Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Squanderville vs Thriftville

Squanderville versus Thriftville (Warren Buffet)
fortune oct 2003 Warren Buffet

By Warren E. Buffett, FORTUNE

I'm about to deliver a warning regarding the U.S. trade deficit and also suggest a remedy for the problem. But first I need to mention two reasons you might want to be skeptical about what I say. To begin, my forecasting record with respect to macroeconomics is far from inspiring. For example, over the past two decades I was excessively fearful of inflation. More to the point at hand, I started way back in 1987 to publicly worry about our mounting trade deficits -- and, as you know, we've not only survived but also thrived. So on the trade front, score at least one "wolf" for me. Nevertheless, I am crying wolf again and this time backing it with Berkshire Hathaway's money. Through the spring of 2002, I had lived nearly 72 years without purchasing a foreign currency. Since then Berkshire has made significant investments in -- and today holds -- several currencies. I won't give you particulars; in fact, it is largely irrelevant which currencies they are. What does matter is the underlying point: To hold other currencies is to believe that the dollar will decline.

Both as an American and as an investor, I actually hope these commitments prove to be a mistake. Any profits Berkshire might make from currency trading would pale against the losses the company and our shareholders, in other aspects of their lives, would incur from a plunging dollar.

But as head of Berkshire Hathaway, I am in charge of investing its money in ways that make sense. And my reason for finally putting my money where my mouth has been so long is that our trade deficit has greatly worsened, to the point that our country's "net worth," so to speak, is now being transferred abroad at an alarming rate.

A perpetuation of this transfer will lead to major trouble. To understand why, take a wildly fanciful trip with me to two isolated, side-by-side islands of equal size, Squanderville and Thriftville. Land is the only capital asset on these islands, and their communities are primitive, needing only food and producing only food. Working eight hours a day, in fact, each inhabitant can produce enough food to sustain himself or herself. And for a long time that's how things go along. On each island everybody works the prescribed eight hours a day, which means that each society is self-sufficient.

Eventually, though, the industrious citizens of Thriftville decide to do some serious saving and investing, and they start to work 16 hours a day. In this mode they continue to live off the food they produce in eight hours of work but begin exporting an equal amount to their one and only trading outlet, Squanderville.

The citizens of Squanderville are ecstatic about this turn of events, since they can now live their lives free from toil but eat as well as ever. Oh, yes, there's a quid pro quo -- but to the Squanders, it seems harmless: All that the Thrifts want in exchange for their food is Squanderbonds (which are denominated, naturally, in Squanderbucks).

Over time Thriftville accumulates an enormous amount of these bonds, which at their core represent claim checks on the future output of Squanderville. A few pundits in Squanderville smell trouble coming. They foresee that for the Squanders both to eat and to pay off -- or simply service -- the debt they're piling up will eventually require them to work more than eight hours a day. But the residents of Squanderville are in no mood to listen to such doomsaying.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Thriftville begin to get nervous. Just how good, they ask, are the IOUs of a shiftless island? So the Thrifts change strategy: Though they continue to hold some bonds, they sell most of them to Squanderville residents for Squanderbucks and use the proceeds to buy Squanderville land. And eventually the Thrifts own all of Squanderville.

At that point, the Squanders are forced to deal with an ugly equation: They must now not only return to working eight hours a day in order to eat -- they have nothing left to trade -- but must also work additional hours to service their debt and pay Thriftville rent on the land so imprudently sold. In effect, Squanderville has been colonized by purchase rather than conquest.

It can be argued, of course, that the present value of the future production that Squanderville must forever ship to Thriftville only equates to the production Thriftville initially gave up and that therefore both have received a fair deal. But since one generation of Squanders gets the free ride and future generations pay in perpetuity for it, there are -- in economist talk -- some pretty dramatic "intergenerational inequities."

Let's think of it in terms of a family: Imagine that I, Warren Buffett, can get the suppliers of all that I consume in my lifetime to take Buffett family IOUs that are payable, in goods and services and with interest added, by my descendants. This scenario may be viewed as effecting an even trade between the Buffett family unit and its creditors. But the generations of Buffetts following me are not likely to applaud the deal (and, heaven forbid, may even attempt to welsh on it).

Think again about those islands: Sooner or later the Squanderville government, facing ever greater payments to service debt, would decide to embrace highly inflationary policies -- that is, issue more Squanderbucks to dilute the value of each. After all, the government would reason, those irritating Squanderbonds are simply claims on specific numbers of Squanderbucks, not on bucks of specific value. In short, making Squanderbucks less valuable would ease the island's fiscal pain.

That prospect is why I, were I a resident of Thriftville, would opt for direct ownership of Squanderville land rather than bonds of the island's government. Most governments find it much harder morally to seize foreign-owned property than they do to dilute the purchasing power of claim checks foreigners hold. Theft by stealth is preferred to theft by force.

So what does all this island hopping have to do with the U.S.? Simply put, after World War II and up until the early 1970s we operated in the industrious Thriftville style, regularly selling more abroad than we purchased. We concurrently invested our surplus abroad, with the result that our net investment -- that is, our holdings of foreign assets less foreign holdings of U.S. assets -- increased (under methodology, since revised, that the government was then using) from $37 billion in 1950 to $68 billion in 1970. In those days, to sum up, our country's "net worth," viewed in totality, consisted of all the wealth within our borders plus a modest portion of the wealth in the rest of the world.

Additionally, because the U.S. was in a net ownership position with respect to the rest of the world, we realized net investment income that, piled on top of our trade surplus, became a second source of investable funds. Our fiscal situation was thus similar to that of an individual who was both saving some of his salary and reinvesting the dividends from his existing nest egg.

In the late 1970s the trade situation reversed, producing deficits that initially ran about 1 percent of GDP. That was hardly serious, particularly because net investment income remained positive. Indeed, with the power of compound interest working for us, our net ownership balance hit its high in 1980 at $360 billion.

Since then, however, it's been all downhill, with the pace of decline rapidly accelerating in the past five years. Our annual trade deficit now exceeds 4 percent of GDP. Equally ominous, the rest of the world owns a staggering $2.5 trillion more of the U.S. than we own of other countries. Some of this $2.5 trillion is invested in claim checks -- U.S. bonds, both governmental and private -- and some in such assets as property and equity securities.

In effect, our country has been behaving like an extraordinarily rich family that possesses an immense farm. In order to consume 4 percent more than we produce -- that's the trade deficit -- we have, day by day, been both selling pieces of the farm and increasing the mortgage on what we still own.

To put the $2.5 trillion of net foreign ownership in perspective, contrast it with the $12 trillion value of publicly owned U.S. stocks or the equal amount of U.S. residential real estate or what I would estimate as a grand total of $50 trillion in national wealth. Those comparisons show that what's already been transferred abroad is meaningful -- in the area, for example, of 5 percent of our national wealth.

More important, however, is that foreign ownership of our assets will grow at about $500 billion per year at the present trade-deficit level, which means that the deficit will be adding about one percentage point annually to foreigners' net ownership of our national wealth. As that ownership grows, so will the annual net investment income flowing out of this country. That will leave us paying ever-increasing dividends and interest to the world rather than being a net receiver of them, as in the past. We have entered the world of negative compounding -- goodbye pleasure, hello pain.

We were taught in Economics 101 that countries could not for long sustain large, ever-growing trade deficits. At a point, so it was claimed, the spree of the consumption-happy nation would be braked by currency-rate adjustments and by the unwillingness of creditor countries to accept an endless flow of IOUs from the big spenders. And that's the way it has indeed worked for the rest of the world, as we can see by the abrupt shutoffs of credit that many profligate nations have suffered in recent decades.

The U.S., however, enjoys special status. In effect, we can behave today as we wish because our past financial behavior was so exemplary -- and because we are so rich. Neither our capacity nor our intention to pay is questioned, and we continue to have a mountain of desirable assets to trade for consumables. In other words, our national credit card allows us to charge truly breathtaking amounts. But that card's credit line is not limitless.

The time to halt this trading of assets for consumables is now, and I have a plan to suggest for getting it done. My remedy may sound gimmicky, and in truth it is a tariff called by another name. But this is a tariff that retains most free-market virtues, neither protecting specific industries nor punishing specific countries nor encouraging trade wars. This plan would increase our exports and might well lead to increased overall world trade. And it would balance our books without there being a significant decline in the value of the dollar, which I believe is otherwise almost certain to occur.

We would achieve this balance by issuing what I will call Import Certificates (ICs) to all U.S. exporters in an amount equal to the dollar value of their exports. Each exporter would, in turn, sell the ICs to parties -- either exporters abroad or importers here -- wanting to get goods into the U.S. To import $1 million of goods, for example, an importer would need ICs that were the byproduct of $1 million of exports. The inevitable result: trade balance.

Because our exports total about $80 billion a month, ICs would be issued in huge, equivalent quantities -- that is, 80 billion certificates a month -- and would surely trade in an exceptionally liquid market. Competition would then determine who among those parties wanting to sell to us would buy the certificates and how much they would pay. (I visualize that the certificates would be issued with a short life, possibly of six months, so that speculators would be discouraged from accumulating them.)

For illustrative purposes, let's postulate that each IC would sell for 10 cents -- that is, 10 cents per dollar of exports behind them. Other things being equal, this amount would mean a U.S. producer could realize 10 percent more by selling his goods in the export market than by selling them domestically, with the extra 10 percent coming from his sales of ICs.

In my opinion, many exporters would view this as a reduction in cost, one that would let them cut the prices of their products in international markets. Commodity-type products would particularly encourage this kind of behavior. If aluminum, for example, was selling for 66 cents per pound domestically and ICs were worth 10 percent, domestic aluminum producers could sell for about 60 cents per pound (plus transportation costs) in foreign markets and still earn normal margins. In this scenario, the output of the U.S. would become significantly more competitive and exports would expand. Along the way, the number of jobs would grow.

Foreigners selling to us, of course, would face tougher economics. But that's a problem they're up against no matter what trade "solution" is adopted -- and make no mistake, a solution must come. (As Herb Stein said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.") In one way the IC approach would give countries selling to us great flexibility, since the plan does not penalize any specific industry or product. In the end, the free market would determine what would be sold in the U.S. and who would sell it. The ICs would determine only the aggregate dollar volume of what was sold.

To see what would happen to imports, let's look at a car now entering the U.S. at a cost to the importer of $20,000. Under the new plan and the assumption that ICs sell for 10 percent, the importer's cost would rise to $22,000. If demand for the car was exceptionally strong, the importer might manage to pass all of this on to the American consumer. In the usual case, however, competitive forces would take hold, requiring the foreign manufacturer to absorb some, if not all, of the $2,000 IC cost.

There is no free lunch in the IC plan: It would have certain serious negative consequences for U.S. citizens. Prices of most imported products would increase, and so would the prices of certain competitive products manufactured domestically. The cost of the ICs, either in whole or in part, would therefore typically act as a tax on consumers.

That is a serious drawback. But there would be drawbacks also to the dollar continuing to lose value or to our increasing tariffs on specific products or instituting quotas on them -- courses of action that in my opinion offer a smaller chance of success. Above all, the pain of higher prices on goods imported today dims beside the pain we will eventually suffer if we drift along and trade away ever larger portions of our country's net worth.

I believe that ICs would produce, rather promptly, a U.S. trade equilibrium well above present export levels but below present import levels. The certificates would moderately aid all our industries in world competition, even as the free market determined which of them ultimately met the test of "comparative advantage."

This plan would not be copied by nations that are net exporters, because their ICs would be valueless. Would major exporting countries retaliate in other ways? Would this start another Smoot-Hawley tariff war? Hardly. At the time of Smoot-Hawley we ran an unreasonable trade surplus that we wished to maintain. We now run a damaging deficit that the whole world knows we must correct.

For decades the world has struggled with a shifting maze of punitive tariffs, export subsidies, quotas, dollar-locked currencies, and the like. Many of these import-inhibiting and export-encouraging devices have long been employed by major exporting countries trying to amass ever larger surpluses -- yet significant trade wars have not erupted. Surely one will not be precipitated by a proposal that simply aims at balancing the books of the world's largest trade debtor. Major exporting countries have behaved quite rationally in the past and they will continue to do so -- though, as always, it may be in their interest to attempt to convince us that they will behave otherwise.

The likely outcome of an IC plan is that the exporting nations -- after some initial posturing -- will turn their ingenuity to encouraging imports from us. Take the position of China, which today sells us about $140 billion of goods and services annually while purchasing only $25 billion. Were ICs to exist, one course for China would be simply to fill the gap by buying 115 billion certificates annually. But it could alternatively reduce its need for ICs by cutting its exports to the U.S. or by increasing its purchases from us. This last choice would probably be the most palatable for China, and we should wish it to be so.

If our exports were to increase and the supply of ICs were therefore to be enlarged, their market price would be driven down. Indeed, if our exports expanded sufficiently, ICs would be rendered valueless and the entire plan made moot. Presented with the power to make this happen, important exporting countries might quickly eliminate the mechanisms they now use to inhibit exports from us.

Were we to install an IC plan, we might opt for some transition years in which we deliberately ran a relatively small deficit, a step that would enable the world to adjust as we gradually got where we need to be. Carrying this plan out, our government could either auction "bonus" ICs every month or simply give them, say, to less-developed countries needing to increase their exports. The latter course would deliver a form of foreign aid likely to be particularly effective and appreciated.

I will close by reminding you again that I cried wolf once before. In general, the batting average of doomsayers in the U.S. is terrible. Our country has consistently made fools of those who were skeptical about either our economic potential or our resiliency. Many pessimistic seers simply underestimated the dynamism that has allowed us to overcome problems that once seemed ominous. We still have a truly remarkable country and economy.

But I believe that in the trade deficit we also have a problem that is going to test all of our abilities to find a solution. A gently declining dollar will not provide the answer. True, it would reduce our trade deficit to a degree, but not by enough to halt the outflow of our country's net worth and the resulting growth in our investment-income deficit.

Perhaps there are other solutions that make more sense than mine. However, wishful thinking -- and its usual companion, thumb sucking -- is not among them. From what I now see, action to halt the rapid outflow of our national wealth is called for, and ICs seem the least painful and most certain way to get the job done. Just keep remembering that this is not a small problem: For example, at the rate at which the rest of the world is now making net investments in the U.S., it could annually buy and sock away nearly 4 percent of our publicly traded stocks.

In evaluating business options at Berkshire, my partner, Charles Munger, suggests that we pay close attention to his jocular wish: "All I want to know is where I'm going to die, so I'll never go there." Framers of our trade policy should heed this caution -- and steer clear of Squanderville.

FORTUNE editor at large Carol Loomis, who is a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder, worked with Warren Buffett on this article.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Precious Metals

interesting article on precious metals....sounds similar to the petroleum supply/demand picture...

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Gold and Oil

Tip of the day: you better start buying up that gold and oil!!!

Thursday, April 24, 2003

The Future of The Oil Patch

here's some interesting info from an energy analyst on the future of the oil patch..

It's time for a run!

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Consumption and The Crisis in Iraq

The majority of wars in our history have been religiously based. Look at N. Ireland...Christians killing Christians... Yes, the propaganda makes each side out to be evil. A mother in Iraq is as caring as a mother in the US. A child in Iraq is as precious as a child in the US. Countries of people aren't evil, but their leaders can be.

My personal belief is that our interest in this region is purely about oil. It's about oil because you and I live in large houses, drive cars all the time, eat food out of plastic containers, and keep warm in the winter. We consume 25% of the worlds and I. This mission is about establishing a base for future conflicts to come in a region that is significant to the future well being of our country. Right or wrong, that's the plan. If it were about a humanitarian effort, we would then have to ask why are so many Africans suffering? Bosnians? and the list goes on. If it were about weapons of mass destruction, we'd be in N. Korea, India, and Pakistan. Yes, it's about oil, but you and I are responsible for it until we reduce our consumption by 80%. Are you committed?

Puplava's View on Derivatives

Puplava's risk comments are targeted at the significant amount of derivatives in the world.
His argument is that the risk can NOT be taken out. Many on Wall Street believe that great mathematical models can remove the risk. For a more thorough understanding of the crisis evolving....

Monday, March 17, 2003

The Iraq Wildcard

This Iraq thing is a major wildcard!

Time For Another Oil Boom

Just back from the slopes.....
This week should be interesting with numbers coming out and the Iraq situation heating up.
I'm still pessimistic over the market and economy, but very high on the petroleum industry. It's time for another oil boom...

Monday, March 3, 2003

What Worries Warren

Buffett on Investing in Stocks Today
'Unfortunately, the hangover from [the market bubble] may prove to be proportional to the binge.'
Monday, March 3, 2003
By Warren Buffett

In a section of his upcoming annual letter to shareholders separate from the
derivatives discussion, Buffett talks about stocks, cash, and the lure of junk bonds. A list of Berkshire's major common stock investments (those with a market value of more than $500 million at the end of 2002) will be posted on March 8, on

We continue to do little in equities. Charlie and I are increasingly comfortable with our holdings in Berkshire's major investees because most of them have increased their earnings while their valuations have decreased. But we are not inclined to add to them. Though these enterprises have good prospects, we don't yet believe their shares are undervalued.

In our view, the same conclusion fits stocks generally. Despite three years of falling prices, which have significantly improved the attractiveness of common stocks, we still find very few that even mildly interest us. That dismal fact is testimony to the insanity of valuations reached during The Great Bubble. Unfortunately, the hangover may prove to be proportional to the binge.

The aversion to equities that Charlie and I exhibit today is far from congenital. We love owning common stocks--if they can be purchased at attractive prices. In my 61 years of investing, 50 or so years have offered that kind of opportunity. There will be years like that again. Unless,however, we see a very high probability of at least 10% pretax returns (which translate to 6% to 7% after corporate tax), we will sit on the sidelines. With short-term money returning less than 1% after-tax, sitting it out is no fun. But occasionally successful investing requires inactivity.

Derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction. The dangers are now latent--but they could be lethal. Another problem about derivatives is that they can exacerbate trouble that a corporation has run into for completely unrelated reasons. This pile-on effect occurs because many derivatives contracts require that a company suffering a credit downgrade immediately supply collateral to counterparties. Imagine, then, that a company is downgraded because of general adversity and that its derivatives instantly kick in with their requirement, imposing an unexpected and enormous demand for cash collateral on the company. The need to meet this demand can then throw the company into a liquidity crisis that may, in some cases, trigger still more downgrades. It all becomes a spiral that can lead to a corporate meltdown.

Derivatives also create a daisy-chain risk that is akin to the risk run by insurers or reinsurers that lay off much of their business with others. In both cases, huge receivables from many counterparties tend to build up over time. (At Gen Re Securities, we still have $6.5 billion of receivables, though we've been in a liquidation mode for nearly a year.) A participant may see himself as prudent, believing his large credit exposures to be diversified and therefore not dangerous. Under certain circumstances, though, an exogenous event that causes the receivable from Company A to go bad will also affect those from Companies B through Z. History teaches us that a crisis often causes problems to correlate in a manner undreamed of in more tranquil times.

In banking, the recognition of a "linkage" problem was one of the reasons for the formation of the Federal Reserve System. Before the Fed was established, the failure of weak banks would sometimes put sudden and unanticipated liquidity demands on previously strong banks, causing them to fail in turn. The Fed now insulates the strong from the troubles of the weak. But there is no central bank assigned to the job of preventing the dominoes toppling in insurance or derivatives. In these industries, firms that are fundamentally solid can become troubled simply because of the travails of other firms further down the chain. When a "chain reaction" threat exists within an industry, it pays to minimize links of any kind. That's how we conduct our reinsurance business, and it's one reason we are exiting derivatives.

Many people argue that derivatives reduce systemic problems, in that participants who can't bear certain risks are able to transfer them to stronger hands. These people believe that derivatives act to stabilize the economy, facilitate trade, and eliminate bumps for individual participants. And, on a micro level, what they say is often true. Indeed, at Berkshire, I sometimes engage in large-scale derivatives transactions in order to facilitate certain investment strategies.

Charlie and I believe, however, that the macro picture is dangerous and getting more so. Large amounts of risk, particularly credit risk, have become concentrated in the hands of relatively few derivatives dealers, who in addition trade extensively with one another. The troubles of one could quickly infect the others. On top of that, these dealers are owed huge amounts by nondealer counterparties. Some of these counterparties, as I've mentioned, are linked in ways that could cause them to contemporaneously run into a problem because of a single event (such as the implosion of the telecom industry or the precipitous decline in the value of merchant power projects). Linkage, when it suddenly surfaces, can trigger serious systemic problems.

Indeed, in 1998, the leveraged and derivatives-heavy activities of a single hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, caused the Federal Reserve anxieties so severe that it hastily orchestrated a rescue effort. In later congressional testimony, Fed officials acknowledged that, had they not intervened, the outstanding trades of LTCM--a firm unknown to the general public and employing only a few hundred people--could well have posed a serious threat to the stability of American markets. In other words, the Fed acted because its leaders were fearful of what might have happened to other financial institutions had the LTCM domino toppled. And this affair,though it paralyzed many parts of the fixed-income market for weeks, was far from a worst-case scenario.

One of the derivatives instruments that LTCM used was total-return swaps, contracts that facilitate 100% leverage in various markets, including stocks. For example, Party A to a contract, usually a bank, puts up all of the money for the purchase of a stock, while Party B, without putting up any capital, agrees that at a future date it will receive any gain or pay any loss that the bank realizes.

Total-return swaps of this type make a joke of margin requirements. Beyond that, other types of derivatives severely curtail the ability of regulators to curb leverage and generally get their arms around the risk profiles of banks, insurers, and other financial institutions. Similarly, even experienced investors and analysts encounter major problems in analyzing the financial condition of firms that are heavily involved with derivatives contracts. When Charlie and I finish reading the long footnotes detailing the derivatives activities of major banks, the only thing we understand is that we don't understand how much risk the institution is running.

The derivatives genie is now well out of the bottle, and these instruments will almost certainly multiply in variety and number until some event makes their toxicity clear. Knowledge of how dangerous they are has already permeated the electricity and gas businesses, in which the eruption of major troubles caused the use of derivatives to diminish dramatically. Elsewhere, however, the derivatives business continues to expand unchecked. Central banks and governments have so far found no effective way to control, or even monitor, the risks posed by these contracts.

Charlie and I believe Berkshire should be a fortress of financial strength--for the sake of our owners, creditors, policyholders, and employees. We try to be alert to any sort of mega-catastrophe risk, and that posture may make us unduly apprehensive about the burgeoning quantities of long-term derivatives contracts and the massive amount of uncollateralized receivables that are growing alongside. In our view, however, derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.

Monday, February 24, 2003

Collective Action and Behavior

Army Ants Obey Traffic Plan to Avoid Jams, Study Says
John Pickrellfor National Geographic NewsFebruary 24, 2003

"Many complex and seemingly organized group behaviors…have been shown to emerge from the collective action of individuals that do not have an understanding of the big picture," commented Martin Burd who studies evolution and behavior at Monash University in Melbourne Australia.

Just as a city relies on an efficient transportation network, research shows that vast army ant colonies also employ simple mechanisms to organize traffic flow and mimimize congestion.
According to a new study, some carnivorous ants use just a few simple rules of thumb to determine the direction taken by prey-seeking raiding parties and to organize potentially chaotic forest-floor freeways, packed with up to 200,000 fast-moving workers.

"It's clear that the functioning and success of modern cities is dependent on an efficient transportation system," said Iain D. Couzin, a biologist at Princeton University, New Jersey, and co-author of the new study. "[Therefore] the effective management of traffic is likely to be essential to insect societies," he said.

"When one studies the organization of insect societies, the similarities [to human societies] are often striking, whether we like it or not," commented Madeleine Beekman, who studies bees at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Attack of the Clones
Effective congestion management is especially important for the jungle-living army ants of central and South America, Eciton burchelli, said Couzin. Colonies of E.burchelli can be made up of up to half a million workers or more, he said.

E.Burchelli ants stage colossal raids in search of invertebrate prey. During these raids, up to 200,000 near-blind ants stream out of their nest and form multiple freeway-like trails that are up to 20 meters (65 feet) wide and 100 meters (330 feet) long. In a raid the ants can attack and kill as many as 30,000 prey items.

"These ants can sweep over an area of more than 1,500 square meters [1,800 square yards] in a single day, and devastate the invertebrate fauna to such a degree that the colony has to be nomadic," said Couzin.

Army ants are also unique in constructing bivouac-like nests entirely from their own bodies. A nest is made up of sheets of ants connected by special claws, said Couzin. The strategy is necessary when, during nomadic phases, the colony may move every day for up to twenty days at a time.

Intrigued at the ants' ability to form separate traffic lanes within the foraging freeways, Couzin and his colleague, Nigel R. Franks at Bristol University's Centre for Behavioural Biology in England, designed a computer model to mimic the individual interactions and movements of ants and shed light on their foraging behavior.

The pair then compared the computer data with the real behavior of ant colonies filmed in Panama's Soberania National Park.

The scientists found that simple movement rules, obeyed by each ant, collectively add up to the large-scale movement of the entire raiding party. "Local interactions can have a very large influence on large-scale patterns and behavior," said Couzin.

One of the rules obeyed by ants is that each blind forager instinctively turns away from other ants approaching it in the opposite direction.

In order to determine how a phalanx of foragers leaving the nest chooses a direction in which to raid, the pair looked to another behavioral pattern known as a circular mill. When ants are separated off from the main colony—in the laboratory or under exceptionally heavy rainfall in the wild—they often form a milling circle, trailing around in the same direction.

The computer model revealed that the rotation direction is mostly determined by chance. As more and more ants move in one random direction, it becomes increasingly difficult for other ants to go against the flow, as they collide with ants moving in the opposite direction, and are forced to turn around. This behavior#151;whereby ants eventually are forced to move in the same direction—may explain how the raiding party decides on a direction in which to hunt, said Couzin.

The Big Picture
"Many complex and seemingly organized group behaviors…have been shown to emerge from the collective action of individuals that do not have an understanding of the big picture," commented Martin Burd who studies evolution and behavior at Monash University in Melbourne Australia.

Another simple rule is that ants follow a trail of smelly chemicals, laid down by other ants. Like painted stripes on a road, these chemicals tell the poorly-sighted foragers which way to go.

When raiders set out, they move along the chemical trails at high speed in one direction. However, as they encounter prey, they must return along the freeway to the nest. This task is initially very difficult with an onslaught of speeding traffic coming in the opposite direction.

Couzin and Franks found that a simple difference in the rate at which returning ants are prepared to turn away to avoid head on collisions is enough to order ant-freeways into three efficiently organized traffic lanes.

All the ants instinctively prefer to be at the center of the trail, where the strongest marker fragrance can be found. However, as returning ants—burdened with invertebrate cargo—are less likely to turn to avoid a collision, a stream of these foragers end up forming the central lane of the freeway.

Outbound ants, which more rapidly dodge to avoid collisions, end up forming two lanes on either side of the homeward-bound trail.

This research "shows how simple responses to local information, allows organized traffic lanes to form, instead of a helter-skelter mob of aimless ants…no traffic cops, no road maps, no ministry of transportation," said Burd.

The emergence of "self-organized" patterns has been shown to be a general pattern in many other species of social insects, such as termites and bees, agreed David Sumpter a mathematician at Oxford University in England.

The ability to form congestion-minimizing traffic lanes in E.burchelli has probably evolved due to the great time constraints imposed on raiding parties, said Couzin. Raiding parties leave at dawn and must return by dusk, when the colony emigrates.

The findings were recently detailed in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

It's Time to Locate Some Hydrocarbons

i believe that the petroleum industry is set for a big run!

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The Next Big Thing....Things!

a interesting new article at

Given all of these uncertainties, where should one invest this year? I believe the "Next Big Thing" is going to be in "things" such as commodities. The big winners in this decade are going to be gold, silver, and energy. Other commodities from sugar, coffee, cocoa and grains, to other soft goods will also be winners. Commodity prices will rise because of two trends: a declining US dollar and rising populations and industrialization of developing economies.
The time for paper is over and the rise of "things" has just begun. Another trend that is taking place is what Marc Faber calls the reemergence of the emerging economies. Economic power is moving from the West to the East and this trend is irreversible.