Monthly Archives: May 2011

Quelle Surprise! Consumer Confidence Falls on Oil Prices, Housing, Job Outlook

Is the latest consumer confidence release yet another example of elite disconnect? One of the things that has become striking is the degree to which the chattering classes in New York and Washington DC seem utterly unaware of what is happening in the rest of the country. New York City is doing reasonably well based on the heroic efforts by the officialdom to prop up the major capital markets firm; DC is recession immune and more recently awash in lobbying funds. The influences range from visual signals (I had a friend visiting from Boston remark how striking it was that there were so few shuttered storefronts here in NYC) to continued Administration cheerleading (a constant since the 2009 bank stress tests). And since major media stories about the economy are driven by sources in these two cities, it feeds into business reporting.


Philip Pilkington: Economics as morality play – Why commentators and politicians treat economics as a subjective enterprise

By Philip Pilkington. Journalist, writer, economic anti-moralist and aficionado of political theatre

So horrible a fact can hardly pleaded for favour:
Therefore go you, Equity, examine more diligently
The manner of this outrageous robbery:
And as the same by examination shall appear,
Due justice may be done in presence here

Liberality and Prodigality, a popular morality play from 1567

The morality play was a popular theatrical form throughout the Tudor period. In 15th and 16th century Europe people would crowd around small stages where the actors would play at being the personifications of moral attributes. So, for example, one actor would play the part of Virtue – who is speaking in the above quotation – and this actor would then embody all the characteristics we associate with such a moral position. Virtue then hunts out characters such as Prodigality, who is causing trouble in the region by robbing and murdering other ‘good’ characters – in this case, Tenacity.

The idea behind the morality play was that it would impart wisdom to those who watched it. The common people – thought somewhat stupid by the writers – could then follow the simple moral messages purported by the playwright. It was hoped, for example, that if onlookers could see Virtue winning out on the stage against Prodigality, the citizenry would then act more virtuously and be less prodigious and greedy.


Are Fissures in Europe Worse Than Media Reports Suggest?

Thanks to an alert NC reader, we featured in Links more than a month ago the fact that Denmark, contrary to the spirit of the Eurozone, was implementing border controls. Today, a hand-wringing comment by Peter Spiegel, the Financial Times’ bureau chief in Brussels, describes how sentiment against Eurozone integration has risen among the locals. The near-victory of the nationalist True Finns, regime change in Ireland and Portugal, and demonstrations in Spain, Greece, and Portugal suggest that the citizenry is increasingly unhappy. Spiegel describes the Netherlands as “the California of Europe” and describes in some detail how it opposed the recent €440 billion rescue fund, opposed recent efforts to ntegrate the western Balkans into the EU to i, and demanded reform of immigration policies.

Perhaps I am projecting US tendencies onto the EU, but I see the same signs of elite isolation ther as we have here (in the US, it’s a New York-Washington bubble that includes finance, government officials, and major media).


How Durable is Trust in Public Institutions?

A well argued and documented post at VoxEU seems glaringly at odds with recent experience in the US. “How the long-gone Habsburg Empire is still visible in Eastern European bureaucracies today,” by Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessmann looks at the territories formerly occupied by the Habsburg Empire, which had a well run and fairly honest bureaucracy, particularly in contrast to the other major powers that were influential at various points in Eastern Europe (the Ottoman Empire and Imperial Russia). The authors identified five modern countries in which the Habsburgs had once occupied only a portion of their territory. They limited their analysis to populations living within 200 kilometers of the long-ago imperial border.

Their findings:

Our results suggest that the Habsburg Empire is indeed still visible in the cultural norms and interactions of humans with their state institutions today. Comparing individuals left and right of the long-gone Habsburg border, people living in locations that used to be territory of the Habsburg Empire have higher trust in courts and police. These trust differentials also transform into “real” differences in the extent to which bribes have to be paid for these local public services.


Stephanie Kelton: What Happens When the Government Tightens its Belt?

Yves here. This post is certain to annoy some readers. Note that Kelton does not address under what circumstances it is desirable to have the government run a surplus versus a deficit, merely what the implications are. Bill MItchell is rather forceful on this matter:

The US press was awash with claims over the weekend that the US was “living beyond” its “means” and that “will not be viable for a whole lot longer”. One senior US central banker claimed that the way to resolve the sluggish growth was to increase interest rates to ensure people would save. Funny, the same person also wants fiscal policy to contract. Another fiscal contraction expansion zealot. Pity it only kills growth. Another commentator – chose, lazily – to be the mouthpiece for the conservative lobby and wrote a book review that focused on the scary and exploding public debt levels. Apparently, this public debt tells us that the US is living beyond its means. Well, when I look at the data I see around 16 per cent of available labour idle in the US and capacity utilisation rates that are still very low. That tells me that there is a lot of “means” available to be called into production to generate incomes and prosperity. A national government doesn’t really have any “means”. It needs to spend to get hold off the means (production resources). Given the idle labour and low capacity utilisation rates the government in the US is clearly not spending enough. The US is currently living well below its means. But the US government can always buy any “means” that are available for sale in US dollars and if there is insufficient demand for these resources emanating from the non-government sector then the US government can bring those idle “means” into productive use any time it chooses.


Will Greeks Defy Rape and Pillage By Barbarians Bankers? An E-Mail from Athens

Wow, this is what debt slavery looks like on a national level.

The Financial Times reports that a new austerity package is about to be foisted on Greece. It amounts to asset stripping and a serious curtailment of national sovereignity:


Morgenson Runs Peterson Institute Propaganda Against “Entitlements” Meaning Medicare and Social Security

I’m generally a Gretchen Morgenson fan, since she’s one of the few writers with a decent bully pulpit who regularly ferrets out misconduct in the corporate and finance arenas. But when she wanders off her regular terrain, the results are mixed, and her current piece is a prime example. She also sometimes pens articles based on a single source, which creates the risk of serving as a mouthpiece for a particular point of view. And the one she chose to represent tonight is one that is in no need of amplification, that of the Peterson Foundation’s well-funded campaign to gut Social Security and Medicare.


A Better Way to Make Bankers Pay for Crises?

McKinsey once got a study from a major shipping company whose bottom line was suffering because the managers in its ports were keeping too many containers on hand. No one wanted to be short of containers and delay a shipment, so they all made sure to have enough and then some. Containers are a big cost item and management was keen to figure out how to get by with fewer.

Now the team could easily have had great fun building a big model of shipping flows and likely variability and done lots of analysis to figure out what the minimum needed level of containers was and how to have the right decision rules. Instead, the team changed the pay for port managers, so that on the one hand, they’d still be penalized if shipments were delayed, but they would be rewarded for minimizing the number of containers they had. Almost immediately, port managers were sending containers away and complaining if an influx of shipments left them holding a lot. The shipper was quickly able to reduce its stock of containers.

Since the crisis, there has been lots of debate on what to do about incentives in the financial services industry with little in the way of action.


We Speak on BNN About the US Housing Market

This was the weirdest little booth at NASDAQ. The seat was at an off angle to the camera, and I couldn’t sit up straight without bumping my head against the glass behind me, which is curved. So I look a bit whopperjawed and uncomfortable at the top but I think it came out fine in the end.