What is the purpose of an economy anyway?

What is the purpose of an economy anyway?

I heard a reporter on a recent Economist podcast say that, in light of the growing UK economy, creating jobs is a good thing.

It seems to me that creating jobs is not only a good thing, creating jobs is the thing. What other purpose is there for an economy?

Here’s what I mean. An ‘economy’ is kind of a meta-thing that emerges whenever two or more people get together and decide that working together to meet everybody’s needs is more efficient than everyone trying to each meet 100% of their own needs (like, say, some kind of off-the-grid survivalist). Economies emerge in all kinds of places: prison economies, school-yard economies, national economies, global economies.

Occupy Wall Street’s Beef: Wall Street is Cheating

These people aren’t protesting money. They’re not protesting banking. They’re protesting corruption on Wall Street.

Matt Taibbi finally articulated what I have been trying to find words for. I don’t begrudge Wall Street, or anyone, their good fortune (I seek the same good fortune). I just begrudge the way a few people have rigged the system in their favor.

“The Market” vs “The Economy”

With all the volatility in the stock market lately it is a good time to remind ourselves that “the market” is not the same as “the economy.” The best that I can tell — at least as of the last few years — “the market” has contracted to a relatively small group of:

  • professional traders
  • automated computer programs
  • institutional investors
  • hedge fund managers

This tight-knit circle trades amongst itself with very little relevance to what we think of as “the economy.” In contrast to this closed group, the economy is the vast sum of the creation and delivery of the goods and services we want and need.

It seems to me that the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 bears little connection to these things these days.

Don’t be afraid. Now is the time to be bold. If you don’t like the economy, let’s go out and make one of our own.

Financial Rigor

One of the things you learn in engineering is to be rigorous. If you build a bridge that falls down on a windy day, there’s going to be hell to pay. Financial markets are not like that; they are very noisy. It’s hard to tell who’s skillful and who’s just lucky. And a lot of analyses are done in extremely haphazard, primitive ways, but the investing public doesn’t know any better.

Feb 23, 2009 issue of Wired.

Dan diBartolomeo is the head of Northfield Information Services, a Boston financial analysis firm. He has a long history of analyzing investment strategies and complex securities. His comparison of financial markets to the rigors of engineering is noteworthy.

Consumers Go On Strike

As the economy continues to sour, consumers have gone on strike. For the past few months, I have been contemplating the following economic and social trends that seem to explain why.

  • American productivity has risen almost 20% in the last decade (Source)
  • Real median income over the same period has declined (Source)
  • Executive compensation has risen astronomically (Source)
  • Consumer debt has risen substantially (Source)
  • Consumer spending comprises 70% of GDP

Rising productivity is what enables companies to increase employee’s pay. Increases in pay result in the overall rise in our standard of living. However, in the last decade, this relationship between productivity and rising employee pay seems to have been fractured.

Simple Financial Recovery Plan

Simple Financial Recovery Plan

My new favorite podcast is Planet Money. As the economic turmoil has progressed from frightening to surreal, the NPR crew at Planet Money have done a wonderful job explaining the intricacies of the complex financial world in terms that are easy to understand.

Here is what I have been able to figure out so far. Forget about the subprime mortgage crisis. A huge part of the problem is these credit default swaps – to the tune of $55 trillion dollars. These “insurance policies” were not only taken out by people who lent money to protect themselves against potential loss. Financial gamblers were also taking out credit default swaps on other people’s loans! This is raw gambling. Some analysts estimate that for every CDF taken out to by a lender to protect a loan, ten other CDFs were sold by and for third parties on the same loan.

On the Financial Meltdown

As they say on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, “and now for some quotes from this week’s news.”

First, a delightful blog I discovered called The Big Picture by Barry L. Ritholtz. In a post titled The Underlying Basis of Finance and Credit, Mr Ritholtz observes:

Over the entire history of human finance, the underlying premise of all credit transactions — loans, mortgages, and all debt instrument — has been the borrower’s ability to repay.

Except for [the 5 year period from 2002 to 2007] the entire history of human finance was rather reasonable about the basis for making loans in general, and extending mortgage loans in particular.

For 99.9996% of the last 1.2 million years, loans were granted primarily on the condition of whether or not the lender believed that the borrower could repay. Between 2002 and 2007 this condition was dropped.