Explaining Southern California's economy

DeBord Report Awards: Top three business books of 2011


It's time for my first annual DeBord Report Awards for business books. The winners for 2011 are:

"Models. Behaving. Badly: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster, on Wall Street and in Life" by Emanuel Derman

I wrote a Rather Short Review of this book, by a former Goldman Sachs "quant," earlier this year. Here's what I had to say:

"It's an incredibly erudite and humane book. Maybe not the most informative, blow-by-blow account of how Wall Street nearly ruined the world. But an impressive effort in soul-searching combined with real thinking. Derman is what I now think of as an "old-school human": widely versed in the various troves of human expression and inquiry, from philosophy to literature to science, and not afraid to show us what he's got." 

Since then, I haven't been able to get the book out of my head. It isn't just one of the best business books I've read in a long while — it's one of the best self-help books! By which I mean it's a business book that I can imagine reading and re-reading many times.

"Lost Decades: The Making of America's Debt Crisis and the Long Recovery" by Menzie D. Chinn and Jeffry A. Frieden

Emanuel Derman may not have produced the most informative blow-by-blow of the financial crisis, but Chinn and Frieden certainly have. Highly readable but not at all a pop history of the Wall Street meltdown, "Lost Decades" explains in alarmingly clear language what went wrong, why, and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.

"Pricing the Future: Finance, Physics, and the 300-year Journey to the Black-Scholes Equation" by George G. Szpiro

The best book I've ever read about options pricing, which is the unified field theory of finance. The Black-Scholes equation solved a problem that everyone thought was fundamentally unsolvable. The story of how the equation came about is lively intellectual history, involving centuries of slow and steady lock-picking until the code was finally cracked. In a sense, Szpiro's storytelling is a kind of narrative Black-Scholes equation: it makes something very hard both easy to follow and exciting if not downright fun to read about.

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Christopher Hitchens leaves us in a world without Christopher Hitchens

LA Times Festival of Books

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

There were two thrunderclaps in my corner of the world yesterday. The first was from a surprise storm that hit Pasadena in the afternoon. It shook our KPCC broadcast center. It might have been a sign of something, as later that night, my Twitter feed lit up with the terrible news, not unexpected but gut-punching nonetheless: Christopher Hitchens had lost his battle with esophegeal cancer, at 62.

Hitchens would be appalled by my lede, the suggestion that the thunder meant that a higher power who makes himself known through weather was somehow expressing — What? Rage? Triumph? Agony? that a worthy foe was shedding this mortal coil. Hitchens had spent his dying days arguing with all comers that his thesis from his bestselling book "God Is Not Great" was going to go with him, unaltered, to his grave.

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The Trouble with Triblets: Why Tribune's proprietary tablet is a bad idea

I don't know how I missed this, but I did. One of the things I learned after Russ Stanton stepped down as editor of the Los Angeles Times is that the paper's parent company, Tribune Co., is developing its own tablet — not a new and special app for the tablet market, but an actual proprietary tablet — and, from what I gather, it intends to give it away to subscribers. Presumably, the glorious Tribune content on this tablet won't be paywalled, although to Web users the paper will. Who knows, there may even be be content that's exclusive to the tablet.

The Tribune tablet — the Triblet? — is not a good business idea. It's worse than New Coke. Worse that Qwikster. Worse the the DeLorean. Worse than the Edsel. I'd have to stretch to find a more foolhardy concept, far back beyond the meager parameters of my own lifetime. Napoleon's invasion of Russia leaps to mind...

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The tax cut even Republicans can hate

Reid And Senate Democrats Speak On Payroll Tax Plan

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 07: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (C) holds a news conference about extending the payroll tax cut with Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) (L) and U.S. Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) at the U.S. Capitol December 7, 2011 in Washington, DC. Reid promised that the tax cut, which is set to expire at the end of the year, will be extended even if he has to keep the Senate in session through the holidays. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The debate in Congress over the payroll tax-cut extension, which is going down the same route as...pretty much every other debate in Congress this session, has created a sort of political Bizarro World. The proposed legislation wouldn't just extend the payroll tax cut, it would also tackle other funding issues. But the payroll tax-cut is where the action is.

The concern, among a strange axis of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, is that extending the tax cut will threaten Social Security. Benefits outpaced revenues in 2010. But as this chart from the New York Times shows, that's not unprecedented — Social Security payments ran above revenues in the 1970s and '80s. 

However, since the late 1980s, Social Security has been running a surplus, with the extra money invested in interest-earning Treasury bonds. That funds now stands at $2.6 trillion. The cost of the payroll tax cut? $105 billion.

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Why is the recovery jobless? Skills, baby. Skills.

Fighting to Stay Positive

Mae Ryan/KPCC

Victoria Long has been unemployed for two and a half years and her job search continues. She spends her time in an employment recruiting office as she searches for work.

First, the good news: there are jobs available in America! Now, the bad news: there aren't enough people with the right skills to take them. This is from Bloomberg Businessweek:

The number of positions waiting to be filled this year has climbed to levels last seen in 2008, when the jobless rate was around 6 percent. The housing bust and ensuing financial crisis put people out of work whose skills may not correspond with those needed by the health-care providers and engineering firms where jobs go wanting.

[...]

A dearth of skilled applicants may prevent the unemployment rate from declining further and could crimp consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy. Companies also may remain reluctant to expand their workforces as the threat from Europe’s debt crisis and political gridlock in the U.S. weighs on the economic outlook.

Over the three months ended in October, the average number of positions waiting to be filled climbed to 3.26 million, the most in three years, according to Labor Department data released yesterday in Washington. The jobless rate, which averaged 5.8 percent that year, was at 9 percent in October. It fell to 8.6 percent last month, in part reflecting a drop in the size of the labor force, the agency’s data showed earlier this month.

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