Posts filed under “Really, really bad calls”
Frederick Sheehan is the co-author of Greenspan’s Bubbles: The Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.
His new book, Panderer for Power: The True Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession, was published by McGraw-Hill in November 2009. He was Director of Asset Allocation Services at John Hancock Financial Services in Boston. In this capacity, he set investment policy and asset allocation for institutional pension plans.
On January 14, 2010, an academic economist took a rare stance. Tenured professors rarely lift the veil from numbers that governments invent. In “Don’t Like the Numbers? Change ‘Em,” Michael J. Boskin, Ph.D., formerly, an economics professor at Harvard and Yale; formerly, chairman of the Counsel of Economic Advisers in the George H.W. Bush administration; currently, T. M. Friedman Professor of Economics at Stanford University; research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research; senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; and board member of the Exxon Mobil Corporation, Oracle Corporation and Vodafone PLC (among others), wielded his sword.
The Wall Street Journal devoted a half page to Boskin’s list of offenders. Politicians are interfering with the Gross Domestic Product calculations in France and Venezuela. They have toyed with the inflation rate in Argentina. In the U.S., the Obama administration has taken the phony numbers game “to a new level.” Here, Boskin is writing of the current adminstration’s calculations of jobs “created or saved” from its stimulus bill.
The “created or saved” job calculation is nonsense, but the very last person one would expect to decry the miscarriages is Michael J. Boskin.
In the early 1990s, Senator Patrick Moynihan from New York warned his fellow legislators about rising social security commitments. Then the worm crawled out of his hole, so to speak. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testified before the Senate and House Budget Committee on January 10, 1995. He told the Committee the inflation rate was probably overestimated by 0.5% to 1.5%.
If Greenspan was correct, this was a godsend. Social security payments are increased each year at an inflation rate calculated by the federal government: the change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). If the CPI could be increased at a lower rate in the future, benefits would rise more slowly, without Congressional action. This would reduce government spending and delight politicians, who knew of the looming crisis in social security but did not want to imperil their careers by reducing benefits, or, in this case, by cutting the rate at which social security benefits were raised each year.
The Boskin Commission was duly formed. Michael Boskin was the right man for the job. He had served as chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) from 1989 to 1993, a post previously held by such government functionaries as Arthur Burns and Alan Greenspan.
Jumping to the conclusion, the Boskin Commission’s Report, as it was known (formally, the “Advisory Commission to Study the Consumer Price Index”) found that inflation was overstated by 1.1%. Several recommendations were made by the Commission to the Budget Committee. These were instituted with great efficiency by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The changes have lopped off far more than 1.1% in most years since 1997. From the time the changes were instituted through 2008, the compounding of an artificially low Consumer Price Index reduced payments to social security recipients by about half (according to John Williams, author of the newsletter Shadow Government Statistics).
How the CPI calculation was changed is not important here. (Chapter 12 of my book Panderer to Power is devoted to the Boskin Commission.) One adjustment may help to understand Boskin’s contribution to the impoverishment of older Americans. “Hedonic adjustments” by government number crunchers substitute imaginary prices for prices actually paid. Hedonic adjustments (purportedly, the “quality improvement” of an item) reduce the CPI. (Hedonic adjustments had been employed before the Boskin Commission, but sparingly. Afterwards, even the prices of textbooks – if they had color graphics – were adjusted for quality.)
Steve Leuthold, founder and chief investment officer of the Leuthold Group, calculated the price of a new car in the U.S. had risen from $6,847 in 1979 to $27,940 in 2004. Using hedonic adjustments, the government calculated the price of a new car had risen from $6,847 in 1979 to $11,708 in 2004.
The Boskin Commission was one scandal that economists actually denounced. Greg Mankiw, chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2001-2003, said at the time “the debate about the CPI was really a political debate about how, and by how much, to cut real entitlements.”
Barry Bosworth of the Brookings Institute called the revised CPI an “ ‘immaculate conception‘ version of deficit reduction in which spending is cut without Congress taking the blame.”
Jack Triplett of the Brookings Institute extended the argument: “What I liked least about the Commission Report was exactly what made it so influential – its guesstimate of 1.1 percentage points of bias….The Commission (and others that have followed) used ad hoc reasoning to come up with a number….”
Jacob Ryten, from the Canadian statistical office, wrote in the same vein: “Without the guesstimates, the Commission Report was just another dry, academic study to be perused by professionals… Conversations with Committee members suggest that some, at least, were ill at ease themselves with guesstimates…. My personal preference is to resist the seductive blandishments of politics and politicians….”
Jack Triplett chided the Report as succumbing “to the lure of political statements in its choice of language to describe the effect of CPI measurement errors on Social Security expenditures…. Professionals at any rate, should understand that improving the accuracy of the CPI is not the same thing as improving the basis for allocation to the dependent population….”
Professionals, at any rate, have seen fit to keep Michael Boskin at the summit after he succumbed to “seductive blandishments of politics and politicians.” It cannot be said that Boskin dishonored his profession, since he is still a superstar. Other professions institute bodies such as the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association that take action against negligence.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, another pliant alumnus of the CEA, sits before the Senate claiming there is no inflation in the economy. He uses the CPI as his measure, taking the additional step of removing food and energy costs.
Near the end of his Wall Street Journal effort, Boskin wrote of the Obama job numbers: “One piece of good news: The public isn’t believing much of this out-of-control spin.” He’s probably correct, but spinning the number of jobs “created or saved” has no consequence, other than to increase the public’s distrust of government. The distortion of the CPI should have been censured by his profession, if it is that.
Frederick Sheehan is the author of Panderer for Power: The True Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession
See his blog at aucontrarian.com.
I have to call foul on a surprisingly foolish article in today’s NYT. Less than a month into 2010, it is already a leading candidate for the dumbest article of the year. It reads like it was written by the PR firm for a group of VCs and Palo Alto law firms.
There were numerous ignorant comments in the article, but this is the one that actually made me laugh out loud:
“Newer restrictions, like those on executive compensation, have made I.P.O.’s even less attractive to some entrepreneurs, said Doug Collom, a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a Silicon Valley law firm. “Lawyers now have a profound significance in the boardroom,” he said.”
WTF is this idiot talking about? Last I checked, none of the Silicon Valley tech firms had received TARP money during the bailouts. The exec comp restrictions this dimwitted Wilson Sonsini lawyer mentioned came with the nearly trillion dollar taxpayer bailout/subsidy for insolvent banks and the incompetent execs who ran them into the ground — not dot com start ups.
What a tool.
I cannot figure out who is more responsible for this brain dead exercise in ignorance and spin — the writer who (re)typed it from a press release, or the editor who let this nonsense slide by.
Here’s some more stupidity:
“In the last two years, only 18 tech start-ups have gone public, compared with 143 in the two years prior. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which tightened corporate governance and accounting rules, has taken a lot of the blame.”
Astonishingly, the article fails to note the massive decrease in IPOs across all sectors due to the recent turmoil. Even more amazingly, the author somehow fails to deploy so much as one single word regarding the total collapse in the markets, or the simple fact that investors have seen precisely zero gains over the past 11 years.
Quite bluntly, I am embarrassed that this is what passes for Journalism today.
UPDATE: January 18, 2010 3:02pm
Here is a chart of IPOs going back about 3 decades. Note after the 1987 and 2000 and 2008 crashes, the IPO numbers plummeted. I do not know what the actual impact of Sarbanes Oxeley was on IPOs, but the data shows that after SARBOX passed, the number of new IPOs actually went up.
I am NOT suggesting there is a correlation between SARBOX and any subsequent increase in IPOs; I am merely pointing out that blatherings of those mentioned above is factually incorrect, and belied by actual data.
Have a look at these two charts, courtesy of Jim Bianco. They show the number, and the dollar amount raised in IPOs; There appears to be no correlation with SARBOX, but a huge correlation with market crashes.
IPOs by Deal Volume 1991-2010
IPOs by Dollars (billions) 1991-2010
More charts after the jump.
For Many Start-Ups, a Spot on the Nasdaq Is No Longer the Goal
CLAIRE CAIN MILLER
NYT, January 17, 2010
Excel Spreadsheet for IPOs anbd secondaries, Bianco Research
Equity IPO And Secondary
Some Factoids about the 2009 IPO Market
Jay R. Ritter, Cordell Professor of Finance
University of Florida, Jan. 14, 2010
In today’s Barron’s, Mike Santoli very politely and quietly, using language suitable for a family dinner, calls Charles Biderman out for his clueless commentary about secret government cabals: “One conspiracy theory gaining undeserved traction on Wall Street lately holds that the Federal Reserve or another government entity might — or must — have been a…Read More
My publisher writes: Anyhow, I have a favor—Ben Stein has written a book for us, Little Book of Investing Dos & Don’ts — I’m wondering if I sent you some chapters you could write a sentence or two for the back jacket… I told them to read my prior Ben Stein posts: Farewell To Ben…Read More
Category: Really, really bad calls
There’s been a lot of chatter lately about secret cabals and the plunge protection team. I notice it seems to be coming primarily from those folks who missed the rally off of the lows. Rather than admit their errors, they are rationalizing them with discussions of secret government equity buyers. I addressed the PPT in…Read More
This is simply infuriating: “The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, then led by Timothy Geithner, told American International Group Inc. to withhold details from the public about the bailed-out insurer’s payments to banks during the depths of the financial crisis, e-mails between the company and its regulator show. AIG said in a draft of…Read More
In a post yesterday, my west coast pal Paul discusses how the Chicago School of Economics Circling the Theoretical Drain: “In the current issue of the New Yorker there is an alternatively depressing and fascinating piece (Letter from Chicago) by John Cassidy about how the Chicago School of economics – monetarism, rational expectations, efficient market…Read More
One of the memes I’ve heard recently in the climate debate is that there is no scientific consensus — that there is actually strong disagreement. The main basis of this argument is that 31,486 dissenting scientists have signed a petition against the belief that Global Warming is man made at the PetitionProject.org. I don’t want…Read More
Economics Nobel laureate and Columbia University professor Joseph E. Stiglitz has what very well be the best year end piece I have seen to date; “The best that can be said for 2009 is that it could have been worse, that we pulled back from the precipice on which we seemed to be perched in…Read More
Invictus is a bulge bracket asset manager with $100+ million AUM. He has no patience for money losers, hacks, partisans pretending to be financial analysts . . . this is the first in a series of critical looks at analysts, media, economists, financial TV. Feel free to share any thoughts in comments. Here’s Invictus: ~~~…Read More