Thoughts on Goldman Sachs Testimony

I’m watching the testimony live on Bloomberg TV right now and a couple things are sticking out.

  1. The question is coming up about the ability for a party to be a market maker and to also take part in the market. With highly liquid stocks, it seems like this is OK since there is a fair amount of visibility into the market. There isn’t an information gap between different parties. But with illiquid assets like the CDOs, knowing who is involved and moving in which direction gives you a huge advantage over other players. It would only take a little bit of info to shift the advantage dramatically. If the Senators are smart they’ll see that with these types of assets market makers shouldn’t be allowed to take part in the market. It’s back door insider trading.
  2. There is another line of questions on rating the CDO. Goldman Sachs is sticking with the line that everyone was a big boy and should have been able to look at the security and determine the risk. The problem is that this has been proven to be completely false. No one was able to accurately determine the risk of these items. The fact that they allowed Paulson to pick the contents and then short the CDO gave him a huge advantage in the deal. Whether this was illegal or not isn’t clear, it should not be allowed to happen again.
  3. The Goldman Employees referenced the mathematical models that allowed rating agencies to take BBB+ sub-prime mortgages and rate them as a group as AAA. It’s shocking how far from reality this model was. It’s these types of models and economic thinking that has spurred my interest in this area. How can the supposed top economic minds get things so wrong?

TV news is no better than following twitter

Saw some blog posts today discussing the provably wrong statements that Guiliani is making on the TV news stations and it’s led me to belief that TV news is no better than following twitter. It’s not real journalism. There is no control for making sure that the statements made are accurate. You’ll probably getter a more accurate, broader view of what is going on in the world today by watching raw twitter updates.
Maybe live TV is just not conducive to news. The excuse that the host just doesn’t have time to fact check everything that is said has just gotten old. Every day, lie after misstatement after miss characterizations are made continually. How many times does the Daily Show have to embarrass them before they listen?
If as an agency you can’t control the quality of what is being said, then maybe it shouldn’t be shown live. What would stop the stations from filming an interview with different talking heads and then having the interns fact check what was said. Why is there the need to let someone who once did something a long time ago spout off live on TV?
Of course the problem may be that it was never really news to begin with.

Journalism Isn't Dying, Newspapers Are

journalismI just finished reading the article “The Story Behind the Story” in this month’s Atlantic Magazine where Mark Bowden goes through the backstory and context of the videos of now Justice Sotomayor. The article takes on the fall of real journalism and its replacement with political hit jobs. As someone raising an infant at home and often having the news channels on during the day, I can definitely attest to the fall in quality at the 24 hours news networks. All of them can best be described as News Entertainment rather than any type of real journalism.
In all of the discussions I’ve read about the death of news, journalism, and newspapers the argument seems to be that if these businesses die, then no one will pay for journalism. That without a newspaper, there is no way we could get the real story. I don’t think that this is necessarily what needs to happen though. As the big media companies race to the bottom and look more each day like an episode of Jerry Springer, there are real journalists out there that want to search for and print the truth. These people have the highest standards and will continue to do their craft long after the newspaper has shut down or moved entirely to tabloid coverage. The good news is that these determined men and women are finding ways to get paid to do the work that they love.
What I see as the issue today is that in the past we could pick up the New York Times and know that we could trust the reporting within, the people that wrote there were held to the highest standards, we didn’t even have to really think about it. However as the unit of journalism moves from the newspaper to the actual journalist we need a way to quickly transfer that same level of trust of what we are reading. What I’m proposing is that to manage the need for a transfer of trust that a body of respected journalists, either through a journalism school or a group of professional journalists, creates a set of standards for professional journalists. This group would then accredit individual writers that met the standard of professional journalism.  Accredited journalists could be local bloggers reporting on the local government meetings or large columnists that have found it more to their liking to strike out on their own.
As the internet has given everyone a printing press, what we need is a way to quickly determine who is worth reading. Writers could begin to publish and as they reached a level of published content they could ask for accreditation and if received post this on their site. Each individual writer could determine how they wanted to get paid for their work, whatever made sense for them, it could even be working at a newspaper. This would not inhibit others from publishing whatever they wanted, but if you wanted to get accreditation and keep it, you must hold yourself to the standards.
Of course the running of the  journalism board would cost money and have its own issues, but I’m sure that there are some people out there that would be willing to pay for such a service if it meant that high quality journalism could continue.

Energy Independence

powerI’m really happy to see all the work that has gone into getting conservation into people’s minds when they go through their day. Everyone is now talking about electric cars and plugin hybrids. In the long run though, I’m not nearly as interested in energy conservation as I am in new renewable energy sources.
I don’t really want to use compact fluorescent light bulbs everywhere, although the new LED lights look great. I’d rather be able to have a great home lighting setup with more light bulbs than you can count and leave it on all day. I want to be able to have my garage datacenter with 5 full racks of servers humming along all day and not have to worry what the power bill will be or the impact on the environment.
I’d really like to have the core of my home electrical system be a pluggable switching system where many different types of energy generation and storage systems could be plugged into. Something that would allow for remote monitoring and charting of energy generation and usage and handle balancing swings between energy sources. The local Frys outlet is now selling solar panels and wind turbines which I’d love to be able to try out and play with. Or to be able to experiment with different types of energy storage solutions.
Everyone has come to the realization that there isn’t going to be a silver bullet when it comes to getting off of oil and coal. Energy independence is going to be built off of hundreds of technologies and we’ve got to lower the cost of trying out new ones.

The Myth Of The Rational Market

financeI just finished reading an excellent book on finance, The Myth Of The Rational Market by Justin Fox. This book will blow away a lot of what you learned in Econ 101 or have heard on the news. It turns out that many of the core ideas and theories of finance and economics have been under fire for decades.  The issue is that several of these core ideas were easy to conceptualize and remember, like the efficient marketplace, but have been shown to be oversimplifications and poor models of reality.
Definitely worth a read if you have any interest in the history of financial theory.
I had started studying finance because I was curious about why different stocks had different values. It appeared to me that certain stock’s values were solely based on the “Bigger Fool Principle”, that the only way you could make money was if you could find a bigger fool than yourself to take if off your hands. With billions at risk in different markets I felt that there had to be more to it than this. How could growth stocks with no plans of ever returning profits to investors be worth the multiple that people paid for them.
This led me to the capital structure irrelevance principle as what appeared to be at the root of my confusion. This theory was initially proposed by Modigliani and Miller in 1958. The first part asserts that the value of a corporation is unaffected by the source of the corporations finance. So if a corporation needed money it didn’t matter to the value of the stock as to whether the company sold more stock or borrowed the needed money. This part seems to make sense, I can understand why if a corporation all of a sudden needed new financing that that could affect the price of the stock, but not which source of money it decides to use to fill that need.
But a second part that came out of the theory had to do with dividends and that the value of a stock was independent of the dividend plan. So according to Modigliani and Miller, a stock’s value was not connected to whether it paid out profits as dividends. This just didn’t seem correct to me at all and I kept searching and searching for something that would refute this. However, it appears that this aspect of the theory is still standing.
As a very simple model I can see how you could say that it wouldn’t make a difference if you distribute profits to investors as dividends or you use those profits to fund further growth. In fact I think Warren Buffet’s life makes an incredibly compelling case that in the right hands keeping free cash flow within a corporation and using it to fund future growth is advantageous. However as an investor this assumes that my goals and the company’s goals are aligned.  But if the goal of an investment is to use profits to fund some other aspect of my life such as buying a house or paying for college for kids then the simple return of a dividend is more advantageous and valuable. But more to the aspect of the theory it makes the assumption that managers of a company, given profits will be able to turn them into more profits or that the company will even continue to exist. I believe that there is risk in putting off returns for greater future returns that doesn’t seem to be calculated correctly into current stock prices.

Phone Spam

Mobile-Phone-SPAMGot my first straight up spam phone call tonight. It was so over the top that I had to listen to it just to see how bad it was. A robo-dialed call from the 202 area code was offering secret weight loss berries from Siberia. All I had to do was leave my name and phone number on the voice mail of whoever’s system was hacked and doing the robo-dialing and they would call me back to get my credit card info. Couldn’t be anything wrong with leaving my credit card info, right?
I’m actually curious how this type of system could work. Email spam always worked because the incremental cost of sending spam was essentially $0. You could send out millions and if only 100 people ever responded you’d still make money. With those percentages it’s possible to come across someone that believes that secret berries will overcome your beer drinking habit or that mushroom extract will give you a “bigger manliness”.
Phone spam would have to overcome the issues with the cost of placing a phone call. Other than hacking the phone system and using a blue box like Woz and Jobs were famous for, there is always a cost to placing a phone call. So either the phone spammers have discovered a whole population of people willing to give their credit card info to random people on the phone or they’ve discovered a way to make free phone calls.
The number that called tonight (202-211-8774) is not a legitimate number. When I attempted to call back I got the “This call can not be completed” error with a male voice that kicked in afterwards saying error “090T”. Didn’t find anything relevant about this error on The Goog. I’m guessing someone is placing this phone call for free, just not sure how, caller id is probably spoofed but that doesn’t answer the cost aspect.
If this call is a sign of things to come, having a telephone in your house could become much more unpleasant.  Email became unusable until spam filters were put in place in pretty much every email application. There’s no infrastructure for doing phone call spam filtering other than something like Google Voice which has some basic filters .

Google phases out referrals program the week before Chrome

Is it a coincidence that Google phased out it’s paid referrals program for Firefox, effective at the end of August, and introduces its own browser on September 2nd?
I was playing around in the adsense management area today and saw that the referrals area was still there. Even though there was a message that stated that it was being phased out and that the phase out date had already passed. I’m curious if the real phase out was just of Firefox and that the system will now be used to push Chrome.

Really enjoying the Kindle

I’ve got to say that I really enjoy reading books on the Amazon Kindle. I was lucky enough to get one for Christmas this year and have just been tearing through books on it ever since. It just seems really fitting to read as many sci-fi books as possible on the little device. It’s also amazing the battery life it gets. I’ve been doing some heavy reading and find that I need to charge it about once a week with the networking turned off. After I finish a group of books I spend some time browsing the store and buy several others.
It takes about 30 minutes of reading your first book to get used to the switching of the pages and how to hold it comfortably to read a book, but once you do the technology disappears and you’re just flying through your latest novel. It makes it so much easier to travel with as well. You can load the thing up with a virtually unlimited number of books to take with you on a trip, so if you can’t quite make the call on which book to bring you can just bring them all.
On the negative side, there isn’t quite 100% coverage in books available. There are definitely a lot, but I’ve been disappointed to find that some books that I wanted to read just aren’t available yet. The kindle is also making it clear that when I buy the book in one format I don’t get it in another. Hopefully Amazon will offer a way at some point in the future to complete a purchase, to say buy an ebook and then to get a discount on the paper version at a later date or vice versa. Currently it just feels a bit wrong to pay full price for something that you already own.
Also, the design is really optimized for reading a book cover to cover. It’s not the greatest device for purchasing reference material since quickly flipping through a book to find the one tidbit that you need is not as simple as with a traditional book.
Finally a rather funny issue that I’ve had, is that I read before bed each night and have several times now fallen asleep mid-page and then woken up later to find that I had been holding down the next page button and that I have to backtrack all the way through the book to find where I left off.
Overall I love the thing, I have been doing 90% of my reading on it over the last several months and would recommend it to any other serious reader.

Is the polish wearing off of Google's shine?

A spat of stories coming out here and here about how Google is no longer the greatest thing since sliced bread. My personal opinion is that this was bound to happen eventually, it’s actually taken longer than I expected.
I saw a story a few days ago that I wished I had saved mentioning that Google doesn’t have much to fear from Microsoft or Yahoo. That its biggest problem is going to be itself. Whether it can digest all of the new employees and maintain the culture and internal systems that allowed it to get where it currently is. The company is still wildly profitable, but Wall Street is almost never reasonable and they expect Google to make more money out of the money they’ve already made and that’s just going to keep getting harder.

Audiobook update

Wow, the narrator makes all the difference. We picked up a different book for the drive home from Thanksgiving, “Basic Black” by Cathie Black on business. The 6 hour trip was over before we knew it. We’ve still got 3 hours left in the book, but a good audiobook makes the drive go by so much easier.
We’re planning on having a full library on our ipods before all trips from now on. And while I’ve still got 5 months left in my transition out of Webshots, I’ll be listening to a lot more books during my commute up into SF.