Thursday, January 27, 2011

Household Economics

Let's conduct a thought experiment. Say your house has monthly expenses of $100 and a monthly income of $200. Every month you save $100. Years go by and that savings grows and grows and eventually you have quite a sum, say $1000. You decide that since your monthly income exceeds your monthly expenses that you can spend that money and replenish your savings later. In essence, you are borrowing from yourself. So you take that money saved and write a little note, "will pay back later" and then proceed to spend the money.

Here's the tough question: after spending the saved money, how much money do you have? If you answered $0, go to the head of the class. It's not complicated. If I spend all the money I have saved, I don't have any money. What about those pieces of paper that say "will pay back later". Well, those are pieces of paper, not money. And until you actually pay them back, you've got nothing.

Here's another way to think about it. Imagine we have the same household income of $200 and instead of spending only $100 and saving $100, we spend the whole $200 every month and write ourselves little notes, "will save $100 later". Every month we have no money saved, only little notes we wrote to ourselves. Eventually we have quite a lot of notes. But if you're really astute, you'll realize that we still have no money.

Folks, Social Security is broke today. We are currently taking in less income than we are paying out in benefits. And there is no "trust fund". All that's in there are little notes.

I am always amazed at the duplicity of politicians. How anyone can say with a straight face that there is a trust fund, and that social security is not broke is beyond reproach. The reality is that if your household, our government, spends every cent it takes in as income, it doesn't have any savings. That's common sense.

Monday, January 10, 2011


I suck at interviewing. It's about the most frustrating thing in the world to be bad at something so instrumental in getting a job. I'd say that being good at interviewing is at least twice as important as being good at your job. After all, getting a job is a prerequisite for doing a good job. Anyway, I am sure there are a multitude of reasons for my poor interviewing skills, but my concern is how to get better.

All my life, I have been very good at math, and like any genuine math person, I scoffed at English skills. Every standardized test, math lifted me over the top, while my English scores brought me back to earth.

As a kid, I didn't read a lot unless I was forced to. TV was my thing and the boob tube had me transfixed. I was too lazy and impatient to exercise my imagination with a book.

When I got older, I started to read more. Opinion pieces on economics and politics were a drug. As I read, I started to notice something strange happening. Through no fault of my own, I would catch myself using words that I had never used before. Out of the blue, I would say something that I couldn't believe came out of my mouth. That used to happen before, but this time, it wasn't my foot that was the problem. Gradually, my vocabulary improved. And the more I read, the more it improved. It improved so much that on the last standardized test I took, my math skills were the weak link.

I don't think change is made in one fell swoop. Eloquent people do not wake up one day and decide to be eloquent. They evolve into eloquence. All changes are a consequence of small steps repeated over and over until they become second nature. We are wired for routine, change the routine and you change the wiring.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


My girlfriend was offered a pretty good job in New York City. One of the factors weighing in on the decision of whether to go was her condo. Could she sell it? Rent it out? Walk away? It's no trivial decision and even less so because the value of the condo has plummeted since she purchased it. Even with a very large initial equity position, she's currently underwater on her mortgage.

Then I read a Wall Street Journal article chronicling some other people in similar (actually far worse) situations. One had "strategically" defaulted, basically making the economic calculation that his loss was irrecoverable. From a business standpoint it makes perfect sense, but what about from a moral standpoint?

At first blush I am one to always rail that it's wrong, just plain wrong, to welch on your debts. But, after some thought, I don't believe that's the case. We don't have debtor's prisons and that means that the calculus for giving out loans needs to adjust.

No one gives a loan out of the kindness of their heart. Banks give people money for one simple reason, to make money. And in their decision to lend is a calculation of potential risks; one of those being that they might not get paid back. That risk, along with all others, is embedded in the price of the loan (the interest rate). Banks which severely misjudge risk ought to pay the consequences.

Think about it this way, if you as an investor lend money (buy a bond) to a corporation, you are essentially a bank. When you purchase that bond, you assume certain risks reflected in the price. The bank loaning money to individuals is no different.

Our free market system consists of profits and losses which incentivize certain behavior. Losses punish uneconomical behavior by removing resources from those that can't manage them. An immoral borrower is far less of a concern to society, than the irresponsible lender who enables them.