Review – Panic: The Betrayal Of Capitalism By Wall Street And Washington

Sadly, Panic: The Betrayal Of Capitalism By Wall Street And Washington does not appear to be in print any longer. Luckily, I found a good used copy on Amazon and will cherish its now-secret message all the more.

As I read through this book several months ago, instead of summarizing my thoughts I just want to record a few key ideas and quotes for later reference.

“The Anti-Entrepreneurs”

In any modern state the government will always be the banks’ biggest client and therefore will always make most of the rules, even if it pretends not to.

The ideologues of modern finance offered to make any fool rich if only he renounced the first obligation of the capitalist, the burden of judgment.

This process of confronting uncertainty and successfully resolving it usually by dint of hard work, diligent analysis, and sound judgment is the only source of what many economists have called “entrepreneurial profit” or sometimes “true profit”.

Underpinning the ideology of modern finance is the notion that the insight, judgment and even diligence of the entrepreneur are irrelevant for investing in public securities markets. These markets, we are told, are special, too powerful and too perfect to allow any entrepreneur’s judgment to matter.

If the ideology of modern finance had a motto, it might be “thinking doesn’t work.”

Capitalism demands free markets because it needs free minds.

The bureaucrat of capital dreams of a world in which failure is impossible.

Crony capitalists on the right and socialists on the left united as always behind their most fundamental belief, that wealth is to be captured by power and pull rather than created in the minds of men.

“New Risks in Old Bottles”

The great mission of modern investment theory is to replace all idiosyncratic risk with systemic risk.

The primary skill for finance, under this theory, becomes diversification, which becomes an advanced statistical methodology for making sure a relatively small number of securities accurately represents a much larger class of securities.

If I know nothing, my need for diversification is infinite.

All investment is reduced to insurance.

Ignorance is the father of panic.

“The Misinformation Economy”

One way to think about panic is as a general, nonspecific response to a poorly understood particular and specific problem.

“To build a perfect model of the universe would require all the matter and energy in the universe, because the only perfect model, the only model that shed no information and made no compromises in order to achieve its object, would be the universe itself.”

The mortgage meltdown can be understood as an instance of model failure.

information is differentiation; information is what comes as a surprise against the background of knowledge already possessed.

If uncertainty and risk are nearly synonyms. then information and risk are nearly opposites.

It is not particularly unusual for all thirty stocks in the Dow to go up and down at the same time; that rarely happened when market participants were interested in the value of individual companies.

“The Reign of Risk”

Modern portfolio theory was a late bloom of the great eighteenth and nineteenth century impulse to explain human society by mechanical or “scientific” principles as regular as those of classical physics.

If economics were about entrepreneurship, it would not look like physics. It would look a little like philosophy. Mostly it would look like literature. [The Lion’s note: if you ascribe to the Austrian school, it does!]

To treat investment as a quantitative exercise relying on the efficiency of markets and advanced mathematics to eliminate the hazards of human judgment. [the ambition of investors under Modern Portfolio Theory]

MPT created a field for which PhDs could be granted and journal articles published. Before MPT, investment theory had been mere reflection upon experience, a wisdom literature dominated by amateurs like Benjamin Graham.

[MPT…] can be deeply attractive to those trying to support capitalist lifestyles with only bureaucratic talents.

The most important question any investor can ask: For what are investors paid? MPT’s answer: For accepting risk.

risk is not the foundation of profit but its most dreaded enemy.

The modern theory conceptually severed financial markets from the rest of the economy. [My note, ” Macro is to Micro as Financial is to Real”]

“The Romance of Risk”

Men and societies become richer precisely as they employ insight, skill and experience, effort and discipline to reduce risk.

Investors are paid for being right, not for the possibility of being wrong.

In life, men who make one good judgment tend to make more good judgments; men who make one bad judgment tend to make more bad ones.

the most important but the most difficult-to-identify ability in business management (or investment) is the ability to judge other men’s ability to judge. [meta-judgment]

“Zoom, Zoom, Zoom”

What modern capital markets do very well is raise large amounts of capital from a broad base of investors who are persuaded to give their money to perfect strangers with precious little idea of what those fortunate recipients are going to do with it. [And, I’d add, little control or legal right to have any say in such decisions; “crowd-sourcing”]

different markets make different trade-offs between liquidity and price discovery one one hand and confidence about value on the other.

Public equity investors demand liquidity in large part because they are unsure about value.

Humor is surprise

It is reasonable to call markets better or worse depending on how much surprise they can absorb before convulsing in dramatic disequilibrium

Lacking a more substantial basis on which to make decisions, financial markets set prices to an astonishing extent by watching– prices!

The most dramatic resolution of this conflict is to eliminate most of the shareholders altogether by taking public companies private

public companies have no owners

Companies, like most assets, do better with strong owners than weak owners.

“Strategic Ambiguity”

When New Dealers tried to set up a banking system immune to panic, their top priority was to remove Mom-and-Pop from their role as bank police.

“Insolvent Immunity”

Here is the quickest way to determine whether you are operating in an honest capitalist system or a corrupt imitation thereof: check the bankruptcy rates.

“Black September”

“Things are somewhat amiss when a country’s finance minister plays bond salesman for a supposedly privately owned company.”

By this time the government had: (a) intimated that deficits in the financial sector were so large and widespread that “anyone could be next” (b) terrified private investors from making investments that might preserve the solvency of deteriorating institutions (c) assumed unprecedented responsibility for investment banks outside the Federal Reserve system and then abandoned that responsibility and (d) made clear that its policy would change on an ad hoc basis. [on the US federal government’s initial response to the financial panic of 2008]

To assume that the buying and selling of shares amounts to managing the firm is the most extreme form of efficient market worship.

“Capitalism Without Capitalists”

The term for someone who rests his economic fate on unknowable future events is not “owner” or even “investor,” but “speculator.”

the government, the biggest player and the weakest owner of all. [criticizing the present ownership of major banks]

Another great review of this book was posted by “CP” at CreditBubbleStocks.com.

And after reading this book, I was inspired to purchase Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit for my library for further study.

 

Who Is YCombinator Trying To Fool With Their New Cities Research Project?

Two friends independently linked me to YCombinator’s “New Cities” blog post and it interested me enough that I thought to write about it in brief. The idea of a new city started “from scratch” excites me as an advocate of the private property society. I have a hard time imagining how my preferred values and ideas for peaceful, voluntary social arrangements will come to be implemented incrementally within the existing coercive institutions we call “city governments”. Starting with a bare plot of land, wholly-owned by one or more sympathetic parties and going from there seems like the only viable option for realizing this ideal and building a working model.

I was excited, then, to see that some well-known and resourceful people in the Silicon Valley VC community seem to be on to the same idea. But then I started reading their short post and I ended up with a lot of questions, the primary one being “What are they really trying to accomplish with this?”

I’m having trouble trusting their motives as sincere because of this: if they’re trying to build new cities, and they think they need to conduct “research” to figure out things like…

  • How can we make and keep housing affordable? This is critical to us; the cost of housing affects everything else in a city.
  • How can we lay out the public and private spaces (and roads) to make a great place to live? Can we figure out better zoning laws?
  • What is the right role for vehicles in a city?  Should we have human-driven cars at all?
  • How can we have affordable high-speed transit to and from other cities?
  • How can we make rules and regulations that are comprehensive while also being easily understandable? Can we fit all rules for the city in 100 pages of text?
  • What effects will the new city have on the surrounding community?

…they could prop open a free copy of Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State, Scholar’s Edition (with Power and Market) and start reading the basic economic theory underlying these questions, with special emphasis on the sections about “The Economics of Violent Intervention in the Market” which specifically deal with the problems they mention which relate to artificial scarcity of housing, zoning laws, street use permitting, mass transit policies and legislative efficiency. All the brainwork has been done for them, there is no need to reinvent the wheel and “discover” these effects independently if only they will consider what Rothbard has to say on the matter.

In fact, anyone who has read such material would immediately look at the “high-level questions” the YC Research project hopes to think through and notice the flawed premises evident in asking them. For example, asking “What should a city optimize for?” implies a city has some kind of monolithic identity and singular purpose, rather than being an unplanned, spontaneous outcome of the individual plans and values of the multitude of people who compose it. In asking the wrong questions, this project is doomed to arrive at arbitrary answers that are worse than wrong– they will be unknowledge which will set people back in believing it to be true and acting on it.

I don’t expect anyone at YCombinator or the research project to take a concern like this seriously, because I don’t believe their stated motivation is authentic. If it was, I would expect them to study the conclusions of 350+ years of economic pondering on these very unoriginal curiosities before proceeding with their experiment, which will never happen.

So my question remains. What are they really trying to accomplish with this? (And their Basic Income research project, which almost seems like expertly engineered trolling for the same reason I question the motivation of this New Cities project.)

 

Gary North Says “NO!” To Hyperinflation

In case you missed his previous missive on the subject, entitled “Which Flation Will Get Us?“, Gary North came out today firmly against the idea of a hyperinflationary experience in the US or any other industrialized country with a privately owned central bank. Instead, North is predicting “mass inflation”, which he defines as 15-30% money supply growth per annum.

North bases his conclusion on four premises:

  1. The central banks control inflation, the central banks are owned by the banks, hyperinflation destroys banks who are borrowed short and lent long
  2. There is too much public awareness of the role the Fed plays in promoting inflation nowadays (primarily thanks to Ron Paul), so they will get blamed if something goes wrong
  3. People have become accustomed to the boom-bust cycle and the pattern of recessions following inflations, so the public will be more tolerant and forgiving of a recession and the “return to normalcy” than the destruction and reset of a hyperinflation
  4. Members of the Federal Reserve System participate in a lucrative employee pension system which primarily holds US stocks (53% of plan assets) and bonds (34% of plan assets), which will be made worthless by a hyperinflation, giving the employees of the Federal Reserve System a vested interest in preserving the system and averting hyperinflation

North calls hyperinflation a “policy choice”. He believes the only thing that could change this outcome would be if the Congress nationalized the Fed. Then, all bets are off.

It’s an interesting prediction. It makes a lot of sense. I am not sure how mass inflation will avoid some of the problematic items mentioned above though (particularly #2 and #4).

If North is right, this should be good for gold and not so good for people invested in stocks as consumer price increases will likely outpace increases in stock prices. Stock prices may even get hurt short-term because of increased commodity prices for many businesses.

UPDATE

Robert Wenzel of EconomicPolicyJournal.com fires back:

So don’t put me in the more unemployment camp or the mild inflation camp,or in the non-hyperinflation camp. Long term there are too many unknowns to be in any camp, especially when you have a machine known as the Fed that can shoot out billions trillions of dollars whenever it chooses. I just watch what the Fed is doing and adjust accordingly on a roughly six month basis. The constant adjustments are no way to live, but are necessary because of the fact that we do have a central bank, the Federal Reserve, that manipulates up and down the money supply. Right now, because of the new money accelerated growth that is occurring,  I anticipate that the climb in price inflation is going to escalate dramatically, where this spike in price inflation will stop, I have no idea. I just take it six months at a time.