Monthly Archive for March, 2012


Two awesome links


A brief note to George Osborne

Hi, George.

No doubt your political advisers have mentioned this to you by now, but just in case they haven’t, I thought I’d drop you a line.  The UK press are a funny lot. They will insist on making hay out of the budget every year (and let’s be frank, you like the attention), but you can never really tell which bits they’re going to ignore and which bits they’re going to put in the spotlight.  Take this hullabaloo over your decision to equalise the regular and old-age tax free allowances.  The ‘granny tax‘ (nice work on getting the Telegraph to rail against a Conservative chancellor, by the way).  There’s no way you could have seen it coming, right?  Right?

Wrong.

Really, George, it is quite simple.  Newspapers look for news.  Given all the leaks that you and the Lib Dems fed the media over the last couple of weeks during your bargaining, this was the only morsel, juicy or otherwise, that was left.  Here, I’ll spell it out for you:

  • If it is something new, it is more likely to be in the news (funny, that).
  • If it was in the news last week, it is less likely to be in the news this week.
  • If a loss is to be imposed on a group of people that are commonly taken to be sacrosanct, it will be the news.
  • A pound lost is at least twice as news worthy as a pound gained.
  • Furthermore, gains and losses are always described in whichever way looks more miserly.  That means:
    • Gains are expressed in real terms
    • Losses are expressed in nominal terms if they can be and real terms if they must

This whole kerfuffle hits every button on the nose.


Running (February 2012)

Okay, so I’ve actually been running again, however slowly, for a few months now.  Full details on my Running page.  February was pretty good; although the distances weren’t as great, I’d say better than last year.

Count:  16 runs (January was 10)

Distance:  95km (January was 57km)

Av. Pace:  5:27/km (January was 5:48/km)

My current block of running is far and away my best in so long it doesn’t matter.  338km over 60 runs, spanning almost five months.  If I keep this up for another few months I might just be able to start describing myself as a runner again. 🙂

All exercise is publicly visible here (on runkeeper.com).


Warren Buffet on gold

This is a week or so old by now, but it’s so good I wanted to make sure it was permanently on my blog.

From his latest letter to shareholders in Berkshire Hathaway, the Sage of Omaha‘s opinion on gold as an investment:

The second major category of investments involves assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else – who also knows that the assets will be forever unproductive – will pay more for them in the future. Tulips, of all things, briefly became a favorite of such buyers in the 17th century.

This type of investment requires an expanding pool of buyers, who, in turn, are enticed because they believe the buying pool will expand still further. Owners are not inspired by what the asset itself can produce – it will remain lifeless forever – but rather by the belief that others will desire it even more avidly in the future.

The major asset in this category is gold, currently a huge favorite of investors who fear almost all other assets, especially paper money (of whose value, as noted, they are right to be fearful). Gold, however, has two significant shortcomings, being neither of much use nor procreative. True, gold has some industrial and decorative utility, but the demand for these purposes is both limited and incapable of soaking up new production. Meanwhile, if you own one ounce of gold for an eternity, you will still own one ounce at its end.

What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow. During the past decade that belief has proved correct. Beyond that, the rising price has on its own generated additional buying enthusiasm, attracting purchasers who see the rise as validating an investment thesis. As “bandwagon” investors join any party, they create their own truth – for a while.

Over the past 15 years, both Internet stocks and houses have demonstrated the extraordinary excesses that can be created by combining an initially sensible thesis with well-publicized rising prices. In these bubbles, an army of originally skeptical investors succumbed to the “proof” delivered by the market, and the pool of buyers – for a time – expanded sufficiently to keep the bandwagon rolling. But bubbles blown large enough inevitably pop. And then the old proverb is confirmed once again: “What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.”

Today the world’s gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons. If all of this gold were melded together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball infield.) At $1,750 per ounce – gold’s price as I write this – its value would be $9.6 trillion. Call this cube pile A.

Let’s now create a pile B costing an equal amount. For that, we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1 trillion left over for walking-around money (no sense feeling strapped after this buying binge). Can you imagine an investor with $9.6 trillion selecting pile A over pile B?

Beyond the staggering valuation given the existing stock of gold, current prices make today’s annual production of gold command about $160 billion. Buyers – whether jewelry and industrial users, frightened individuals, or speculators – must continually absorb this additional supply to merely maintain an equilibrium at present prices.

A century from now the 400 million acres of farmland will have produced staggering amounts of corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops – and will continue to produce that valuable bounty, whatever the currency may be. Exxon Mobil will probably have delivered trillions of dollars in dividends to its owners and will also hold assets worth many more trillions (and, remember, you get 16 Exxons). The 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.

Admittedly, when people a century from now are fearful, it’s likely many will still rush to gold. I’m confident, however, that the $9.6 trillion current valuation of pile A will compound over the century at a rate far inferior to that achieved by pile B.

Brilliant stuff.