Posts

Showing posts from 2010

Wishes For A Happy New Year

I'm currently in my office trying to wrap up a paper to send off to a conference (the American Accounting Association Annual Meeting, with a deadline coming up next Wednesday). I'm one of only 3 faculty in thebuilding, so it's quiet.

I'll probably knock off about 3 today and spend the rest of the day with the Unknown Family. After all, it is New Year's Eve Tonight.

On that note, here's hoping you all a safe, happy, and prosperous New Year.

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.

It Looks like the Unknown Family is pretty much shoveled out - I just got finished up removing about 15 inches of global warming from my driveway.

We did the family visit thing as usual this year, with Christmas Eve at my sister's house and Christmas Day at The Unknown Wife's family. They live in an adjoining state, but it's only about 2 hours away, so we did the day trip thing (and slept in our own beds).

Luckily, we got back before the snow started. Given my aging back (a legacy from my father, apparently), I prefer to shovel lighter amounts of snow multiple times rather than do one large one after it's over. So, I was in and out all day yesterday (about 3 times all together). Then I finished it off today. I love being in New England, but it has its costs.

Tomorrow I get back to the gym. For whatever reason, this semester has turned me into a morning person. In September, I found myself waking up at 4 a.m.. The Unknown Wife works out every day from 6-7 …

Experimentation

When I give presentations about teaching, I always urge the audience members to experiment as much as possible. It is hard to make improvements if you are not willing to try new things. I am always reminded of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Some experiments work and some experiments don’t work. That is just the nature of the game. However, you will never find the winners if you are not willing to risk some losers. Playing it safe is no fun (and provides no benefit).

I tried an experiment with my final exam about two weeks ago. Even now, I am still not sure whether it was a winner or a loser but I found it interesting. I like the fact that I am still thinking about it.

What is the purpose of a final exam? I can think of two reasons. First, it gives the students one last opportunity to influence their grades. There is something about having hope for improvement that keeps stud…

Merry Christmas To All

A Merry Christmas to all. It was off to visit my family last night. Now, it's off to the Unknown Wife's Family for the day. Luckily, they're each only about 80 miles away - gotta love living close enough that I can plan on biking to each this summer.

Unknown Daughter liked her presents (some clothes, a rock polishing kit, some games for her DS, etc...). The Unknown Baby Boy (now upgraded to the Unknown Toddler) seemed to like his presents, but being 21 months old, he probably will get as much out of playing with the boxes and paper as he will out of the presents).

As for Unknown Wife and I, we'll buy a big screen TV after the new year as our present. Yeah, that's right - "our" present.

In any event, here's hoping you all enjoy the day, and be careful on the roads - it's a surprisingly dangerous day for driving.

Thoughts from the Desk

Here is an email I just sent to my friend W (a former trading desk colleague who I still bounce ideas off every now and then). Not a particularly deep email or anything, but it may serve to give a flavor of the way I approach directional macro trading:
There seems to be a clear divergence in markets at the moment. On the one hand commodities especially ags are charging higher. JJS is up over 20% mtd. And soybeans are making their 2nd attempt at clearing resistance at 1350; if they break then the next target is around 1550. So that's bullish. On the other hand EM stocks are clearly weak. China, Brazil and India are all down 10% from their peaks in early Nov and the charts all look quite bearish to me (especially China). For whatever reason, commentators here are completely ignoring the EM swoon [1]. But it could be dangerous, especially if oil continues to rally (remember the rule: if oil use is above 6% of GDP, a recession is coming).

I am uncomfortably reminded of Jan 2008.…

Stick a Fork In Me

I'm done with my grading. Not surprisingly, I handed in grades at 4:45 this afternoon, and got my first email at 7. But for a change, the first one wasn't of the "why didn't I get a higher grade" variety. The student wrote:
Dear Unknown Professor:

I just wanted to thank you again for a really great semester. You really helped me work hard in areas I didn't think I could and pushed me harder than I thought I could handle, but it overall seemed to pay off very well with my final grade. I learned a lot in your class this semester which I am hoping will help with my future finance classes since I am a Finance major.
He struggled all semester, and pulled off a B+ - proof that hard work pays off.

I'll take it. Now back to research.

I have two papers I'm hoping to send to the AAA (American Accounting Association) meeting (the deadline's in 2 weeks), and a third I'm hoping to send to the FMA (Financial Management Association) meeting (the deadline…

Thanks!!!

I began writing this blog almost a year ago. At the time, I seriously wondered whether anyone would ever read it since I had no easy way to get the word out. I decided to write the blog, though, because I thought doing so would force me to think more deeply about my own teaching. In that way, it has been a huge success. I am a better teacher today, I firmly believe, than I was at this time last year because I have taken time to reflect on almost every aspect of my work.

However, I was still faced with the question: does anyone “out there” actually read these thoughts? So, yesterday, I finally broke down and looked at the statistics. Since I wrote the first blog entry last January, there have been 27,398 page views. Wow, that is roughly 27,000 more than I expected. It turns out to be 75 page views seven days per week for a solid year. That is a lot of teachers and a lot of education.

I just wanted to say THANKS!! This could not possibly have happened without a lot…

Dilbert on "Meeting Pirates"

Image
I wonder if Scott Adams has been spying on our faculty meetings?

The Manslator

Here are two facts :
The Unknown Wife and I have somehow managed to stay married for over 20 years.
I recently took an online test for empathy and scored just above folks with Aspergers and high-functioning autistics. How can I explain these two facts? It's simply that I married well above my station to a person who's far, far nicer than me.

Having said that, I could have used one of these - I particularly like the caveman voice - kinda fits how I feel in the morning.

HT: The Ace of Spades

Congratulations!!

Yesterday, I carried out my very favorite activity of every semester. I sent an individual email to each student who made an A in my class this semester just to congratulate them. As teachers, we push our students unmercifully to succeed. We are after them constantly to do the work necessary to make an A. We push and prod them to give us an excellent effort. We complain when they disappoint us.

Therefore, I think those students who take up our challenge and do the work we ask of them deserve our acknowledgement. I believe they should get more than an anonymous A on a grade report. So, before I turn my grades in to the school, I send each A student an email so they know that I did notice.

In my classes this semester, 14 percent of the students in my introductory class (a relatively low number for me) made an A and 35 percent of the students in my intermediate class (an all-time high) made an A. I sent each of these students an email something like the following:


Wednesd…

I need Some Advice From My Readers - Excel Topics For Class

I'm teaching the investments class this spring, and it's been a couple of years. I'm trying to add a few things to the class, and have pestered my colleagues at Unknown University (and other schools) for some advice. So, I thought I'd use y'all likewise to see what suggestions you might have.

Here's my goal: I want to embed more Excel assignments in my class, since Finance Majors can't have too much Excel exposure. So, I'm trying to add some assignments that expose them to the following concepts (note- those in bold type have been suggested by readers)
Data TablesPivot Tables & Pivot Charts
IF (and Nested IF) statementsMacros and basic VBA
Solver and Goal SeekRegression AnalysisConditional Formatting
Using some of the auditing toolsKeyboard shortcutsVLOOKUP/INDEX/MATCH
My goal is to get them comfortable with at least some concepts that can be used to signal to potential employers that they're at least a cut above the typical student. This way, t…

My Students Are a Mixed Bag

It's that time of year again - the end of the semester. This time around, I'm teaching at both ends of the spectrum - the required undergraduate core class and the student-managed portfolio class.

And it looks like my students performed at both ends of the spectrum, too.

Running the student-managed fund class is always a great gig - it's small (about 10-12) and invariably composed of the best students in the college. They just gave their end-of-the semester presentation to a group of about 30 attendees (including a number of portfolio managers, analysts, and assorted other finance professionals). They probably did as good a job as any group I've seen to date. They were relaxed, professional, very competent, and they looked good in their suits and ties. They did a great job of explaining how they managed the fund and more importantly, why. There were a couple of attendees that made them peel back the curtain on what assumptions they used in their discounted …

Teh Doggehs Rule

So far, I've resisted posting pictures of cute kittens on the blog (mostly because the things I'm likely to post will get me a call from PETA). But I do like dogs - in fact, we had a Boykin Spaniel for years named Merlin (a.k.a. "Butthead"). So, in honor of him, here's a video

HT: Ace of Spades

Dax Locke And an Early Christmas

I was listening to the radio on the way home from my office the other day and heard the story of Dax Locke, a 13 month-old child diagnosed with terminal Leukemia. Since it was unlikely he'd make it to Christmas (it was in early autumn), his family started putting up the tree and the lights. Then the neighbors followed suit, and then the whole town.

For obvious reasons, it stuck with me. So, I tracked it down and found this YouTube video by Matthew West. Caution - it will most likely bring tears to your eyes, so be warned.



And if you're looking for a place to contribute to, this would be a good one. So open your checkbooks and spread a little cheer.

Europa Endlos

One exercise that I used to do quite often, back in the days when I was a "professional" trader (that is to say, a trader with other people's money), was to make up improbable scenarios and justify / explain them.

Part of my motivation for this exercise was to be intentionally and deliberately contrarian. Saying No when the market says Yes is a long-term profitable strategy in itself, irrespective of the underlying fundamentals. (Some day I will write a longer post on why this should be the case).

Another part of my motivation was to have fun. There's nothing like donning a tin-foil hat to enliven a drab afternoon trading session.

But the most important part of my motivation was a serious one: to avoid confirmation bias. Quoting Wikipedia: "Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, regardless of whether the information is true."

This was something I had to constantly guard against i…

Month-End Recap, Nov 2010

The second installment of a new feature: a very quick summary of my investment positions, to be published monthly. This is not investment advice and should not be construed as such.

I am currently 90% invested, as follows:

57% Agricultural commodities
10% Other commodities
16% Emerging market equities
07% Miscellaneous equities
10% Cash

My largest position continues to be in soybeans, followed by sugar.

A rather boring month for my portfolio, to be honest. PL-wise I was down a very small amount, small enough to be considered mere noise in the context of my YTD returns. (Many a trader has said these words and lived to regret them, ha ha).

I usually try to be between 85% and 105% invested, so I am below my average exposure here. Indeed, as planned and previously advertised, I reduced my net exposure in November, from 93% last month to 90% today, by selling some commodities and some Indian stocks. It's not that I'm particularly bearish or anything; it's just that I have no strong …

Paragraphs Worth Reading

Why write long blog posts explicating your point of view, when others have done your work for you (and much more eloquently I might add)?

Here's the always-excellent Interfluidity on "hangover theory":

Proponents do claim that poverty in the sense of diminished consumption, painful financial losses, and “creative destruction” of cherished institutions usually attend the adjustment process, and they recognize all this is usually associated with unemployment. But hangover theorists argue that adjustment is worth doing despite the cost in employment, consumption, and disruption, not because those costs are good things. When they do argue that “pain is good”, it is along very conventional lines of moral hazard. It is not that the macroeconomy “deserves” to suffer, but that foolish lenders and borrowers, specific misallocators of capital and overconsumers, ought to suffer disproportionately pour encourager les autres. Hangover theorists, like smart Keynesians, promote policies …

Turducken? Meh! I want a TurBacon Epic

We survived Thanksgiving with the Unknown In-Laws. The Unknown Wife, her mom, and her sisters are all good cooks, so we easily put on a couple of pounds.

Many of you have heard of the Turducken (a dish consisting of a de-boned chicken stuffed into a de-boned duck, which itself is stuffed into a de-boned turkey).

But these folks have gone several steps better - the TurBacon Epic: a 20lb pig stuffed with a 8lb turkey, a 6lb duck, a 4lb chicken, a cornish hen, a quail, bacon croissant stuffing, and 10 lbs of bacon wrapped around all the layers. It's "only 79,046 calories and roughly 6,900 grams of food coma inducing fat.

To quote Yakov Smirnoff, "What a Country!"

New Video on Risk and Return

I've posted a new video on Risk and Return - it covers the typical material presented in and introductory class from the math of risk and return (Expected returns, standard deviations, covariance and correlation) through Markowitz Portfolio Theory and the Capital Market Line through the CAPM and the Security Market Line. it has a table of contents, so you can skip around. Click on the video below to see it - it's a pretty big file, so it might take a while to load.


In case you don't want to view the whole thing at one sitting (it's a bout 90 minutes), the video is organized as follows (I reference the numbers in the Table of Contents):
Sections 1-13 (roughly from the beginning to 38 minutes in - the "math" risk and return (Expected Returns, Standard Deviation, Covariance, and Correlation)Sections 14-25 (from minutes 38 to 75): Markowitz Portfolio Theory and the Capital Market LineSections 26-32 (Minutes 75 to the end): Systematic and Unsystematic Risk, The CAP…

Happy Thanksgiving

It looks like Unknown University is all but deserted the day before Thanksgiving. I finally decided to quit swimming against the tide, and canceled classes for today (I usually only get about 30% attendance on the day before Thanksgiving in the best of times, so it's no big loss).

Instead, I told the students that I'd put up a video with the lectures for the week on Risk and Return. Once it's done, I'll post a link here. I'm pretty happy with it - it runs the gamut of topics from the calculations for standard deviation, covariance, expected returns, etc... to Markowitz Portfolio Theory and the Capital Market Line to the CAPM and the Security Market Line.

Although I don't use all this material in my intro class, I expect to use it in my investments class this spring. So, this should allow me to go a bit faster and cover more material there.

Unfortunately, I have to wait another hour before the video software is done rendering the final version and I can …

Kissing Up is Good Practice

It's important to be good at the technical aspects of your job. But the "soft" stuff may be even more cirtical - the ability to get along with coworkers (and more important, with bosses) has a lot to do with eventual career success.

Tow researchers (Ithai Stern at Northwestern University and James Westphal at the University of Michigan) recently published a study in Administrative Science Quarterly titled "Stealthy Footsteps to the Boardroom: Executives’ Backgrounds, Sophisticated Interpersonal Infl uence
Behavior, and Board Appointments (here's an ungated copy). They lay out several effective ways of "kissing up" to the boss:
Go with discomfort: Preface compliments to the boss with something like "I don't want to embarrass you, but..."Frame it in question form: Ask for advice - it's just as flattering as a compliment. goes down a lot easierBait and switch: Start out by disagreeing with the boss and then gradually warm to their opi…

Happy Thanksgiving From the TSA

Luckily, we're not flying this Thanksgiving - we live a mere 2 hours from our families. But in case you are, here's a pretty funny clip from SNL.


Now take off you D**n shoes!

Take Me Down to the Paradox City

Assume, for a minute, that Paul Krugman is 100% correct in his analysis of the economy: assume that we are indeed in a liquidity trap, and the only way to escape the trap is through higher inflation. What's the best way to create this higher inflation? Why, through inflation expectations, of course. And what's the best way to foster inflation expectations? Well, here are some ideas:

- complain endlessly about government deficits;
- claim that QE2 will debase the dollar;
- whine about higher food and gas prices;
- tout gold as the ultimate investment.

Conversely, what's the absolute worst way to create an inflationary mindset in the populace? Hmm, I don't know, but writing a New York Times column that constantly warns of the dangers of deflation while pooh-poohing claims of inflation current or future, real or imagined -- that's gotta be pretty high on the list.

So within the framework of Prof. Krugman's own model, it's the right-wing fringe that is d…

Annoying or Amusing?

I had the genuine pleasure this past Thursday of speaking to 150 new faculty members in the Virginia Community College System. It is always a treat to work with people at the very beginning of their teaching careers. They have such a wonderful opportunity to help change the world.

One of the themes that I explored with the group was the idea of improvement. If you continue to improve as a teacher, year after year, you will get very good and eventually become great. And, the amount of annual improvement doesn’t have to be huge. In connection with their teaching, I suggested that every person work toward making a mere 5 percent improvement per year. That is doable and at that rate, in not too many years, you can become the best teacher in your building.

However, a great majority of teachers get better for awhile but eventually plateau. Many people who were B- teachers two decades ago are still B- teachers. I find that troubling. Why doesn't a B- teacher eventually bec…

Yo Momma is a Data Miner

Having a lot of data makes research easier - we now have more data in easily readable formats than ever before, and an amazing amount of computing power on our desktops (I have far more horsepower on my desk than NASA had in total in the 1980s)..

Unfortunately, there's a flip side to that coin - we can easily find variables (or specifications) that seem to "predict" returns (or just about anything). In reality, we're often just overfitting the data.

Here's a pretty good piece on the topic titled "Yo Momma is a Data Miner", by David Leinwebber in which he fits a polynomial time-series regression to the S&P 500 with surprising (if you don;t follow what he's doing) good results - particularly since he's using things like the sheep population and Bangladesh Butter production as regressors.

Positive Feedback, for a change

Nattering nabobs of negativity? Nyet! Instead of finding further fault with economists who I disagree with, let me share some interesting articles from economists who I agree with.

First, Jim Hamilton reports on a beautifully simple test for inflation: the rolling correlations between various commodity prices. It turns out that these correlations have increased quite significantly in recent months and years. This is strong suggestive evidence that there is a common factor driving all prices higher. What could that factor be? Hmm, I wonder.

Second, Steve Waldman has a great post on the role of morality in economics. Is there such a role? He says yes: “The thing is, human affairs are a morality play, and economics, if it is to be useful at all, must be an account of human affairs”. I couldn’t agree more. There’s a follow-up post here.

Third, Raghu Rajan has two policy suggestions that are exactly the same as my own: “The US should dial back its aggressive monetary policy, focusin…

I Did Not Know Damodaran Had a Blog

Aswath Damodaran has written a couple of excellent textbooks (on valuation and corporate finance), both of which are among my core reference materials. He also wecasts his valuation class at NYU (available here)

But I didn't know that he also has a blog - Musings on Markets. Just a quick glance over the last couple of months gave me several good articles to read:
High Dividend Stocks: Do They Beat the Market?

Capital Structure: Optimal or Opportunistic?

What if Nothing is Risk Free?
He doesn't update regularly (but who am I to talk). In any event, check it out.

HT: Finance Clippings

Making The Grade

I was cleaning out some to the 1500+ emails I've let accumulate in my gmail account (unlimited space leads to sloppy housekeeping), and I came across this old (but still excellent) piece titled "Making the Grade", by Georgia Tech physics professor Kurt Weisenfeld:
IT WAS A ROOKIE ERROR. AFTER 10 YEARS I SHOULD HAVE known better, but I went to my office the day after final grades were posted. There was a tentative knock on the door.
""Professor Wiesenfeld? I took your Physics 2121 class? I flunked it? I wonder if there's anything I can do to improve my grade?'' I thought: ""Why are you asking me? Isn't it too late to worry about it? Do you dislike making declarative statements?''

...Time was, when you received a grade, that was it. You might groan and moan, but you accepted it as the outcome of your efforts or lack thereof (and, yes, sometimes a tough grader). In the last few years, however, some students have developed a…

We Shouldn’t Take It For Granted

Topic One: On this coming Thursday, I will be having one of the great pleasures of my life. I will be leading a 3 1/2 hour teaching workshop for 150 new teachers in the Virginia Community College System. When you are given the opportunity of working with 150 new teachers, you realize that you are looking at a group that can truly make a difference in the lives of an almost countless number of students for decades and decades to come. This truly is an honor for me.
**

Topic Two: This past Friday I sat in my office for about 30 minutes and talked with an official in the Afghanistan government. That certainly is not a traditional part of my job. However, his daughter is a student at the University of Richmond and he was on campus visiting her. Because I knew the daughter, she brought her father by so we could meet.

We talked about the progress being made in Afghanistan and he immediately started talking about the problems caused by illiteracy in his country. His point wa…

Contra Krugman, Continued

A few follow-ups to my previous post.

First, of course, the obvious question: why does any of this matter? So what if Government Gus has to pay a slightly higher interest rate on his debts? Won’t the benefits of his spending (higher employment, income and consumption, which combine to help the private sector clean up its balance sheet) outweigh the costs?

I don’t think they will. And the reason, as usual, is positive feedback. If the tipping point is reached, Gus won’t have to pay a ‘slightly higher’ rate on his debts; he will have to pay a rate that is significantly higher. High enough to burst the bond bubble and send foreign investors running for cover; high enough to send the dollar plummeting; high enough to put into serious doubt the government’s ability to roll over its debt. The US could end up in a situation like Greece. Worse, in fact, given the size and importance of the US economy, the US bond market and the US dollar.

The bursting of a bond bubble is far more dangero…

Entrepreneurship and Satan's Learning-Challenged Little Brother

Although most people know him as the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams may also be one of the funniest writers around. Here's a recent piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal Online where he talks about dissatisfaction as a major driver of entrepreneurship:
I wasn't suffering alone. Many of my co-workers already had active side businesses and ambitious expansion plans. The guy in the cubicle behind me was running a concert equipment rental business. Across from me was a guy running a computer tech support business. We had Amway dealers, Mary Kay sales people, inventors, authors and just about any other business you can imagine. That's not counting all of the business plans in the incubation phase. I think we all understood that working in a cubicle and being managed by Satan's learning-challenged little brother was not a recipe for happiness.
Actually, it was a hamster-brained sociopath of a boss that made me think about going into academia.

Read the whole …

The Fun of The Exam Continues

It seems like every semester, I get at least one student who bombs an exam (or two) and reacts in a way-over-the-top manner. Last semester, it was a senior finance major (with a pretty high GPA) who suffered from anxiety attacks. She drew a complete blank during my Advanced Corporate Finance midterm. She subsequently appeared in several professors' offices wondering tearfully if she should change her major in her senior year. We eventually talked her down off the ledge, and she even subsequently took my Student-Managed Investment Fund class, where she did just fine.

But this semester took the grand prize. The 80/20 rule says that 20% of your students cause 80% of your problems. That would be true this semester if you counted ONE student alone as my 80%. She (we'll call her Brittany henceforth) is to put it succinctly, a bit of a Princess - high maintenance, dressed entirely in designer clothes, vocal, bossy to her friends, and simply not doing well in the class. …

The Unknown Students Nail an Exam

I've been teaching the undergraduate core finance class this semester, . If you've been teaching for a while, you know that it's easy in that class to get discouraged by students who are (pick any or all that apply) unmotivated, unable to do simple math, whiny, unwilling to be stretched, never darken your office doorway, etc...

This semester, I made a conscious decision to really push my students - since the first week of September, they've two exams, three very involved problem sets (with a lot of curves thrown in - the typical one takes about 3-5 hours to complete), eight online quizzes, and short pop quizzes (they typically last 5 minutes or less and contain 1 or 2 basic questions on the material to be covered for the day's class) on average every other day, and almost constant cold-calling in class (in a 50 minute class, I typically call on 15-20 students). I like to think that I've set the bar at a far higher level than the other sections of the intro cl…

Liquidity, Solvency, Switching Equilibria -- and Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman believes that we are in a liquidity trap (interest rates can’t go any lower), and that the only way to break out of it is via increased government spending. Here’s a column expressing his views (apologies for the long excerpt but I want to make sure I don’t quote him out of context):
One of the common arguments against fiscal policy in the current situation – one that sounds sensible – is that debt is the problem, so how can debt be the solution? Households borrowed too much; now you want the government to borrow even more?

What’s wrong with that argument? It assumes, implicitly, that debt is debt – that it doesn’t matter who owes the money. Yet that can’t be right; if it were, we wouldn’t have a problem in the first place. After all ... one person’s liability is another person’s asset.

It follows that the level of debt matters only if the distribution of net worth matters, if highly indebted players face different constraints from players with low debt. And this means tha…

Teaching Is Serious Business

I was asked, about four years ago, to write an essay on teaching. The following was my response. I believed this then. I believe it now. Joe


Teaching is serious business. We have wonderfully bright and talented students at every school. They have almost unlimited potential. For most, this is their one shot at college; they deserve nothing less than an excellent education,
an academic experience that challenges them to excel from their first day to their last.

Faculty members have a responsibility to the world to coax the very best from their students because they will certainly become the next generation of leaders. Where they go from here, what they accomplish, how they impact the world, depends in large part on how much we are able to push and nurture their development. I want every student to leave my class at the end of the semester saying, “I had to work very hard but I am so amazed by how much I learned.” Anything less is unacceptable.

If a teacher challenges student…