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How Costco Became the Anti-Wal-Mart - New York Times

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Despite Costco's impressive record, Mr. Sinegal's salary is just $350,000, although he also received a $200,000 bonus last year. That puts him at less than 10 percent of many other chief executives, though Costco ranks 29th in revenue among all American companies.

"I've been very well rewarded," said Mr. Sinegal, who is worth more than $150 million thanks to his Costco stock holdings. "I just think that if you're going to try to run an organization that's very cost-conscious, then you can't have those disparities. Having an individual who is making 100 or 200 or 300 times more than the average person working on the floor is wrong."

Networking and pay: Contact sports | The Economist

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Networking and pay

Contact sports

Women are worse than men at turning networks to their advantage

Old boy in the chair

IN THE rarefied world of the corporate board, a good network matters. Recruitment often involves word-of-mouth recommendations: getting on a shortlist is easier if you have the right connections. New research suggests men use contacts better than women.

Marie Lalanne and Paul Seabright of the Toulouse School of Economics measure the effect of a network on remuneration using a database of board members in Europe and America. They find that if you were to compare two executive directors, identical in every way except that one had 200 ex-colleagues now sitting on boards and the other 400, the latter, on average, would be paid 6% more. For non-executives the gap is 14%.

The really juicy finding concerns the difference between the sexes. Among executive-board members, women earn 17% less than their male counterparts. There are plenty of plausible explanations for this disparity, from interruptions to women’s careers to old-fashioned discrimination. But the authors find that this pay gap can be fully explained by the effect of executives’ networks. Men can leverage a large network into more senior positions or a seat on a more lucrative board; women don’t seem to be able to.

Women could just have weaker connections with members of their networks. “Women seem more inclined to build and rely on only a few strong relationships,” says Mr Seabright. Men are better at developing passing acquaintances into a network, and better at maintaining a high personal profile through these contacts. Women may, of course, also be hurt by the existing dominance of men on boards and a male preference for filling executive positions with other men. But a tendency to think of other men first will be amplified if talented women don’t stay on the radar.

Interestingly, there is only a marginal pay difference between men and women when it comes to non-executive directors, and no difference in the effectiveness of their networks. It is possible that this reflects pressure for “gender quotas” on corporate boards. Women are able to find their way onto shortlists for lower-paid, non-executive positions. But that’s not where the real power lies.

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Stop Coddling the Super-Rich by Warren E. Buffett

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August 14, 2011
 

Stop Coddling the Super-Rich

 
By WARREN E. BUFFETT
 

Omaha

OUR leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.

While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.

These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

If you make money with money, as some of my super-rich friends do, your percentage may be a bit lower than mine. But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine — most likely by a lot.

To understand why, you need to examine the sources of government revenue. Last year about 80 percent of these revenues came from personal income taxes and payroll taxes. The mega-rich pay income taxes at a rate of 15 percent on most of their earnings but pay practically nothing in payroll taxes. It’s a different story for the middle class: typically, they fall into the 15 percent and 25 percent income tax brackets, and then are hit with heavy payroll taxes to boot.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

Since 1992, the I.R.S. has compiled data from the returns of the 400 Americans reporting the largest income. In 1992, the top 400 had aggregate taxable income of $16.9 billion and paid federal taxes of 29.2 percent on that sum. In 2008, the aggregate income of the highest 400 had soared to $90.9 billion — a staggering $227.4 million on average — but the rate paid had fallen to 21.5 percent.

The taxes I refer to here include only federal income tax, but you can be sure that any payroll tax for the 400 was inconsequential compared to income. In fact, 88 of the 400 in 2008 reported no wages at all, though every one of them reported capital gains. Some of my brethren may shun work but they all like to invest. (I can relate to that.)

I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people. They love America and appreciate the opportunity this country has given them. Many have joined the Giving Pledge, promising to give most of their wealth to philanthropy. Most wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.

Twelve members of Congress will soon take on the crucial job of rearranging our country’s finances. They’ve been instructed to devise a plan that reduces the 10-year deficit by at least $1.5 trillion. It’s vital, however, that they achieve far more than that. Americans are rapidly losing faith in the ability of Congress to deal with our country’s fiscal problems. Only action that is immediate, real and very substantial will prevent that doubt from morphing into hopelessness. That feeling can create its own reality.

Job one for the 12 is to pare down some future promises that even a rich America can’t fulfill. Big money must be saved here. The 12 should then turn to the issue of revenues. I would leave rates for 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged and continue the current 2-percentage-point reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax. This cut helps the poor and the middle class, who need every break they can get.

But for those making more than $1 million — there were 236,883 such households in 2009 — I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more — there were 8,274 in 2009 — I would suggest an additional increase in rate.

My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.

Warren E. Buffett is the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.

 

 

The Mystery of Banking (LvMI)

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Amazon Review

Talk about great timing. Rothbard's extraordinary book unravels the mystery of banking: what is legitimate enterprise and what is a government-backed shell game that can't last. His explanation is clear enough for anyone to follow and yet precise and rigorous enough to be the best, textbook for college classes on the topic. This is because its expositional clarity--in its hitosry and theory--is essentially unrivaled.

Most notably, he uses the T account method of explaining the relationship between deposits and loans, showing the inherent instability of fractional reserve banking and how it sets the stage for centralization, inflation, and the boost-bust cycle.

But there is more here. It is an explanation of money's origins and its meaning in the free market. The abstract theory is here but always with real application in history and in modern banking practice. Never does a paragraph go by without an example drawn from his massive knowledge of the subject.

Even further, he explains the integration between microeconomics and the business cycle. As Douglas French writes in the introduction: "Although first published 25 years ago, Murray Rothbard s The Mystery of Banking continues to be the only book that clearly and concisely explains the modern fractional reserve banking system, its origins, and its devastating effects on the lives of every man, woman, and child. It is especially appropriate in a year that will see; a surge in bank failures, central banks around the globe bailing out failed commercial and investment banks, double-digit inflation rates in many parts of the world and hyperinflation completely destroying Zimbabwe s economy, that a new edition of Rothbard s classic work be republished and made available through the efforts of Lew Rockwell and the staff at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Priced affordably for students and laymen interested in the vagaries of banking and how inflation and business cycles are created."

Further, Joseph Salerno explains in the Foreword: "The Mystery of Banking is perhaps the least appreciated work among Murray Rothbard s prodigious body of output. This is a shame because it is a model of how to apply sound economic theory, dispassionately and objectively, to the origins and development of real-world institutions and to assess their consequences. It is institutional economics at its best. In this book, the institution under scrutiny is central banking as historically embodied in the Federal Reserve System the Fed for short the central bank of the United States.

"Rothbard s presentation of the basic principles of money-and-banking theory in the first eleven chapters of the book guides the reader in unraveling the mystery of how the central bank operates to create money through the fractional-reserve banking system and how this leads to inflation of the money supply and a rise in overall prices in the economy. But he does not stop there. In the subsequent five chapters he resolves the historical mystery of how an inherently inflationary institution like central banking, which is destructive of the value of money and, in the extreme case of hyperinflation, of money itself, came into being and was accepted as essential to the operation of the market economy."

Incredibly, both authors correctly anticipate the current crisis -- and Rothbard explains it all and shows the way out. This is certainly the book for today, more essential than ever before.

PDF book

  • PDF edition is attached.
  • Source of the PDF book: http://www.scribd.com/doc/7657768/The-Mystery-of-Banking-by-Murray-Rothbard

Why Newton was wrong

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Theory says that the past performance of share prices is no guide to the future. Practice says otherwise

Momentum in financial markets

WHAT goes up must come down. It is natural to assume that the law of gravity should also apply in financial markets. After all, isn’t the oldest piece of investment advice to buy low and sell high? But in 2010 European investors would have prospered by following a different rule. Anyone who bought the best-performing stocks of the previous year would have enjoyed returns more than 12 percentage points higher than someone who bought 2009’s worst performers.

This was not unusual. Since the 1980s academic studies have repeatedly shown that, on average, shares that have performed well in the recent past continue to do so for some time. Longer-term studies have confirmed that this “momentum” effect has been observable for much of the past century. Nor is the phenomenon confined to the stockmarket. Commodity prices and currencies are remarkably persistent, rising or falling for long periods.

The momentum effect drives a juggernaut through one of the tenets of finance theory, the efficient-market hypothesis. In its strongest form this states that past price movements should give no useful information about the future. Investors should have no logical reason to have preferred the winners of 2009 to the losers; both should be fairly priced already.

Markets do throw up occasional anomalies—for instance, the outperformance of shares in January or their poor performance in the summer months—that may be too small or unreliable to exploit. But the momentum effect is huge. Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton of the London Business School (LBS) looked at the largest 100 stocks in the British market since 1900. They calculated the return from buying the 20 best performers over the past 12 months and then holding them, rebalancing the portfolio every month.

This produced an annual average of 10.3 percentage points more than a strategy of buying the previous 12 months’ worst performers. An investment of £1 in 1900 would have grown into £2.3m by the end of 2009; the same sum invested in the losers would have turned into just £49 (see chart 1).

Messrs Dimson, Marsh and Staunton applied a similar approach to 19 markets across the world and found a significant momentum effect in 18 of them, dating back to 1926 in America and 1975 in larger European markets. A study by AQR Capital Management, a hedge fund, found that the American stocks with the best momentum outperformed those with the worst by more than ten percentage points a year between 1927 and 2010 (see chart 2). AQR has set up a series of funds that attempt to exploit the momentum anomaly.

Too costly, too risky?

Even the high priests of efficient-market theory have acknowledged the momentum effect. Well-paid fund managers have spent decades trying to find ways to beat the market. But you have to wonder why they bother devoting so much money and effort to researching the fortunes of individual companies when the momentum approach appears to be easy to exploit and has been around for a long time.

Logic suggests that the effect should be arbitraged away. If the best performers of the past 12 months continue to do well, smart investors will buy them after 11 months have elapsed, reducing the returns on offer to those who wait the extra month. In turn, others will buy after ten months, then nine, eight and so on until the effect disappears.

When efficient-market theorists come across a market anomaly, they tend to dismiss it in one of three ways. The first argument is that the anomaly is a statistical quirk obtained by torturing the data; it will not persist. But the momentum effect was noticed in 1985 (by Werner de Bondt, a Belgian economist now at DePaul University in Chicago, and Richard Thaler, of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business) and has not gone away.

The second is that any gains from the strategy will be dissipated in higher trading costs. Clearly, the LBS team’s strategy of rebalancing a portfolio every month would be expensive but Mr Marsh says these would not offset an annual performance gap of over ten percentage points.

The third is that higher returns simply reflect the higher risks of the strategy. This has been used to explain away two other notable anomalies: the size and value effects. Small companies tend to do better than bigger ones in the long term, but they tend to be less diversified and therefore more risky. And shares that look cheap on conventional measures (asset value, dividend yield, price-earnings ratio) also tend to deliver above-average returns, but belong to firms that are likelier to go bust.

According to a paper by Cliff Asness, who co-founded AQR, the better performance of momentum stocks is not merely a reflection of higher risk. He finds that the momentum effect persisted even when the data were controlled for company size and value (defined as price-to-book) criteria. Another explanation is needed.

One possibility relates to timing. The efficient-market hypothesis assumes that new developments are instantly assimilated into asset prices. However, investors may be slow to adjust their opinions to fresh information. If they view a company unfavourably, they may dismiss an improvement in quarterly profits as a blip, rather than a change in trend. So momentum may simply represent the lag between beliefs and the new reality.

Once a trend is established, a share may benefit from a bandwagon effect. Professional fund managers have to prepare regular reports for clients on the progress of their portfolios. They will naturally want to demonstrate their skills by owning shares that have been rising in price and selling those that have been falling. This “window-dressing” may add to momentum. Paul Woolley of the London School of Economics has suggested that momentum might result from an agency problem. Investors reward fund managers who have recently beaten the market; such fund managers will inevitably own the most popular shares. As they get more money from clients, such managers will put more money into their favoured stocks, giving momentum an extra boost.

It is hardly a surprise that the momentum effect has been exploited by some professionals for decades. Commodity trading advisers (CTAs), also known as managed futures funds, exist to exploit the phenomenon. They take advantage of trends across a wide range of asset classes, including equities and currencies as well as raw materials. Martin Lueck was one of the three founders of AHL, one of the more successful CTAs, and now works for another trend-follower, Aspect Capital. “Trends occur because there is a disequilibrium between supply and demand,” he says. “The asset is trying to get from equilibrium price A to equilibrium price B.”

Many of the trend-following models were developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were exploited by investors such as John Henry, best known outside the financial world for owning a baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, and a football club, Liverpool (which is on a downward trend of its own). One of the simplest was to buy an asset when the 20-day moving average of its price rose above its 200-day average. In a recent study Joëlle Miffre and Georgios Rallis of the Cass Business School in London found 13 profitable momentum strategies in commodity markets with an average annual return of 9.4% between 1979 and 2004.

Modern CTAs like Aspect and Winton (run by David Harding, another founder of AHL) devote a lot of effort to researching new ways of exploiting momentum. That has sometimes meant trading faster and faster, with a time horizon of milliseconds rather than months. However, not all market movements are part of a trend. Some are merely random fluctuations. “As you trade faster, it is easier to get misled by the noise,” says Mr Lueck. Trend-followers can get “whipsawed” in volatile markets, buying at the top of a short-term trend and then selling at a loss shortly afterwards.

That may be one reason why the momentum effect has not been arbitraged away: it can go horribly wrong. Just as trees do not grow to the sky, share prices do not rise for ever. The effect tends to work for the best performers over the past 12 months, but not for those that have shone for longer periods, say three or five years.

The value of value

That may be because of another anomaly, the value effect. Investors eventually get too pessimistic about struggling firms, and price their shares too cheaply. That turns them into bargains. Broadly, whereas momentum works over the short term, value is successful over longer periods. The result can be sharp reversals in markets—and nasty surprises for momentum traders. One such turning-point occurred in 2009. Investors who used a short-term momentum strategy, buying the winners of the previous six months, would have lost 46% in the British market and 53% in America, according to the LBS team. Similarly bad years were 1975, 2000 and 2003.

The momentum effect allows investors to get rich slowly. But many fund managers are impatient and thus use leverage (borrowed money) to enhance returns. Such an approach would lose so much money in bad years that clients might lose faith. “To exploit momentum, you need investors who understand the portfolio is going to be subject to a very high level of volatility,” says Mr Marsh of the LBS.

Momentum is so significant in stockmarkets that academics are starting to analyse what role it plays in professional fund managers’ returns. This is all part of the long process of removing the “magic” from financial performance. In the early days of fund management, in the 19th century, there were no stockmarket indices. Fund managers could thus claim that a positive return was down to their own brilliance, rather than a general rise of the market, and clients could not tell the difference.

After the development of benchmarks like the S&P 500, clients began to demand that fund managers proved their skill by outperforming an index. Many failed; but even some who succeeded may have done so by holding concentrated portfolios of only a few stocks. Such portfolios were more risky than the overall market. So the next step was to measure the managers’ performance after adjusting for risk. Even those managers may have done well because their investment style (value, for instance) was in fashion. So academics started to allow for that, too.

In effect, the portion of the investment return that was purely a result of fund managers’ skill was being reduced at every stage. Now, says Mr Marsh, academics are looking to see whether some outperformance is really all down to momentum.

All this analysis matters because these factors can be replicated. These days investors can not only match a benchmark through simple index-tracking funds; they can also own portfolios that exploit the value and momentum effects without paying hefty fund-management fees. The investment-management industry may become even more commoditised.

The momentum effect raises a further important issue. If markets are rational, as the efficient-market hypothesis assumed, then they will allocate capital to its most productive uses. But the momentum effect suggests that an irrationality might be at work; investors could be buying shares (and commodities) just because they have risen in price.

That would help explain why bubbles are created and why professional investors ended up allocating capital to dotcom companies with no earnings and business plans written on the back of a cigarette packet. Momentum can carry whole economies off track.