economy, even small errors can lead to crises and plunge the entire system into chaos. That’s what happened in 2008. More than four years after that financial crisis began, nothing has been done to address its root causes.

Our goal instead should be an antifragile system — one in which mistakes don’t ricochet throughout the economy, but can instead be used to fuel growth. The key elements to such a system are decentralization of decision making and ensuring that all economic and political actors have some “skin in the game.”

Two of the biggest policy mistakes of the past decade resulted from centralized decision making. First, the Iraq war, in addition to its tragic outcomes, cost between 40 and 100 times the original estimates. The second was the 2008 crisis, which I believe resulted from an all-too-powerful Federal Reserve providing cheap money to stifle economic volatility; this, in turn, led to the accumulation of hidden risks in the economic system, which cascaded into a major blowup.

Just as we didn’t forecast these two mistakes and their impact, we’ll miss the next ones unless we confront our error-prone system. Fortunately, the solution can be bipartisan, pleasing both those who decry a large federal government and those who distrust the market.

First, in a decentralized system, errors are by nature smaller. Switzerland is one of the world’s wealthiest and most stable countries. It is also highly decentralized — with 26 cantons that are self-governing and make most of their own budgetary decisions. The absence of a central monopoly on taxation makes them compete for tax and bureaucratic efficiency. And if the Jura canton goes bankrupt, it will not destabilize the entire Swiss economy.

In decentralized systems, problems can be solved early and when they are small; stakeholders are also generally more willing to pay to solve local challenges (like fixing a bridge), which often affect them in a direct way. And when there are terrible failures in economic management — a bankrupt county, a state ill-prepared for its pension obligations — these do not necessarily bring the national economy to its knees. In fact, states and municipalities will learn from the mistakes of others, ultimately making the economy stronger.

It’s a myth that centralization and size bring “efficiency.” Centralized states are deficit-prone precisely because they tend to be gamed by lobbyists and large corporations, which increase their size in order to get the protection of bailouts. No large company should ever be bailed out; it creates a moral hazard.

Consider the difference between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who are taught to “fail early and often,” and large corporations that leech off governments and demand bailouts when they’re in trouble on the pretext that they are too big to fail. Entrepreneurs don’t ask for bailouts, and their failures do not destabilize the economy as a whole.

Second, there must be skin in the game across the board, so that nobody can inflict harm on others without first harming himself. Bankers got rich — and are still rich — from transferring risk to taxpayers (and we still haven’t seen clawbacks of executive pay at companies that were bailed out). Likewise, Washington bureaucrats haven’t been exposed to punishment for their errors, whereas officials at the municipal level often have to face the wrath of voters (and neighbors) who are affected by their mistakes.

If we want our economy not to be merely resilient, but to flourish, we must strive for antifragility. It is the difference between something that breaks severely after a policy error, and something that thrives from such mistakes. Since we cannot stop making mistakes and prediction errors, let us make sure their impact is limited and localized, and can in the long term help ensure our prosperity and growth.

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The Problem With Centralisation

Nassim Taleb slams the European project. Perfect timing to counteract the Nobel Peace Prize nonsense.

Via Foreign Policy:

The European Union is a horrible, stupid project. The idea that unification would create an economy that could compete with China and be more like the United States is pure garbage. What ruined China, throughout history, is the top-down state. What made Europe great was the diversity: political and economic. Having the same currency, the euro, was a terrible idea. It encouraged everyone to borrow to the hilt.

The most stable country in the history of mankind, and probably the most boring, by the way, is Switzerland. It’s not even a city-state environment; it’s a municipal state. Most decisions are made at the local level, which allows for distributed errors that don’t adversely affect the wider system. Meanwhile, people want a united Europe, more alignment, and look at the problems. The solution is right in the middle of Europe — Switzerland. It’s not united! It doesn’t have a Brussels! It doesn’t need one.

The future is unpredictable. In economics some decisions will be lead to desired results and others will not. Real-world outcomes are ultimately impossible to predict, because the real world is chaotic and no simulation can ever model the real world in precise detail; the map is not the territory.

Centralisation concentrates decision-making. Centralisation acts as a transmission mechanism to transmit and amplify the effects of centralised decisions throughout a system. This means that when bad decisions are made — as inevitably happens in human behaviour — the entire system will be damaged. Under a decentralised system, there is no such problem. Under a decentralised heterogeneous system, mistakes are not so easily transmitted or amplified. Centralisation is fragile.

And central planning is mistake-prone. Central planners are uniquely ineffective as resource allocators. Free markets transmit information; the true underlying state of supply and demand. Without an open market to transmit price information, central planners cannot allocate resources according to the true state of supply and demand. Capital, time, and labour are allocated based on the central planner’s preferences, rather than the preferences of the wider society.

These two factors taken together mean that centralised systems tend to be both fragile and mistake-prone. That is a dangerous — and unsustainable — combination.

The Absurdity of NATO

The whole world knows the name Gavrilo Princip, and that of he man he assassinated, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Princip’s shot triggered the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia that set in motion the chain of events leading to the Great War of 1914.

After Serbia appealed to Russia for help, Russia began moving towards mobilization of its army, believing that Germany was using the crisis as an excuse to launch war in the Balkans. Upon hearing news of Russia’s general mobilization, Germany declared war on Russia. The German army then launched its attack on Russia’s ally, France, through Belgium, violating Belgian neutrality and bringing Great Britain into the war as well.

Is it possible that a similar chain of events may have already begun unfurling with the Syrian downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter jet? Turkey have already invoked a full meeting of NATO,  claimed that Syria have fired on a second Turkish plane, and vowed that Syria’s actions “won’t go unpunished”.

The vast and sprawling system of national alliances that existed prior to the events 1914 were considered by policy makers of the time to be a counterbalance against excessive tension and the threat of war. The great powers created alliances ostensibly for the purpose of deterring war. The dominant view was that the potential for dragging in allies reduced the chances of an attack. In reality, it just meant that one spark could set the entire world aflame.

This is functionally the same as the interconnecting mesh of derivatives and shadow intermediation that foreshadowed the crash of 2008. As financial parties sold each other more and more “hedges“, the consensus of the time was that this made the system safer, as it allowed risk to be dissipated around the system. The theory was — and there were plenty of inaccurate mathematical models to back this up — that spreading risk around the system made the financial system safer. As it turned out, it didn’t. In the wake of MF Global and the London Whale, we know that the financial system has not learned the lessons of 2008. But it seems even more absurd that the diplomatic system has not really learned the lessons of 1914. 

The NATO system — set up to oppose the Warsaw Pact system, which no longer exists — functions the same way — rather than dissipating risk, it allows for the magnification of international tensions into full-on regional and global wars. In the late 20th century the threat of nuclear war proved a highly-effective deterrent which limited the potential for all-out-war between the great powers, offsetting much of the risk of the hyper-fragile treaty system. Yet the potential for magnifying small regional problems into bigger wars will continue to exist for as long as NATO and similar organisations prevail.

We do not know exactly what arrangements Syria has with Russia and China — there is no formal defensive pact in place (although there is one between Syria and Iran) though it is fair to assume that Russia will be keen to maintain its Syrian naval assets, a view which is supported by the fact Russia heavily subsidises the Syrian military, and has blocked all the UN-led efforts toward intervention in Syria.

After the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact was allowed to disintegrate. Until NATO is similarly allowed to disintegrate, the threat of magnification will remain large. Could a border skirmish between Syria and Turkey trigger a regional or even global war? Under the status quo, anything is possible.

Austerity & Extremism

I noted yesterday that anything the government gives you, the government can take away, and that dependency on government services — which might be withdrawn — leaves citizens weak and unfree.

One cause for the withdrawal of government that I neglected to mention (intentionally, as I hoped someone would pick it up in comments) was the matter of austerity. While the example I was bouncing my ideas off — of denying treatment to smokers or the obese — remains theoretical, the withdrawal of government services and spending as a result of austerity is very much a reality, especially in Europe.

To wit:

That more austerity produces less GDP (and very often bigger deficits due to falling tax revenues — as exemplified by Portugal) is self-evident. That society is — for lack of a better word — pissed with this outcome is the clear reality on the ground. Made dependent upon government largesse, society now finds the crutch of services, spending and government jobs withdrawn. And of course, this has political blowback.

As Tyler recently put it “nationalism is back with a bang”. But it’s not just the nationalists who are doing well, so too are the far left. Just as in the 1930s many people who have been failed by the mainstream parties are angry, and their instinctual reaction is to reject the political mainstream and look to the fringes.

Let’s look at Greece.

From the WSJ:

Two political mavericks—one a soft-spoken former Communist, the other a firebrand nationalist—are tapping into public anger at incumbents and the harsh austerity measures Greece must adopt to stay in the euro, as support for mainstream parties withers ahead of May 6 elections.

Right-wing economist Panos Kammenos and left-wing lawyer Fotis Kouvelis are poles apart ideologically. But they are currently among the most popular party leaders in Greece, and their parties have sprung from nowhere to challenge Greece’s political establishment and the austerity policies that many Greeks blame for deepening their country’s economic crisis.

Between them, Mr. Kammenos’s Independent Greeks and Mr. Kouvelis’s Democratic Left could win around 20% of the vote. Their rise is cutting deeply into support for Greece’s two mainstream parties — the conservative New Democracy party and the center-left Socialists, known as Pasok — that share power in a fractious coalition government.

Given the utter train wreck that the Greek economy is, it is shocking that these figures are not significantly higher. In the recent first round of the French Presidential election, the far left and far right polled over 30%, a post-WW2 high.

All over Europe, the unemployed and dispossessed are becoming increasingly frustrated with the status quo.

From Bloomberg:

Europe’s front against austerity has expanded in recent weeks after Spain struggled to meet European Union-imposed deficit targets, election campaigns in Greece faced anti- austerity rumblings and a revolt against extra spending cuts in the traditionally budget-conscious Netherlands propelled Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition toward an early breakup.

Europe has been here before. Hitler came to power, lest we forget, on the back of a devastating period of German austerity.

As I noted in November:

After just two years of “austerity” measures, Germany’s economy had completely collapsed: unemployment doubled from 15 percent in 1930 to 30 percent in 1932, protests spread, and Bruning was finally forced out. Just two years of austerity, and Germany was willing to be ruled by anyone or anything except for the kinds of democratic politicians that administered “austerity” pain. In Germany’s 1932 elections, the Nazis and the Communists came out on top — and by early 1933, with Hitler in charge, Germany’s fledgling democracy was shut down for good.

It’s the same story; more austerity means more misery, means more political and social rumbling, means a greater support for radical political parties. We haven’t gotten anywhere near the scope or magnitude of the 1930s (yet), but the present European contraction has not dampened the technocratic fervour for deeper and faster cuts and tax hikes (which, quite obviously lead to bigger deficits, which trigger more austerity, ad infinitum). Could this at some point mean revolutions that put radicals into power? It becomes increasingly plausible.

And the initial problem in my view is excessive dependency on the state and centralisation. If the state makes up 50% of GDP, cutting spending in the interests of paying down debt will cause a severe contraction throughout the entire economy. If the state makes up 15% of GDP, less so. If the state is only a small fragment, austerity in the interests of paying down debt — even during a recession or depression — is feasible. If the state is a goliath, it will lead to a crippling economic contraction (and of course, the attendant realities of public fury and politcal extremism).

Centralised systems are always and by definition fragile to shocks and mismanagement, because the activities at the centre are transmitted throughout the entire system; poor decisions at the centre metastasise throughout the system. In a robust decentralised system, mismanagement only hurts at the local level, because there is less of a mechanism for the transmission of shocks.

The lesson sticks: anything the government gives you, the government can take away (sometimes deliberately, sometimes not). That could be healthcare, that could be security, that could be economic growth. If it’s delivered by central fiat, it’s fragile.

Bread & Circuses & Antiprosperity

If I was a mathematical economist — and I have very, very good reason not to be — I would try to create a formal model for what I call antiprosperity.

What is antiprosperity? It is a strange effect. I hypothesise thus: as nations (and to a lesser extent, people) become more prosperous, they tend toward greater fragility. In other words, fat times create weakness. This is not a universal law, because there are some exceptions. It is more of a tendency. The children of the strong, the hard-working or the wealthy often grow up lazy and stupid and conceited. People who keep winning don’t learn about their weaknesses, and without being aware of their weaknesses their weaknesses can fester and develop into glaring cracks.

An example of antiprosperity is the global system of derivatives. By creating a system of side bets, market participants could “hedge” against any undesired eventualities (for example, shopping chains dependent upon high consumer turnout could create an option on weather — if the weather was poor, and thus their sales were down, the option would payoff, mitigating their losses). By 2008, over $1 quadrillion of derivatives had been created to hedge against inflation, rate spikes, weather, price changes, defaults on debt, climate change, and almost anything imaginable. The problem was that if a counter-party with a large amount of derivatives on their balance sheet fails, then those “assets” become worthless. Any liabilities go unpaid, and so other companies who have agreed to contracts with the bust counter-party may themselves become illiquid due to their losses with the bust counter-party. This can quickly cascade into systemic meltdown. So, to recap, a system designed to “stabilise” global markets — and, let us not forget, was once prophesied as the end to systemic risk — ends up destroying them through unprecedented systemic risk..

I am still trying to understand what causes this mechanism. I think human life tends to be characterised by a steady process of building and breaking. As we learn skills we face setbacks, and failures, we learn from our mistakes and we fix our weaknesses. Humans once had no choice but to work for their food.  Taking away this gradual process — say, by creating a system that guarantees a constant and steady stream of food that requires no work to fulfil — creates a weakness, because the skills necessary to fulfil the pre-existing need become rusty. Western civilisation has become so good at feeding itself that it creates huge surpluses of goods and food. People don’t need to learn to feed themselves. Many people — who take the welfare route to “prosperity” (left-wing readers — yes, this includes bankers, defence contractors, and other corporate welfare recipients) — don’t even need to learn to work. They just suck up the handout and go on their merry way.

This tidal wave of prosperity hides a sickness inside, and we are seeing the first symptoms: overflowing bellies. Why learn the skills necessary to survive in the wilderness when it is easier to sit on your ass, stuffing your face with junk food? After, all the global resource infrastructure that pulls oil out of the ground in the middle east, refines it, ships it in oil tankers to America, and creates petrochemical-based fertilisers that are used to grow crops, produce (what can loosely be described as) food and transport that food to the consumer will always exist, won’t it? Readers are advised to know where their next meal is coming from — and their next meal for six months or a year — if the global system of trade were to break down.

To become stronger we must seek volatility, and to some extent, failure. When I was learning to play the guitar, I didn’t get better by playing pieces I could already play. I got better by seeking out failure by trying to play pieces and measures that were too difficult for me. Failure is beneficial and useful, because we can learn from it. Weakness is beneficial and useful, because we can learn from it.

How can governments and businesses learn the lesson of antiprosperity? Well, Steve Jobs seemed to know a thing or two about it. He was famed for his management style, whereby he lashed employed with vicious criticism to keep them on their toes. Failure and weakness built strength.

Governments should learn to keep welfare nets — both corporate and social — to a minimum. While the vulnerable (e.g. children, the aged, and the severely disabled) should under no circumstances be abandoned, welfare should never become a gold-plated ticket for an easy life. Governments should also peel back barriers to entry and overregulation so that the poor and unemployed can easily become self-employed without having to pass futile certifications, and pay thousands of dollars for licensing.

If we humans cannot avoid the excesses of prosperity, nature is a cruel mistress. What is the punishment for gluttonous obesity? It can become difficult or impossible to find a mate, thus making it difficult or impossible to pass our genes onto the next generation. The obese die younger, and thus turn back into dust sooner than their thinner counterparts.

And so too do societies enamoured with bread, circuses and free lunches. Rome was sacked, and its empire crumbled. Ming China collapsed under the weight of its traditionalism and technophobia. We here in the West — fed fat by the free lunch of petrodollar supremacy, the beauty of globalisation, the power and simplicity of a carbon-driven economy, and the largesse of the state — should heed those warnings. It is estimated that 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct

Greece Defaults

From Sky News:

The talking is over; it is finally happening. For the first time since World War Two, a developed nation is going into default.

That’s the significance of the events of the past 24 hours, with Greece’s debt being classified as in “selective default” and the European Central Bank banning it from its cash window. Months of planning by both banks and policymakers have gone into ensuring that Greece’s negotiated default will be a smooth painless process. We are about to find out whether that planning pays off.

Now, we shouldn’t be surprised by Standard & Poor’s decision to cut the rating on Greece’s sovereign debt from CC to SD (which stands for “selective default”). The ratings agencies had always said that, given private investors are about to lose just over half the value of their debt (through a complex bond swap), this downgrade would be a natural consequence.

Nor should we be shocked that the ECB says it will no longer accept Greek debt as collateral: in fact, the only surprise is that it’s taken this long – on the basis of the ECB’s previous policy, the bonds should have become ineligible when were first downgraded from investment status two years ago.

Peter Tchir thinks all the hullabaloo is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing:

So far there are no dramatic consequences of the Greek default. The ECB did say they couldn’t accept it as collateral, but national central banks (including Greece’s somehow solvent NCB) can, so no real change. We will likely get a Credit Event prior to March 20th once CAC’s are used to get the deal fully done. Will the market respond much to that? Probably not, though there is a higher risk of unforeseen consequences from that, than there was from the S&P downgrade.

It just strikes me that Europe wasted a year or more, and has created a less stable system than it had before. A year ago, Europe was adamant about no haircuts and no default. I could never understand why. Let Greece default, renegotiate terms, stay in the Euro and move on.

I suppose the magnitude of the problem depends on just which kind of credit event. And that mostly depends on how well-insulated the financial system is, and market psychology. A full-blown Lehmanesque credit shock? Who knows — certainly banks are fearful. Certainly, the problem of default cascades has been out in the open for a while. But most of the attempts to deal with the prospect of such things have mostly been emergency room treatment, and not preventative medicine — throwing liquidity at the problem. Certainly, it is possible the system is in a worse shape than 2008.

  1. The derivatives web is (nearly) as big as ever:
  2. There are still a myriad of European housing bubbles ready to pop.
  3. American banks are massively exposed to Europe.
  4. China’s housing bubble is bursting Surely their reserves will go into bailing out their own problems, and not those of Europe and America?
  5. Rising commodity prices — especially oil — are already squeezing consumers and producers with cost-push inflation.

Meanwhile, the only weapon central bankers have in their arsenal is throwing more money at the problem.

Will throwing more money at the problem work? Yes — in the short term. The danger is that creditor nations will not be prepared to throw enough to shore up balance sheets.

Will throwing money at the problems cause more problems in the long run? Yes — almost certainly.

Ultimately, we must look at preventative medicine — to stop credit bubbles expanding beyond the productive capacity of the economy. We should also look at insulating the economy from the breakdown of any credit bubbles that do form.

The Problem is Fragility

Mainstream opinion on economic conditions at present is a steaming shitheap of errors.

Deluge of hopium from ABC (sponsored by Citigroup, no joke):

Stocks closed higher on Thursday after European leaders agreed on a plan to avert a Greek default and the Commerce Department announced third-quarter gross domestic product grew 2.5 percent, boosted by higher consumer spending, allaying fears that the economy is slipping into another recession.

The Dow Jones industrial average increased about 2.9 percent to 12,209 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq increased about 3.3 percent to 2,784 at the end of the day. The S&P 500 had its biggest monthly rally since 1974, according to Bloomberg, increasing 3.4 percent to 1,285.

The GDP rate was in line with what economists were expecting. The 2.5 percent growth rate is almost triple the 0.9 percent pace of economic growth in the first half of this year, which has been far too slow to generate any job growth. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high at over 9 percent.

The thing is, high unemployment and low GDP growth (now — ahem — magically cured) are (and always were) secondary problems. They’re the things that hurt, sure — but they’re not the cause of the illness — they’re just symptoms The main problem is systemic fragility, and the failure to understand the economy from a systemic perspective, and understand the systemic risks. If the financial system (both global and national) is not resilient to shocks and the unexpected, the system will unravel under the slightest pressure. As I have repeatedly explained, the Western economic paradigm is a highly fragile for two reasons: over-dependence on foreign goods and resources controlled by hostile nations, and the pattern of interconnected financial debt that leaves the system open to collapse if just one significant player collapses:

Not only did the bailouts disable creative destruction (the engine of innovation and social progress), they also created so much debt that they have already damaged the ability of future generations to save, invest and innovate.

Worse, they did nothing to address the fundamental fragility of the system. All of that interconnected debt means the system is still fragile to a default cascade, which means that if the system is to be “saved” again, it will require more bailouts and more debt-acquisition, further eroding the ability of taxpayers to save and invest, as governments tax and inflate the currency to pay down the debt.

I expect future generations to look back on this episode as a bizarre aberration. America — surely the greatest producer and innovator in the history of human civilisation — forgot how markets work and the notion of creative destruction, forgot that an empire dependent on hostile partners (i.e. China and the Arab world) is hugely fragile, and then forgot the fact that America emerged as a superpower as a director result of its status as a great creditor and manufacturer, and that the old European empires lost their superpower status through loss of productivity and massive debt acquisition.

The beautiful thing about artificial abstract systems is that they can be remade at will, unlike ecosystems or organisms. It would be so easy — in principle — to rip up the global financial system and start again, because it’s all abstract. But there are too many vested interests — creditors want their pound of flesh, consumers and businesses want stability and fear change, and so establishment economists and thinkers will hunt ceaselessly for any kind of confirmation for the idea that the system is stabilising, that things are getting better, that things can go back to normal, that prosperity will return.

Well, prosperity may return, at least for a few short years, before the mass of interconnected leverage crumbles back into the murk from which it came. And as credit contracts (as is inevitable in a fractional reserve system) employment will slump, GDP growth will stall, and anger will rise.

The danger is that next time, the gears and wheels of productivity that hold up the abstract falsehoods of finance and consumerism will fail. I am not really a fan of Ayn Rand, but the analogy of Atlas shrugging holds true — in this case, the workshops, mines, and factories of “poorer” exporters holding upon their shoulders the parasitic mass of the consumerist Western nations. It won’t be industrialists and capitalists shrugging — it will be shipyard workers, machine operators, truck drivers, coal miners and construction workers, squeezed and dispossessed. Why should wealthy Westerners live a lavish lifestyle subsidised by the blood sweat and productivity of poorer nations? Because America has nuclear weapons? Because it invades nations that threaten to trade oil in things other than dollars? That kind of belligerence is a house of cards — it works with Third World despots, but not with an angry, politically engaged and dispossessed mob. I see it in the Occupy protests — the police can beat and brutalise protestors, but belligerence doesn’t change anything — the protestors are a hydra, cut off a head and two grow back.

The economic elite of the 20th Century learned to appease their malcontents by continuously raising the standard of living, expanding property ownership, and bringing plenty of food to tables, and new consumer goods to homes around the globe. If the economic elite of the 21st Century cannot learn to do the same I fear the malcontents will unleash hell.