Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Wage Slave

I now have my first regular full-time job. It's right and proper that I should get paid, of course, but it also feels strange.

I've pinpointed the awkward feeling to three things:
  1. Many of the activities of my new job are very similar to things I used to do in college for free. If I were an undergraduate, I would probably be expected / willing to do this job for free, if not even pay to have the opportunity. But once I pass the magical boundary of Commencement, I suddenly get the right to demand payment for providing these services. That's strange, isn't it?
  2. When you're working in large group projects, it's hard to tell how much your labor is worth. When your contribution gets mixed in with everyone else's, how do you tell how much your contribution is worth? The wage you receive seems strangely detached from your work.
  3. Participating in the labor market doesn't just mean getting money for your service. It also means refusing service if there's no money. Otherwise how would people take your fees seriously? If the work is tedious and unpleasant, refusing service is rather easy. But if you go into work that you love, and which you would probably do for free anyway (which is what they tell you to do in all those Commencement Addresses in the first place, right?), then you're trapped between your natural instinct and your need for money, which can make you feel either cheap or unappreciated, depending on whether the former or latter feeling is stronger.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Money, Money, Money! New Reading List

The Reading List  is a collection of things I find in print and online that reflect what I've been finding interesting lately.

This time the reading list has a theme: money! Each of the articles, books, or video clips in the list explains a particular aspect of how money works—where it gets its value from, what keeps the system from collapsing, and how it is regulated. Money is fascinating, in part because it's one of those inventions of the modern world that we all rely on but hardly bother to question. Once you do start questioning, though, you fund that the plumbing of the international financial system runs deep.

One aspect of money that I really enjoy is how it represents not so much a technological innovation as much as a mental one. Unlike electricity, or semiconductors, or antibiotics, the innovation of money didn't require any wizardry over Nature. The paper on which we record our money is generally cheap and worthless. Instead, the major innovation was in fundamentally shifting the way we think about value, and transactions. Money made it possible to commensurate all sorts of seemingly incommensurate values, to save, to invest, to compare investments, to plan for the future, and the like—but not because money has any of these powers intrinsically, but rather because we gave it these powers by believing in it. It's truly quite remarkable how that works.

If you like what you see, or wish to discuss the readings, please add a comment below! I'll be more than eager to participate in the discussion.

Bonus Feature: The intro song and first couple minutes of the Singaporean film, Money No Enough.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why are stock prices related to company performance?

Like electricity or semiconductors, the stock market remains a mysterious invention of the modern world, something that few of us understand entirely even though we depend upon it everyday.

I hadn't given the stock market much thought myself until I watched Niall Ferguson's excellent documentary The Ascent of Money (available to watch free online here), which shows how some of the most pivotal moments in history (the victory of the North in the Civil War, the coups of Latin America, the defeat of Napoleon) had important financial backstories to them.

This sparked my curiosity to really get a grasp of what the stock market is about. Not just that layman's wisdom of "buy low, sell high," but to really understand why the stock market exists, the value that it contributes to society, and the fundamental forces that drive stock market prices (the first and second points have gotten rather lost lately, so much so that Robert Shiller has had to write a book defending the idea that finance is useful and good).

I found the answer to most of my questions in this really good guide by, which walks the reader through IPOs, stock exchanges, incorporation, brokers, and the like.

But there was one question I had that I couldn't seem to find an answer for anywhere: why does the stock price have anything to do with company performance?

Often the lay explanation of how the stock market works is trapped in a circular logic. You buy stock, the thinking goes, to sell it to someone else for a higher price. But then that person, thinking the same thing, wants to sell it to someone else for an even higher price. Neither person in this scenario is thinking of profiting from the company per se. But surely it can't be that the only value of a stock is to unload it onto someone else later. So is there any value in holding on to the stock? Does the stock have any value on its own, even when most modern companies do not return profits to its shareholders?

The answer is, of course, yes. I owe (what I think to be) my understanding of the answer to the discussion at this forum, whose contributors seem to be pretty well informed. I haven't seen any discussion of this question hardly anywhere, let alone an answer, so I'm sharing it here, in case others are also curious.

But before we begin this explanation, it's worth taking a step back and establishing the mechanics of the simplist kind of stock, dividend-paying stocks. This detour will be useful to those with less background in the stock market, and will help me cement my new-found knowledge. If you already know this stuff, you can skip down to the next section.

Beginner's Detour

Although the modern stock market is incredibly complex, the earliest system of stocks was rather straightforward. The stock market was invented for two reasons: to raise money for the company, and to spread risk. The Dutch East India Company, widely regarded as the first company to issue public stock, was in great need of both of these benefits. Its voyages to the Orient were not only very expensive, but also very risky and dangerous. Without the stock market, the company would have to borrow at interest, which would have been a bad move given that the outcome of its expeditions was so uncertain. Stocks offered an ingenious way around this problem by spreading risk (and reward) amongs many, many private owners. And people gladly offered up their money, anticipating the massive profits that the company would soon earn.

In the Dutch East India Company, shares entitled their holder to two rights—a portion of the annual profits, and the right to cast a vote in company decisions. Modern stocks are much more complex (by, among other things, dividing stocks into different "classes," which entitle their owners to varying degrees of benefits). But even still, these two rights are the principal benefits that shareholders can expect. 

When shareholders receieve a portion of the profits (called dividends), as in the case of the Dutch East India Company, it is clear why trading is based on company performance. The more profits the company reaps, the larger the dividends will be, and the return will be.

Some people who did not get a chance to buy a stock in the company when they were first being sold wanted to get into the action later; and others who bought the stock wanted to get rid of it. Thus a stock market was born. Note that none of the money trading hands in the stock market went to the Company. It was strictly private agreements who were trading commodities, like people buying baseball cards from each other.

Valuing the stock is a subjective calculation. The stock yields a stream of annual dividends, of an uncertain amount, for the lifetime of the company. As long as the present value of the stream of money is more than purchase price, then it's a good investment.

The idea of present value is of central importance to valuing stocks; stocks, like all investments, return money in the future, money in the future is worth less than money in the present.

This is because of interest rates. Suppose someone offers you $100 today or $100 next year. Suppose also that the generally prevailing interest rate is 5% (say in a savings account, or buying government bonds). Then if you take the $100 today and put it in the savings account you'll have $105 next year. So because you lose that year of not collecting interest, $100 in the future is worth less than $100 today. The present value of a future sum of money is the amount you would need to invest today to collect that sum of money at the future time. To collect $100 next year, one would need to invest $100 / 1.05 = $95.24 today. This is the present value of that money.

Here's a numerical example to show how this works with the Dutch East India Company. Suppose you buy the stock for $30. Suppose the interest rate is 2% and suppose that these are your annual returns for the stock.

Year 1: $20                            Present Value: $19.60
Year 2: $15                            Present Value: $14.42
Year 3: $25                            Present Value: $18.85

Total Present Value over 3 years: $52.87

So the stock pays for itself, even though each year the return is less than the purchase price of the stock.

However, just knowing that you get a return on the stock is not enough. The question you should ask on an investment is not whether you'll get a return at all, but whether you'll get more return here than you would collecting interest on safe investments (i.e. U.S. government bonds, the standard that modern markets use). It only makes sense to take on the additional risk of buying stock if there is potential for making more money. This is why interest rates are so important.

This Dutch East India type stock—the kind that returns dividends—is the simplest kind of stock. But even if we have just a couple dozen companies with this kind of stock, we already have a pretty robust stock market. Some stocks may give small but steady returns; others may be more volatile; a start-up may just be taking off that in the future will return vast sums of money; and the uncertainty around predicting how companies will do at the end of the year will lead to tons of buying and selling. When there are more buyers than sellers of a particular stock, that stock price goes up. When there are more sellers than buyers, the stock price goes down.

Non-dividend paying bonds

Most public companies, as I noted earlier, don't pay dividends to their shareholders. So why do shareholders care about company performance?

The crucial point is that all companies will eventually pay dividends. Paying dividends is the default option. The reason that companies don't pay dividends is because they believe they can generate a larger return for their shareholders by expanding the company than the shareholders could if they took their dividend and invested it themselves. But no company can grow forever (at the very least, scale problems will get in the way). As the company starts to reach its growth limit, it will run out of profitable uses of the money. At this point, the profits will come back to the shareholders, and when this moment comes the profits will be enormous (relative to the company's starting point).

This kind of stock, you'll notice, is different. When you buy this stock, you don't get anything in the short run. But eventually, say after 10 years, when this company does start issuing dividends, it's dividends will be gigantic. So even though you don't get anything for a while, it's worth buying. In the meantime, people buy and sell depending on how much they think the company will eventually be worth.

It's not an automatic process by which the company starts to issue dividends. The company may resist returning profits to its shareholders (e.g. see Apple). But once the shareholders feel that the company doesn't need the money for investment, or can't invest it better than the going interest rates, then they'll start calling for dividends, and vote for such measures at shareholder meetings.

Even if stocks never paid dividends, they would still have some value, because of a stock's ownership power. If someone amasses a controlling stake in a company (usually 51% of stocks), then they can decide how the company will be run. This power, in turn, allows someone to make a lot of money. Take an extreme example: suppose you have a company with $1 billion worth of assets, and 3 stocks, each trading at $1 each. I buy two of the stocks for $2. Then I can go and sell off the company's assets—their buildings and machines and land and other property—and pocket all the cash. This way of making money is called "corporate raiding," and is generally frowned upon. But it's another way the performance of the firm is reflected in its share price.

What I have described is the underlying fundamental forces that move the stock market. Everything else is just people trying to game the system. The layman's understanding of the stock market is based on this gaming of the system—taking advantage of people's expectations, betting on what other people think will happen, or even betting on what other people think other people will think will happen.

But this isn't what the stock market is about. The stock market is about financing companies that will be profitable, and wanting to partake in company profits and ownership. Everything else is, I think, secondary.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Back Again

I haven't given up on blogging—it's just been an unusually hectic semester. For the past two months I've been dedicating all my time to my undergraduate thesis (the main ideas of which I'll share at a later date). So I dropped off the blogosphere. But now that I have a month and a half of vacation, I have plenty of time to write down the various ideas that popped into my head over the course of this hiatus. I'm looking forward to getting back to writing again.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Some Confirmation That I'm Not Crazy

In the seventh grade, after learning that I wasn't the first one to figure out that (a + b)2 = a2 + b2 + 2ab, I was convinced that I would never have a novel idea in my life. At the time, this was a sad thought, because I wanted to be original, and make discoveries. But since I began writing this blog, I've enjoyed finding some of my thoughts in other places. Here's a metaphor to explain why:

When I sit down to write my blog, sometimes I feel like the commander of a small space vessel, zooming through vast galaxies of ideas.

Most of my journey passes in solitude—just me (and what appear to be) parsecs and parsecs of uncharted territory. The world of ideas seems so vast. At first, because of the thrill of discovery, I preferred the emptiness. But after a while I started to wonder whether I was just lost. So when I happen to chance upon another traveler, out in the reaches of a distant nebula (where I imagine some of my ideas tend to lie), I find welcome confirmation that really I'm not as lost as I thought.

Regular readers of the blog will know that a little under a year ago I wrote a blog post entitled "Why Profit Doesn't Work in the Media Business," which tried to link the blatant biases in today's journalism with the fundamental economic structure of the business. The idea was that profit, which is supposed to encourage firms to do the socially optimal thing, actually skews their incentives away from it (where in this case the social optimum was a perfectly informed and unbiased electorate).

When I wrote this blog post, I felt I was the only economist arguing that markets may make the news industry more biased. After all, Ronald Coase (1974), Timothy Besley and Robin Burgess (2002), Besley and Prat (2002), Djankov et al. (2003), David Stromberg (2001), and Alexander Dyck and Luigi Zingales (2002) have all advance arguments for why increased competition in the media should result in greater accuracy.

But it turns out I actually wasn't alone. In a working paper called "The Market for News," Harvard economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Andrei Shleifer (M & S) agree that market competition doesn't give us a fair and balanced news media, though their argument is much more detailed.

In my blog post, I developed had two separate explanations for why competition didn't lead to unbiased news, depending on whether consumers of news were either witlessly or willfully misinformed. In the first case, I argued that consumers get biased news because they don't know it's biased. This was more of a power-elite type explanation, which assumed that the owners of the media had certain political reasons for advancing bias, which consumers weren't savvy enough to figure out. Consumers in the media industry today, I said, may be like consumers going to grocery stores before the advent of health standards, not knowing whether the meat was tainted or not.

My argument in the second case was much more straightforward. Basically (if I'm to tease the empirical argument out of the highly normative argument I was making), I said that biased news was a particular kind of product that news media could sell, and that if demand was sufficiently high companies would provide it. This seemed intuitive enough, but I didn't have any model of how that worked.

That's where M & S's paper comes in. M & S propose a simple model of how firms bias their news by essentially constructing a variant of a Hotelling model. In a Hotelling model, customers are distributed over some space, and firms position themselves in the space so as to "catch" as many of them as possible. In this case, the relevant space is ideology. Firms compete by announcing their "slanting strategy" and the price for their product, and customers choose the news source that most aligns with their bias, for the lowest price.

In M & S's framework the way competition leads to bias is that it causes firms to segment the market. To avoid competing for the same customers, firms find it optimal to maximally distance themselves from their competitors. Practically, this means separating themselves ideologically as much as possible—even if that means taking more extreme positions than even their most biased readers. The average reader will find, then, more and more extreme positions (a.k.a. bias) in the news after competition.

This model helps explain the perception that the media has become increasingly biased in recent years. Since the entrance of competitors in the market increases bias, one important contributing factor could be that
changes in media technology have lead to significant entry, especially in television. If these media sources divide the market along ideological lines, we expect them to become more biased than they were in the regime of moderate competition.
Unfortunately, the model also suggests that news bias is very difficult to remove. No firm would find it advantageous to become less biased; but even if one firm credibly committed to ending bias, the other firm would still gain more profits by choosing to bias. This is more or less the conclusion I reached, and why I argued that the only way to reduce bias was for firms to commit do so based on moral or ethical reasons.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why does no one like free trade?

Most states engage in protectionism, and lots of it. Brazil, for example, just put up a significant tariff against Chinese imports, amidst fears of de-industrialization. And Obama, in his State of the Union, signaled that the U.S. isn't about to let its manufacturing jobs go either. 

The properly schooled free-trading economist is supposed to dismiss all these efforts as "politics" (or so I've been told); and sigh that their advice is once again ignored. But I think it's telling that time and time again, when push comes to shove, most governments are not willing to embrace free trade, even though almost all economic theory shows that the benefits of free trade clearly outweigh the costs in the aggregate and in the long run. Such a consistent pattern begs an explanation.

Whether a country pursues free trade policies or not depends on how it balances the resulting costs and benefits. Clearly, the people who bear the costs and benefits are often different—and this is dilemma that the political economy literature has seized upon to explain opposition to free trade. The way the explanation goes is that because the winners and the losers are different people, and particularly because the benefits are small and dispersed across the population, while the costs are concentrated for small sectors of the economy, politicians find it more expedient to cater to the losers (who put up an effective lobby, since they have much at stake) rather than to the winners (who only stand to gain a little at the margin, and so won't notice if they lose their gain from trade). So free trade is blocked.

This is a powerful explanation, and goes a long way towards explaining a lot of the resistance to free trade. But it makes it seem as if opposition to free trade is inevitable.

Here's an alternative explanation that gives some clear conditions for when individuals will choose to support free trade. It relies on turning the focus away from the distribution of costs and benefits across different individuals, and instead to the costs and benefits over time.

The costs of free trade are most often immediate: lost jobs, industries, careers, and livelihoods. The benefits—economic growth, cheaper and higher quality stuff—come much later. Economists know well that people discount future benefits—that is, people value future costs and benefits less than those in the present. So if the discount factor is large enough, the benefits may come too far in the future to offset present losses.

To illustrate the effect that discounting can have, consider the following numerical example. Suppose a voter is deciding whether to support free trade or not. If she supports it, she'll face a stream of costs and benefits. Denote them by  and . If she doesn't support it, then (in her mind) nothing changes and the net cost/benefit is zero. So it follows that if her valuation of the benefits is greater than her valuation of the costs, then she will support free trade.

Note that this is different than asking whether the benefits are greater than the costs for that individual. This question is given by:

whereas the inequality that the voter checks is instead the following:

where    is the discount rate. These sums can produce substantially different values. For example, the following seems to me to be a reasonable graph of the costs and benefits of trade over time.

The costs start very high, but fade quickly. The benefits increase significantly over time. I have set the cost and benefit values so that the sum of the benefits is approximately 3 times the sum of the costs (43 to 16). That, in itself, seems to be a strong argument in favor of free trade. But given a reasonable discount rate of 0.9, the present value of the benefit stream is only 9.5, compared to 15 for the costs! Rationality demands that the voter vote against free trade.

Within this framework, how would we get the individual to support free trade? There are three clear options:
  1. Mitigate costs in the present.
    Since the initial impact has such a strong effect, even small reductions in the initial cost can significantly alter the cost-benefit calculus.

  2. Accelerate the arrival of the benefits.
    The sooner they arrive, the more they are worth.

  3. Allow people the wherewithal be more patient.
    The easier it is for people to wait for future benefits, the more willing they will be to do so
These general principles, in turn, recommend specific policy prescriptions. Mitigating costs in the present often takes the form of a social safety net: unemployment insurance, compensation funds to those who lose their jobs, and the like. Accelerating the arrival of the benefits can mean something like including provisions in free trade agreements to require foreign investment to begin immediately. And a policy that would allow people to be more patient could include setting up a robust and ready job retraining program so that people know they have future benefits to look forward to. [Incidentally, ideology, control, and repression are also ways to make people more patient and more willing to support free trade, and unfortunately this is the way many countries (particularly in Latin America) have gone about it.]

Often I hear economists say that people oppose free trade because they are misguided, or stubborn, or selfish. But my point here is that people may oppose free trade, even if they know full well its implications, simply because the timing of the costs and benefits are unfavorable. The timing of some of those costs and benefits can't be changed—but a lot of them can, and that means there is a lot of scope for policy to shift the politics of free trade. Focusing on concrete policy steps to alter the cost / benefit calculus are likely to go much farther towards increasing trade than the 300 years of sermonizing that economists have been doing.


Sorry for the long absence, everyone. It's application season, and I've been busy with that. But I plan to get back to the blog now that I have more time. Plan to see a couple new posts in the coming weeks....I've had ideas brewing.