Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Economic Forecast: 70% Chance of Zombies

With the return to cheap (but not yet plentiful) credit and the incredible steps taken by central banks the economic forecast is starting to get quite interesting. Things are looking a lot like they did in Japan around 1999 or so. The economic forecast thus calls for a 70% chance of Zombies.

In this context a zombie is a company that is not profitable, is incredibly unlikely to be profitable in the future, and by all rights is dead, but doesn’t know it yet. Sounds like a B movie.

The Japanese economy has been plagued by zombie corporations during the last 10 years. The easy and cheap credit has allowed a remarkable number of companies to survive without making profits contributing to the growth of the economy. These corporations are largely responsible for the so called “lost decade”.

The worst part about zombies, both corporate and movie is their drive to devour brains. These corporations make use of resources and produce things that people don’t choose to pay for. They survive through repeated subsidies from the general populace. In this way, poor decision making, management practice, and inefficiency from the head office to the factory floor is allowed to continue unabated.

The problem is that a market based system is supposed to work somewhat like natural selection. Companies based on bad ideas are supposed to be pushed aside by better ones. The result will be a somewhat chaotic system as people lose their jobs through no fault of their own and have to live through the upheaval of finding new work, maybe even in a different location. The result, is in theory at least, a stronger more vibrant system that is really good at allocating resources to where people would like them to be.

This doesn’t work as well when the economy at large is shrinking. Those workers that lose their jobs through no fault of their own can’t find new jobs. It also doesn’t work too well when there are a lot of zombies roaming around. These zombies prevent new firms growing and needing new workers. Result, no new jobs.

Super cheap credit and government bail outs create a wonderful zombie buffet. Get your cricket bat ready.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Economic Outlook

There is something really interesting going on in the media. There has been an increase in the number of “economic bright spot” stories. This can be thought of as the equivalent to the “r-word” (recession) index often complied by the Economist magazine.

The increase in the number of positively spun stories is a pretty good indicator that the economy has at least reached or is close to the bottom of the trough. This is a good thing. It means we might be able to focus some attention on some of the fundamental flaws in the economy, rather than panicking about the “end of the world”.

This of course doesn’t mean we’re going to return to the unemployment levels and GDP growth we saw in 2006&2007. We’re more likely to see unemployment in the US and Canada stabilization around 7% to 9%. A significant portion of the drop in unemployment rates will be driven by “discouraged” workers. These are the people that give up looking for work as they don’t believe they will find a job to their liking. A decade or more of “zombism” as seen in Japan will likely have significant cultural effects. But that’s an issue for another blog.

The underlying problem of the global economy will have to be address if unemployment and GDP growth rates are to improve in North America. It can be argued that these problems were major contributing factors to the credit crunch and the ensuing panic. There are a couple of major problems that will have to be addressed.

First, the growth in the American standard of living has far out paced the growth rate of productivity. The lack of productivity growth can clearly be seen in incomes outside the financial sector for the last 10 or so years. US median incomes have generally not changed over that period of time. The productivity measures (generally for manufacturing) tell pretty much the same story. The only way standard of living can increase faster than productivity is borrowing. The flood of cheap credit from the Federal Reserve and abroad made this borrowing possible. When the flow of loanable funds becomes unstable, the system collapses.

The second issue is the real cause for concern. North American economies have seen exceptionally low productivity growth for an extended period of time. This is clearly going to limit the sustainable level of GDP growth. It may be that North American economies have improved productivity as far as they can given current technology. This would indicate low future growth. It might also explain why the average income in the US has been stagnant. The average likely reflects (to a greater degree than the extremes) the overall productivity growth of an economy.

Overall, it looks like we’ve fallen as close to as far as we’re going to for now, but that doesn’t we’re going to return to the growth rates we saw in 2006/2007. We’re likely to be limping for a while yet.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Commitment Not to Learn

It’s really starting to feel like the Americans want another depression. I’m not talking about a small fringe group hoping for the opportunity to bring down “the evil capitalist system, man”. Or at least I hope I’m not. I’m talking about the political leadership, up to and including the president. I just hope some better thinkers prevail.

Here’s what I’m talking about. An asset price bubble burst in 1929. In 1930 the US passed a law that most economists (not only now but at the time) believe made a significant recession into a depression. It’s generally known as the Smoot-Holly Act. This act erected significant tariff barriers around US markets. Virtually all countries, including Canada, responded in kind. The result was a massive drop in world trade, causing massive drops in employment, and finally incomes. Thus began the Depression.

Now, almost 80 years later, the world is facing the bursting of another asset price bubble and an American economy well into a recession. This time the stupidity started with the so called Buy American clauses in the stimulus package. Next came the reneging on the agreement to allow Mexican trucks to operate in the US (the Mexicans responded with strategically placed tariffs on US produced goods). The most recent step on the slippery slope is the extra red tape and labeling laws imposed on Canadian meat by the US. And this is only the American goofiness. The Europeans are at it too.

Here are a couple of simple examples of where the idea of protectionism really falls short. A lot of people who argue in favour of protectionism also cite end of Apartheid as one of the great successes of the UN. The end of apartheid was caused, in large part, by the economic sanctions enacted by the UN. The elimination of trade with the rest of the world forced the end of a political system that other countries found objectionable.

The other extreme example of what happens when foreign interaction is limited is North Korea. North Korea has been largely cut off from international trade for a long time. North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world right now. It’s really hard to believe that international trade is bad for economies when you consider those haven’t had any.

In short trade creates wealth. A lack of trade creates poverty. It’s pretty clear unless you have a ideological commitment not to learn.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Protesting Success

I figure I need to write something about the G20 summit in Britain this past week. One cannot listen to news coverage of such a gathering without hearing about the protests that occur at the same time. These protests have generally intrigued me. As you may have guessed, I generally fall on the side of mixed market capitalism as the way to prosperity.

There seems to have been a change in either the way the protests are being conducted, the way in which they’re being policed, or both. There has been a dramatic drop in the violence and destruction associated with these protests. The worst we heard out of the London summit was a few bank windows being smashed. This is pretty minor compared to Genoa in 2001. The estimated number of protesters (always unreliable) has also been falling. This could also be a change in the organization, policing, or both. It could also be there is less to protest about.

The oft cited statistic of those protesting “capitalism” is concerns the unequal distribution of wealth. True enough, those at the extreme upper end of the wealth distribution had done extremely well over the last 20 years, with the gap between the filthy stinking rich and those of us claiming to be middle class growing. There has been an increase in relative poverty. The gap between rich and not so rich in the developed world has grown. There’s no point in debating this, it’s a fact of the data. But a part of me (remembering what my mother always said) wonders why I should care if other people have more, so long as I have what I need (want)?

There is another, more important, statistic. This concerns absolute poverty. Absolute poverty is the number of people for whom simple survival from one day to the next is in doubt. A commonly agreed on definition (at least agreed on by researchers) is trying to live on less than about two dollars (nominal US funds at PPP) a day. This number has been falling pretty steadily. Whole countries are suddenly developing middle classes, where virtually none existed before. This is pretty exciting stuff for an economist. This strange idea called capitalism was actually creating and distributing wealth in a pretty neat way.

Many point to our current troubles as grounds of abandoning capitalism. It’s clear that the previous incarnation of the system had big flaws. We should be, and many are, working to fix them in an intelligent way. But giving up on the only system that has consistently produced wealth for such a large number of people? Ask the newly middle class in Brazil, China, and India if they think this is a good idea.

Next time I’ll try and tackle why of the current talk about protectionism worries me.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Where Have All The Young Men Gone?

There are a number of interesting stats floating around about universities lately. A lot of these have to do with the demographics of various regions and enrollment projections. The demographic cohort from which university students have traditionally been drawn is shrinking. Given that the majority of a university’s expenditures are based on personnel on long term contracts any drop in revenues will have significant budgetary impacts, particularly if universities aren’t allowed to run deficits.

There have also been a lot of different stats about the current make up of student bodies floating around. These stats started to catch my interest. There’s something really interesting going on in our educational institutions that nobody is talking about. According to the CAUT Almanac only 41.9% of the 692, 374 undergraduate (FTE) students are male. The Canadian population from ages 18 to 24, the age bracket from which most university students are drawn, is 51.17% male. There are 3,141,406 people in this age group. So what are the odds that the university proportion is a random sample of the broader population? Effectively zero. The test statistic doesn’t even appear on standard tables. In fact it’s way off the charts.

So what does this tell us? In the most neutral possible terms, university population is not a random sample of the broader population in terms of sex. Or less neutrally, but equally accurate, something happens in the selection of the university population that favours females. I’m left wondering what that something is, or as Pete Seger put it, where have all the young men gone?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

That Huge Sucking Sound

If you’re on a university campus and listen carefully, you can hear a sucking sound. It sounds kind of like an industrial toilet flushing. That sound is the sound of hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent. This spending does nothing to increase the quality or quality of a university’s “output”, research and education.

Don’t get me wrong, universities will never be cheap to run. This is particularly true if the quality of education experienced by students is a concern. It gets even worse if academics actually have outside options. Education requires intensive personal interaction once one passes beyond the basics. If a low student/faculty ratio is required there is no way universities are going to be cheap.

There are a number of things that are making universities much more expensive than they need to be. There is a lot of money being spent on personnel who do little or nothing to support either of a university’s true functions, teaching and research. Moreover, the salaries these people receive are increasing. Consider this story in the national post. More and more university dollars are being spent on administration. This article doesn’t even consider all the other forms of “administration” taking place at university. I’m talking about all the PR, HR, and whatnot.

It is not a question of whether or not it is happening, the real question is why. I’ll suggest a few – feel free to contribute your own.

The first and most simple reason is the “Peter Principle”. This is the idea that it is the incompetent who get promoted. Who is likely to pursue administrative positions with the most vigor? If you are really interested in your research or running classes, you are unlikely to campaign for extra time in administration. Put a slightly less cynical way, if a group is truly interested in instruction and research, optimal allocation of administrative duties is to the individual with the lowest output in these areas. If this is correct, those with the least understanding of what drives research and education end up as the ones making the “strategic” decisions for the institution.

Another possibility is those who pursue and succeed in administration are those who are driven by a need to climb. These are the individuals in every organization that seek power, be it the title of CEO or the membership on the church council. These people might also have become the top researchers or instructors in their field. One of the measures of power in any bureaucracy is the number of people under you in the org chart. Thus, to improve one’s position, one needs more underlings. We then observe an increase in the number of people at a university that do not teach or perform research. We also see an increase in the number of retreats, strategic planning exercises, and whatnot. Such activities are a method of proving the usefulness of administrators. These also cost a lot of money. For a classic telling of the tale consider Yes Minister’s “The Compassionate Society Episode”.

There has also been a “professionalization” of university administrators. No longer is the university president a professor who sets aside their regular duties for a period of time for the greater good of the institution. At one time administration could have been seen as a noble sacrifice. Administration is now seen by many as being a separate career path. A career path that is clearly better paid than the being a standard faculty member. We further see evidence of this with the rise of university administration referring to itself as management or *shudder* executive management. The last link in the logic chain is that executives need executive pay.

These are just a few possible explanations. There are a lot of others, many of which are not as hard on administration as I’m being here. I don’t admire most administrators their jobs. Dealing with large numbers of academics is like trying to herd arrogant cats (more arrogant than normal that is). Maybe I’m jealous of the pay. Still, I hear a sucking sound.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mr. Hatfield meet Mr. Obama?

The US administration seems to be about to make some of the same mistakes every Tin Pot Dictator, seems to make. By this I mean trying to control major industries directly. The Obama administration has just “ordered” the resignation of GM’s CEO. While I’m not a supporter of auto industry bailouts, this is very dangerous.

There’s a very simple reason for my views. Governments have done a piss poor job of running automakers. Consider the Lada, the disaster forced on Soviet consumers who had the patience to wait for one. Strike one for government controlled auto makers. I know the US isn’t the Soviet Union and Obama isn’t running the Kremlin, I have a couple of other examples.

Next up, the Yugo! Any child of the 80’s can remember that running joke made in communist Yugoslavia. Yugo was launched in the US in 1985 to huge consumer demand. 1500 cars were delivered, but initial orders were for roughly 5 times that amount. Yet but 1989, Yugo America was bankrupt and no cars were imported to the US. Strike two. The remarkable about the introduction of the Yugo to the US, is the link between this and my next grotesque failure.

My last example for today will be familiar to fans for flawed sports cars and Maritime government screw-ups. I’m referring to the New Brunswick manufactured Bricklin, named after Malcolm Bricklin, the same man that brought the Yugo to the US market. This plan to government back auto manufacture in NB was the brain child of Mr. Richard Hatfield. While many still love the Bricklin (a nifty looking sports car with some neat safety features) it was a total failure in sales. The company went into receivership owing the NB government about $23 million dollars. Again a government tried directly invest in an automaker and failed miserably. Strike three.

There are some success stories, of automakers receiving help from governments. Chrysler received help from the US in 1980. Some of the Asian automakers have received a variety of supports from their respective governments. To the best of my knowledge none of them have looked like this.

My suggestion for Mr. Obama is to either prop up GM and keep your mitts off or to let it fail. Direct intervention of this sort isn’t likely to end well for GM or the US.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Side Effect of the Downturn

Pretty much everyone knows the main effects of a recession, incomes fall and unemployment rises. This isn’t surprising as it is part of the definition of a recession.

What is less obvious is that enrollment in post secondary education rises in recession. This is particularly true of post graduate studies. Enrollment in graduate programs decreases when the economy is doing well and rises when the economy hits bad times. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is pretty basic. Grad school is a pretty comfortable way to withdraw from the labour force for a time. You aren’t expected to be looking for a job or maintaining a particularly high standard of living. To top it all off, most of your time is unstructured.

The second reason is a little more positive. While you’re hiding from a nasty labour market you might actually be developing skills that will increase your chance of getting a decent job at a decent wage. You’re making an investment in human capital at a time when the cost (in terms of foregone wages) is low.

This will reinforce a trend in labour markets for some time, credential creep. The minimum requirement educational requirement for a number of different jobs has been increasing over time. Think of the number of jobs that now require a minimum of an undergraduate degree that were being done by someone with a high school diploma 20 years ago.

This trend has already been reinforced by the accrediting institutions in North America. Look at the number of MBA programs that have sprung up at virtually every university campus. Most offer nothing more than a watered down BBA degree. The “economics” taught is generally laughable – a standard intro course is more demanding. This would be fine and add value to society if those taking the programs had no background in business. Remember the original intent of an MBA program was to train engineers and other tech-heads some basic management skills. The problem most of the people in these MBA’s already have a business degree. Result, employers ask for an MBA, not because they expect that any real skills are developed there, but as a way of limiting the number of applications.

The trend isn’t limited to the private sector. There are now a remarkable number of PhD’s working in various government departments. In some cases this makes sense. Government needs people who are capable of keeping up with the developments in various academic disciplines as the findings might apply to policy. I’m not sure how many PhD’s are needed in this capacity how ever? Do you need a PhD to read and get the thrust of a journal article?

What I am sure of is that we’re going to see an increase in post secondary enrollments over the next few years. Universities and colleges will be working exceptionally hard to “accommodate” the extra revenue sources, I mean students. As the number of people with graduate degrees grows, employers will exhibit a stronger preference for those with graduate degrees.

Punch Line: after the current problems are over, the relative value of high school diplomas and undergraduate degrees will be even lower.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Of Crisis and Hypocrisy

There are a number of causes for worry right now. The world’s output is slowing and many places even shrinking. Unemployment is rising. A number of places in Africa seem to be retreating into anarchy (not the friendly kind supported by skinny teens in t-shirts either). Afghanistan is not a lot nearer to peace. Nobody’s sure what Iran is going to pull next, and so many more problems. The one good thing about serious problems is they reveal serious double standards, dogmatism, and other forms of general foolishness.

My current example comes from two articles in the most recent edition of Economist magazine. The first, Taking From The Givers, presents worrying examples discrimination. There is legislation being proposed that would limit tax deductions on charitable giving by some people. I don’t object to this too much. I’ve always felt that if you’re going to give, do so and be done with it. What I object to is treating different people differently. The more worrying issue for is the proposal that charitable organizations must exhibit sufficient “diversity” in their employees (and potentially their recipients) to maintain their charitable status. There are even hints, it is claimed, of quotas for certain groups. These groups would include the usual beneficiaries of such programs. Specifically included are likely to be women, African Americans, and Latinos. Hiring on the basis of reproductive organs, skin colour, or ethnicity is bigotry. Those on the left of the political spectrum have always had a penchant for this particular flavour of bigotry, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

What makes this really revealing is a later piece in the same edition, Don’t Keep On Trucking. This piece documents the proposed termination of a program in the US to allow Mexican registered trucks to haul freight in the US. Canadian trucks already operate in the US. Such openness is specifically required under NAFTA, but anybody who’s heard of softwood lumber knows the US doesn’t always choose to honour its treaties. This action will be damaging to the Latino truckers who were operating in the US and dramatically reduce trade between the two countries. Punch line: fewer jobs for Latinos south of the US/Mexico border and hopefully more jobs for American Teamsters (a group that isn’t noted for its ethnic diversity).

It’s the same political party, the same people in power, undertaking both actions. The hypocrisy is so plain. American firms and organizations must experience higher costs, lower productivity, and higher taxes to support Latino workers. This will transfer wealth to Latinos. On the other hand, American firms and workers must protected from productive Latino workers. Wealth must not be transferred to Latinos. Ummm. I’m confused.

I guess the one commonality of both policies is a reduction in value for money received by people who pay for both services. Maybe that’s the core ideal to which the current rulers of American adhere.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Million Eggs and One Basket: Omelet Anyone?

In my earlier post I presented the upside of the Sask government’s attempts to manage the price of potash and utilize the resulting revenues for 20% of the provincial government’s revenue in the coming year. If it works as expected, this will likely be a significant turning point in the province’s economic development. Unfortunately, things don’t always work as expected.

As I said elsewhere, this is a gamble. There are several reasons why the people of Saskatchewan may not win this gamble. I’ll try and present a few of them.

First, the consumers of potash generally rely on credit to finance their purchases. The current state of credit markets makes demand uncertain at best. This problem will, hopefully, only be temporary. The current provincial government has actually acknowledged this and is banking credit markets returning to “normal” by the fall.

The second major risk is linked to the exchange rate. Like most commodities potash is generally priced in US dollars. This means a low value of the exchange rate is beneficial to the Saskatchewan government. The lower the exchange rate, the more Canadian dollars potash will generate. Even if the world price of potash remains unchanged a rise in the US/CAD exchange rate will mean missing the target CAD price. It seems likely the Canadian dollar will rise in value over the next year as the Fed continues quantitative easing. This is a significant risk in my opinion.

The remaining risks relate to a simple fact. Potash is not an essential input into the farming process every season. Farmers can often defer application to another season or year. This provides a number of ways in which the revenue targets may not be met. First and foremost, the price maintenance may be too successful. By keeping the price high potash when the ability to pay for the output of farmers is low, farmers may reduce costs to meet their own revenue targets. Farmers could reduce applications or not apply at all. So the price prediction may be accurate, but the quantity prediction may not be.

Weather may also play an important factor. If the spring or fall are atypically wet, farmers may not be able to get on the fields, meaning application cannot take place, meaning low demand for potash. Again, the price may be maintained at the expense of quantity.

There is also the possibility that processors of potash, particularly in China, are sitting on large inventories of both raw material and finished product. This would mean they would be able to defer major purchases of the raw material in hopes of a lower price in the future.

The quantity issue is likely to be a short run phenomenon only. The increase in yields with application is too great to allow farmers to avoid purchases indefinitely. The drop in demand will mean difficulty in meeting budget targets and will likely have very large short run political implications. It could work in essentially the same manner as a strike, with each side attempting to “starve” the other into submission.

Putting all of your eggs in one basket is a gamble. Losing this gamble will require the current government to either; cut spending, increase taxes, or run a deficit. All three options have political implications for the party in power and more importantly implications for the people of Saskatchewan. None of the implications are positive and I don’t think potash omelets are likely to be popular. Cross your fingers.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

One Egg, One Basket

The Saskatchewan Party has just released it’s provincial budget. There weren’t a lot of surprises, some spending, some tax cuts, nothing too exciting until you look at the revenue projections. Then something really interesting jumps to the fore.

The provincial budget is relying on the production and sale of potash for approximately 20% of revenues. One dollar in five will come from the production of fertilizer! This really is putting all your eggs in one basket. Normally, I wouldn’t be too surprised by governments producing a lot of fertilizer, but this is a little different. So I did a little bit of digging and talking to a few different folks. Some interesting facts are starting to come to light.

The crown corporation in question controls a significant portion of the market. In fact, it may even have more market power than OPEC (one guess put their market share at around 40%, though the best somewhat official data I could find puts them at about 22% of the market at the end of 2007). The current government seems to have decided to engage in price management, reducing production to stabilize the commodity's price. It seems the fiscal health of the province is going to depend on how successful Potash Corp is in this objective.

There are a lot of implications of this strategy, and many don’t relate directly to Saskatchewan.

First, potash is a critical component of most farming around the world, particularly for things like wheat. The attempts to manage the global price of potash will have a couple of interesting effects on the price of food. First, the projected price for potash in the Sask budget is about $1100. This is significantly higher than historical values, which means higher prices for food. This is particularly important as food demand seems to be growing faster than supply. Price management, if successful, will also stabilize potash prices. This will mean a lot less risk for farmers around the world, and may help to stabilize food prices. Higher but more stable food prices are, on balance, a good thing.

There is something else interesting to note. It’s kind of obvious once you consider the impact on food prices. There will be a “knock on” effect for the province of Saskatchewan. What is the province famous for producing? Food! If the price of wheat rises and stays high, the province’s farmers will be able to reap higher economic rents. These rents take the form of profits from the relatively productive farm land. This profit can then potentially be taxed.

This type of vertical integration thinking reminds me of the economy in another province, but that's for another post.

If the current government has thought the logic through this far, I’m impressed. These guys might just be the type we want running the country. If they haven’t thought it through this far, well, even your typical politician can’t screw up all the time.

Of course the whole thing won’t work. Why and how, is for another yet post.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wide Open Skies

For anybody who picks up reading this blog again and isn’t totally involved in my life (don’t think there are many) my situation has totally changed.

Since I last posted, I’ve left New Brunswick and taken up a new academic position in *Gasp* Western Canada. Yes indeed, I’ve gone down the road. I’m now one of those carpet bagging Easterners, etc.

The move was finally motivated by some of the proposed changes in New Brunswick’s post secondary education system. The continuing cuts, lack of direction, excessive administration, increasing administrative demands on my time, and general hopelessness was getting to me. Then comes the serious threat of turning the university I was at into a polytech and it was time for me to get the hell out of Dodge (if you’ll forgive the metaphor – at least at Dodge you could shoot back).

So now we (my partner and I) are enduring the joys of a prairie winter. At least we see the sun on a regular basis and it doesn’t snow 3 feet at a time. In all fairness, the move has been generally good for both of us. The work environment I’m in isn’t total dysfunctional (or at least I haven’t found all the dysfunction so I can maintain the delusion) and my better half has been able to tele-commute to a job she really likes, so that side’s pretty good.

We’ve also met some great folks, including a few folks from back east, so socially we’re getting settled. More importantly I’ve found regular ice time. On the other hand there’s no senior full contact football.

I guess the real point of this post is to say

1) I’ll be back – I’ve got the bug again

2) There are goods and bads about every place. I’m trying to enjoy the memories of where I was and the benefits of where I am.

Maybe the second point shouldn’t just apply to geography, but time as well.