Thales of Miletus, Olive Oil, Tulip Mania of 1636 and the Chicago Board Options Exchange

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 30th, 2013

History 101

Thales of Miletus was able to Predict a Bumper Crop of Olives

Italian restaurants will have a bottle of olive oil on the table.  The more authentic restaurants.  That give you a taste of old Italy.  Where they give you bread to munch on while you wait for your food.  We pour a little olive oil on a plate.  And dip our bread in it.  And enjoy that Mediterranean flavor.  Something that some of us may believe the Olive Garden brought to the dining experience.  But olive oil actually predates the Olive Garden.  We probably started eating olives for the first time around the 8th millennium BC.  When our Neolithic ancestors were still using stone tools.  Someplace in ancient Greece.

Olive trees grew all around the Mediterranean Sea.  And the Mediterranean people probably started using olive oil around the 4th millennium BC.   That’s 4000 BC.  Awhile ago.  We began to produce olive oil commercially somewhere around 2500 BC.  And began trading this luxury good.  We ate it.  Used it in religious rituals.  In medicines.  And fuel for oil lamps.  Among other uses.  As demand grew we planted more trees.  And brought in large harvests at the end of the growing season.  And took the olives to the olive presses.  And waited for our turn.  To pay the pressman to press our olives into oil.  And during a good growing season you could find yourself waiting quite awhile.

But who has time to wait?  If only we could figure out some way to avoid that long line.  Well, as it turned out, if you were smart you could.  As Thales of Miletus did.  A Greek astronomer, philosopher and mathematician.  As well as a pretty good weather forecaster.  For he was able to predict a bumper crop of olives one year because of favorable weather.  Which would make those olive presses busy at the harvest.  So he went to the olive press owners and reserved time on their presses for a nominal down payment.  So when the harvest came in he would be at the front of the line.  If he was wrong about his forecast he would give up his nominal deposit.  And walk away.  As the press owners didn’t care whose olives they were pressing they were glad to take his money for this right to buy press time later.  They had nothing to lose.  And when Thales prediction proved true and there was a bumper crop of olives those options to buy time on those presses became very valuable.  Those anxious to get their olives into the presses were glad to pay him for those options.  To buy his right to be first to buy press time.  Which he did.  Getting quite wealthy in the process.  As well as proving a point.  Rational thinking had real value.  They could use philosophy to make life better.

As Tulip Prices continued their Meteoric Rise the Speculators entered the Market to Get Rich Quick

And the option was born.  You can use them to speculate about the price of something in the future to make a lot of money.  And you can use them for hedging risk.  Such as farmers do.  They enter contracts with people to sell their crops at a set price.  Which protects the farmer if there is a bumper crop and prices fall.  Those who didn’t enter an options contract will only get the market price for their crops.  And have an unprofitable season.  While those with options contracts will be able to sell their crops above the market price.  And have a profitable season.  But if there are droughts that reduce the harvest prices will rise.  Which protects the buyer.  As he is able to buy below the market price.  At the price in the options contract.  While those buyers without options contracts will have to pay the higher market price.  Thus entering a contract hedges risk for both buyer and seller.  One party may do better than the other if there is a large swing in price.  But neither party will suffer a bad loss.  So whatever happens in that growing season they will be around for the following growing season.  But the speculators, on the other hand, can suffer great losses.

Tulips were big in the 17th century.  The affluent adorned their homes with these beautiful flowers.  And they soon became a sign of affluence.  Today people go to the affluent shops on Rodeo Drive and buy the latest in high fashion to show off their wealth.  In the 17th century they planted tulips.  People were impressed with what they saw.  And soon had to have these wonderful flowers themselves.  Causing a great surge in demand for tulips.  Which tulip growers rushed in to meet.  But the supply couldn’t keep up with the demand.  So tulip prices soared.  Soon, growers (sellers) and wholesalers (buyers) start entering options contracts to hedge their risks in the volatile tulip market.  As tulip prices continued their meteoric rise the speculators entered the market to get rich quick.  This speculation grew into such a frenzy that people would even mortgage their homes to raise money to buy tulip options.  Waiting for the big payday when they could exercise those options.  And buy tulips at one price.  Then resell them at a higher price.  A much higher price.  The demand for options grew so great that an options market opened.  And people bought and sold tulip options.

All good things must come to an end, though.  As must speculative bubbles.  And that happened in the Netherlands in 1637.  For there comes a time where buyers simply refuse to buy anymore tulips at those high prices.  And when they stopped buying people with vast amounts of tulips to sell began to panic.  And started lowering their price.  As other sellers started doing.  When interest in buying tulips fell supply began to exceed demand.  Sending the tulip price into a freefall.  With falling tulip prices no one was buying options contracts.  Because the market price was falling so fast that it would fall below the price in those options contracts.  And when they did ‘fall out of the money’ those options contracts became worthless.  And all that money the speculators poured into the options market was lost.  People lost everything.  Even their homes.  Sending the Dutch economy into a nasty recession.

With the Advent of the Internet it’s Never been Easier to Buy and Sell Options

Stock options were a way to get rich quick.  And what made them so attractive to speculators was leverage.  A small investment could turn into great riches.  But that leverage worked both ways.  And it could take that small investment and turn it into a great loss.  Should the price move in the wrong direction and fall when you have a contract obligating you to buy at a higher price.  And with the tulip mania of 1636 investors were getting a little gun-shy of options in general.  Causing the volume of options trading to fall in London.  Concerned of the speculative nature of options London made options trading illegal in 1733.  A ban that remained until 1860.

Russell Sage inaugurated options trading in the United States in 1872.  These were over the counter (OTC).  There was no central stock exchange.  Or standardized options format.  Which made the trading difficult to say the least.  Brokers placed ads in financial journals for their respective buyers and sellers.  And waited.  For someone to read the ad.  And call.  Then haggled over the price a bit.  Signed a contract.  And then waited until the expiration date of the option.  Or placed another ad in some financial journal.  To find someone else to buy the option.

Then things started changing in 1935.  The SEC granted a license to the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) as a national securities exchange.  And in 1968, CBOT finally did something with that license.  They created the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE).  Which standardized and organized options trading.  One Nobel Prize later to Fischer Black and Myron Scholes for their “The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities” we had a ‘scientific’ way for valuing stock options.  And with the advent of the Internet it’s never been easier to buy and sell options.  Allowing some to hedge risks easily.  While others live dangerously.  And speculate.  Trying to score big.  Before they lose everything trying to get rich quick.

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Stock Options

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 29th, 2013

Economics 101

It takes a Lot of Time to Design, Develop and Bring to Market a Radical New Aircraft

The number one cost airlines have is fuel.  So anything that can reduce fuel consumption can cut an airline’s costs.  Aircraft manufacturers are aware of this.  And want to incorporate new fuel-saving technology into their aircraft.  Because that’s what airlines want.  And if you can give the airlines what they want they will buy your aircraft.  But sometimes new technology can be a little temperamental.  Everything doesn’t work as expected.  And sometimes problems that come up can take a long time to engineer through.  Like it did for the Boeing 787 Dream liner.

Boeing did everything they could think of to squeeze every last ounce of weight from the 787.  One thing they did is well known.  Thanks to a problem with it that caused the grounding of the entire 787 fleet.  The lithium-ion battery.  But that’s not the only weight-saving innovation of the 787.  They added Dual Electronic Flight Bags in the cockpit.  So pilots don’t have to bring bulky and heavy books aboard.  They went from conventional pneumatic architecture to more-electric architecture.  Eliminating the engine bleed air system and associated pneumatic system components.  Reducing weight and improving efficiency.  Which reduced fuel consumption.  They used simple trailing edge flaps.  Not slotted flaps.  Letting them use smaller flap track fairings (those canoe-shaped things underneath the trailing edge of the wings that operated the flaps).  Reducing drag.  And fuel consumption.  They used bigger engines with higher bypass ratios (the amount of air pulled into the fan disk but NOT used for combustion).  Increasing engine efficiency.  Reducing fuel consumption.  The use of composite materials decreased weight.  And the use of one-piece barrel sections eliminated additional joints, fasteners and splice plates.  Reducing weight.  And fuel consumption.

These and other innovations result in a fuel savings of 20% over similarly sized aircraft.  This is huge.  Which is why airlines are ordering this airplane.  But such a radical change in aircraft design comes with a lot of risks.  As the problem with the lithium-ion battery has shown.  And it takes a lot of time to design, develop and bring to market a new aircraft.  Especially one that is radically different from other airplanes.  So the decision to put the aircraft company on this course was a very risky decision.  And one that took a lot of guts.  Because so many things can go wrong.  Leading to cost overruns.  Which can delay promised delivery dates.  And Boeing had their share of those bringing the 787 to market.  Which they have worked through.  Will it be worth it?  As long as airlines want to save on fuel costs, yes.  And no problems arise that they can’t overcome.

Stock Options get Risk-Averse and Cautious CEOs to be Bold and Take Risks

These are big decisions.  Decisions that lead to great successes.  Or great failures.  Some so bad that they can bankrupt a company.  Someone has to be responsible for these decisions.  That one person sitting at the top of the corporation.  The CEO.  It is the CEO who has the ultimate say on the direction of the corporation.  And with this one decision all the resources of the corporation are marshaled together to take the corporation in this new direction.  Incurring great costs that will be on the books for years.  Making it hard to change course until these great investments pay off.  If they pay off.

These are the things CEOs have to deal with.  Not just at Boeing.  But throughout corporate America.  CEOs have to make these singular decisions that can have consequences for years to come.  Where it may take years to see if that one decision actually pays off.  There are few CEOs in the labor force.  So few can imagine the stress these people work under.  And in that pool of CEOs there are only a few that have the Midas touch.   Who can consistently take great risks while making all the right decisions.  Board members desperately want these CEOs.  Offering very generous compensation packages to lure them in.  And to keep them once they have them.  This crème de la crème of CEOs may make the big bucks.  But in exchange for that fat paycheck they do something few others can.  They make shareholders rich.  And they love making these owners rich.  For they love the thrill of the job.  Relishing that high-stress environment.  Where every little decision has great consequences.  Thriving under the kind of pressure that would leave most others whimpering in their beds.  Curled up in the fetal position.  In a pool of their own tears.

But not every corporation can get one of the crème de la crème.  They may have a great CEO.  But one that suffers from a major CEO character flaw.  Being averse to taking big risks.  Who instead wants to be a little more conservative.  And a little more cautious.  Shareholders don’t like overly cautious CEOs.  Because the people getting rich are doing it by breaking away from the pack.  By doing something different.  Abandoning convention.  Trying something bold.  And new.  Bringing something brand new to market that no one knows anything about.  But once they learn about it they can’t live without it.  This is what shareholders want.  Not cautious and conservative.  So to light a fire under these CEOs they came up with a new way to compensate them.  To appeal to their greed.  By letting them get rich if they can make that next great thing that sends the stock price soaring.  And the key to their greed is the stock option.

Stock Options provide a Powerful Incentive to bring Great New Things to Market

The CEO that creates the next big thing everyone will want to buy will send sales revenue soaring.  And with great sales revenue comes great profits.  Increasing the value of the company.  Which, in turn, makes the stock price soar.  This is what shareholders want.  A soaring stock price.  So to encourage the CEO to give them what they want they tie the CEO’s interest to their interests.  By giving the CEO stock options.  Making the sky the limit.  For the more the CEO increases the stock price the greater the CEO’s compensation.  Thus encouraging the CEO to try something bold and new.

A stock option is a right to buy a share of stock at a fixed price in the future.  Say the current stock price is $70/share.  The board of directors gives the CEO the option to buy, say, 500,000 shares of stock at $80/share up until some date in the future.  Creating a strong incentive for the CEO to raise the stock price.  The greater the CEO raises the price above $80 the greater his or her compensation.   Let’s say the CEO was bold and took a great risk.  And it pays off.  Sending the stock price soaring to $110/share.  When the CEO exercises those options he or she will buy 500,000 shares of stock from the company at $80/share.  The company gets $40 million in new capital to help finance further growth.  And the CEO will sell those 500,000 shares at the current market price of $110/share.  Pocketing $15 million.  And the shareholders, of course, get what they want.  A higher stock price.  Everyone wins.

Now let’s say that nothing spectacular happens.  And the stock price only rises to $75/share.  Because it’s below the ‘strike price’ the CEO will let these options expire.  The CEO profits nothing from these options.  But doesn’t lose anything either.  But what happens when the stock price falls because of that bold, new direction?  Causing the corporation to lose value.  As well as the shareholders.  But the CEO?  Again, the CEO will let those options expire.  And will lose no money.  Which is one of the benefits of stock options.  It got those risk-averse and cautious CEOs to take those big risks that got shareholders rich.  As there is no downside risk for the CEO.  Which is both good and bad.  On the one hand it encourages risk taking.  But on the other it encourages risk-taking.  Some CEOs will take excessive risks as they have nothing to lose.  Some will even cook the books to boost the stock price so they can exercise those options.  So it’s not a perfect system.  But they do provide a powerful incentive to bring great new things to market.  Which is what shareholders want.  And will take great risks themselves to get it.

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