Links for 5th June, 2019

  1. “But I think Guo is here engaging in a strategy that is common for those who want to nudge the Chinese system in a more market-oriented direction: they tend to describe things are being more competitive and market-driven than they actually are, so that marginal change in that direction seems unremarkable and logical. If you pound the table and call China’s state-owned enterprises a core interest of the nation, it becomes quite difficult to change them. If you say, China is mostly a market economy already, then gradually reducing the role of SOEs over time seems pretty unthreatening.”
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    Andrew Batson’s blog is entirely worth following (and for a variety of reasons!). In fact, the second link today will also be from his blog. But for the moment, let’s focus on how China might respond to America’s push against China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s).
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  2. “Local governments discovered they could borrow basically without limit to fund infrastructure projects, and despite many predictions of doom, those debts have not yet collapsed. The lesson China has learned is that debt is free and that Western criticisms of excessive infrastructure investment are nonsense, so there is never any downside to borrowing to build more infrastructure. China’s infrastructure-building complex, facing diminishing returns domestically, is now applying that lesson to the whole world.”
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    Andrew Batson has a rather more optimistic take on the Belt and Road Initiative. Not as bad, as he mentions, as Brahma Chellaney makes it out to be. On the other hand, I still do think that Batson is far too optimistic about it – as usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle!
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  3. “The strategy we have in mind would comprise three mutually reinforcing components: an increase in the skill level and productivity of existing jobs, by providing extension services to improve management or cooperative programs to advance technology; an increase in the number of good jobs by supporting the expansion of existing, local firms or attracting investment by outsiders; and active labor-market policies or workforce-development programs to help workers, especially from at-risk groups, master the skills required to obtain good jobs.”
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    Dani Rodrik writes about how to create “good jobs”, and lots of them. I don’t think what he suggests will likely work, especially in a country like India, for a variety of reasons – but the biggest is that the kind of top-down, bureaucratic approach he suggests simply hasn’t worked in the past.
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  4. “The overall trend was an incredible intensification of output. Splitters, one of the most skilled positions, provide a good example. The economist John Commons wrote that in 1884, “five splitters in a certain gang would get out 800 cattle in 10 hours, or 16 per hour for each man, the wages being 45 cents. In 1894 the speed had been increased so that four splitters got out 1,200 in 10 hours, or 30 per hour for each man – an increase of nearly 100% in 10 years.” Even as the pace increased, the process of de-skilling ensured that wages were constantly moving downward, forcing employees to work harder for less money.”
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    An extremely readable extract from a book called The Red Meat Republic, this article in the Guardian speaks to how America’s beef industry came to be what it is. A great read for students of Industrial Organization, labor economics, development, pricing, transport economics – and more besides.
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  5. “China has an industrial policy whose goal is to be competitive in these [branded goods] and other areas. Tariffs will limit profits for these companies and prevent Chinese products from achieving full economies of scale. So this preemptive tariff strike will hurt the Chinese economy in the future, even if it doesn’t yet show up in the numbers.”
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    Tyler Cowen often forces himself to write the viewpoint on the other side – or at least, that’s how I interpret this article. I’m sharing it partly because it is worth reading (that’s a given, right?), but more so because that trait is worth emulating: force yourself to argue from the other side’s viewpoint. Whether in writing, or just as a thought exercise.

Links for 8th May, 2019

  1. “The god question is not easy to answer conclusively because god’s existence is a matter of faith, not science. There is no mathematical proof. God is a construct of belief. The great Austrian-American mathematician Kurt Gödel once attempted to prove the existence of god. His ontological proof of god, by definition, is more axiomatic and derived from semantic logic than from real mathematics. It was not long before it was discredited and the axioms questioned. Undeterred, a group of mathematicians from around the world is using open-source documentation to formalise Gödel’s proof to a level where it can be proven by computer programs. We will wait.”
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    Sachin Kalbag, a guy worth following on Twitter, writes about a near death experience he had some years ago, and asks questions about god, faith, belief and logic.
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  2. “You guys are so angry and militant, you’re going to cause havoc,” he recalls being told, delivering his anecdote with a comic’s timing. “You are not getting any arms. You are not ready to fight. You are raaaaw,” he says, disintegrating into laughter. Instead of war, the 21-year-old studied economics, ending up at the University of East Anglia in England. “When all this fighting is over,” he was told, “there will be a country to run.”
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    A short interview with Tito Mboweni – my only criticism is that it is too short, but then again, that’s the style of the Lunch with FT series. By the way, you might want to try Googling the series. Some extremely interesting interviews.
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  3. “The first two factory acts, one in 1881 and the other in 1891, neglected to shorten working hours. When the 1890 Factory Commission gathered workers’ voices, both male and female workers overwhelmingly demanded a shorter working day. Doorpathee told the commission: ‘It will be better if the hours are shortened.’ The 1891 Factory Act declared Sunday a holiday, limited the work day to 11 hours for female workers and seven hours for child workers (aged between nine and 14). But it left out adult males from the ambit of a shorter work day, and men continued to work between 13 to 16 hours per day.”
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    A truly lovely read about Bombay workers, their living conditions, and about the night schools that started in Bombay at that point of time.
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  4. “In short, strange as it may seem, industrialisation of India is the soundest remedy for the agricultural problems of India. The cumulative effects of industrialisation, namely a lessening pressure (of surplus labour) and an increasing amount of capital and capital goods will forcibly create the economic necessity of enlarging the holding. Not only this, but industrialisation, by destroying the premium on land, will give rise to few occasions for its sub-division and fragmentation. Industrialisation is a natural and powerful remedy…”
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    1918. Dr. Ambedkar wrote the essay from which this excerpt is taken in the year 1918. 101 years later, we still retain policies that keep people tethered to agriculture. Also worth reading is the rest of the article – and indeed, therefore the writings of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
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  5. “Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)”
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    Never be too confident of anything, least of all about whatever it is that you think you know, is my key takeaway from this article – but implementing this is easier said than done!

Links for 17th April, 2019

  1. “Nearly half a million people are incarcerated on any given day without having been convicted of a crime. Add it all up, and over 10 million people during a given year year are locked up without being convicted of anything. Roughly one-quarter of all inmates in state and local jails have not been convicted. ”
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    Timothy Taylor explains the pros and cons of eliminating monetary bail. The issue is a complex one, as one might expect, and is a useful way to learn about cost benefit analysis.
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  2. “It’s a reminder that “growth” in cities isn’t always what it seems and that architecture can be an awfully poor proxy for the social structures to which it seems so closely tied. Neighborhoods that appear to be magnets for new people and more apartments may, behind every historic façade, be losing both.”
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    Opportunity costs, population density, gentrification, urbanization and reducing family size – all there in this information dense article.
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  3. “A lot of what you learn when you work at a firm is its organizational culture. Moving within a firm means you learn new subject matter, but you are largely staying within the same culture. The psychologically more challenging move to a different organization gives you an opportunity to experience a different culture, sort of like spending time abroad.”
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    Arnold Kling on culture and the organization. On a related note, the recent somewhat viral article about AirBnB and its culture is also worth reading.
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  4. “There’s a lot going on when you speak. The whole assembly process of how you string words together and form sentences is complicated. If you could use a computer to analyze how an Alzheimer’s patient speaks over the years, you might be able to pick up on subtle changes—and then look for those same patterns in younger patients who show no other signs of the disease. If you’re able to identify those changes early enough, you might even be able to stop someone from getting Alzheimer’s in the first place (although we’d also need advances in Alzheimer’s prevention to do that).”
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    Might how you talk be able to predict if you will get Alzheimer’s in the future? A complicated topic, and one that is sketchy on the details – but very interesting nonetheless.
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  5. “Chinese government statements indicate that 50 state-owned firms have invested or participated in almost 1,700 projects in countries along Belt and Road’s path over the past three years, according to Baker McKenzie. The wider the road, the more drivers are bound to crowd in.”
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    International finance meets the Belt and Road Initiative. Who will win, and in what shape, is what the article speaks about.

Links for 11th April, 2019

  1. “Who has the upper hand in bargaining for wages and employment benefits? Who dominates markets and who must submit to market forces? Who can move across borders and who is stuck at home? Who can evade taxation and who cannot? Who gets to set the agenda of trade negotiations and who is excluded? Who can vote and who is effectively disenfranchised? We argue that addressing such asymmetries makes sense not only from a distributional standpoint, but also for improving overall economic performance. Economists have a powerful theoretical apparatus that allows them to think about such matters.”
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    Dani Rodrik makes the case for rewriting economics, rather than tinkering with it at the margins, in order to really tackle the problems that the world faces today. An article worth reading – I’d linked to their manifesto earlier.
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  2. “In San Lucar, selfish behavior is unacceptable. But in New York, a city with 8 million people, selfish behavior is the norm. It’s a dog-eat-dog mentality. Policemen are everywhere and sirens are the sound of the city. During rush hour on 5th Avenue, pedestrians fight like soldiers on a battlefield. They step over homeless people, weave through strangers, and J-Walk through red lights.Why are people so cooperative in San Lucar, but so selfish in New York?”
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    If you are a student of game theory, you already know that the answer is game theory. But the article is worth reading because it should prompt you to wonder if there is a deeper answer than the one provided – and Adam Smith might be a good place to begin.
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  3. “First, declining growth is a key, albeit low-frequency, cause of today’s social and economic distress. Second, the unfortunate consequences of the ICT revolution are not inherent properties of technological change. Rather, as Rajan notes, they reflect a “failure of the state and markets to modulate markets.” Though Rajan does not emphasize it, this second point gives us cause for hope. It means that ICT need not doom us to a jobless future; enlightened policymaking still has a role to play.”
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    Angus Deaton reviews Raghuram Rajan’s latest book, and leaves us with a sense of appreciation for the book (and in my case, a desire to read it), but also with a deep sense of foreboding about where we may end up as a society.
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  4. “That leads to a broader point: “tech” is not simply another category, like railroads or telecom. Tech is a means, not an end, but Senator Warren’s approach presumes the latter. That is why she proposes the same set of rules for the sale of toasters and the sale of apps, and everything in between. The truth is that Amazon is a retailer; Apple a combination of hardware maker and platform makers. Google is a search and advertising company, and Facebook a publishing and advertising company. They all have different value chains and different ways of impacting competition, both fairly and unfairly, and to fail to appreciate just how different they are is a great way to make bad laws that not only fail to fix problems but also create entirely new ones.”
    Ben Thompson on how to think about tech (and in a very long article, this excerpt really matters): tech is the means to an end, and therein lies all the difference in the world.
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  5. “You may never have heard of Islamestan, in Chinese Turkestan, or its one-time “king”, Bertram Sheldrake. Islamestan is long gone, swallowed up in the historical shifts of a turbu­lent region, but for a brief and unlikely moment, an English pickle-factory heir ruled, with his wife, Sybil, over the newly independent Muslim country, to the far west of China.”
    Stories don’t get much better than this, and that’s putting it mildly.

Links for 10th April, 2019

  1. “In an ideal world, you shouldn’t have to amortize. The prices will all be reflective of reality, there will always be a rational buyer at a rational price if you want to sell. In an ideal world corporates will not rollover their liquid fund investments every day either – they will know how much money they need, and they will only withdraw that much, leaving enough back in the liquid fund.”
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    The always excellent Deepak Shenoy explains the how, and some of the why when it comes to amortization in debt funds. If you are interested in corporate finance, finance in general, or policy-making when it comes to finance, this is well worth your time.
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  2. “Within the overall context of having asset allocation in an individual’s portfolio, passive investments will play an important role. It will increase overtime as a complementary strategy. It will not be just be plain vanilla passive but smart beta products. Look at these three benefits. Better returns profile, lower risk profile and wider diversification as compared to normal other products. So, it is a clear cut thing from the growth perspective.”..
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    An interview on Bloomberg Quint about smart beta products. As with the first link, a must read if you are a student of finance, especially from India.
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  3. ““If you wanted a snapshot of all your financial assets in one place on your mobile or to share information securely with a lender, it was previously not possible,” says Atluri Krishna Prasad, chief executive of Onemoney, one of the five entities that have secured in-principle approval from the Reserve Bank of India to operate as an account aggregator. “Now, if you give Onemoney your consent, we will fetch all your financial information from different sources, aggregate it and give you a single window with the consolidated information.””
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    If you were worried about data privacy in India, we’re only just getting started. A nice article in FactorDaily that explains how more data sharing between financial organizations will soon be on it’s way.
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  4. “Here, as in so many cases, the analysts haven’t got beyond an intuition that Johan Cruyff, the Dutch father of Barcelona’s football, had nearly 50 years ago. Cruyff played for Barça in the 1970s, coached the team from 1988 to 1996 and largely invented the passing game that the club still play. He could rhapsodise for hours about players who were “turned” the right way. He cared much less about a player’s size and speed.”
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    Just one of many excerpt-able snippets from a fascinating article about how a sporting club is using every last little bit of information about, well, everything to make Barca (for that is the football club in question) even better.
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  5. “He’s agreed to forfeit about $50m. It’s not clear what’s happened to the other $73m, but Rimasauskas was a prolific and baroque money-launderer who squirreled cash away in Cyprus, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Latvia. Google has said that “We detected this fraud and promptly alerted the authorities. We recouped the funds and we’re pleased this matter is resolved.”Rimasauskas will be sentenced on July 29. He faces up to 30 years.”
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    One of those articles that truly help you understand Coase/Demsetz and industrial organization overall. But if I am to be honest, a great read in its own right.

Links for 13th March, 2019

  1. “For most projects I’ll never look at anything in ARCHIVES again. But of course it’s easy to do so if I want to. And the fact that it’s easy is important, because it means I don’t have nagging concerns about saying “this is finished with; let’s put it in ARCHIVES”, even if I think there’s some chance it might become active again.As it happens, this approach is somewhat inspired by something I saw done with physical documents. When I was consulting at Bell Labs in the early 1980s I saw that a friend of mine had two garbage cans in his office. When I asked him why, he explained that one was for genuine garbage and the other was a buffer into which he would throw documents that he thought he’d probably never want again. He’d let the buffer garbage can fill up, and once it was full, he’d throw away the lower documents in it, since from the fact that he hadn’t fished them out, he figured he’d probably never miss them if they were thrown away permanently.”
    It is exhausting just reading it, but a very long article from Stephen Wolfram o how he organizes his life. You don’t have to go quite as all out – but you might learn a trick or two about organizing your life better by reading this article. God knows I need all the help I can get.
  2. “Nonetheless, this work suggests a potentially serious problem. Many situations in economics are complicated and competitive. This raises the possibility that many important theories in economics may be wrong: If the key behavioral assumption of equilibrium is wrong, then the predictions of the model are likely wrong too. In this case new approaches are required that explicitly simulate the behavior of the players and take into account the fact that real people are not good at solving complicated problems.”
    If I was to be (excessively?) cynical, I’d say this would mean that economists know nothing. But that isn’t necessarily true – Herbert Simon’s work on bounded rationality come to mind here. But the article is interesting about how to think about excessively complicated stuff – such as life.
  3. “In a low-saving, low-investment economy like the US, it’s a little hard to conceive that its possible for savings and investment rates to be too high for a country’s economic health. But that’s where China has been, and shifting away from established patterns is rarely simple.”
    To range across domains, there is this line from dietary studies that goes something like this: “It is the dose that makes the poison”. But if the USA suffers from too low a savings rate (maybe), China has the opposite problem. And this article does a great job of explaining the how and the why.
  4. “Historically, interim budgets in India have consistently overestimated revenue growth and underestimated expenditure growth. An analysis of the projected, revised, and actual budget figures since 1991 by Deepa Vaidya and K. Kangasabapathy of the EPW Research Foundation showed that deviations from budget estimates tend to be extraordinarily high for budget estimates presented in interim budgets ”
    This should surprise nobody, but budgets shouldn’t be trusted. Households budgets tend to have the same biases and errors that government budgets do, and for mostly the same reason – they’re drawn up by humans, who will be tempted to gloss over inconveniences. This article is full of interesting infographics that help you understand this point better – and also makes the point that an independent fiscal council is both necessary and overdue. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
  5. “But as the global giants arrive, they have been driving up salaries, rents, and reputations. Now some fear that the multinationals that once nurtured this fledgling technology powerhouse are unwittingly damaging the potent but fragile mix of entrepreneurship, military training, and chutzpah that drew them to it in the first place. That, they worry, could prevent it from developing into a mature digital economy.”
    Can you guess, before you click on the link, which country we’re talking about? Reading this article should make you want to read more about industrial organization, low interest rate environments, and urbanization – three of the biggest issues in economics today.

Links for 8th March, 2019

  1. “The canonical source for enforcement is Facebook’s public community guidelines — which consist of two sets of documents: the publicly posted ones, and the longer internal guidelines, which offer more granular detail on complex issues. These documents are further augmented by a 15,000-word secondary document, called “Known Questions,” which offers additional commentary and guidance on thorny questions of moderation — a kind of Talmud to the community guidelines’ Torah. Known Questions used to occupy a single lengthy document that moderators had to cross-reference daily; last year it was incorporated into the internal community guidelines for easier searching.A third major source of truth is the discussions moderators have among themselves. During breaking news events, such as a mass shooting, moderators will try to reach a consensus on whether a graphic image meets the criteria to be deleted or marked as disturbing. But sometimes they reach the wrong consensus, moderators said, and managers have to walk the floor explaining the correct decision.”
    The Verge (Casey Newton, specifically), reporting on Facebook moderators – the human ones. This article is about the troubles they go through, and the costs they have to bear while doing so. A sobering read.
  2. “Our international panel of judges — Pete Souza, Austin Mann, Annet de Graaf, Luísa Dörr, Chen Man, Phil Schiller, Kaiann Drance, Brooks Kraft, Sebastien Marineau-Mes, Jon McCormack and Arem Duplessis — gave some insight on why they loved these shots. ”
    Worth it for at least two reasons – make that three. One, how skilled would you have to be, in the not too distant past, to take photographs as good as this? Two, the photographs themselves are quite breathtaking. Three, the commentary after each photograph helps you understand why those photographs are, in the opinion of the judges, so good.
  3. “India has the potential to be the single largest democratic free market economy in the world. But it needs to simultaneously cut down on its corruption, create jobs for millions of new entrants to the labor economy every year, stand up a new generation of digital-first behemoths, all the while balancing the needs of an incredibly diverse and cacophonous democracy buffeted by global markets and tastes. That’s ultimately a tall order, but if India wants to migrate from a “billionaire raj” to an “entrepreneur raj,” it will have to do all of that — at once.”
    The tech website TechCrunch, on India’s challenges in terms of becoming the next – not Silicon Valley – but China. If you want a more in-depth analysis of what is being spoken about here, I’d highly, highly recommend How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell.
  4. “Econocrats and academic scholars need to take a hard look at the rising implications of intellectual property law, cooperative agreements and proprietary agglomerations of data in stifling competitive behaviour and mobility of new firms. Aggregating more information on firm-level growth narratives and better information dissemination (for researchers) will help analyse firm-level productivity impacts on market growth and overall industrial productivity levels over time.”
    Somewhat related to what is linked to above, but also linked to a Twitter thread I linked to this past Saturday by Atif Mian. An interesting, if somewhat complicated read.
  5. “The National Company Law Appellate Tribunal ordered that no lender can declare its exposure to embattled IL&FS Group as nonperforming without its permission – even if there is a default. The ruling by the bankruptcy court, which is overseeing the government-sponsored $12.8 billion insolvency of the infrastructure financier-operator, undermines the Reserve Bank of India’s powers to make banks and nonbank finance firms present a truthful account of their financial position at all times.”
    This isn’t getting quite the coverage it should, but we’re putting a lot of stuff under what is very quickly becoming a very large blanket.