Saturday, February 16, 2013

Off Track Economics

Precision in significant digits fascinates me.  I had the great fortune of spending considerable time with the world's leading industrial and financial policy minds this week at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  During the academic econometric presentations, a few speakers seemed to relish their use of jargon-laden formulae to reinforce their scholarly credentials.  Most were content to focus on the conclusions derived from the same.  Paradoxically, though precise in reporting subtle associations, all were stymied by the limitations imposed by data latency, inadequacy, and error.  Sadly, all were trying to force the present global economic dynamic into a neo-Keynesian industrial output and labor elixir in a feeble attempt to find the impulse that would jumpstart employment and manufacturing.  The Quixotic passion was evident and laudable.


This is a really precise number.  Its use variously evokes exuberance and dread.  Many find themselves inexplicably and hopelessly enslaved by what this number does (or doesn't) do.  When it figures into a rally, sentiment soars.  When it crashes…, well, it crashes.  This number is the legacy of Charles Dow's and Edward Jones' most memorable contribution to the speculation impulses of the 19th century - the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) first reported in 1896.  More precisely, the number is the published value of the Dow Divisor which currently exaggerates Dow component stock financial activity by a 7.68 point increase for every $1 increase in stock price.

When the DJIA was first launched, eight of the twelve stocks were commodity trading and processing firms; three were utilities; and one was a railroad industrial conglomerate.  The General Electric Corporation is the most persistent DJIA component with none of the remaining inaugural firms (some of which are now acquired within other firms) still factoring into today's numbers.  Where prior to the 1940's, the DJIA was predominantly commodity processors and infrastructure oriented manufacturers, the post-war DJIA rapidly was biased towards consumer and communications over-weights.  While adherents keep attempting to evolve the components to reflect the nature of the drivers of the economy, the DJIA, absent the media juggernaut that kept it in front of the minds of millions - namely, The Wall Street Journal - would likely have long fallen from its pedestal as one of the most emotionally charged macro indicators of market sentiment.  But does this venerated statistical model serve the purpose for which it was created?  Does it actually reflect the underlying drivers of economic value?  Far from it.

Together with my analytic team at M∙CAM, we decided to critique the DJIA using a simple criteria.  Taking the current 30 names that comprise the Dow, we measured each of them and their corporate cohort (defined by principle overlapping branding, innovation behavior, and published contracting competitiveness) to see whether the metrics evolved from the DJIA still provide an appropriate metric for the current economy.  The graph below tells the story. 

Corrected for a qualitative view of the companies that are actually more effectively managing brand, reputation, proprietary contracting and innovation, half of the Dow components are replaced!  Without altering any of the "industrial" exposure of the current DJIA, we can see that a current economically sensitive Dow would stand nearly 5,000 points higher using the Dow's own rules but selecting firms with a better handle on the assets of the knowledge economy.  

Now who has the correct "Dow"?  Is the DJIA still an appropriate proxy for observing the markets over a century and a quarter?  Are assumptions created by a journalist known for covering speculative extractive industries and his statistician business partner in 1896 still suitable in 2013?  The answer is less transparent than you might think.  If you're goal is to live in a Alfred Marshall and John Maynard Keynes world where marginal utility, supply, demand, and cost of production are still relevant, than maybe the DJIA is still apropos.  But if you recognize that the cost of digital reproduction meets none of Marshall's assumptions and that labor and employment are not the mandates motivating individuals seeking productive engagement with the world in which they find themselves, you may conclude that other (or no) metrics are more suitable.  In the world created by Marshall, Keynes and Dow, we have succeeded in facilitating massive wealth aggregation for a few.  We've industrialized 'survival' and applauded our glacial assault on 'poverty'.  But we've failed entirely to establish systems where economic utilities - productivity-coupled capital, market access, information symmetry, etc - are ubiquitous.  While applauding our philanthropic façade, we see billions remaining largely ignored and have eyes too myopic to apprehend our moral anemia. 

Can metrics contribute to sociopathic immorality?  Absolutely.  If we fail to count that which doesn't conveniently conform to our selectively held dogmatic sense of empiricism in honor of frequently recited regressions, we'll see more than 1/3 of the DJIA's value go missing.  We'll see ever diminishing opportunities to make less consequential policy and practices that impact ever fewer for the benefit of the minority.  And then we'll stand back and muse over why the world doesn't conform to our image.

Innovation - that audacity emerging from the hubris of the human spirit - which alleges to 'improve' upon those conditions in which humanity finds itself is the single unifying utility embedded within the species.  When nurtured, it can render transcendent beauty, facilitate unimaginable efficiency and interconnected collaboration, and invite considered discourse for greater humanity.  When stifled, it can unleash destruction with equal gravity.  It's time to tear down the groves of industrial metrics and start counting what really matters - fulfilling human engagement provisioned and transacted with all the dimensions of integral accounting.  While precision has landed us squarely in a global economic quagmire from which none are navigating escape, our cognition must be reminded that precision does not beget accuracy, and accuracy does not portend truth.  Life, in all its dimensions, must be counted and, though messy, must inform the shape of policies, practices, and conventions to come.    

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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave