Book Review of “The Little Book of Economics: How the Economy Works in the Real World”

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This gem by Greg Ip is by far my favorite book about economics! Ip has an awesome sense of humor that really speaks to this Marine. His style is fun, easy to read, and easy to understand. He uses a lot of great examples to make his point, which drastically improves retention. I can walk around and talk about economics, or hear it discussed in the news and know what is meant after reading this book. You really don’t need another economics book, although more good ones are out there. If you read just one economics book, this is it. Students, read this book first, then read your assigned books – give yourself a head start, an advantage.

I consume every book digitally first. If I enjoy it, I keep reading it. If I don’t enjoy it, I move on. I typically move on within an hour or an hour and a half of reading. I don’t stick with books I am not enjoying. I don’t think you should either. If I like the book, I continue. If I love the book, I buy the physical copy (almost always the hardcover). Then I read it again and take notes in the book. I really don’t care that my 3rd grade librarian would admonish me for writing in my books. It’s what works for me, and the librarian’s rules make sense when everyone is sharing the same book. For the record, I now have the hardcover version of “The Little Book of Economics,” full of notes, in my library. It’s a great read and a great resource.

Let’s dive in

First and foremost, I noticed that Greg Ip puts a healthy check on government. He definitely supports government’s role in economics though. “This is not a book for PhD Economists, but for the citizen – the investor on Main Street,” he opens. And he sticks to that.

Ip describes how China was economically at the top of the world pre-Industrial Revolution, but squashed private enterprise. In turn, its people were poorer in 1952 than in 1820. He wisely points out that one overcomes the law of diminishing returns with ideas and calls for “better recipes, not more cooking.” In this way, China let itself down.

He points out that GDP comes down to population and productivity. The business cycle suffers from viruses that make it sick, but we can inoculate ourselves and keep GDP growing. But the trouble is that viruses mutate, so responses need to keep adapting.

He feels that post-war economic expansions, however, were all “murdered” by the Federal Reserve (the Fed), not natural causes. He specifically calls out Reg Q here. He also calls out how the Fed raised rates before inflation broke out and slashed them before growth crumbled. In this way the Fed tried to create “soft landings.” Something it still does today. Something I am personally in favor of.

Ip describes recessions too, and how defining them is an art for some and a science for others. The NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) for instance declares recessions after the fact, so “it’s about as useful as an autopsy report is for an EMT.” Funny guy. He notes that data-wise, business cycles (here) average 5 years. Short ones are about 2 years, long ones are about 11 years (1990-2001). And they typically end when an industry boom busts and brings the rest of the economy down with it.

The 4 Engines of GDP

He describes well 4 engines of GDP: consumer spending, business investment, government spending, and exports. He notes that two-thirds of GDP is consumer spending, which acts as a ballast and steadies the economy – except for housing which is volatile and 5% of GDP. It’s no surprise that after 9/11 President Bush reassured people to keep living and spending. For business investment, inventories are the biggest quarterly variable, but buying, leasing, or building buildings and equipment also drives GDP. He points out that for investors the biggest driver within business is the sales outlook from analysts. If sales are down or projected to be down, then business investment’s contribution to GDP slows. Government spending accounts for 20% of GDP per Ip. (A quick search shows it currently at 30%, but spending is up recently so his data passes my sanity check.) He cites things such as “tanks and teachers” as being major players in government spending’s upward push of GDP. Funny guy. Lastly, exports. Export data comes mainly from the BEA (Bureau of Economic Analysis), the US Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and some Fed data. He points out that since 1982 the number of Americans that want to work grew 42%! To me that’s amazing, but also fits the “latch-key kids” narrative I grew up with (when kids would let themselves inside their house after school because no parent was home since both parents began working). He also notes that jobs since 1982 have grown 47%, and that the two statistics move together. He points out that “the income ladder has grown much taller but the distance between rungs has grown bigger too.” Data-wise the high earners correspond with education and skill levels, but the top 1% is not education-based. And that the top 1% represents 24% of all income, which is the highest rate since 1928. This is both good and bad in my opinion. It is the result of new age robber barons, who create jobs… and shows that we have been down this road before. But there are economic problems with stretching out incomes, economic problems with re-compressing it too quickly or forcefully, and economic problems with ignoring it. All in all, timely and appropriate action is key to creating another soft landing for lack of a better term.

Inflation and money supply

Ip goes into detail about inflation and money supply too. He points out that printing doesn’t equate to inflation, which most people think. To make the point he says that $1-trillion dollars printed and put under your mattress doesn’t create inflation. As unlikely as it is for 100% of printed money to be held and not circulated, he makes a good economic point. I’d add that this is part of the concern with China holding massive amounts of US dollars; the US government operates with the money in circulation, but what if massive amounts were quickly released? Ip continues and explains how “voters hate inflation” more than unemployment. He gives examples of how the former gets people voted out of office but the latter less so. Also of note, he points out that a bit of inflation is stabilizing, but too much is destabilizing.

Deflation is covered too, and Ip describes it as destructive. In the US, inflation wasn’t a problem during The Great Depression, but unemployment and deflation were.

“I’m an importer-exporter!” ~ George Costanza

Ip writes really well about imports and exports. He discusses comparative advantage and its role in international trade. He points out that since 1950 global trade has outpaced world GDP by 50%, or 6% versus 4%, and even US exports moved from 5% to 11% of GDP in that time. We are exporting more and it’s a larger percent of our GDP than it was in 1950. But we import more too now. It’s the relationship between importing and exporting nowadays that concerns people. When giving an example of comparative advantage, Ip points out how households import a nanny’s services from abroad (aka outside the household) so that they can go to work. So the import of the child-watching service enables more production because it is cheaper than doing it yourself (cheaper than not working).

Ip describes imports and exports as one of the few economic topics that is straightforward. Yet it remains controversial, nonetheless. He estimates that 25% of our jobs could be done offshores, and that this idea terrifies people. Astutely, he then points out the importance of our infrastructure and legal system. They are critical because they make it worth keeping jobs inside the US. You may be able to do a job overseas at a lower cost, but how risky and complicated is it at that point? Companies tend to overdo or underdo their overseas endeavors. For whatever reason it is tough for them to keep properly balanced, likely because the more abroad you go the more dynamic things get, which creates vulnerabilities in supply chains, management, diplomacy, and so on.

He points out how trade can reward the top and erode the middle class. For instance, Apple is rich, but the jobs needed to make their products are lost to the US middle class. So it ends up as a net plus, but if the middle class evaporates that effect is worse than the gain because it alters our fiber and complicates our economics. Interestingly, no one company really feels at fault for the erosion of the middle class, similar to how no one contributor of the GFC (Great Financial Crisis) felt guilty and few were held accountable. Everyone was just playing their part in a very big thing. We see how an industry bubble can form, pop, and pull the entire economy down. Ip finishes this section by saying that voters don’t like imports en masse because the negatives are obvious and the positives aren’t. So you have obvious negatives competing with obscured, nuanced, or second-order positives. There are actually a lot of examples of how a gross net positive does not work for individuals because it is not a positive for them personally. A government (economy) is not a household, as the saying goes.

Currencies

Greg Ip describes current accounting deficits (aka financing deficits) well too. He explains that current accounting deficits means one must borrow or sell assets, but that action enables investment opportunities that exceed the value or usefulness of saving.

He describes how driving down one’s own currency value boosts exports, and that China used to have excess savings (from the government, macroeconomic point of view) but eventually boosted its exports by buying US Treasuries, which strengthened the US dollar by “retiring it” and therefore weaken Chinese currency relative to the US dollar. That buying also spent the “excess” Chinese savings, drove down the value of the Chinese currency (Yuan) and therefore improved exports (as the value of your currency means imports or exports are more attractive). You have to decide which game you want to be in. China chooses exports and therefore devalues its currency, while the US chooses imports (remember comparative advantage) and therefore boosts its currency’s value. Why doesn’t everyone use comparative advantage? Because not every household, or government, is rich enough to spend on X (nanny) in order to earn more Y (income). What if there were very few high-income jobs? Would you have one? If not, you aren’t playing this “import” game. Interestingly, in countries with few high income jobs it is actually a social expectation that you hire nannies and “import” similar jobs because you are a job creator, and therefore a socio-economic enabler. It’s also a flex, which helps in a high income sparse environment.

Back to currencies though. Ip states that the USD (US dollar) is like a boring mutual fund for an ordinary household, and is therefore the world currency. And since countries like to take USD, we finance things easily. This is just one way in which money makes money and having the reserve currency of the world is critical to the US economy. The US staying stable is in turn critical to the world economy. You want the world currency to be under the tutelage of a stable nation, not a flash in the pan or a gamble.

The Fed

Ip describes several mistakes the Fed has made, which I will not go into here. He describes them well, and it is important for us to understand (and the Fed too!) so we can avoid them. By and large, the Fed does learn well. But there are always new mistakes to be made. By studying the past mistakes, Ip shows us how it is possible to distill fundamental economic truths. At that point, there’s no excuse for violating one of those truths. If the Fed is to make mistakes moving forward, it should only be in new, unexplored circumstances – not fundamental errors like during The Great Depression. The Fed has power; FOMC meetings rattle the market for a reason.

Hawk and dove bankers are described pretty well by Ip. He shares that in the banking world “Only hawk bankers go to central banker heaven.” That’s the feeling in that circle at least. Hawkish bankers are tight with their actions, more likely to descent, and care far more about inflation than unemployment. Doves are the opposite. It’s not just war that has hawks and doves, but economics too.

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Overall, the Fed tries to target 1.7-2% inflation by measuring growth, unemployment, and inflation. Ip points out how Ben Bernanke did well overall in that regard, and describes Bernanke as a Great Depression buff like there are Civil War buffs. Ip says Bernanke disliked the Fed’s excessive orthodoxy during The Great Depression, felt more (and more liberal) action was needed sooner, but disliked FDR’s New Deal. Simply put, Bernanke felt the Fed missed and then the president missed in response, which exacerbated and prolonged The Great Depression.

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Ip describes the Federal Funds Rate, the Fed as a lender of last resort, and discretionary spending versus entitlement spending. Each of these is covered well, easy to read, and easy to understand. Just his description of how the US government borrowing is like an elephant pushing up long-term interest rates and crowding out private investing is worth the price of the book. There are pros and cons to government borrowing, but they have major impacts that are important to understand as an investor. Basically, the US government borrowing abroad is far better for everyone in the US because they aren’t crowded out, and Uncle Sam gets his borrowing complete. A very poignant point Ip makes is that if the US borrowing is mainly abroad then inflation in mainly the rest of the world’s problem. A full two-thirds of inflation is at the expense of the rest of the world (when two-thirds of government borrowing is outside the US).

Oh the leverage!

Lastly I’ll mention Ip’s coverage of leverage. He describes leverage this way: “Leverage is like speed in a crash, and as a crisis hits the more leverage involved the more damage.” See, he paints pictures. There are amazing advantages of leverage (labor, money, technology, media are all leveraged to great benefit) but when a household, business, industry, sector, or an entire economy begins to wobble… measure their leverage and decide how far away you need to get as an investor! Perhaps you measure it first, and keep an eye on it!

“The Little Book of Economics: How the Economy Works in the Real World” was fantastic, and I hope you can tell how much I loved it. I highly recommend it. I happen to have a bit of a self-sufficient bent, so I like hearing the “healthy distrust” of any government’s economic efforts. But, and with a strong but, I see the tremendous value in the system. So overall I like it but keep a watchful eye on it. I feel any good investor does that.

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