Category Archives: Finance

The Stupidest Thing You Can Do With Your Money

I highly recommend this Freakonomics podcast (and transcript) about passive versus actively managed investment strategies. It provides historical context for the development of some of the most important ideas in finance (e.g., the efficient market hypothesis) and the implications of these ideas for investing in the long run. Along the way, you get to “virtually” meet with many of the best, brightest and most influential academic and professional finance thinkers who played important roles in shaping this history.

Prior to listening to this podcast, I was not aware of how a quip in a 1974 Journal of Portfolio Management article authored by the MIT economist Paul Samuelson inspired Vanguard founder Jack Bogle to launch the world’s first index fund in late 1975. Samuelson suggested that, “at the least, some large foundation should set up an in-house portfolio that tracks the S&P 500 Index — if only for the purpose of setting up a naive model against which their in-house gunslingers can measure their prowess.” (source: “Challenge to Judgment”, available from http://www.iijournals.com/doi/abs/10.3905/jpm.1974.408496).

It’s hard enough to save for a house, tuition, or retirement. So why are we willing to pay big fees for subpar investment returns? Enter the low-cost index fund.
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Talk Is Cheap: Automation Takes Aim at Financial Advisers—and Their Fees

From page 1 of today’s Wall Street Journal – how automation is increasingly (and in many cases, adversely) affecting the livelihoods of financial advisors.

Services that use algorithms to generate investment advice, deliver it online and charge low fees are pressuring the traditional advisory business. The shift has big implications for financial firms that count on advice as a source of stable profits, as well as for rivals trying to build new businesses at lower prices. It also could mean millions in annual savings for consumers and could expand the overall market for advice.
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Derek Zoolander, spherical cows, the Guardian, and econophysics

Wonderful explanation of the logical fallacy associated with dismissing theories based upon modeling assumptions that are not literally true… HT to Scott Cunningham.

In Zoolander, the titular character is presented with a model of a building.  He inspects the model and responds with anger and indignation:

Derek Zoolander: What is this? [smashes the model for the reading center] A center for ants?

Mugatu: What?

Derek Zoolander: How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read… if they can’t even fit inside the building?

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Financial versus Mathematical literacy

It is rare when I actually take the time to read Baylor’s student newspaper, the Baylor Lariat, and even rarer when I post a critical response to a Lariat article. However, I couldn’t resist commenting on an editorial from earlier this month entitled, “Baylor should implement class to ready students for real world”. In this editorial, the members of the Lariat editorial board opine that Baylor should require a one-hour credit “Life Skills” course in lieu of a basic math course such as “Ideas in Mathematics”. Basically, such a course would be designed to cover very basic personal finance principles, such as budgeting, paying off student loans, buying insurance, saving for retirement, etc. I think this is a manifestly bad idea; let me explain why.

While I am not aware of an empirical literature concerning mandated personal finance courses at colleges and universities, many states have experimented with personal finance and minimum math requirements at the high school level. A recent (2014) Harvard Business School working paper entitled “High School Curriculum and Financial Outcomes: The Impact of Mandated Personal Finance and Mathematics Courses” provides a thorough empirical analysis of personal finance and minimum math requirements and finds that mandated personal finance courses at the high school level do little to improve outcomes that are generally associated with financial literacy (e.g., such as building wealth through asset accumulation, prudent credit management, etc.), whereas “… individuals who were exposed to greater math requirements in high school are more likely to accumulate assets, have more real estate equity, are less likely to be delinquent on their loans, and are less likely to undergo foreclosure.”

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Bank of Japan Introduces Negative Interest Rates

The Bank of Japan’s (somewhat counterintuitive) stated goal for implementing it’s new (negative interest rate) policy is “…to push down borrowing costs to stimulate inflation”. While I certainly do not claim or pretend to be a monetary economist, a policy that punishes savers and rewards borrowers doesn’t seem like a particularly good script for long-term economic success. I think it’s a tacit acknowledgment that the Japanese economy is struggling with deflation.  See https://www.boj.or.jp/en/announcements/release_2016/k160129a.pdf for the official policy statement issued by BOJ…

BOJ Introduces Negative Interest Rates for First Time
wsj.com|By Takashi Nakamichi and Megumi Fujikawa
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As Interest Benchmarks Go Negative, Banks May Have to Pay Borrowers

I never thought that I would ever live to see the day when interest rates turned negative, creating a world where investors pay for the opportunity to lose money over time and banks pay interest to borrowers…

As Interest Benchmarks Go Negative, Banks May Have to Pay Borrowers

“As Euribor, a key benchmark used to set interest rates, seems to sliding toward zero and below, banks in some European countries are looking at previously inconceivable problem: They may soon have to pay interest to customers who borrow from them.”

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Are Shareholders Obsolete?

Corporate Governance

Are Shareholders Obsolete?

In his January 2, 2015 Wall Street Journal essay, columnist Holman Jenkins makes a compelling case for the principle of shareholder value maximization by noting that owners seeking to maximize the value of their businesses end up doing a pretty decent job of satisfying customer and employees along the way. Think of this essay as a 2015 sequel to Milton Friedman’s famous New York Times Magazine essay (published September 13, 1970) entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits” (see http://bit.ly/Social_Responsibility_of_Business for Friedman’s essay; Thomas Coleman provides important context in his recent (2013) essay about Friedman entitled “Corporate Social Responsibility: Friedman’s View @ http://bfi.uchicago.edu/feature-story/corporate-social-responsibilty-friedmans-view)…

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Terrorism risk insurance

Clearly insurance is an enabling technology; without insurance many if not most large-scale commercial activities would grind to a halt. In a Business Week article entitled “The Unexpected Threat to Super Bowl XLIX“, Wharton professors Howard Kunreuther and Erwann Michel-Kerjan point out that that if Congress decides not to renew the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) (set to expire on Dec. 31), there is a chance that the Super Bowl might not be played. Will Warren Buffet step in as an insurer of last resort if TRIA is not reauthorized?  Also, Gordon Woo raises some excellent points about possible private sector alternatives to TRIA in his blog posting entitled “RMS and the FIFA World Cup: Insuring Against Terrorism“.

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Suggested books and readings on finance and risk management

In my opinion, the following 3 books are particularly worthwhile for students who are interested in learning more about finance and risk management:

  1. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter L. Bernstein.
  2. A Random Walk Down Wall Street: The Time-Tested Strategy for Successful Investing, by Burton G. Malkiel.
  3. Stocks for the Long Run : The Definitive Guide to Financial Market Returns and Long-Term Investment Strategies, by Jeremy J. Siegel.

Philosophically, these books present what I would consider to be an “orthodox” perspective; i.e., they fit well with the so-called rational choice, efficient markets view of the world which is prevalent in most departments of finance and economics. For some “heterodox” alternatives, I like (but am nevertheless highly critical of) both of Nicholas Taleb’s books:

  1. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (read this first).
  2. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (the sequel to “Fooled by Randomness”).

Finally, I would be remiss to not also include two other favorites which are not books on finance or economics; rather they deal with the history and philosophy of applied mathematics. These books include:

  1. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, by John Allen Paulos.
  2. A Brief History of Infinity, by Brian Clegg.
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