The Wealth of Generations: Latest Update

I’ve covered the topic of generational wealth before, and here’s the latest data on how each generation was doing at roughly the same age. The data is updated through the 3rd quarter of 2022.

The main takeaways:

  • Millennials are roughly equal in wealth per capita to Baby Boomers and Gen X at the same age.
  • Gen X is currently much wealthier than Boomers were at the same age: about $100,000 per capita or 18% greater
  • Wealth has declined significantly in 2022, but the hasn’t affected Millennials very much since they have very little wealth in the stock market (real estate is by far their largest wealth category)

Food Price Increases Won’t Be Solved by Raising Interest Rates

I make a hobby of reading, and sometimes acting on, investment advice, particularly regarding high-yielding securities (many of my holdings are now yielding over 10%/year). One of the best authors on the Seeking Alpha investing site writes under the name of Colorado Wealth Management. He mainly writes on REIT (real estate investment trust) stocks, but recently opined on the wisdom of raising interest rates to combat inflation regarding some of the major components of CPI.

His article, Why High Yields Will Be Popular Again, may be behind a paywall for some readers, so I will summarize some key points. He kind of sidesteps the influence of massive federal deficit spending that injected trillions and trillions of new dollars into the economy for COVID, which I think has been the major driver for this inflation; and the reignited deficit spending which is already on the books for November and likely even huger for December of this year. However, he does make some interesting (and new to me) points regarding food prices in particular.

He sees the price 2021-2022 price increases in some major food items as being driven by supply constraints, rather then by excessive demand. Specifically eggs, coffee, and vegetable oils have been hit by exogenous factors which have constrained supply; raising interest rates will not help here, and may even hurt if higher rates make it harder for farmers to recover and re-start high production. I’ll transition to his charts and mainly his excerpted words, in italics below:

Avian Flu, Culled Hens, and the Price of Eggs

The background here is that tens of millions of chickens, including egg-laying hens, have been deliberately killed (“culled”) this year in an attempt to slow the spread of avian flu. This, of course, cuts into the egg supply and raises egg prices. We went through a similar cycle in 2015 with avian flu, where culling led to a rise in egg prices, but then prices fell naturally as a new crop of chicks grew into egg-laying hens. Similarly, the current shortage in eggs should correct itself:

Raising interest rates has never produced additional eggs. Raising interest rates and driving a recession (with larger credit spreads) only makes it more difficult for farmers to get the funding necessary to replace tens of millions of hens that were culled to slow the spread of the avian flu….If interest rates don’t work, what will? The cure for high prices is high prices. We can see how it played out with the Avian flu in 2015:

  • Is Jerome Powell going to lay even one egg? Probably not.
  • Are farmers going to focus on turning their chicks into egg-laying hens? Absolutely.

Since eggs go into several other products, it drives inflation throughout the grocery store. Even if a product doesn’t use eggs, the drop in egg production means more people eating other foods.

Drought in Brazil and the Price of Coffee

Coffee prices have been rising rapidly. Well, domestic prices have been rising rapidly. Global prices actually declined since peaking in February 2022:

So, what drove the price up? Brazil normally produces over 35% of the world’s coffee and bad weather in Brazil (not to mention the pandemic impacts) drove dramatically lower production in 2021. As the shortfall in production became evident, global prices began rising rapidly. That’s why the global [wholesale] prices were ripping higher in 2021, not 2022. However, [retail] consumers are seeing most of the impact over the last several months.

War in Ukraine and the Price of Sunflower Oil

Margarine requires vegetable oil. Soybean, palm, sunflower, and canola oil are the key ingredients. What country produces the most sunflower oil? Ukraine. This is one of several inflationary impacts of the war. You can see the impact of reduced supply in the following chart:

Government Bungling in Indonesia and the Price of Palm Oil

What happened to palm oil? How could it soar so much and then fall so hard?

The first issue is that dramatic increases in the price of fertilizer made production more expensive. … That contributed to a reduction in supply. However, Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil. Yet exports of palm levy were subject to a huge levy. That made exporting far more expensive. Despite the levy, it was still worth producing and exporting palm oil. Then the Indonesian government decided to simply ban exports over concern about higher domestic prices. Banning exports for a country that produces 59% of the world’s total palm oil exports had a predictable impact.

If you guessed that the supply of palm oil couldn’t be sold domestically, you’d be right. The ban was lifted. However, it was only after:

High palm oil stocks have forced mills to limit purchases of palm fruits. Farmers have complained their unsold fruits have been left to rot. There were 7.23 million tonnes of crude palm oil in storage tanks at the end of May, data from the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) showed on Friday.

With palm oil prices at all time-record highs, nearly triple the level from two years prior, the supply was left to rot. Each business tried to make the best decision they could, given the ban on exports. Rather than record profits for mills and record profits for farmers, the produce was wasted. That’s supply constraints for the global market, and it destroys the local economy.

Global prices are plunging now as mills seek to unload their storage. As bad as the higher prices were for the rest of the world, no one suffered worse than the farmers whose product became worthless as a result of government failure.

Contrary to today’s popular opinion, higher interest rates won’t do anything to improve production of vegetable oil.

Farewell to the First Normal Semester in 3 Years

Today as I gave my last final and took my kids to a huge school party, it struck me that things are finally back to something like 2019 levels of normality.

2020 was a lost cause, of course. I had high hopes for 2021 that vaccines would immediately get us back to normal. They did get my school back to fully in-person by Fall 2021, but not really back to normal, partly thanks to the variants. My students were out sick more than normal, and I was out watching my sick kids more than normal, as every cold meant they would be home until the school was sure it wasn’t Covid. Toward the end of the Spring 2022 semester worries were subsiding, and my state was pretty much fully re-opened, but things still weren’t really back to normal. Student attendance and effort were still way below normal, partly from the lingering effects of Covid, and partly from celebrating its end- partying to make up for lost time (and cheering on a great basketball team).

Fall 2022 finally felt like a basically normal semester. I still see the occasional mask, still hear from the occasional student out with Covid, and still have one kid missing 2 school days with every cough (policies stricter than 2019, but much relaxed from the days when both kids were at schools that could have them miss 5+ days with every non-Covid cough). Overall though student attendance and effort are back to what seem like normal levels. Up to Spring 22 I’d have students just disappear for a few weeks, not in class, not answering e-mails about why they weren’t showing up or completing work, needing lots of help to get on track once they finally reappeared. This Fall that didn’t happen; in my Senior Capstone everyone turned in a quality paper basically on-time and without me having to chase anyone down for it. Also, everyone just seemed happier now that their stress levels are back down to the baseline for college students.

This semester was nothing special- and that was beautiful.

Inflation-Adjusted Wages Have Been Rising Since June 2022

Back in May 2022, I wrote about the very bad picture for inflation-adjusted wages in the US. While they were still slightly above pre-pandemic levels, wages had been falling consistently since the beginning of 2021.

But since then, we’ve got some better news. The chart below shows the data (note: I’m using wages for private production and non-supervisory workers here, rather than for all private workers in the May post).

While the overall inflation picture still looks bad, with 7.1% annual inflation in the latest report, we also see that in the past 5 months wage growth has exceeded CPI growth. It’s also been true compared with the PCE price index for the past 4 available months (November PCE data won’t be available until next Friday). Inflation has cooled slightly in the past few months, while wages have continued to grow.

This all means that real (inflation-adjusted) average wages in the US have been rising consistently since June 2022. Finally, some good news!

Reckless Management Led to BlockFi Crypto Bankruptcy

Since my nontrivial deposits at the cryptocurrency lending firm BlockFi have been blocked (maybe forever) from withdrawal, I keep an eye on news from that front. My main source of information has been missives from BlockFi itself, in which management portrays itself as being very careful with customer funds; it was only the shocking, unforeseeable collapse of the FTX exchange that forced the otherwise sober and responsible BlockFi into its recent bankruptcy. I have believed that view of things, since that is all I knew.

However, Emily Mason at Forbes has poked around behind the scenes, including finding insiders willing to talk (off the record) about less-savory doings within BlockFi. The title of her recent article, BlockFi Employees Warned Of Credit Risks, But Say Executives Dismissed Them, pretty much says it all. The article starts out:

In its bankruptcy filing last week, New Jersey-based BlockFi attempted to paint itself as a responsible lender hit by plummeting crypto prices and the collapse of crypto brokerage FTX and its affiliated trading firm, Alameda.

That is the view I have held up till now. However, Mason then goes on to note:

 But a closer look at the company’s history reveals that its vulnerabilities likely began much earlier with missteps in risk management, including loosened lending standards, a highly concentrated pool of borrowers and unsustainable trading activity.

To keep this blog post short, I will just paste in a few excerpts where she fleshes out her case:

While the company regularly touted a sophisticated risk management team, current and former employees indicate in interviews that risk professionals were dismissed by executives preoccupied with delivering growth to investors. As early as 2020, employees were discouraged from describing risks in written internal communications to avoid liability, a former employee states.

Ouch. Not a good sign.

Until August 2021, BlockFi advertised that loans were typically over-collateralized. But large potential borrowers were often unwilling to meet those requirements, a cease and desist order brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission against BlockFi in February states. The availability of uncollateralized capital from competing companies like Voyager created stiff competition in the lending field.

Under pressure to continue growing and delivering yields, BlockFi began lending to these parties with less collateral than publicly stated without informing customers on the amount of risk involved with interest accounts, according to the SEC order which resulted in a $100 million fine for the company. As a result, BlockFi paused access to its interest accounts in the U.S.

Wait, that is MY money they were messing with. Now I am really annoyed.

In addition to lowering its collateral requirements, BlockFi’s due diligence process had flaws, former borrowers say. Available credit for borrowers was decided based on their assets, but BlockFi and other lenders failed to investigate both the size and quality of potential borrowers’ holdings. Like Voyager and other crypto lenders, BlockFi accepted unaudited balance sheets from hedge funds and proprietary trading firms former borrowers say, leaving room for manipulation on the borrower side.

In the due diligence process, lenders like BlockFi and Voyager did not examine whether borrowers’ balance sheet assets were denominated in dollars or less liquid tokens like FTX-issued FTT.

The revelation that Alameda’s balance sheet was mostly FTT tokens was the news that set off the unraveling of both Alameda and FTX and triggered contagion effects across the industry. In early November, Alameda defaulted on $680 million in loan obligations to BlockFi, according to the bankruptcy filing.

Some BlockFi employees reportedly warned of the shakiness of the parties to whom clients’ finds were being loaned. Management dismissed these concerns because the loans were “collateralized”,  but as noted above, the extent of that collateral was *not* what we clients were told:

An internal team at BlockFi also raised concerns that the borrower pool was too concentrated among a pool of crypto whales, including mega hedge funds Three Arrows Capital and Alameda, another former employee states. Management responded that the loans were collateralized, according to the employee.

This is a very common scenario in finance: In search of profits, management  cuts corners and takes more risks with client funds than they were telling the clients. Maybe Sam Bankman-Fried will up with cell-mates from BlockFi.

Because BlockFi survived the Luna/Terra collapse some months ago and because I believed the steady stream of reassuring pronouncements from BlockFi management, I only withdrew a third of my funds back in the summer. But as it turns out, that withdrawal was apparently bankrolled by a big loan to BlockFi from Bankman-Fried’s FTX; but FTX is now caput.  So the odds of my ever seeing the rest of my funds are slim indeed:

In BlockFi’s bankruptcy filing and in public statements made by its CEO, Zac Prince, the company points to its survival through the collapse of the Terra/Luna ecosystem and subsequent shuttering of Three Arrows Capital as evidence of strong management. But that endurance four months ago was made possible through a $400 million credit line from now-defunct FTX, which allowed the firm to meet panicked withdrawal requests from depositors. When FTX folded in early November, BlockFi lost its lending back stop and could no longer meet fresh waves of withdrawal requests.

One lesson learned: If there is a reasonable chance of a panic, it can pay to be the first to panic, not the last.

Slow Adjustment in Tech Labor for CGO Research

The CGO published a policy paper I wrote with Henry Kronk.

The Slow Adjustment in Tech Labor: Why Do High-Paying Tech Jobs Go Unfilled?

Executive Summary

The United States technology industry continues to struggle to recruit new talent. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people employed in technology is not increasing quickly. 

Tech jobs pay well and don’t have the drawbacks of some other in-demand jobs, such as the travel schedule of a truck driver or the physically taxing labor required in oil fields.

Tech jobs are sometimes touted as a guarantee of having a comfortable and rewarding career, but the reality is not that simple.

Economics suggests that high wages would eliminate labor shortages, but that’s not the case in tech work. Why?

In this paper, authors Joy Buchanan and Henry Kronk propose a set of factors that have been overlooked and apply broadly to the tech sector. 

Individuals with high-status tech jobs report burnout, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues at higher rates than the general population. They also have to deal with the constant threat of becoming obsolete. Because technology changes so quickly, they must constantly work to update their skills in order to remain competitive.  

The authors offer several recommendations for tech companies, educators, and policymakers:

  • Political and community leaders can provide more accurate messaging such as communicating clearer expectations about the difficulties of entering the tech workforce. 
  • The tech industry could benefit from improvements in computer education. The authors cite a need for more pre-college exposure to computer occupations as well as a need to add communication skills to computer science curriculums.
  • Teachers, parents, and tech companies can all find ways to inform young people at an age-appropriate level about opportunities. Computer science is abstract and hard to understand. Young people who have some exposure to computer science through a class or camp are more likely to become CS majors in college. 
  • Company leaders can improve their recruitment and development strategies to reflect the labor market realities including paying enough to compensate employees for the mental challenges of demanding technical work and alleviating their own talent shortages by investing in training and education. 
  • Tech companies may be able to attract more women and minorities by improving their scheduling and management practices.

Henry and I examined public data and the existing literature to get a better understanding of the current state of knowledge on this issue. I hope our paper can be helpful, however we partly just highlight how many questions still exist about tech and talent.

My recent paper in Labour Economics, Willingness to be Paid: Who Trains for Tech Jobs?, was designed to add new data to address these questions.

Inflation, Information, & Logic

Most economists know that the CPI is overestimated and therefore prefer the PCE price index. However, monthly CPI data is consistently released before PCE data for a given month. One would think that they move in the same direction and be highly correlated. Indeed, in the past five years, the correlation is 0.96. Therefore, it stands to reason that the there is less new relevant information on the PCE release dates than on the CPI release dates. Yes, CPI is biased, but it still contains some information about prices and it is known well prior to the more accurate PCE numbers.

Supply and Demand react to new information. Sometimes the new information changes our expectations about the future, and other times we learn that our beliefs about goods and assets were previously not quite right. So, with new relevant information comes new prices as people update their beliefs and expectations.

Let’s get financial.

Continue reading

Sympathy for the Sauds

I’ve always been confused by the US alliance with Saudi Arabia. Its a state with values abhorrent to many Americans, and it seems like we don’t get much practical value out of the alliance.

This essay on Saudi history, politics, and economics by Matt Lakeman makes the situation more comprehensible. I still don’t know that I want the alliance, but I can now see how so many US presidents have continued with it without necessarily being stupid, crazy, or corrupt. In short, they think that most of the realistic alternatives are worse. Some highlights:

Before starting this research, I had the same perception as Wood that the Saudi economy is essentially what he calls a “petrol-rentier state.” Basically, Saudi Arabia sits on top of a giant ocean of easily-accessed oil which they suck out of the ground and sell at enormous profit to prop up the rest of their extremely inefficient economy and buy the loyalty of their own people and foreign powers. Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest large state in the Middle East today by sheer virtue of geographic luck rather than any innovation or business acumen on the part of its people.

And after doing my research, all of the above is… basically true.

But all of that should also be true of Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Libya, and a few other countries which are also situated on giant oceans of oil but are far poorer than Saudi Arabia.

Economically, Saudi Arabia deserves little credit for its success. Politically, Saudi Arabia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for enabling its economic success. 

Dealing with the resource curse is always challenging, and foreign ownership is an additional challenge. How did they manage it?

the Sauds struck a clever balance between being too aggressive and too placating of the foreigners operating their oil wells. If the Saudi state had been aggressive and tried to nationalize its oil quickly, Saudi Arabia could have ended up becoming another Venezuela or Iran with lots of external political pressure from hostile Western countries and a low-efficiency oil industry. But if they had nationalized too late, they would have ended up like a lot of African nations who have all their natural wealth siphoned away by foreigners.

Instead, the Sauds executed a patient, and most importantly, amicable assertion of power over Aramco, which did not become fully owned by Saudis until 1974. At the very start of Aramco, the company was entirely owned and operated by Americans aside from menial labor. However, the Saudi government inserted a clause into their contract with the corporation requiring the American oil men to train Saudi citizens for management and engineering jobs. The Americans held up their end of the bargain, and over time, more and more Saudis took over management and technical positions.

In addition to carefully negotiating the balance of power with various foreigners, the Sauds have done so with the religious establishment:

Though the monarch has absolute power, his authority is at least in part derived from Saudi Arabia’s Islamic religious establishment. The ulema (a group of the highest-ranking clerics) is officially integrated into the government, and plays an important role in legal matters. However, the religious establishment has slowly been marginalized by the monarchy over the last few decades, and has possibly been subjugated entirely since the reform era began five years ago.

Winning freedom of action has been a long road with many setbacks:

[King] Abdulaziz constantly had to reassure enraged Wahhabi clerics that he wasn’t selling out the Arab homeland to treacherous infidels. IIRC, it was some time in the 1920s that Abdulaziz had to publicly smash a telegraph to prove to the clerics that he wasn’t bewitched by infidel technology.

In late 1979, 400-500 extremist Sunni Saudis seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca (the holiest Islamic site on earth) and demanded the overthrow of the Saud dynasty in favor of a theocratic state meant to await an imminent apocalypse. They held on for two weeks while managing to fight off waves of Saudi police and military squads. Eventually, three French commandos flew to Mecca, converted to Islam in a hotel room, and led a successful assault to retake the Mosque. Over 100 men died on each side, with hundreds more wounded.

The Grand Mosque seizure was the final wake-up call for the Saud dynasty. Something drastic had to be done or their regime would likely be ground down under mounting internal and external pressure…. King Khalid led a social/religious/political reactionary revolution within Saudi Arabia to align with the Sunni extremists. Up until about four years ago, Saudi society was still gender segregated and enforced a largely literalist interpretation of Sharia, hence the array of bizarre and antiquated laws – gender segregation in public, requiring women to cover their faces, outlawing of non-Muslim religious buildings (there are a few Shia mosques), restrictions on foreign media, etc. Saudi Arabia was always conservative, but most of these draconian laws were only put into place in the 1980s. The Saud dynasty purposefully induced a reactionary legal regime and pulled Saudi Arabia further away from liberalism.

The charitable take on making an already oppressive regime even more oppressive is that the Sauds were trying to bend Saudi Arabia to the extremists so the country would not break. And by all accounts, it worked; the conservative Wahhabi clerics backed by the Saud dynasty placated a sizeable portion of the Sunni extremists inside and outside of Saudi Arabia, and they became a pool of support against the Shia and Baathists. Saudi Arabia was certainly made a worse country for its citizens, but that was the price to pay for averting civil war.

More recently, Crown Prince Salman has consolidated power to the point where he can make modernizing reforms that Wahhabis might have opposed, like allowing women to drive, allowing non-Muslim foreigners to to get tourist visas, allowing music concerts, et c. Lakeman obviously likes these reforms, but at the same time worries that the concentrated power that so far Salman has largely used to enact positive reforms could be abused going forward, and on a larger scale than murdering the occasional dissident.

Wood argues that a worst case scenario parallel to MBS is Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad. Like MBS, there were high hopes that Assad would be a liberal reformer when he took over Syria. After all, Assad had been living and working in the UK as an ophthalmologist with no political aspirations, and was known to be a fan of Phil Collins. He was called to the throne after the unexpected death of his older brother, and so the West hoped that this nerdy British doctor would bring upper-middle class liberal values to Syria. Instead, Assad became one of the worst dictators of the modern Middle East, probably second only to Saddam Hussein.

I recommend reading the whole thing, here I’m quoting relatively small parts of an article full of interesting detail on the history, economics, and politics of Saudi Arabia. There’s also a section on visiting:

The silver lining to Saudi Arabia’s lack of tourism is that there aren’t many tourist restrictions. I went to two ancient settlements and I found no guards, no gates, no notices at all. I walked in, around, and on top of 2,000 year old houses, and I honestly have no idea if I was allowed to.

Message To My Students: Don’t Use AI to Cheat (at least not yet)

If you have spent any time on social media in the past week, you’ve probably noticed a lot of people using the new AI program called ChatGPT. Joy blogged about it recently too. It’s a fun thing to play with and often gives you very good (or at least interesting) responses to questions you ask. And it’s blown up on social media, probably because it’s free, responds instantly, and is easy to screenshot.

But as with all things AI, there are numerous concerns that come up, both theoretical and immediately real. One immediately real concern among academics is the possibility of cheating by students on homework, short writing assignments, or take-home exams. I don’t want to diminish these concerns, but I think for now they are overblown. Let me demonstrate by example.

This semester I am teaching an undergraduate course in Economic History. Two of the big topics we cover are the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression. Specifically, we spend a lot of time discussing the various theories of the causes of these two events. On the exams, students are asked to, more or less, summarize these potential causes and discuss them.

How does ChatGPT do?

On the Industrial Revolution:

And on the Great Depression:

Now, it’s not that these answers are flat out wrong. The answers certainly list theories that have been discussed by at various times, including in the academic literature. But these answers just wouldn’t be very good for my class, primarily because they miss almost all of the theories that we have discussed in class as being likely causes. Moreover, the answers also list theories that we have discussed in class as probably not being correct.

These kinds of errors are especially true of the answer about the Great Depression, which reads like it was taken straight from a high school history textbook, ignoring almost everything economists have said about the topic. The answer for the Industrial Revolution doesn’t make this mistake as much as it misses most of the theories discussed by Koyama and Rubin, which was the main book we used to work through the literature. If a student gave an answer like the AI, it suggests to me that they didn’t even look at the chapter titles in K&R, which provide a roadmap of the main theories.

So, my message to students: don’t try to use this to answer questions in class, at least not right now. The program will certainly improve in the future, and perhaps it will eventually get very good at answering these kinds of academic questions.

But I also have a message to fellow academics: make sure that you are writing questions that aren’t easily answered by an AI. This can be hard to do, especially if you haven’t thought about it deeply, but ultimately thinking in this way should help you to write better exam and homework questions. This approach seems far superior to the one that the AI suggests.

Gambler Ruined: Sam Bankman-Fried’s Bizarre Notions of Risk and the Blow-Up of FTX

The drama continues for Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF), the former head of now-bankrupt crypto exchange FTX. This past week has been giving a series of interviews, in which he (the brilliant master, the White Knight, of the crypto world a mere month ago) is trying to convince us (potential jurors?) that he is too dim-witted to have masterminded a shell game of international wire transfers, and that he had no idea what was happening in the closely-held company of which he was Chief Executive Officer. (For an entertaining take on what We The People think of SBF’s disclaimers, see responses in this thread ttps://twitter.com/SBF_FTX/status/1591989554881658880, especially the video posted by “Not Jim Cramer”). 

The word on the street is that his former partner Caroline Ellison (who he has been implicitly throwing under the bus with his disclaimers of responsibility for the multi-billion dollar transfers from his FTX to her Alameda company) may well be cutting a deal with prosecutors to testify against SBF.  It remains to be seen whether SBF’s monumental political donations will suffice to keep him from doing hard time.

But all that legal drama aside, the SBF saga brings up some interesting issues on risk management. Earlier here on EWED James Bailey  highlighted a revealing exchange between SBF and Tyler Cowen, in which SBF displayed a heedless neglect of the risk of catastrophic outcomes, as long as there is a reasonable chance of great gain:

TC: Ok, but let’s say there’s a game: 51% you double the Earth out somewhere else, 49% it all disappears. And would you keep on playing that game, double or nothing?

SBF: Yeah…take the pure hypothetical… yeah.

TC: So then you keep on playing the game. What’s the chance we’re left with anything? Don’t I just St. Petersburg Paradox you into non-existence?

SBF: No, not necessarily – maybe [we’re] St. Petersburg-paradoxed into an enormously valuable existence. That’s the other option.

Boiled down, the St Petersburg Paradox involves a scenario where you have a 50% chance of winning $2.00, a 25% (1/4) chance of winning $4.00, a 1/8 chance of winning $8.00, and so on without limit. If you add up all the probabilities multiplied by the amount won for each probability, the Expected Value for this scenario is infinite. Therefore it seems like it would be rational, if you were offered a chance to play this game, to stake 100% of your net worth in one shot. However, almost nobody would actually do that; most folks might spend something like $20 or maybe 0.1% of their net worth for a shot at this, since the likely prospect of losing a large amount does not psychologically compensate for the smaller chance of gaining a much, much larger amount. But SBF is not “most folks”.

Victor Haghani recently authored an article on risk management and on SBF’s approach:

Most people derive less and less incremental satisfaction from progressive increases in wealth – or, as economists like to say: most people exhibit diminishing marginal utility of wealth. This naturally leads to risk aversion because a loss hurts more than the equivalent gain feels good. The classic Theory of Choice Under Uncertainty recommends making decisions that maximize Expected Utility, which is the probability-weighted average of all possible utility outcomes.

SBF explained on multiple occasions that his level of risk-aversion was so low that he didn’t need to think about maximizing Expected Utility, but could instead just make his decisions based on maximizing the Expected Value of his wealth directly. So what does this mean in practice? Let’s say you find an investment which has a 1% chance of a 10,000x payoff, but a 99% chance of winding up worth zero. It has a very high expected return, but it’s also very risky. How much of your total wealth would you want to invest in it?

There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s down to your own personal preferences. However, we think most affluent people would invest somewhere between 0.1% and 1% of their wealth in this investment, based on observing other risky choices such people make and surveys we’ve conducted…

SBF on the other hand, making his decision strictly according to his stated preferences, would choose to invest 100% of his wealth in this investment, because it maximizes the Expected Value of his wealth.

Even in a game with a fair 50/50 outcome, a player with finite resources will eventually go broke. This is the “Gambler’s Ruin” concept in statistics. SBF’s outsized penchant for risk took his net worth to something like $30 billion earlier this year, something we more-timid souls will never achieve, but it eventually proved to be his undoing.

Most people have a more or less logarithmic sense of the utility of money – if you only have $1000, the gain or loss of $100 is significant, whereas $100 is lost in the noise for someone whose net worth is over a million dollars. SBF apparently felt that he was playing with such big numbers, that he did not need to worry about big losses, as long as there was a chance at a big, big win. Here is a Twitter Thread  by SBF, from  Dec 10, 2020:

SBF: …What about a wackier bet? How about you only win 10% of the time, but if you do you get paid out 10,000x your bet size?

[So, if you have $100k,] Kelly* suggests you only bet $10k: you’ll almost certainly lose. And if you kept doing this much more than $10k at a time, you’d probably blow out.

…this bet is great Expected Value; you win [more precisely, your Expected Value is] 1,000x your bet size.

…In many cases I think $10k is a reasonable bet. But I, personally, would do more. I’d probably do more like $50k.

Why? Because ultimately my utility function isn’t really logarithmic. It’s closer to linear.

…Kelly tells you that when the backdrop is trillions of dollars, there’s essentially no risk aversion on the scale of thousands or millions.

Put another way: if you’re maximizing EV(log(W+$1,000,000,000,000)) and W is much less than a trillion, this is very similar to just maximizing EV(W).

Does this mean you should be willing to accept a significant chance of failing to do much good sometimes?

Yes, it does. And that’s ok. If it was the right play in EV, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

(*The Kelly criterion is a formula that determines the optimal theoretical size for a bet.)

Haghani concludes, “It seems like SBF was essentially telling anyone who was listening that he’d either wind up with all the money in the world, which he’d then redistribute according to his Effective Altruist principles – or, much more likely, he’d die trying.”

( Full disclosure: I have lost an irritating amount of money thanks to SBF’s shenanigans. My BlockFi crypto account is frozen due to fallout from the FTX collapse, with no word on if/when I might see my funds again. )