Posts tagged ‘oil’

OMG: NYT Discovers President's Son-In-Law Using Tax Deductions That ... Every Single Entrepreneur I Know, Including Me, Uses

This New York Times article here could have been a perfectly reasonable thought piece on the (perhaps unintended) effects of several provisions in the tax code.  But in an institutional desire to land a few more blows on Trump, they tried to morph it into a hit piece on Jared Kushner --"Jared Kushner Paid No Federal Income Tax for Years" screams the headline.

Look NYT:  I find Trump distasteful as well.  But you only embarrass yourself presenting as some kind of investigative bombshell that Jared Kushner used perfectly legal deductions to minimize his tax bill.

I recommend this ZeroHedge summary to you as a quick way to get to the meat of the Times article.  As they summarize it, the Kushner tax "maneuver" consists of:

tep 1: The Purchase

Kushner Companies buys a property. The majority of the money for the purchase comes in the form of mortgages and personal loans from banks.

Step 2: The Write-Off

Under the federal tax code, real estate investors can write off the purchase price of the building — excluding the cost of the land — over a period of decades. Although Kushner Companies has spent little or no cash of its own, the firm takes large annual deductions based on the theoretical depreciation of the building.

Step 3: The Loss

The property generates cash for the Kushners. But any earnings, which would be subject to the federal income tax, are swamped by the amount that the company is taking in write-offs for depreciation. The result is that Kushner Companies records a net loss for tax purposes.

Step 4: The Investors

The company passes on that loss to its owners, including Mr. Kushner and his father, Charles.

Step 5: The Offset

The loss can be used to offset the Kushners’ income in the year it is recorded, and it can be carried forward to cancel out future income or to get refunds for taxes they paid in previous years.

Step 6: The Deferral

When Kushner Companies sells a property, it can use the proceeds to finance a new acquisition. If done within the right time frame, the company can indefinitely defer any capital-gains taxes it might owe on the sale of the original property.

So here is my confession.  I did the exact same thing just last year on my taxes.  Take one example:  One of my businesses bought and installed $350,000 of equipment.  I financed 100% of this purchase.  The article says that Kushner depreciated his real estate purchases over decades but the tax code's accelerated depreciation provisions allowed me to depreciate this purchase 100% in the first year.  So I had an immediately $350,000 loss that I netted against other income, grealy reducing my taxes on that income.  In fact, I don't think I was able to use it all due to various tax rules and I carried over a part of it to cover 2018 taxes or beyond.

One could argue about whether the accelerated depreciation provision I took advantage of is too generous, but the tax code is always going to allow depreciation against some formula (or else every business would be substituting crazy rental schemes for capital investment).

Let's take each step from above

  1. The Times wants to make a big deal that somehow the fact that he is using borrowed money to buy assets is a factor in this, but why?  They imply a couple of times that all the debt reduces his ownership, but that is not true.  He still owns 100% of the asset (with the proviso the bank has a lien that is only meaningful in case of default.  His equity is only a fraction of the purchase price, but that is a different thing and says nothing about his ownership
  2. The depreciation provisions are pretty standards as described across all businesses, except to say that they are less generous than the ones I get buying equipment.  Again they seem to think that somehow the fact that he borrowed most of the money is relevant to this -"Mr. Kushner is getting tax-reducing losses for spending someone else’s money" -- but his financing strategy is not the least relevant.  He took on a costly and risky long-term obligation when he borrowed the money.  Is the NYT arguing for requiring cash accounting for taxes??  This is just embarrassingly ignorant.
  3. This is entirely normal
  4. This is entirely normal for s-corporations and LLC's.  These were promoted for small business, and they are fabulous tools for entrepreneurs, but you have to provide these legal tools to all people, even to rich people in families you don't like.
  5. This is entirely normal.  Any other rule would be grossly unfair and a kick in the nuts for entrepreneurs.  I often spend money this year that generates revenues next year.  The tax code recognizes this and agrees that the losses I took this year can be netted against the revenues next year that they helped to facilitate.
  6. This is the only thing that is mildly unique to real estate and his business.  I don't really get the same rights with any of my assets, though my assets mostly depreciate rather than increase in value.  I won't pass judgement on this one, but I suspect that it has a lot of support (homeowners get it, for example, as do owners of second homes).

Nowhere is there even a suggestion of how the tax code might be altered to fix those things the NYT does not like about it.  I would suggest that any step that would alter any of the 6 steps above would be opposed even in a Democratic Congress.  This all reminds me of a piece a few years ago arguing that oil companies got a lot more subsidies than renewables like wind and solar.  Checking it out, the vast, vast majority of the subsidies were ... LIFO inventory accounting and depreciation, both tax rules that are 1) merely about timing of taxes and not total paid and 2) apply to all manufacturing businesses in all industries.

What Socialists (and Most Other People) Don't Understand About The Oil Industry

This same failure has happened over and over, at one time or another in Russia and Mexico and now in Venezuela.  Some tried to make it happen in the 1970's in the US, and Elizabeth Warren would still like to try, I bet.  Socialists take over the oil industry and revel in the first months about all they money they are able to divert to "social" expenditures.  Then, in a few year, it all comes crashing down.  This tweet from Michael Moore five years ago gives you a good idea of the thinking.

Socialists have always seen production and wealth creation as some sort of magic, a fountain in the desert where piggy rich people push to the front and take more than their fair share.  Oil looks to them as the ultimate example of this -- wealth just flows out of the ground and evil rich people at Exxon grab it all for themselves.

But in fact, oil is just the opposite of the magic fountain.  It takes a huge quantity of money and brains to get even one drop of it in usable form to your car.  Imagine trying to figure out where even to look for oil when it is hiding far under ground.  Or having to poke holes a mile into the ground from structures standing in 1000 foot deep water in the Gulf of Mexico.  And then transporting the oil hundreds or thousands of miles by pipeline and ship and train and truck.  And then carefully refining the oil almost molecule by molecule in multi-billion dollar facilities.  And then getting the usable parts to the right people, including distribution outlets for you and I on almost every corner of town.

Right now gasoline in Phoenix goes for about $2.85 a gallon, which is about $2.40 before taxes.  This is 60 cents a quart, which compares to the retail price of a bottle of water of about $2.00-$2.50 a quart.  It's a freaking miracle of modernity that you can fill your car this inexpensively.

Anyway, it turns out that oil is the ultimate "you have to spend money to make money" kind of business.  And once you spend all that money, you investment immediately starts dying.  Oil companies have to completely rebuild retail gas stations every 20-30 years.  Refineries have to be constantly updated with really expensive improvements to take advantage of new technologies, to adjust to changing markets and regulations, and to handle different types of crude oil.  And then there is oil production.  Drill a well today and the moment you open it up, the production starts to fall off.  The flow will drop, the percentage of water might increase-- a million things can happen and all of them bad.  To keep wells flowing companies constantly have to reinvest their profits in reworking the wells (fracking and such) and adding enhanced recovery systems.  As fields deplete, new wells have to be drilled in new locations or at new depths, or else whole new fields have to be developed to replace them.

The "greedy and short-term-focused" oil companies reinvest much of their earnings to make sure the supply of oil is sustained.  The "enlightened" socialists harvest all the cash they can and hand it to their cronies, allowing the production assets to fall apart and, eventually, their economy to collapse.

If Only We Had One "Sustainability" Number That Summarized the Value of the Time and Resources That Went Into a Product or Service....

From an article about how China's decision to restrict imports of recyclable materials is throwing the recycling industry for a loop:

The trash crunch is compounded by the fact that many cities across the country are already pursuing ambitious recycling goals. Washington D.C., for example, wants to see 80% of household waste recycled, up from 23%.

D.C. already pays $75 a ton for recycling vs. $46 for waste burned to generate electricity.

"There was a time a few years ago when it was cheaper to recycle. It's just not the case anymore," said Christopher Shorter, director of public works for the city of Washington.

"It will be more and more expensive for us to recycle," he said.

Which raises the obvious question:  If it is more expensive, why do you do it?  The one word answer would be "sustainability" -- but does that really make sense?

Sustainability is about using resources in a way that can be reasonably maintained into the future.  This is pretty much impossible to really model, but that is not necessary for a decision at the margin such as recycling in Washington DC.  When people say "sustainable" at the margin, they generally mean that fewer scarce resources are used, whether those resources be petroleum or landfill space.

Gosh, if only we had some sort of simple metric that summarized the value of the time and resources that go into a service like recycling or garbage disposal.  Wait, we do!  This metric is called "price".  Now, we could have a nice long conversation about pricing theory and whether or not prices always mirror costs.  But in a free competitive market, most prices will be a good proxy for the relative scarcity (or projected scarcity) of resources.  Now, I am going to assume the numbers for DC are correct and are worked out intelligently (ie the cost of recycling should be net of the value of materials recovered, and the cost of burning the trash should be net of the value of the electricity generated).   Given this, recycling at $75 a ton HAS to be less "sustainable" than burning trash at $46 since it either consumes more resources or it consumes resources with a higher relative scarcity or both.

Postscript:  I have had students object to this by saying, well, those costs include a lot of labor and that doesn't count, sustainability is just about materials.  If this is really how sustainability is defined, then it is an insane definition.  NOTHING is more scarce or valuable than human time.  We have no idea, really, how much recoverable iron or oil there is in the world (and in fact history shows we systematically always tend to underestimate the amount).  But we do know for an absolute fact that there are 182.4 billion human hours lived in a given day. Period.  Labor is if anything more important than material in any sustainability question (after all, would you be willing to die a year earlier in exchange for there being more iron in the world?  I thought not.)

In fact, it is probably the changing scarcity and value of labor in China that is driving the issues in this article in the first place.  China can't afford the labor any more to re-sort badly sorted American recyclables, likely because the economic boom in China has created much more useful and valuable things for Chinese workers to do than separate cardboard boxes from foam peanuts.  Another way to think of the market wage rate is as the opportunity cost for labor, ie if you use an hour of labor for to do X, what is the value of production you are giving up somewhere else by their no longer having access to this hour of labor.

Republicans Have A Learning Problem

Trump supporters are complaining that similar immigration actions that were essentially ignored by the press under Obama are now taking up half the nightly news broadcast under Trump.  As an aside, this is only partially true -- the Trump Administration has antagonized and worsened what was previously a bad, admittedly ignored, situation.  But my main reaction is this:  Well, no sh*t.  What about the major news outlets reporting Republican actions differently than Democratic actions surprises you in the least?  Seriously, at what point do you accept this as totally expected behavior and plan around it?

If I were CEO of, say, Exxon-Mobil (XOM), and I had my PR guy come into the room after a PR debacle and tell me that the press was not being fair to oil companies, that Apple (say) did the same things, I would retort the same thing I did above:  "Well, no sh*t.  What planet have you been living on?  The media has hated us and attempted to score points off us since 1972.  That is a FACT and it is your job to help this company navigate given this FACT."  I would fire the guy immediately.  His complaint would merely demonstrate he was a terrible choice to do communications for us.

I don't understand why the Republican rank and file keep enabling this behavior from their party.  I am not going to tell them to support different policies, though I disagree with them.  But why do they keep accepting that these constant PR disasters are not the fault of their leadership, and that somehow the only way out is some sort of not-going-to-happen remaking of the media?  Conservatives like to think of themselves as hard-headed realists, but good God there is sure a lot of whining going on about stuff that ain't going to change any time soon.

Milton Friedman, The Prophet

Milton Friedman once wrote, "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there'd be a shortage of sand."

Today Simon Constable writes that Venezuela "which has the largest oil reserves in the world, is now considering the idea of importing the stuff."

Average People Used To Understand That Protectionism Was Welfare for Special Interests That Hurt Consumers. When Did This Change?

I have been watching the second season of Victoria on PBS (quite good, I think) and much of it has covered the famines of the 1840's and the debate over the Corn Laws.  At the time, it seems that average people understood that the British tariffs on imported food were in place solely to protect the agricultural profits of aristocratic (and by definition well-connected) landowners while hurting the country as a whole by raising food prices for every consumer and contributing to the famines that were sweeping Ireland and parts of England.

Trump's proposed tariffs are simply a disaster.  A lot of the media seems to believe the biggest reason they are bad is that they will incite retaliatory tariffs from other countries, which they almost certainly will.  But even if no one retaliated, even if the tariffs were purely unilateral, they would still be bad.  In case after case, they are justified as increasing the welfare of a certain number of workers in targeted industries, but they hurt the welfare of perhaps 100x more people who consume or work for companies that consume the targeted products.  Prices will rise for everyone and choices will be narrowed. This is Bastiat's classic seen and unseen -- the beneficiaries (say in the steel industry) are easy to identify, but the individual consumers who change their purchasing plans or industries that change their investment plans are frequently invisible.  It is the height of childish public policy to pretend those hurt by this don't exist merely because they can't easily be interviewed on TV.

Well, not completely invisible:

 A proposed expansion of an Exxon Mobil Corp oil refinery could be impacted by the Trump administration’s plan to place a 25 percent tariff on imported steel, a source familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

Exxon has been considering increasing its North American crude refining capacity since at least 2014, the company has said, but has not disclosed a final decision. An Exxon spokeswoman was not available for immediate comment.

 The nation’s largest oil producer has been weighing adding new processing capacity to its 362,000 barrel-per-day Beaumont, Texas, plant that could make it the nation’s largest. (Reporting by Erwin Seba Editing by James Dalgleish)

My New Favorite Excel Function: INDIRECT

I will confess that somehow I never really learned pivot table mechanics in Excel, so I struggle with three dimensional data.  One example might be a spreadsheet with individual tabs where each tab is a different corporate division, and on each tab is a P&L by month (so three dimensions:  Month, P&L category, Division).  Let's assume the P&L is arranged the same on every page, with, for example, one divisions June's total revenue number in the same cell number as the June total revenue number on every other divisions' tab, ie this field is in cell c8 on every worksheet tab.

Long ago I created a simple way to get a total of a particular cell across all spreadsheets.  I would add a spreadsheet tab in the workbook before all the division tabs and another after all the division tabs.  Let's say I just name these tabs "Posta" and "Postb".  Then the sum of all cells C8 that are located on a spreadsheet tab between tabs "Posta" and "Postb" would be

=SUM(Posta:Postb!C8).

The problem comes when one wants to create a summary worksheet tab that doesn't sum all the values for C8 but summarizes them in a table.  Imagine a table where column A is the division name (that matches the name of the tab for that division) and column B is that division's June revenue, ie the value of cell C8 for that division from its individual spreadsheet.  The only way I knew how to do this before was manually and tediously.

But laziness is the mother of invention, and I finally encountered a workbook that was so tedious to summarize manually that I had to find another way.  I had a spreadsheet of 150 tabs, each worksheet tab being one of our locations containing online customer review scores formatted the same way into the same cells.  That is when I found the INDIRECT function.  Basically it allows one to craft a custom cell reference in a text string, feed that to the indirect function, which will output the contents of that cell.  So if our location names in the first column exactly match the worksheet tab names, then we can write

=INDIRECT("'"&$A3&"'"&"!C$8")

The ampersand symbols are basically text string concatenation operators, and are there to create the text string of a cell reference in the format excel expects.  The funny triple quotes is just to add a single quote mark before and after the tab name.   This particular string will give us the value of cell C8 that is in the worksheet tab with the name that is in cell A3.

You can also use this cell value from the INDIRECT function in more complicated formulas.  For example

=COUNTIF( INDIRECT("'"&$A3&"'"&"!$B$3:$B$500"),D$4)

would look in the spreadsheet tab whose name is in A3 and on that tab count all the values in the range B3 to B500 on that tab that have the value given in cell D4.  For example, if D4 is equal to "5" we could be counting all the reviews that had a score of "5".

Postscript:  This may be my record for the blog post with the niche-iest audience.  Mainly it is aimed at my son, who has the enviable job of being an analyst for a craft beer company in La Jolla.  He has learned not to complain much to me about his job, as my first job was in an oil refinery in Baytown, Texas, so my sympathy level is maybe lower than it should be.  Anyway, as part of a geeky family, he and I compete on Excel knowledge so this post is mainly my way of counting coup on him.

Update:  I totally agree with the comments that a relational database is needed.  Unfortunately, at the time I did this work, we had only within weeks been given access to the review data from the government recreation reservations database, and it was all in excel.  Faster to do the analysis in excel than to figure out how to read the sheets into something like mysql (of which I am positive there are a million simple tools for doing so).  But I will accept it as a challenge for this year.

Price Gouging Laws: Allocating Goods in An Emergency To People Who Have Nothing Much Valuable to Do

During an emergency like a hurricane, many different categories of goods and services experience supply-demand shocks.  The shock may be because of a fall in supply (e.g. oil companies can't get gasoline into the area) or a spike in demand (e.g. for generators or plywood) or a combination of both.  In a free market, prices will rise to help match supply and demand.  Higher prices cause people with less valuable or more frivolous uses of the scarce goods to defer purchase, and can cause suppliers to expend extra effort to get product into the area, even diverting supplies from other areas.

When the government institutes price gouging laws in an emergency, the supply-demand mismatch that leads to the rising prices isn't magically eliminated.   First, without higher price incentives, all the incentives to get more supply into the area are lost.  Supply and demand under these regulations can only be matched by rationing demand, and typically this is through queuing and increasing search costs (e.g. driving around all over the place looking for a station that is open and has gas).  People who gain the limited supplies in this regime are thus those with a lot of time on their hands, where the marginal cost of queuing and driving around does not impose a lot of cost.  Think about a roofer scrambling to repair roofs after the a storm -- do they have time to have their trucks and crews sitting dormant in gas lines?  Thus, price gouging laws tend to ensure that scarce goods in an emergency flow to those with the least use for them.

When Government Picks Winners, It Mostly Chooses Losers

In an article for Cato mocking the Obama Administration for creating energy technology forecasts that run to the year 2300, Pat Michaels wrote:

Consider the case of domestic natural gas. In 2001, everyone knew that we were running out. A person who opined that we actually would soon be able to exploit hundreds of years’ worth, simply by smashing rocks underlying vast areas of the country, would have been laughed out of polite company.

Energy statists on the Left today are trying to get rid of coal-fired electricity generation in this country (due to climate concerns).  But one thing that few people remember is that a significant reason we have so much coal-fired electricity generation in this country is that energy statists on the Left in the 1970's mandated it.  I kid you not:

The Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act (FUA) was passed in 1978 in response to concerns over national energy security. The 1973 oil crisis and the natural gas curtailments of the mid 1970s contributed to concerns about U.S. supplies of oil and natural gas. The FUA restricted construction of power plants using oil or natural gas as a primary fuel and encouraged the use of coal, nuclear energy and other alternative fuels. It also restricted the industrial use of oil and natural gas in large boilers.

As a further irony, and absolutely typical of government regulation, this regulation banning oil and gas fired plants because oil and gas seemed to be running out was really trying to fix a problem caused by another regulation.   The government had caps on oil and gas prices through the 1970's that artificially reduced supplies.  Once these price regulations were removed, we suddenly had an oil and gas glut in the 1980's and the FUA was eliminated in 1987.  Watching regulators chase their tails in energy policy over the last 40 years would be comical if the effects of their repeated mistakes were not so dire.

Trade and World Peace -- Economic Nationalism Leads to War

President Trump is a strong economic nationalist.  He believes that this country should source everything domestically - its products and its labor - and any labor or resources that are coming from other countries should either be stopped by a wall or heavily taxed.

Economists and I will spend a lot of time over the next four years trying to explain to our economically-ignorant administration why global trade and the global division of labor increase domestic incomes and production rather than decreasing them.  But I do not want to lose sight of another important benefit of open trade in the global economy - peace.

We often miss the fact because our news is dominated by stories of violence and terror, but we live in times of unprecedented peace around the world.  It is no coincidence that this is occurring at the same time that global trade is at a historic peak.  People and governments can obtain just about anything they want, inexpensively, through voluntary trade.  This has seldom been the case through history -- and when people could not get what they wanted through free trade, they tried to take it by force.

Think about the corollary of Trump's economic nationalism, particularly if everyone followed this same approach.  If one skews all the rules and taxes and prohibitions so everything must be sourced domestically, then if a country does not have some particular resource or skill domestically, it is out of luck.  No domestic rare earth metals?  Sorry.

But governments and powerful people seldom calmly accept that something they critically need is not available.  They will be tempted to go and take it.  The worst, most violent empire building of the last 100-150 years has occurred when countries have pursued economic nationalism.  Think of the colonialism of the late 19th century.  Today we happily trade with South Africa and other countries for valuable resources, but in that time of economic nationalism, if a country wanted access to these resources, it felt it had to control the land and the people.  Hitler in the 1930's wanted to make Germany self-sufficient in agricultural goods and certain other resources, and the only way to do that was to go and grab other people's land and resources.

The best example of all of this phenomenon is, I think, Japan in the 1930's.  Japan felt that it was resource poor and under Trump's theory of economic nationalism, it felt it had to control oil and other resources it did not have domestically.  So it plotted to go take it.  When the US instituted a trade embargo in these very goods to punish Japan's aggressiveness in China, it just accelerated Japan's thinking in this area, convincing it for good it had to control these resources, and it was soon invading the oil-rich islands of what is now Indonesia.  This example is all the more telling because Japan actually found true prosperity after the war when it traded peacefully for these resources.  Unfortunately, it adopted economic nationalism, via MITI, of another form and helped manage themselves into a 20-year recession, but that is another trade-related story for another day.

Postscript:  I have more to say on this when I get my thoughts better organized.  Right now I am hurrying to a plane, for Regina, Canada, where I am speaking on global warming tomorrow.  There is a related issue of what happens when strong protectionism on our part pushes China over into the crash they have been putting off for years -- suddenly a crash largely of their making becomes the fault of the US, with implications for a formation of a new cold war, but that again is another topic for another day.

Perhaps Not a Trump Win, But A Clinton Loss -- The Trap of Reasoning From a Price Change

One of the homilies one hears all the time from economists is "Never reason from a price change."  What does this mean?  Prices emerge in the market at the intersection of the supply and demand curve.  Often, when (say) a price of a commodity like oil decreases, pundits might reason that the demand for oil has suddenly dropped.  But they don't necessarily know that, not without information other than just the price change.  The price could have dropped because of a shift in the supply curve or the demand curve, or perhaps some combination of both.  We can't know just from the price change.

Which gets me thinking about the last election.  Trump won the election in part because several states like PA and WI, which had been safe Democratic wins in the last several elections, shifted to voting Republican.  Reasoning from this shift, pundits have poured forth today with torrents of bloviation about revolutionary changes in how groups like midwestern white males are voting.  But all these pundits were way wrong yesterday, so why would we expect them to suddenly be right today?  In my mind they are making the same mistake as reasoning from a price change, because the shift in relative party fortunes in a number of states could be because Trump is somehow doing better than Romney and McCain, or it could be because Clinton is doing worse than Obama.  Without other information, it is just as likely the story of the election is about a Clinton loss, not a Trump win.

Republican pundits want to think that they are riding some sort of revolutionary wave in the country.  Democratic pundits don't want to admit their candidate was really weak and like how they can spin white supremacist story lines out of the narrative that Trump won on the backs of angry white men.

The only way we can know the true story is to get more data than just the fact of the shift.  Let's go to Ramesh Ponnuru (and Kevin Drum from the other side of the political aisle makes many of the same points here and here).

The exit polls are remarkable. Would you believe that Mitt Romney won a greater percentage of the white vote than Donald Trump? Mitt took 59 percent while Trump won 58 percent. Would you believe that Trump improved the GOP’s position with black and Hispanic voters? Obama won 93 percent of the black vote. Hillary won 88 percent. Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote. Hillary won 65 percent.

Critically, millions of minority voters apparently stayed home. Trump’s total vote is likely to land somewhere between John McCain’s and Romney’s (and well short of George W. Bush’s 2004 total), while the Democrats have lost almost 10 million voters since 2008. And all this happened even as Democrats doubled-down on their own identity politics. Black Lives Matter went from a fringe movement to the Democratic mainstream in the blink of an eye. Radical sexual politics were mainstreamed even faster. White voters responded mainly by voting in the same or lesser numbers as the last three presidential elections. That’s not a “whitelash,” it’s consistency.

As I know all too well, a portion of Trump’s online support is viciously racist. Conservative and liberal Americans can and must exercise extreme vigilance to insure that not one alt-right “thinker” has a place in the Trump administration, but it’s simply wrong to attribute Trump’s win to some form of great white wave. Trump won because minority voters let him win. The numbers don’t lie. The “coalition of the ascendant” stayed home.

Trump had roughly the same vote totals as Romney and McCain, and did relatively better with non-whites and Hispanics.   The difference in the election was not any particular enthusiasm for Trump, and certainly not any unique white enthusiasm, but a total lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton.   Look at the numbers in Drum's post -- Hillary did worse with every group.  For god sakes, she did 5 points worse than Obama with unmarried women, the Lena Dunham crowd that theoretically should have been her core constituency.  She did 8 points worse than Obama with Latino women!

This is not a story of a Trump revolution.  This is a story of a loss by a really weak Clinton.  Obama would have dusted the floor with Trump.

Finally, Finished

After months of paint frustration and poor design planning (I glued in the internal bracing before I installed the individual drivers, making what should have been a simple step a contortion act), my most recent speaker project is done.  This pair took longer than all the other speakers I have built, combined.  So they better sound good.  Here is one (from the back) just before I added the last bit of acoustic poly-fill stuffing and buttoned up the back.

CameraZOOM-20160717150118543

Yes, all those drivers on the left had to be installed reaching through those small holes in the bracing.  Ugh.  Anyway, after I took this picture, I had one more -- appropriate for this project -- negative surprise when the fit on the port on the back was not quite right and a lot of filing and trimming was needed for the usually simple task of installing the back cover.  Right now the speakers are breaking in and then I need to do testing and gain adjustments (I am using an electronic crossover with parametric equalization I built from a miniDSP kit).

The original article on the theory of the design is here.  I will post final pictures soon -- they do look simply awesome, though I will say again that life is too short to put a gloss piano black finish on mdf, but I am glad I did it now that all the work is done.   Not sure what I will be doing with my weekends going forward.

As an aside, I am not moving -- on his way to his first apartment, my son claimed a couple of my old bookshelves, leaving me with packing boxes of my books on the floor.  There is a bit of a story on his whole job search:  For months of his senior year he kept telling us he turned down such and such job in Boston or New York.  He didn't want to work in the northeast and didn't want to be an investment banker, eliminating about 95% of the companies that come to the small Amherst College campus.  However, with some persistence, he landed a job with craft brewer Ballast Point in San Diego.  So after all my parental angst about his future, when I tried to lecture him on how to do a job search, he ended up working for a beer company in Southern California.  Compare that to my first job, working in an oil refinery in Baytown, Texas.  So I suppose he wins job search.

Tesla and SolarCity: Two Drunks Propping Each Other Up

This is honestly one of the weirdest acquisition proposals I have seen in a long time:  Elon Musk's Tesla offers to buy Elon Musk's Solar City.

This makes zero business sense to me.    This is from the press release:

We would be the world’s only vertically integrated energy company offering end-to-end clean energy products to our customers. This would start with the car that you drive and the energy that you use to charge it, and would extend to how everything else in your home or business is powered. With your Model S, Model X, or Model 3, your solar panel system, and your Powerwall all in place, you would be able to deploy and consume energy in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, lowering your costs and minimizing your dependence on fossil fuels and the grid.

I am sure there are probably some hippy-dippy green types that nod their head and say that this is an amazing idea, but any business person is going to say this is madness.  It makes no more sense than to say GM should buy an oil production company.  These companies reach customers through different channels, they have completely different sales models, and people buy their products at completely different times and have no need to integrate these two purchases.  It is possible there may be some overlap in customers (virtue-signalling rich people) but you could get at this by having some joint marketing agreements, you don't need an acquisition.  Besides, probably the last thing that people's solar panels will ever be used for is charging cars, since cars tend to charge in the garage at night when solar isn't producing.

One might argue that some of the technologies are the same, and I suppose some of the battery and electricity management tech overlaps.  But again, a simple sourcing agreement or a battery JV would likely be sufficient.

So what do these companies share?  I can think of three things.

The first is Elon Musk.   When one sees a deal like this, one is immediately suspicious that there is some kind of game going on where the owner combines holding A with holding B and somehow in the combination ends up with more wealth.  This is a game conglomerates played in the 1960's -- you could create a lot of (paper) value if you had a high PE (stock price to earnings ratio) company and went around buying low PE companies, instantly creating paper wealth if you could buy their earnings cheap and then have them suddenly valued at your higher PE.   Its hard to guess if this sort of game is going on here, as neither company has earnings (or rather both lose a lot of money).   Further, I have no read on Mr. Musk's personal ethics.  If this were Donald Trump, we would all immediately be suspicious such a game was at play.

The second thing these two companies share is that they have business models based on consuming massive amounts of government subsidies.  They get subsidies directly (each by selling various sorts of tax credits or fuel economy credits to power companies and auto makers), they have both gotten sweetheart deals from governments for production facilities, and their customers get subsidized as well in the purchase.  However, while there certainly are economies of scale for cronyism (large companies have the pull to get the loot), I shudder to think that there might be even more for these two companies to grab if they were larger.

The third thing these two companies share is that they both have huge financing needs, are losing lots of money, and are burning through tons of cash.   And here I think is the real heart of this deal, and if I am right, we may be able to answer the question on Elon Musk's ethics.  While both companies are burning through cash and are constantly going out to the market for more money, Tesla still has a (not totally justified in my mind) fabulous reputation with investors** and people seem to be falling over themselves to throw money at it.  With Apple languishing and Google old news, there is no hipper, trendier company out there.   On the other hand, SolarCity is starting to suck wind.  A few months back JP Morgan downgraded the stock:

SolarCity is having trouble attracting new investors, as the company has launched and canceled programs and altered its accounting methods, JPMorgan wrote in a note, according to MarketWatch.

Additionally, some of SolarCity's lower-income customers could be at risk of "slow-pay or default in the event of an economic downturn," the firm continued.

...SolarCity's weaknesses include its generally high debt management risk, weak operating cash flow, generally disappointing historical performance in the stock itself and poor profit margins.

They are also seeing more competition from local contractors and, perhaps most worrisome for their business model, various government subsidies are being scaled back and many states are changing their power metering rules to pay customers only the wholesale rate, rather than the retail rate, for power they put back in the grid.  They have said in most of their annual reports as a risk that their business model likely would not be viable (if it could be called that even today) without current or higher levels of government subsidies.

I have no inside information here, but this is the best hypothesis I can put together for this deal.  SolarCity has huge cash needs to continue to grow at the same time its operating margins are shrinking (or getting more negative).  They are having trouble finding investors to provide the cash.  But hey!  Our Chairman Elon Musk is also Chairman of this other company called Tesla whom investors line up to invest in.  Maybe Tesla can be our investor!

The reason I call this two drunks propping each other up is that Tesla also is also burning cash like crazy.  It is OK for now as long as it has access to the capital markets, but if it suddenly lost that, Tesla would survive less than 6 months on what it has on hand.  Remember, SolarCity was a golden child just 3 years ago, just like Tesla is today.  Or if you really don't believe that high-flying companies that depend on access to the capital markets can go belly up in the snap of a finger when they lose their luster with investors, I have one word for you:  Enron.

There is a substantial minority of the investment community that thinks that Tesla's headed for chapter 11, even before taking on the SolarCity albatross.  Here is one academic paper.  Here is another such opinion.  Non-GAAP reporting has proliferated like a cancer among public companies, with so many creative non-GAAP numbers that I am not sure the Enron folks would go to jail nowadays.  Tesla is a master of this game.    Even if Tesla is not headed for chapter 11, the absolute last thing Tesla needs to be doing is taking on a new acquisition that burns a lot of cash, while simultaneously diluting their management focus.

When I watch SpaceX launches, I so want to love Elon Musk.  But I am increasingly convinced that this is a terrible deal, an insider game he is playing to try to keep one of his investments alive.  I am seldom a fan of most minority shareholder lawsuits, but if I were a minority shareholder of Tesla I would be suing to block this acquisition.

By the way, many investors must be reading this the same way, because SolarCity stock prices are up and Tesla stock prices are down (at lot) today.

Disclosure:  I have been short Tesla for a while.  I shorted SolarCity this morning when the acquisition was announced, after its price popped up.  I consider this merger announcement as the moral equivalent of announcing that SolarCity is in financial distress.  These investments are tiny, the equivalent of a bar bet rather than any substantial investment on my part.

**Footnote:  I have to say this every time -- The Model S is a great car.  I would love to have one, if Santa put it under the tree for me.  But just because they have one great product does not mean that the company will be a success or is a great investment or that it is worth massive amounts of my tax money in subsidies.

Fracking and Foreign Policy

I am happy to see prominent members of Congress from both parties starting to question our support of the deeply flawed government in Saudi Arabia.  I don't want to make war on them (repeating the Lybia mistake) but I also have been leery for quite a while about supporting a country that funds so much terrorism and is frankly as socially backwards as any place in the world.

So here is my question:  Had it not been for the shale oil and gas revolution in this country, would the US Congress be willing to question this relationship today?

The Virtues of Short-Selling

Is there anything that rankles populists who are "anti-speculator" more than the ability to short stocks?  From time to time countries that are upset about falling markets will ban short-selling.  But I have defended stock (and other asset shorting) as a critical market mechanism that helps to limit damaging bubbles.  I wrote waaaaaay back in 2008, after the US temporarily banned short selling of certain assets:

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more.

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately
made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell, and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote [on] the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

I am remembering this old post because Arnold Kling links an interesting bit on economists discussing the Big Short, who among a number of interesting things say this:

Shorting the market in the way they did is very risky, and one has to be very confident, perhaps overconfident, in one’s forecast to take such risks. As a consequence, many people who were pessimistic about the housing market simply stayed on the sidelines—which in turn meant that for a while, valuations in the market primarily reflected the beliefs of optimists.

The timing issue is key.  I have been right probably in 4 of out the 5 major market shorting opportunities I have identified in the last 10 years, but have been on average 2 years early with all of them, meaning I lost money on most of them, or made money after enduring some really big paper losses for a while.

The Miracle of Oil Production

Gasoline costs less than bottled water at your local service station, but look at what it takes to produce it:

Here is an offshore oil platform being towed out to sea.  As huge as it is, its height is nothing compared to the depth and reach of the network of wells that were drilled from it.

steel-jacket-being-towed-offshore-esa-shell

And here is a refinery where the oil is processed into gasoline and other products.  This happens to be the Exxon refinery in Baytown, where I had my first job out of college

20081018-104725-exxonbaytown-750px

I am pretty sure this is Pipestill (distillation tower) #8.   If so, I have climbed through every inch of the tall tower on the left

BaytownRefinery

Here is bottled water production in comparison

Great Moments in US Energy Policy: In the 1970's, The US Government Mandated Coal Use For New Power Plants

What does government energy policy have in common with government food advice?  Every 30-40 years the Federal government reverses itself 180 degrees and declares all the stuff that they said was bad before is now good today.

Case in point:  Coal-fired electrical generation.  Coal is pretty much the bette noir of environmentalists today, so much so that Obama actually pledged to kill the coal industry when he was running for office.   The combination of new regulation combined with the rapid expansion of cheap natural gas supplies has done much to kill coal use (as illustrated by this bankruptcy today).

But many people may not realize that the rise of coal burning in power plants in the US was not just driven by economics -- it was mandated by government policy

Federal policies moved in coal's favor in the 1970s. With the Middle East oil crisis, policymakers began to adopt policies to try and shift the nation toward greater coal consumption, which was a domestic energy resource. The Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act of 1974 directed the Federal Energy Administration to prohibit the use of oil or natural gas by electric utilities that could use coal, and it authorized the FEA to require that new electric power plants be able to use coal. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 extended those powers for two years and authorized $750 million in loan guarantees for new underground low-sulfur mines. Further pro-coal mandates were passed in the late-1970s.

I was aware of the regulations at the time as I was working in an oil refinery in the early 80's and it affected us a couple of ways.  First, it killed demand for low-sulphur heavy fuel oil.  And second, it sidelined several co-generation projects that made a ton of sense (generating electricity and steam from wasted or low-value portions of the oil barrel) but ran afoul of these coal mandates.

A Keystone Hack

Well, we have reached another milestone in our permission-based economy with the Administration's rejection of the Keystone Pipeline.  We have zillions of miles of pipelines and are actually wasting energy and creating environmental messes moving the same oil by the inferior option of rail, but somehow this one pipeline had to be opposed.

Actually, the only reason this project is in front of the administration at all is because it crosses the Canadian border, which requires  State Department sign-off.  Which leads me to wonder if there is a hack.  Why not take the pipeline right up to the border from both sides and create a rail line across the border using a continuous loop of tank cars.  Its kludgy and inefficient, but probably less so than moving the oil long distance by rail.

I am reminded of this from a story long ago off Santa Barbara.  Exxon had gotten permission to drill in Federal waters, but local state/county folks wanted to find a way to stop the oil development.  Plans were (as is typical for any offshore oil) for a separation facility on shore that would separate oil, gas, and water from the mix that usually comes up out of the ground.    The state or local folks (can't remember which) refused to permit the separation facility, thinking that would kill the project.  But Exxon built what I believe was a unique separation facility on a boat and anchored the boat offshore.  No land permits necessary.

This is very similar, in my mind, to the pipeline decision.  California's attempt to block oil development altogether proved futile, just as Obama's decision will have little effect on long-term Canadian oil development.  But it did, in both cases, force a workaround (rail and the separator ship) that were almost certainly environmentally worse solutions than those that were halted.

The New Rich -- Living the High Life Through Your Non-Profit

Several months ago, a lot of folks where shocked to find that the Clinton Foundation only spent $9 million in direct aid out of a total budget of $150 million, with the rest going to salaries and bonuses and luxury travel for family and friends and other members of the Clinton posse.

None of this surprised me.  From my time at Ivy League schools, I know any number of kids from rich families that work for some sort of trust or non-profit that has nominally charitable goals, but most of whose budget seems to go to lavish parties, first-class travel, and sinecures for various wealthy family scions.

But this week comes a story from the climate world that demonstrates that making a fortune from your non-profit is not just for the old money any more -- it appears to be a great way for activists to build new fortunes.

The story starts with the abhorrent letter by 20 university professors urging President Obama to use the RICO statute (usually thought of as a tool to fight organized crime) to jail people who disagree with them in a scientific debate.  The letter was authored by Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University, and seems to take the position that all climate skeptics are part of an organized coordinated gang that are actively promoting ideas they know to be wrong solely for financial enrichment. (I will give the near-universal skeptic reply to this:  "So where is my Exxon check?!"

Anyway, a couple of folks, including Roger Pielke, Jr. and Steve McIntyre, both folks who get accused of being oil industry funded but who in fact get little or no funding from any such source, wondered where  Shukla's funding comes from.   Shukla gets what looks like a very generous salary from George Mason University of $314,000 a year.  Power to him on that score.  However, the more interesting part is where he makes the rest of his money, because it turns out his university salary is well under half his total income.  The "non-profits" he controls pays him, his family, and his friends over $800,000 a year in compensation, all paid out of government grants that supposedly are to support science.

A number of years ago Shukla created a couple of non-profits called the Institute for Global Environment and Security (IGES) and the Center for Ocean Land Atmosphere Interactions (COLA).  Both were founded by Shukla and are essentially controlled by him, though both now have some sort of institutional relationship with George Mason University as well.  Steve McIntyre has the whole story in its various details.

COLA and IGES both seem to have gotten most of their revenues from NSF, NASA, and NOAA grants.    Over the years, the IGES appears to have collected over $75 million in grants.  As an aside, this single set of grants to one tiny, you-never-even-heard-of-it climate non-profit is very likely way higher than the cumulative sum total of all money ever paid to skeptics.   I have always thought that warmists freaking out over the trivial sums of money going to skeptics is a bit like a football coach who is winning 97-0 freaking out in anger over the other team finally picking up a first down.

Apparently a LOT of this non-profit grant money ends up in the Shukla family bank accounts.

In 2001, the earliest year thus far publicly available, in 2001, in addition to his university salary (not yet available, but presumably about $125,000), Shukla and his wife received a further $214,496  in compensation from IGES (Shukla -$128,796; Anne Shukla – $85,700).  Their combined compensation from IGES doubled over the next two years to approximately $400,000 (additional to Shukla’s university salary of say $130,000), for combined compensation of about $530,000 by 2004.

Shukla’s university salary increased dramatically over the decade reaching $250,866 by 2013 and $314,000 by 2014.  (In this latter year, Shukla was paid much more than Ed Wegman, a George Mason professor of similar seniority). Meanwhile, despite the apparent transition of IGES to George Mason, the income of the Shuklas from IGES continued to increase, reaching $547,000 by 2013.

Grant records are a real mess but it looks like from George Mason University press releases that IGES and its successor recently got a $10 million five-year grant, or $2 million a year from the government.  Of that money:

  • approximately $550,000 a year goes to Shukla and his wife as salaries
  • some amount, perhaps $90,000 a year, goes to Shukla's daughter as salary
  • $171,000 a year goes as salary to James Kinter, an associate of Shukla at George Mason
  • An unknown amount goes for Shukla's expenses, for example travel.  When was the last time you ever heard of a climate conference, or any NGO conference, being held at, say, the Dallas-Ft Worth Airport Marriott?  No, because these conferences are really meant as paid vacation opportunities as taxpayer expense for non-profit executives.

I don't think it would be too much of a stretch, if one includes travel and personal expenses paid, that half the government grants to this non-profit are going to support the lifestyle of Shukla and his friends and family.  Note this is not money for Shukla's research or lab, this is money paid to him personally.

Progressives always like to point out examples of corruption in for-profit companies, and certainly those exist.  But there are numerous market and legal checks that bring accountability for such corruption.  But nothing of the sort exists in the non-profit world.  Not only are there few accountability mechanisms, but most of these non-profits are very good at using their stated good intentions as a shield from scrutiny -- "How can you accuse us of corruption, we are doing such important work!"

Postscript:  Oddly, another form of this non-profit scam exists in my industry.  As a reminder, my company privately operates public recreation areas.  Several folks have tried to set up what I call for-profit non-profits.  An individual will create a non-profit, and then pay themselves some salary that is equal to or even greater than the profits they would get as an owner.  They are not avoiding taxes -- they still have to pay taxes on that salary just like I have to pay taxes (at the same individual tax rates) on my pass-through profits.

What they are seeking are two advantages:

  • They are hoping to avoid some expensive labor law.  In most cases, these folks over-estimate how much a non-profit shell shelters them from labor law, but there are certain regulations (like the new regulations by the Obama Administration that force junior managers to be paid by the hour rather than be salaried) that do apply differently or not at all to a non-profit.
  • They are seeking to take advantage of a bias among many government employees, specifically that these government employees are skeptical of, or even despise, for-profit private enterprise.  As a result, when seeking to outsource certain operations on public lands, some individual decision-makers in government will have a preference for giving the contract to a nominal non-profit.   In California, there is even legislation that gives this bias a force of law, opening certain government contracting opportunities only to non-profits and not for-profits.

The latter can have hilarious results.  There is one non-profit I know of that is a total dodge, but the "owner" is really good at piously talking about his organization being "cleaner" because it is a non-profit, while all the while paying himself a salary higher than my last year's profits.

A Great Example of How the Media Twists Facts on Climate

First, let's start with the Guardian headline:

Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, email says – but it funded deniers for 27 more years

So now let's look at the email, in full, which is the sole source for the Guardian headline.  I challenge you, no matter how much you squint, to find a basis for the Guardian's statement.  Basically the email says that Exxon knew of the concern about global warming in 1981, but did not necessarily agree with it.  Hardly the tobacco-lawyer cover-up the Guardian is trying to make it sound like.  I will reprint the email in full because I actually think it is a pretty sober view of how good corporations think about these issues, and it accurately reflects the Exxon I knew from 3 years as a mechanical / safety engineer in a refinery.

I will add that you can see the media denial that a lukewarmer position even exists (which I complained about most recently here) in full action in this Guardian article.  Exxon's position as described in the Guardian's source looks pretty close to the lukewarmer position to me -- that man made global warming exists but is being exaggerated.   But to the Guardian, and many others, there is only full-blown acceptance of the most absurd exaggerated climate change forecasts or you are a denier.  Anyway, here is the email in full:

Corporations are interested in environmental impacts only to the extent that they affect profits, either current or future. They may take what appears to be altruistic positions to improve their public image, but the assumption underlying those actions is that they will increase future profits. ExxonMobil is an interesting case in point.

Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia. This is an immense reserve of natural gas, but it is 70% CO2. That CO2 would have to be separated to make the natural gas usable. Natural gas often contains CO2 and the technology for removing CO2 is well known. In 1981 (and now) the usual practice was to vent the CO2 to the atmosphere. When I first learned about the project in 1989, the projections were that if Natuna were developed and its CO2 vented to the atmosphere, it would be the largest point source of CO2 in the world and account for about 1% of projected global CO2 emissions. I’m sure that it would still be the largest point source of CO2, but since CO2 emissions have grown faster than projected in 1989, it would probably account for a smaller fraction of global CO2 emissions.

The alternative to venting CO2 to the atmosphere is to inject it into ground. This technology was also well known, since the oil industry had been injecting limited quantities of CO2 to enhance oil recovery. There were many questions about whether the CO2 would remain in the ground, some of which have been answered by Statoil’s now almost 20 years of experience injecting CO2 in the North Sea. Statoil did this because the Norwegian government placed a tax on vented CO2. It was cheaper for Statoil to inject CO2 than pay the tax. Of course, Statoil has touted how much CO2 it has prevented from being emitted.

In the 1980s, Exxon needed to understand the potential for concerns about climate change to lead to regulation that would affect Natuna and other potential projects. They were well ahead of the rest of industry in this awareness. Other companies, such as Mobil, only became aware of the issue in 1988, when it first became a political issue. Natural resource companies – oil, coal, minerals – have to make investments that have lifetimes of 50-100 years. Whatever their public stance, internally they make very careful assessments of the potential for regulation, including the scientific basis for those regulations. Exxon NEVER denied the potential for humans to impact the climate system. It did question – legitimately, in my opinion – the validity of some of the science.

Political battles need to personify the enemy. This is why liberals spend so much time vilifying the Koch brothers – who are hardly the only big money supporters of conservative ideas. In climate change, the first villain was a man named Donald Pearlman, who was a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. (In another life, he was instrumental in getting the U.S. Holocaust Museum funded and built.) Pearlman’s usefulness as a villain ended when he died of lung cancer – he was a heavy smoker to the end.

Then the villain was the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a trade organization of energy producers and large energy users. I was involved in GCC for a while, unsuccessfully trying to get them to recognize scientific reality. (That effort got me on to the front page of the New York Times, but that’s another story.) Environmental group pressure was successful in putting GCC out of business, but they also lost their villain. They needed one which wouldn’t die and wouldn’t go out of business. Exxon, and after its merger with Mobil ExxonMobil, fit the bill, especially under its former CEO, Lee Raymond, who was vocally opposed to climate change regulation. ExxonMobil’s current CEO, Rex Tillerson, has taken a much softer line, but ExxonMobil has not lost its position as the personification of corporate, and especially climate change, evil. It is the only company mentioned in Alyssa’s e-mail, even though, in my opinion, it is far more ethical that many other large corporations.

Having spent twenty years working for Exxon and ten working for Mobil, I know that much of that ethical behavior comes from a business calculation that it is cheaper in the long run to be ethical than unethical. Safety is the clearest example of this. ExxonMobil knows all too well the cost of poor safety practices. The Exxon Valdez is the most public, but far from the only, example of the high cost of unsafe operations. The value of good environmental practices are more subtle, but a facility that does a good job of controlling emission and waste is a well run facility, that is probably maximizing profit. All major companies will tell you that they are trying to minimize their internal CO2 emissions. Mostly, they are doing this by improving energy efficiency and reducing cost. The same is true for internal recycling, again a practice most companies follow. Its just good engineering.

Some More Thoughts on Greece -- When European Charity Runs Out, All That is Left is Inflation

People keep talking about reducing Greek debt to a sustainable level, but part of the problem is that there is not such level.  Even at zero.  The problem is that Greece is running a government deficit even before any debt service, so if creditors were to waive all of its debt, it would still need to be borrowing new money tomorrow.  Debt forgiveness is not enough -- what the Greeks need is for Europe to write off all its debt, and then (having lost all their money on the old debt) start lending new money immediately.  Note also that any bailout agreement reached this month will just put everyone back in the exact same place a few months from now.

This situation cannot be expected to change any time soon, for a variety of reasons from demographics (Greece has the oldest population in Europe, and a relatively rich pension system) to ideology (the current pseudo-Marxist government will never implement the reforms needed to turn the economy around, even if they promise to do so under duress).

With structural solutions unlikely, Greece has only the options of charity and inflation. Greece still seems to be hoping for charity, which they make harder by spewing derision at the same folks whom they are begging for alms.  Europe, certainly Germany, is in no mood to be charitable any longer, but may still do so depending on their calculation about which action -- bailout or exit -- has the worse long-term consequences for keeping Portugal, Spain, and Italy both in the Euro and continuing to pay their debts.

Lacking charity, the only thing left is inflation.  Some folks think I am advocating that option.  I am not.  The best possible hope for Greece is to slash its economic regulation, privatize business, and cut back on the public sector -- but that is not going to happen with the current government.  Or maybe any government.

I say inflation is the only option because that is what balances the budget and "solves" debt problems when politicians are unable or unwilling to make any hard choices.  It is sort of the default.  If they can't balance the budget or figure out how to pay off debt, then inflation does it for them by reducing the value of pensions and outstanding debts**.  This is what will happen with a Grexit -- a massive bout of devaluation and inflation what will greatly reduce the value of any IOU, whether it be a pension or a bank deposit.

Eventually, the one good thing that comes from inflation and devaluation is that the country becomes really cheap to outsiders.  Tourists will flock in and olive oil will sell well internationally as the new drachma loses its value, creating value for people holding stronger currencies and potentially forming the basis for some sort of economic revival.  My wife and I decided a few months back to postpone the Greek vacation we wanted this year -- too much turmoil is still possible -- and wait for it to be a bargain in 2016 or 2017.

 

**Postscript:  This is exactly why the Euro is both immensely seductive and a dangerous trap for countries like Greece.  Seductive, because it could pursue any sort of destructive banana republic fiscal policy it wished and still have a strong currency.  A trap because it can no longer print money and inflate away its debt problems.

Trade and The World's Most Misunderstood Accounting Identity: Y=C+I+G+X-M

Repeat after me:  Y=C+I+G+X-M is an accounting rule.  It does not explain anything about the economy.  It is as useful to telling us anything interesting about the economy as the equation biomass=plants+animals+bacteria tells us anything about the ecosystem.

Which is why this kind of article in the press makes me crazy (emphasis added)

The U.S. trade gap narrowed in April as the effects of a West Coast port slowdown faded, easing one of the biggest drags on economic growth during the opening months of the year....

This year’s volatile import and export figures worked out to an overall drag on the economy in the opening months of 2015....

A surge in imports and falling exports subtracted 1.9 percentage points from the headline figure. As measured by GDP, exports are a positive for economic growth, while imports are a negative...

“The huge drag on GDP from trade in Q1 will almost certainly not be repeated in Q2,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

Here is the logic.  The GDP is calculated by adding Consumer spending + Industrial spending + Government spending + eXports and then subtracting iMports.  Because imports are subtracted in the GDP equation, they look to the layman like they shrink the economy.  How do we grow the economy?  Why, let's reduce that number that is subtracted!  But this is wrong.  Totally wrong.   I have tried many times to explain this, but let me see if I can work by analogy.

Let's say we wanted an equation to count the amount of clothing we owned.  To make things simple, let's say we are only concerned with the total of Shirts, Pants, and Underwear.   Most of our clothes are in the closet, so we say our clothes are equal to the S+P+U we count in our closet.  But wait, we may have Loaned clothes to other people.  Those are not in our closet but should count.  So now clothes = S+P+U+L.  But we may also have borrowed clothes.  Some of those clothes we counted in the closet may be Borrowed and thus not actually ours, so we need to back these out.  Our final equation is clothes = S+P+U+L-B.  Look familiar?

Let's go further.  Let's say that we want to increase our number of clothes.  We want wardrobe growth!  Well, it looks like those borrowed clothes are a "drag" on our wardrobe size.  If we get rid of the borrowed clothes, that negative B term will get smaller and our wardrobe has to get larger, right?

Wrong.  Remember, like the GDP equation, our wardrobe size equation is just an accounting identity.  The negative B term was put in to account for the fact that some of the clothes we counted in S+P+U in the closet were not actually ours.  But if we decrease B, say by returning our friend's shirt, the S term will go down by the exact same amount.  Sure, B goes down, but so do the number of shirts we count in the closet.  So focusing on the B term gets us nowhere.

But it is actually worse than that, because focusing on reducing B makes us worse off.  If B rises, our wardrobe is no larger, but we get the use of all of those other pieces of clothing.  Our owned wardrobe may not be any larger but we get access to more choices and clothing possibilities.  When we drive B down to zero, our wardrobe is no larger and we are worse off with fewer choices.

Returning to the economy, I don't want to say that it's impossible for increases in imports to drag the economy.  For example, if oil prices rise, the imports number measured in dollars will likely rise, and the economy will likely be worse off as we have to give up buying other things to continue to buy the oil we need.  But, absent major price changes, drops in exports more likely just mirror drops in C+I+G.  If consumers are hurting, they spend less on everything, including imported goods.   At the end of the day, none of these numbers (Mr. Keynes, are you listening?) are independent variables.

Postscript:  By the way, the trade deficit is a mirage in another way - it looks at only a subset of trans-national financial transactions.   The flow of dollars is (mostly) always in balance.  So if we are net sending dollars overseas when trading hard goods, the dollars come back in foreign purchases of investments and financial goods (which aren't included in the trade numbers).  Saying we have a trade deficit is the same as saying we have a net investment surplus.  For you physical scientists out there, measuring the trade deficit is like drawing your box around the process wrong such that you miss some of the forces.

If you really want to know our trade problem, it's not the trade deficit per se, but the fact that the funds coming back via investments are largely invested in value-destroying government debt rather than productive investments.

Kevin Drum Claims "We" Haven't Learned Anything from Deepwater Horizon. What you mean, "we," Kemo Sabe?'

Kevin Drum claims that "we" haven't learned anything from the Deepwater Horizon disaster (the BP oil rig that exploded five years ago in the Gulf, killing a number of people and creating a large oil spill).

What is his evidence?  Has he looked at oil company drilling practices and found them unchanged since the disaster?  No, he does not mention any evidence based on observed drilling practices one way or another.  His sole evidence that "we" have not learned anything is that the US Government has not shut down drilling in the Gulf and has not passed any new laws.

This is almost a caricature of progressive thinking -- nothing matters except what the government does.  But presumably oil companies have been influenced by the cost of the disaster on BP.  So far BP has paid out about $30 billion (billion with a B) in reparations and restoration expenses and may be facing another $20 or so billion in fines based on a 2014 court decision.  All this ignores the loss of the platform itself, of access to the resource below the platform, and of BP's reputation.

One would presume that the prospect of losing $50+ billion would be enough to get the attention of private companies and cause them to make changes to their procedures.  I suppose it is also possible that they completely ignored this, but Drum offers no evidence one way or another.  To him, anything not done by the government is irrelevant.

Awesome Homemade Donuts, Gluten Free Too

After dissing the Food Babe in the last post, I guess I need to recover some karma.  The whole gluten-free thing has been justly skewered (e.g. here) because the vast majority of people who want to live gluten-free have no biological justification for doing so.    That being said, there are people who are legitimately gluten-intolerant, like my mother-in-law.

When she visited, I knew nothing about gluten-free stuff.  But I bought this home-made gluten-free donut mix and a donut baking pan from Amazon based on the reviews.  Well, screw the gluten-free part, these things were awesome.  And really easy to make.  No vats of oil, they are just baked.  Recommended even for us wheat-eaters.

The Face of Cronyism

Via Reason:

Billionaire John Catsimatidis is NY: Geraldo Rivera Hosts Wife Erica's 40th Birthday Partyworking to slip a biofuel mandate that would add $150 million to New Yorkers’ heat expenses into the state budget just as a company he owns completes construction of the largest biofuel plant in the region.

The New York Post reports that Catsimatidis’ lobbyists are putting the pressure on State senators to slip a provision that would require all heating oil sold in New York to contain “2 percent or more of soybean oil and/or spent vegetable oils.”

He is a close friend of the Clintons.  Expect a total crony feeding fest should Hillary get elected President,