regulation-scales

Securities Regulation Harms Businesses

I attended a panel discussion yesterday on the problems startups have in raising capital caused by securities regulation. Startups have to hire a lawyer before they raise the first dollar of capital. It’s a real catch-22.

Entrepreneurs are often surprised to find that raising capital means selling securities. They cannot legally sell securities to just anyone. They are restricted to Accredited Investors (basically people with high income or high net worth). Most young entrepreneurs don’t have a rolodex full of such investors. There are other restrictions, for example, they can’t hire someone to help them raise capital unless he has a license to sell securities.

Welcome to compliance hell. It’s perfectly legal to fail, to lose your own money and even your house. It’s fine by the law if your dream dies, your marriage fails, and all of the other negative consequences occur when a business does not succeed. But if you raise money, you better be fully compliant. Where’s the concern for people?

The stated purpose of regulation is to protect investors from fraud and bad actors. However, fraud was illegal even before regulation. It is already a crime to lie to someone to take his money. Regulation does not change that. It does not make crime more illegal.

Regulation offers a tantalizing promise. We don’t have to wait for criminals to strike their victims. We can make it impossible for them to commit the crime in the first place. We just force them to comply with regulations. No matter how many Enrons and Bernie Madoffs happen, few stop to ask if the theory is even valid. Can regulators proactively prevent bad things from happening?

Nor do people ask if investors deserve to be treated as children. It used to be (before the Nanny State) that once you reached the age of 18, your majority, you were able to enter into any contract or do anything that any adult could legally do. Now 18 is just one milestone. Until you have a million dollars net worth, you aren’t an adult investor and cannot invest in startups. It’s for your own good, you understand. You might make a bad investment.

While we’re at it, we should also ask the age old question: qui bono–who benefits? Lawyers are one obvious group. More importantly, it protects big and wealthy incumbents. Wall Street can easily afford compliance, unlike its small would-be competitors. More insidiously, regulation implicitly supports Wall Street’s model and makes it more difficult or impossible to develop a new one. This is why no one has done the Uber or AirBnB of the stock market yet.

I found it odd that when several speakers on that panel began with apologies, “of course, we want to protect investors.” They began with total capitulation, saying in effect, “I can’t be trusted without a government minder.” Any reform based on this will be little more than deck chair rearrangement on the Titanic. There is a real solution, and it’s simple. The law should treat adults like adults. Let entrepreneurs raise capital without having to get permission at each step, so they can build new products to offer us, make money for themselves, and create jobs.

quack doctor

Quack Economic Doctors

Suppose you go to a doctor. You are in pain and you tell him that you feel like you are going to die. He takes your temperature, and sees that it is a perfectly normal 98.6F. He tells you to go home, you must be fine. He does not seem to be aware of any problem that can cause pain but not a fever (e.g. a broken vertebra, cancer, or bleeding). He is a quack.

It’s a good thing that real doctors have many diagnostics and indicators. They are not limited to just body temperature.

Let’s turn our attention to the monetary system. The quacks focus their attention on prices. The rate of change of prices—which they improperly define as inflation—is the monetary equivalent of body temperature in medicine. In some cases, it’s an important part of making a diagnosis.

And it is far from the only indicator.

If prices are like temperature, then what is analogous to the patient’s pulse? Interest rates. And interest rates have been falling for 34 years.

Is there a doctor in the house? Should we be worried?

lake_reflections-wide

Reflections Over 2014

Happy New Year. This is my annual reflections article, which is my chance to write with less structure and formality, share my thoughts and look back over a busy year. This is an informal, unstructured, and personal post.

Let me start by sharing a bit of my story. In January, the Nortel bankruptcy estate finally paid a debt Nortel owed since 2010. Let me provide a little bit of history. In 1994, I started a software company called DiamondWare. Over 14 years, I poured in my blood, and sweat, and grew the business. I did that without a penny of outside capital. In August 2008, I sold it to Nortel Networks. It was a cash deal, but there was an escrow and other holdbacks. Nortel filed for bankruptcy a few months later. Needless to say, bankruptcy called into question which debts they would pay, and at what discount. I am glad they settled up on this one.

The point of this is not my personal finances, but this story is archetypical of our era. Everyone (including my advisors and me!) thought Nortel was a stable company even in 2008. Nortel had been a massive company, and was once the largest company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Its bankruptcy is, so far as I know, the largest in corporate history.

And what was the cause? Using short-term borrowing to fund long-term and illiquid assets. When the credit markets froze in 2008, Nortel had some big bond payments that were coming due. With no way to sell new bonds to pay the old ones, it was forced to default.

Good thing the corporate and banking world has learned this lesson, and now no one uses short-term bonds. Indeed, everyone has income to amortize their debts… </sarcasm>

There are two ways to look at the world. One is to cry. I know people who have become bitter and depressed. They seem paralyzed, and they often lash out at their friends and family. The other is to laugh. Find the irony, poke at it, and tell your friends—nothing will change unless enough people care—but don’t take it personally. Remember a lesson from Professor J.R.R. Tolkien. No one knows the future. Despair is not only a sin in traditional religion, it is also a mistake. All is not lost, not yet, not by a long shot!

In February, I began writing regularly for Forbes. They had published half a dozen of my articles previously, including my most widely read and one of my favorites on how wages have been falling since at least 1965. But now I have my own page as a regular Forbes Contributor. It is a lot of work, and takes tons of discipline to put out a quality article every week. It is also gratifying, and a great way to learn a lot about your topic and yourself. I am honored that Steve Forbes, and my editors John Tamny and Avik Roy trust me with this responsibility. Steve himself has long been a gold standard advocate, and he made it a plank in his presidential campaign.

In the spring, a major project of Monetary Metals came to the end, and not in a good way. We had drafted a patent application, raised capital, assembled a team, developed software, designed and built a website, planned a marketing campaign, and were putting together the legal docs. What was it? I can’t disclose the details as I am working on a plan B, but it was a consumer offering. I was pretty excited.. Unfortunately, the lawyers determined that we would be under a major area of regulation. Initial compliance could have cost near a million bucks, and there would be ongoing compliance costs too. There was no way for a startup to go there. Project nixed. Time and money lost. What a bummer.

Partly due to this, my business partner wanted to move on to other opportunities. I bought him out this summer, and now I am the sole proprietor of Monetary Metals. This lets me pursue my vision: offering investors a gold yield on their gold. If gold is money, then it should be possible to invest it to earn more money. Well, gold is money…

In June, I got my new 2014 911 turbo. It has better balance, more power, a stiffer frame, less overhang in front and rear, and more gears (dual clutch computer-controlled 7-speed gearbox). And WOW is it fast. Pull the skin off your face fast. 0 to 60 in 2.9s fast. It has a built-in G force meter in the dash. The car has achieved 1.09g both braking and accelerating. This is so the right car for me, I am still grinning ear to ear and this is 6 months later!

What does this have to do with economics? How does anyone pay for something like a high end sports car? I sold a business that I spent a decade and a half building. This is part added value, and part credit boom (which is how the valuation got to be as high as it did). Today, I trade markets. The volatility that makes trading possible is inherent to fiat money. Trading gains are a wealth transfer.

Hate the game, not the players.

For a long time, I have been saying silver will go down in gold terms (i.e. a rising gold to silver ratio) and likely dollar terms. When the ratio was 50, the gold bugs said another leg up was coming and the ratio would fall back to 31 (its low in spring 2011). I said nothing doing. I said it will go to 60 and maybe 70. Later I extended that, and said 70 and maybe 80. For a long time, it just didn’t seem to want to go higher but in September, the silver price broke down and the ratio spiked up. It has closed over 76 (not counting one Sunday even when it briefly hit over 80). It is 75.5 as I write this. My prediction was big, highly contrarian—I don’t know anyone else in the gold community who took this position—and right. That got a lot of people following my work. Now I am sure they are all wondering if I will call the turn when it happens. To which I can offer lots of economics, theory, model, analysis, blah blah blah. Or I can just say keep reading. ;)

This fall, translations of my articles and publication in European media accelerated. I am super excited that they went up on the site of Formiche (Italy) in Italian, onto the front page of the print edition of L’Agefi (France) in French, finews.ch (Switzerland) and goldseiten.de (Germany) in German, the blog of the Swiss National Bank in English, and Quamnet (China) in English. The Truman Factor continued to publish some of my articles in Spanish. I do not think it is pretentious to say that there is a serious worldwide movement to recognize gold as money.

On a rainy day in November, the Gold Standard Institute sponsored its first event. In New York City, Andy Bernstein spoke about capitalism and I spoke about our failing dollar. From a content and number of attendees perspective, it was a big success.

This year, I have had the opportunity to develop many great and mutually beneficial relationships. One, which started to bear fruit in December, is the Cobden Centre in the UK. Named for Richard Cobden, a noted 19th century industrialist and free trade advocate, its mission is to promote freedom, private property rights, and honest money.

Finally, over my holiday “break” I began putting keyboard to word processor (or alternatively, electrons to file) on my book. My working title is: The Dollar Cancer and the Gold Cure. More soon…

I hope you have a great year in 2015!

fallacyman

The Most Common Error in Economic Debates

Have you ever been in an argument about whether we should raise taxes and then someone tosses out a real whopper? “The top tax rate for decades after World War II was over 90% and look how the economy boomed!”

Or perhaps you read a Paul Krugman column where he said that, “there’s a big problem with the claim that monetary policy has been too loose: where’s the inflation [he means rising prices]?”

Both the Internet troll and Professor Krugman are making the same mistake. Let me explain.

Economists love to use the Latin phrase ceteris paribus. It means all else being equal. It’s great in a thought experiment. For example, what would happen if we made a change in America today? Suppose we criminalized all use of fossil fuels. We can’t really do that (I hope!) but it can serve a pedagogic purpose.

It should be pretty obvious that the consequence of shutting off the motors is to shut off production, and people will soon starve. If this isn’t obvious, then you don’t need my blog entry on economic argumentation. You need The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein.

Every economist is aware that in comparing a historical time to the present, or comparing two different countries all else is not equal. There is not one difference between the immediate postwar period and today. There are innumerable differences. You can’t just assume that the one difference you’re debating is the only one that matters.

To say explicitly, “The postwar prosperity was solely due to its over-90% marginal tax bracket,” makes the error clear. I propose we call this the fallacy of assuming only one variable, or in Latin (as elegantly as I could make it with Google Translate) argumentum ad variabilis*.

Krugman is perpetrating the same fallacy. He assumes that the only force that moves prices is monetary policy. It’s not a bad gambit, actually, if he wants to Gruber his reader into supporting disastrous Fed policies. Most people, including Krugman’s critics, assume that prices rise as a direct result of increases in the money supply.

In the 1970’s there was perhaps a tripling of the money supply, depending on how you measure it. According to the Consumer Price Index, prices doubled. But so what? If there is one take-away I hope everyone gets from my theory of interest and prices, it is that prices are set in a system driven by positive feedback loops and resonance. Prices have anything but a simple linear relationship to the quantity of dollars.

It just isn’t possible to compare the rate of money supply growth today to the rate in the 1970’s and predict what will happen to prices. Well, you can try but then you may go bankrupt. Here is my comparison of the two time periods, looking at some startling differences.

Krugman commits an additional, similar, fallacy. He assumes that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy only affects one variable (perhaps this should be called argumentum ad effectum*?) Or least, there’s only one bad effect: rising prices. If prices aren’t rising, then he thinks that’s all there is to say. As I have been writing in my Forbes column, there are many other ways that QE harms us. Rising consumer prices is the least of it.

There are many reasons why economics does not work like physics. In physics you can measure the acceleration when you apply a force to a mass. Then you can increase the mass and measure the acceleration again. If you design and execute your experiments carefully, you can be sure that your result is caused by one variable. A doubling of mass causes acceleration to halve, ceteris paribus.

However, even the simplest economic system has thousands, if not millions of people, with unknown (to the economist) relationships between them. It has various productive enterprises with changing methods of production, entrepreneurs and inventors, etc. You cannot isolate any one of them, in order to conduct an experiment. You can only observe two different economies. If you focus on only one variable and exclude all others, it is not the controlled experiment that you’d like it to be, at all.

You’re just putting blinders on.

 

*I am no Latin scholar. My guesses as to the proper Latin names for these fallacies are crude. I would welcome anyone who is an expert in this language to suggest better names.

venti frapuccino

Chinese GDP Surpasses USA (*when Measurement Adjusted)

A story has been echoing around the financial news for a few weeks. One article about it, It’s official: America is now No. 2 by Brett Arends at MarketWatch, came to my attention. Arends asserts that the Chinese economy is now larger than the economy in the US. Here’s what he said.

“We’re no longer No. 1. Today, we’re No. 2. Yes, it’s official. The Chinese economy just overtook the United States economy to become the largest in the world.”

With GDP data from the IMF, we can easily see that the US economy is bigger than China’s. The IMF estimates 2014 GDP at $10.4T for China and $17.4T for the USA. So how does Arends claim the contrary? He uses different data that IMF adjusts. By this methodology, the Chinese economy is “really” $17.6T.

Really?

Although Chinese GDP is lower when measured in yuan and converted to dollars, Arends and others claim that this isn’t right. Goods and services are cheaper in China. So they don’t think we should convert yuan to dollars using the market exchange rate. They use a concept called Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). PPP is used to determine a different exchange rate for the yuan than the market rate. This is how they arrive at a “real” Chinese GDP of $17.6T.

We have long been trained to accept purchasing power as the means of adjusting the dollar from historical periods. For example, JP Morgan was worth $68M at his death in 1913. To calculate what that’s worth in today’s dollars, most people would refer to the Consumer Price Index. They use CPI to adjust the $68M figure from 1913 to a $1.6B modern value. As I wrote on Forbes, that approach is wrong. They should use gold which, unlike the dollar, is the same in 1913 as in 2014. Morgan was worth 3.4M ounces of gold, which is $4.1B today.

Adjusting the Chinese economy by PPP is simply applying the consumer price idea to a whole economy. If we use prices to adjust dollar figures from historical periods in the US, why not use them to adjust foreign but contemporary dollar amounts? If we can use consumer prices to measure the net worth of a man who died in 1913, then it seems like we can use them to measure the economic output of China also.

The approach is fatally flawed, because the value of a currency isn’t derived from prices. As an analogy, suppose you are using a steel meter stick to measure a rubber band. When you stretch the rubber band, it gets longer. This is not equivalent to saying that the meter stick gets shorter. You do not measure meter sticks by how many rubber bands fit end to end. Measurement is one-way.

Money is the meter stick of economic value (though this principle is clouded in paper currencies, because they are falling). Prices rise or fall for non-monetary reasons. Prices may be cheaper in China for a variety of reasons, such as lower wages. Money measures these changes, not the other way around.

By the same principle, prices may be higher in New York than in Phoenix. Does anyone dare to say that these are different dollars? Should we adjust New York dollar downwards towards the Phoenix dollar, based on PPP? How about the Scottsdale dollar (Scottsdale is a ritzy suburb) vs. the south Phoenix dollar?

Standards of living certainly vary based on local prices, but that is a separate issue. The dollar is the same in New York as it is in Phoenix. We say that the dollar is fungible—a dollar is a dollar is a dollar, and each is accepted in trade the same as any other.

Arends uses the Starbucks venti Frapuccino as an example, which he says is cheaper in Beijing than in Minneapolis. A cup of coffee produced in China cannot be sent to Minneapolis where it will fetch a higher price. However, money is unlike coffee. It can go from Beijing to Minneapolis instantly. That’s why there is one price for the yuan globally, but a different price for coffee on every street corner. Bulk commodities are of course more transportable than cups of coffee, but even they cost time and money to transport.

It’s an essential property of money that it is quick and cheap to send it somewhere. Money will always move from where it has less value to where it is valued more highly. The result is that money’s value is consistent everywhere.

This consistency allows us to convert the yuan to dollars, to compare Chinese GDP to American GDP. This is perfectly valid (well, if you accept that GDP itself is valid), because the comparison is instantaneous. We do not have to worry about the falling value of either currency that occurs over longer periods of time. We could use gold to compare the Chinese economy to the American, but it’s not necessary in this.

The price of Frapuccino in China may be important to caffeine addicts who travel to Beijing, but it cannot be used to adjust a currency or a country’s GDP.

Chinese GDP is a lot smaller than American GDP. Will that change? Maybe, but it’s not the job of economists to embed such speculative assumptions into the data.

wages

The Doctor-Laborer Inversion

The battle over minimum wage is raging. Emotions are running hot. Some cities are setting the bar very high. For example, Seattle is mandating a $15/hour wage.

Economically, the issue is very simple. Minimum wage laws do not raise anyone’s wage. This is because it’s not sustainable to overpay.

Suppose you run a small tailor shop. Customers are willing to pay $20 to repair a pair of slacks. Why are they willing to pay that, and no more? It’s not just their budget, but also the relative value of fixing their old trousers compared to buying new. A higher wage for your employees will have no effect on customer willingness to pay.

You have rent, utilities, insurance, wear and tear on your sewing machines, etc. that add up to $10. Therefore your maximum gross profit is $10. You cannot pay someone $11, much less $15, to do this work. If the law attempts to force you to overpay, then you have to lay off workers or even close your doors. Going out of business is no fun, but it beats losing more money.

This is black and white. Minimum wage law can destroy jobs and businesses but it cannot raise wages. However, many people become very emotional on this issue. So let’s look at the issue from a different angle.

There is an endless outpouring of sympathy and support for the unskilled laborer. How is this poor downtrodden helpless victim supposed to feed a family, cover medical expenses, and save for retirement earning only $7.25 per hour?

I don’t know.

My lack of an answer to this question is no justification for minimum wage laws. This is not even the right question. It is an example of the logical fallacy known as begging the question—when you presume what you should be asking. We should ask if one man’s need creates a duty in anyone else. Then the answer is a lot clearer.

The last time I checked, we had not adopted the Communist Manifesto as our new constitution. There is no law saying that each is to be given according to his need.

In comparison to the general sympathy for unskilled laborers, there is none for doctors. Just look at the endless commentary about Obamacare. What are the most popular complaints today? In my admittedly non-scientific sampling, the most common are higher costs, reduced choices, or a broken website. Some people worry about lower quality or less access to care.

There is virtually no discussion of what Obamacare will do to doctors. Doctors make far more than the minimum wage. One presumes that their needs are covered by their incomes, and therefore of no worry to us.

Need is the wrong way to look at it.

Instead of asking what someone’s need is, you should ask what are these people doing for you? What do they create? What value do they add? This brings the issue into sharp focus.

The unskilled laborer can be put to work turning a crank. He needs lots of supervision, which is an additional cost. The crank is paid for by someone else’s saved and accumulated capital, and this investor must be paid a return on capital for placing it at risk in a business. The laborer can be held accountable for showing up every morning and turning the crank all day, but not for business profitability.

This, by definition and by nature, is what unskilled labor is. He brings no capital, no skills, no knowledge, no expertise, no prior learning. He may be a young and inexperienced worker. Or he may have years of prior experience, but he is the sort of person who learns nothing from experience. Either way, the employer is taking on real risks and expenses.

Finally, the unskilled laborer is virtually indistinguishable. Many towns have a street corner, where construction contractors go to pick up a few laborers for a day’s work. There is a standardized market wage for these workers, and the employer doesn’t care who jumps in the back of the truck on any given workday.

How much does one of these workers impact your life? What would happen to you, if one of them stopped working?

For the next part of the discussion, please bear with me. I am assuming a free market in healthcare. In a free market, patients pay doctors for their services, the same way that homeowners pay plumbers, and diners pay restaurants.

Suppose you notice a lump in your neck. You’re worried it may be cancer. Catching it early is the key to surviving with maximum quality of life. You really want to see the best doctor that you can afford. You get a recommendation, and you call his office. They tell you he just retired. You get a second recommendation. You call this doctor’s office, but her receptionist says she was hit by a car this morning and is in critical condition. You open the phone book and call the last specialist. He is on sabbatical, teaching head and neck surgery in Thailand.

Now what do you do? Three doctors are unavailable, and you already feel a bit desperate.

You widen your search, and keep calling more. Suppose for some reason, all the doctors you call are unavailable. One by one, you hear why they can’t see you and you become increasingly frantic.

Why?

The doctor contributes the most value to your life, including saving it. By contrast, the laborer contributes the least. If 10 doctors stopped practicing medicine, you could die. In comparison, if 100 laborers stopped working, you wouldn’t even notice it.

What would you be willing to pay someone who saved your life?

If you would like a doctor to be available, in case your life needs saving, you must change how you think about wages. Start thinking about the value someone produces, and stop thinking about need. Your willingness, indeed your happiness—no your eagerness—to pay the doctor big money has nothing to do with his need. It has everything to do with what he does for you. Your life is worth more to you than the money you spend.

In comparison you aren’t willing to pay the same to someone who washes your dishes or trims your front lawn. If you would like restaurants and landscaping to be available, you must approach it the same way as with doctors. Start thinking about the value they provide and stop thinking about the needs of their unskilled workers.

democracy

Why The Founders Didn’t Give Us a Democracy

As the famous story goes, when Ben Franklin left Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia had a question she wanted answered.

“Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.

No one today (well, seemingly other than the current president) wants a monarchy. However, too many call our once-Republic a “democracy”. They love the idea of the will of the people, directly determined by vote and imposed by force of law.

The primary argument against this form of government is that it’s tyranny. A majority has no right to take away the rights of any individual, no matter how unpopular he may be. However, that is precisely the consequence of giving the people the power to vote for anything, with no constitutional limits to the power of government.

Let’s explore another argument against democracy. I just published an article critical of a gold initiative in Switzerland. Of course, I favor the re-monetization of gold. That is not why I think the initiative will do more harm than good. I looked at the economics of the banking system, and concluded that the law could cause bank insolvencies. If the banks fail, there goes the people’s money.

No layman would see the problem, unless an expert explains it. Indeed, a hundred thousand laymen signed the petition to put this initiative on the ballot. They simply want to move towards the gold standard and stop their central bank’s endless currency debasement, and robbery of the saver.

Too often, scoundrels hide behind their proclaimed good intentions, which is typically an appeal to collectivism. Then they claim the bad outcome was unintended. It’s disingenuous. If you hike the minimum wage, for example, you will cause higher unemployment. Workers who produce less than the cutoff are always laid off.

In the case of the Swiss gold initiative, the promoters are appealing to honesty and justice. I do not doubt the good intentions of the people behind this initiative. I am sure they mean well. Whether their intentions are good or not, the law has bad consequences. It’s based on an economic mistake.

This exemplifies another fundamental and irreparable flaw in democracy. Even well intentioned people have limited knowledge. No one can be an expert in everything. Yet, that is precisely what democracy requires. It assumes that because the people have an interest in the outcome, they know what will lead to good outcomes.

If your car breaks down, do you sample the opinions of nearby motorists, in order to know how to fix it? If you are sick, do you ask for medical advice from other patients in the hospital ward? No, you call a mechanic or a doctor. What if your monetary system is broken down and sick? Everyone suffers from the monetary disease, but that doesn’t make them experts in monetary economics. In the same way, motorists or patients are not experts in engines or healthcare. In order to work, Democracy depends on everyone being an expert in everything.

This is one more reason why your life should not be ruled by the decisions of others. Even when those decisions truly are well intentioned, they can still hurt you. Democracy is not the right form of government.

This is why the Founding Fathers gave us a republic.