Friday, September 04, 2009

Ketchup Economics and The Problem of Valuation

Here is a long and nice article on the current macroeconomics issue by Paul Krugman. I must admit that I share the same view for some of his thoughts, particularly with respect to the misuse of economic models to explain the world and the argument that the market is perfectly efficient and can always maintain that condition. For further discussion, you can see my post here on the issues of Capitalism. To cut it short, I never believe that someone can explain how the market works through some sophisticated mathematical equations and models. Of course you need to make some calculation in economics, but don't expect that everything will work perfectly in accordance with the calculation, there are too many factors which are affecting the economics performance.

Now, let us move to today's main theme. What exactly is Ketchup Economics? According to Mr. Krugman, this is related to the assets valuation method use by finance economists in determining whether asset prices are reasonable, i.e. they don't ask whether asset prices made sense because of its real-world fundamentals like earnings, but whether asset prices made sense given other asset prices. Using Larry Summers' parable, the simplified version would be as follows: The "ketchup economists" have shown that two-quart bottles of ketchup invariably sell for exactly twice as much as one-quart bottles of ketchup, therefore they conclude from this fact that the ketchup market is perfectly efficient. Got the message?

Using the Ketchup Economists logic of thinking, the fact that the prices of certain assets are going considerably up or down in certain periods should not be questioned as long as the prices of other similar assets are going up or down together. Without a doubt, this is dangerous. But how can we blame them for making this kind of assessment? If we take the assumption that the market is truly efficient, it is useless to make a price valuation based on the fundamental aspects of the assets, since it is the market force, the supply and demand mechanism, that will determine the exact value of those assets.

Let me clarify first, while I do believe the concept of Invisible Hand, i.e. the best way to let the economy moves is by letting the force of supply and demand works automatically, I also believe that the market is not always efficient, there would always be a case where the amount of the supply or demand is too high or too low. There are many factors that can affect such amount of supply and demand, and I can assure you that not all of those reasons were made on a reasonable basis. Sometimes people are being in a state of high optimism and are willing to take more risks and then the economy moves forward, in other times people are being too pessimistic and then we're going through a recession.

Then, what could be done? To be honest, I don't know yet. Many professional economists have tried to solve the problem, but no one has ever succeeded, so I don't think that I can provide the perfect solution. However, since most victims of the current crisis are major financial institutions, I would suggest that a better supervision mechanism should be implemented by the Government in the near future. We would also need certain regulations that will encourage financial institutions to have a better assessment on their business and investment risks and to ensure that they can always maintain a prudent approach with their risk management. I was quite surprised with the collapse of some major financial institutions back in 2008, it is just ridiculous that from all the possible companies to collapse, those who should actually be the most prudent companies are the ones who were proven not prudent and therefore collapsed firstly.

In addition, since most of the major financial institutions are relying on rating companies in determining their risk of investment, it would also be helpful if the Government can start to have a meaningful discussion with major rating companies concerning their rating standards in order to create a better and more prudent rating mechanism. Further elaboration on this idea will surely be needed in the future.

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