Changing the story

Insurance seemed like betting against your death or misfortune and some people don’t want to bet on your personal downfall so they don’t want to buy insurance. For years, the industry have been trying to change the story and they settled on the idea of protection, financial protection against those misfortune.

In principle, that works theoretically but the issue is that a lot of what you pay for is sales and distribution. The structure of the industry is such because insurance works well only when the risks are being pooled. That means having lots of people paying the premiums in order to support payouts during adverse events. As a business though, it means that the firm is ultimately a sales and marketing organisation. Costs will have to weigh disproportionately on the distribution side of the business.

This is a shame because the society needs insurance. Yet it is a market failure; the market system allocates resources poorly in this market. It can be better designed through a mix of regulation and making it mandatory to have certain amount of cover. The government should not think the market will help reduce cost of insurance through competition because the basis of competition in this market isn’t so much pricing. It is more sales, marketing and tactics.

But isn’t it just like many other products? For luxury products, yes. Basically for things people don’t actually need, you can allow the whims and fancies to be shaped by the market. But when it comes to insurance, you want the market to deliver an outcome so you need to design the boundaries and structure to make it work.

The story of insurance should be that of mandates, regulation, and basic necessity and right of people. We come together to live in highly urbanised environment and it should be a no brainer for us to risk-pool and mutually insure. There’s no excuse for this market to be hijacked to support high-flying salespeople.

Malicious obedience

I have been going through Bob McGannon’s Linkedin course on ‘Leading with Intelligent Disobedience‘, he brings up the concept of ‘malicious obedience’. It is the behaviour that follows from ‘well, if that’s what you want’. And it is probably what we engage in more often than we are proud of.

I think by juxtaposing intelligent disobedience with malicious obedience, one suddenly recognise rules for the place they should be. Yet more often than not, we follow rules somewhat blindly, out of laziness, fear or lethargy, when there might be more wisdom and intelligence in breaking them. Of course, here, we recognise another dimension for following the rules – it is to do so with malicious intent.

Of course, the malicious intent might not spring up overnight. It could be employees who knew something was wrong and sounded the alarms but the management refused to heed. It could be a child protesting the stupidity of a rule at home and not having received the appropriate explanation for why the rule was in place. So the risk of not empowering others with the ability to disobey intelligently is that we send the wrong message about what obedience is about.

Intelligent disobedience

Through the Linkedin learning course by Bob McGannon, I became acquainted with the idea of intelligent disobedience. I think the premise that he lays out is pretty interesting. That the human world is made of many rules and usually, 95% of the time, these rules work but then there is always 5% of the time when it doesn’t. This is when circumstances are extraordinary, when the situation is not as expected by the rule-makers and so on.

The exceptions are what calls for intelligent disobedience. After all, the reason that a person should be put in a job is not because he knows all the rules on the job. He needs needs to be able to follow, but more importantly, he needs to know when to break them. If rule-following is all it takes, then the cockpit of most commercial aircraft technically don’t require pilots. It is the need to take exceptional actions that we need professionals to take certain roles.

Talents are basically known to be the ones who break rules. They don’t get punished for them; in fact more often than not, they are celebrated. Philip Yeo is a good example of that in Singapore. In fact, he probably exhibited most traits of intelligent disobedience in most of his stories of defiance that he recorded in his book, “Neither civil nor servant”. To a large extent, risk-taking involves a lot more nuanced thinking than the manner our Singaporean culture allows for.

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.

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.

Automated Eyes

I stumbled upon Tineye, a ‘reverse image search engine’. It basically allows you to upload an image and then perform a search for pictures that are similar to the image. This is the beginning of answering a question my friend have posted me a couple of years back when he asked if the Internet can help us find out the name of a person from a photo of him/her. Alternatively, if you have a picture of a place, you might want to upload the image to search for where exactly it is. Alas, Tineye is not yet capable of all that, to quote from the Wiki article:

A user uploads an image to the Web application search engine or provides a URL for an image (or for a page containing the image). The search engine will look up other usage of the image in the internet including their time of appearance and including modified images based upon that image. Tineye does not recognise objects or persons in an image, it recognises the entire image, and some altered versions of that image. This includes differently sized versions of the image.

The search engine is provided by Idée, Inc., a Canadian firm that also produces other image-matching technology products, like PixID. A demonstration of the power of this product is shown in this video that follows:

It purportedly helps client tracks usage of their photographs or images online and print publications to manage image license and also to ‘uncover unauthorized image usage’, and it kind of reminds me how it makes patent trolls’ job easier, reflecting a worsened state of gridlock. In other words, while the software may help to raise the opportunity for transactions and thus contribute value to creators, it might potentially discourage mashups in the area of graphic designs. Of course, it has a potential for good as well; scanning through a film can help the production crew find out whether they have obtained permission for all the images or clips used and would thus know what to filter out if they are unable to identify the owners.

The potential of such technology always works both ways and eventually it will be up to Economics to resolve the issues.

Game Theory & Politics

Chess
Well, it's a game...

Christopher Beam on Slate.com framed the Senate (or any democratic deliberative body) as “the world’s greatest collective-action problem“. In a way, it is. Debating on issues and surfacing potential problems stakeholders might face and arguing on the different consequences on different parties is one thing about parliaments and national assemblies but then decision-making is another.

In democracies, debates and discussions are known to hold up decision-making and the same is reflected in bureaucratic bodies where power is shared across several individuals. This dispersion of power calls for coordination to get anything done and thus allow game theoretical analysis to dissect the dynamics involved in any of those coordination outcomes (ie the final decision).

In some sense, this is a trade-off; deliberation this way that involves the coordination game ensures that the outcome cannot be entirely fair though it might provide an illusion of it. In the first place, reality includes a spectrum or even several dimension of opinions and no system can be designed to capture and aggregate this complexity. The authors of Thinking Strategically mentions this in one of the chapters on elections. As a result, we are left with the political game that is manipulating the legislative structure although everyone hates to admit it. In some sense, Singapore’s structure might churn out better results in terms of efficiency and do ‘the right thing’. The idea then, is to move the game away from the ballot box in the first place, to somewhere further and higher.

Gridlocked

Gridlock Economy
Trapped in Fragments

A couple of months back I stumbled upon this book by Michael Heller (a lawyer), Gridlock Economy. It raised a very interesting question in the introduction and convinced me to borrow the book. The book went on to look into different parts of the modern economy where hurdles to economic activities are created because of structures built within the modern economy used to spur economic activities in the first place. It’s an irony we can’t ignore. The author framed them as a ‘Tragedy of the anticommons‘; this idea is from Michael Heller himself so the book is more or less a vehicle to get greater audience exposed to it.

Anyways, it started this way;

A few years ago, a drug company executive presented me with an unsettling puzzle. His scientists had found a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, but they couldn’t bring it to the market unless the company bought access to a dozen patents. Any single patent owner could demand a huge payoff; some blocked the whole deal. This story does not have a happy ending. The drug sits on the shelf though it might have saved millions of lives and earned billions of dollars.

I thought this is exactly the sort of problem that is going to plague the field of microeconomics in the modern world. The world’s complexity naturally mean that the mesh of technological advancement, legislative hurdles and logistical difficulties in the market would introduce new problems for us to solve. I didn’t quite manage to read much of the book but I’ll try to spend some time researching stuff in this area soon. Meanwhile, USA still probably going to continue being the hot bed for patent disputes.