Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Relaxed Regulations, Lax Regulation, and “Too-Big-To-Regulate”

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A Short History of Financial Deregulation in the United States; CEPR

Data from the National Income and Product Accounts (1947-2009) and the National Economic Accounts (1929-47) are used to compute added value as a percentage of gross domestic product in the United States.

As an economist living in the Post-Great Recession world, I often consider the effects of greater financial sector regulation on overall economic performance.

Given my populist leanings, it may surprise you to hear that I have been conflicted about the merits of greater regulation (or more accurately, the merits of pursuing such reforms now). The argument (in my head) usually goes something like this:

During a period of weak economic growth, which we are now just starting to emerge from, a growth sector such as finance should not be held back. Listening to (part) of the hearing between the Senate Subcommittee and Goldman Execs, who invoked the concepts of economic efficiency and job growth with bravado, this is exactly what financial sector advocates want people to think.

But is there any merit to these claims? Inflating a bubble and calling it growth does not make it so, and certainly does not necessarily benefit the vast majority of people. This conclusion (which may be obvious to some, but given my determination to consider arguments and counter-arguments, consequences and unintended consequences, has to this point eluded me) led me to a much broader question:

If GDP growth doesn’t necessarily help people, perhaps a slight slowdown in growth would not necessarily hurt people?

It has long been accepted by development economists that GDP growth alone is not a reliable measure of increases in well-being / standard of living. Is it time to consider that paring back GDP growth, in order to set our financial system on more sustainable ground, might be in best interests of the vast majority of Americans?

Before considering these points, we should explore (1) how the financial sector got “too big to regulate”, and (2) why efforts to regulate big banks have proven so lackluster.

In my opinion, the root causes (and therefore solutions) are straightforward:

(1) Intentional deregulation of financial markets to spur economic growth, and;

(2) Lax enforcement of those regulations that are still on the books, due to the “revolving door” between the financial sector and government regulators

(For my readers who want a more in depth look at these issues, I would highly recommend Matt Taibbi’s best-selling book “Griftopia”)

Relaxed Regulations:

A two-year Senate-led investigation is throwing back the curtain on the outsize and sometimes hidden sway that Wall Street banks have gained over the markets for essential commodities like oil, aluminum and coal.

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase assumed a role of such significance in the commodities markets that it became possible for the banks to influence the prices that consumers pay while also securing inside information about the markets that could be used by their own traders.

Until about 20 years ago, regulated banks faced tight constraints that barred them from owning physical commodities and limited them to trading in financial contracts that were linked to the prices of commodities. But a substantial relaxation of the rules allowed the banks to own actual commodities themselves, known as “physical assets” on Wall Street.

During the second panel of the day, two executives from the aluminum industry said that Goldman’s practices were unusual and were costing aluminum users.

“The warehouse issue is having a profoundly negative impact on our customers’ businesses,” said Nick Madden, the chief supply chain officer at Novelis, a producer of rolled aluminum.

Mr. Madden said that when he first saw The Times article on Goldman’s practices, he didn’t understand why the warehouse company was encouraging long lines for customers wanting to remove their metal.

“Now I see it in black and white and I understand it,” he said, in reference to the subcommittee’s report.

One warehousing source, who is familiar with these transactions, said what he read in the report was “immoral, but not illegal”.

Far from increasing efficiency, it appears that financial intermediation may actually harm related “real” elements of the economy in certain situations.

Lax Regulation:

So deregulation has led to expansion by financial institutions into “physical assets”. But what about regulations that are still on the books? Surely, in the wake of The Great Recession, accountability and transparency have been force-fed down the financial sector’s throat?

Unfortunately, this is not the case. In an attempt to erect a meaningful barrier between the financial institutions and those who regulate them, new legislation has been proposed by Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed:

A senior Democratic senator (Jack Reed) has introduced legislation that would make the head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank a presidential appointee subject to Senate confirmation.

The New York Fed also oversees some of the nation’s largest financial institutions, and has been questioned in recent years for failing to look with enough rigor at the operations of companies like JPMorgan. The hearing on Friday will address the question of whether Fed regulators may be too soft on the banks they oversee.

“Someone at this institution needs to be directly accountable to Congress,” Reed said in a statement. “This legislation is about holding the New York Fed accountable … It’s just too powerful to be left unchecked.”

The idea of making the job a presidential appointment is not a new one: with Reed’s support it was included in the Senate’s version of Wall Street reform legislation in 2010, although it was not included in the final Dodd-Frank law.

“The perception today, and the perception for years, is there are no fences between the New York Fed and the banks they’re regulating,” said Reed.

After the subcommittee finished questioning Dudley, it turned to the matter of solutions. Columbia University professor David Beim, the author of a harsh internal investigation into the New York Federal Reserve, told the subcommittee that more needs to be done to eliminate the revolving door between the finance industry and the Fed.

“The problem is regulators and bankers form a community,” he said.

Given the dysfunction of our Federal government, making the NY Fed President a presidential appointee subject to congressional approval is by no means a sure fix. But there have been bipartisan efforts to reign in the financial sector; such a move could certainly be part of a more comprehensive financial sector reform agenda.

Too-Big-To-Regulate:

..Six years after the onset of the financial crisis, four years after Dodd Frank and two years after the biggest banks submitted the first drafts of their living wills — the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Reserve rejected the plans from 11 large banks as “unrealistic or inadequately supported.” The regulators said further that the banks had failed “to make, or even identify” structural and operational changes that would be needed to attempt an orderly resolution.

And yet the regulators are not taking steps to downsize the banks. For that to occur, the F.D.I.C. and the Fed have to agree that living wills are unworkable and that more forcible downsizing is needed. The F.D.I.C. seems to have reached that conclusion; it said flatly that the plans don’t work. But not the Fed, which has told the banks to submit new plans by July 1, 2015. The banks have had four years already. Now they have nearly another year to toy with a process that has utterly failed to produce credible results.

Will anything change between now and next July? Using the history of the last several years as a guide, the biggest banks will be even bigger, more complex and more interrelated by then. They will be undercapitalized and overleveraged. They will be reliant on unstable sources of short-term financing and will be more steeped than ever in speculative derivatives transactions.

In short, they will still be too big to fail, too big to manage and, judging from the Fed’s latest indulgence, too big to regulate.

While business cycles are largely natural occurrences, the severity of downturns are largely determined by the regulatory policies in place. This is why, following the Great Depression, rules limiting questionable financial activities were put in place.

But as time went on, and the pain of The Great Depression faded in memory, these rules were repealed in the name of economic efficiency / growth. Instead what we got was increasing inequality and the regulatory groundwork which enabled The Great Recession.

We must stop relying on “self-regulation” of the financial sector; the fact that the Fed has given financial institutions so much leeway and time in writing their own “living wills” is indeed disconcerting. Since the collapse and bailout of the financial sector, “Too-Big-To-Fail” financial institutions have only gotten larger, potentially setting the stage for an even more painful recession down the road.

When growth is the result of over-leveraging, opaque bundling, insider trading, and imaginative accounting, it benefits a select few at the expense of everyone else.

It is past time to question the assertion that tighter regulation of financial markets will lead to a meaningful increase in unemployment / deterioration of standard of living. All evidence points to the contrary; financial regulation would benefit the vast majority, at the expense of a select few who have made their fortunes exploiting loopholes and shady relationships.

The further we get from the financial crisis, the less necessary tighter financial regulation will seem. The “benefits” of having an under-regulated financial market will look that much greater than the “costs” of regulation–until it all comes crashing down.

The time for meaningful action is passing us by.

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Green News: The U.S. and China Discuss Energy Poverty, Sustainable Development in Africa

“Common But Differentiated Responsibilities”:

During the recent APEC summit, President’s Obama and Xi Jinping announced what could be a landmark environmental agreement. The U.S. pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. China pledged to reach peak emissions by 2030, while increasing its renewable energy consumption to 20% of total consumption (China currently gets about 10% of its energy from zero emission sources).

This announcement has been received well by the international community. With the two largest GHG emitters on board (in gross emissions, the map above shows per-capita emissions), many believe this announcement could galvanize support for a legally enforceable climate treaty, to be finalized during the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Another potential area of cooperation, which has received far less attention but is nonetheless significant, were discussions between the U.S. and China regarding clean energy investment in Africa (original article):

The United States is considering partnering with China on improving electricity in Africa and the proposal could be part of bilateral discussions when President Barack Obama visits Beijing next week, two sources involved told Reuters.

The 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, with a combined population of 800 million, produce roughly the same amount of power as Spain, a country of just 46 million.

The shortage imposes a massive burden on economies in the continent, constraining growth and leading to hundreds of millions of people remaining mired in poverty.

China’s policies in Africa have also been described by some African leaders as “neo-colonial” – lending money to impoverished states to secure natural resources and support state-owned Chinese construction companies.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hinted this week that discussions during the APEC conference to conclude a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would involve energy agreements in other parts of the world.

“The TPP is not only a trade agreement but also a strategic opportunity for the United States and other Pacific nations to come together, to bind together,” Kerry said in a speech in Washington on Tuesday.

“Second, powering a clean energy revolution will help us address climate change while simultaneously jump-starting economies around the world,” Kerry added.

Approximately 1.3 billion people in the world live without access to energy, 95% of which live in Sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia. Without access to energy, it is impossible for a society to modernize; energy access is an indispensable component of poverty reduction. How those who currently live without access to energy fulfill their energy needs will be a primary determinant in meeting global emission targets.

According to the International Energy Agency, 2/3 of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to reach global emissions targets. This will require both ambitious climate agreements from large emitters such as the U.S. and China, as well as aggressive investments in clean energy in countries that do not currently emit as much.

(For more reading on Africa’s Energy and Economic landscape, check out the 2014 World Energy Outlook Special Report on Africa)

Natural Resource Revenues, Accountability, and Development:

The Post-2015 Development Agenda, while appreciating the role of official development aid (ODA) in financing development initiatives, also recognizes the limits of relying on such a volatile source of funding. In order to reliably secure the finances needed for sustainable human development, developing countries will need to mobilize natural resource revenues in a responsible way.

This is admittedly  tall order. Historically, the “natural resource curse” has led natural resource revenues to be extracted by corruption rulers, cementing the rule of regressive, extractive regimes. Nigeria’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, while imperfect, provides a model for bringing transparency and accountability to natural resource revenue management.

Neocolonialism and corruption will not lead to development. When it comes to investing in Africa, the “return on investment” is in creating stable, resilient allies, who can positively contribute to global security and become new markets for trade; it is a long-game, not a short-game.

Lots of people have their hands out to grab resource “rents”. Therefore, a strong network of accountability is required if natural resource revenues are ever to benefit a countries poor / marginalized. This network includes social accountability (individuals, civil society organizations, and NGOs); corporate accountability (businesses operating in developing countries); and good governance at all levels (local, national, and international).

The Extraterritorial Responsibilities of Global Leadership:

During the APEC summit, President Obama urged China to be a partner in ensuring world order:

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday a successful China was in the interests of the United States and the world but Beijing had to be a partner in underwriting international order, and not undermine it.

“Our message is that we want to see China successful,” Obama told a news conference. “But, as they grow, we want them to be a partner in underwriting the international order, not undermining it.

He urged China to move “definitively” to a more market-based exchange rate and to stand up for human rights and freedom of the press.

At the risk of sounding cliche (or like a Spiderman move), with great power comes great responsibility. If China wants to be recognized as a global leader, it must show the world it is capable of fulfilling the obligations associated with such a role.


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Normative Narratives Turns 2!!

WordPress just informed me I started Normative Narratives 2 years ago today!

During this time I have enjoyed critically considering the major issues of the day, and developing as a writer. If my readers have enjoyed reading my blogs half as much as I have enjoyed writing them, then I am doing a good job.

Over these past two years, my responsibilities have changed considerably (from being a graduate student to having a full time job), forcing me at times to pare back on my blogging.

What has not changed is my commitment to the principles guiding NN (mission statement, manifesto), nor my resolve to continue blogging regularly whenever I can.

Thank you for being part of this journey with me; who knows where it may lead.

In other news, Happy Veterans Day! I would not be able to do what I do if not for the brave men and women–both past and present–who defended and continue to defend our freedoms!


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Economic Outlook: De Blasio Administration Rebuffs JPMorgan; Sky Doesn’t Fall

Original article:

The possibility that JPMorgan Chase would build a two-towered, $6.5 billion headquarters on the Far West Side of Manhattan streaked across the skyline in recent weeks, only to die quietly on Tuesday.

Jamie Dimon, chairman of Chase, called Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday to say that the country’s largest bank had decided to stay put on the East Side.

In the course of negotiations, the bank suggested that thousands of midlevel jobs could leave the city if the deal foundered. The mayor, in turn, publicly scoffed at the idea of handing over $1 billion in tax breaks and cash to Chase, on top of an existing $600 million in property tax breaks.

“This is an outcome that validates our approach, and our belief that these deals often come down to factors that have nothing to do with taxpayer subsidies,” Alicia Glen, deputy mayor for economic development, said in a statement on Tuesday. “We’re glad that JPMorgan has decided to maintain its buildings and its work force right where they are for the foreseeable future.”

Critics of corporate subsidies worried that the city might be returning to an era of retention deals, which had largely disappeared under Mr. de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The Committee for Better Banks, which includes labor unions and some liberal groups, was about to issue a report denouncing subsidies for Chase when the deal collapsed.

“New York has had an amazing run of job growth over the past decade,” said Jonathan Bowles, director of the nonprofit Center for an Urban Future. “I don’t see the need to turn back the clock and start another wave of big companies clamoring for tax breaks.”

When I started Normative Narratives 2 years ago, one of the first issues I wrote about was the (mis)use of tax dollars to attract private sector jobs. This “race to the bottom“, alongside unlivable minimum wages, make up the two most glaring forms of corporate welfare in America.

At a time of widening inequality (during which economic growth has gone almost exclusively to the wealthiest), marked by record corporate profits / cash holdings / tax minimization, and calls by those on the political right to slash the social safety net in the name of “fiscal responsibility”, corporate welfare is tantamount to taking from the poor to give to the rich.

Tax dollars should be spent on projects that make areas naturally more attractive to employers (a more skilled citizenry, better infrastructure, etc.). Since these projects are mutually beneficial, private money / expertise  should supplement public efforts (public-private partnerships), which in turn would build sustainable partnerships between corporations and municipalities (the opposite of “races to the bottom”).

Blindly throwing money at corporations because they promise to create jobs, without legally binding commitments and closely scrutinized CB analyses, is not a growth strategy.

Corporate interests always claim the sky is about to fall; look at an almighty “job creator” the wrong way and they’ll close up shop and skip town. In reality, there are costs and uncertainties involved in moving, two things businesses don’t like. Case in point; JP Morgan threatened to move if it did not get what it wanted, only to stay put.

Good job by the De Blasio administration in standing up to JP Morgan. The net result is the same number of jobs (perhaps some short term construction jobs were foregone), and $1 billion more in NYC’s coffers to address the many deserving issues affecting the city. Hopefully this show of political will can serve as an example for municipalities around the country.

Proponents of such subsidies would probably argue that NYC bargains from a unique position of power, which is true. However, other municipalities have their own “natural” comparative advantages (such as lower real estate costs, lower costs of living, economies of agglomeration, etc). If such a “draw” to an area does not exist, all the more reason to invest in creating one!

Generally speaking, large corporations decide they need to expand operations in order to meet demand, then shop around for the best deal (not the other way around). In other words, most subsidized jobs would exist with or without subsidies.

Ultimately, there needs to be better coordination at the federal level (including greater redistribution of tax dollars from high employment to low employment areas) to ensure municipalities are not bidding against each other for jobs that would be created anyway.

There are no shortcuts to sustainable economic development, but fiscal mismanagement, such as foregoing investing in making a market “naturally” attractive in order to subsidize jobs, can stall / reverse the process. Racing to the bottom provides cover for current administrations (and jobs for a select few), while ultimately leaving an area worse off in the long run (like putting a very expensive band-aid on a broken bone).

The De Blasio administration and JP Morgan had a staring contest, and JP Morgan blinked. If you happen to find yourself in NYC any time soon, look up–the sky isn’t falling.