Monday, April 21, 2014

Why the Fuss over Piketty?

Prof. Thomas Piketty, Paris School of
Economics, author of "Capitalism..."
Prof. Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics has been on a triumphal tour of the U.S. media to promote the new translation from French of his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2014).  What's the fuss?

The closest analogy would be to the publication of John Maynard Keynes's General Theory, which in 1936 provided a way of thinking about monetary and fiscal policy that provided an economic rationale for the massive injection of monetary liquidity that was engineered by FDR and his first Treasury Secretary, Will Woodin, and the Federal budget deficits that followed.

Reportedly economists were awed then by the way Keynes solved several problems at once. Piketty has done the same thing for the discussion of income inequality.

But don't take my word for it. Paul Krugman has published several blogposts on Piketty's book, and his review of it appears in the May 8 issue of The New York Review of Books, entitled "Why We're in a New Gilded Age." Krugman sees several stages in the debate over inequality:

First, denial that rising inequality was happening on any major scale. Because of a stream of new data, sometime in the early 1990s
you could mostly say, “Oh, yeah? Guess what.” The evidence for a sharp rise in inequality [since 1975], a definitive break with the three postwar decades, was overwhelming.
Second, denial that those who were getting richer was a small group.  The whole top 20 percent, it was said, i.e., well-educated Americans, were getting richer.
But at a certain point — to a large extent thanks to Piketty and Emmanuel Saez [at Berkeley] — we got to say “Oh, yeah? Guess what.” Actually, rising inequality was in large part about the rise of a tiny elite, the one percent and within that the 0.1 percent.
Third, denial that the ones getting richest fastest were a tiny elite as in the Gilded Age.
The answer [from Piketty] was, “Oh, yeah? Guess what.” We don’t have Gilded Age* survey data, but we do have tax records back to the early 20th century, and top income shares are right back at late-Gilded-Age levels.
In his review of Piketty's book in the NY Review of Books, Krugman gives credit to Piketty for the increased interest in income inequality and above all in the focus on the top 1 percent. He also credits Saez and Anthony Atkinson at Oxford.

Piketty's bottom-line message, says Krugman, is that the United States is on a path back to
"patrimonial capitalism" in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.
Krugman gives credit to Piketty for using tax records to go back before survey data on incomes were generated by the Census Bureau and other agencies. This takes the United States back to 1913 and Britain back to 1909. France has wealth-tax records going back to the French Revolution.

Piketty's essential theory is that if workers can be replaced easily by machines, the rate of return to capital (r) will exceed the rate of growth (g) and this will lead to greater concentration of wealth.

Krugman thinks this is a terrific theory but he and Piketty both have this nagging concern that maybe the higher inequality of income resulting from "supersalaries" could be a significant factor. But the onus for this goes back to the U.S. government for lowering the tax rate, making the marginal increase in incomes worth the time of CEOs to pursue.

The drift toward oligarchy is not inevitable, but both Piketty and Krugman think it is probable. This will be comforting for you, or afflicting, depending on your point of view. But, as Krugman says, with the publication of this book "we'll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to."

* Some writers use "Gilded Age" as largely synonymous with "Belle Epoque". The advantage of using "Gilded Age" is multiple - it doesn't require an acute accent over the E in Epoque, it doesn't require the reader to know anything about a complicated period of European history, and it refers to American robber barons that we all know about, like Andrew Carnegie. The main difference in the timing is that the Belle Epoque starts in the early 1870s and goes all the way to World War I, whereas the Gilded Age stops with the end of the 19th Century or maybe with the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 (in those days, finance still revolved around London).

P.S. The CityEconomist Blogpost just clicked over 75,000 page views. Thank you for reading!!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Food Biz: The Irony of Tasting Menus

Dover on Court Street, Brooklyn - Battersby #2 and one
of the "Hottest 10" restaurants in NYC, spring 2014. 
The new-restaurant excitement in New York City is focused on Brooklyn, as evidenced, for example by Battersby.

The four of us (Alice and I, and Caroline and Francis) recently went for dinner to Dover, on 412 Court Street in Brooklyn.  

Dover has been open six months and is now fully staffed. It is restaurant #2 of the owners of Battersby, and it is bigger, newer and more likely to be able to seat you, although it too is getting discovered fast. Like Battersby, it is getting top reviews. It is in the "Hottest 10" NYC restaurants for the spring 2014 put out by Zagat every quarter. Can Bon Appetit be far behind?

The tasting menu looked good and I was ready to go for it. You pay a little more, and you get the deep thinking of the chef, who puts together the selections. Wines are also paired with the food. The tasting menu is certainly tailor-made for people who don’t like making a whole slew of decisions at the end of a long day and want to get an idea of what a restaurant can do, at one sitting.

But... it dawned on me... for a group of four, a tasting menu ironically gives you less to taste. The typical requirement of a tasting menu is that everyone at the table must have the same food. That rule taketh away some of the value that the number of tasting portions giveth. You end up getting less exposure to the menu than if you just pick a la carte and share some of the food that looks good.

The four of us got to taste 14 dishes on the a la carte menu. We had wine as well, for less than $100 per person before the tip. To taste seven dishes on the tasting menu we would have paid about the same and paired wines would have been extra.

My take (I'm looking for insights into the Food Biz):
  • For two people, one of whom is going to get the bill and is trying to impress the other, the tasting menu is perfect!
  • For four people, a tasting menu doesn't offer enough variety.  In my view, restaurants with tasting menus should require the first two at the table to get the tasting menu, but then they should relax the requirement or offer more choices.

Financial Advice for People Who Are Not Rich

The Journal of 
Financial Education
In 1969 I moved to New York City with a Ph.D. in hand to be a finance professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

During the next few years I was continually surprised by the gap between the sophistication of financial theories and the primitive misunderstanding of financial markets among the general public.

In 1972 I decided to do something to help improve financial literacy and  started a new journal, the The Journal of Financial Education. I wrote a letter to members of an association of university-level finance teachers and got a response rate of about 10 percent.  Now, 52 years later, the journal is still going strong.

At that time, a popular view was the idea that the stock market was a "random walk". Princeton Professor Burton Malkiel's book with those words in the title appeared in 1973. Getting an edge on the market legally was thought to be difficult or impossible. What carried investors was a general rise in the stock market, not so much anyone's ability to predict a particular stock. Along with the potential of more return went greater risk and at the end of the day you paid for your greater potential with more volatility, and one balanced off the other.

My view today is that it is possible to do better than the average investor, through
  • Better and faster information and execution of trades
  • Smarter investment analysis.
  • Activities that are illegal but are not enforced. 
  • Activities that should be illegal but are not.
Michael Lewis's new book on the Flash Boys shows how front-running makes huge profits even if the advance information is only a matter of fractions of seconds. Traders make a profit by being ahead of the market. Large profits are possible at the expense of slower traders.

The problem for the small investor is figuring out how they should proceed, with questions like:
  • Who are the smarter money managers?
  • Are they leaving anything for their clients after they take their fees and profit shares?
People who can't beat the market when they pick stocks on their own are unlikely to be able to pick with any assurance the best money market managers, offering reasonable rates. Index funds came into fashion, led by Vanguard and its founder Jack Bogle, as a way of keeping down the cost of mutual funds. That's one option, minimize trading and money management fees.

Finding financial advisers without a stake in your decision are another alternative. But these advisers in the past have only been interested in middle-sized and large investors. Now there are new start-ups that offer financial advice for smaller investors

Three cheers. It's about time that the little guys had more choices in how they are guided in making decisions.

The Food Biz: NYC's 10 "Hottest" Restaurants

Empire Diner in Chelsea - You Can
Be a Hot Venue with a Tiny Kitchen! 
The Spring 2014 edition of the quarterly report from Zagat, written by Kelly Dobkin, came out last month. Brooklyn (2) came in second after Greenwich Village (5) in the number of restaurants mentioned.

Chelsea, Harlem and the Lower East Side each got one restaurant. Missing boroughs: Bronx, Queens, Staten Island.

Analyzing by type of food, two were "American" and the other eight were described as: New American, Mexican, Sushi, "Diner", Italian, Mediterranean, Seafood, and French.

What interests me from the business side is that the Empire Diner has of necessity a small kitchen and it still manages to get itself into the top 10 list for hot restaurants.

1 The Cecil
American • Harlem 

2  Mission Cantina
Mexican • Lower East Side

3  Dover
New American • Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

4 Sushi Nakazawa
Sushi • West Village 

5 Empire Diner
Diner • Chelsea

6 All'onda
Italian • Greenwich Village

7 Margaux
Mediterranean • Greenwich Village

8 The Clam
Seafood • West Village

9 Narcissa Restaurant
American • East Village

10 French Louie
French • Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Food Biz: Brooklyn's Innovation Tops Charts

Battersby, Carroll Gardens,
Brooklyn. Ranked #3 in USA in 2012.
How important are Brooklyn restaurants in the U.S. food economy? To hear some of my young friends talk, Brooklyn is where the action is, the most innovative chefs.

Some numbers support the idea that Brooklyn is rapidly becoming a much bigger presence in the cuisine scene. In 1992, the Zagat guide included only 22 restaurants in Brooklyn. Two decades later, the number has increased ten-fold to 217.

Manhattan remains nearly ten times bigger, with 1,745 restaurants, but its restaurants have a secure clientele with the business-lunch and business-dinner crowd, who may not be looking for much innovation. Manhattan accounts for seven-tenths of the New York City economy, so it naturally captures the lunch-time epicureans.

But Brooklyn has has far more residents - 2.6 million vs. 1.6 million in Manhattan. And Brooklyn has been growing faster. Since 2010, it grew by 3.5 percent vs. 2.5 percent in Manhattan.  Queens, by the way, is also bigger than Manhattan, with 2.3 million, and has been growing faster, 2.9 percent, but it is not to the same extent as Brooklyn a magnet for young urban professionals.

Brooklyn's restaurants are catching on to the fact that they have sophisticated diners living nearby and with a little effort they can grab some of the dinner crowd away from Manhattan by offering something new. Many leading new restaurants in Brooklyn are open only for dinner. One advertises its opening hour as 5:30 pm, seven days per week, with closing at 11 pm every day except Sunday, when it is 10 pm.

With this background, it may not be so surprising that in the last two years the only New York City restaurants among Bon Appetit's Top 10 Best New Restaurants in the USA have been in Brooklyn. In 2012, the Top 10 included two restaurants from Brooklyn - Blanca (#2) in Williamsburg and Battersby (#3) in Carroll Gardens - and none from the other four boroughs. In 2013, the Top 10 included Aska in Brooklyn and again none from the other four boroughs.

The six runner-up cities, with two restaurants in the combined 2012 and 2013 lists, were Atlanta (one in its satellite city Decatur), Houston, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. The other five cities, represented by one restaurant each in the two years, are Austin, Chicago, Minneapolis, Nashville and Seattle.

Manhattan is represented on the list, which is prepared by Andrew Knowlton for August publication each year, with five restaurants over the two years among the top 50 Best New Restaurants - Atera, Carbone, Lafayette, NoMad and Pearl & Ash.