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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Imperfect information can lead to permanent regret

I write often about the “economics of matter”. How combining existing resources into ever more valuable configurations creates value. Consider: Iron in the form of iron oxide (basically rust) used thousands of years ago to paint pictures in caves served as a storage medium of information. Fast forward to just a few decades ago and the same atoms reconfigured as a ferromagnetic material store millions of times more information in just a fraction of the space of a hard disk drive. Simplexity: more economic value per unit of raw material.
And speaking of value per unit of raw materials, think of a different element on the periodic table: Cu—copper. It’s used in everything from telephones to air conditioners. And unless you’ve been stuck reading only cave paintings, you’ve likely seen everywhere that the price of copper (along with nearly all other commodities) has more than tripled in recent years.
Which means: a penny is worth more than a penny. Now, a penny hasn’t been made out of pure copper since the mid 1800s as metals like zinc have slowly crept in. Today a penny is about 97% zinc and 3% copper.
And with the price of zinc up 75% this year and copper up 70%, it’s understandable though still shocking to hear that the US Mint just estimated that for the first time ever, it will cost more to make a penny than that same penny is worth! The rising costs of the raw materials means that pennies will actually cost about
While commodity bulls, and the banks that pay their salaries, launch investment products and gather you around the campfire telling stories of Mr.China and Mr. India who keep growing like Paul Bunyan—a few wise and contrarian students of history aren’t sitting on the side smiling.They reckon that all great bubbles are based on great stories and that when a few of the laurels upon which those stories rest disappear (signs of slowing growth, higher interest rates, a new-new thing elsewhwere), prices collapse. Bill Miller the sage of Legg Mason brilliantly wrote that copper’s average cost of production is about 90 cents per pound with a marginal cost of about $1.30 per pound. He writes: “The marginal cost should approximate the equilibrium price over time. The current price is around $3.25 per pound. It is not a question of if copper prices are going down--it is a question of when.” And if you don’t agree with Miller,but you’re starting to think the housing sector might cool off, then you should know that doesn’t help copper’s price--given that half of the copper used in the United States goes for building construction. OK, so what the heck does all this have to do with nanotech? Well if there really were an issue of material supply outstripped by demand (and not just speculation and demand for investment product), at least one brilliant scientist I know is looking at biological production of copper that is found naturally in certain enzymes—an output of microbial digestion.
And speaking of digestion, a friend has made me aware of a very serious crime of inconsistency I commit. At home and in the office, I only drink bottled water. But when eating out at restaurants, the waiter will predictably ask, “Would you like flat or sparking water?” Not wanting to be a sucker I think: “Oh, no—I won’t be tricked into the expensive bottled water—that nectar of the frauds.” Cynically and indignantly I reply, “Tap is fine, thanks.” This inconsistency is wholly illogical. But despite my own irrationality the important takeaway is having hidden knowledge outside of the framework of binary choices presented to me. In many situations in life, knowing that there are hidden choices is almost as important as knowing what they are. Magazines love their subscribers so much, they actually charge them more when they renew. How loving.Further illustrating this point,consider a different but equally trivial real-world example: tattooing your forehead. Last year, in a sad act of desperation, a woman tattooed her forehead—receiving $10,000 for putting a permanent tattoo of an internet gambling site on the prime real estate of her noggin. If she was absolutely convinced this was the best way to get money, she might’ve thought the choice was binary—but there was a hidden choice: temporary tattoos. Turns out a guy from Nebraska got almost $40,000 for agreeing to wear a temporary tattoo on his forehead advertising an anti-snoring product having auctioned it off on eBay.I guess the lesson is imperfect information can lead to permanent regret. And in the markets and in life, it does everyday.
I guess the lesson is imperfect information can lead to permanent regret.

by J.Wolfe

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