Self-sufficiency

When is self-sufficiency attractive? Or rather, why is it attractive? Does it have to do with trust, or lack thereof? Or does it have to do with pride? Or maybe these concepts generally go hand-in-hand. In Singapore, where our resources are scarce, it is difficult to be self-sufficient in things. We import almost all of our energy and food. And we learnt a long time ago that security can be achieved from diversification.

Same principle when it comes to an individual and recognising no man is an island. We have to work together and that’s why we form societies. The greatest beauty of the market economy is in allowing the greater society to be able to work together and co-create products, services in service of individuals that make up the society. At a global level, that idea has helped to enhance global collaboration to a large extent.

Trading relationships helps to stabilise politics as well; though of course, that is a big source of soft influence, and the challenge of forming connections and relying on others is that we lose some degree of our independence. Straddling that is important, and demystifying that allows us to be better leaders, not just as individuals but as a society, as a nation as well.

Google & Climate

Google left China and soon after that the shares of Baidu on NASDAQ soared above that of Google, going above 600 USD per share. The Economist reports on the message Google’s departure leaves for businesses in China, trying to warn business people that it is still not that easy to do business there.

Yet as Fortune explains, it’s not entirely about business. Beliefs of the founders of Google mattered, it seems. Well, I guess there is a concoction of complex ideas there but to simplify matters, let’s just say Google don’t agree with China and realised that dealing with China might entail too much costs (both in the business, social and emotional sense) and so they have pulled out. Yet they didn’t exactly pull out of the Chinese world, because they merely made Hong Kong their headquarters for the Chinese Language Google.

Meanwhile, it appears as if Climate Science is also under similar sort of mess. People are not agreeing with each other once again and making excuses here and there. But I believe The Economist makes a good point when they say that the uncertainty is precisely what justifies our efforts at combating climate change. The uncertainty should be what binds us together rather than become a point of contention. It’s stupid to agree that the science is uncertain and imprecise and then go on to squabble over what is the ‘true findings’ or ‘accurate data’.

Monetary Policy

As I mentioned about the difficulties of governing Economies and Greenspan’s disclosure on his workings on a paper in defence of his policies, The Economist recently wrote in their column about Greenspan’s recent defence of himself. Those interested might want to access his paper here.

In general, The Economist adopts a rather sarcastic tone when discussing Alan Greenspan’s role in the build up to the Subprime Mortgage Crisis in 2007. They are arguing that central bankers are around to ensure macroeconomic stability and therefore are expected to ‘play safe’ and manage the economy. That is, if reducing short-term interests rates could rein in the housing boom, that should have been applied. Even if Greenspan couldn’t have identified the bubble, and that the house prices are not related to the interest rates that central bankers could influence, the leverage growth in securitised markets might be worth managing:

By looking only at the effect of monetary policy on house prices, Messrs Bernanke and Greenspan also take too narrow a view of the potential effect of low policy rates. Several economists have argued convincingly, for instance, that low policy rates fuelled broader leverage growth in securitised markets.

Of course, having just read Dot.con and Lord of Finance, I do realise that central bankers’ attempts at interfering with specific market booms have often been ineffective or with rather disastrous results and thus choose to focus only on economic fundamentals like price inflation. Greenspan does have a point when he suggests that the central bankers are unable to deal with a global force that are changing the conditions of the economy. Very often, these efforts may create further imbalances that merely postpones a crisis.

Like I say, no one claims monetary policy is easy to conduct – it’s too often more of an art than a science.

Governing Economics

Many have attributed the housing bubble that eventually resulted in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis to the previous, one of the longest serving Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. We are pretty familiar with Greenspan, who have written Age of Turbulence. In his book, he highlighted his general argument against anyone who would finger-point him as allowing a bubble to inflate. He pronounce that it is impossible for anyone, whether the regulatory body or not, to accurately identify a bubble.

As for the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, politicians in the United States still blames it somewhat on Alan Greenspan and now that everything is cooling down, Greenspan offers his own defence. Although Greenspan was nicknamed ‘the Maestro’, he subtly attributes the period of great prosperity and low inflation to the globalization forces and technological advancement more than his skills at handling the monetary policy of US. In any case, he outlines his job at the Federal Reserve as an observer trying his best to keep to fundamentals of the economy and the crisis therefore comes as a surprise both because of how the economic agents have basically defied market assumptions namely on the issue of counter-party surveillance. Essentially the government cannot possibly provide the ‘self-interest’ that is supposed to drive the free market.

No one says that managing the economy is an easy job. Sound economics decisions by governments often turns out to be political disasters anyways so sometimes politicians stop heeding economists altogether. The recent issues that confront Tim Geithner is essentially similar; the economy is picking up thanks to his plans but people are unhappy with him. Figures on employment are not helping him anyways since the recovery is ‘jobless’ so to speak. Management of the economy is a huge balancing act for the government.

The idea of government has gone really far since the days of Locke’s conception of the social contract. The philosophy of governance in the modern world is just getting more complicated.

Wrong Concoction

Historically, technological advancement combined with economics have helped to push civilization towards greater levels of achievements; yet too often, there are times when they are combined in the wrong ways that produces somewhat problematic results for the aggregate society. An example would be the problem of counterfeit products, which is recently featured in The Economist. Interestingly it has extended beyond just luxury goods, luxury consumer electronics to the more sophisticated stuff like cars, computer and machine parts. The chief argument against counterfeits is not so much that they are unsafe. As technology advance, counterfeits that are of low quality would naturally be abandon by the market anyways. The reason for the market’s embrace is a result of their avoidance of taxes and the willingness to accept lower margins, which allows them to price way more competitively.

Another time when technological advancement is combined with skewed human intentions is the gender-based abortion that The Economist is hinting at. The distorted sex ratio have potentially disastrous consequences on society at large. Unfortunately the imbalance is already a fact and will take at least a generation to restore some balance so in the meantime we will probably have to put up with way lower rates of marriages (if rates sustain, it would only be because divorce rates have also been increasing; which implies re-marriages).

Well, more arguments for big governments, or if not, intrusive ones.

Imperfect Information (Processing)

Data
100101010100111100?

The Economist ran a special report on Managing Data, which is really about how to Data have become really abundant in our world today and how it might help us at all.

It is interesting how I have got a friend who once commented that all forms of market failure is a result of imperfect information. He says that people are consuming too much or too little of a product because they don’t have perfect information about the impact of the products, and so basically all the inability to analyse cost and benefit is a result of imperfect information. Likewise, to this friend of mine, technological advancement is basically slowly discovering information, truths that we previously know nothing of. Of course, that’s a little extreme and basically demanding perfect knowledge as well. For him, perfect knowledge would naturally be attained from having sufficient information.

The digital age ushered in lots of information; so much that we don’t have enough time to process them. In fact, even cataloguing them might be troublesome enough and the process generates meta-data, which in fact is information about information. They would prove useful though they actually add to the information heap. Say for example I give you a quote:

The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past:

If I don’t provide the source, it’s not particularly helpful unless you’re able to identify it from just the content. It’s from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. But then that’s just a little bit of metadata; there’s more: it comes from Act II Scene I. And even more: it’s from Line 14-16. The ability to manipulate all these data themselves would create more information too. And they all might just prove to be way too much.

Economics have definitely become more complex thanks to the flood of information. Technology has allowed suppliers to maintain tighter inventory and reduce idle capacity but reality seem to drift further away from classical economics even as the economic agent are becoming more equipped with the information necessary to create a more perfect market. It appears, the next big assumption of Economics about the real world that needs toppling is in fact the idea of independence.

Printing Stuff

Ad Billboard
Cheaper way of lighting up...

Imagine you need a square meter of light, perhaps for a single ’tile’ on the ceiling that emits lights at your building. You’d probably get contractors to make a box with circuits inside that connects to a couple of fluorescent tubes (or if you’re quite rich, a couple of LEDs) and then cover the thing with a translucent white piece of acrylic. The entire structure is bulky and probably quite energy consuming. Now, scientists have found a way to make a ‘sheet’ of LED that would allow you to make that ‘lighted tile’ much more easily and is also much more compact. Essentially, the technology allows you to print a circuit that is wired in a way that acts as a diode, and one that emits light.

And since we’re at the issue of printing stuff; we mentioned previously about industrial prototyping machines that churns out 3D structures/models. I was quite intrigued by the idea of being able to print out a peg for your clothes or even design a shoe that fits you perfectly. But perhaps even more amazing would be the ability to print out cells, tissues and even organs as reported by The Economist.

The article mentioned about growing organs from scratch and raised the example of bladders being grown from original cells of patients. Essentially the patients are donating organs to themselves; the same applies for the printing of organs. The idea is appealing because there’s nothing artificial about them beside the involvement of doctors in the process of growing the cells and putting them together – ultimately the organ is still organic and from the patients. Perhaps then, Iran’s model for kidney donation won’t be so appealing anymore.

Taxing Criminals

Stamp Duty
Want to commit a crime? Pay taxes first...

The Economist ran an interesting story about “a government-issued stamp that is expected to remain unpurchased, but which users of illegal goods must, by law, affix to substances they are not allowed to possess”. Essentially, the government is creating another layer of crime above a crime. It’s as good as saying you should not be stealing people’s money, but if you do really steal, then you’ve to pay taxes on your loot. If you avoid the taxes, you’re committing tax evasion plus theft.

Authorities seem to believe that the tax helps to further punish people who are arrested for a crime (since the inability to discover the original crime would make the taxes lame anyways) and thus serve a higher level of deterrence to the crime. I wonder if criminals would bother to discover that they would be penalized twice for a single crime.

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was cited as an early conception of taxing illegal drugs. It is interesting that old bureaucracies sometimes like to make an act inconvenient rather than ban it outright. Maybe it just happens to drugs; Singapore could actually try applying extremely steep taxes on Chewing Gums rather than ban it outright.

Blended Value

House Money
Into the Blender!

Just when people are lambasting financial institutions and entities like hedge funds, Jed Emerson who coined the concept of ‘Blended Value‘, suggests that these financial entities can play a positive social role. Fast Company had an interview with him about this in 60 seconds.

As reported on Economist Online, Jed thinks that hedge funds which focuses on fundamentals mirrors sustainably investing, meaning that they would act to move capital to places where they are used properly and for good of the society.

Trading according to rigorous fundamental research can often mirror sustainable investing, which seeks to profit by taking into account social and environmental factors, he says. Fundamental hedge funds are far more likely than other investors to try to identify a firm’s off-balance-sheet exposures, of which a growing proportion may be “environmental or social liabilities present in a market or company but not explicitly accounted for in traditional numeric valuation or mainstream investor analysis”.

He makes an important point about ‘Shorting’, which The Economist goes on to discuss. As a matter of fact, the market is kind of biased towards growth and that should be the case since the economy is usually growing but then if people are not rational enough to sell, then there has to be short-sellers who are rational enough to sell but don’t have the shares in the first place. This way, buying and selling would reflect a more fundamental value. This is of course, an ideal – prices hardly reflect any reality in moments. But at least we know that the bulls and the bears are almost right the same number of times (half of the time each; which reflects dynamism of the market). And so there’s no way we should have anything against them.

Diversity & Sophistication

Product Nodes
Just like societies...

Economics have been a subject troubled with the idea of scarcity and thinking about means of distributing resources to produce what we call ‘wealth’. Scarcity is a clear-cut notion and ‘abundance’ represents the other end of the spectrum. The problem is that we are so familiar with scarcity we cannot be quite sure what really represents abundance (infinite, in short run or long run?) and thus, we actually have a problem quantifying wealth. What constitutes richness? Money? Gold? Having the most expensive resources? Having in abundance the most useful resource? Having the most diverse resources? Having human capital?

We’ve seen that most of the rich, developed world appears to be the same, with the similar institutions, rule of law and informal market rules; most of them produce certain complex niche products while importing a variety of inputs as well as many other consumer products. On the other hand, developing economies appears more diverse. This shows that the end state of riches can probably be attained through different pathways. The Economists’ latest Economic Focus discuss how recent research shows that sophistication in the economy signals at the potential of an economy.

The Product Space map that the researchers came up with shows that an economy producing at a more centrally located product zone where it is easy to diversify into many other products would fare better than one in an isolated region. However, the isolated products often yield greater profits because they are probably rarer and so competition amongst economies leads to evolutionary forces pushing certain economies into these corners of product space possibly at the expense of potential. In any case, versatility is treasured and flexibility in production will aid economic growth.