EC101: Links for 20th June, 2019

  1. “One needs to be cautious in these type of businesses trading at higher multiples as slip in any one of the parameters – decline in sales and profit growth, build up of debt, deterioration in working capital, capital misallocation – wrong acquisitions and expansions will lead to derating of the stock quickly. The company has shown no signs of these as of now and investors need to keep a close look at these.”
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    A vastly under-rated skill among economics students. The theory of (and in this case also the application of) reading a balance sheet. Read this article to get a sense of how to read one – and in an ideal world, try to write a similar article about a firm of your choice.
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  2. “In other words, to quote Simon, “so long as the rate of interest remains constant, an advance in technology can only produce a rising level of real wages. The only route through which technological advance could lower real wages would be by increasing the capital coefficient (the added cost being compensated by a larger decline in the labor coefficient), thereby creating a scarcity of capital and pushing interest rates sharply upward.” In other words, the price of capital would have to rise by more than the price of consumption.”
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    Under what circumstances will advances in technology cause the real wage rate to go down? The vastly under-rated Herbert Simon provided an answer to this question way back when – read this article to find out its rediscovery.
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  3. “Now that the crisis is in the rearview mirror and the current expansion is nearing the longest on record, is it possible to go back to having a balance sheet as small as in 2007? The answer is no. The amount of currency in circulation has grown so much that it is not possible to shrink the balance sheet to its earlier size. This is good news because it reflects a growing economy. The larger balance sheet also reflects banks wanting to hold more reserves at the Fed. Banks partly hold these highly liquid and essentially risk-free assets to meet new liquidity regulations designed to improve the resilience of the overall financial system.”
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    A short, but useful essay about the huge expansion to the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, and why it is unlikely to shrink anytime soon. A useful read for students of monetary economics.
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  4. “The correlation phrase has become so common and so irritating that a minor backlash has now ensued against the rhetoric if not the concept. No, correlation does not imply causation, but it sure as hell provides a hint. Does email make a man depressed? Does sadness make a man send email? Or is something else again to blame for both? A correlation can’t tell one from the other; in that sense it’s inadequate. Still, if it can frame the question, then our observation sets us down the path toward thinking through the workings of reality, so we might learn new ways to tweak them. It helps us go from seeing things to changing them.”
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    The phrase is burned onto my brain, as it is for everybody else who ever attended a statistics class. “Correlation is not causation” Sure, it isn’t – but this article warns us against the over-use of this phrase, and how it might have ended up making us not think deeper.
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  5. “The Baumol effect reminds us that all prices are relative prices. An implication is that over time prices have very little connection to affordability. If the price of the same can of soup is higher at Wegmans than at Walmart we understand that soup is more affordable at Walmart. But if the price of the same can of soup is higher today than in the past it doesn’t imply that soup was more affordable in the past, even if we have done all the right corrections for inflation.”
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    A short, but very readable interpretation of the Baumol effect – and as this excerpt makes clear, also a great reminder of the fact that all prices, everywhere and always, are relative.

Links for 30th May, 2019

  1. “While England are the clear favourites, the rest of the field is pretty even. Any team can beat any other on its day. India have their best-ever bowling attack in a World Cup, and Virat Kohli is the greatest batsman ever in this form of the game – but I am worried about their chances of winning it. The reason for that is strategic understanding. Kohli’s captaincy can be dubious at times in the shorter forms of the game, and he would consistently underestimate par scores while playing for his franchise in the IPL. The team has the talent to win – but does it have the approach?”
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    Amit Varma on how T20 changed the approach to ODI cricket, among other things. As always, worth reading.
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  2. “The result is the same – looking at all-time data, games where the team batting first scored between 200 and 250 are the most interesting. While games in this range remain interesting even after the 2015 World Cup, we find that games in the 250-300 range are on average more interesting, with interestingness sharply dropping off after 300.”
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    Karthik S. disagrees with Amit Varma’s article above – which is kind of the point of being a cricket fan. And that point, of course, spills over into other domains as well!
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  3. “The Louvre pyramid also highlights Pei’s tendency to recycle his own ideas. This practice is no disgrace if an abandoned original of merit is ultimately realized or improved with further development. Frank Lloyd Wright often dusted off plans for buildings that were sidelined for one reason or another and sometimes recycled them successfully. Pei’s first attempt to realize a monumental sloping glass structure was his initial 1966 proposal for the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, for a site next to the Harvard campus in Cambridge.”
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    I know next to nothing about architecture (if that!), but I enjoyed reading this article about IM Pei. Tangentially, this also reminded me of A. R. Rehman and his decision to reuse some tracks for Slumdog Millionaire. The parallels are hard to miss – and therein lies a useful lesson.
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  4. “Given that robots can move through space in uniquely nonhuman ways, they wouldn’t necessarily be subject to boundaries between private and public spaces that constrain delivery people, allowing them to move goods in and out of homes in a constant flow. Amazon already has its “smart” lock system allow human carriers to enter a home briefly to drop off packages, and Wal-Mart is testing a similar system that lets its workers deliver groceries to a home’s refrigerator. But fully automated robots could travel deeper into homes without compromising privacy. You wouldn’t need to get dressed to greet a robot, if you noticed its arrival at all. It might unobtrusively enter and leave through an opening the size of a pet door.”
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    What all can robots do? The paragraph above, in particular, was striking to me. Here’s why: I thought of the problem in this way – what can robots change in the way homes are run? The excerpt forced me to think the other way around: how do homes need to change to best utilize robots? Again, a useful lesson! Both links above (3 and 4) are thanks to The Browser. I subscribe to it, and so far, I am not regretting it at all.
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  5. “China took the first shots, and they took them a long time ago. For over a decade U.S. services companies have been unilaterally shut out of the China market, even as Chinese alternatives had full reign, running on servers built with U.S. components (and likely using U.S. intellectual property).
    To be sure, China’s motivation was not necessarily protectionism, at least in the economic sense: what mattered most to the country’s ruling Communist Party was control of the flow of information. At the same time, from a narrow economic perspective, the truth is that China has been limiting the economic upside of U.S. companies far longer than the U.S. has tried to limit China’s.”
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    The USA hasn’t started the trade war with China under President Trump, it has responded to China’s “shots across the bows”. Please read the entire article, it is an important one.

Links for 7th May, 2019

  1. “Cyclone Fani slammed into Odisha on Friday morning with the force of a major hurricane, packing 120 mile per hour winds. Trees were ripped from the ground and many coastal shacks smashed. It could have been catastrophic.

    But as of early Saturday, mass casualties seemed to have been averted. While the full extent of the destruction remained unclear, only a few deaths had been reported, in what appeared to be an early-warning success story.”
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    A short read from the NYT about how Odisha was rather more prepared this time around for Cyclone Fani. Makes for encouraging, happy reading!
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  2. “Perhaps the earth has life because it came from other solar systems, seeded by alien probes, and indeed that is what I would do if I were a very wealthy alien philanthropist. If you end up with 100 successfully seeded solar systems for each very advanced civilization, the resulting odds suggest that we are indeed the result of a seed.That’s partly why, to this observer, the most likely resolution of the Fermi paradox is this: The aliens have indeed arrived, through panspermia — and we are they.”
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    An equally short, equally interesting take on aliens and the Fermi paradox from Tyler Cowen.
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  3. “We Are Pro-Technology, but only as a means, not an end. Technology is only as good as our understanding of it, and an incremental approach will save more lives in the near and long term while mitigating the second order consequences of an all-or-nothing approach.”
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    I was sent this by Aadisht Khanna, and while I do not necessarily agree with all of it, it does raise some fairly interesting points – and the manifesto itself is certainly food for thought.
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  4. “This looks quite tough, and there’s a significant chance the company will be valued at less than the debt itself, even if there was a buyer. After all if a buyer is paying that much money, why doesn’t he just start a new airline (or acquire a significant stake in an existing airline) and take over whatever slots, planes and rights Jet had? That’s likely to be much cheaper.”
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    Deepak Shenoy ponders the question of Jet Airways unusually high share price, and is unable to resolve the paradox.
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  5. “Without going too far down this rabbit hole, the following is worth noting: What sport psychologists, coaches, parents and players are prescribing as a model of mental toughness is equally likely to be the success-producing traits of highly successful and highly functional psychopaths. I have worked with a few psychopaths. I’ve seen the so-called attributes of mental toughness in them, which help deliver results on the field. I have seen how fans, friends and the media adore these people. But I have also seen what it looks like when their mental toughness is unmasked as psychopathic behaviour. They come across as being narcissistic and entirely self-serving, compulsive (and clever) liars, manipulators without any remorse and an inability to take responsibility for their errors. These are not qualities we should encourage as general conditions for performance.”
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    A fascinating article in Cricinfo about mental toughness, and how it doesn’t really exist – at least, not the way you think it does.

Links for 2nd May, 2019

  1. “I think that most capitalists don’t know how to divide the economic pie well and most socialists don’t know how to grow it well, yet we are now at a juncture in which either a) people of different ideological inclinations will work together to skillfully re-engineer the system so that the pie is both divided and grown well or b) we will have great conflict and some form of revolution that will hurt most everyone and will shrink the pie.”
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    Written from an America centric viewpoint, but the article is worth reading for the wealth of data it shares, as also for the viewpoint about the need to reform capitalism.
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  2. “The solution, Wishnatzki believes, is to make a robot that can pick strawberries. He and a business partner, Bob Pitzer, have been developing one for the past six years. With the latest iteration of their invention—known around the farm as Berry 5.1—they are getting close.”
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    Strawberry fields forever. The article is worth reading because it speaks about robots, unemployment, demographics, immigration and the inevitability of agriculture becoming ever more mechanized.
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  3. “He also had a warning to anyone who assumes it will be “business as usual” once America’s Trump fever breaks. The idea that the Trump presidency is some sort of accident, he says, is a fantasy.”
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    An interview with the outgoing French ambassador to America. Worth reading on trade, Israel, Iran and much else besides.
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  4. “The Scrabble career of Nigel Richards went from great to astounding this week, after he won the French-language Scrabble World Championships. A New Zealand native, Richards has won several English-language titles; his new victory follows weeks of studying a French dictionary.”He doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words,” his friend (and former president of the New Zealand Scrabble Association) Liz Fagerlund tells the New Zealand Herald. “He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn’t think.”
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    Oddly depressing, for multiple reasons. Takes the romance out of Scrabble, for one, but also points to the inevitability of automation.
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  5. “What’s woefully underexplored by economists is what the prevalence of caste implies to the Indian economy. A basic premise of the free market model is the absence of entry barriers—not just for firms keen to enter markets for goods and services, but also for people pursuing career options. In theory, companies that are under the pressure of competition to perform would want to hire workers in a way that maximizes the productivity of their workforce; a caste bias would probably stymie the cause of corporate efficiency. None of it may be overtly or even consciously done, but the effects of such a tendency could add up. Caste, thus, would result in an inefficient allocation of human resources across the economy. ”
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    Worth reading if you are starting to learn economics, and aren’t quite sure what competition and barriers to entry mean – but also if you are a student of India today.

Links for 25th April, 2019

  1. “Singapore appreciates the relative strengths and limits of the public and private sectors in health. Often in the United States, we think that one or the other can do it all. That’s not necessarily the case.”
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    It is always a good idea to learn about Singapore’s healthcare system, and this Upshot column from the NYT helps in that regard. Each of the links are also worth reading. If you spend time reading through the article and all the links therein, you might be a while, but it is, I would say, worth it.
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  2. “With Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, he collected evidence on happiness that remains my benchmark for social scientists’ ability to shed light on wellbeing. Prof Kahneman once warned me that expert advice can go only so far. Much happiness and sadness is genetically determined: “We shouldn’t expect a depressive person to suddenly become extroverted and leaping with joy.” Those words are much on my mind this week.”
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    Tim Harford remembers Alan Kreuger, and helps us understand a lot about the man, his work, happiness and much else in the process. Entirely worth reading.
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  3. “The Captain Swing riots are thus one more example, an especially vivid one, that new technologies which cause a lot of people to lose a way of earning income can be highly disruptive. The authors write: “The results suggest that in one of the most dramatic cases of labor unrest in recent history, labor-saving technology played a key role. While the past may not be an accurate guide to future upheavals, evidence from the days of Captain Swing serve as a reminder of how disruptive new, labor-saving technologies can be in economic, social and political terms.”
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    One, because reading something you hadn’t read before is always interesting. Two, because unemployment because of automation isn’t new. Three, makes for very relevant reading today (in multiple ways: automation itself, but also untangling causality.)
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  4. “He says he was inspired by the depth of the nun’s commitment to India’s least fortunate—but he was unwilling to emulate her approach, and not simply because of its material sacrifices. Although Shetty often performed free surgeries for the poorest of the poor, he reasoned that the only way to sustainably serve large numbers of people in need was to make it a business. “What Mother Teresa did was not scalable,” he says—perhaps the first time venture capital jargon has been applied to the work of the Angel of Calcutta.”
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    Interested in healthcare, or economics, or both? A lovely read, in that case. Also a good explainer of the challenges in front of Modicare.
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  5. “The argument in favour of having Tribunals is that they offer a specialised and dedicated forum for settling specific categories of disputes which are otherwise likely to get stuck in the regular judicial channels. But this assumption holds only if the regular judiciary exercises restraint and does not insert itself into the proceedings pending before Tribunals. ”
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    The problem with laws in India isn’t their framing – it is their implementation. Read this to find out more.