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Archive for April, 2010

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released its first look at Q1 GDP growth this morning. BEA estimates that GDP grew at a solid 3.2% annual pace in the first quarter. That’s slower than the 5.6% pace of the previous quarter, but is otherwise the strongest showing since the third quarter of 2007.

The following chart illustrates how much various types of economic activity added to (or subtracted from) first quarter growth:

The big story is the return of the American consumer. Their spending increased at a 3.6% pace during the first quarter, the fastest pace in three years. (Consumer spending added 2.6 percentage points to overall growth because it makes up about 70% of the economy).

Business investment in equipment and software (E&S) showed continued strength, rising at a 13.4% pace (and adding 0.8 percentage points to overall growth). That’s down from the blistering 19% recorded in the fourth quarter, but is still remarkably strong.

Inventories–the big story in Q4–continued to boost growth as well. Inventories actually increased in the first quarter, after seven quarters of declines.

On the downside, construction continued to suffer, with both housing and non-residential structures declining. Government spending fell as well, as reduced spending by state and local governments more than offset a moderate increase in purchases by the federal government.

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Several colleagues recently suggested that now is a propitious time to read (or re-read) Paul Blustein’s “The Chastening.” The book recounts how the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the G-7 nations struggled to combat the Asian, Russian, and Latin American economic crises of the late 1990s.

Having read the book while flying back and forth across the nation, I heartily agree. The Chastening is a great read if you want to get up to speed on many of the issues now posed by the “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain).

I particularly enjoyed (if that’s the right word) the number of characters, familiar from today’s Greece debacle, that appear in the book. For example:

* The government that used derivatives to hide its perilous financial situation (Thailand)

* The German leaders who denounced the moral hazard created by sovereign bailouts (most notably Hans Tietmeyer)

* The policymakers facing doubts (often well-founded) about whether assistance packages could really help or were just postponing the inevitable (and, in the meantime, bailing out some unsympathetic creditors).

With the benefit of ten years more hindsight, readers can also enjoy a certain “you ain’t seen nothing yet” thrill from passages about how scary the financial world looked during the crises of the late 1990s.

[Alan Greenspan the] Fed chief told the G-7 that in almost 50 years of watching the U.S. economy, he had never witnessed anything like the drying up of markets in the previous days and weeks. (p. 334)

Unfortunately, we were all in for even worse in less than a decade. And now Greece is following in many of the steps of Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, and Brazil.

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This morning I participated in a panel discussion at the Milken Global Conference about the state of the economy. Here’s the video.

Fellow panelists were:

Ron Bloom, Senior Advisor, U.S. Treasury Department; White House Senior Counselor for Manufacturing Policy

John Engler, President and CEO, National Association of Manufacturers

Michael McCallister, President and CEO, Humana Inc.

David Simon, Chairman and CEO, Simon Property Group Inc.

Moderator: Ross DeVol, Executive Director, Economic Research, Milken Institute

We covered lots of material during the panel – policy responses to the financial crisis, stimulus, boosting exports, the fiscal outlook, etc. If you want to hear my budget stump speech, that begins at about 57:30 in the video.

At the end of the panel, Ross DeVol polled the audience about the strength of the economy. A whopping 52% said they thought the economy would be weaker in the next few years than is predicted by the consensus of economic forecasters. Several of the panelists agreed (including me with the caveat that this year may surprise on the upside). But the contrarian in me is wondering whether this agreement might itself be a sign that the economy will be stronger than anticipated.

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Bob Litan of the Brookings Institution recently penned an excellent overview of the issues surrounding derivatives regulation, with a particular focus on credit default swaps (CDS). “The Derivative Dealers’ Club and Derivatives Markets Reform: A Guide for Policy Makers, and Other Interested Parties,” is really two pieces in one: a primer on derivatives policy and a warning about the power that a few firms now exercise over CDS markets.

Bob’s recommendations for reform (which I have numbered for convenience) are:

1. Induce or require “standardized” derivatives to be “cleared” on central clearinghouses rather than handled by dealers, acting on behalf of each of the parties (the buyer and seller) to these contracts.

2. Establish the conditions that will induce derivatives that are centrally cleared to be traded on exchanges or an equivalent transparent platform, as is now the case generally with stocks and futures contracts.

3. Ensure that adequate reserves – in the form of capital or margin – are held against all trades that are not centrally cleared.

4. Require the margin or collateral backing derivatives positions to be held either in segregated accounts or by third parties (such as a central clearinghouse) so that these funds cannot be co-mingled with other assets of dealers.

5. For derivatives that are both centrally cleared and traded on exchanges, regulators should ensure that the transaction prices and volumes of derivatives transactions are posted promptly on the equivalent of a “ticker” (post-trade transparency), while also ensuring that the prices at which buyers are willing to trade (the “bids”) and sellers willing to sell (the “asks”) are made public so that all parties, not just the dealers, know the state of the market at any given time (pre-trade transparency). I believe that a price ticker, or something close to it, should be in place even without central clearing and/or exchange trading.

Of course, much of the heavy lifting will be deciding which derivatives are “standardized.”

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A new working paper from the Atlanta Fed identifies a key reason why some subprime mortgage borrowers have defaulted and some haven’t: differences in numerical ability (ht: Torsten S.).

In “Financial Literacy and Subprime Mortgage Delinquency,” Kristopher Gerardi, Lorenz Goette, and Stephan Meier examine how the financial literacy of individual subprime borrowers (as measured through a survey) relates to mortgage outcomes. They find a big effect:

Foreclosure starts are approximately two-thirds lower in the group with the highest measured level of numerical ability compared with the group with the lowest measured level. The result is robust to controlling for a broad set of sociodemographic variables and not driven by other aspects of cognitive ability or the characteristics of the mortgage contracts.

20 percent of the borrowers in the bottom quartile of our financial literacy index have experienced foreclosure, compared to only 5 percent of those in the top quartile. Furthermore, borrowers in the bottom quartile of the index are behind on their mortgage payments 25 percent of the time, while those in the top quartile are behind approximately 10 percent of the time.

Interestingly, this effect is not due to differences in the mortgages that borrowers selected (e.g., it’s not that the less-numerically-able chose systematically bad mortgages*) or obvious socioeconomic factors (e.g., it’s not that the less-numerically-able had lower incomes).

Instead it appears that the less-numerically-able are more likely to make financial mistakes once they have their mortgages. As the authors note, this conclusion is consistent with other studies that examine how financial literacy relates to saving and spending choices over time. All of which is further evidence of the potential benefits of better financial (and numerical) education.

* The authors note one caveat on the conclusion about mortgage terms: The survey covered “individuals between 1 and 2 years after their mortgage had been originated,” but many subprime defaults happened more quickly than that. As a result, their results don’t address whether financial literacy played a role in determining which borrowers ended up in mortgages that blew up very rapidly.

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Over at the New Yorker, Ken Auletta has a fascinating piece about the future of publishing as the book world goes digital. Highly recommended if you a Kindle lover, an iPad enthusiast, or a Google watcher (or, like me, all three).

The article also describes an unusual battle between book publishers and Amazon about the pricing of electronic books:

Amazon had been buying many e-books from publishers for about thirteen dollars and selling them for $9.99, taking a loss on each book in order to gain market share and encourage sales of its electronic reading device, the Kindle. By the end of last year, Amazon accounted for an estimated eighty per cent of all electronic-book sales, and $9.99 seemed to be established as the price of an e-book. Publishers were panicked. David Young, the chairman and C.E.O. of Hachette Book Group USA, said, “The big concern—and it’s a massive concern—is the $9.99 pricing point. If it’s allowed to take hold in the consumer’s mind that a book is worth ten bucks, to my mind it’s game over for this business.”

As an alternative, several publishers decided to push for

an “agency model” for e-books. Under such a model, the publisher would be considered the seller, and an online vender like Amazon would act as an “agent,” in exchange for a thirty-per-cent fee.

That way, the publishers would be able to set the retail price themselves, presumably at a higher level that the $9.99 favored by Amazon.

Ponder that for a moment. Under the original system, Amazon paid the publishers $13.00 for each e-book. Under the new system, publishers would receive 70% of the retail price of an e-book. To net $13.00 per book, the publishers would thus have to set a price of about $18.50 per e-book, well above the norm for electronic books. Indeed, so far above the norm that it generally doesn’t happen:

“I’m not sure the ‘agency model’ is best,” the head of one major publishing house told me. Publishers would collect less money this way, about nine dollars a book, rather than thirteen; the unattractive tradeoff was to cede some profit in order to set a minimum price.

The publisher could also have noted a second problem with this strategy: publishers will sell fewer e-books because of the increase in retail prices.

Through keen negotiating, the publishers have thus forced Amazon to (a) pay them less per book and (b) sell fewer of their books. Not something you see everyday.

All of which yields a great topic for a microeconomics or business strategy class: Can the long-term benefit (to publishers) of higher minimum prices justify the near-term costs of lower sales and lower margins?

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The United States Treasury is Citigroup’s largest common shareholder, owning 7.7 billion shares, or about 27% of the company. Which raised an interesting issue at today’s annual meeting: how should the Treasury vote its shares?

Treasury answered as follows:

As we have previously stated, Treasury is a reluctant shareholder in private companies and intends to dispose of its TARP investments as quickly as practicable.  When it acquired the Citigroup common shares, Treasury announced that it would retain the discretion to vote only on core shareholder issues, including the election of directors;  amendments to corporate charters or bylaws; mergers, liquidations and  substantial asset sales; and significant common stock issuances.  At the time of the exchange, Treasury agreed with Citigroup that it would vote on all other matters proportionately–that is, in the same proportion (for, against or abstain) as all other shares of the company’s stock are voted with respect to each such matter.  Treasury is abiding by the same principles in the few other companies in which it owns common shares, which are very few, as most TARP investments were in the form of nonvoting preferred stock.

Those sound like good principles. So how did Treasury actually vote?

Treasury voted FOR three ballot proposals:

  • 15 Nominees to the Board of Directors
  • To issue $1.7 billion of “common stock equivalents” to workers in lieu of cash incentive compensation (a way to conserve cash that Citi agreed to in a deal to repay some TARP money)
  • Reverse stock split

Treasury voted PROPORTIONALLY on the remaining proposals:

  • Ratify KPMG as the firm’s accountant
  • An increase in shares for a stock incentive plan
  • Executive compensation (nonbinding “say on pay”)
  • A “Tax Benefits Protection Plan” which discourages ownership changes that would reduce the value of Citi’s $46 billion in deferred tax assets
  • Six shareholder proposals covering such issues as corporate governance and political activity.

Treasury emphasizes that its proportional votes don’t mean it lacks an opinion on these proposals. Referring to two corporate governance proposals, for example, Treasury noted that it may have a policy preference but:

Treasury believes that it would be inappropriate to use its power as a shareholder to advance a position on matters of public policy and believes such issues should be decided by Congress, the SEC or through other proper governmental forums in a manner that applies generally to companies.  For this reason, and because voting on such matters was not necessary in order to fulfill its EESA responsibilities, Treasury refrained from exercising a discretionary vote.

Although Treasury expressed that view with respect to the corporate governance provisions, I can’t help but wonder what it felt about the “Tax Benefits Preservation Plan.”

You can see all the proposals in Citigroup’s proxy statement.

Disclosure: I own no Citigroup securities of any kind (see this post for a summary of my previous thoughts about Citi securities).

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Suppose you’ve got a successful business, selling your product to a diverse set of customers. Life is good. But you’d like to increase profits even more. What should you do?

One option from the MBA playbook (among many) is to think creatively about your pricing. Maybe there’s a way to distinguish your customers from each other and charge them different prices. Perhaps you can charge higher prices to some of your existing customers without driving them away or charge lower prices to folks who aren’t yet buying from you, or a combination of the two.

Businesses have myriad ways of doing this but, not surprisingly, the web has opened up new vistas. Saturday’s New York Times has an interesting article about the extent to which web coupons can be used to distinguish customers, track their behavior, and optimize marketing and pricing strategies (ht Diana):

The coupon efforts are nascent, but coupon companies say that when they get more data about how people are responding, they can make different offers to different consumers.

“Over time,” Mr. Treiber said, “we’ll be able to do much better profiling around certain I.P. addresses, to say, hey, this I.P. address is showing a proclivity for printing clothing apparel coupons and is really only responding to coupons greater than 20 percent off.”

That alarms some privacy advocates.

Companies can “offer you, perhaps, less desirable products than they offer me, or offer you the same product as they offer me but at a higher price,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the United States Public Interest Research Group, which has asked the Federal Trade Commission for tighter rules on online advertising. “There really have been no rules set up for this ecosystem.”

The web thus offers new ways for companies to pursue the holy grail (from their point of view) of pricing: the ability to personalize prices for each potential customer.

Needless to say, this is sometimes bad news for consumers. After all, increased information can allow firms to jack up prices to consumers that the firms believe are unlikely to stop buying.

Less appreciated, however, is the fact that this can benefit consumers as well. For example, increased information can sometimes help firms offer lower prices to select customers who wouldn’t otherwise choose to purchase.

Without further information, it’s hard to know how such creative pricing will affect consumers in the aggregate. Except that the variety of prices will increase, making more of the marketplace look like the airline industry, in which it sometimes seems as though every seat was sold for a different price.

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Today’s housing data are driving some optimistic headlines about the 1.6% increase in housing starts in March and the upward revisions to February data. Looking a bit deeper, however, one finds that single-family starts actually fell in March; all of the gain came in multi-family units.

As I’ve noted in previous posts (here, for example), I think it’s useful to look not only at the number of housing starts, but also at the number of houses under construction (which reflects the pace of both starts and completions). Why? Because that gives us a sense of how much construction activity is actually taking place:

As you would expect, the chart shows that the number of single-family homes under construction fell off a cliff in early 2006. Almost 1 million new single family homes were under construction in February 2006. Today there are just 305,000.

The precipitous decline ended last summer, and housing construction has now been flat for several months.

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The first rule of hospitals is to try to stay out of them. Unfortunately, that rule must sometimes be broken. So let me suggest a second rule: no one should be alone in a hospital.

Hospitals can work miracles, saving lives and improving quality of life. But they can still be dangerous and (ironically) inhospitable places. Patients need someone by their side not just to provide comfort, but often to monitor their care and act as their advocate.

A natural corollary is that patients should be free to choose as their companions and advocates whomever they most trust in those roles.

I thus find it astounding that, at least until last night, hospitals could refuse to honor advance directives in which a patient had specified who they wanted to have visitation rights and the power to make decisions on their behalf. As President Obama wrote in a memo to HHS Secretary Sebelius:

Yet every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides — whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay. Often, a widow or widower with no children is denied the support and comfort of a good friend. Members of religious orders are sometimes unable to choose someone other than an immediate family member to visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf.

Also uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives — unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated.

The President’s executive order forbids this conduct for any hospitals that receive Medicare or Medicaid money:

It should be made clear that designated visitors, including individuals designated by legally valid advance directives (such as durable powers of attorney and health care proxies), should enjoy visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those that immediate family members enjoy.

You should also provide that participating hospitals may not deny visitation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The rulemaking should take into account the need for hospitals to restrict visitation in medically appropriate circumstances as well as the clinical decisions that medical professionals make about a patient’s care or treatment.

Sounds right to me.

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