Monday, April 28, 2008

The price of petrol

Business Week looks at signs that petrol use may be responding to the increase in prices.
For 20 years now, county workers in Palm Beach County, Fla., have been counting cars with sensors at strategic points along its 4,000 miles of roads. Nearly every year traffic volume has climbed at least 2%. But in 2007 there was a slight decline in the number of vehicles on the roads. This year traffic is down 7.5% through March. "We're seeing a very significant change," says county engineer George Webb. "We're having a good time speculating why."
It's not just Palm Beach. Traffic levels are trending downward nationwide. Preliminary figures from the Federal Highway Administration show it falling 1.4% last year. Now, with nationwide gasoline prices having passed the inflation-adjusted record of $3.40 a gallon set back in 1981, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is predicting that gasoline consumption will actually fall 0.3% this year. That would be the first annual decline since 1991. Others believe the falloff in consumption is steeper than the government's numbers show. "Our canaries out there tell us they are seeing demand drop much more considerably than the fraction the EIA is talking about," says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service, a Gaithersburg (Md.) market research firm.

Of course, it is unclear at this stage how much of this is a response to higher prices and how much is a response to weaker economic activity.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Negative equity

The FT looks at the risk of a rise in negative equity and concludes that because of the relatively modest offerings by banks and the lower proportion of first time borrowers, there will be less negative equity than there was in 1990.

This may come as a surprise, given the problems that banks have encountered following their profligacy at the height of the housing boom. But the reason is simple. Unlike in the late 1980s, they have sought to gain a competitive advantage by offering low mortgage rates, rather than by seeking to out-do each other by offering ever bigger mortgages as a proportion of a home's value.

Bank of England figures last published in 2005 show that in the late 1980s more than 40 per cent of all mortgages - for house purchase and remortgaging - had loan-to-value ratios of more than 90 per cent. In recent years that number has halved to about 20 per cent.

House purchases by first-time buyers, the group that tends to have by far the highest loan-to-value ratios, were also much lower. There were 750,000 in 2006 and 2007, compared with 1.04m in 1988 and 1989. Working out the strength of every mortgage in the UK is difficult.

There are no data on the exact number of mortgages outstanding, the initial price paid and the subsequent movement in house prices. But the FT estimates that 350,000, or 2.8 per cent, of people owning their own homes would succumb to negative equity if prices were to fall 10 per cent.

If prices fell 15 per cent, the FT's estimate is still that only 5 per cent of mortgagors - 2 per cent of all households - would be in negative equity.

Kate Barker, a member of the Bank's monetary policy committee, arrived at the same figure in a speech in February that was based on a Bank survey.

They are also in line with the figures published by some lenders in their annual accounts. HBOS, the country's largest mortgage lender, says only 4 per cent of its stock of loans has a loan-to-value ratio greater than 90 per cent, while Nationwide, another of the country's big four mortgage lenders, has only 1 per cent of its mortgage book in this category.

Gary Styles, strategy, risk and economics director of Hometrack, says that many scare stories about negative equity use figures that are "very inaccurate and far too high".

"Most of the largest lenders in the UK have very few customers with less than 10 per cent equity in their properties and several of the biggest players have only around 2 per cent of their existing mortgage customers with less than 10 per cent equity," he said.

Friday, April 25, 2008


The FT provides a good overview of the way that the de-leveraging in the banking system spreads out through the rest of the financial sector.
The most leveraged funds are now borrowing no more than five times their asset base, compared with 10 times their asset base just six months ago, according to fund of hedge fund managers. The move comes as banks withdraw from risk-taking to repair tattered balance sheets, and places strains on formally lucrative hedge fund relationships.

This will reduce returns (and risk).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mergers and market power

Do mergers increase prices and allow the new combination to gain market power? A new study suggests that they do. Looking at some extreme cases where makers of substitute products got together, Orley Ashenfelter and Danniel Hosken report an increase of prices of between 3% and 7%. This does not look at long-term cost improvements that may be apparent or the effect of the development of new products. However, given the large-scale industries that are represented, it does suggest a substantial transfer from consumers to producers.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Buffett talks

Warren Buffett talks to students about EMH and regulation amongest othere topics.

The answer is you don't want investors to think that what they read today is important in terms of their investment strategy. Their investment strategy should factor in that (a) if you knew what was going to happen in the economy, you still wouldn't necessarily know what was going to happen in the stock market. And (b) they can't pick stocks that are better than average. Stocks are a good thing to own over time. There's only two things you can do wrong: You can buy the wrong ones, and you can buy or sell them at the wrong time. And the truth is you never need to sell them, basically. But they could buy a cross section of American industry, and if a cross section of American industry doesn't work, certainly trying to pick the little beauties here and there isn't going to work either. Then they just have to worry about getting greedy. You know, I always say you should get greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy. But that's too much to expect. Of course, you shouldn't get greedy when others get greedy and fearful when others get fearful. At a minimum, try to stay away from that.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Exchanges and Silos

The FT looks at the LSE model which uses the market and external settlement. The contrast is the virticle silo that is favoured by Deutsche Bourse. Though the EU Commission appears to be in favour of competition, there are some signs that sentiment in the US is switching towards the integrated model. Those exchanges that are integrated, appear to enjoy higher valuations.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The carry trade

Markus Brunnermeier, Stefan Nagel, Lasse Pedersen look at the carry trade.

Our theoretically that securities that speculators invest in have a positive average return and a negative skewness. The positive return is a premium for providing liquidity and the negative skewness arrises from an asymmetric response to fundamental shocks: shocks that lead to speculator losses are amplified when speculators hit funding constraints and unwind their positions, further depresing prices, increasing the funding problems, volatility, and margins, and so on. Conversely, shocks that lead to speculator gains are not amplified.