Monday, 29 November 2010

The Ultimate Retail Business Model in the U.S.

Today’s American Banker had an article titled What YouTube Teaches Banks About Customer Experience.

I do not know what YouTube teaches banks about customer experience. But I know what the iPhone and iPad have taught swindlers – hence the connection between the business and crime.

Apple’s business model is to provide cheap apps to a large number of users; about 250,000 apps to over 10 million users. You pay a few dollars for an app that often performs magnificently. Everyone is happy. You, because you got a good application at a next to nothing price, the vendor, who sold tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of apps, and Apple, which gets a cut from all this. The trick is the low price and large volume – the ultimate retail model.

Imagine now that you are a big company with a large number of customers and you go rouge: you begin to charge them a few dollars each month for no reason. Would anyone complain or notice? And if they did, would anyone have time to spend 45 minutes on the phone with “Mary” in Bangladesh to clear a $2 charge?

Exactly. (And if someone complains, refund their goddam few dollars.) So you get to make tens of millions of dollars a month swindling customers and hoping not to get caught.

How does this model work in practice? Click on the following links for the answer. You don’t have to read the articles. Just glance at the heading or the lead paragraph.

Click 1

Click 2

Click 3

Click 4

These are mere samples. Spend a few minutes goolging “class action lawsuit and telecom” and you will be surprised at the pervasiveness of the fraud.

Now comes the punchline: click here to see why your government has 3 branches and why the Supreme Court exists.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

L'Arrogance: The High-Finance Scent That Never Goes Out of Fashion

By now, unless you've been under one of those proverbial rocks, you've heard about the massive, pending insider-trading charges, a story apparently broken by the Wall Street Journal:
Federal authorities, capping a three-year investigation, are preparing insider-trading charges that could ensnare consultants, investment bankers, hedge-fund and mutual-fund traders and analysts across the nation, according to people familiar with the matter.

The criminal and civil probes, which authorities say could eclipse the impact on the financial industry of any previous such investigation, are examining whether multiple insider-trading rings reaped illegal profits totaling tens of millions of dollars, the people say. Some charges could be brought before year-end, they say.
Admittedly, I'm a guy sometimes entranced by small detail, so I found this bit of the article most curious, an e-mail sent by a John Kinnucan, a principal (or analyst) at a firm called Broadband Research LLC (and former portfolio manager at Crabbe Huson Special Fund, so his high-finance bona fides are legit):
Today two fresh faced eager beavers from the FBI showed up unannounced (obviously) on my doorstep thoroughly convinced that my clients have been trading on copious inside information," the email said. "(They obviously have been recording my cell phone conversations for quite some time, with what motivation I have no idea.) We obviously beg to differ, so have therefore declined the young gentleman's gracious offer to wear a wire and therefore ensnare you in their devious web.
My first reaction was: Wow. You could build a whole psychology class around the tone of this e-mail. If you were enterprising, you could even bottle it into a scent to be sold to financiers.

"Obviously," the first thing you notice is how effortlessly the writer captures a breezy arrogance. There's a strong grace note of condescension, as if a visit from a couple of FBI agents is to be treated with the same disdain as the appearance on one's doorstep of a pair of vacuum cleaner salesmen. A sniggering-up-the-sleeve quality ("ah yes, these bumbling little investigator types!"). Self-importance. High-brow sarcasm. Haughty disdain for the rule of law. Megalomania.

Where have we seen this before?

Oh yeah. Throughout the whole damn financial crisis.

Banks ungrateful for being bailed out (remember it made headlines when a few bailed-out CEOs actually managed to say "Thank you, America," in testimony a good year after the meltdown). Banks riding the Bernanke liquidity wave to enormous profits and, with little sense of irony, declaring themselves master surfers and paying out lavish bonuses for their "skill." Indignant workers at AIG Financial Products who couldn't believe anyone would try to reduce their fat bonuses even though their division cratered the damn company. Lord Blankfein telling us that Goldman Sachs is doing "God's work."

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

An Essay On the Emergence of India

During his recent trip to India, President Obama said that India “it not simply emerging. Indian has emerged”.

I concur in principle. But I am not the president of the United States and my assertions will not be accepted as proof. So, I am writing a short essay to explain my concurrence.

In the simple sentence India has emerged, we have no problem with India. The reference is clear and universally understood. But the “has emerged” part is vague because it is obviously metaphorical; as a large country, India was never hidden or submerged. I must then explain: i) what does emerge mean in the context or, to put it differently, in what sense can a large country “emerge”; and ii) what is the evidence that India in practice has accomplished the task, or fulfilled the requirements, of emerging.

Recall that capital takes social relations as it finds them and then, over time, turns them into capitalistic, i.e., transaction based, relations. The transformation is alternatively heralded as “improvement”, “reform”, “modernization”, “progress” and “development” – all words with positive connotations because the yardsticks of judgment are shaped by, and thus favor, capital-based relations.

Take modern. The word is nothing but a reflection and measure of the extent of the intrusion of capital into social relations, a point that Chaplin noticed and relayed in Modern Times. The more the intrusion, the more modern a society is said to be.

To make this point clearer, look at Cavallini’s 1290 painting, The Last Judgment.




Now compare it with Holbein’s 1533 painting, The Ambassadors.




The span between the two works is a mere 240 years. Cavallini’s work, furthermore, belongs to the Renaissance period which immediately preceded modernity. Yet, a sea change has taken place between the two. The Last Judgment looks “old” to us, with an unmistakable undertone of otherworldliness.

The Ambassadors, by contrast, is contemporary and modern. The two men confidently gazing at us could be models posing for a fashion journal in New York City.

The difference, as I previously remarked, is in the transformation of European society from the feudal to capitalist system. The Ambassadors are surrounded by a collection of valuable, traded commodities with the means of navigation symbolizing overseas trade. To capture all that, Holbein is forced to use the oil medium in the same way that modern advertisers use color picture: to accentuate the colors and fineness of the men’s wealth, including their wardrobe. Their pose and gaze is the pose and gaze of successful men of affairs, something that we see everyday in the business section of newspapers. That is why The Ambassadors looks modern to us.

Emergence has the same genealogy. The more capital-based relations intrude into the social fabric of a country, the more “emerged” it becomes. When even the far away villages are conquered in this way, the country can be said to have fully emerged.

Before taking up the case India, though, let us read this short passage from Vol. 3:
This confusing of moral, legal and financial is a common error among those looking at the appearances only. Here is the economic columnist of the New York Times [Paul Krugman] injecting morality into the subject of default: “Advanced countries – the status to which Argentina aspires – regard default on debt as a moral sin.”

In truth, “advanced countries” hold no such view. In the U.S., corporations use bankruptcy for a variety of strategic and tactical reasons – most commonly when they plan to renege on their pension liabilities. More fundamentally, in the Anglo Saxon jurisprudence, there is no inherently immoral or forbidden concept, of the kind one finds in religion. The foundation of this jurisprudence is the commercial consideration of the early stages of capitalism in England.

The “moral aspects” of default about which columnists and scholars of law are in the habit of sounding off are the indignation of the owners of capital at the prospect of losing their money. Because their views and interests set the social and cultural agenda, this view is gradually codified through casuistry and given a moral and ethical cover – and sold to the public as such.

Default is an incident in finance. Starting from the primitive societies in which “recalcitrant debtors … could be put to death and even hewn in pieces by their creditors or sold as slave beyond the Tiber” we arrive at Shylock at the dawn of capitalism who demands a pound of flesh in lieu of his money. His demand, nota bene, is legal, written into an enforceable contract. More humanitarian imprisoning of delinquent borrowers then follows, a “remedy” still in practice in many societies. As commerce develops, usury is recognized as impediment to business and outlawed. But the usurer continues to exist in the margins of the society, supplying the “weak credit” with funds and using various loopholes of the law to enforce payment.

As financial markets grow in size and sophistication, they take on the subject of default – itself a subset of credit risk – peel its social shell and turn it into a tradable commodity. The process begins with the most receptive and “logical” markets such as corporate bonds, where the relative value of credit and the possibility of default are an integral part of pricing; “cost of default” has long been a staple of this market: “Mr. Goldman [a fixed income strategist] says that a corporate bond’s interest rate spread over the government bond curve is the cost of issuer’s option to default.” Shaming, like jailing and maiming, is still used as a way of reducing defaults.

When I was writing these lines in 2005, microfinancing – lending a few hundred dollars to poor peasants to turn them into successful entrepreneurs – had captured the imagination of social reformers as the practical side of Mother Teresa’s dispensing of love to the poor. Its promoter, Muhammad Yunus, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

I was struck by the shamelessness and the absurdity of the idea. In the Inferno, the sinners’ physical deformities correspond to the kind of sin they have committed. I imagined that had there been a paradise with the same logic of reward, Mother Teresa and Muhammad Yunus would be present there, one with a large bleeding heart, the other with an oversized penis, both overlooking the wretchedness of the earth.

Five years later, the verdict is in, as reported in today’s New York Times:
Initially the work of nonprofit groups, the tiny loans to the poor known as microcredit once seemed a promising path out of poverty for millions. In recent years, foundations, venture capitalists and the World Bank have used India as a petri dish for similar for-profit “social enterprises” that seek to make money while filling a social need. Like-minded industries have sprung up in Africa, Latin America and other parts of Asia.

But microfinance in pursuit of profits has led some microcredit companies around the world to extend loans to poor villagers at exorbitant interest rates and without enough regard for their ability to repay. Some companies have more than doubled their revenues annually.

Now some Indian officials fear that microfinance could become India’s version of the United States’ subprime mortgage debacle, in which the seemingly noble idea of extending home ownership to low-income households threatened to collapse the global banking system because of a reckless, grow-at-any-cost strategy. Responding to public anger over abuses in the microcredit industry — and growing reports of suicides among people unable to pay mounting debts — legislators in the state of Andhra Pradesh last month passed a stringent new law restricting how the companies can lend and collect money.

Government officials in the state say they had little choice but to act, and point to women like Durgamma Dappu, a widowed laborer from this impoverished village who took a loan from a private microfinance company because she wanted to build a house.

She had never had a bank account or earned a regular salary but was given a $200 loan anyway, which she struggled to repay. So she took another from a different company, then another, until she was nearly $2,000 in debt. In September she fled her village, leaving her family little choice but to forfeit her tiny plot of land, and her dreams.

“These institutions are using quite coercive methods to collect,” said V. Vasant Kumar, the state’s minister for rural development. “They aren’t looking at sustainability or ensuring the money is going to income-generating activities. They are just making money.”

Reddy Subrahmanyam, a senior official who helped write the Andhra Pradesh legislation, accuses microfinance companies of making “hyperprofits off the poor,” and said the industry had become no better than the widely despised village loan sharks it was intended to replace.

“The money lender lives in the community,” he said. “At least you can burn down his house. With these companies, it is loot and scoot.”
The last point is crucial. There was always a village usurer. But however hateful he was, he lived in the community and was a part of it. It was inconceivable for him to force a widower to flee the village. He would gain nothing from it.

With the bankers and venture capitalists as usurers – they charge 30% per annum – the indebted widower must flee. There are grand designs for her village.

Has India emerged, then? I must say that it has, in principle. But we have not heard the last of this story yet.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A Footnote to the Post Below

Using footnotes in blogs is awkward. It forces the reader to switch back and forth between the main text and footnote, an extra step that disrupts reading. Hypertext suffers from the same drawback.

In a printed page, the matter is easier, but only if the footnote is at the bottom of the page. With a quick movement of the eyes then, the reader can read the footnote and continue with the main text.

In my books I use footnotes in two ways: to provide the source for a material I quote and to buttress the argument I make in the main body of the text. In the post below, I pointed out that when capital cannot generate profits, it will have no reason to borrow money, even if the money is offered at no cost. Under that condition the focus shifts to cutbacks, including dismantling the plant and equipment.

If I were writing that in a book, I would have footnoted it with the following Financial Times story. Under the heading US banks see demand for business loans drop, the paper reported today:
Bank loan officers say that demand for loans from small US companies fell in the past three months, casting doubt on how much the Federal Reserve can stimulate the economy ...every bank reporting a decline in small business loan demand said that its customers had caught back on their investment in plant or equipment.

There was a decline in loan demand from larger companies as well, with 25 per cent of loan officers saying it had fallen compared with 18 per cent who said that it rose.
Does Bernanke know this? That is the subject of the concluding part of the Time Preference/QE series.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Time Preference, Kim Kardashian, Quantitative Easing, Good Black Swan – 1 of 2

The depth, sophistication and musicality of Persian poetry is unmatched in any other language. Many of the great Iranian poets were believed in their time to have divine inspirations, so perfect is the fusion of form and content in their poems. And then there was the legendary spontaneity. A popular form of entertainment in the court or bazaar alike was throwing 4 impossibly unrelated words at a poet — toe, cow, ocean and Christ, for example — which he then used fil-bedaheh in a 4-line stanza to express an overlooked truth about life. Fil-bedaheh means on the spot, without thinking and contemplation. Such power I think had its roots in the poets’ philosophical and religious world view. If you believed that all things came from God, then all had commonalities, i.e., all were related. It was only the matter of perception of seeing the common link and the skill of putting them into a coherent whole.

The title of this post comes from that tradition, except that there is nothing fil-bedaheh about it. In fact, I made up the title after I had finished the piece, which is not quite the same thing! I, too, am a man of our time, writing in New York of 2010 where, like Ace Greenberg, everyone is looking for a little unfair advantage.

***

There is, in the standard economics theory taught to all freshmen, the notion of “time preference”. According to this conjecture, “people” — that would be all people: men, women and children everywhere — prefer “now” to “then”; they’d rather have $100 now than one year later. So if they wait one year to get the money, they would demand more, say $105, for their sacrifice. That is why interest rate exists! The difference between $100 now and $105 in one year is the 5% annual interest rate.

***

On Wednesay, the Federal Reserve announced phase II of its quantitative easing program (QE2), in which it will buy $600 billion of long-term U.S. government bonds over the next eight months. The idea behind QE2 is to “drive down interest rates and encourage more borrowing and growth”.

***

Gotcha, Ben Shalom Bernanke! Remember your Washington Post article, published just after the announcement of QE2 to soften the critics?
Easier financial conditions [by you pushing the rates lower via QE2] will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment.
Never mind that housing shows no sign of life. What is the story about lower corporate bond rate encouraging investment? You are saying that QE2 will spur growth because it will make money available to businesses now.

But if the rates are lowered, the time preference will be destroyed. That’s what you taught in your Princeton economics course. With zero or very low interest rates, there is no incentive to act now, because the difference between then and now is zero or very little. In that case, why would corporations choose to invest now instead of say, one year from now, huh? What do you have to say to that?

***

I believe in the narrowest interpretation of time preference: that in our mid to late 50s we tend to be more mature than third-graders. I know that it is not a general or inexorable law.

***

Between being hanged today and next year, people would choose next year. That is also true of having a colonoscopy, getting an eviction notice, losing one’s job and life's other unpleasantries. Why, the word procrastination would not exist if people always preferred “now” to “then”. But it does, thus pointing to the hidden hedonistic supposition behind time preference: it exists only in relation with acquiring and consuming pleasurable things. The mindset that conjures up time preference, in other words, is that of a Kim Kardashian or a Paris Hilton. The economists representing that mindset take the idea and dress it up in high language and mathematical notations for respectability. Paul Samuelson, whose name pops up whenever a vacuous idea comes up, was one of the most vulgar, and therefore the most outstanding, representatives of that lot. Look at the title of his paper and then read the drivel in the abstract to see what I mean.

Beyond empty-headed women and mountebanks, what gives rise to the illusion of time preference and helps sustain and institutionalize it is the commodity fetishism of a consumer society. That is why this moon-is-made-of-green-cheese nonsense that a first-grader could refute survives. No less than the “anti-establishment” author of the Black Swan divides black swans to good and bad groups. He calls Viagra a good black swan!

Here is a link to Wikipedia on time preference. Do not limit yourself to that site. Google “time preference” and take a look at some of the results — this one, for example, written by 3 inquiring minds from the nation’s premier institutions of higher learning — to get an idea about the level of scholarship and critical thinking in 21st century America.

***

There is no such thing as time preference in economics. Interest rates do not arise because humans prefer now to then. If that were the case, we would have billions of interest rates, corresponding to the subjective perception of every person on the planet. Quite the opposite: it is precisely because interest rate exists that time has “value”.

Interest is a deduction from profit. It is the share that finance capital claims from the profit of industrial capital. From Vol. 3:
When the rate of return of industrial and commercial capital falls, credit capital must likewise lower its rate. Otherwise, it would have to sit idle, having found no takers. Interest rates could indeed fall to zero and remain there for a long time if commercial or industrial capital cannot generate a profit. Under such conditions, they would have no reason to borrow, as borrowing would only aggravate the loss. In that regard, the Federal Reserve in the U.S. that raises and lowers interest rates to “cool down” or “stimulate” the “economy” merely reacts to market condition rather than shapes it.
These lines were written more than 5 years ago. What are the conditions now?

***

The industrial capital in the West has migrated to the East and South in search of lower labor costs and higher profits. (Capital has migrated, not its owners.)

Alas, the investment opportunities in the East and South cannot accommodate all the mass of ready-to-be-employed capital. So, a portion of capital in the West is left behind, sitting idle with no place to go.

That cannot go on. It cannot be allowed.

***

One way of generating employment opportunities for the idle capital is lowering labor costs in the West. If you are reading this in the Western hemisphere, everything you read in your local newspaper about economics and “politics” revolves around this issue. Cameron, Sarkozy, Papandreou, Zapatero, Cowen, Dombrovskis, even Merkel have no higher priorities. I have written about this issue. See, for example, here and here.

This idleness has a physical manifestation as well, but its most telling sign is the large pile of cash that corporations have amassed on their balance sheet.

Economics-professor-turned-the-Fed-chairman does not understand this process; at best he understands it superficially. He is trying to revive the activities of industrial capital by lowering the rates, fancying that with rates at zero or close to zero, the prospect of even low profit rate like 2% will induce corporations to borrow and invest. But the process is not reversible. Corporations cannot be induced to making investment – no matter how low the interest rates – if their investments would not generate income. That is why they have large spare, i.e., unused, capacity. Bernanke absent-mindedly admits that much when he writes that “low and falling inflation indicate that the economy has considerable spare capacity”. When corporations do not use the money they already have – because they cannot – what would they do with more money?

***

Corporations sitting on a large pile of cash which they cannot invest buy other corporations to benefit from “synergy”. That is the polite word for layoffs – hardly the stuff of economic recovery.

***

If QE2 will not influence investment decisions and economic recovery, what will it do?