Archive

Krugman


Not only did FAU host the ASCE southeast regional competition in March, but I have had a big deadline – my next book is due the end of this month to the publisher.  That has taken a lot of time, and I have had several issues divert my attention at critical junctures.  Fortunately the book is nearly complete.  I should meet the deadline.  This book should be topical.  It is about infrastructure management.  JRoss is the published and with a little luck it will be out in time for the holiday sin 2017.  Very good stuff.  The first part of the book focuses on the benefits=of infrastructure tot eh economy.  They are intrinsically lined although there is an interesting research project needed to study how much infrastructure creates economic growth and how much growth requires more investments.  Is there a point of diminishing returns.  Paul Krugman may want to weigh in as I did quote him a couple times.  Then the local systems are discussed – what can happen, maintenance needs etc.  Water, sewer, stormwater roads are featured. Lots of pictures and some means to autopsy the issues.  The rest of the book looks are how to develop a system to manage the assets, value them, evaluate condition and fund improvements.  Work order are really important for causal factors.  What fails, and how often.  I think we can predict the problems.  My initial analysis, included in the book says we can with limited data.  Going back to those Bayesian roots.  Another project I would like to look at.  Finding the next Flint is a third project.  So many ideas, so little time (and no money to get support).  The solutions will involve leadership, so I did insert some future risks and past “what could possible go wrong” issues.  Sorry Flint, you made the cut, but so did Alamosa, Walkerton, midwestern power companies, and my friends in St. Pete.  But instructively I hope.  The book is aimed at professionals, but a student teaching guide will be developed this summer for use in the classroom.  Should be fun.  700+ references. And I could add so much more, but I think it will diminish the usefulness.  No doubt it will make the best seller list – looking forward to my name on the NY Times best seller list.  LOL.   Or at least sell enough copies to make JRoss interested in another book.  But seriously it should prove interesting.

 

Advertisements

My cousin  once asked me what I thought about deciding on who to vote for for President might be best done when evaluating how well your 401K or investments did.  Kind of an amusing thought.  In that vein the decisions might be very different than they were.  Clearly your 401k did with with Clinton.  The economy was flat for George W. Bush, and the end of his term was the Great Recession.  Reagan’s first term was flat.  We all know about George H.W. Bush.  Interesting thoughts.  Not so good.  So what about the last 8 years?   But is raises a more interesting issue.  So don’t get me wrong, this blog is not intended to lobby for any candidate (and Obama can’t run), but it is interesting to look at the last 8 years.  They have been difficult.   The economy responded slowly.  Wages did not rebound quickly.  But in comparison to 2008 are we better off?

The question has relevance for utilities because if our customers are better off, that gives us more latitude to do the things we need – build reserves (so we have funds for the next recession), repair/replace infrastructure (because unlike fine wine, it is not improving with age), improve technology (the 1990s are long gone), etc., all things that politicians have suppressed to comport with the challenges faced by constituents who have been un- or under-employed since 2008.

Economist Paul Krugman makes an interesting case in a recent op-ed in the New York times:  (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/yes-he-did/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Opinion&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs&region=Body).  Basically he summarizes the figure below which shows that unemployment is back to pre-2008 levels, and income is back to that point.  Some income increase would have been good, but this basically tracks with the Bush and Reagan years for income growth – flat.  So the question now is in comparison to 2008 are we worse off that we were?  And if not, can we convince leaders to move forward to meet our needs?  Can we start funding some of the infrastructure backlog?  Can we modernize?  Can we create “smarter networks?”  Can we adjust incomes to prevent more losses of good employees?  Can we improve/update equipment?  All issues we should contemplate in the coming budget.

Krugman Income percent

 


“If the assumption of all economists, government officials and investors is that the population must increase exponentially, what does that suggest for our future?” was a question asked a few days back.  Did you ponder this at all?  I suggest we should and here is why.  An exponential growth rate assumes a certain percent increase every year.  That means the increase in population is greater the farther out you go.  That doesn’t really make sense except perhaps at one point in Las Vegas (but not anymore).  The economy cannot really expand at a rate greater than the expansion of the population because there is no one to buy the goods or increase the demand, which is why increasing the US population is going to be viewed favorably by all politicians regardless what they say today.  House values do not increase faster than population increase unless they are in a bubble, nor does the stock market really (inflation adjusted).  Your water sales will not increase faster than your system’s population increase for any extended period of time either, so an assumption of ever increasing water sales is likely to be an overestimation sooner as opposed to later.  And then what – you have to raise rates, and keep raising rates to keep up because your demands are too low?

And what if your growth stagnates, or goes backwards as many did in 2009/2010?  That was a severe problem for most entities, causing layoffs and higher prices, pay cuts and deferral of needed improvements, mostly because no one had reserves because people thought the good times would roll on forever.  Layoffs, price hikes, pay cuts and deferral of needed improvements do help society (of course if you had lots of reserves, you weathered the recession without a problem, but too many did not).  Keep in mind the repair, replacement, and maintenance needs, along with ongoing deterioration, do not diminish with time or lack of new customers.  We have relied on new people to add money to solve old as well as new problems for many years.  What is the contingency if growth stops?

So a growth scenario makes us feel better and more confident when we borrow funds.  But if growth does not stop, where is the water to come from?  What are the resources that will be used faster?  Where does the power come from to treat the water or cool the houses?  And the cooling water to cool those power plants?  Even renewable resources are limited – most metals and oil have likely passed their peaks as far as production and water does not always fall consistently.  We have overstressed aquifers and over allocated surface waters, especially in the west.  So while growth makes us feel good financially, we need answers to the growth scenario despite the fact that we may have more funding.  Many resources are not limitless, but an exponential growth pattern ignores this.  Locally growth maybe less of an issue, but society wise?  Maybe a societal problem, or maybe we get into extreme completion with each other.  Some how that doesn’t look like a solution either


We have talked about reserves, the need for them, reasons why they are neglected and how to establish appropriate numbers (an area where more research is needed).  Reserves are an issue when the economy tanks.  We all recall the problem in 2008, but this is where utilities need to look beyond just their system to see what might be coming.  2008 was a problem that we should have seen coming, or at least planned for, but did not.  But it means that we need to look at the national and local economic picture and understand a little about events beyond our reach that can affect us.  Utilities and governments generally do not do this well. 

In 2005-2007, it was very clear we had a property bubble going on.  There was discussion on the news, financial channels, Wall Street Journal and even columns by economist like Paul Krugman.  A few of us may have taken advantage of the bubble through prudent real estate sales, but many did not.  Likewise, few utilities or governments planned for its inevitable fall.  After the crunch hit, those who owed the least amount of money, had savings and had stable incomes fared better than those who did not.  Same for governments.  Unfortunately most Americans and most governments fell into the “did not” category. 

So let’s look at a couple issues.  First, we knew there was a bubble and should know that all bubbles pop.  We had the tech stock bubble in the late 1990s.  People on Wall Street knew that the investments had turned to real estate and bankers where busy loaning money out with no interest for two years, no money down, adjustable rate mortgages and the like.  If you owned a computer you were inundated with Countryside and various other folks trying to loan you money.  Or buy your house and pay you an annuity if you were older. 

The reason that these “opportunities” were so prevalent was to help speculators who expected to own the property for short periods of time, or help those who might not have the means to buy time to get the means to support the payments.  All the subsequent financial instruments discussed in books like “Too Big to Fail” come from tools used by bankers to disperse the risk associated with speculators and the risky.  It made money for bankers and investment houses (remember they are private businesses beholden to their private stockholders). 

Like all bubbles, we get caught up in the money being made by speculators (and yes if you invest in the stock market you are speculating).  We try to grab onto the rising instruments to get ahead, but we forget that especially with real estate, the growth overall rate across the nation could only grow at the rate of population growth.  It is basic supply and demand. 

For governments, revenues rise, especially during real estate bubbles.  Some bubbles last for years, which creates a distorted view of the future.  In south Florida, there was a lot of buzz concerning water supply projections and arguments between regulatory staff and utilities over water supplies that were projected 20 years in the future, based on demand projections from 2000-2005.  When the dust settled in 22011, most of those issued disappeared because virtually all projections were substantially revised downward.  And most revenue growth projections were likewise revised downward and capacity needs delayed.  Planning 20 years out is historically inaccurate because the global economy can impact local growth.

Of course these new projections are incorrect as well.  Because the test period was 2005-2010 or 2000- 2010, the growth is stunted.  So they are likely underestimating demand and revenues.  Uncertainty with time means that the accuracy of projection decreases with time.  As a result, simply relying on past projection methods increases risk that of significant deviations.

I do an exercise n class where I give students three sets of projections.  10 years apart, for 50 years.  I tell them nothing else.  The examples are The State of Nevada, Cleveland, and Collier County, FL.  All are in the past (Cleveland is 1910-1950) There is absolutely no easy method that can project the growth in either Collier County or the State of Nevada, or that Cleveland’s population will drop in half. We could do the same with Detroit and never project that decrease either.  But when you tell them where the population are and what year, the wheels start to turn.  They realize that economics is a major issue.  While Nevada and Collier grew from 1960-2000, the rate of change is likely to be very different in 2010 to 2020 due to the 2008 recession. 

Tracking economic activity is a utility responsibility.  We need to know what is really happening, and understand bubbles.  We need to recognize that when property values and housing number increase fast, it will be short term.  Plan for savings and reserves.  Figure out what your recovery period might be.  We need to understand our economic base.  For example try this out and see what your conclusion is.  Florida’s economy is based on three major industries: agriculture, tourism and housing.  What could possibly go wrong with that model?  Well if we have an economic problem nationally, 2 of 3 take major hits because people outside the state do not travel to Florida and retirements get put off.  The economy gets hit hard and recovery is slow.  We have experienced that exact phenomenon from 2009 to date.  And many of those jobs are low wage positions which means the people who struggle most get hit hardest.  Storm events can impact the state.  Bit hits to all three, and agriculture is also a low wage industry.  It is a precarious economic model that sets itself up for potential fluctuations.  We need to plan for this.  It is our responsibility, utility staff and decision-makers to plan and prepare for the next big event.  

%d bloggers like this: