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Credit and Economic Cycles (According to Ray Dalio)

This is the fourth post in my series on Mr. Ray Dalio’s remarkable little film How the Economic Machine Works.  I suggest you read those before beginning this one.  In this post, we will follow along with Mr. Dalio and examine the interaction between productivity and credit, and how that interaction plays into economic cycles.


According to Mr. Dalio, the proximate cause of economic swings is credit.  Credit allows us to spend more than we produce as soon as we get it.  When we start to pay it back, it forces us to spend less than we consume.  This superimposes an S-shaped curve over the nice, smooth line of productivity.  While we are spending credit, we are above the line of our productivity; when we are paying the loan back, we are spending below our productivity line.   According to Mr. Dalio, we can expect two different types of debt cycles. The short one takes from five to eight years, and the (much) longer one takes between 75 and 100 years.  

These are cycles, but often we don’t see them that way because we aren’t considering the spans of time involved.  When I can’t afford to pay my bills, I’m not considering how my behavior five years ago led me to my current predicament.  When we only view them from day to day or week to week, they just look like “booms” and “busts” and their cyclicality is hidden. It is important to note that swings around the line are not due to how much innovation or hard work there is.  The slope of the productivity line may be affected by massive amounts of innovation and hard work over a long period of time, but rapid swings are almost always the product of credit cycles. In other words, whipsaw action in economic conditions is most often a direct effect of how much credit there is.

In an economy without credit, the only way to grow is to increase your productivity.  You can learn more, innovate more, and work harder, but you can’t borrow money in such an economy.  An economy like this would be very flat on our graph. There would be an almost imperceptible move forward, and we would see it as if it were standing still. In other words, there would be no cycles.

In the real economy, as a natural result of our collective borrowing behavior, we have cycles.  You can’t blame Congress for this one. The lawmakers don’t cause economic downturns more than they do economic upturns (Sorry, Mr. President).  Cycles in the economy are caused by credit, and credit works the way it does because of human nature and the system we have in place to facilitate that credit.

Borrowing has the effect of pulling earnings forward.  To buy something you can’t afford, you must spend more than you make.  You must borrow productivity from your future self. Your poor future self must spend less than is produced in order to pay back the debt.  Therefore, when you spend what you make, the spending curve is “flat.” When you spend more than you make (use credit) your spending is in an uptrend.  When you must start paying back the borrowed money, your spending goes into a downtrend. Because you spending effects the income of everyone connected to you in the money chain, their income drops are your spending drops.  By definition, a cycle is formed. Anytime you borrow, you create a cycle. This is just as true for overall economies as it is for individuals. If follows that as long as there is credit in the economy, there will be economic cycles.

If all of this sounds rather mechanical, that’s because it is.  That’s why Mr. Dalio called it the “economic machine.” According to him, it also means that these cycles are predictable.  



Productivity, Credit, and the Economy (According to Ray Dalio)

This is third post relating to Ray Dalio’s remarkable little video, How the Economic Machine Works (link at the bottom of this page).  In this one, we will consider the relationship between economic productivity and credit, and how that affects the overall economy.

As Mr. Dalio explains,  credit is important to the economy because when borrowers receive credit, they can increase their spending.  Spending, you will recall, is what drives the economy. Because of the nature of transactions, one person’s spending is always another person’s (or entity’s) income.   This makes perfect sense.  Every dollar that you spend, someone else earns.  Every dollar that you earn resulted from someone else spending.  Economies consist of transactions, and those transactions tend to form long chains that depend on the preceding transaction to go forward.  This means that when you spend more, someone else earns more.

When someone’s income rises, it makes lenders more willing to extend him or her credit.  The person has more money coming in, so it is more likely that the person can pay down more debt.  In other words, the person is more creditworthy. Creditworthiness is a big deal in our modern economy, and we use credit scores to determine the creditworthiness of individuals.   To be truly worthy of credit, you need the ability to repay (a good income) and collateral.  Collateral is something of value that you can sell to meet your obligations if you find in the future that your income is insufficient.  When you buy a car or a house, for example, the thing you bought is the collateral. If you don’t pay your car loan, the bank will repossess it.  

More income means that people can spend more, but it also means that they can borrow more.  More credit leads to more spending. This, too, happens in a chain reaction. If my spending goes up, then the people that I buy stuff from also see an increase in income.  This means that they have more money and more credit, so their spending will go up. The pattern is self-reinforcing, and it leads to economic growth. That sounds great, but the problem is that it leads to economic cycles.  

In a normal transaction, you have to give something to get something.  How much you get is determined by how much you produce.  Over time, we learn and innovate, and that accumulated knowledge raises our living standard (because we can make more money).  This tends to happen across the board, and we call such an increase productivity growth.   Those that are inventive and hardworking can raise their standard of living quickly.  If you are complacent and lazy, then the opposite will be true.

Often, we don’t see that fact because productivity matters most in the long run.  In the short run, credit can make up for a lack of productivity. In practice, we can’t really tell if spending increases are caused by more productivity or more credit.  A major factor in this timing issue is the fact that productivity tends to be slow and steady over time. This means that productivity growth is seldom a major factor in economic swings.  On the graph we talked about earlier, there tends to be a straight line with a slight upward slope, representing the idea that productivity grows slowly but steadily over time.



The Role Of Credit In The Economy (According to Ray Dalio)

In a previous post, I summarized Ray Dalio’s take on how the “Economic Machine” works.  In this article, we will consider the role fo credit within that economy.

If we add up the total money spent and the total credit spent, we will know the total spending.   This is important because the total amount of spending is what drives the economy.  Transactions, then, are the atoms that make up the economic machine. These powerful substances drive all economic forces and cycles.  If that makes good sense, then you will be in good shape. If you can understand transactions, says Mr. Dalio, you can understand the whole economy.

A market is made up of all the buyers and sellers making transactions for the same type of things.  We hear this term in finance often; there are stock markets, bond markets, and commodity markets.  The idea is no different than the idea of a “supermarket” where you buy groceries, or a “flea market” where you buy antiques and such.  

An economy, then, consists of all of the transactions in all of its markets.  It is important to note that while many transactions are between individuals, transactions occur between businesses, banks, governments, and a host of other organizations.  If a person or an entity engages in transactions, then we must include it in our consideration of the economy. In fact, the absolute biggest buyer and seller is the government.  At the national level, the idea of “government” consists of two important parts. There is the central government that collects taxes and spends money.   Also of great importance to the economy is the central bank.  In the United States, the central bank is called the Federal Reserve.  The Federal Reserve is different than other market participants (buyers and sellers) because it controls the amount of money and credit in the economy.

The Federal Reserve can do this because it has the power to set interest rates, and it has the power to print money.   This makes the central bank a key player in the flow of credit. According to Mr. Dalio, credit is the most important and least understood part of the economy.  This importance comes from the fact that it is at once the biggest and most volatile part.

If we think about how credit works, it consists of lenders and borrowers making transactions in a credit market.  Lenders are usually those that have excess money, and they want to make that money grow. Borrowers, on the other hand, usually want to buy something that they can’t afford.  Think about how integrated this idea is in our society. Who do you know that has purchased a house or a car without using credit? Some (more responsible) people also borrow money to start or expand a business.  Despite my assertions to the contrary, credit isn’t totally evil. It can help both lenders and borrowers get what they want.

The nature of credit, then, involves a borrower promising to repay what they borrowed (the principal) and pay an additional amount known as interest.  When interest rates are high, there is less borrowing because borrowing, under those circumstances, is expensive.  When interest rates are low, borrowing tends to increase because it is cheaper. All that is necessary to create credit is that a borrower is willing to make a promise to repay and a lender is willing to believe the borrower.  This means that any two parties can agree to create credit out of thin air. This is all really pretty simple, but we complicate it by giving it a bunch of different names. As soon as two parties create credit, it immediately turns into something called debt.  Debt is considered an asset by the lender, and a liability to the borrower.  

When the agreed upon date arrives and the borrower pays back the loan with interest, the debt disappears (back into the thin air from which it came) and the transaction is said to be settled.  



How the Economy Works (According to Ray Dalio)

Over the past three or so years, I have written well over 1,000 pages on personal finance and investing.  Every concept, it seems, requires diving off into another concept. Explanation calls for explication, after all.  Given this background in the explication of often difficult topics, I was stunned by the elegant simplicity of Mr. Dalio’s “How the Economic Machine Works” video.  It is cleverly animated, and you should watch it:

 https://youtu.be/PHe0bXAIuk0

As Mr. Dalio suggests in his concluding remarks, the video presents an oversimplification.  Obviously, the complete science of economics cannot be adequately presented in a 30 minute animated presentation.  However, it does hit the high points, and provides a reference for those of us who have never considered credit cycles and how they run the economy.

Mr. Dalio’s basic premise is that the economy runs “like a machine.”  Because most people don’t understand how the machine works, there has been a lot of needless economic suffering over the ages.  According to Mr. Dalio, this simple understanding was what enabled him to anticipate and sidestep the most recent global economic crisis, as well as informing his investment decisions for over thirty years.  

He uses the machine analogy because at its core, the economy functions in a simple, mechanical way.  Like a natural scientist, he breaks down the functioning of the economy into its most basic parts: Transactions.  Each transaction may be simple in its own right, but there are “zillions” of them each and every day.  Humans conduct these transactions, and they are driven by human nature. This collective action results in three major forces that drive the economy.  The first major economic force he discusses is productivity growth.   The second major force is what he calls the short-term debt cycle.   The third is the long-term debt cycle.   These three factors go a long way in explaining Gross Domestic Product, which is the pulse of the national economy.

The easiest way to visualize how these factors work together is to plot them on top of each other as lines on a graph.  The height of the line (the vertical axis) tells us the level of GDP and the “run” of the line (the horizontal axis) tells us the amount of time that passes.  In this way, we can see how conditions are changing for better or for worse over time.

Mr. Dalio defines an economy as the sum of the transactions that make it up.  Transactions involve the transfer of something of value for something else of value.  In our economy, the buyer usually transacts in cash, and the seller is usually selling some good or service (or financial assets like stocks and bonds).  Any time you buy or sell something, you are creating a transaction. It is critically important to note that the buyer doesn’t care whether you use money that you have earned or credit when you conduct a transaction.  They get their money regardless. Therefore, credit and money spend the same way and a transaction takes place when either is used to buy something.


Some Easy “Clone” Homebrewing Recipe Kits

When you try to emulate a popular national brand with your homebrew, you are said to “clone” it.  If you are just getting into homebrewing, you may want to try some clone recipe kits that will give you a benchmark.  You can try your creation side by side with the Real Deal and see if you have any glaring errors.    I’ll stick to easy to brew styles, such as brown ales.  I’ve made some recommendations below that are from companies that I know to be high quality.

 

 

 

 

Why the Stock Market Will Crash Soon

The Fed says that there will be more rate hikes than Wall Street expected, and market watchers yawned.  Mr. Powell said that inflation is creeping up, and the Fed will nip it in the bud, and the S&P 500 goes up the next day.  Investors are assuring the talking heads that we are in a Goldilocks economy.  Twitter is near $47.  Strange things are indeed afoot at the Circle K.  All of this optimism and forward momentum can only mean one thing: The stock market must crash soon.

I don’t think anyone seriously entertains the notion that multiples aren’t stretched; with the S&P 500 back to within a few points of its all-time high and the NASDAQ is off on a parabolic run—again.  There is assuredly exuberance, but many claim it is rational and that there is a huge potential for upside.  The P/E for the overall index is somewhere around 25x.  That should be pretty scary, but for some reason, it is not.  The Bulls still hold sway, and valuations are stretched beyond reason.  The economy is doing great, I grant.  I also grant that when there is a hot economy, it tends to presage a reversion to the mean.  I’ve only heard mention that the Shiller P/E is around 33x.  In real dollars, that’s higher than just before the Great Depression and higher than just before Black Monday.  It has only been higher than it is now during one period in the history of the market (at least back to 1890).

There are many arguments as to what can stretch the benefits of tax cuts into 2019.  The underlying logic is that such stretched multiples require stellar growth to even come close to justification.  The tax cuts were a one trick pony when it comes to growth.   The idea that the tax cuts will produce enough capital expenditure to fuel enough growth to pay for them was a pipe dream, and with the frenzy of buybacks and mergers, we should be sure that it isn’t going to happen.  We are priced for a Goldilocks market with never-ending stellar growth.

Here is what Professor Shiller thinks about current valuations (when the S&P 500 was at 2,680):

The IMF says growth is going to slow down in 2019.  Warren Buffett is sitting on a huge cash hoard, something Berkshire doesn’t often do.  It makes one think a big stock sale may be coming on.  Ray Dalio sees “asymmetric risk” around the world, and a looming recession somewhere about 2.5 years from now.  Recessions, he points, out usually hit the financial markets around 14 months before you get to a full-blown recession.


The bottom line is that current valuations are beyond reason, and the various actual economic stimulants that the market has benefited from are starting to fade.  We may get one last big push from an infrastructure stimulus package, which we can ill afford.  Any further rise is due to animal spirits and not anything Ben Graham would approve of.  At this stage in the game, reversion to the mean is a matter of when and not if.  If you decided that you are an index investor in the last 8 or 9 years and have been pouring money into the S&P 500, then be prepared to realize what that strategy means.  You will be tested in the near future, and if you don’t have the iron will to stay invested when things get ugly, you should start getting defensive now.

Yoast WordPress Plugin Review

If you are going to use WordPress to manage your web presence (why would you use anything else?), you need Yoast.  Yoast is mostly known as an SEO optimizer plugin, but it does much, much more.  Many indexing tasks are automated, making your site structure sleek and well organized.

There are two versions of the software, and the basic plugin is free.  You get most of the features of the Pro version, and if you are a blogger that isn’t trying to make money, then it is great.  If you are competing for search engine ranks in the content monetization wars, you’ll need the extra keyword support and other features that the Pro version supports.  There are a ton of analytic tools that can make spotting errors—and then fixing them—quick and painless.  Once complex tasks like laboriously building XML sitemaps are built into the Yoast functionality, and you won’t even realize they are there unless you dig amongst the many features included in the software.   If you have no idea what SEO is, you should probably install Yoast and leave everything on the default settings while you watch the tutorial videos on the Yoast website.  Of, course there are tons of YouTube videos available as well; with over 1,000,000 active installs, Yoast has no shortage of fans.

In addition to being my number one pick for WordPress Plugins, the Yoast site is awesome in its own regard.  There are tons of helpful tutorials and help documents that can help you de-stress the learning curve when it comes to SEO and WordPress administration.  If you do decide to upgrade to Pro, you may run into problems uploading the upgrade files unless you tweak your settings on the server.   WPThemeSpeed has a YouTube video to show you how to fix this for GoDaddy customers.

Useful Fee Software for Online Teaching and Learning

If you are teaching online with a small budget and a paucity of registered software products, the following fee programs may be of assistance.

http://word2cleanhtml.com/

This web resource can take Microsoft Word documents and convert them to “clean” HTML documents, with the tons of special formatting removed.  Works via cut and paste.  If you are blackboard user, you know documents that you cut and paste from Word look absolutely terrible.  That is because Word is adding a ton of hidden code to your text, and Blackboard is trying to convert all of that extra stuff into HTML.  This program cleans it up, and you can simply paste it into Blackboard using the HTML tool.


Audacity

Audacity is a free, easy-to-use, multi-track audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems.  This software allows you to record and edit sound files.


BlueGriffon

BlueGriffon is a new WYSIWYG content editor for the World Wide Web. Powered by Gecko, the rendering engine of Firefox, it’s a modern and robust solution to edit Web pages in conformance to the latest Web Standards.


FileZilla

FTP files easily to your server.


CamStudio

CamStudio is able to record all screen and audio activity on your computer and create industry-standard AVI video files and using its built-in SWF Producer can turn those AVIs into lean, mean, bandwidth-friendly Streaming Flash videos (SWFs)

Some Thoughts on OER

I first heard about OER by that name when listening to a presentation on the University of Arkansas System’s eVersity initiative led by Dr. Michael Moore in late 2014. I had maintained a website for most of my professional career, and have used it to post study guides, notes, and so forth. I had also used online documents—mostly government publications—as class readings. I had been posting study guides and such online for years, but the idea that complete course could be sourced with free online materials intended for educational purposes never occurred to me. My misconception at that time was that only very technical material was available in the public domain. That is, you could do a graduate course with free materials (original research reports, law review articles, government agency technical reports, etc.), but undergraduates needed material geared toward their level of knowledge and experience. To my way of thinking at the time, there was no middle ground between sources that “anyone can edit” and highly sophisticated academic publications.

Any discussion of OER brings up questions of quality. Are your OER resources as high in quality as the traditional resources everyone else seems to be using? A direct comparison between my OER materials and a $200 hardback textbook may not be in order. We first must take into account the fact that a large number of my students were not actually buying the textbook because of the “sticker price.” Any assignments based on the unpurchased text were not getting done, and the assumption that students were keeping up with the readings was patently false in many cases. For a long time, I selected texts based on pedagogical concerns. I must also confess that I was influenced by how easy those texts made my life. The more ancillary materials, the more favorably I looked on the text. I never thought to check how much it was going to cost students. I knew that textbooks were expensive in an abstract sense, but I did not realize that some students were paying more for textbooks than for tuition.

In hindsight, I now realize that the textbook publishers had colored my thinking about how to design a course very early in my career. Lacking any firm foundation in pedagogy, my process essentially involved selecting a text and designing a syllabus around it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wasn’t teaching courses. I was teaching textbooks. As I gained experience, I realized that textbooks tend to be bloated, and some chapters are essentially filler. I stopped assigning a chapter a week and started thinking about what my course was supposed to impart to the learner. I concluded that in many circumstances, depth was more important than breadth, and that the ubiquitous “Future of Your Discipline” chapter at the end of the text was purely speculative and not very useful.

A major hurdle in building courses with OER materials is overcoming the mindset that the mega-publishers have instilled in as many of us as they could. In hindsight, I realize that I bought into the notion that “canned” courses are inherently superior. The mantra that a good textbook is thorough, comprehensive, and comes with lots of extras (PowerPoints, test banks, study guides, an author website, etc.) went unchallenged. I would like to use the phrase “suffered under this delusion,” but in reality I suffered not at all. It was my students who were suffering under the yoke of an expectation that they would buy a $200 textbook. When I think back on all of this, I am reminded of a line from the film The Matrix where the character Morpheus explains to the character Neo the source of his psychological dissonance:

“Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind …”

We all see our professional self through a particular lens. Some of us teach, but primarily consider ourselves to be researchers. Some of us consider ourselves golfers, and just teach to pay the bills. With some introspection, I have determined that my ego identity is intricately linked to my role as a teacher. The ultimate criterion of how good I am at this defining role is student learning. Amazingly, I never really applied this elegantly simple fact to my process. My process evolved from accidents of history; I taught my classes the way my professors taught their classes. I imagine that this progression has gone on in the ivory tower since the middle ages. Certainly, we’ve added new window dressings. My professors used chalkboards, whereas I use data projectors. Nevertheless, the basic method of “talk and chalk” has not changed on a fundamental level in a millennium. The education literature is full of caveats and empirical support for better methods and procedures, but this is not my literature. My literature revolves around how law enforcement can make our streets safer.

It follows from this epiphany that not only do I have a responsibility to master the craft of teaching, but I must also take responsibility for curriculum design. In other words, master teachers not only teach well but decide exactly what it is they will teach well. I am convinced that optimal content is not universal. Methods and materials must not be carved in granite; they must be cast in quicksilver and morph as the discipline and student cohorts transform over time and space. Being offered a chance to participate in a world where these characteristics are the expectation reminds me of yet another quote from The Matrix:

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I made the decision to join the eVersity team, I had swallowed the red pill. I would be forced to confront my deeply rooted paradigm of how higher education should work, and watch it crumble under the weight of evidence-based best practices that I was confronted with at every turn. The status quo was not sacred, and there were better ways of doing things. My practices were effete and based on tradition rather than the empirical evidence that I long claimed to hold dear as a social scientist. Perhaps the most important reality that I was forced to face was the fact that students tend not to buy overpriced textbooks. My paradigm was rooted in the idea that students would read the course materials that I assigned, and that this would fuel brilliant intellectual discourse in the next class session. That faulty assumption failed to withstand the light of empirical research as well as my personal experiences. I knew that many students were not reading, but it never occurred to me that this was because they simply were not buying the textbook.

By directly being involved in a new breed of course design, I was forced to change the way I did things (by mandates from my friendly but firm instructional designer). After I had done things their way, I became convinced of the general superiority of those methods. Not long after, the new catchphrase on my home campus became “student retention.” The literature on this topic suggests that economics is a barrier to many students staying the course. This was not lost on our administration at the time, and talk turned to OER as a way of reducing student costs. We in the ivory tower often lose sight of the economic reality of higher education—it’s an expensive endeavor, and you must “pay to stay.” To my surprise, many of the faculty bitterly resisted the idea of OER. I proffer another quote from the sage Morpheus to explain this phenomenon:

“…[Y]ou have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

One of the most prevalent arguments I heard against OER was quality control. Simply put, OER is not vetted for quality in any way. While this argument may sound valid on a prima facie basis, it is not logically consistent on closer examination. Textbooks, unlike journal articles, are not usually peer-reviewed. An editor whose job it is to sell expensive textbooks, not serve as a gatekeeper for the professional literature, editorially reviews them. The ultimate flaw in this argument is the very fact that the people making the argument are Subject Matter Experts (SMEs in the literature). They have terminal degrees in their respective fields. They have conducted research in those areas. Who better to vet OER materials for quality than those tasked with teaching the material? I submit that if a professor is uncomfortable judging the quality of educational resources, then he or she is not an expert in the field and has no place in the classroom. In the final analysis, support of this argument is tantamount to admitting that you are a fraud.

Before you take the red pill, there are some things you should consider. Many have complained that there is no central “comprehensive catalog of resources.” This thinking reflects the old paradigm; a search for a complete package that replicates what the textbook publishers have to offer. The beauty of OER is that it allows you to teach exactly what you want to teach the way you want to teach it. If it does not fit your vision of what your course should be, you simply reject it and move on to something else. This means curation of resources on the smallest of levels. Do not think of a course as a textbook; think of it as a mosaic of facts and ideas that you and your students produce through synergy. The questions that you must ask yourself are simple: What facts and ideas do I want my students to learn? What is the absolute best way to present that information to my learners? Once you have answered these questions, you are ready to dive into the rabbit hole; you will find to your dismay that the rabbit hole is very, very deep.

By “very deep” I mean that the world of free information (Creative Commons licensed, public domain, government publications, and so forth) is dauntingly immense. When you think on the level of ideas rather than courses, the problem will not be finding resources. It will be sorting through myriad resources to find the perfect one that accomplishes just what you want it to accomplish. Sometimes the perfect solution may not be out there; it is more likely that you just haven’t found it. Either way, a potential solution is to write your own OER materials. By creating your own OER (and listing them with catalog sites such as Merlot and OER Commons) you not only improve the quality of your own classes but potentially strengthen education across your entire field of endeavor. The cost of all this free information? Time. Staggering swaths of precious time. If you subscribe to the adage that “time is money” then you will never be an OER enthusiast or author. Curating materials takes time, and writing OER materials takes still more. Your motivations must be altruistic, and your rewards will be intrinsic. If you are the type of person that is willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good and that feels comfortable thinking outside the box, then you will find using and creating OER immensely rewarding. I leave you with one last Matrix quote, this one from The Oracle:

“I don’t expect you to do anything. I expect what I’ve always expected, for you to make up your own damn mind. Believe me or don’t.”