Archive for December, 2008

Tiny Bubbles

bubbles-floatingMy vote for 2008 word of the year is bubble.  (With Ponzi scheme being a close second only because it’s top of mind right now.)

We’ve seen so many bubbles come and go, many bursting in the last year.  Housing bubble, stock market bubble, CDO bubble, Wall Street salary bubble, debt bubble, and now a divorce bubble.  Kind of makes you nostalgic for the Internet bubble, doesn’t it?

We’ve even had a labor bubble.  In the auto industry, most of today’s at-risk workers should have been laid off years ago as Detroit rationalized its businesses.  Instead, GM et al hung on for dear life and the labor force remained too large while the air went out of the market.  Now we’re facing all of those job losses at the same time.

Like a tub full of soap suds, these bubbles have decayed into a single, giant, “mother-of-all” bubble.  Which, naturally, has popped in turn.  And as Paul Krugman wrote recently in a New York Times op-ed, there aren’t any more bubbles left.  No wonder we’re in such a mess.

It’s not for lack of trying, though.  We want things to go back to the way they were before.  Despite what they might be saying, the Treasury, the Fed, Congress, and others are all essentially trying to re-inflate the world.  Refinance mortgages!  Force banks to issue more debt!   Buy distressed assets!  Stop foreclosures!  Loosen credit and people will spend money!  Get house prices back up!

(Isn’t this what got us into trouble in the first place? Do we really believe that easing credit will get people to buy cars when they’re worried about whether they’ll have a job?)

But the rips in the fabric are too large, and our sources of air are far too small.  Using TARP and other Fed/Treasury funds to re-expand the “mother bubble” is like trying to fill a hot-air balloon with a bicycle pump.

dickens_oliver_twistWorse yet, every one is now lining up for their bowl of gruel–finance firms that want to be bank holding companies, auto executives trying to build cars no one will buy, mall owners who can’t pay their mortgages, etc.  Who’s next, I wonder?

Please sir, I want some more.

Despite the comic relief I got watching auto execs jump through hoops for doggie treats (or this gem of a parody here), that way lies madness.

Even if we could find a big enough pump, prices have to reach a bottom eventually, so markets will clear. There is no pain-free recession.  The alternative is wide speculative swings and an oscillating market.

Prices drop through the floor (too low), then rebound to new heights (too high).  Lather, rinse, repeat.  We’ve seen this before when the Internet bubble was followed by a bull market fueled by debt and mortgage speculation.

Already, many believe housing in some areas is severely underpriced, as is the stock market.  CDOs and other “toxic paper” brought us to this tipping point because prices sank to artificially low levels,  driven down by mark-to-illiquid-market accounting.

We’ll see this in the job market soon also.  Companies shed consultants and temp workers to minimize employee pain, then lay off full-timers as things worsen.  But soon they’re hiring back the same consultants because they can’t get the work done without them (yet still can’t afford full-time employees).  And so on.

Oscillation is dangerous.  Not only paralyzing, but confidence sapping.  And that keeps markets from working efficiently.  Even if we’re successful at finding another bubble (or reinflating this one), it’ll just lead to another downfall a few years from now.

We can shed light on this phenomenon by looking to the lessons of classical mechanics.  We need some damping in the system. [Yes, I’m  a recovering engineer.  “Hi, my name is Scott.”   “Hello Scott!”   “It’s been 237 days since my last Fourier Transform…”]

damping-3Oscillations are minimized by introducing  some mechanism to slow down the wild swings.  Ideally, you want things to be critically damped (the diagram on the right, above).  That means a smooth movement to an equilibrium state, with no oscillations.  Think of the way a door closer works in your office building–smooth and easy–vs. the way saloon doors swing back and forth.

undershootEconomists, of course, call this a soft landing.

If we don’t critically dampen the system, we’ll have punishingly wild oscillations.  True, we can’t banish economic cycles.  But we should put in place safeguards that minimize the swings with only a small amount of undershoot.  (Blue line to the right).

In order to do that, we’ll need to find a way to “resegment” our large, sagging balloon, and use our available tools to reinflate a few of these markets, but on a much smaller scale.  Call them tiny bubbles.

A few ideas:

  • Admit that owning a house isn’t a good move for everyone.
  • As Robert Shiller suggests, create jobs.
  • Refinance at new rates but not new prices.  Let housing find its level.
  • Reinstitute the uptick rule.
  • Let some banks and businesses fail, but not whole industries.
  • Make banks lend, but only to credit-worthy clients.
  • Don’t bail out speculators.
  • Create public markets for CDOs.
  • Stop (temporarily?) marking illiquid assets to market.
  • Force higher capital requirements on banks when times are flush, and loosen them when the inevitable downcycle hits.

don-ho3What we don’t want at the bottom of this long fall is a trampoline. Rocketing us back up again simply creates oscillations, prolongs the fear and anguish, and delays finding a bottom in each market. Besides, there’s nothing to look forward to there but another long fall.

What we need instead of a trampoline is an air bag. Something to cushion the impact. Or better yet, that material they wrap packages in to keep the contents from getting crushed.

You know, the stuff with the tiny bubbles.

Disclosure: I hold no position in any stocks mentioned here.

Salutation: Happy New Year!

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December 31, 2008 at 12:52 pm 6 comments

Up And Down Vote

backpedaling3The Wall Street Journal had an article out yesterday that has created a real firestorm of controversy. It’s about how some of the large Internet players (such as GOOG, MSFT, and AMZN) are backpedaling on their previous Net Neutrality stances.

Moreover, they’re variously negotiating with telecablecos to gain “favored nation” or preferred treatment status on their networks.

Holy Turnaround, Batman!

Some writers quickly noted–here, and here–that Google at least is simply caching content closer to customers, just like Akamai (NASDAQ: AKAM) and other CDNs do. And that much of the Journal article reflects the kind of sensationalism many feared would appear once Rupert Murdoch (NYSE: NWS) bought the paper.

[As an aside, when I was doing research a year or two ago on Akamai, top management there vehemently denied my suggestions that they would ever be in competition with Google. Heh.]

If any of this is true, it’s a sad development, but hardly unexpected. As competition heats up for everything from ad serving to video downloads to cloud computing, everybody wants an edge. And they’re willing to pay for it.

Those that can afford to will get better services, better access, better distribution. Which means the little guys get shafted again. If you want to buy from Amazon, you get speedy page refreshes (not to mention faster access to things like S3). Google apps will work faster than, say, Zoho.

The rich do, indeed, get richer.arrow

This plays right into telecableco hands. It’s what they’ve been lobbying for, after all. (I can almost see the big, fat, spider sitting there in the middle of its web inviting them all in. ) The result will be a vertical model, with only a few players controlling the entire value chain, up and down.

If this was just about commerce, I’d be less concerned. But it’s also about access to information. And about control of content. Ultimately, it’s about exclusion and higher costs for everyone. As well as a loss of the kind of innovation that has made this country successful.

Imagine if TV stations were free to broadcast good signals from those advertisers (or news programs) that spent more. Everyone else, they deliver fuzzy pictures with the sound continually dropping out. Pay to play. Eventually, everyone gets their news and entertainment from a few large companies. Welcome to the 50’s. There’s progress for you.

Critics argue: “But as businesses they should be allowed to offer different levels of service”. If there was true competition at the last mile level, I’d be inclined to agree. However, most of the large telecablecos built their networks–and their competitive advantage–on the revenue streams from exclusive franchises and government mandated monopolies.

You and I paid for their broadband networks through our monthly TV and telephone bills, mostly at a time where we had no choices. Or they used the proceeds from bonds whose attractive terms were based on the existence of those same “guaranteed” payment streams, which is basically the same.

Now that the moats around them have been fortified, we shouldn’t think that they’re entitled to operate as normal businesses. Monopolies (or even duopolies) don’t get the same rights as firms in a free marketplace. It’s not that I believe Network Neutrality should be regulated. (I agree about the principle but not the solution.) It’s last mile competition where the natural monopoly lies, and that’s what should be regulated. Until it’s no longer a monopoly, or until the telecablecos no longer have insurmountable market power.

Or until there’s structural separation.

Many thinkers (at least the ones whose salaries don’t depend on the success of telecablecos), have long recognized the most efficient market structure is to go horizontal–one company does the infrastructure, one does the content. Each competes within its own level, but not up and down the stack.

horizontal-model

The PC industry helped this country thrive with the same model. Some companies built chips, some sold computers, some provided software. This drove innovation and helped keep costs low and falling. (Even the emergence of intra-level monopolies like Microsoft couldn’t halt the effect–some argue the standardization even helped.)

But now the big players are changing the game, in order to become even bigger. The Internet guys want to differentiate on performance, because they’re finally getting into each others businesses, and have to compete–some for the first time. The pipes guys want a piece of the content pie, because as network usage grows their costs go up, and they face resistance in trying to charge consumers more money for Internet access, especially as they’ve been billing flat rates for so long. But we will pay, one way or another.

Not everywhere, thankfully. Much of the rest of the world actually has competition in the last mile. They’ve created a more horizontal model, with providers competing “across” levels. If we fail to adopt this kind of structural separation in the U.S., we can watch our innovative spark and competitive advantages slowly drain away.

And just as many around the world laughed at us for voting to re-elect George Bush, they’ll laugh at us again, for voting to go “up and down”.

Disclosure: I hold no position in any of the stocks mentioned here.

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December 16, 2008 at 10:22 am Leave a comment


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Scott J. Berry, NY area

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