Saturday, March 28, 2009

Book Review (#4 of 2009)

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson


I'm recommending we require all Eco/Fin majors by this and that we use chapters of it for all the appropriate classes. PBS has also made a documentary of it, so it'd be like using Commanding Heights.

Ferguson is a professor of history and business administration at Harvard. The book is indeed a history of finance and a history of the (Western) world through the lens of financial evolution. Published mid-2008, it gives a great overview of how we got to our current financial crisis and similarities to previous crises.

From the invention of fiat money causing the French Revolution, to microfinance combating poverty today, Ferguson does a great job tying everything together. In latter chapters he quotes (but also challenges) others I've read over the years, like Joe Stiglitz and Thomas Perkins. He also hails the merits of behavior finance and decries the "short-term capital mismanagement" of the quants at LTCM in the 90s.

Superbly done. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Rick Barnes...

...will be the next UK coach. I'm just sayin'. And I hope I'm right.

Sorry I left him off my previous list, I just forgot that Barnhart targeted him back in '07.

My next 2 cents on firing Billy Gillispie-- FAIL

CBS' Gregg Doyel nails it in this piece. (HT: Matt Jones)
I'm hearing that Gillispie's quote -- being an ambassador for UK "wasn't on the job description" for the UK coach -- made its way to the school president. And when it got there, Gillispie was finished...

Regardless of how he handled himself away from his job, Gillispie had burned bridges all over the place with his brusque manner. He was Rick Majerus, minus the fat jokes, ripping into school radio hosts and national sideline reporters and athletic department employees and even fans who called his weekly show. Many of his players, even players he recruited to Kentucky, detested him.

Understand, you can be a jerk and keep your job as a college basketball coach as long as you win at the right level...

Of course, the skeletons are coming out of the closet now. Gillispie did bad things to the players, etc. etc.

But, overall I'm just embarrassed for the university and its poor handling of this situation. Digger Phelps is right (pains me to write that)-- whoever screened Gillispie should be fired. The "screening committee", the search committee, and the hiring committee were all one guy-- Mitch Barnhart. He wanted it that way, and UK reaped the consequences.

With Meeks and Patterson (apparently?) publicly saying they're returning, will Kentucky be awesome next year? Maybe. Or maybe this whole thing will insure that it will be many more years before UK returns to the Final 4.

Either way, the whole thing stinks. My love for college athletics has definitely diminished in the past couple years.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My thoughts on a new UK coach

Since all of the fringe outlets and all of the sub-standard reporters (who are usually wrong anyway) are reporting that Billy Gillispie has been fired, I'll post my 2 cents.

We need a mature coach who understands the image and traditions, is respected among his peers, preferably has NBA experience and good connections there, and has a good basketball mind.

The coach needs to be given a long-term deal with the understanding that he will need 4 complete seasons to turn this ship around. That way recruits won't be hesitant to sign and fans will be forced to be patient!

The only coach that fits that bill right now is probably Lon Kruger of UNLV. I'd be happy if Kruger were given 4 years.
Tim Floyd also fits that bill, but I'm pretty sure his recruiting practices will one day land him on probation. John Calipari has his agent/thug that herds him recruits (there was an NY Times article on it last year, it's shady as it gets), so I don't want him either.

Outside of Kruger, I like Sean Miller at Xavier and Jamie Dixon at Pitt. Both inherited good teams and made them better. John Clay says he likes Sean Miller but doesn't think he'll get looked at.

So, my short list is:
1. Lon Kruger
2. Jamie Dixon
3. Sean Miller

What about the Ford/Horn/Pelphrey option?

Well, Ford reportedly got reprimanded at Okie St. for being too foulmouthed on the sidelines, which is pretty bad given how foul-mouthed Okies can be themselves. Last I checked, my mom's side of the family in Madisonville still had a blood feud with Travis Ford's family. So, I'm not real excited about him, but I think he's got the best resume. Lee Todd seems to want someone who can properly uphold the image. But Lee Todd is also from the Hopkins County area, so he'll probably favor Ford.

I think Pelphrey would do okay, but his resume is suspect given Arkansas' tanking this year.
Darrin Horn doesn't have enough experience. Inheriting Devin Downey does not make you a good coach. We need an older, more mature coach with more than 5 years of major college basketball on his resume.

Billy Donovan isn't walking through that door, and if he is, he'll be here until his NBA moratorium is up and then he'll try the League. So, he'd be here 3 years at the max. And he already turned us down once, so I say "no."

(The Bob Knight rumors are ridiculous, they're not even funny).

All I know for sure is this: Barnhart had better have someone in place ALREADY, otherwise UK basketball will take another couple steps back.
Naturally, if he has someone in place already it has to be someone who is already done for the season--namely Travis Ford.

Gillispie should have been given 1 more year. If he isn't, I think he really must have rubbed President Todd the wrong way on multiple occassions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Resignation letter of an AIG FP member

An executive vice president of AIG's demonized Financial Products division offers his resignation letter as an op-ed piece in the NY Times. More proof that nobody in Congress has any idea what they're talking about. He received his bonus and plans to give it away, but it's the only compensation he's received for his work since the government took over.

I take this action after 11 years of dedicated, honorable service to A.I.G. I can no longer effectively perform my duties in this dysfunctional environment, nor am I being paid to do so. Like you, I was asked to work for an annual salary of $1, and I agreed out of a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid. Having now been let down by both, I can no longer justify spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day away from my family for the benefit of those who have let me down...

You also are aware that most of the employees of your financial products unit had nothing to do with the large losses. And I am disappointed and frustrated over your lack of support for us. I and many others in the unit feel betrayed that you failed to stand up for us in the face of untrue and unfair accusations from certain members of Congress last Wednesday and from the press over our retention payments, and that you didn’t defend us against the baseless and reckless comments made by the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut. ..

As most of us have done nothing wrong, guilt is not a motivation to surrender our earnings. We have worked 12 long months under these contracts and now deserve to be paid as promised. None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

On the death of newspapers

Last week was busy and this week we're on the road, so blogging is light.

Nick Kristof had a good thought last week. The death of newspapers means that people simply choose what sources they want to get news from, and most people will choose sources that line up with their world view or opinions. Just as we see neighborhoods, churches, and entire counties segregated by income, class, and political party, the death of newspapers simply leads to more segregation in news reception. Rather than have all those demographics united by a common news source, everyone will seek news that tickles their ears the most.

That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber...

The decline of traditional news media will accelerate the rise of The Daily Me, and we’ll be irritated less by what we read and find our wisdom confirmed more often. The danger is that this self-selected “news” acts as a narcotic, lulling us into a self-confident stupor through which we will perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays.

So, he challenges us to read opposing views. Republicans watch some CNN, liberals read some Wall Street Journal.

I try to do this as much as I can through my blog subscriptions, drinking my fill of liberals and conservatives alike. One of my colleagues noticed that most of the articles I forward or link for my students to read come from the NY Times, a traditionally liberal newspaper that some won't read just because they assume it's biased. This probably irks the ire of some, as does when I say I watch PBS NewsHour. (Even though I find a lot of good reporting and balance in both outlets, or else I wouldn't tune in).

If you're only getting one point of view, then you're going to be left angry and often looking foolish.

I force myself to read some well-written religion-related blogs that I don't often agree with the authors of. I do that to try and understand what they're thinking, and to allow them to challenge my own thinking-- sometimes I change my mind. Same thing in reading foreign blogs. Blogs on Russia are typically either pro-Kremlin or anti-Kremlin, and so I want to try and find the middle ground by reading both types.

The middle ground is out there (and the Truth is likely close to it) but will we take the time to search for it if it's not being delivered to our doorsteps every morning?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On Bonuses at AIG

I'm always struck by the commentary about the 300 people in the Financial Products division at AIG in London who allegedly helped bring our economy to its knees and are now being rewarded with bonuses. AIG says they pay them bonuses to retain their talent, and the criticism that always follows is:

"How much talent can those people have? Any idiot could have done a better job than them, they were obviously stupid."

Those "stupid, talentless" people are math and physics PhDs who graduated at the top of their classes from the best universities in the world and had SAT scores that put them in the 99th percentile. In other words, SOME OF THE SMARTEST PEOPLE ON THE PLANET. Somehow that never gets mentioned on the news.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

When Churches Get Foreclosed On

Saw this in the paper today. It bothers me on so many levels. Churches taking out interest-only loans, selling bonds to build buildings, having members take out second mortgages to keep the church going, and most of the churches in the article are Baptist affiliated. Probably my least favorite quote in the article, referring to how churches are a good bet for lenders:

"Churches also have more flexibility than other borrowers in cutting expenses. They can end charitable programs or trim staff and still stay open for business."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Note: Temporary Retirement

I'm not doing my econometric model for the NCAA tournament this year. Several reasons.

#1- time constraints. I have a million other things I don't have time to do but are quite important. It takes forever to record the data I need by the day of the first game and next week happens to be my busiest work week.

#2-As Taleb says: "All econometric models are useless." If the financial crisis has taught us anything it's that you can't reliably base future predictions on past data (think housing prices, it just wasn't so obvious to the quants who are now job-hunting).

#3- I, like thousands of other Kentucky fans, am debating whether or not to even support the team accepting an NIT bid. That actually has nothing to do with not doing the model this year, but thought I'd throw it out there because it's a window into my emotions.

#4- Money is tight and I don't want to spend the money to get the supplementary data that I purchase every year.

If someone else wants to help out with #1 or #4, let me know. I still would like to record data for this season so that I can continue the model next season. Mainly because it was fun.

My sense for this season is that the tournament is (obviously) wide open. Banking on the Pomeroy efficiency numbers won't lead to 99% success rates like last year because there is much more parity this year.

My advice- After advancing mostly favorites in the first 2 rounds (including all 1-4 seeds), just pick randomly.

Global Warming and Hazardous Pig Farming

Cows are greater emitters of greenhouse gas and a greater threat to humanity than our cars.

HT to Greg Mankiw for something that that, to me, illustrates the ridiculousness of trying to reduce greenhouse gases. The best way to reduce something is to tax it at the margin, which is all Mankiw says about greenhouse gases. But he links to this article:

Proposals to tax the flatulence of cows and other livestock have been denounced by farming groups in the Irish Republic and Denmark.

A cow tax of €13 per animal has been mooted in Ireland, while Denmark is discussing a levy as high as €80 per cow to offset the potential penalties each country faces from European Union legislation aimed at combating global warming.

The proposed levies are opposed vigorously by farming groups. The Irish Farmers' Association said that the cattle industry would move to South America to avoid EU taxes.

Livestock contribute 18 per cent of the greenhouse gases believed to cause global warming, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. The Danish Tax Commission estimates that a cow will emit four tonnes of methane a year in burps and flatulence, compared with 2.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide for an average car.



On an unrelated and very scary note, Nick Kristof is writing about pig farming in Indiana. They're seeing an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant staph infections that are possibly linked to the massive amounts of antibiotics pumped into pigs on local farms. Why this falls to Kristof to investigate is anyone's guess, but it's a pretty scary read.

I’ll still offer my kids B.L.T.’s — but I’ll scrub my hands carefully after handling raw pork.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Awesome Debate

The Economist is hosting an Oxford style online debate about macroeconomics. They put out the proposition "This house believes we are all Keynesians now," and the statement is supported by one (liberal) economist, Brad Delong of UCLA, and opposed by (conservative) University of Chicago economist Luis Zingales. Other well-known economists are invited to provide context & commentary.

I've been following the online debate via blogs and editorial columns for a while. The understanding is (basically) that the stimulus package is pure (liberal) Keynesianism and conservative economists are arguing that it's pure garbage, that Keynes' theories were discredited 40 years ago. (Some of the conservative economists' arguments haven't held much water because they are using 18th century arguments that don't jive with what we teach in Econ 101).

In reality, it's more complicated than that. Allan Metzler argues that Keynes would not have supported the massive deficits the U.S. is running and would not have supported the stimulus package.

Overall, the debate is a great idea and very fun.

The market could nosedive...

The market for the President's international popularity, that is. Just ran across this article.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Sunday there was a "risk" that US President Barack Obama would recognise the massacre of Armenians a century ago as genocide...Obama, who is expected to visit Turkey in April, said several times during his election campaign that he would recognise the 1915-1917 massacres under the Ottoman Empire as genocide.

The United States has previously condemned the killings while not calling them genocide to avoid tensions with Turkey, a NATO member and key Middle East ally.

If Obama does this there will be instant riots in the streets and mass protests. This is a HUGE issue in Turkey. Both the Armenians and the Turks spend a lot of lobbying dollars to influence Congress (and other world bodies) to vote or not vote on resolutions declaring the 1915-1917 "relocations" as genocide. It's illegal in Turkey to call the event a genocide.

I'm slated to go to Turkey in August.

Monday, March 09, 2009

It just gets worse

Today I'm reminded on two fronts that government intervention in the economy is like using a sledgehammer to fix a crooked wall hanging.

#1- Wall Street Journal reports that we're moving right back to a credit crunch (subscription required unless you're Google-savvy like me).
"bond investors worry the government's repeated modifications to its financial-rescue packages are undermining the very foundations of bond investing: the right of creditors to claim their assets first if a borrower defaults. Without this assurance, bonds of even the most stalwart institutions are much riskier to own."


#2- John Jansen spreading rumors on the Street:
"Some bond market participants have taken to focusing on a Congressional Committe hearing on March 12 which will discuss the imbroglio which surrounds the topic of mark to market accounting. Some suspect that the Congress will suspend the rules and suspension of those rules will spark a huge equity market rally."


I asked our accounting department chair for his thoughts:
"Once the government starts meddling temporarily with accounting rules you can forget about the idea of independence."
He (and others in the industry that I've read) has previously said any such suspension would be a big mistake because once we've started down the mark-to-market road it's very hard to go back.

Someone please tell me how we're not hosed.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Don't Fire Billy Gillispie

(I don't think there's any danger of Gillispie being fired, I just wanted to make that title to attract hits via Google. Welcome!).
Photo by David Stephenson

Two years ago I wrote a post about my optimism over the hire of Gillispie and some hope in the face of the challenges he inherited-- namely second-rate players. That post is now getting a lot of hits and some angry comments.

He has succeeded in some areas--working his players harder than his predecessor and recruiting well. He has perhaps failed in other areas-- he found it impossible to develop Jared Carter, AJ Stewart, and some others. He offended people with his angry comments to Jeannine Edwards. And he finished 8-8 in a weak SEC this year.

But he deserves one more season. Why?

1. Half the players he inherited were not recruited by major schools and shouldn't be playing in a Big 6 conference. Jared Carter, Morakino Williams, AJ Stewart, and Michael Porter. So he's no Rick Pitino, who could turn Fat Albert into a first round draft pick. As Coach G rounds out his roster they'll be better.

And remember-- Joe Crawford credited Billy Gillispie with "everything," last season after Crawford got signed to play NBA ball. Not the other coach who recruited him and coached him for 3 tumultuous years. So, BCG can mold willing talent.

2. He has no senior leadership this season. That's what seperates this year from last and why next year will be so much better.

3. He got Patrick Patterson and Darius Miller to come to UK. Remember how that energized the fan base? That alone earns him some slack, especially seeing as how they're still young and developing.

4. "It's the economy, stupid." If we weren't going through a massive recession people wouldn't expect as much joy from UK basketball. As it is, people are going through hard times and take it out on the basketball team. Such is Kentucky, parts of which are a third world country even in the best of times. Don't take out your economic frustration on Billy Clyde.

5. What do the data say? Scroll through the past 5 seasons' scouting reports at Kenpom.com. You'll see our TO% this season is horrendous, but in other areas we are better than Tubby-coached teams. Believe it or not, we still have the #24 defense in the country in terms of efficiency and one of the best inside games of any Kentucky team in recent history.

6. Wait until we have a point guard. Assuming DeAndre Liggins doesn't transfer (which would be a major blow to my argument) we have a host of good guards coming in soon. That's what this team has lacked, a floor leader. Michael Porter should never have worn a Kentucky uniform, plain and simple.

Just felt like I needed to write this one. I know his flaws and the criticisms of John Clay and others. But if you think someone better is out there just waiting for the job, you're deceiving yourself. It'd be a bad mistake to call for Coach G's head now.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Book Review (#3 of 2009)

What Happened: Inside the White House and Washington's Culture of Deception by Scott McLellan.


(The audio book is read by McClellan-- the best way to read/listen to a book).
McClellan worked for Bush from his days as Texas' governor. He was White House Press Secretary from 2003-2006 and was fed to the wolves in the middle of the Valerie Plame scandal.

McClellan reminds me of too many people I went to school with-- someone with a who thinks they know something, particularly about good policy, because they grew up around politics (his mom is Carol Keaton Strayhorn). The first couple chapters are autobiographical, as if I care about his elementary school days...

But it gets more interesting as you get into the White House. McLellan decries the Permanent Campaign mentality as what derailed Bush's presidency. In his conclusion, he offers advice to future administrations on how to govern with bipartisanship.

Bush loves his workers, he cried and hugged McLellan when he was asked to resign. He even called McClellan's wife to smooth things over. But Bush also lied to McLellan and left him on the hook defending Karl Rove and Scooter Libby who both also lied to McLellan. This made McLellan look like a liar to the national media and helped ruin the credibility of the White House.

Press Secretaries are intentionally left out of the loop fairly often. So, McLellan writes about what knowledge he had and what meetings he attended.

The author paints a picture of the White House where no debates about policy were engaged in (especially after the re-election), most of the policies catered to The Base, and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were always working behind-the-scenes to run the show.

He points out some of the glaring mistakes they made in regards to selling the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, and more.

By the time this book was published nobody cared anymore. McLellan's account only confirms what everyone else was already writing-- except it puts a more human and deeply emotional face on Bush.

3 stars out of 5.

With friends like these...

Uber-liberal columnist Maureen Dowd takes a swipe at President Obama today. She gives a list of all the pork in today's spending bill and reveals which ones were originally sponsored by Obama and his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel last year (quoting John McCain's Twitter feed).

Obama spinners insist it was “a leftover budget.” But Iraq was leftover, too, and the president’s trying to end that. This is the first pork-filled budget from a new president who promised to go through the budget “line by line” and cut pork.
Ouch. This from the woman who during the campaign compared Obama to Mr. Darcy.