A Beautiful Mind has it Right – the Nash Equilibrium shows the power of working together

The following post was written seven years ago, but holds true even more so today with the recently passed infrastructure bill as well as the need to work together in our global economy on trade, environmental, and human rights issues.

One of my favorite Russell Crowe movies is “A Beautiful Mind” directed by Ron Howard about the schizophrenic Ph.D. in economics, John Nash. If you saw the movie, you know that Nash won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for his theory which became known as “Nash Equilibrium” that was used in game theory, economic development and other areas. In short it was all about maximizing everyone’s gain. From Wikipedia, this example might help define what Nash’s theory was all about:

“Stated simply, Amy and Will are in Nash equilibrium if Amy is making the best decision she can, taking into account Will’s decision, and Will is making the best decision he can, taking into account Amy’s decision. Likewise, a group of players are in Nash equilibrium if each one is making the best decision that he or she can, taking into account the decisions of the others in the game.”

The reason I raise is this is that we can all benefit more if we work with each other rather than against. If we all try to win the game, whatever that is, we will actually end up in a collective lesser state. This is a key reason why collaboration is vital to the success of most endeavors, including and especially politics. But, let me use a real example of how a region can benefit more economically through collective partnering under Nash Equilibrium.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, we have a terrific new “transmodal distribution facility” that is near the airport. The facility is adjacent to and incorporates railroad train tracks in the distribution process. It is also very conveniently located to three interstates (I-85, I-77 and I-485) and a fourth four lane highway (US 321) which connects to I-40 about forty miles away. If you know your North Carolina geography, you will know that Charlotte is right on the border with South Carolina and several towns in SC are actually included in the Metro Charlotte area.

A key reason for its success is more than the rail, highway and air access. Charlotte is also a convenient driving distance from ports in Charleston, South Carolina, Wilmington, North Carolina, Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida. With the deepening of the Panama Canal set to be complete in 2015, bigger ships can sail from Asia-Pacific (China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, etc.). Yet, unless these ports are dredged to become deeper, the bigger ships cannot enter the harbors there and will sail past. Activity has begun in various stages, but here is where Nash Equilibrium should come to fruition.

The states of North and South Carolina (and Florida and Georgia) should work collectively along with business and the Federal government to deepen all ports noted above. We will all benefit more greatly if we invest together. This would be true on other economic investments where we should work less at cross purposes and compete as a region. I recognize there have been pockets of success where this has been done, but to me, with the significant cost of dredging these harbors and the stalemate in fighting in Washington where Congress is moving money around to fund a very limited transportation budget for infrastructure, this a keen example of why we must work together to benefit more.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell have been promoting a bipartisan investment in our infrastructure, each representing the major political parties. LaHood said this is the best jobs program we could possibly have. And, as I have said before, borrowing money to invest in assets, is different from borrowing money for operations. This is where we need to spend our money as the collective return on investment is huge.

So, to the state legislatures and Congress, let’s get with it and work to invest in America’s ports and roads. As Rendell said, if we don’t deepen our ports, the ships will sail right by us to Canada. John Nash indeed had a beautiful mind. We should follow his direction to maximize our collective gain.

Democrats keep missing a key message

As an Independent and former Republican and Democrat voter, I wish I could have the opportunity to have detailed conversations with MAGA folks. Whether folks like Bernie or not, he is going to take his message to the MAGA world. Some may not like progressive policies, but Bernie tends to speak the truth. To me Democrats have tended to be lousy marketers missing out on a key, data centric message.

Since 1921, there have been thirteen Republican White Houses and going on thirteen Democrat White Houses. Under which White Houses have the most jobs been created? The answer is the Democrat White Houses and it is not even close. I recognize presidents get too much credit and too much blame for the economy, but the data reveals over 2x the number of jobs created in those periods under Democrats. Other measures show the economy and capital markets do better under Democrat White Houses as well.

What is interesting is my anecdotal evidence shows even Democrats think it is the opposite. Democrats should be more aggressive with that message. The former president inherited an economy that was 91 months into consecutive growth with 2 million plus jobs added for six straight years. To the former president’s credit it continued, got a little better for a little while with the sugar rush of the tax cut and then returned to pre-tax cut levels, before the botched handling of COVID-19 by the former president sank it

What still amazes me about the incompetent COVID-19 handling, is the ball was sitting on the tee for the former president to do what he craves, be presidential. But, he whiffed. He proceeded to play up a hoax, endangered his own MAGA followers by holding public events, and then continued to naysay it where many of his followers refuse to consider masks or vaccines. All occurring after he confided in Bob Woodward that he knew of the dangers. And, this is the person some want to return to the White House?

So, Democrats need to seize the message. They are the party of jobs and here is the data. If they don’t, Republicans will paint them with whatever message sells. And, if Democrats don’t believe me, in 2012 Republicans were told in memo form to use the term “failed stimulus” when speaking of Obama’s stimulus package. Even Democrats believed this, but what is funny, the stimulus did not fail. Per six econometric firms included the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the stimulus package was accretive to the economy.

What would you say?

What would you say to a US President where the stock market grew at annualized rate of 12.8% during his tenure, excluding dividends.

What would you say to a President where net new jobs were added at an annual rate of 1.4 million, with a rate of 2.6 million per annum the last four years.

What would you say to a President where the unemployment declined from 7.6% when he started to 4.8% when he left?

What would you say to a President where the US economy had 91 consecutive months of economic growth, which eventually became the second longest in US history?

What would you say to a President that saved the largest car company in the US?

You would say thank you President Obama. The economic growth has continued under the current US President, but we should not forget he was handed the keys to a pretty good economy. It should also be noted the country was in a housing caused recession when Obama got the keys.

I mention this as the current President is too busy taking credit to give a thumbs up to others. With that said, Presidents get too much credit and blame for the economy. They only provide headwinds and tailwinds.

Yet, if people want to go there, Democrats need to do a better job of marketing. Under 12 1/2 four-year GOP Presidential terms as compared to 12 four-year Democrat Presidential terms since 1921, the number of jobs created under a Democrat President dwarfs that under a GOP President, by 2 to 1. Further, the stock market results since 1901 is markedly better under Democrat Presidents.

So, the Dems can rightfully claim they are the party of jobs and economic growth. I am delighted the growth continued under Trump, but the headwinds do not look favorable. The tariffs and added debt on top of expected increases is bothersome.

A couple of tax truths get revealed

Long before the Tax Plan was passed in December, I have shared my concern about our runaway debt problem. So, I am none to thrilled by a Tax Plan that will make it worse. Yet, that is not my only concern. While I was all for some tax relief on corporations to encourage the repatriation of overseas earnings, Congress and the President went much too deep.

Their stated goal was to fuel even more growth in the economy which was already doing pretty well for a long time – over 8+ years of growth – which is now the second longest growth period in our history. In essence, we borrowed from our future to improve on something that was percolating at a pretty good clip.

Yet, while this was a stated goal, I said then and repeat now, that may have been oversold. My fear is by giving money to corporations with no requirement, they would likely use it to benefit their EPS using a fairly expedient approach – they would buy back shares from the open market. Companies that cannot figure out how to grow earnings, can easily reduce the outstanding shares in the denominator through buy backs. I learned many years ago, share buy backs are usually a sign of weakness. Companies do this to meet EPS targets to pay bonuses. Board members do not complain as they may be doing the same thing at their own companies.

But, don’t take my word for this concern. In an article in Reuters this week, “Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, in a move that may undercut his party’s message about the recent tax overhaul ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, told the Economist magazine there is ‘no evidence whatsoever’ the law significantly helped American workers.

‘There is still a lot of thinking on the right that if big corporations are happy, they’re going to take the money they’re saving and reinvest it in American workers,’ Rubio said in the interview published Thursday.

In fact they bought back shares, a few gave out bonuses; there’s no evidence whatsoever that the money’s been massively poured back into the American worker.’”

Per an article in March by CNN Money reporter Matt Egan, “Buy backs have exploded in 2018 thanks to windfall from the Republican tax law. American companies including Wells Fargo (WFC) and Cisco (CSCO) have showered Wall Street with $214 billion of stock buy back announcements so far this year, according to research firm TrimTabs.

But critics argue Corporate America’s fascination with stock buy backs has come at a real cost to American workers. Instead of focusing on short-term rewards for shareholders, they say companies should make long-term investments by retraining workers, ramping up benefits and boosting wages.

Stock buybacks have been a prime mode of both concentrating income among the richest households and eroding middle-class employment opportunities,‘ said William Lazonick, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has studied the impact of stock buybacks.”

In my view, it would not be surprising to see some additional growth in our economy, but it is projected to be much less than Congress and the President have touted. What is throwing even more water on projected growth is the President’s announced tariffs. This has thrown global markets in a state of disarray and companies do not like uncertainty. If they don’t know if terms will be favorable, they will choose more cautious roads which lead to less but more predictable profits.

This uncertainty is already showing up in the capital markets. What frightens me is we sold our future with more debt while not even addressing the existing debt. And, for what purpose is to be determined.