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    Max Bialystock and CDOs

    Apr 27 • Businesses, Demand, Supply, and Markets, Financial Markets, Regulation • 330 Views

    Comparing the deal to Bialystock, Bloom, and Springtime For Hitler in The Producers, NPR’s This American Life looked at how a Chicago hedge fund made money on seemingly unprofitable CDO transactions. Available as a podcast, the story made the CDO derivatives world entirely understandable. 

    The protagonist of the story is Magnetar, a Chicago hedge fund. The plot focuses on why Magnetar would buy a “layer” of a package of mortgage securities that was so speculative that its default was probable. The “climax” relates to the “insurance” that the firm purchased on the package. The podcast uses broadway music, a derivatives song that they commissioned, and clear explanations that provide insight. Listening to it is worth the opportunity cost.

    The Economic Life

    Imagine a big box filled with mortgages. Fundamentally, you are looking at a CDO, a collateralized debt obligation. Through financial reform legislation, Congress wants to limit who can buy and sell these packages and the securities that relate to them.


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    Wheelbarrows of Money

    Apr 26 • International Trade and Finance, Money and Monetary Policy • 391 Views

    If your country’s currency is hyperinflating, then how do you buy bread? You can find a wheelbarrow or use another currency. During February, 2007, with an inflation rate exceeding 50% per month, the Zimbabwean economy experienced hyperinflation. Looking for purchasing power, people avoided Zimbabwean currency and turned to the U.S. dollar, the South African rand, Botswana’s pula, and the Zambian kwacha. One researcher estimated that in Zimbabwe, by November, 2008, prices were doubling every 24.7 hours. 

    With Zimbabweans just one of many people using U.S. currency throughout the world, and computers making counterfeiting increasingly simple, the U.S. government just issued a new, forgery resistant $100 bill. Yes, Ben Franklin is still there.  But, his shoulders were added, as you tilt the bill certain areas change color, and there is a blue 3-D “security ribbon”. On a government video, you can see the new bill. In a recent column, Floyd Norris pointed out that abroad, the $100 bill is preferred.

    The Economic Life

    Money has three basic characteristics. 1) It is a medium of exchange. 2) It is a unit of value. 3) It provides a store of value. Hyperinflation, the plunge in value of money, immediately affects whether money is acceptable as a medium of exchange, it diminishes the value of money, and it reduces its ability to store value. 

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    Can More Be Less?

    Apr 25 • Behavioral Economics, Demand, Supply, and Markets, Regulation • 366 Views

    At Starbucks, no one orders just a regular coffee, at the Gap, we look at easy fit or relaxed or straight leg, and when selecting health insurance, we think about deductibles and prescription drug coverage. Everywhere we have many choices.

    One experiment in a California supermarket focused on the impact of choice. Faced with six kinds of jam, 30% of the tasters bought a jar and walked out satisfied. By contrast, with 24 to sample, 3% made a purchase while 97% left with nothing. Why? The researcher concluded that there was too much choice.

    In a TED talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests that too much choice leads to paralysis, dissatisfaction, and self-blame. His solution is income redistribution through which unhappy affluent consumers with too many choices transfer income to poorer groups with fewer alternatives. Disagreeing, libertarian writer Virginia Postrel says that satisfaction requires the choices that a market economy creates. 

    Your choice?

    The Economic Life

    Why should we care about choice research? Starting with health care reform, legislation can present the potential for many alternatives or few.



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    Creative Destruction

    Apr 24 • Businesses, Economic Thinkers • 478 Views

    Reading Ken Auletta’s recent New Yorker article on the iPad and the Kindle, I first thought of “the razor or the blade.” While Amazon loses money on books in order to sell Kindles, razors were precisely the opposite. Get a cheap razor, buy blades for a lifetime, and Gillette has an unending stream of revenue. Doing the opposite, Amazon has dominated e-book sales. 

    Amazon also broke other rules:

    Price taker or price maker? Six publishers control 60% of the business. These classic oligopoly stats mean that they should have control over price and yet Amazon was able to charge $9.99.

    A New Pie? According to Auletta, for a $26 hardcover book, the publisher gets 50% of each sale, pays the author 15% of its revenue, covers publishing expenses, and also accepts returned unsold copies. Now, with e-books selling for $9.99, the revenue pie has changed. 

    Which market? Instead of competing against other publishers, maybe now all media based activities have a toe in the same market with everyone vying for a piece of the consumer’s time.

    Perhaps the one rule that has not been broken relates to innovation. As entrepreneurs implement new ideas, existing firms will be forced to change or disappear.

    The Economic Life

    Joseph Schumpeter best explained the march of new ideas as creative destruction.  

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    The Ties That Bind Us

    Apr 23 • Economic Thinkers, International Trade and Finance • 272 Views

    Although Nairobi and London are 4228 miles apart, they actually are closely connected. The NY Times described the tie that was cut by volcanic ash.

    Kenyans supply gourmet vegetables and cut flowers to European supermarkets. When planes were grounded, so too were sugar snap peas, onions, and corn. Roses began to wilt and corn started to spoil. Daily shipments of two million pounds of produce were affected as were unneeded Kenyan packers and washers.

    Other trade connections we might not know? Please comment.

    The Economic Life

    Perhaps here we have a connection between Adam Smith, David Ricardo, the U.K. and Kenya. In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith explains the virtues of mass production and the need for “distant sale” which can only be achieved through a transport infrastructure and many buyers. Kenya developed so large a horticultural export sector because cargo planes could connect it with large affluent markets. And here is where Ricardo enters the picture. Markets that interconnect nations facilitate even more efficiencies through economies of scale and comparative advantage. 


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