I was taught that justice is a right that every American should have. Also justice should be the goal of every American. I think that’s what makes this country. To me, justice means the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment. Ultimately, it means fair treatment. So a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.
Those who support me, I appreciate your support. But at the same time, support the causes and the people and the injustices that you feel strongly about. Stand up for them. Speak up for them. No matter what it is because that’s what America’s about and that’s what this country was founded on.
I think I will take him up on that suggestion, this morning at Citigroup Headquarters, 399 Park Avenue (near 54th Street) at 10:30am, in part inspired by Liz Warren’s speech from last week. See you there!
I don’t have enough time for a full post today, but if you haven’t already, please watch Liz Warren’s speech from last Friday. She lays out the facts about Citigroup in an uncomplicated way. Surprising and refreshing coming from a politician.
There’s some tricky business going on right now in politics, with a bunch of ridiculous last-minute negotiations to roll back elements of Dodd-Frank and aid Wall Street banks in the current budget deal. Hell, it’s the end of the year, and people are distracted, so the public won’t mind if the banks get formal government backing for their risky trades, right?
Occupy the SEC has a petition you can sign, located here, which is opposed to these changes. You might remember Occupy the SEC for their incredible work in public comments on the Dodd-Frank bill in the first place. I urge you to go take a look at their petition and, if you agree with them, sign it.
After you sign the petition, feel free to treat yourself to some holiday satire and cheer, namely The 2014 Haters Guide To The Williams-Sonoma Catalog.
Having written a couple of guest posts about bubbles possibly inflating (college tuition, high end Manhattan condos), I thought it might be interesting to consider what a deflating bubble looks like.
A number of observers point to the oil markets, where the price of crude has fallen by about 30% since June of this year, to a multi-year low today of about $75.50 per barrel. Just last spring, Bloomberg was reporting on how the drilling and exploration business in the US was heavily dependent on the issuance of junk rated debt – over $160 billion worth by some measures – to fund the shale drilling that has been so popular lately. The junk debt had been popular because it was a source of relatively cheap funds, thanks in part to the Federal Reserve’s efforts with Quantitative Easing to drive down bond yields. Oil and shale exploration are expensive and there are quite a few people that believe that certain types of exploration only make economic sense when the price of oil is above a certain level – say $80 a barrel (or perhaps even higher). Now that the price of oil has plummeted, there is a possibility that a whole collection of oil drillings and mines are underwater, so to speak, and no longer profitable.
Funding a bunch of expensive exploration with junk bonds makes things complicated and speculative. For instance, a substantial portion of these junk offerings were purchased by issuers of collateralized loan obligations (CLO) and then rated (up to the AAA level), securitized and distributed to an audience of investors who may or may not have been investing in energy related debt otherwise. CLOs are being issued at a record pace, by the way, and 2014 is on track to be the highest issuance year ever, exceeding the pre-crisis peak in 2007 of $93 billion. If the energy exploration companies that issued junk debt are no longer profitable and getting squeezed by the falling price of oil, will that lead to a bunch of companies defaulting and then sending shockwaves through the securitized market, via CLOs? (Note – the CLO market is much smaller than the subprime mortgage backed collateralized debt obligation market got to be before the 2007 implosion and energy companies are only a portion of the total issuance).
One thing that happens when investable asset prices fall, is that a bunch of people think that maybe it means there’s a new buying opportunity – a chance to get a hot asset at a cheap price on the expectation that prices will spring back up again soon. That’s what a bunch of hedge funds did a couple of weeks ago, betting that the sharp fall in oil would turn around. And then it fell another 6 or 7% to today’s levels. If oil prices continue to fall, as some speculate may happen, that would be called “catching a falling knife” and the investors may end up feeling rather burned by their optimism. Once cut by the falling knife, some investors become reluctant to come back a re-test their theory on rising prices, and this can contribute to a negative spiral for the falling asset.
I learned from my father-in-law, who worked at an oil company his whole life until he retired, that the oil business is always complicated. Up and down, supply and demand; they don’t work the way you’d think they would. When oil prices go down, gasoline gets cheaper, so people drive more, which drives prices back up (unless people are driving less and buying fewer cars, as appears to be happening now, perhaps because of those darn millennials and their urbanization and bike riding). Plus, there’s international politics, with Russian, OPEC, the Middle East, China the drive for energy independence, solar power, etc. On the other hand, gasoline and home heating oil and such are getting cheaper, which is a nice bonus for consumers, particularly in more car dependent regions. The economy benefits from the effect of extra money in the hands of consumers as that money gets spent elsewhere (other than on oil executives third or fourth homes, presumably). Oil is complicated.
But oil can and does crash. When it does, it can have a wider adverse impact on local oil-dependent economies, like Texas in the 80’s or perhaps, North Dakota, today. While there are a number of mysterious factors at play in the current fall in oil prices, the knock-on effects are starting to pile up. Oil producers are cutting production, idling rigs and cutting prices to stay competitive. The somewhat worried sounding consensus is that there is “too much oil supply” currently. The speculative portion of the oil market will be hit hardest, i.e. the junk-debt fueled shale companies. At some point, investors in the CLOs (and regular debt) backed by this highly leveraged debt from companies that aren’t profitable anymore, are going to get nervous (yields on such debt are already quite a bit higher) and start selling. In all likelihood, some exploration companies will fail. I wouldn’t describe it as a fear environment yet – in many cases the junk debt from exploration companies doesn’t come due for a few years – but the seeds of worry have been planted on fertile ground. One observer described the current environment as a “negative bubble”, with a herd mentality driving investors away from any optimistic assumptions for the market.
Why should we care? For most consumers, the most likely impact of a continuing deflation in oil prices will, as I mentioned, be cheaper gas and heating costs. When the housing market crashed, the negative impact was mostly felt by average Americans, as wealth was destroyed up and down the block, whereas the oil market seems very different and more removed. Still, it’s fascinating and instructive to watch the dynamics of a (potential) collapse of a bubble – on exploration, shale, oil prices, international politics – and the odds are high for unexpected consequences and global volatility. What will happen to the recent growth in solar and other renewable energies, if the price of the competing product gets much cheaper? What about the local politics of fracking? What kind of exposure do banks have to the oil markets and will it trigger any regulatory issues? What will happen to the international politicians, who like moving chess pieces around the Middle East map if oil-producing countries lose their political clout? Also, it’s odd that the Fed’s efforts to fight deflation have contributed, in part, to a price collapse of a crucial commodity, via QE-fueled easy money helping to push oil producers to dig up too much oil? How will the Fed react to this challenge?
I don’t know the answer, nor do I expect anyone else does either. But oil and energy are hugely important issues to most Americans (and the people of other countries, too, obviously) and to the national and global economies – not as big as housing, but pretty close. What happens in the next few months may affect many of us and it bears watching how our regulators, politicians, mega-companies and generals respond to the emerging (potential) collapse.
For the sake of the essay, we coined the term “marble columns” to mean the opposite of “broken windows.” Instead of getting arrested for nothing, you never get arrested, as long as you work at a company with marble columns. For more, take a look at the whole piece!
Also, my good friend and bandmate Tom Adams (our band, the Tomtown Ramblers, is named after him) will be covering for me on mathbabe for the next few days while I’m away in Haiti. Please make him feel welcome!
Yesterday at the Alt Banking meeting we had a special speaker and member, Josh Snodgrass (not his real name), come talk to us about Bitcoin, the alternative “cryptocurrency”. I’ll just throw together some fun and provocative observations that came from the meeting.
- First, Josh demonstrated how quickly you can price alternative currencies, by giving out a few of our Alt Banking “52 Shades of Greed” cards and stipulating that the jacks (I had a jack) were worth 1 “occudollar” but the 2’s (I also had a 2) were worthy 1,000,000,000 occudollars. Then he paid me $1 for my jack, which made me a billionaire. After thinking for a minute, I paid him $5 to get my jack back, which made me a multibillionaire. Come to think of it I don’t think I got that $5 back after the meeting.
- There’s a place you can have lunch in the city that accepts Bitcoin. I think it’s called Pita City.
- The idea behind Bitcoin is that you don’t have to have a trustworthy middleman in order to buy stuff with it. But in fact, the “bitcoin wallet” companies are increasingly playing the role of the trusted middlemen, especially considering it takes on average 10 minutes, but sometimes up to 40 minutes, of computing time to finish a transaction. If you want to leave the lunch place after lunch, you’d better have a middleman that the shop owner trusts or you could be sitting there for a while.
- People compare bitcoin to other alternative currencies like the Ithaca Hours, but there are two very important differences.
- First, Ithaca Hours, and other local currencies, are explicitly intended to promote local businesses: you pay for your bread with them, and the bread company you give money to buys ingredients with them, and they need to buy from someone who accepts them, which is by construction a local business.
- Second, local currencies like the Madison East Side Babysitting Coop’s “popsicle currency” are very low tech, used my middle class people to represent labor, whereas Bitcoin is highly technical and used primarily by technologists and other fancy people.
- There is class divide and a sophistication divide here, in other words.
- Speaking of sophistication, we had an interesting discussion about whether it would ever make sense to have bitcoin banks and – yes – fractional reserve bitcoin banking. On the one hand, since there’s a limit to the number of overall bitcoins, you can’t have everyone pretending they can pay a positive interest rate on all the bitcoin every year, but on the other hand a given individual can always write a contract saying they’d accept 100 bitcoins now and pay back 103 in a year, because it might just be a bet on the dollar value of bitcoins in a year. And in the meantime that person can lend out bitcoins to people, knowing full well they won’t all be spent at once. Altogether that looks a lot like fractional reserve bitcoin banking, which would effectively increase the number of bitcoins in circulation.
- Also, what about derivatives based on bitcoins? Do they already exist?
- Remaining question: will bitcoins ever actually be usable and trustworthy for people to send money to their families across the world below the current cost? And below the cost of whatever disruptions are being formulated in the money business by Paypal and Google and whoever else?
Update: there will be a Bitcoin Hackathon at NYU next weekend (hat tip Chris Wiggins). More info here.
I’ve been heads down writing this week but I wanted to share a bunch of great stuff coming out.
- Here’s a great interview with machine learning expert Michael Jordan on various things including the big data bubble (hat tip Alan Fekete). I had a similar opinion over a year ago on that topic. Update: here’s Michael Jordan ranting about the title for that interview (hat tip Akshay Mishra). I never read titles.
- Have you taken a look at Janet Yellen’s speech on inequality from last week? She was at a conference in Boston about inequality when she gave it. It’s a pretty amazing speech – she acknowledges the increasing inequality, for example, and points at four systems we can focus on as reasons: childhood poverty and public education, college costs, inheritances, and business creation. One thing she didn’t mention: quantitative easing, or anything else the Fed has actual control over. Plus she hid behind the language of economics in terms of how much to care about any of this or what she or anyone else could do. On the other hand, maybe it’s the most we could expect from her. The Fed has, in my opinion, already been overreaching with QE and we can’t expect it to do the job of Congress.
- There’s a cool event at the Columbia Journalism School tomorrow night called #Ferguson: Reporting a Viral News Story (hat tip Smitha Corona) which features sociologist and writer Zeynep Tufekci among others (see for example this article she wrote), with Emily Bell moderating. I’m going to try to go.
- Just in case you didn’t see this, Why Work Is More And More Debased (hat tip Ernest Davis).
- Also: Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong (hat tip Natasha Blakely).
- Jesse Eisenger visits the defense lawyers of the big banks and writes about his experience (hat tip Aryt Alasti).
After writing this list, with all the hat tips, I am once again astounded at how many awesome people send me interesting things to read. Thank you so much!!