Steak Intelligence

Orlando Roncesvalles

In a celebrated movie (When Harry Met Sally), we are treated to a reverential dig at the leisure habits of the first world. Restaurants in the ‘80s were, according to Nora Ephron’s writer-philosopher character, what the theater was in the ‘60s. That, after all the angst suffered by English departments in the ’60’s, was an inevitable consequence of the oft-repeated idea that the theater had died. If you believe pop music, even that (music) died when Buddy Holly took that damned plane. Why is life so tough? We don’t really know, but from today’s gadget-driven internet of things, we realize that whining is part of the human condition, amplified by social media but dulled by the haptic syndrome of touch screens, or even (by now anyway) accepted, without a nasty retort by the likes of Siri and Alexa. Machines can substitute for psychotherapists if you know how to tweak settings.

Tough is however that thing we do not accept in certain things. The night has to be tender. Terms of endearment also must be. Criticism directed at our significant others must be delivered sotto voce. And, of course, steak must with a capital T be Tender. Thus, Anthony Bourdain expressed his disdain for the despicable heathens who order their steak well done. Chefs welcome such arrogant ignorance because they can get rid of mis-delivered meat without offending a free-spending type (usually on a business account, if not using plundered funds as though that never went out of style).

What does it take to get steak tender? According to Guenther Sanin of Casablanca Boulevard fame, it must be aged and just so. Our tourism honchos don’t understand this. They ought to be bringing in technology so we would do our aging locally, but they seem fixated on media contracts and duty-free shopping. That’s what we get when we have the best and brightest officials. Tough steak. But who cares? Our lucky officials travel to exotic places, outside the country, to get their beef. Lucky them. But I exaggerate.

A steak ought to sing for itself without a backup band of exotic sauces. A-1 will hate me for saying this, but they sell something to hide the fact that we couldn’t afford the best cut, and have to do with a little ‘taste enhancement.’ A-1 is good at what it does, so give it credit. Still, I remember that a good steak-frite combo could be had in the ‘80s in a now-gone place called Le Steak in Georgetown (that place by the Potomac River), and it came de rigeur with Béarnaise. So I asked Guenther why Béarnaise sauce appears almost incognito hereabouts. The answer was that it was too special a sauce to make, and it would eat up too much expertise and good butter to be just right, though you can try some from a cheap substitute fix served up by Amazon. Basically, for authentic Béarnaise, you need expert whisking.

How often can one indulge in a steak? The answer is ‘not too often,’ because, as the cardio experts say, it can clog up those arteries. There are remedies. I had a German mission chief who lined up his statins soon after he ordered the best steak in the best restaurant in Tripoli, Libya. Then there’s also red wine. Why white wine pales is a mystery I have not explored; I look for a good Cabernet and keep my counsel. But if any white wine guys can point me to a cholesterol-cutting moscato, I’d gladly take their tips under advisement.

The end matters too. What dessert goes with steak? Le Steak had something called La Surprise de Monique (an ice cream confection with candied chestnuts in the unseen bottom, hence the surprise). In another dining room in Washington, DC, it was called Coupe aux Marrons. It may still be there; just go to 700 19th St., NW. If all else fails, there’s creme brûlée (leche flan). Deciding the best creme brûlée in Dumaguete is still on my bucket list.

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Shooting Stars and Falling Peso

History

I remember a time in 2012 when many big-bank economists predicted that the Philippine peso would remain a shooting star at around P42/$ by year-end. The peso then was a ‘darling’ currency, having nicely recovered from a low of about P49/$ in the wake of the Financial Crisis of 2008. Little did the bank economists know that there would soon be a literal u-turn; the peso shortly began its doldrums to where it is today at P53/$. It hasn’t been a pretty sight for the responsible authorities at the central bank.

Historically, the peso was initially pegged at P2/$, but it would go through a series of devaluations in the 1960s through the 1980s. It strengthened in the post-martial rule era to an uncomfortably overvalued level of P26/$ under the Ramos administration before being hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. According to the noted economist Cielito Habito, the peso has since 1998 been subject to market forces, especially the movements in and out by foreign funds in our local capital markets. The peso can be said to have been ‘unwanted’ in 1999-2004 when it fell from P40/$ to $56/$. The peso was again a strengthening currency through most of 2005-2012, punctuated only by a relatively brief downturn in 2008. In a sense, the ‘bad news’ we see today and looking back to 2012-13 is a re-run of the earlier turn-of-the-century episode.

Is it TRAIN only?

A fair amount of blame is laid by some commentators on the recent tax legislation (TRAIN, or Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion act.). That can’t be the whole story, given that we can date the peso’s weakness from 2013. Moreover, it’s not easy to see a link between politics and the fortunes of the peso. Under the Estrada and Arroyo watch, the peso fell and then rose; but under the Aquino administration, it rose and then fell. It is possible that under the Duterte administration, the peso would fall and then rise. Still, it’s also fair to say that the new excise taxes and the run-up of oil prices in the world market have triggered an ‘After you, Alphonse’ effect in the pricing strategies of local oligopolies. That wages do not seem to have kept up with consumer prices is a nascent problem.

There are, to be wary, many stories about currency valuations. Gustav Cassel inspired the theory that a currency will tend to move to equalize the prices of traded goods. This Purchasing Power Parity Theory underlies the Economist magazine’s famous Macdonalds burger indices. It also helps to explain today’s peso fall as attributable to the fact that local inflation is 4.6 percent per annum, while the US inflation rate sits at 2.8 percent.

The balance of payments is a nice accounting way of conjuring up the tea leaves of supply and demand (for currency) to get to the underlying story. Our economic managers do this when they say that the peso is weak because we’re importing more for public infrastructure, we have to pay for more expensive oil, and we see hot money outflows that follow interest-rate differentials or shifting sentiment regarding the export earnings of the local economy.

BSP moves

But the exchange rate is still and also the price of an asset, and the value of a currency today reflects the markets’ best guesses of its future value. The supply of currency is nonetheless under the control of its issuer, the central bank. The issuer knows, more or less, what it wants to do, but is constrained by a need to be fair to the money-holding public. Accordingly, central banks gain credibility when their currencies are stable in the exchange markets, and when domestic inflation is low. The latter consideration has given rise to inflation targeting as good practice, something that the Bangko Sentral has adopted. We can safely guess that today’s BSP will keep a close watch on the money supply to achieve its inflation target of 4 percent (as against the latest data of 4.6 percent).

As to the stability of the peso rate, it also seems safe to believe that the BSP will not intervene to move the peso exchange in any direction, other than to counter unusually ‘wrong’ market sentiment. In other words, the BSP may ‘lean against the wind,’ but only against weak winds. I would guess that in the two months of March and April this year, the BSP did a bit of leaning against the wind.

What to expect

Will the peso then continue to weaken? Yes, if foreign investors keep fleeing, if inflation were to become uncontrolled, or if export trends deteriorate. These are three big ‘Ifs.’ Caveat emptor.

Progress and income inequality in PH

A recent Pew Research Center piece  has data on income inequality for various countries and the world.

The distribution of income in PH is as follows for 2011: 14% poor; 72% low-income; 14% middle to upper middle; and 0.2% high-income.

The global percentages are: 15% poor; 56% low-income; 22% middle to upper middle; and 7% high-income.

What might be concluded? We aren’t exactly poor, but we are predominantly low-income. That means the middle and high income groups are a minority of only 14%.

The economic challenge to those who claim they have a better mousetrap is whether they can reduce the low-income group to the global average of about 50%, raise the middle group to 30+%, while lowering the poor to 10% or below. Doable, but not easy, over the next decade.

HW for EC 11 – Macroeconomics and Unemployment

For readings, please refer to my lecture notes on macroeconomics, and to Mankiw’s chapter on the natural rate of unemployment. For extra-credit questions, you may have to do further research or readings.

Please answer the following questions, and submit your answers by email by March 2, 2016.

  1. What is the most important difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics?
  2. Explain Say’s Law. Why is it important for an understanding of macroeconomics?
  3. How does Mankiw define the natural rate of unemployment?
  4. According to Mankiw, what are the four reasons why the natural rate of unemployment is not zero? Are these reasons important in the context of the Philippine economy?
  5. It is said that macroeconomics is essentially the economics of unemployment and inflation. Why, in your opinion (based on your readings or research), do policy-makers not aim for zero unemployment and zero inflation?
  6. Extra credit: What is the Okun Index of Misery? Can it be improved by including a poverty index?
  7. Even more extra credit: Construct an Okun Misery Index for the Philippine economy. How far back in time could you go? (Hint: data may be available in the websites of BSP and IMF.) Is it affected by the prevailing economic policies of various Presidents? (Anyone – even a group of up to three – answering this question well will be exempted from taking a final exam.)
  8. Extra credit: Explain in your own words the Neoclassical Synthesis (this is from previous studies in EC 12, History of Economic Thought).

Living the lousy life of a telecom consumer

Remedies against monopoly

You can almost see  the present system of announced prices, with unannounced promos maintained by the telecoms, as a form of price discrimination, a concept familiar to students of economics.

The two aren’t quite monopolies. But for the sake of discussion only, imagine that they are a two-piece cartel, a bikini in nosebleed-speak.

What can consumers do to foil a price-discriminating monopolist/cartel?

Any interesting answers out there?

EC 11. Special HW on the stock market

Imagine that your grandparent willed you P1 million. You have decided to invest this inheritance in the Philippine stock market, specifically in only one company.

Your homework assignment is to choose that one company, and report at how much you acquired the stock (any price at which it traded in the PSE will do) in an email, and to give a short explanation for your choice.

A second part of this assignment is to report at the end of the semester how your investment did, and to give a brief explanation of how or why the outcome came about. Try to answer the following questions, based on your readings and your experience in this imaginary experiment: Are stock market investors who win just lucky? To what extent do diligence and smarts matter?

The first part is due by Friday, February 5, 2016. The second part is due on March 20.

Bitcoin as money

BITCOIN Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.04.16 AM

The following is a note found on Facebook.

Random ideas on what makes money money
by Kermit Kefafel,  Friday, January 29, 2016

Is money a public or private good? It is a private good imbued with public interest. The public goods that attach to money are the safety of the banking system and price stability, as conventionally promised by a central bank.

What are cryptocurrencies? They act as substitutes for the use of cash in untraceable transactions, the idea of Bitcoin. You can even buy bitcoins at your local 7-Eleven.

The market for Bitcoin has lately been shaken with the arrest of one of its principals; there is talk that it could collapse. Will other cryptocurrencies have the same problems?

I suspect that for a cryptocurrency to become viable, it must hurdle the trust problem — its users and holders must be assured that its supply and valuation are, in some sense, sacrosanct. That its price could bubble up and down like a financial asset is a negative. Even fiat-currency central banks pay some kind of lip service to exchange stability under the current system of floating exchange rates.

Because of the public-goods aspect of money, a stateless currency requires an enforcement mechanism that is private but viable. Does such an enforcement mechanism exist?

Or, are cryptocurrencies just another Ponzi scheme?

*******

For reference, see Lawrence White’s article in the Cato Journal.

The central bank (Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas) has issued an advisory regarding the lack of regulation on virtual currencies.

A recent assessment predicts continued growth of Bitcoin in the Philippines.