Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What I'm Reading - First Toronto Edition

I thought it would be interesting for me to note here, after a very long and good hiatus, what I was reading now that I am in Toronto. I will write in this vein occasionally, tracking with curiosity how my reading changes. For I expect it will, given that:

1) I am now in business school, so I will likely read more extra-curricular business articles;

2) I am in Canada, so I will likely start reading more Canadian political pieces rather than U.S. ones.

Without further ado then:

1) SCOTUSblog's Alexander Bickel symposium on The Least Dangerous Branch

Specifically, I've read and been intrigued by the following contributors:
In particular, I enjoyed this quote from Epstein's piece. His examples on the majoritarian difficulty are worth thinking about too.

"Indeed, I think that it is fair to say that most of my beliefs were crystallized in direct and conscious opposition to the message that he pounded into us day after day."

In particular, here are two choice quotes:

"The present confidence and enthusiasm of investors about the ability of monetary policy to avoid all negative outcomes mirrors the confidence and enthusiasm that investors had in 2000 about the permanence of technology-driven productivity, and in 2007 about the durability of housing gains and leverage-driven prosperity. Market history is littered with unfounded faith in new economic eras, and hopes that 'this time is different.'" 

"What’s fascinating about the present confidence and enthusiasm about central bank intervention is that investors have stopped actually listening for fact, and are increasingly hearing only what they want to hear."

3) An old posting on shale oil from Foreign Policy, in particular the "Dispatch from the Oil Patch" section. Emphasis added where bolded.

By keeping up a steady drilling pace, the oil production from the field will rise rapidly at first because the production from the new wells will exceed the loss of production for the old wells.  This is what has been happening in the Bakken. However, if the rate of drilling stays constant for a long time, the growth rate of field production will decrease, then plateau, then begin to drop, slowly at first, then accelerate to a higher rate[.]

And if prices drop significantly during the time when you would normally expect to see a high drilling rate (or if drilling costs get too high), you could see a sudden decrease in the rate of drilling, and a field like the Bakken will go from high growth to high decline really quickly. A drop of oil prices to $70 per barrel (of West Texas Intermediate) could create an extreme drop in drilling and field production really quickly.

Resource plays don't work if oil or gas prices are low.  A huge part of the risk is evidenced by the Barnett Shale. It worked great at $6 to $15 per thousand cubic feet, but it loses money like crazy at $2.50 per thousand cubic feet.  The problem is that you really get clobbered when you drill the wells when gas or oil is high priced, and then the price drops and you have to sell your oil or gas at low prices.  Billions and billions of dollars have been lost in the Barnett because of this.  If oil drops to $70 (WTI), a lot of people will lose money in the Bakken.

4) John Hempton's piece on capital allocation in a bubble (iron ore and China, in his opinion), with a view at Fortescue's balance sheet and income statement

What I like from this piece is a view of how gross margins changed through the commodity cycle, and of course the question about what happens to the more marginal producers when the cycle ends. In all likelihood, this time really is not different, a point that I made during an orientation presentation; and a point I think both James Montier and he makes.

BHP's EBIT Margins
2001                  2011
11.9%               65.3%
Fortecue's EBIT Margins
2001                  2011
Irrelevant           41.5%

I consider 2001 EBIT margins irrelevant for Fortescue because it also had a medical business at the time (albeit, it was in the process of divesting it). Hence the comparison to BHP might not be that reasonable. The comparison Hempton points to is 2011 margins for both. With simple math, you can see that Fortescue is a more marginal producer than BHP. So, the question, as Hempton puts it, is indeed what is the normalized profit and prices for iron ore and other mining. Is it going back to 2001 levels? Is it today's levels? Is it somewhere in between? I must note I default into "this time is [not] different" but other than that have no opinion, yet.

Interestingly, pieces two through four have a commonality about "this time is [not] different". This is one of the most valuable lessons I've ever had. Given how short term minded we can be, it is also the most difficult of them. Hence, why I enjoy reading John Hussman, James Montier, Jeremy Grantham and John Hempton.

Anyway, a good morning to everyone!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Overtaxed at the Airport

Take a look at this round trip to Toronto from DC:

Fare Summary

Departing Flight
PD 724
Base Fare (1 x $ 129.00):
$ 129.00
$50 Discount
- $ 50.00
Taxes & Fees
NAV and Surcharges
$ 7.50
Passenger Facility Charge
$ 4.50
Sep 11th US Security Tax
$ 2.50
US Segment Tax
$ 3.80
US transportation Tax
$ 6.49
$ 103.79

Returning Flight
PD 727
Base Fare (1 x $ 129.00):
$ 129.00
$50 Discount
- $ 50.00
Taxes & Fees
Air Traveller Security Charge
$ 12.70
NAV and Surcharges
$ 17.50
Airport Improvement Fee
$ 20.00
Harmonized Sales Tax
$ 2.60
US Agriculture Tax
$ 5.00
US Immigration Tax
$ 7.00
US Customs Processing Fee
$ 5.50
US Segment Tax
$ 3.80
US transportation Tax
$ 7.24
$ 160.34

$ 264.13

A flight to Toronto from DC results in nearly $25 in taxes and fees. A flight back to DC? If we exclude what I am presuming is a fee specific to Dulles (the Airport Improvement Fee of $20), taxes and fees come to $61.34, or 247% more than a flight to Toronto.

You may look and say that obviously we should be charging fees for immigration and customs. My retort would be, why? Canada sees no need to do so. Perhaps they have a more rational immigration system? I've previously stated that I believe this to be the case given their visa granting process for graduates from their universities. Basically, they do their best to retain talent, unlike the US, with its inane quotas to "protect American jobs" that result in talent we train from abroad returning abroad rather than staying here and creating new jobs! Or perhaps, to be more charitable to Immigrations and Customs, the fee is hidden elsewhere in the Canadian budget?

And then there are other questions I would have - why do I have to pay an agriculture tax? What does that have to do with flying into DC? Why the security charge for DC but not for Toronto? Presumably Canadians care about security, so why are we charging extra? Same with the NAV and surcharges, at $17.50 for DC versus $7.50 for Toronto. Are we that inefficient and bloated?

That is my opinion - we are bloated and overtaxed at the airport because of security theater.

I'll leave you with a few articles and blogs:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

My mother is awesome!

I just have to say that.

Okay, there's a reason why I'm saying that.

I got into a debate today regarding why I believe that contraceptives should be sold over the counter. This includes the emergency pill, and this includes no age restrictions (i.e. no stupid laws that say that if a girl is younger than 18, she has to go through a physician to get the "day-after" pill because of some legislature's desire to dictate morality from the state house).

Simply put, I could not convince the other parties that they were suffering from status quo and authority bias. Because contraceptives have been sold on a prescription basis throughout their whole lives (status quo) and they were brought up to respect medical authority, if doctors are prescribing contraceptives today despite their long history, that must mean that contraceptives are dangerous to have without a prescription from a doctor based on your medical history.

Except, no.

If we are to appeal to authority bias, then one authority I like to appeal to is my mother, as she's an OB-GYN. If any doctor would have an opinion that could be trusted regarding contraceptives, it would be an OB-GYN. So, when I discussed my thoughts with her later in the day, she completely backed me up, even for cases where contraceptives are prescribed for non-contraceptive use (i.e. to help with bleeding).

I was at least willing to consider that there would be a simple diagnostic checklist that could be created to say what dosage a person should have based on medical history or a few simple questions, but apparently there's no need. For the cases where it is for non-contraceptive use, the simple dosage discovery is to start with the lowest, and test upwards if necessary; and switch if that still doesn't work. That honestly sounds simple, doesn't it?

In other words, there is no need for access to be controlled by the prescription script. Continuing to keep this barrier is an illogicality that invites patients to fall through the cracks because a doctor or employer has a morality that does not want to allow the prescription to be written (i.e. Catholic employers). Removing this barrier would give more control back to the patient, where the choice should be in the first place.

N.B. Obviously this is my opinion, and not medical advice. This is not a medical blog, and even if it was, the advice would be general enough to provide some information, but require confirmation with a doctor or pharmacist. Maybe if I interviewed 100 doctors I would get a wider spectrum of answers that could be researched. I am just putting this out there because sometimes assumptions about the status quo need to be challenged. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dealbreaking Online Dating Questions...

I was tempted not to go with the provocative title, since it gives a lot away about what I am doing at the moment. However, as you may know, when I feel strongly about a subject, I will deliberately be provocative

As I go over these questions, I am reminded of Max Planck, who stated that "Science advances one funeral at a time." Well, so may ethics, since answers to these questions that subjugate liberty to prejudice and bias are rightly viewed as barbaric by more people nowadays than a century ago

1.     Would the world be a better place if people with low IQs were not allowed to reproduce?

Anyone who answers this question with a "yes" automatically is tossed out of my list of prospects. It is as if they are fans of eugenics! Did they learn anything about respecting the liberty of other people? Did they learn about one of the most repulsive judicial decisions in Supreme Court history, Buck v. Bell? 

Perhaps they are fans of the line:  "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Never mind that the women in this case were being considered imbeciles because of their promiscuity. This is such a barbaric position that whenever I see this juxtaposed with someone who is religious and conservative, I have to wonder if they truly have any morals. And when I see it juxtaposed with someone who is liberal, I have to wonder if they have learned anything from their ideological predecessors, the 19th and early 20th century Progressives, who were fans of eugenics, much to their later shame.

Maybe I am just too serious. Or maybe I truly have principles that I will not budge on, contrary to what some religious people believe about atheists and agnostics. That there are religious people on dating sites who consider eugenics acceptable when phrased as above suggests to be that they are the ones lacking a moral framework, not I. 

For a better write-up of why this is one of the most repulsive of Supreme Court decisions, see here.

2.     Is interracial marriage a bad idea?

Those who think interracial marriage is a bad idea either never heard of Loving v. Virginia, the case that stated that Virginia's ban on interracial marriages violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, or for some reason think that airing this sort of consumer preference is still a good idea in this day and age. 

And perhaps it is, if only to dissuade relatively liberal people, in the classical sense, from considering associating with someone who thinks little of the liberty of other people.

Perhaps a generation from now, not only will Chief Justice Earl Warren's opinion be more generally accepted for interracial marriages, but it will be applied to any marriage, with only certain pockets of the United States retaining bigoted consumer preferences.

After all, to quote the man:
The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival.
Those are two deal-breaking questions for me, which I hope also demonstrate how important I think the notion of liberty is. There are more, but given the hour I am writing this, I will save them for another time.

N.B. Are there views that I would consider barbaric that are not yet in the mainstream? Of course. Just read any of Bryan Caplan's writing on immigration to see why, empirically and morally, I feel anything other than unfettered immigration is to transgress upon the liberty of people who want to come here and improve their lives.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Random Thoughts Spurred by a Lunch

The other day I had lunch with a colleague, something I do not usually do. In the course of the discussion, we had cause to discuss our fundamental beliefs about economics and the world. Imagine my surprise when he stated that the financial crisis demonstrated how free markets utterly fail and that without the government intervening, we would be much worse off today.

To which, with my clearer head I would now retort (note I say now, there is a reason I was not part of the debate team):

If your business did not serve its customers and investors well, and hence only survived 2008 due to a government bailout, how is that a sign that the free market failed? It would seem to me that the government stepping in prevented the free market from succeeding in punishing firms for not delivering value to consumers and investors.

I will not name specific names, though I do not believe, unlike him, that the entire financial sector would have failed sans government intervention. Those companies who had adequate capital and excellent underwriting would still have been hit, but not to the point of bankruptcy. And let's be honest - wouldn't you want to have a downturn cull out the weak companies with poor decision-making?

In other words, someone seems to have forgotten the notion that capitalism and free markets mean that not only are proper incentives there for success (the rewards of entrepreneurialism) but for failure too (less revenue, losses instead of profits, bankruptcy and insolvency instead of increasing wealth).

Or how about this - a centrally determined interest rate is central planning, not the free market.

Or how about this - the very size of the Federal Register is an indication that we do not have unfettered free markets, but a mixed economy. 

To cast aspersions at the free market is rather misguided if we are in a mixed economy with growing government reach, potential violations of the rule of law by the institution that is supposed to uphold it, and increasing regulatory cost.

Whatever do they teach in schools these days?

To summarize, I am continually amazed by the notion that the last crisis demonstrated the failure of free markets. From my cynical view, it seems to demonstrate yet another government failure.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Music I can not wait to ski to

First off, Happy New Year to everyone! I rang in the new year last night in the company of good friends at an intimate party, one of the better ways to do so, in my opinion.

I think the only two new year party options which would top my night last night are 1) New Year's Eve out in a foreign city, like Prague, Hong Kong, Nice or London; or 2) New Year's Eve skiing somewhere out west, like Whistler, Silver Star, Park City or Tahoe.

On that note, I've been waiting, and waiting, and still waiting for winter weather to truly arrive here in DC. As I write this, I can walk outside my house without needing a jacket (except for the rain). As a result, whereas this time last year I had already sprained my left knee from a ski accident and hence could not ski for the next month, this year I have not had the dubious opportunity for such mishap.

However, whenever and wherever I start skiing this year, I look forward to skiing to the following music:
  • The Pandorica Suite - 2010 BBC Prom #10
  • Twilight Princess Symphonic Movement
  • Mars - Gustav Holst, Planets Suite
  • Ride of the Valkyries - Richard Wagner
  • Battle in the Sky - Murray Gold, Doctor Who Season 5
There is probably more music on my iPod that I have not thought of but which I'll enjoy on the slopes. However, I would definitely like to augment this list, so if anyone has an addition, I would appreciate the suggestion.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Government vs. Private Incentives

From an article discussing the recent natural gas find by Noble Energy:
Communications Minister Efthymios Flourentzos struck a note of optimism, saying that as a public listed company, Noble would always announce a more conservative estimate of the quantities of natural gas, so as not to run afoul of the New York Securities and Exchange Commission.
So what? Does that mean that a government company would announce a much more liberal estimate because it would not be penalized at all for being wrong? That sounds an awful lot like the rest of government functions.

Further in the article:
University of Cyprus professor and member of the group of experts appointed to advise the government, Panos Papanastasiou agreed, saying the find was "possibly the second largest offshore gas find in the last decade".
"Companies are usually conservative. They don't announce figures and then downgrade them because they run the risk of being penalized,"  Papanastasiou said.
It almost sounds like there is no easy way to hold a government agency or company accountable (i.e penalizing) if they make a costly mistake or misrepresent matters. Call me a cynic, but people are still under the delusion that government officials and employees are public servants.

Also in the article:
The minister added that some sort of national company needed to be created to manage the existence of hydrocarbons in Cyprus' EEZ, giving the state a "decisive role" in wealth management.
With all due respect, why? A national energy company gives too much incentive to the government to perform mischief, taking the proceeds from exploration and production and wastefully spending on social programs, neglecting necessary reinvestment in fields to maintain production. See Venezuela, for example, where oil production is declining and they can not get international investors interested, though you would think that with them producing oil, they could surely fund reinvestment to maintain a cash flow stream... except for those social programs!

The private sector would run the exploration and production better because they at least are accountable to shareholders (corporations have the agent problem, but governments are the ultimate example of the agent problem), and would probably maximize resources extracted from the field. The government can just take its royalties and taxes and be happy without having to manage a company.

Except, of course, if Cypriots want more government involvement in their lives through a national company adding significantly to the coffers, resulting in a government likely to lavish them with social programs and handouts. If they want to disincentivize themselves even more from self-reliance, then I suppose they deserve the government they have. They will likely realize too late what a mistake that would be.