Enlightened Economics

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Archive for the ‘Finance & Investing’ Category

• Financial and Economic Modelling – A Waste of Time?

Posted by Ron Robins on May 30, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published April 21, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

“…both risk models and econometric models… are still too simple to capture the full array of governing variables that drive global economic reality,” wrote Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve in the Financial Times on March 16, 2008. And if anyone should know about the quality and predictive validity of such models, it would be Mr. Greenspan. Time and again it has been shown that reliance on the predictions from such models is foolhardy.

It was the reliance on, and failure of their predictions, that caused enormous global financial and economic carnage in 2008 and 2009. Yet today dependence on these models seems greater than ever. I suggest our overt focus and use of them is often a wasted effort.

A truth that many modellers and their followers seem to have difficulty accepting is that the past—which most modellers use to prognosticate the future—has frequently been shown to be a poor basis upon which to determine future outcomes. Modellers can continue to refine their models in great detail, and then some unusual event occurs with a one in a million chance of happening—such as the US sub-prime mortgage fiasco—and their models fail. Sadly, the variables which may encompass a one in a million event are numerous. Among them are sudden changes of investor attitudes, weather patterns, geological events, and political and social upheavals.

If we look around today from the sudden movements in sovereign bond markets to the extraordinary weather recently in Australia, to the horrific Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor troubles, to the political upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East—all are kinds of exogenous events that can trash the predictions of the most exacting risk or econometric model.

Furthermore, a ‘perfect’ econometric model would only be possible, metaphorically speaking, if the modeller had ‘the mind of the creator.’ Only then perhaps, could all be known and predicted. Sadly—and I do not mean any disrespect to the modellers—I do not believe that many (if any) of them have that level of intelligence and consciousness at this time. So those constituencies that trust in these models are doomed to suffer continuing disappointments.

Another problem with these models is how to model for human behaviour, as it is both rational and irrational at different and unpredictable times. Therefore, before such modelling can ever hope to fully succeed, it must completely understand human consciousness: who we are, and how and why we act. And the modellers are a long, long way from such an understanding. Incidentally, there is a branch of economics, ‘behavioural economics,’ that is moving in that direction. I wish them good luck with that!

Economists today, unlike those of earlier eras, seem to believe that the only way they can be perceived as legitimate is to be scientifically oriented. Hence their passion for increasingly complex models and their statistician-like orientation.

The type of economic modelling that incorporates mathematics and statistical relationships to economic data, is termed econometrics. Google econometrics and you will probably find over 5,000,000 links. They are largely links to innumerable academics, research institutions, studies, papers and journals. With so much effort put into this field, any independent observer could conclude that econometrics must be a highly successful and seemingly scientific endeavour. It reminds me of the enormous quest for artificial intelligence (AI) to recreate the abilities of the human mind in computers. At least AI is somewhat plausible as it advances the field of computing and robotics which have many, many practical applications that we all know about.

But unlike AI research, economic and econometric models—with their significant variances and failures—have much less to offer society at this time. Mark Thoma, Professor of Economics at the University of Oregon offers these pertinent remarks in his blog, Economist’s View, on February 8. “Much of the uncertainty in economics derives from our inability to do laboratory experiments, and that includes uncertainty about which model best describes the macroeconomy. When the present crisis is finally over, those who advocated fiscal policy, those who advocated monetary policy, and those who advocated no policy at all will all say ‘I told you so’ based upon their reading of the evidence… the answers you get are only as good as the model used to get them, and considerable uncertainty remains over which macroeconomic model is best.”

In the 19th century’s Europe and North America, there were no econometric models (not in the way we know of them today), yet those continents experienced unprecedented economic growth. And the concept of gross domestic product (GDP)—which is usually a top concern in econometric modelling—was not created and used until World War II.

We know that econometric models are unreliable in providing information on how economies behave as well as their projections of future economic activity. Similarly, modelling for financial risk has been shown to be more than problematic and history shows reliance on risk models brings eventual failure and grief.

Therefore, given the facts, we need to be much, much less anxious about trying to create perfect risk and econometric models—and not rely on these models, generally. After all, it was mostly intuition and drive, not decisions based on risk and econometric models that led our greatest inventors, financiers, entrepreneurs and leaders to great success, thereby creating our modern economies.

Copyright alrroya.com


Posted in Economic Measurement, Economics, Finance & Investing, Statistics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

• Eliminate Corporate Taxes and Spur Economic Growth

Posted by Ron Robins on April 12, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published April 7, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

What should overly indebted developed country governments do to spur economic activity and reduce deficits and debt? Should they spend more, or less? Should taxes be increased, or lowered? A number of recent studies collectively suggest that government stimulus spending provides no stimulus at all beyond the amount spent. But where there are large deficits, spending should be cut. However, the best way to stimulate the economy is through lower taxes—and especially to cut corporate taxes! But what a political bombshell these policies would be in many countries.

Increased government spending, say numerous economists trained in traditional Keynesian economic theory, should have a ‘multiplier’ effect that increases overall economic activity by an amount larger than the sum spent. However, some recent empirical research disputes that assumption.

In a prestigious US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study, Identifying Government Spending Shocks: It’s All in the Timing, by Valerie A. Ramey, published in October 2009, she found that, “… none of my results indicate that government spending has multiplier effects beyond its direct effect.” That is a dollar of government spending contributes only about a dollar to economic activity.

Furthermore, the same conclusion was noted by Harvard University’s Economics Professor Greg Mankiw while reviewing new research in his blog post, “Spending and Tax Multipliers” on December 11, 2008. He stated “…Bob Hall and Susan Woodward look at spending increases from World War II and the Korean War and conclude that the government spending multiplier is about one: A dollar of government spending raises GDP by about a dollar.”

So, these studies indicate that increasing government spending does not increase economic activity by anything more than the original sum spent.

By contrast, cutting taxes may have a much larger economic multiplier effect. Quoting Professor Mankiw again, he says, “…research by Christina Romer and David Romer looks at tax changes and concludes that the tax multiplier is about three: A dollar of tax cuts raises GDP by about three dollars…” (Incidentally, Christina Romer was chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers in 2009-2010.)

Furthermore, Professor Mankiw adds that, “…these findings are inconsistent with the conventional Keynesian model. According to that model, taught even in my favourite textbook, spending multipliers necessarily exceed tax multipliers… How can these empirical results be reconciled? One hypothesis is that compared with spending increases, tax cuts produce a bigger boost in investment demand. This might work through changing relative prices in a direction favourable to capital investment–a mechanism absent in the textbook Keynesian model.”

Reviewing the spend and tax empirical data for most developed countries suffering from large deficits and debt is this study, Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending, by Alberto F. Alesina and Silvia Ardagna—another NBER paper, dated October 2009. They state, “we examine the evidence… of fiscal stimuli [stimulus] and in… fiscal adjustments [reducing deficits] in OECD countries from 1970 to 2007. Fiscal stimuli based upon tax cuts are more likely to increase growth than those based upon spending increases. As for fiscal adjustments, those based upon spending cuts and no tax increases are more likely to reduce deficits and debt over GDP ratios than those based upon tax increases. In addition, adjustments on the spending side rather than on the tax side are less likely to create recessions.”

So if cutting taxes gives the best boost to economic activity, are there particular taxes to cut that provide the most economic stimulus? The answer is yes, according to the OECD study, Tax Policy Reform and Economic Growth, November 3, 2010. The reviewers say that, “…corporate taxes are the most harmful type of tax for economic growth, followed by personal income taxes and then consumption taxes, with recurrent taxes on immovable property being the least harmful tax.”

Corroborating these findings is another recent peer reviewed study supporting lower corporate taxes: The Effect of Corporate Taxes on Investment and Entrepreneurship, published in the American Economic Journal in July 2010. It stated, “in a cross-section of countries, our estimates of the effective corporate tax rate have a large adverse impact on aggregate investment, FDI [foreign direct investment], and entrepreneurial activity… The results are robust to the inclusion of many controls.” (The authors were from the World Bank: Simeon Djankov, Caralee McLiesh and Rita Ramalho. And from Harvard University: Tim Ganser and Andrei Shleifer.)

Based on this evidence, some observers argue to significantly reduce or even eliminate corporate taxes entirely! In fact, many countries and jurisdictions are reducing corporate taxes significantly, exactly because of such studies. Though no country has yet eliminated them altogether.

Most of these respected studies variously infer that one optimal solution to spur economic growth in developed countries is to cut taxes, while to reduce onerous government deficits and debt, Alberto F. Alesina and Silvia Ardagna suggest cutting spending. Moreover, some of these studies clearly demonstrate that to promote economic growth, governments should most especially cut corporate taxes. Of course this is advocated by some US ‘Tea Party’ leaders, though it is a problematic issue for electorates in many developed countries.

However, shouldn’t at least one country try eliminating corporate taxes entirely? Now that would be one country to study!

Copyright alrroya.com

Posted in Economics, Finance & Investing, Monetary Policy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

• Gold and Silver Rise Again as History’s Chosen Currencies

Posted by Ron Robins on March 13, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published February 25, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

Gold, “the ancient metal of kings,” is reasserting itself as the currency of choice as it has done again and again since the earliest of human times. In our modern era, as central banks and governments fight to devalue their currencies to gain purported trade advantages, gold rises in value against them all. And central banks are buying gold again amidst serious doubts as to the size of some of their real physical gold holdings. Silver too is experiencing a similar re-emergence. The reasons for gold and, to a lesser extent, silver acting as currencies, are easy to understand.

Gold’s history as a currency extends back thousands of years. The western world’s first known standardised minting of gold currency took place in 564 BCE by King Croesus of western Asia Minor. However, it is also believed that China in the fifth and sixth century BCE, minted the Ying yuan gold coin as well. In the great Gupta Empire of India, from 320 to 550 CE, gold coins were used throughout its domain. And in the early Islamic world around the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the gold dinar coin led as its currency. In Europe, gold coins became an important or central monetary unit for the Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Dutch, Spanish and British.

During approximately 1870 to 1910 all major countries linked their currencies to gold, thereby adopting the gold standard. However, China was the exception preferring a silver-based standard. The first silver coins are reported as being minted by King Pheidon of Argos around 700 BCE.

Gold and silver have historically asserted themselves as monetary mediums due to their intrinsic value. They are consistent, divisible, durable and convenient, and they are nobody’s liability.

Unlike paper money, gold, particularly, has proven itself in maintaining its value over many centuries. The World Gold Council (WGC) says that, “since the 14th Century, gold’s purchasing power has maintained a broadly constant level… an ounce of gold has repeatedly bought a mid-range outfit of clothing… in the fourteenth century… in the late 18th century and… at the beginning of this century (2000 to 2008)… On the other hand, the US dollar that bought 14.5 loaves of bread in 1900 buys only 3/4 of a loaf today. While inflation and other forces have ravaged the value of the world’s currencies, gold has emerged with its capacity for wealth preservation firmly intact… [whether] in the face of financial turmoil… [as] a crisis hedge… [or] as an inflation hedge.”

Since their origins, central banks have realised the importance of gold, and sometimes silver, as a strategic part of their reserves. Commenting on the rapidly rising price of gold, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, said in a Bloomberg report on September 9, 2009, that, “[the rising gold price is] an indication of a very early stage of an endeavor to move away from paper currencies… What is fascinating is the extent to which gold still holds reign over the financial system as the ultimate source of payment.”

And this is also because, “[the central banks] no longer trust each other… [and] there’s this perception that different countries are trying to weaken their currency in order to get a competitive advantage,” said Francisco Blanch, head of global commodity research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch at a New York City November 2010 conference, reports Fastmarkets. Among the countries whose central banks are increasing their gold reserves are China, India, and Russia—all countries with mammoth trade surpluses and foreign exchange reserves.

However, as throughout history, he who owns gold and how much he owns is often shrouded in secrecy. For a central bank, covertly selling and buying of gold and its currency can be used to secretly manipulate the value of its currency. Some indirect proof of this comes again from Mr Greenspan during testimony to a US Congressional committee in 1998. He remarked that, “central banks stand ready to lease gold in increasing quantities should the price rise.” Therefore, declaring the precise gold holdings of a central bank might be akin to giving away ‘trade secrets.’

Central banks worldwide supposedly hold around 30,000 tonnes of gold, perhaps 20 to 25 per cent of all the gold ever mined. But true independent verification of their holdings is not available. The US based Gold Anti Trust Committee (Gata) has compiled extensive and critical information concerning western central bank gold holdings. Their information and that from other sources suggests the actual physical gold holdings of some western central banks could be 30 to 50 per cent lower than publicly reported.

As an example, the US boasts official gold holdings of 8,133.5 tonnes. However, it is known that some, perhaps a significant portion of these holdings, have been leased out to various financial entities and might not be returned without huge financial losses. Ron Paul, the chairman of the influential US Congress’s Domestic Monetary Policy Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, is so concerned about such activities that he is calling for a full public audit of US gold holdings.

Additionally, gold is possibly set to play a reinvigorated role in the international monetary system. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as most members of the G20 are seeking alternatives to the US dollar as the world’s principal reserve asset. And in this regard, gold—perhaps silver too—could be included in a basket of currencies and commodities that create the basis for a new international unit of exchange (currency).

Moreover, an RBC survey of global financial executives and business leaders reported on Yahoo! Finance on February 3 that “just 52 per cent of respondents expect the dollar to be the world’s currency in five years,” and that “gold is coming back as a reserve currency ‘of sorts,’” says Marc Harris, head of global research at RBC Capital Markets.

Probably since the beginning of civilisation, gold especially, but silver as well, have served as monetary vehicles. Gold has demonstrated itself to hold its value over centuries and in many diverse cultures. And despite today’s sophistication with paper money, gold is still seen by central banks as the ultimate source of payment. Concerns are growing that the real physical gold holdings of some major central banks might be substantially lower than they have reported, and as they unabashedly devalue their paper money, gold and silver rise once again as history’s chosen currencies.

Copyright alrroya.com

Posted in Banking, Economics, Finance & Investing, Gold & Precious Metals, Monetary Policy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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