Tuesday, December 11, 2018

econlife - Six Facts: What We Need To Know About World Debt by Elaine Schwartz


If you want just one image of world debt, this is it:



But let’s look at some of the details…

Six Facts:

1. The world’s national governments have borrowed an estimated $63 trillion.

Governments usually borrow money by selling bonds to other governments, businesses (including banks), and individuals. Those bonds pay interest to their purchasers. How much interest? It depends on risk. The less likely a payback, the higher the interest rate.

2. Using size as a measure of debt, the U.S is #1.

The U.S. owes 31.8% of the $63 trillion that the world’s national governments have borrowed. Guilty of debt creep, what the U.S. owes has crept up from $6.9 trillion (54% of GDP) in 2001 to $20 trillion in 2017. Yes, we are talking nominal rather than real dollars but still the increase is considerable.

3. Using a debt to GDP ratio to measure world debt,  Japan is #1.




But for Japan, it’s not as worrisome as it sounds. At more than 90%, most of Japan’s debt is owned domestically.

4. The top five holders of the world debt owe 66% of the total



5. The world’s riskiest debt is from Venezuela.

Although this risky debt list used February 2016 data, it still is pretty accurate. You can see that Greece and Portugal had pretty high debt to GDP ratios. So it makes sense that they are in the orange top risk zone. Meanwhile, Japan, in green, is pretty low.




6. Africa’s national debt has also been growing.

This is some country data:




Our Bottom Line: Sovereign Debt

We’ve said that debt to GDP ratios are one way to judge whether a debt is healthy. That however is only the beginning. Next we need to ask if the country is developed or developing. Predictably, a developed nation can accommodate a higher ratio. Rather astoundingly though, at 239%, Japan’s debt to GDP ratio is gargantuan and yet our concern for Puerto Rico, closer to 65.9% (2015) is far greater. Then, we can also check to see if the country has a history of defaulting (like Greece) and whether its political institutions are strong enough to endure austerity.

My sources and more: The World Economic Forum and Visual Capitalist were ideal for the visuals and some analysis. Then for much more insightful analysis, I recommend Brookings for understanding African debt and Puerto Rico. But for a vast array of the most amazing infographics and maps, this Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Report is especially worth your time.

Several sentences in today’s “Bottom Line” were in a previous econlife post.



Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

econlife - Why the Republicans and Democrats Are Like Coke and Pepsi by Elaine Schwartz


Asked to name two firms that dominate an industry, we could start with Coke and Pepsi.  Next, we could add FedEx and UPS, or Boeing and Airbus, or Visa and MasterCard. There is one pair though that we should have included but did not.

The Republicans and the Democrats.

Two-Firm Power

Harvard’s Michael Porter is famous for using “five forces” to judge businesses’ competitive power. Now he tells us that they also can apply to politics. Just like the firm, we need to assess the power of buyers and suppliers. We should see if new entrants and substitute products are a threat. And lastly, we have to consider the rivalry among competitors.

In politics, Dr. Porter sees the two major parties competing during elections and when they govern. Among their five “buyer” groups are the primary voters, the average voters, and the non-voters. However, the largest blocs of voters aren’t the most important. Instead, it’s the primary voters and then the donors and the special interests.

Similarly, on the supply side, the major participants have considerable money and power. They include TV, cable, newspapers, social media, and the people who directly contact voters. At the federal level, spending on “supply” for the 2016 two-year election cycle was close to $16 billion. It generated approximately 19,000 jobs for lobbyists, campaign workers, consultants, and other staffers. There were close to 1,000 organizations with consulting contracts.

Meanwhile, there is little competition from upstart entrants and substitutes. Since the Republicans in 1854, we’ve had no new major political party. The Progressives (1912) and the Reform Party (1992) came and went. The reason? Size, money, connections with suppliers, and a recognizable “brand” are formidable entry barriers.

The Results

As an industry, politics is big business. But unlike other successful big businesses, they’ve preserved their power by catering to the extremes rather than the vast center:



Consequently, bipartisan cooperation has declined:



Our Bottom Line: Duopoly

An economist would blame it all on duopoly. As a market structure whose two dominant participants have considerable power, duopoly is responsible for how Coke and Pepsi and the Democrats and Republicans behave.


You can see below that duopoly is close to monopoly on a competitive market structure continuum. Located to the far right, duopoly is on the less competitive end of the spectrum where the firm (or the party) takes power away from the market:



My sources and more: Thanks to Freakonomics for a timely alert to the 2017 Michael Porter and Katherine Gehl paper.



Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

econlife - The Cash We Love to Stash by Elaine Schwartz


Each year, the Federal Reserve decides how much cash to print. The new bills are primarily used to replace whatever is too tattered or worn out. Meanwhile, the old ones are withdrawn from circulation.

Below you can see the Fed’s 2018 print order. Only the $20s exceed the new $100s they are creating this year:



Why We Want $100 Bills

The $100 bill just became the most popular kind of cash. For years, the dollar was in the lead. No longer:



For many reasons, a $100 bill is a handy denomination. Because of the financial crisis and low interest rates, people have more cash. It makes sense that whatever cash we stash under the mattress is in large bills.

Similarly, $100 bills are the note of choice for the “informal,” underground economy. Explained in a Harvard Business School paper, they are universally acceptable, they retain their value, and they are easily transportable. Add anonymity to that list and you get the perfect currency for illegal transactions. Similarly, the $100 bill is ideal for people in countries with unstable currencies.

It is also easy to ship $100 bills. In 2012, The Atlantic said we send pallets, each with 640,000 $100 bills, to destinations outside the U.S. Because financial intermediaries pay for those bills–called seignorage–we make money when we “export” them.

Finally, you might be thinking that we live in a digital age. However, people do want to continue using cash–more so in some places than others:



Our Bottom Line: What is Money?


Small rectangles made of cotton and linen, sea shells, or massive stone disks are considered money if they have three characteristics:


  • A medium of exchange: People accept it as payment.
  • A unit of value: People know what it’s worth.
  • A store of value: Its purchasing power is relatively stable over time.

Like the $100 bill, these huge limestone disks on the Micronesia island of Yap have also functioned as money.



My sources and more: Quartz reminded me it was to look again at the $100 bill and at who uses cash. From there, you might want to see the Fed’s money order and more about the Yap. But returning to the $100 bill, The Atlantic and this HBS paper had the detail.

Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

econlife - A Russian Wheat Story With an Unexpected Ending by Elaine Schwartz


There once was a farmer who started to accumulate land in 2005 and now has 3,600 acres. While at first he planted wheat with a dilapidated tractor, now he has state-of-the-art John Deere equipment, top notch fertilizer, and up-to-date seeds.

Sounds like Iowa?

No, this wheat farmer is in Russia. His land is in the same place that Soviet collective farms called Lenin’s Path and Dawn of Communism had once underproduced. But this gentleman sounds like an entrepreneur. He works long hours, owns a fleet of trucks, benefits from a cheap ruble, and has access to improving storage facilities. In world markets he has been faring beautifully.

Russia just pulled ahead of the U.S. as the world’s biggest wheat producer:



Reading about this farmer in a recent WSJ article, I couldn’t help but think about how the Russian economy has changed.

Our Bottom Line: Economic Systems

We could say there are three basic economic systems. And Russia had all of them during the past 120 years.

Tradition

Looking way back at some Russian history, we could go to a typical pre-revolutionary estate owned by an exceedingly affluent family called Osorgin. Located 90 miles south of Moscow, their manor had eight villages, 8,327 acres, and 600 serfs. Its agricultural life was dominated by tradition. In traditional systems, land, labor, and capital produce the same goods and services year after year. Because roles are passed down from father to son and mother to daughter, all remains pretty much the same.

Command

Leaping to the 1920s, we have the Bolsheviks seizing farmland and the beginnings of a command economy. Through a series of five-year plans, the Soviets form a central planning apparatus that told people what and how to produce. As for agriculture, they created a network of collective farms where employees worked for a daily wage determined by economic planners. Individual initiative was disparaged and innovation was unnecessary. While Russia had been a major exporter of wheat until 1913, by the 1970s, they were unable to feed their entire population.

The Market

It took until 1991 for it all to collapse. With privatization, we get some capitalism and a wheat farmer who buys land, works hard, and flourishes. He employs ten farmhands, a cook and 3 guards.


Perhaps this entrepreneur is an unexpected ending to our 120-year Russian wheat story.

My sources and more: A WSJ front page article alerted me to Russian wheat. It also returned me to all that is fascinating about Russian history. I tell some of the story in my text, Understanding Our American Economy–available through econlife.


Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Student-led Conferences by Mike Siekkinen

This year, my team tried a new approach to doing parent-teacher conferences. We let the student lead the conferences.

As teachers know, a typical parent-teacher conference is called by a parent or by the teachers to discuss student behavior/achievement/effort/etc. The purpose of the conference is still the same, but with student led conferences, the method changes.

Once a conference is scheduled, we provided students with a script (outline) of questions they were required to prepare for prior to the conference. Students would introduce themselves and then discuss their grades, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses. Parents would hear this from their child verses from a teacher. This also allowed students to “own” their behaviors.

We would sit back and respond when questioned or add to student’s discussion. We found that students were generally very honest in answering the questions. We also found that, especially when student performance was the issue, hearing directly from their child had much more of an impact on parents and was much less confrontational between parents and teachers. With this we also came up with a plan on how to proceed from there to help the student.

We came up with an initial script and then fine-tuned it as the year went on. This could easily be adapted to younger children up through high school. I am an eighth grade teacher and this method served us well this year. Give it a try for next school year. I think you will see the positive changes that occur.



mike_s_blogDr. Mike Siekkinen, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, became a teacher as a second career. He teaches history at St Marys Middle School as well as Adult and Career Education at Valdosta State in Georgia.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

econlife - Looking For Peak Creativity by Elaine Schwartz


The average Nobel laureate received his award at 59.7 years. (Sadly, yes it is his award. 847 went to men; 51 to women from 1901-2017.). So his most creative years must have been before then? Probably but not necessarily.

Peak Scientific Creativity

It is possible that our leading scientists peak near 40. The reason could be the time it takes to learn what you need to know:



People in the arts also seem to have that early midlife peak. One researcher said it was when you’ve lived 62% of your life:



However, in addition to age, there are other ways to slice the data. There is a divide between discoveries that are more or less abstract. The abstract breakthroughs come at an earlier age, perhaps because more experience is necessary for the “experimentalists.” The data comparing the two, below, came from Nobel laureates:



We can also use time to assess our facts. Then we would find we are getting older. Comparing the beginning and end of the 20th century, we have to add six years to the average age of a distinctive achievement:



Our Bottom Line: Human Capital Investment

Our common threat here is human capital. Whether looking at science or the arts, at Albert Einstein at 26 or Clint Eastwood at 84, we have people who are adding to their store of learning. And when they do, they have increased their human capital.

A second thread is a host of questions. The researchers really do not agree. The fact that the young are most creative has been challenged as well as peak creativity data for each discipline. And we have a host of other variables to consider that include funding, institutional biases and family responsibilities.

I even would ask if we have to judge peak creativity as we do business cycle data. We can never be sure until the (life) cycle ends. So too with all of us.

Let’s just conclude by saying we have young geniuses and old masters…and all of us might still look forward to our creative peak…or we could figure out if we are at that 62% point.


My sources and more: For the data and the disagreement, I recommend this 2016 paper this one that disagrees, and this article. However, if you just want a good read, the Washington Post Wonkblog had it.


Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

econlife - The Facts You Never Knew About the Nobel Economics Prize by Elaine Schwartz



Yes, Paul Romer and William Nordhaus just won the 2018 Nobel Economics Prize. But it is not quite the same as the other Nobel awards.

Today, some facts that we rarely hear about Nobel Prize winners.

The Prize

Alfred Nobel never endowed a Nobel Prize in economics. More than 70 years after the original Nobels were created, Sweden’s Central Bank commemorated its 300th anniversary with a fund that established The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Although it is managed just like the other Nobel Prizes, the money instead comes from the Bank. In 1969, Jan Tinbergen and Ragnar Frish were the first recipients.

A Call From Adam Smith

Rather remarkably, the former editor-in-chief of nobelprize.org was Adam Smith. As the person who notified the winners in an early morning call, he sometimes had to let them know he was for real.

Excerpt from the 2006 call to Edmund Phelps:



A Divorce Settlement
Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas’s former wife perfectly timed her divorce settlement. She included a clause that said she got half of any Nobel Prize he received before October 31, 1995. Because he won the 1995 Economic Prize during October, it was just in the nick of time for her to get $500,000.

A Parking Space

If you teach at Duke and win a Nobel Prize, you get a parking space. The school decided that anyone who is honored by so auspicious an award deserves a spot right outside his or her office. Similarly, Brown, USC, and Northwestern offer the same perk,

The sign at USC:




Our Bottom Line: The Margin

As economists, we can always say we are thinking at the margin. Defined as the line where something extra starts, the margin is where more was added to Nobel Prizes.

But this year, probably not a parking space. It appears that neither Yale (Dr. Nordhaus) nor NYU (Dr. Romer) offer parking spaces to their Nobel Laureates.

My sources and more: For Nobel “trivia,” I thank WSJ for yesterday’s article on the parking spots. From there I recommend this Brookings report with other unknown Nobel facts.

Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.