Monday, August 26, 2013

Prices and Products in a 1950s Catalog

An interesting letter to the editor from Don Boudreaux, posted to Cafe Hayek:
I challenge you and other Americans to do what I did and lay your hands on a Sears catalog from the 1950s. My catalog – bought recently on eBay (a company founded in 1995) – is from 1956. Peruse the catalog. What do you see? You see, for example, Sears’s cheapest TV (black’n'white, of course), priced so that a typical full-time manufacturing worker in 1956 had to toil 61 hours to earn enough money to buy that TV. Today, the typical American worker can buy an infinitely superior TV with only ten hours of work. And this lower cost in term of work-time is true for nearly everything else that Sears sells: clothing, kitchen appliances, automobile parts, office furniture, sporting goods, children’s toys. The list is long.* 
An even longer list can be made of what you don’t see in that catalog or in any other record of the economy’s offerings to Americans in the 1950s: no digital cameras; no lightweight waterproof sportswear; no microwave ovens; no CDs, DVDs, or MP3 players; no personal computers; no cellphones; no GPS devices; no indexed mutual funds; no soft contact lenses; no statins; no measles or meningitis vaccines; no portable defibrillators; no oral contraception; no MRI machines. Commercial jet travel did arrive in 1958 – but at fares well beyond the reach of most Americans.
It is remarkable how much better off we are than the 1950s.  What is more remarkable is that plenty of people long for the 1950s out of nostalgia.  I know few people who wouldn't want to get back to 2013 as quickly as possible after a few hours in the 1950s.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Racquetball, Soda, and Liberty

A friend of mine, Stephen Richer, recently authored an interesting analysis of the New York City ban on large colas.  Here is an excerpt:
Instead, the court invalidated the soda ban because it violated the city’s separation of powers doctrine. The city’s legislature never voted for a soda ban, nor had the legislature granted specific authority to the mayor’s office to tackle the obesity problem. In short, the Board of Health – part of Mayor Bloomberg’s executive branch – had usurped power from the legislative branch to act as lawmakers who wanted to ban soda. 
The ruling is certainly a win for libertarians. A major factor in the growth of government is the unchecked lawmaking by unelected bureaucrats, be they at the federal Environment Protection Agency or New York City’s Board of Health. By making certain that only legislative branches pass actual laws, we, the people, can better keep track of new laws, and we can hold our legislators accountable for the laws they pass. 
The court, however, did not say anything about individual liberties or the equity of law across beverage and food industries. This gave hope to proponents of the soda ban who see the New York ruling as a procedural hurdle – cumbersome, but manageable. Consider the food regulation advocate Marion Nestle who optimistically wrote after the ruling, “Even if the city loses the final appeal, the 16-ounce soda cap is the writing on the wall for soda companies.”
In addition to being a great writer and a scholar of the law, Stephen is also the best racquetball player I have ever met.  Seriously.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

We've come a long way

A 1969 advertisement for Virginia Slim cigarettes:

A 2013 advertisement about cigarettes:

It is amazing how cigarette advertising has changed.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Au Shucks: Gold and the Average Investor

Disclaimer/Disclosure: This post is not intended to be investment advice.  I currently hold no gold, nor anti-gold (non-standard term: read on if you dare) in my portfolio of assets, nor do I plan to acquire a position in gold in connection with my writing this post.  The post is for entertainment purposes, but you will hopefully also find it educational if you haven't caught the discussion through some other channel.


With that out of the way, Greg Mankiw has an interesting New York Times article in which he analyzes the investment properties of gold.  Many economists get this question, "Should I buy gold?" Mankiw's answer (in a nutshell):
My instinct was to say no. Like most economists I know, I am a pretty boring investor. I hold 60 percent stocks, 40 percent bonds, mostly in low-cost index funds. Whenever I see those TV commercials with some actor hawking gold coins, I roll my eyes. Hoarding gold seems akin to stocking up on canned beans and ammo as you wait for the apocalypse in your fallout shelter.
But, then he takes a serious crack at the question, citing gold's historically low return, high volatility, and low correlation with other assets (stocks and bonds).  He ultimately concludes:
In the end, I abandoned my initial aversion to holding gold. A small sliver, such as the 2 percent weight in the world market portfolio, now makes sense to me as part of a long-term investment strategy. And with several gold bullion exchange-traded funds now available, investing in gold is easy and can be done at low cost. 
I will continue, however, to pass on the canned beans and ammo.
To a first order, this seems like sensible advice to me.  After all, Mankiw's initial impression - like mine - was to stay far away from gold as an investment.  More importantly, all of this is in an environment where naive investors are being told that there's no safer investment than gold ("buy gold" commercials will tell you something to the effect that "gold is an asset with real value.").  Much of this is nonsense.  Thus, it's incumbent upon Mankiw to push back against the tide, and push he does.

But, what was interesting to me is that John Cochrane chimed in, and eminent financial economist he is, Cochrane deepened Mankiw's first order analysis:
I think Greg made two basic mistakes in analysis. 
First, he assumed that returns (gold, bonds, stocks) are independent over time, so that one-period mean-variance analysis is the appropriate way to look at investments. Such analysis already makes it hard to understand why people hold so many long-term bonds. They don't earn much more than short term bonds, and have a lot more variance. But long-term bonds have a magic property: When the price goes down -- bad return today -- the yield goes up -- better returns tomorrow. Thus, because of their dynamic property (negative autocorrelation), long term bonds are risk free to long term investors even though their short-term mean-variance properties look awful.
Gold likely has a similar profile. Gold prices go up and down in the short run. But relative prices mean-revert in the long run, so the long run risk and short run risk are likely quite different. 
Second, deeper, Greg forgot the average investor theorem. The average investor holds the value-weighted portfolio of all assets. And all deviations from market weights are a zero sum game. I can only earn positive alpha if someone else earns negative alpha. That's not a theorem, it's an identity. You should only hold something different than market weights if you are identifiably different than the market average investor. If, for example, you are a tenured professor, then your income stream is less sensitive to stock market fluctuations than other people, and that might bias you toward more stocks.
With the average investor theorem in hand, Cochrane doesn't come to a different conclusion:
I don't come down to a substantially different answer though. As Greg points out, gold is a tiny fraction of wealth. So it should be at most a tiny fraction of a portfolio. 
There is all this bit about gold, guns, ammo and cans of beans. If you think about gold that way, you're thinking about gold as an out of the money put option on calamitous social disruption, including destruction of the entire financial and monetary system. That might justify a different answer. And it makes a bit of sense why gold prices are up while TIPS indicate little expected inflation. But you don't value such options by one-period means and variances. And you still have to think why this option is more valuable to you than it is to everyone else.
Alternatively, you could think about why the option is less valuable to you than it is to everyone else, and include anti-gold in your portfolio.  Technically, anti-gold doesn't exist, but the exchange traded funds that Mankiw mentions also allow you to hold an asset that is supposed to behave as if you hold negative gold.  I have known a few economists who invested in these funds as well.

And, a follow-on after I have already written the post, this is an advertisement in today's (August 1) Wall Street Journal.

Mankiw and Cochrane would agree, but they'd suggest using only a thin layer of gold.