Decision making in Russia.

Decision-making under conditions of uncertainty is hard, even when you have “good” information. And we necessarily assume that high-level policy-makers have at least a marketplace-range of information as an input into the process. But what if we’re wrong? What if the information available to, for instance, the leader of a country, is so poor, that the decision-making necessarily following from it is exceptionally bad? Garbage in; garbage out. That scenario would explain (but not excuse) what heretofore seems inexplicable: R’s invasion of Ukr and its subsequent decisions to double-down, triple-down, etc. In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine, Boris …

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The US midterm elections.

This is my statement on the midterms. It will not sway anyone, but given the high stakes, I wish to be on the record.  Across the nation, the ballot offers voters two very poor options. The first is the radicalized party in power offering a dizzying array of bad policies, in energy, in social matters, in economics, in education. The challenger radical party would toss out the nearly unique, pathbreaking system built up over the past 250 years. They would do so in the service of an organized crime family led by a grifter-in-chief who finds sedition and supporting hostile …

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“Company loyalty will make you poor.” Really?

This recent job advice on social media caught my eye, as it was posted almost to the day of my 20th work anniversary at my current employer.  That coincidence set me thinking about the nature of employment in the modern age.  And from that perspective, hitting two decades stands out. I’m posting this on LinkedIn, which is a website designed mostly around getting a new job, not keeping your old one. And I work in financial services, where the poster’s advice of jumping from lilly-pad to lilly-pad is assumed by many to be the way to fame and fortune. And …

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For want of a nail, a shoe was lost…

The United States has now had more than three decades of neo-liberal globalism which has favored outsourcing, off-shoring, margin improvement and earnings growth above all else. Encouraged by the capital markets, corporate America has privileged short-term efficiency over long-term efficacy.  Capital spending on hard assets is down as a percentage of sales; intangibles are up. A benign post-Cold War geopolitics and an addressable labor cost differential allowed us to import deflation. We’re not quite at the “virtual” enterprise level, but we’ve moved beyond the polite and acceptable “service” economy that replaced our prior “manufacturing” engine.  At the same time, declining …

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Stock market drawdowns during retirement…..

A follower wrote in to suggest a stronger assertion of the value of dividend-focused investing for retirees concerned about drawing down their portfolio. He argues that for those investors, the sequence of their returns matters hugely, especially in a market not moving up steadily. (He was responding to my post about the difference between a harvested capital gain vs. a dividend payment.)  He writes: “The argument goes that there’s no difference between an income stream derived from selling stocks or one derived from amassing dividends. But that isn’t true. Selling stocks in a bad year means selling more stocks. Dividends …

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A dollar may be fungible; how it is generated is not.

The recent market sell off has provided investors an opportunity to reconsider a fundamental belief in modern finance and investment. And that is that investors are indifferent between the two forms of return, a harvested capital gain or a cash dividend payment. That notion underpins pretty much all of modern stock market investing, from the calculation of return, to the capital allocation of corporations, to the behavior of investors. In short, it’s a biggie. And in a rising market, it looks like a pretty good assumption, since most of the time the market is up, open and liquid. The belief …

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The Language of Career Transition 2/x

A continuation of a LinkedIn post on career transition: 2/x In retrospect, I liken my career transition mostly to learning a new language.  By language, I mean not high-school French, but language in the broader sense of a means of communication, an agreed-upon set of references, of metaphors and understandings. Music and mathematics are languages in that sense, and recognized as such. Computer coding languages are narrower but the same. Trained in history and having learned Russian, I was completely mute in regard to the language of business, finance, and investing. I don’t want to downplay the technical skills involved …

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Twitter Posts from February 7, 2022 to the present on the geo-political situation in SE Europe

One month in, got some right; got some wrong. Will continue to update, at east for a while. March 20, 2022 A forceful reminder of why, particularly now, we should be engaging Russian culture more, not less. Please read this. As Morson fans already know, Saul is incapable of dull or shallow thinking. https://quillette.com/2022/03/19/putins-russian-and-pushkins-russia/ March 20, 2022 Sadly, the death toll from WW I continues to rise, yes, the First World War. The decisions/treaties/boundaries (Sykes-Picot, Soviet “Union”, etc)/movements associated w/the “Great War” and the years immediately following (1918-1922) are still driving today’s geopolitical and military realities. The tragedies of WW …

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A meditation on trust in finance. Yes, you read that correctly.

I have been wondering about the role of trust in modern finance. To judge by the academic literature and the dominant rules and formulas, it has no role whatsoever. I find that paradoxical, to say the least, because trust is inseparable from participating in modern society. Everyday we make judgments, including economic and financial ones, based primarily if not exclusively on trust, as opposed to a calculation of odds, risks and rewards, costs and benefits. Academics refer to these daily challenges as exercises in “decision making under conditions of uncertainty.” Modern finance tries (and has failed) to quantify that decision-making …

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Leading from the middle: The NBN interview with John Roy Price

History is told, it is said, by the victors. And so it is in regard to Richard Nixon. We all know how his presidency ended. What too few of us recall or bother to learn is how it started. In his new The Last Liberal Republican: An Insider’s Perspective on Nixon’s Surprising Social Policy (UP of Kansas, 2021), John Roy Price details how in Nixon’s first few years in office, the President ardently tried to lead from the middle to eradicate the widespread poverty that had so characterized his own upbringing. It is a view of Nixon and a big-tent, policy-driven Republican Party that …

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How big is your platform? or “What color is your parachute?” 50 years later.

I recently got this very positive email mail through a professional social media platform: “:) .. your web site is treasure of great insights – I’m in my year two of my MBA journey and more and more I found myself checking historical and geopolitical “whereabouts” when reading the cases the profs. thrown on us .. I think it’s a/THE key  to fully understand what is happening “behind the scenes” of all/most they want us to do (evaluate equities or M&A deals, making recommendations, etc. etc. ) unfortunately it’s mostly omitted…” I was touched. The thing is, nobody goes to …

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It’s time to retire “Left” and “Right”.

George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” lamented how ideologues were wreaking havoc not only on their societies, but also on the language of politics itself.  He condemned the “staleness of imagery” and the “lack of precision” in the political writing of his day.  During the past 75 years, little has changed. The labels and personalities may be different, but the abuse on and by words is much the same. We can all agree that the United States has become politically polarized, especially so in the past half-dozen years. In better times, Yeat’s middle translated into a …

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The power of narrative economics….

A recent New Yorker article by Charles Duhigg ties together nicely several threads of emerging finance that are worthy of notice. The first is the power of narrative economics (and finance) championed by Robert Shiller. My review of his 2019 book by that name appeared on the New Books Network. Shiller’s argument stands in stark contrast to the orthodox model of classical economics. The second is that investment bubbles of the type we are now seeing with SPACs can and have in the past left behind substantial technological and financial innovation after the bubble has burst and much money lost. …

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NBN Interview with Louis Nelson

Louis Nelson’s Mosaic: War, Monument, Mystery weaves together a personal memoir, a history of the Korean War and its aftermath, and the tale of how the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC came to be. The result is a fascinating portrait of one of the late 20th century’s most important designers. Listen to the New Books Network interview here.

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A thoughtful and optimistic rebuttal to my post on Russian political culture.

A friend responded to my post of April 22….. “One thing I was concerned about with your essay is that some readers might walk away with the impression that Russia hasn’t really changed and won’t change.  I’m not even sure that’s what you intended to say.  There are clearly many Russians who would like things to change—and a number who are quite content with how they are.  There is also a certain type of non-Russian client I’ve had before who like to take they view that Russia is fundamentally different and incapable of being more liberal—and then use this as …

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Using the great 19th century realist novels to bridge what divides us….

Two very thoughtful oddfellows–a labor economist and a Russian literature scholar–take on the world’s problems in their newest collaboration, Minds Wide Shut How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us (Princeton University Press, 2021). Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro bring to bear the remarkably powerful tool of great 19th century Realist literature (and other parts of the Western canon) to define and counter the all-or-nothing fundamentalisms that have come to divide us in recent years. They touch upon politics, religion and economics, as well as great literature itself, and advocate bridging the divides with assertion and dialogue rather than the crude dismissal of opponents based upon absolute, unyielding …

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Russia & the West, again…..

Making the same mistake repeatedly and expecting a different outcome is a popular definition of insanity.  Can the condition apply to an entire professional group? In the most recent issue of Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasion History, I highlight how many prominent US thinkers about Russia have maintained a naivete in regard to Russia’s ultimate political development for much of the past 70 years. Even during the height of the Cold War, leading members of the US establishment assumed that Russia would ultimately adopt classical liberalism and join the Western community of nations as a fully paid-up member.  It …

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Nav@1ny is a master of modern media, but does it matter?

February 2, 2021 update: It’s not the crime, but the cover up… That’s what they said about Richard Nixon’s downfall. Other similar episodes abound.  Given events in Russia over the past two weeks, one might assert a new corollary:  It’s not the corruption, but the crackdown.  A new allegation of corruption, even one on an unprecedented scale, was unlikely to move Russia. But the government’s excessive response and its treatment of the man behind the video has led to a popular reaction that the video itself did not. When is a show of government force actually a sign of great …

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It’s time for a new Centrist party in the spirit and practice of classical liberalism.

The good news is that the Grifter has left the White House. His closest aides and high-profile abettors are scurrying away to avoid the infamy that they so richly deserve. The newly installed President is clearly a moderate fellow, empathetic and conciliatory. And, ironically, he is so old that he can have no other agenda than to fix the current situation. His Vice President is the embodiment of the American dream. While the country remains in severe national security peril during this period of transition, one of the worst political crises in our nation’s history appears to be behind us. …

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Price discovery, Soviet Russia, and artistry

The elevator pitch to a book editor and movie producer that never happened: “the early 1960s Soviet experiment of loosening price controls would make for a great work of historical fiction and a high-end movie drama.”  No one in their right mind, right? And yet, it did. Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty came out in 2010. It is simply the best Western work of historical fiction about the post-war Soviet period. Spufford is not a trained Soviet specialist, but every professional historian of the Soviet Union secretly (and not so secretly) wants to have written that book. I know of what …

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How different are financial and political “bubbles”? And what ends them?

Depending on your perspective on certain “excited”  areas of the market and “extremes” in the political spectrum, we are currently engaged in a real-time exercise regarding what catalysts bring an end to these phenomena. Are the catalysts to end those historical moments different? By day, I have to think about the former; by night, I ponder the latter. And we know the role that social media plays in both of these realms. It’s worth recalling that for one of the past extreme moments, the reign of terror led by Joseph McCarthy, the social media of the day played a key …

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At the intersection of the Random Book Project & lockdown: War & Peace.

#6: Leo Tolstoy, War & Peace, in two volumes. (Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1984, originally published in 1865). Marked 3 rubles, 70 kopeeks, but with a Beriozka sticker indicating 5.55.  Exchange rate at the time was $1.26 per 1.00 ruble so the set cost $7.00 How did I get it? Bought it when I spent a semester in Moscow my junior year in 1984. Others went to London or Florence.  For reasons that still elude me, I went to the Soviet Union. Who does that? Why? While the book is timeless, my copy of it is not. The mass produced, acid-paper Soviet …

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Floating above history….

Nearly forty years after encountering The Education of Henry Adams in a college classroom, I was recently treated to a summary as to why the work was and remains so fascinating.  Dan Chiasson’s New Yorker review reminds readers of how Adams floated over history as much as he lived in it and wrote about it. Adam’s wonder at the new technology at the turn of the 20th century is as fresh today as when it was written over a century ago.

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Markets are everywhere, even where they are strictly forbidden….

Markets are everywhere, including where they strictly forbidden. This excellent research by Jim Heinzen on the Soviet second economy just came out in Slavic Review. The full article is behind a paywall but should be accessible via universities and libraries.  Link is here. Below is the abstract from the Slavic Review site. Soviet Entrepreneurs in the Late Socialist Shadow Economy: The Case of the Kyrgyz Affair James Heinzen Supported by new archival material, this article delves deeply into one landmark criminal case to explore key aspects of the social, economic, and cultural history of illegal production and markets in the …

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