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Archive for October, 2011

Over on Quora, an anonymous author has a fascinating post about another dimension of Apple’s and Steve Jobs’ brilliance–managing its supply chain:

  1. Apple has access to new component technology months or years before its rivals. This allows it to release groundbreaking products that are actuallyimpossible to duplicate. Remember how for up to a year or so after the introduction of the iPhone, none of the would-be iPhone clones could even get a capacitive touchscreen to work as well as the iPhone’s? It wasn’t just the software – Apple simply has access to new components earlier, before anyone else in the world can gain access to it in mass quantities to make a consumer device. One extraordinary example of this is the aluminum machining technology used to make Apple’s laptops – this remains a trade secret that Apple continues to have exclusive access to and allows them to make laptops with (for now) unsurpassed strength and lightness.
  2. Eventually its competitors catch up in component production technology, but by then Apple has their arrangement in place whereby it can source those parts at a lower cost due to the discounted rate they have negotiated with the (now) most-experienced and skilled provider of those parts – who has probably also brought his production costs down too. This discount is also potentially subsidized by its competitors buying those same parts from that provider – the part is now commoditized so the factory is allowed to produce them for all buyers, but Apple gets special pricing.

Apple is not just crushing its rivals through superiority in design, Steve Jobs’s deep experience in hardware mass production (early Apple, NeXT) has been brought to bear in creating an unrivaled exclusive supply chain of advanced technology literally years ahead of anyone else on the planet. If it feels like new Apple products appear futuristic, it is because Apple really is sending back technology from the future.

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The New York Federal Reserve just posted an entertaining analysis of an “Internet blooper” that struck UAL, the parent company of United Airlines a few years ago. As authors Carlos Carvalho, Nicholas Klagge, and Emanuel Moench note in a blog post:

On September 8, 2008, a six-year-old article about the 2002 bankruptcy of United Airlines’ parent company resurfaced on the Internet and was mistakenly believed to be reporting a new bankruptcy filing by the company. This episode caused the company’s stock price to drop by as much as 76 percent in just a few minutes, before NASDAQ halted trading. After the “news” had been identified as false, the stock price rebounded, but still ended the day 11.2 percent below the previous close. Trading volumes skyrocketed during these extreme price movements. In subsequent days, the stock traded as much as 17 percent below its September 8 closing price, and on September 15 it finally traded above the price level seen just before the false news impacted the market.

In short, it took a week for the stock market to flush the “blooper” out of its system.

They then confirm that result using much more sophisticated techniques that allow them to estimate what UAL’s stock price would have been absent the false news:


For bonus points, they also find that similar, but smaller effects on the stock prices of other major airlines.

ht: Paul Kedrosky.

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Over at the New Republic, Bob Solow offers a thoughful review of Sylvia Nasar’s new book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Genius. Along the way, Solow provides a characteristically clear explanation of what he views as John Maynard Keynes most important contribution:

Back then [in the 1930s], serious thinking about the general state of the economy was dominated by the notion that prices moved, market by market, to make supply equal to demand. Every act of production, anywhere, generates income and potential demand somewhere, and the price system would sort it all out so that supply and demand for every good would balance. Make no mistake: this is a very deep and valuable idea. Many excellent minds have worked to refine it. Much of the time it gives a good account of economic life. But Keynes saw that there would be occasions, in a complicated industrial capitalist economy, when this account of how things work would break down.

The breakdown might come merely because prices in some important markets are too inflexible to do their job adequately; that thought had already occurred to others. It seemed a little implausible that the Great Depression of the 1930s should be explicable along those lines. Or the reason might be more fundamental, and apparently less fixable. To take the most important example: we all know that families (and other institutions) set aside part of their incomes as saving. They do not buy any currently produced goods or services with that part. Something, then, has to replace that missing demand. There is in fact a natural counterpart: saving today presumably implies some intention to spend in the future, so the “missing” demand should come from real capital investment, the building of new productive capacity to satisfy that future spending. But Keynes pointed out that there is no market or other mechanism to express when that future spending will come or what form it will take. Perhaps God has not yet even decided. The prospect of uncertain demand at some unknown time may not be an adequately powerful incentive for businesses to make risky investments today. It is asking too much of the skittery capital market. Keynes was quite aware that occasionally a wave of unbridled optimism might actually be too powerful an incentive, but anyone in 1936 would take the opposite case to be more likely.

So a modern economy can find itself in a situation in which it is held back from full employment and prosperity not by its limited capacity to produce, but by a lack of willing buyers for what it could in fact produce. The result is unemployment and idle factories. Falling prices may not help, because falling prices mean falling incomes and still weaker demand, which is not an atmosphere likely to revive private investment. There are some forces tending to push the economy back to full utilization, but they may sometimes be too weak to do the job in a tolerable interval of time. But if the shortfall of aggregate private demand persists, the government can replace it through direct public spending, or can try to stimulate additional private spending through tax reduction or lower interest rates. (The recipe can be reversed if private demand is excessive, as in wartime.) This was Keynes’s case for conscious corrective fiscal and monetary policy. Its relevance for today should be obvious. It is a vulgar error to characterize Keynes as an advocate of “big government” and a chronic budget deficit. His goal was to stabilize the private economy at a generally prosperous level of activity.

A second characteristically Keynesian theme meshes very well with the first. In a complex economy, many business decisions have to be made in a fog of uncertainty. This is especially true of investment decisions, as already discussed: a lot of money has to be placed at risk today in an enterprise whose future success can only be guessed. (Much the same can be said of consumer purchases of expensive durable goods.) The standard practice is to focus on the uncertainty and think about it in terms of probabilities, which at least allow for an orderly analysis and orderly decision-making. Keynes preferred to focus on the fog. He thought that some of the important uncertainties were essentially incalculable. They would end up being dealt with in practice by a mixture of apprehensiveness, rules of thumb, herd behavior, and what he called “animal spirits.” The point of this distinction is not merely philosophical: it suggests that long-term investment behavior will sometimes be irregular, unstable, and given to doldrums and stampedes. Expectations can be volatile, and transmit their volatility widely. Passive or perverse policy can be dangerous to the economy’s health.

Solow thus credits Keynes with pioneering the “uncertainty” meme, although in a different sense than many commentators invoke it today.

His whole review is well worth a read if you are interested in the history of economic thought, including Fisher, Hayek, and Schumpeter.

P.S. Solow’s comments on Hayek are less enthusiastic than for Keynes, but he does note that “the Mises-Hayek critique of central planning was convincing (and clearly confirmed by subsequent facts).”

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Over at Economic Principals, David Warsh summarizes 55 short papers about the big questions that face economics. Among the suggestions:

Most popular of the pitches, judging from the number of SSRN downloads, is, Why Don’t People and Institutions Do What They Know They Should?, by David Cutler, of Harvard University  (a pungent exploration of the complexity of aligning incentives within and among organizations); followed by A Complete Theory of Human Behavior, by Andrew Lo, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(confront and reconcile inconsistencies across disciplines, complete with summer camps for newly-minted PhDs);  Research Opportunities in Social and Economic Networks, by Matt Jackson, of Stanford University (study the patterns of interaction that most economic models abstract away); and Modeling and Measuring Systemic Risk, by Markus Brunnermeier, of Princeton University, Lars Peter Hansen and Anil Kashyap, both of the University of Chicago, Arvind Krishnamurthy, of Northwestern University, and Lo, of MIT (build network models and collect new and often sensitive data) .

In macroeconomics: Randall Krozsner, of the University of Chicago, offered a concise blueprint for improving the dialogue between financial economics and macro, beginning with more attention to economic history. Kenneth Rogoff, of Harvard, described a three-item wish list, including a better cost-benefit analysis of financial-market regulation. Martin Neil Baily, of the Brookings Institution, described a series of fundamental questions and appended a strong brief for evolutionary economics. Ricardo Reis, of Columbia University, suggested investigating more carefully the potential upside of transfer programs such as Medicaid, tuition assistance, disability insurance and early retirement for combating recessions. Glenn Hubbard, of Columbia, called for more modeling and estimation of fiscal policy multipliers “outside of the heat of battle of individual policy debates.” And Herbert Gintis, of the Santa Fe Institute, plumped for more agent-based modeling.

Read David’s entire post for many more.

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