Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quotes of the day

...while it is certainly easier, and a lot more fun, to write about good news—as Buffett has been accustomed to doing over the years at Berkshire, in contrast to the kind of bad news that has issued forth from Lampert’s fading retail giant of late—there is, even so, a remarkable difference in both the substance and style of letters by two men who actually have a great deal in common.
For one thing, both started out as hedge fund managers. For another, both are without peer in their fields, and fabulously wealthy as a result. For a third, they each got into the position of writing annual shareholder letters as a result of taking control of a fading, once-giant, public company. Finally, they each spent years personally wrestling with how to turn the original business around.
In the end, of course, one (Buffett) decided the rational thing was to disinvest in the original business and re-create the company to his liking, while the other (Lampert) is still wrestling with Sears even as he extracts cash from “hidden” assets like real estate and minority-controlled subsidiaries.--Jeff Matthews

If only everyone would invest, there’s a pretty good chance that we’d all be better off, on average our investments would succeed. But if an individual invests while the rest of the world does not, the expected outcome is a loss. (Colored values wearing tilde hats represent stochastic payoffs whose expected value is the number shown.) There are two equilibria, a good one in the upper left corner where everyone invests and, on average, succeeds, and a bad one in the bottom right where everybody hoards and stays poor. If everyone is pessimistic, we can get stuck in the bad equilibrium. Animal spirits are game theory.
This is a core problem that finance in general and banks in particular have evolved to solve. A banking system is a superposition of fraud and genius that interposes itself between investors and entrepreneurs. It offers an alternative to risky direct investment and low return hoarding. Banks guarantee all investors a return better than hoarding, and they offer this return unconditionally, with certainty, without regard to whether other investors buy in or not.
Opacity and interconnectedness among major banks is nothing new. Banks and sovereigns have always mixed it up. When there has not been public deposit insurance there have been private deposit insurers as solid and reliable as our own recent “monolines”. “Shadow banks” are nothing new under the sun, just another way of rearranging the entities and guarantees so that almost nobody believes themselves to be on the hook.
This is the business of banking. Opacity is not something that can be reformed away, because it is essential to banks’ economic function of mobilizing the risk-bearing capacity of people who, if fully informed, wouldn’t bear the risk. Societies that lack opaque, faintly fraudulent, financial systems fail to develop and prosper. Insufficient economic risks are taken to sustain growth and development. You can have opacity and an industrial economy, or you can have transparency and herd goats.
A lamentable side effect of opacity, of course, is that it enables a great deal of theft by those placed at the center of the shell game. But surely that is a small price to pay for civilization itself. No?
Nick Rowe memorably described finance as magic. The analogy I would choose is finance as placebo. Financial systems are sugar pills by which we collectively embolden ourselves to bear economic risk. As with any good placebo, we must never understand that it is just a bit of sugar. We must believe the concoction we are taking to be the product of brilliant science, the details of which we could never understand. The financial placebo peddlers make it so.--Steve Randy Waldman

... the beautiful people of Malibu and La Jolla should be able install solar panels on their tile roofs, if that's what they want. But the people of Compton and Barrio Logan shouldn't be expected to subsidize them. More to the point, policymakers need to stop making feel-good policy by press release, and focus on the unfairness of the green energy subsidy game. If they don't, the public, which repeatedly has shown that it truly does want a clean environment, will turn, rightly so.--Dan Morain

What continues to amaze me is this: Japan’s current strategy of massive, unsustainable deficit spending in the hopes that this will somehow generate a self-sustained recovery is currently regarded as the orthodox, sensible thing to do – even though it can be justified only by exotic stories about multiple equilibria, the sort of thing you would imagine only a professor could believe. Meanwhile further steps on monetary policy – the sort of thing you would advocate if you believed in a more conventional, boring model, one in which the problem is simply a question of the savings-investment balance – are rejected as dangerously radical and unbecoming of a dignified economy.--Paul Krugman

Look, I'm not an expert. I'm just trying to get ready for Buffalo. I'm not trying to analyze the passing game of the last 20 years. That's for people a lot smarter than me. Like you guys.--Bill Belichick

The King James Bible, named for the English monarch who commissioned it, turned 400 years old this year. It was long the most widely read Bible in the English-speaking world and the best-selling Bible in the U.S., until it was surpassed by the New International Version in the mid-1980s. The archaic language and high style of the King James text has shaped the language of the pulpit and influenced generations of writers, including Herman Melville and William Faulkner.--Rebecca Rothbaum
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