Returns on Equity Amid the Financial Crisis, Response

By DavidMerkel

I appreciate constructive criticism.  I particularly appreciate comments at this blog, regarding my long article on how return on equity changed during the financial crisis.

The reviewer said,

In a world in which I didn’t have only 20 minutes to read, analyze and write about this paper, I’d like to think through his model choices. I would feel much more comfortable on this point if he accepted the Russ Roberts Science challenge and have a section discussing the process by which he arrived at the process by which he arrived at his conclusions.

Look, I have a policy.  I don’t do specification searches.  If I don’t get reasonable results in the first two tries, I abandon the project.  As it was in this case, I only did one pass through the data.  I was testing for the idea that state or national governmental policy might affect book or market value returns, after adjusting for market sector.

He later commented,

I’d have two comments:

1. What’s the point of decomposing them, then?

2. Can’t you just attribute ALL variance of corporates to ‘historical accident’? Can there be no policy implications?

On point #2, I’d defend Merkel by saying that policy implications need a big enough sample that you can reasonably hold other factors constant. You’d need a dataset of every industry in every state over every conceivable macro-economic environment, then control for those other factors. Same applies for analyzing different countries.

The point of decomposing them is that you don’t know in advance what the result will be.  I only did one pass at the data (please ask academic economists what they do), in this case, it showed that after adjusting for sectors and general economics (time), the states one was in did not matter much, as those that did well did not move to seek lower tax environs.

The piece I did last year did not attribute everything to historical accident.  This year, I was surprised to find that few successful companies had not moved to lower tax/regulation jurisdictions.

I did not know what the decomposition would lead to — that was a major reason for doing it.  If there had been some indication that companies in the US sought lower tax or regulation states, I would have published that, but it was not so, in aggregate.  I does not matter that the result was ordinary.  Once I start the problem, if I come to any understandable result, consensus or non-consensus, I publish it.

Now in truth, I don’t think the paper was one of my best efforts.  I would like to have set error bounds, but I didn’t have access to good software.  I also would have liked to use a better database, like the CRSP database, but that was not available.  Given my lack of resources, it was the best I could do.  Anyway, anyone with more constructive criticisms, I welcome them.



About the Author

David Merkel
David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website RealMoney.com. Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.