Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Is Bitcoin A Speculative Bubble?

Is Bitcoin A Speculative Bubble?

 There are at least two definitions of a speculative bubble.  The first, and most widely accepted, is that it involves a price of an asset that rises substantially above its fundamental and then falls back towards that fundamental.  The other, not necessarily all that clearly distinguishable from the former, involves an asset price that rises due to people buying due to an expectation that they will get a capital gain from its expected future price rise, with this then happening due to a self-fulfilling prophecy, with eventually the price falling sharply, with this not necessarily involving a fall towards a fundamental because the asset may have no fundamental at all.

I note before proceeding futher that there is an enormous debate and literature on identifying fundamentals at all, even when they might theoretically exist.  There is a serious body of opinion dating from Flood and Garber a quarter of a century ago that one cannot identify them econometrically (“Tulipmania”).  This has been shown to be false by me and many others in various papers, including particularly on closed-end funds where the net asset value of the fund minus taxes and fees is a fundamental, and when those soar to twice the value of the underlying net asset value, well, we are looking at a bubble. The lit is there and decisive.  I asked Garber to comment on a paper presented a long time ago at a conference on this point, but the chicken shit did not show up to admit that he was just plain wrong.  He had no legitimate excuse for his absence.

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Tolerance And Terrorism In Saudi Arabia

Tolerance And Terrorism In Saudi Arabia

On the one hand this past week, Thomas Friedman at the New York Times has written a praising column about Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MbS). He is going to bring a new “wave of tolerance” into Saudi Arabia, along with more generally modernizing it. This claim is not totally without substance given his setting up for women to drive starting next June as well as letting them go to sports events with men and also curbing some of the excesses of the Mutaween, the religious police. It is not clear what further liberalizations are in order, but Friedman assures they are coming. A newly tolerant Saudi Arabia is on our doorstep, whoopee!

OTOH, it has since been announced that MbS is overseeing a rewriting of the criminal code of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). A major part of this rewriting is to help the government combat terrorism, with the death penalty available for helping to aid in this. Just as we all oppose corruption, which MbS fought by arresting 201 people, many of whom also seem to have been potential political rivals or critics, we all oppose terrorism. But just as with corruption, terrorism can be stretched to mean many things. And indeed, it turns out that one of the items appearing in the new criminal code is that criticizing the king is an act of terrorism, punishable by death. This is how one has tolerance while fighting terrorism at the same time in the new Saudi Arabia, whoopee!

Barkley Rosser

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A Race To Suppress Academic Freedom?

A Race To Suppress Academic Freedom?

The race is between the two nations competing for global dominance, the US and China.  This post is triggered by an unnamed editorial in today’s Washington Post (probably authored by Fred Hiatt) criticizing China for imposing ideological limits on Chinese universities.  Since the recent party congress, 40 universities have set up centers for studyiing Xi Jinping Thought.  14 universities have come under attack for being “ideologically weak.”  Joint operations between US and Chinese universities must appoint a party secretary as a vice chancellor.  There have also been restrictions on the internet and other matters.  Without doubt, putting restrictions on higher education will make it harder for China to move into a position of full global leadership.

Of course, the WaPo editorial did not notice trends in US academia that also may lead to suppression of research activity and threaten the current leading position of US higher ed in the world, although there have been reports and columns commenting on these trends.  Among them are the push for political correctness coming from students, but probably more important is the assault on higher ed coming from the Trump administration.  This is seen in the attack on tax breaks for students but also the push to distort funding for research on certain topics. While not directly on higher ed, probably the most damaging has been the attack on science in government agencies, especially the EPA, with such nonsense as banning scientists who have received funding from the agencies on their scientific advisory boards, even as those receiving funding from corporations at odds with goals of these agencies are allowed to be on those boards.

Really, it looks that the two most powerful nations on the planet are having a race to suppress academic freedom and suppress the free development of knowledge in this world at a time when we need more of that.

Barkley Rosser

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Proposing A Judicial Coup Via A Tax Bill

Proposing A Judicial Coup Via A Tax Bill

On today’s Washington Post editorial page in a column entitled “Packing the courts like a turducken” (a deboned duck within a deboned chicken within a deboned turkey, or something like that, all for Thanksgiving, thank you), Ronald A. Klain not only reports on the actual push to pack courts with lots of young, incompetent extremists that is going on after Congress sat on judicial nominees by Obama in recent years, but also a proposal coming from a co-founder of the Federalist Society, Steven Calabresi.  He both wants to expand the judiciary by 50% and have them all appointed in the next year, but to  replace the 158 administrative law judges with lifetime appointments by the president.  The latter are currently only appointed for one term and are civil service personnel passing on issues dealing with such agencies as the EPA and the SEC.

Most particularly, he suggests that this be packed into the current tax bill, a true turducken. The only good thing about this is that it does not look like anybody in Congress is pushing it.  But if they did, this would put the US even more in the same category as nations like Turkey, Russia, and Hungary where executive authorities move vigorously to take direct control over formerly independent judiciaries.  It is bad enough the degree to which this sort of thing is actually happening as it is.

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Two Powerful Women Losing Power

Two Powerful Women Losing Power

That would be respective Angela Merkel and Janet Yellen, both reported to have lost a lot of power in today’s Washington Post.  During at least the last year, if not the last four, they have been probably the two most powerful women on the planet.

In the case of Merkel, what has happened is that she has failed to form a coalition government after last month’s election, which put her and her party in the lead, but not enough so to allow her to push through to a coalition government, with the hard right Alternative for Democracy (AfD) getting seats.in the Bundestag.  She had been trying to form a “Jamaica” coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats, but the latter withdrew from the negotiations for reasons the WaPo story did not clarify (quality of reporting at WaPo has been declining steadily for some time).  Apparently she then made a last gasp effort to negotiate another “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, but having lost a lot of support due to having been in such an arrangement prior to the last election, they refused.

It looks like she will call for another round of elections in January, and the AfD is crowing with delight for an apparent triumph on their part.  I guess we shall see.  In the meantime, aside from her personal embarrassment, EU-Brexit negotiations are now reportedly in a stall pattern as nobody wants to sign on to anything without a definitely in-place government in Germany to approve or disapprove of it.   Merkel may yet regain her power if the January elections go more firmly her way, although she may well be forced to step aside as Kanzler der Bundes Deutsches Republik and more completely and thoroughly lose power. Many fear the results of the latter, although if it were to be due to a government led by the SocDems, many hear might cheer.

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ARAMCO CEO Is Delusional

ARAMCO CEO Is Delusional

Financial Times reported yesterday that Amin Nasser, the CEO of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO, currently 100% owned by the Saudi government, although originally founded by four former US oil company majors), has declared that investors should feel pleased that Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman has arrested and purged over 200 Saudi princes, government officials, and private businessmen.  This is because this was strictly an anti-corruption move, and foreign investors can be assured that there will now be no corruption in the Kingdom. Really, he said this.

Now I declared in my post title that Nasser is delusional, but I doubt it.  I suspect that he is a very smart guy. The question is whether he can convince any potential buyers of the upcoming possibly $2 trillion Initial Public Offering of 5% of ARAMCO stock that indeed this purge sends a good signal to them about buying ARAMCO stock.  Wow, the nation will now be rid of corruption, and, no, future investor, you need have no fear of being arbitrarily arrested or having your assets seized by MbS, none whatsoever, not that you were worrying about those things previously, but now you really do not need to worry about them at all.

Of course on the very same page of the FT there was another article about how MbS’s purge has rattled world oil markets, with oil prices now sharply falling after sharply rising after he made his purge.  Nobody knows what the implications are or what the heck is going on, but, hey, no problem, no need to worry, Inshallah bukra maalesh (God willing tomorrow no problem, a fave line in KSA).  In any case, Nasser’s public statement will undoubtedly completely reassure everybody, and all will become extremely calm before we know it.

Oh, there is also the matter of where this IPO will happen, touted to be the largest in history.  New York and London stock exchanges have actually been competing with each other to host it, but in fact in the end this may not be such a good idea and they may not be in the running for real anyway.  According to the FT the Saudis are also considering Hong Kong and Tokyo, but at the end of the article it was floated what I have all along expected and predicted: that the IPO will be handled out of Riyadh’s own exchange with specially targeted sales to specially targeted individuals, with a lot of them being local big money Saudis.  So maybe Nasser’s speech was not for all the foolish foreigners, but for the well-off locals: buy when we tell you to or else you can join the officially designated-to-be-corrupt 200 plus..

Barkley Rosser

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Saudi Crown Prince Attempts To Destabilize Lebanon

Saudi Crown Prince Attempts To Destabilize Lebanon

Of course that is not what Muhammed bin Salman (MbS) or his mouthpieces claim, but it is pretty much what every commentator I have seen outside of Saudi Arabia thinks is the likely outcome of his most recent actions, taken on the heels of his purge/arrests of over 200 people, with apparently more possibly about to be swept up in a supposed anti-corruption drive, although as Anne Applebaum put it, “In some countries a person is charges with corruption and then arrested, while in others they are arrested and then charged with corruption, with Saudi Arabia being among these latter.”  An unfortunate aspect of the current situation is that there are many loose ends and uncertainties, with many people in Lebanon making accusations that are being denied by Saudi authorities, but with no credible denials of the charges coming from those most affected and involved.

What KSA has done is invite the premier of Lebannon, Saad al-Hariri to visit KSA and then have him announce Riyadh his resignation from that position.  While he seems to have said little of any substance in his resignation speech and has said basically nothing since then nor made any public appearances that I am aware of, Saudi authorities said that the reason for this resignation was that he was in danger of being assassinated by Hezbollah or other enemies, which had happened to his father Raif in 2005, making this suggestion/accusation have some credibility.  Raif had also been premier, a position guaranteed to a Sunni as part of the Syrian government and Hezbollah, the latter a longstanding relationship.

As it is, nobody in Lebanon has accepted al-Hariri’s resignation, including the members of his own party, the Forward Movement, although they have so far defended the Saudis against criticism of their actions.  All the major political figures have demanded that he return to Lebanon so that he can resign there if he so wishes, including both his rivals such as Aoun and Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, as well as the members of his party.  Those in the rival parties, although all in the coalition together, have charged the Saudis with putting al-Hariri under house  arrest and forcibly preventing him from returning to Lebanon.  What he actually can do or wants to do is unknown.

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President Trump Must Release His Tax Returns

President Trump Must Release His Tax Returns

I know, boring boring boring old news. But now that he has had his hind end kicked by the recent off-off election results, it is time to get real. He has managed to cover up massive amounts of crimes and violations of ethical norms because he has violated so many. Nobody could keep track of them. But now that he has his behind kicked, and Mueller is zeroing in on him, it is time for him to deal with his most important violations and ‘fess up.

So, in my view the biggest violation of them all has been his refusal to release his tax returns. Of all the humongously numerous violations of ethical norms and actual laws, this refusal on his part increasingly becomes clear to be the most important. Of all the mistakes the American people made in electing this worst president ever elected, this is the worst mistake of all, electing a person who refused to release their tax returns.

There are two clear reasons why he must release his tax returns, and I call on all media to begin demanding relentlessly and repeatedly, every day, even though the media views this as a dead and boring issue, that President Trump release his tax returns. The way I see it, every day that passes that he does not release his tax returns is another day piling up that he should not only be removed oa as president, but that he should be put in jail for a very long time.

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An Important Centennial

An Important Centennial

Today marks the centennial of the Great October Socialist Revolution, known when I was young in the US as the Russian Revolution, and also perhaps more accurately described as the Bolshevik Coup. On March 8, 1917, people rose up from the streets behind women marching on International Womens’ Day, leading troops to refuse to fire on them, a real revolution, which led to the overthrow of Tsar Nichoalas II and the putting in place of a democratic government eventually led by Alexander Kerensky.  He failed to end the war with Germany, and riding on a peace and “land to the peasants” platform, Lenin led the Bolshevik coup on November 7 that overthrew Kerensky’s regime. Peace was made with Germany, and peasants did take land from aristocrats, even if more than a decade later they would have to give it up during the Stalin agricultural collectivization.  Arguably this taking of land by peasants did constitute a revolution, and certainly a different regime was put in place, the first officially inspired by the socialist ideas of Karl Marx.  Many would say that it would fail to follow ideals laid forth in Marx’s writings, especially the horrors under Stalin, although others would argue that the bad things that followed were inherent or implied in his writings, if not explicitly there.

In any case, given the many Marxist-Leninist revolutions that followed, with the world’s largest nation currently ruled by a party that adheres doctrinally to this view, which has recently been reinforced officially by a party congress, the second Russian Revolution in November is of world historical significance, for better or worse.  It is curious that in Russia itself it is currently viewed with mixed feelings.  There is a special this week on TV on Lenin, which is apparently showing his life with warts and all.  There is also one on Trotsky as well, amazingly enough, although he played a far more important role in the revolution than did his great rival for power, Stalin.

Views of these figures now in Russia are not what one might have expected.  Indeed, both Lenin and Trotsky are viewed as mixed figures, partly good, partly bad.  The figure who is undergoing full-blown rehabilitation with the support of Vladimir Putin is in fact Stalin, now viewed favorably by 50% of the population. Bookstores are full of books praising him to the skies.  Of course it is not his role as a great communist or socialist leader that is emphasized.  It is his role as the leader of the nation in the victorious Great Patriotic War against Germany ruled by Adolf Hitler.

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Saudi Crown Prince Consolidates Power With Anti-Corruption Arrests

Saudi Crown Prince Consolidates Power With Anti-Corruption Arrests

Everybody is against corruption, so it has become the new cool way to concentrate power in dictatorial societies to engage in an anti-corruption drive, as Putin and Xi Jinping have done.  Actually corrupt people may well be arrested, but somehow included in the set of those arrested are rivals of the leader who are conveniently disposed of.

So we now see it in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman has been leading a special anti-corruption committee approved of by the Saudi ulama, and now it has arrested 11 princes accused of corruption.   As in other countries, many of them, possibly all of them are guilty, but included among them are some rivals of Muhammed’s for power, and, indeed the full set of names has not been released.

The most important in terms of being a rival is the now former commander of the SANG, the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which was long commanded by Prince Meti bin Abdullah, son of the long time former King Abdullah.  Before Meti commanded SANG, Abdullah did so for decades and had the HQ of SANG on his own palace grounds within a wall.  SANG has long been the rival military in Saudi Arabia to the regular military under the Defense Department, which has been under the control of the crown prince since his father became king, succeeding Abdullah.  SANG has a base among the tribes, and it was SANG that finally defeated the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) uprising in 1979 that had led them to seizing control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  Abdullah was SANG commander at that time, and he had the reputation of having excellent relations with tribal leaders.  His sone was clearly a threat and rival to the crown prince, and now he is out.  The commander of the Saudi navy has also been replaced, although not clear if he has been arrested.

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