Monday, March 30, 2009

"The Quiet Coup"

Great economics article here by Simon Johnson from the IMF.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

6 million people

Someone wrote a letter to the Straits Times decrying the opinions of a certain professor.

As much as I agree with the author of the letter, I have no illusions as to how helpful (or not) such letters are.

The government, broadly speaking, and the local media machine, narrowly speaking, usually has a tendency to seek out the opinions of "experts" to reinforce their existing inclinations or ideas. 

For example, the columnist Tom Plate that the Straits Times keeps on retainer is a foreigner with a perspective acceptable to the government.  He writes regularly in the national paper. Not so long ago, Richard Florida's ideas on the creative class were ostensibly the reason why we had to "open up" , create "little bohemias" and be welcoming to foreigners. Never mind whether these ideas provided the actual impetus behind our economic initiatives or that they were just a post-hoc justification. Several notable scientists have also spoken in glowing terms of Singapore's science enterprise. Of course, they were also the recipients of government largesse in the form of large grants and paychecks, but let's not get distracted by something as banal as ... money.  

This isn't so remarkable, since spin doctoring is a much appreciated (but practiced with little finesse) art in Singapore.

The scary part is when the government actually starts believing its own spin a.k.a. confirmation bias.

We are already seeing it with regard to the economic crisis. The government is still speaking of preparing for the inevitable upturn in the not-too-distant future instead of preparing for a long grinding recession and readying abundant social safety measures.

We are also seeing it in how the government views the financial industry as a keystone industry when it is in fact in the process of being permanently and globally downsized.

And finally, if the government actually believes that Singapore should have more people than it already has, then this place can only become more less pleasant to live in. But of course, their opinion is hardly unexpected. After all, our politicians don't take the meat cars MRT, eat at mass (sic) halls food courts, shop at our generic and flavorless McMalls, or live in worker beehive cells HDB flats.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"It’s Time to Make a Coffee Run"

From The New York Times
Published: March 25, 2009 

WELDON JOHNSON first tried caffeine as a performance enhancer in 1998. He was not a coffee drinker but had heard that caffeine could make him run faster. So he went to a convenience store before a race and drank a cup of coffee.

For the first time in his life, he ran 10 kilometers in less than 30 minutes.

“I remember being really wired before the race,” he said in an e-mail message. “My body was shaking.” 

From then on, he was a convert.

Mr. Johnson, a founder of, would avoid caffeine, even in soft drinks, for a few weeks before he competed in a race, wanting to have the full stimulant effect.

“It may have been a huge placebo effect, but I swore by it,” Mr. Johnson said. “Having a cup of coffee exactly one hour before the race was part of my routine.”

Or maybe it was not a placebo effect.

Caffeine, it turns out, actually works. And it is legal, one of the few performance enhancers that is not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

So even as sports stars from baseball players to cyclists to sprinters are pilloried for using performance enhancing drugs, one of the best studied performance enhancers is fine for them or anyone else to use. And it is right there in a cup of coffee or a can of soda. 

Exercise physiologists have studied caffeine’s effects in nearly every iteration: Does it help sprinters? Marathon runners? Cyclists? Rowers? Swimmers? Athletes whose sports involve stopping and starting like tennis players? The answers are yes and yes and yes and yes.

Starting as long ago as 1978, researchers have been publishing caffeine studies. And in study after study, they concluded that caffeine actually does improve performance. In fact, some experts, like Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky of McMaster University in Canada, are just incredulous that anyone could even ask if caffeine has a performance effect.

“There is so much data on this that it’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s just unequivocal that caffeine improves performance. It’s been shown in well-respected labs in multiple places around the world.”

The only new questions were how it exerts its effects and how little caffeine is needed to get an effect.

For many years, researchers thought the sole reason people could exercise harder and longer after using caffeine was that the compound helped muscles use fat as a fuel, sparing the glycogen stored in muscles and increasing endurance. But there were several hints that something else was going on. For example, caffeine improved performance even in short intense bursts of exercise when endurance is not an issue.

Now, Dr. Tarnopolsky and others report that caffeine increases the power output of muscles by releasing calcium that is stored in muscle. The effect can enable athletes to keep going longer or to go faster in the same length of time. Caffeine also affects the brain’s sensation of exhaustion, that feeling that it’s time to stop, you can’t go on any more. That may be one way it improves endurance, Dr. Tarnopolsky said. 

The performance improvement in controlled laboratory settings can be 20 to 25 percent, Dr. Tarnopolsky said. But in the real world, including all comers, the improvement may average about 5 percent, still significant if you want to get your best time or even win a race.

For years, researchers believed that you needed about 5 to 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. An 80-kilogram, or 176-pound man, for example, would need about 400 milligrams of caffeine, or 20 ounces of coffee. 

Now, Louise M. Burke, the head of sports nutrition department of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, reports that athletes get the full caffeine effect with as little as 1 milligram of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. Instead of 20 ounces of coffee, a 176-pound man could drink 4 ounces of coffee, or about two 12-ounce cans of Coke. 

It’s also possible to get diminishing returns.

Terry Graham, chairman of the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences of the University of Guelph in Canada, found that at 9 milligrams per kilogram, athletes actually did worse. 

Many athletes and coaches are not caffeine fans. Mr. Johnson said he has tried to spread the word and gets frustrated when runners don’t use caffeine — so much so, he said, that when he sees the team his brother coaches at Cornell, he thinks, why aren’t they all going to Starbucks?

Mike Perry, a friend who is a sculler who has competed nationally and internationally, said that, with one exception, the rowers he knew did not use caffeine.

“People would have psychological issues with using it,” he said. “They would see it as against the spirit of the law, even though it’s not against the law."

Still, Mr. Perry wondered whether caffeine would help him. When he retired from rowing last July, he decided to do a randomized, blinded, placebo-controlled experiment on himself.

He noticed that the 200-milligram caffeine pills look exactly like vitamin C pills, allowing him to code the pills so that he would not know which one he had taken. For eight months he tested himself once a week, taking two pills an hour before working out on a rowing machine. Then he worked as hard as he could for an hour, recording the results, also recording his guess about whether the pills he took contained caffeine. Mr. Perry, who also is a runner, said that an hour on the rowing machine is the equivalent of an hour of very fast running on the road.

When he finished his study and broke the code late last month, he was astonished to see how much the caffeine had affected him. He was stronger — his power output was 3 percent greater — and faster. In fact, he said the average speed for his tests when he used caffeine was faster than his fastest speed when he was not using caffeine.

He also guessed right most of the time about whether the pills he took were caffeine or vitamin C. Mr. Perry said he is now sorry that he never used caffeine when he was competing. “It would have been a pretty harmless way to do better,” he said.

Others, including my son Stefan, disagree. I urged Stefan to try caffeine and he did. Once.

He took a caffeine pill before a track workout that involved running a mile very quickly, resting briefly, and running a mile again, repeatedly. Like Mr. Johnson, he was wired and shaking. But, Stefan said, he could not recover between miles. His heart was pounding and just would not slow down. He said he has no desire to experience that again.

Then there is the problem my running partner Jen Davis and I have. We love coffee and probably have caffeine in our blood all the time except during the middle of the night (it lasts for hours).

SO would we do better if we weaned ourselves from caffeine and then took a pill or two before a race? 

I asked Dr. Tarnopolsky. It turns out, he said, that you get habituated to two of caffeine’s effects right away. Caffeine can make you urinate, but only if you are not used to it.

“Athletes do not get dehydrated from caffeine,” he added, “contrary to popular myth.”

And caffeine does increase the heart rate and blood pressure in people who are not regular uses. “But after three or four days, that potentially negative effect is gone,” Dr. Tarnopolsky said. 

The beneficial effects on exercise, though, remain. Even if you are a regular coffee drinker, if you have a cup of coffee before a workout or a race, you will do better, Dr. Tarnopolsky said. “There is no question about it,” he added. 

He puts the caffeine research to use when he trains and competes. Dr. Tarnopolsky is an elite triathlete, ski orienteer and trail runner who has competed at national and international levels. And, he said, he loves coffee: “I love the smell. I love the taste. It’s heaven.”

And before a race? He always has a cup.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Book List Refreshed!

I've refreshed the selection of books on my "Currently reading..." list.

I have removed:

Bottlemania by Elizabeth Royte
Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart by Gerd Gigerenzer et al.
What They Teach You at Harvard Business School by Philip Delves Broughton
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I have added:

Neuromancer by William Gibson (fiction, I know, a departure for me)
Elsewhere, USA by Dalton Conley
Beef by Andrew Rimas and Evan Fraser
China Shakes the World by James Kynge

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Signs that the government still doesn't get it

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (the Singapore equivalent of the Federal Reserve) is offering subsidies to banks and financial institutions to take on newly minted graduates.

This is a primo indicator that the government still hasn't internalized the full extent of this economic crisis, just as the economic forecasts have been decidedly 'optimistic'.

Several non mainstream media commentators in the econoblogosphere have argued that the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) economy is likely to contract permanently (at least in the USA), because of the debt-fueled indulgences of the past.

Yet the MAS continues to support the employment of finance graduates despite finance being clearly headed for a secular downturn. Without the leverage of the recent past, or the hands-off lack of regulation, or the relentlessly running securitization machine or the endless spinning of the prices of financial assets into the stratosphere, it's going to be difficult for finance to return to its pillaging glory days.

There is of course space for the government to intervene in the job market: that's why we throw billions of dollars into biomedical research, to build a nascent biomedical industry (not that that's entirely ok, that's a different post for another day). But finance isn't a fledgling industry still struggling to prove its worth.

The irony is, when it's jobs in the manufacturing line or other related industries, the government doesn't try to shore up employment there. Instead, we advocate re-training and re-skilling through our alphabet soup of work skill development programs. We don't try to save jobs in these industries because they're "sunset industries" that are suffering from "structural unemployment".

Funny you don't hear structural unemployment and finance in the same sentence these days. If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, ...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"The Secrets of the Talent Scouts"

Long but cool article here.

Thein Sein visit redux

As expected, the Straits Times published a very short newsbite today, buried in the Home section, on Thein Sein's visit to Singapore, post a news release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Absolutely no word on the orchid naming debacle though.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Singapore to name orchid after Burmese junta leader"

You just can't make this stuff up.

See here too if you like your news local.

And if it's lost on anyone why we shouldn't be bestowing the privilege of orchid-naming on a much reviled dictator, despite him being a visiting dignitary and it being tradition, imagine how slighted every other dignitary who had an orchid named after them would feel now that they have something in common with Thein Sein. I don't know about you, but if I were Princess Diana, I would be turning in my grave right about now.

And if I were working at Nparks, particularly the person presenting the orchid to said dictator, it would be a sad sad day indeed.

Aside, now that the news of Thein Sein's visit is starting to get widely noted in the non-mainstream media, I wonder whether our local media will start to at least acknowledge the state visit by Thein Sein to Singapore, just to put their own spin on it. It should happen tomorrow or in the next few days, if the 2-day hypothesis holds. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

And so it begins...

The race for competitive devaluation is just beginning. Not that the US dollar is such a paragon of virtue. Despite its "strength", the US dollar is better described as the least bad of all currencies, excepting perhaps a certain shiny yellow metal (which does NOT construe a recommendation on my part in any way). 

Competitive devaluation could be a precursor for what every government around the world is exhorting everyone else not to do: protectionism.

Really? If paying down debt is also called savings, then I contend that explicit policies designed to encourage exports is also known as ... protectionism.

And the next thing to happen after protectionism is a global slowdown in trade, not that that isn't happening already.

For countries dependent on world trade, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Recession Fatigue

If you're experiencing "recession fatigue", as in you're sick of all the bad news in the economy, stock market, job market, real estate market, you had better sit tight. Things aren't going to return to 'normal' anytime soon.

This is rapidly shaping up to the worst recession in a generation and will probably influence the zeitgeist for the coming decade ahead.

The financial crisis is feeding off the economic crisis and is in turn fueling the economic crisis through one giant positive feedback loop. And embedded in this giant feedback loop are hundreds of other little vortices that are like tiny positive feedback loops acting in concert.

And we thought the big bank bailouts were the end of it. Heck, no. For the Singaporeans who care about such things, you can safely assume that our sovereign wealth fund investments in Citigroup are essentially worth zero already; Citigroup the global entity is effectively insolvent. That's in spite of the spin that we're paring losses. Further dilution of common equity through "preprivatization" or at the very least, more capital injections by the US government, is almost certain for sure.

And Singapore's exports driven growth model works just as well on the downside as it does on the upside. The problem is, we were so successful at it that every other Asian country jumped onto the exporting bandwagon, independently or not. It's now a really crowded ride. 

How are the economic numbers going to turn out in the near future of the next one or two years? If you live in the USA, you want to read this.

For Singapore, I'll take a wild stab at guessing the numbers. And the operative word here is guessing.

5% contraction in GDP and unemployment in the high single digits (~9%).

"Japan’s Crisis of the Mind"

From The New York Times
Op-Ed Contributor:
Published: March 1, 2009 
Yokohama, Japan

RECENT events mark Japan’s return to the world’s stage, or at least so it seems. Tokyo was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s inaugural overseas destination. Last week, Prime Minister Taro Aso was the first foreign leader to visit the Obama White House. All this suggests that Washington sees Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, as a powerful nation. If only we saw ourselves the same way.

The truth is, Japan is a mess. Mr. Aso’s approval rate recently hit 11 percent, and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party is in open disarray. His predecessor barely lasted a year. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan just offers more of the same. This is largely because we have become a nation of bureaucrats. What passes for national policy is the sum of various ministerial interests, often conflicting or redundant, with jealously guarded turfs and budgets. 

There can be no justification for all those mostly unused airports. Or for roads that lead nowhere. Or for the finance minister who appeared to be drunk at the Group of 7 meeting this month in Rome. Our problem is so deep that it sometimes seems that no political party can tame the bureaucracy and put in place a coherent national agenda.

But what most people don’t recognize is that our crisis is not political, but psychological. After our aggression — and subsequent defeat — in World War II, safety and predictability became society’s goals. Bureaucrats rose to control the details of everyday life. We became a nation with lifetime employment, a corporate system based on stable cross-holdings of shares, and a large middle-class population in which people are equal and alike. 

Conservative pundits here like to speak of this equality and sameness as being cornerstones of “Japanese” tradition. Nonsense. Throughout much of its history, Japan has had social stratification and great inequality of wealth and privilege. The “egalitarian” Japan was a creature of the 1970s, with its progressive taxation, redistribution of wealth, subsidies and the dampening of competition through regulation. This all seemed to work just fine until our asset-price bubble popped in the 1990s. Today, the hemmed-in Japanese seem satisfied with the knowledge that everyone around them is equally unhappy.

Since the middle of the 19th century, our economic success has relied on the availability of outside models from which to choose. Our model for social security took inspiration from Bismarck’s Germany, state planning from the Soviet Union, public works from the Tennessee Valley Authority, automobile assembly and manufacturing from Ford. Much of Japanese innovation has involved perfecting what others have created. Sony is famous for its Walkman, but it didn’t invent the tape recorder. Japan’s rise to economic greatness was basically a game of catch-up with the advanced West.

So what happened once we caught up? Over the past two decades, the answer has largely been paralysis. Japan’s ability to imitate outside models was mistaken for progress. But if progress is defined by pursuing a vision of a desirable future, then the Japanese never progressed. What we had was a concept of order and placement, which is essentially stasis.

In the West, on the other hand, the idea of progress rests on establishing individual autonomy and liberty. In Japan, bureaucratic rule offered security and predictability — in exchange for personal freedom. The problem is that our current political leaders can’t keep their side of the bargain. Employment security can no longer be guaranteed. The national pension and health plans seem to be insolvent in the long run. People feel both insecure and unfree.

Signs of despair are everywhere. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates among rich countries. There may be as many as one million “hikikomori,” from teenagers to those in their 40s, who shut themselves in their rooms for years on end. Then there are all those “parasite singles” — or unmarried adults living with their parents. But by far our most serious problem is a declining and aging population. Given present trends, total population will likely decline from around 130 million to under 90 million in 50 years or so. By that same time, 40 percent of Japanese could be over 65.

If we want to survive as a nation, we must shed our deeply rooted resistance to immigration. Contrary to widespread prejudices in favor of keeping Japan “pure,” we desperately need to dilute our blood. Our aging nation will need millions of university-educated middle-class immigrants with high productivity, people who will put down roots and raise families, whose pride and success will be the affirmation of new Japanese values. 

Japan desperately needs change, and this will require risk. Risk-taking is not common among the bureaucratically controlled. You won’t find many signs on Japanese beaches saying, “Swim at your own risk. No lifeguard on duty.” If that sign were to appear, many Japanese would likely ask the authorities to tell them if it is safe to swim. This same risk aversion translates into protectionism and insularity. The ministry of agriculture, for example, wants to increase self-sufficiency in food. There is not nearly enough critical thinking and dissent in the Japanese news media. 

Still, the idea that the Japanese are afraid of risk has no basis in history, for better or for worse. Remember Pearl Harbor? In fact, Japan’s passiveness today is in large measure a calculated and reasonable reaction to its behavior during the Second World War. But today, this emphasis on safety and security is long past its sell-by date.

We have run out of outside models to imitate. We must start from scratch, embracing an idea of progress that is based on innovation, ambition and dynamism. Doing so will take risk — and extraordinary leadership. But the alternative is to continue stumbling down a path of decline.

Masaru Tamamoto is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.