Monday, May 4, 2009

Howard S. Katz on Floyd Norris

Howard S. Katz is back on Kitco and he has written an interesting piece in response to New York Times columnist Floyd Norris entitled "Response to Floyd Norris":

Dear Mr. Norris:

I approach the subject of economics from a slightly different point of view than the writers for the Times, and I wanted to take issue with your comments in Saturday’s paper about the “recession.”

First, there was an event that happened at the very beginning of the New Deal which sets the tone for the economic controversies of the past 80 years. F.D.R’s Brain Trust., freshly in office, came up with a plan to get the country out of the depression by means of killing pigs and plowing under crops. The plan, however, ran into one difficulty. (I owe this story to my good friend Warren Roberts.) The jackasses who pulled the plows had been carefully taught to walk between the rows. Now that they were being ordered to walk on the rows they rebelled. The reason for this is that the jackasses had more brains than the Brain Trust.

Supporters of the New Deal had an effective way to deal with this. They all carry a mental eraser in their heads, and when something embarrassing occurs, they simply erase it from their minds. To claim that you are going to save the country from depression by destroying wealth is akin to the math student who enters the class with the theory that 2 + 2 = 27. There is really no point in debating him. One is dealing with a nut case, and to attempt an intellectual discussion to show him the error of his ways is itself a mistake.

Further evidence of the Times’ incompetence in economics can be seen from their failed predictions over the past 30 years.

In 1982, with the DJI at 800, the Times kept telling the country that Henry Kaufman was the nation’s top economist. Dr. Kaufman was then known by the nickname “Dr. Doom” because he was predicting higher interest rates and lower stock prices. Millions of people took your advice and sold their stocks, just months before the greatest stock bull market in American history.

In 1985, with the DJI at 1350, the Times’ Op Ed page developed the theory that the chart pattern of the DJI bore an uncanny resemblance to late 1928 and early 1929. This implication was that stocks were on the verge of a massive decline which would cause them to lose 90% of their value. All over the country people were thrown into a panic and sold their stocks, knocking the DJI down below 1300. From there it turned and, over the next 2 years, rose to 2700. It never got below 1300 again.

In 1987, a gentleman named Ravi Batra wrote a book entitled The Great Depression of 1990. The Times, and the remainder of the nation’s media, became very excited over this prediction. Lester Thurow went ga-ga over the book. Leonard Silk, Christopher Lehmann Haupt and Thomas Hayes gave him high praise. The pessimism generated by the book may have contributed to the crash of October 1987. But when 1990 rolled around, the worst that happened was a 1.3% (2 quarter) decline in GDP. J. Scott Armstrong called this the seer-sucker theory: for every seer there is a sucker.

In 1999, the Times turned bullish and published Dow 36,000 by Glassman and Hassett, predicting that the DJI would rise to that number between 2002-04. By 2002, the DJI had declined to a low of 7,200, and its 2004 high was still below 11,000. Carried away by its own irrational exuberance the Times invested $2.7 billion in its own stock (then trading around 40). At present, one share of Times stock sells for about the same price as a Sunday paper, and the loss on those turn-of the century investments is about $2.3 billion. This has forced the Times to mortgage its new headquarters and to take a loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.
In short, this record of prediction is pretty much what one would expect if the student who believed the 2 + 2 = 27 theory were to take over the math class and start investing the school’s money.

Read the whole thing here.