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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Economic Outlook: The Relationship Between Wages, Productivity, and Economic Inequality In America

Source: The Employment Policy Network (Huffington Post)

Note: Hourly compensation is of production/nonsupervisory workers in the private sector and productivity is for the total economy.

Source: Author’s analysis of unpublished total economy data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Productivity and Costs program and Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Income and Product Accounts public data series

THE BOTTOM (high school graduates):

This graph highlights the growing disparity between wages paid and productivity for different educational levels (which we will use as proxies for societal classes). There are a number of explanations for this decoupling. One explanation is the decline of labor union participation due to regulatory changes and pressure from globalization. Another explanation is that as technology has advanced, it has become and increasingly important factor of production; businesses are opting to spend a larger portion of their revenues on machinery as opposed to workers.

This Monday I observed a roundtable at the U.N.– “The Threat of Growing Inequalities”–where one of the speakers raised this point. Taking home a “smaller piece of the pie”, those at the bottom are able to buy less political influence, which leads to weakened labor rights and neglected falling real minimum wages. Economic forces enable those at the top to rig to laws in their favor, further exacerbating inequality–this is the political economy explanation of rising inequality. This explanation hits on another divisive element of contemporary American society, the different legal system experienced based on ones wealth.

Whatever the reason (or as is often the case in real-world economic analysis, combination of reasons), this phenomenon obviously contributes to increasing inequality. How bad is inequality today? The Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality has 20 graphs which tell much of the story, while Politifact has compiled a number of inequality related “fact-checks”.

It is heartening to see grassroots minimum-wage movements emerge, spanning many industries (and worldwide, many countries), led by people who are willing to take a stand through collective action. These people are willing to risk the wrath of vengeful corporate executives for economic justice. However, it will take a concerted effort by well intended politicians, independent media outlets (I try to do my part), and progressive judges / competent public defenders to capitalize on this grassroots activism if meaningful progress is to be made on the inequality front.

THE TOP (“the .1%” is not represented in the graph above):

What is going on at the bottom of the economic pyramid is only part of the inequality story. The meteoric rise of top earners incomes increases inequality; economic growth is important, but how evenly it is distributed also matters. Again here we see a decoupling of wages and productivity in the other direction  (much greater compensation than productivity; in fact, one could argue short-sighted investments result in negative productivity for the economy as a whole, while at the sane time lead to huge rewards for those carrying them out). A micro-example of this adverse relationship, described by former derivatives trader Sam Polk, as “wealth addiction”, is highlighted in a recent NYT opinion piece:

IN my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.

I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did; now, for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me. I made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. I had marketable talents. But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. Not so nurse practitioners. What had seemed normal now seemed deeply distorted.

DESPITE my realizations, it was incredibly difficult to leave. I was terrified of running out of money and of forgoing future bonuses. More than anything, I was afraid that five or 10 years down the road, I’d feel like an idiot for walking away from my one chance to be really important. What made it harder was that people thought I was crazy for thinking about leaving. In 2010, in a final paroxysm of my withering addiction, I demanded $8 million instead of $3.6 million. My bosses said they’d raise my bonus if I agreed to stay several more years. Instead, I walked away.

The first year was really hard. I went through what I can only describe as withdrawal — waking up at nights panicked about running out of money, scouring the headlines to see which of my old co-workers had gotten promoted. Over time it got easier — I started to realize that I had enough money, and if I needed to make more, I could. But my wealth addiction still hasn’t gone completely away. Sometimes I still buy lottery tickets.

Wealth addiction was described by the late sociologist and playwright Philip Slater in a 1980 book, but addiction researchers have paid the concept little attention. Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.

I see Wall Street’s mantra — “We’re smarter and work harder than everyone else, so we deserve all this money” — for what it is: the rationalization of addicts. From a distance I can see what I couldn’t see then — that Wall Street is a toxic culture that encourages the grandiosity of people who are desperately trying to feel powerful.

I was lucky. My experience with drugs and alcohol allowed me to recognize my pursuit of wealth as an addiction. The years of work I did with my counselor helped me heal the parts of myself that felt damaged and inadequate, so that I had enough of a core sense of self to walk away.

Dozens of different types of 12-step support groups — including Clutterers Anonymous and On-Line Gamers Anonymous — exist to help addicts of various types, yet there is no Wealth Addicts Anonymous. Why not? Because our culture supports and even lauds the addiction. Look at the magazine covers in any newsstand, plastered with the faces of celebrities and C.E.O.’s; the super-rich are our cultural gods. I hope we all confront our part in enabling wealth addicts to exert so much influence over our country.

This is a powerful piece, an inside voice admitting that derivatives traders “don’t really do anything”, and that an insatiable “wealth addiction” (and the political clout it buys) drives a widening income gap in this country. The idea that much investment “doesn’t really do anything”, that it is speculative rather than true investment, is not a new concept. In fact, the concept was laid out eloquently by John Maynard Keynes in “The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money“:

It happens, however, that the energies and skill of the professional investor and speculator are mainly occupied otherwise. For most of these persons are, in fact, largely concerned, not with making superior long-term forecasts of the probable yield of an investment over its whole life, but with foreseeing changes in the conventional basis of valuation a short time ahead of the general public. They are concerned, not with what an investment is really worth to a man who buys it “for keeps”, but with what the market will value it at, under the influence of mass psychology, three months or a year hence.

Of the maxims of orthodox finance none, surely, is more anti-social than the fetish of liquidity, the doctrine that it is a positive virtue on the part of investment institutions to concentrate their resources upon the holding of “liquid” securities. It forgets that there is no such thing as liquidity of investment for the community as a whole. The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future. The actual, private object of the most skilled investment to-day is “to beat the gun”, as the Americans so well express it, to outwit the crowd, and to pass the bad, or depreciating, half-crown to the other fellow.” 

This was written in 1936 in the context of post-Great Depression financial regulation, long before technological changes such as the internet and mass-deregulation created a risk-seeking “too-big-to-fail” financial sector which nearly destroyed the global economy in 2008. One can imagine what Keynes would have to say about the financial sector–and the inadequate regulatory response to the Great Recession–we experience today!

The top his risen due with the help of financial deregulation, enabling a “wealth addiction” by canonizing those selfish (or at best ignorant) enough to pursue such ends. This, coupled with the bottoming out of the lower end of the economic pyramid, leads to gross inequality. Inequality distorts our legal and political system, which leads to self-perpetuating social immobility; those at the top stay at the top (and continue rising), while those at the bottom stay at the bottom (an inter-generational poverty trap).

But how could we let this happen to America, once a “beacon of hope”? Wouldn’t our democratic system have stopped this from happening?

THE MIDDLE (bachelors and graduate degree earners):

It is indeed perplexing how we got into this mess, given America’s democratic system. Part of the explanation is that we canonize the rich–we want to be them, we don’t want to regulate them. We also vilify the poor–they are lazy, undeserving, and are responsible for the majority of anti-social behavior (crime, drug use, etc.). “We” here is the middle class, the last faction of American society where social mobility and meritocracy exists (to a certain extent).

Middle class families can afford the necessities needed for “equality of opportunity”, even if they cannot afford great luxuries. They earn college degrees and go on to make living wages. These workers still see a connection between productivity and compensation. An income of $50,000/yr is probably related to the amount you produce. Perform well and there is a promotion in it for you; you may even “make it to the top”!

To paraphrase John Steinbeck: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”

Those at the top receive more than they produce, so why complain (however they do get defensive anytime someone proposes a common sense regulation)? Those in the middle earn roughly what they produce, and have a reasonable belief they will make it to the top; you don’t want to regulate what you one day aspire to be! Those at the bottom–well fuck em’ they’re lazy drug users!

How have those at the top succeeded at winning the PR war on income inequality? The best explanation I have heard comes from Matt Taibbi’s book “Griftopia”. In this book, he tells a story of local level governance which is overrun by regulations (he uses an example of a bureaucracy ramming affordable housing down a communities throat). Knowing that middle-class people experience over-regulation at the local level, those at the top seize on this “big-government” narrative to drum up support for financial deregulation; they create a narrative of “the poor banker trying to earn a buck”.

This narrative resonates with the middle-class worker who experiences the aforementioned local government over-regulation. It is reinforced by media commentary, which is often a pawn of those at the top (another tool, like political clout, enabled by surplus wealth).  Furthermore, this narrative also vilifies financial regulation as a something which stifles economic growth / cost jobs / lead to higher consumer finance costs (and in this economy, we simply cant afford it!), even though economic theory and common sense suggest that inequality stifles consumption, job creation, and economic growth.

Of course this is a false equality; federal (and international) financial sector regulation and local / state government regulation are unrelated (local governance may well be over-regulated in some instances, but the financial sector is undeniably under-regulated). But unless you have studied the way the government works (which most people haven’t), you have no idea you are being fed horseshit; you hear the word “regulation” and cry bloody murder. Because local governance is often intervening on behalf of lower class citizens, this creates a rift between the middle and lower class, while the real culprits are laughing all the way to the bank (quite literally–they tend to work at banks).

If this sounds like class warfare, that’s because America is experiencing class warfare.

This post relied heavily on generalizations, there are undoubtedly people in each class of society who do not fit into these generalizations. But in general these descriptions hold (that’s why they’re called generalizations).

This post focused on America; globally the inequality problem is much worse. According to a just-released Oxfam report, the richest 85 people in the world control the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion (that’s nearly half the global population!). Recently, UNDP chief Helen Clark spoke about the link between inequality, poverty, and standard of living. Least developed countries experience different problems (extreme poverty, authoritarian / incompetent governance, lack of access to credit, armed conflict, etc.), but these problems manifest themselves in similar ways (poverty, inequality, power imbalances).

The whole world must confront and stop enabling “wealth addiction”, if we hope to realize sustainable human development in the 21st century. We must try, through regulation, taxation, and incentives, to restore the productivity-to-earnings relationship. As inequality becomes more of a “mainstream” issue (it has recently been emphasized by, among others, Barack Obama and Pope John Francis), we can expect to see a larger portion of society begin to champion pro-poor causes.


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Economic Outlook: Europe Addresses “Too Big To Fail” and Speculation v. Investment

Original article

“Finance ministers in Luxembourg will try to resolve one of the most difficult questions posed by Europe’s banking crisis – how to shut failed banks without sowing panic or burdening taxpayers.”

“But France and Germany are divided over how strict the new rules should be, with Paris worried that imposing losses on depositors could prompt a bank run.”

A draft EU law that will form the basis f discussions recommends a pecking order in which first bank shareholders would take losses, then bondholders and finally depositors with more than 100,000 euros ($132,000) in their account.”

“A central element to ensure the euro zone’s long-term survival is a system to supervise, control and support its banks, known as banking union.

Common rules in the wider European Union are considered a stepping stone towards the euro zone’s banking union.

Agreeing EU-wide norms would address Germany’s demand that European rules on closing banks be in place before the 17-nation euro zone’s bailout fund can help banks in trouble.”

“If agreed, the new EU rules would take effect at the start of 2015 with the provisions to impose losses coming as late as 2018.”

“Britain and France say countries should have the final word in deciding how to close banks and not be tightly bound by any new EU rules.

But Germany, the Netherlands and Austria want regulations that will be applied in the same way across all 27 countries in the European Union. They fear that granting too much national leeway would undermine the new law.

“Some flexibility might be necessary, but it shouldn’t be too much,” Joerg Asmussen, the German member of the European Central Bank executive board, told reporters, arguing that investors need to know the rules of the game. ($1 = 0.7590 euros)”

By systematically imposing losses on investors, the EU is attempting to address the “too big to fail” issue from the demand side.

Combined with preferential rates for long run investments vs. short run investments, and a FTT (which is implicitly higher for short-run investments, as a potential investor is likely to reinvest multiple times, he/she will pay more for many short-sighted investments since he/she is paying for each investment individually), policy changes can funnel money towards “investment” and away from “speculation”.

Investment v. Speculation

 Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

“But there is one feature in particular which deserves our attention. It might have been supposed that competition between expert professionals, possessing judgment and knowledge beyond that of the average private investor, would correct the vagaries of the ignorant individual left to himself. It happens, however, that the energies and skill of the professional investor and speculator are mainly occupied otherwise. For most of these persons are, in fact, largely concerned, not with making superior long-term forecasts of the probable yield of an investment over its whole life, but with foreseeing changes in the conventional basis of valuation a short time ahead of the general public. They are concerned, not with what an investment is really worth to a man who buys it “for keeps”, but with what the market will value it at, under the influence of mass psychology, three months or a year hence. Moreover, this behaviour is not the outcome of a wrong-headed propensity. It is an inevitable result of an investment market organised along the lines described. For it is not sensible to pay 25 for an investment of which you believe the prospective yield to justify a value of 30, if you also believe that the market will value it at 20 three months hence.

Thus the professional investor is forced to concern himself with the anticipation of impending changes, in the news or in the atmosphere, of the kind by which experience shows that the mass psychology of the market is most influenced. This is the inevitable result of investment markets organised with a view to so-called “liquidity”. Of the maxims of orthodox finance none, surely, is more anti-social than the fetish of liquidity, the doctrine that it is a positive virtue on the part of investment institutions to concentrate their resources upon the holding of “liquid” securities. It forgets that there is no such thing as liquidity of investment for the community as a whole. The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future. The actual, private object of the most skilled investment to-day is “to beat the gun”, as the Americans so well express it, to outwit the crowd, and to pass the bad, or depreciating, half-crown to the other fellow.”

Keynes’s words still ring true today (even truer really). At the core of the issue is that the term “investment” in a financial sense has evolved in a way that economic policy makers have yet to adjust too. Most “investment” today is little more than rent-seeking speculation.

Consider the following definition from Investopia.com:

“Investment: An asset or item that is purchased with the hope that it will generate income or appreciate in the future. In an economic sense, an investment is the purchase of goods that are not consumed today but are used in the future to create wealth. In finance, an investment is a monetary asset purchased with the idea that the asset will provide income in the future or appreciate and be sold at a higher price.

The building of a factory used to produce goods and the investment one makes by going to college or university are both examples of investments in the economic sense.

In the financial sense investments include the purchase of bonds, stocks or real estate property.

Be sure not to get ‘making an investment’ and ‘speculating’ confused. Investing usually involves the creation of wealth whereas speculating is often a zero-sum game; wealth is not created. Although speculators are often making informed decisions, speculation cannot usually be categorized as traditional investing.”

Don’t want to take my (or Keynes or Investopia’s) word for it? It is not only “outsiders” who believe the financial sector has evolved in a way that is detrimental to society as a whole. Consider the summary of a book recently written by financial guru and pioneer by John C. Bogle:

“Over the course of his sixty-year career in the mutual fund industry, Vanguard Group founder John C. Bogle has witnessed a massive shift in the culture of the financial sector. The prudent, value-adding culture of long-term investment has been crowded out by an aggressive, value-destroying culture of short-term speculation. Mr. Bogle has not been merely an eye-witness to these changes, but one of the financial sector’s most active participants. In The Clash of the Cultures, he urges a return to the common sense principles of long-term investing.”

As I have often advocated, the financial sector needs policy reforms to make it more sustainable–for both society as a whole and for the future of the sector itself in a post-too-big-to-fail world. Policies need to be reshaped to reward the positive externalities of investment,  while holding speculators accountable for the negative externalities of their “investments”.

This will require great political will to overcome the vested interests that the financial sector has secured. It will also require the chasm between investment and speculation to be accepted as common knowledge.

Europe has made strong efforts to “push the needle” on these reforms, with its innovative approach to address too big to fail financial institutions and it’s repeated calls for a FTT. The financial sector cannot continue to thrive to the detriment of society as a whole. The burden of change ultimately falls on the people of the world (surprise surprise), we must elect leaders who possess the political will to make these necessary changes.


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Economic Outlook: “Financialization”, “Commoditization” and the Real Economy

In a recent Economix blog, Bruce Bartlett explores the role “financialization” has played in American (and global) economic stagnation:

“Economists are still searching for answers to the slow growth of the United States economy. Some are now focusing on the issue of “financialization,” the growth of the financial sector as a share of gross domestic product.”

“According to a new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by the Harvard Business School professors Robin Greenwood and David Scharfstein, financial services rose as a share of G.D.P. to 8.3 percent in 2006 from 2.8 percent in 1950 and 4.9 percent in 1980. The following table is taken from their article.”

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.

They cite research by Thomas Philippon of New York University and Ariell Reshef of the University of Virginia that compensation in the financial services industry was comparable to that in other industries until 1980. But since then, it has increased sharply and those working in financial services now make 70 percent more on average.”

“While all economists agree that the financial sector contributes significantly to economic growth, some now question whether that is still the case. According to Stephen G. Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi of the Bank for International Settlements, the impact of finance on economic growth is very positive in the early stages of development. But beyond a certain point it becomes negative, because the financial sector competes with other sectors for scarce resources.”

“Ozgur Orhangazi of Roosevelt University has found that investment in the real sector of the economy falls when financialization rises. Moreover, rising fees paid by nonfinancial corporations to financial markets have reduced internal funds available for investment, shortened their planning horizon and increased uncertainty.”

“Adair Turner, formerly Britain’s top financial regulator, has said, “There is no clear evidence that the growth in the scale and complexity of the financial system in the rich developed world over the last 20 to 30 years has driven increased growth or stability.”

He suggests, rather, that the financial sector’s gains have been more in the form of economic rents — basically something for nothing — than the return to greater economic value.

Another way that the financial sector leeches growth from other sectors is by attracting a rising share of the nation’s “best and brightest” workers, depriving other sectors like manufacturing of their skills.”

“The rising share of income going to financial assets also contributes to labor’s falling share. As illustrated in the following chart from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, that share has fallen 12 percentage points since its recent peak in early 2001 and even more from its historical level from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Labor Share of Nonfarm Business Sector

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor

The falling labor share results from various factors, including globalization, technology and institutional factors like declining unionization. But according to a new report from the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, financialization is by far the largest contributor in developed economies (see Page 52).

The report estimates that 46 percent of labor’s falling share resulted from financialization, 19 percent from globalization, 10 percent from technological change and 25 percent from institutional factors.

This phenomenon is a major cause of rising income inequality, which itself is an important reason for inadequate growth. As the entrepreneur Nick Hanauer pointed out at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on June 6, the income of the middle class is critical to economic growth because of its buying power. Mr. Hanauer believes consumption is really what drives growth; business people like him invest and create jobs to take advantage of middle-class demands for goods and services, which must be supported by good-paying jobs and rising incomes.”

“According to research by the economists Jon Bakija, Adam Cole and Bradley T. Heim, financialization is a principal driver of the rising share of income going to the ultrawealthy – the top 0.1 percent of the income distribution.”

“Among those pointing their fingers at financialization is David Stockman, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, who followed his government service with a long career in finance at Salomon Brothers and elsewhere. Writing in The New York Times, he recently said financialization was “corrosive” and had turned the economy into “a giant casino” where banks skim an oversize share of profits.

It’s not yet clear what public policies are appropriate to deal with the phenomenon of financialization. The important thing at this point is to be aware of it, which does not yet appear to be the case in Washington.”

A complementary practice that has accompanied “financialization” is the practice of “commoditization“:

“Commoditization” has led to food price volatility and food insecurity in the developing world. It also perpetuated the housing bubble–while it is true that mortgages were always financial products, the way the mortgage backed securities grouped mortgages together turned a practice that was once a means of saving into an opportunity for people to use the equity in their homes like credit cards. When the housing bubble burst, many people found their mortgages “under water”. While there is certainly an element of personal responsibility, the scope of the housing crisis was certainly deepened due to “financialization” and “commoditization”.

Financialization attracts the best and brightest away from other non-financial fields. When all these talented people are working in a saturated market (such as more traditional investments), a natural effect will be the creation of “innovative” financial products–“commoditization”. While commoditization creates short run value by making products more liquid, in the long run it leads to price volatility and bubbles. 

Financialization has led to greater income inequality (as the vast majority of capital gains go to the ultra-wealthy), and diverts resources and man-power away from non-financial industries (the “real economy) due to higher fees paid to financial services (these resources could go to, say, MORE HIRING). It has also perpetuated destabilizing, high-speed, arbitrage-seeking investment. 

It is interesting that Mr. Bartlett says that it is unclear what public policies should be used to correct for this misalignment of resources. The answers are there (and Bruce himself has mentioned some in previous posts), the problem is implementation, as the proper policy responses require transparency and international cooperation and coordination (due to the global nature of capital in the digital age in order to prevent “capital flight”). Therefore, these commitments are rife with incentives to cheat (“prisoner’s dilemma”) which makes it much harder to come to binding agreements. 

One appropriate response is a financial transaction tax (FTT). Such a tax would deter short-run destabilizing trades that have accompanied “financialization” and “commoditization” and direct investments into more long-run wealth creating endeavors (think venture capitalism as opposed to high-speed trading). This would also temper the price volatility effect of “commoditization”.

Another appropriate response would be to have a global standard tax rate for short-run capital gains. By setting such a rate higher than regular income taxation, resources would be diverted away the financial sector and back into the real sector (are you seeing a theme here?). Financial bubbles would be less prevalent, as people would be more likely to hold their income in safer assets / reinvest it in non-financial assets. Due to the relative ease of making short-term capital gains, and differences in national income tax rates, a global short-term capital gains tax rate of 50% seems like a good baseline to start from. Long-term capital gains should be taxed like ordinary income, not at lower preferential rates.

“Financialization” and “commoditization” have had adverse effects on our real economy. The brightest people and an increasing share of national output have been diverted towards (generally) unproductive activities  In the short run this leads to economic growth. But this growth in unsustainable; in the long run crises occur when these bubbles burst, which  have adverse effects that  reach far beyond the financial sector (due in part to “commoditization”). 

Because public policies have allowed financial institutions to grow so powerful, the were able to become “too big to fail“, necessitating tax-payer backed bailouts.

It is a good sign that economists are scrutinizing these practices. If it can be proved that not only do these practices lead to crises, but also have adverse effects on growth, employment, consumption and equality during “good” times, then it will be much harder for politicians around the world to resist the call for greater financial industry accountability via higher taxation (despite the threats from vested interests; if global standards are established, the 0.1% are welcome to setup the Mars Stock Exchange is they so desire).


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Economic Outlook: The Ripeness of Cyprus


That ripeness refers to the need for Cyprus to diversify it’s economy. Ripeness may not be the right word, as Cyprus is not willingly taking these measures but rather having them imposed, but what else rhymes with Cyprus? (Lack of ripeness, like with this peach, is often a good indicator it is time to throw out said peach, no?)

“Cyprus has a huge banking system — assets around 8 times GDP — based on a business model of attracting offshore money with high rates and good opportunities for tax avoidance/evasion.”

The problem with such a large banking sector is that it creates asset bubbles and leads to  a loss of competitiveness in other sectors. As Cyprus now faces the inevitability of having to diversify its economy away from the banking sector, it faces the difficulty of having wages that are uncompetitive with the rest of its neighbors. It is difficult to be competitive in export industries with a high cost of labor and a high cost of living, as these costs ultimately fall on producers making their goods less competitive. A high cost of living also depresses tourism, as people will choose to go to cheaper destinations.

Transitioning to export based growth is tough in today’s economic conditions, even when labor costs constitute a comparative advantage. This is due to a slump in global aggregate demand, particularly with Cyprus’s current trading partners—EU countries. The EU remains mired with high unemployment and recessions (which are currently hitting Cyprus particularly hard as well), meaning that finding markets for diversified exports would be difficult. The high unemployment (14.7%) and recession conditions (-3.3% GDP growth Q4 2012) mean that Cyprus cannot rely on its domestic markets to buy its goods either.

For these reasons, Cyprus has been reluctant to admit that it must abandon its unsustainable reliance on the financial sector. Cyprus tried to secure an EU bailout by imposing a tax on banking deposits—a measure that Cypriots forcefully rejected. It seems that ultimately Cyprus will have to agree to spare small depositors (average citizens) and force large depositors (who are often foreigners who go to Cyprus as a tax haven) to take a large “haircut”. This would undermine confidence in Cyprus’s banking sector, leading to capital flight.

Cyprus could impose capital controls to prevent capital flight, as Iceland did in a similar situation. This, along with uncertainty of Cyprus’s future in the EU, could mean less FDI (uncertainty is a huge deterrent to investment, especially in the case of a potential EU-exit) which Cyprus will need to diversify its economy due to high levels of debt (84% GDP as of Q3 2012) and high borrowing costs (7% interest rates on long term bonds).

Cyprus is currently at a crossroads, a point summarized nicely by Paul Murphy at FT Alphaville:

“Big depositors in Cypriot banks stand to lose circa 40 per cent of their money here, which has drawn plenty of fury and veiled threats from Russia.”

“Cyprus now has a binary choice: become a gimp state for Russian gangsta finance, or turn fully towards Europe, close down much of its shady banking sector and rebuild its economy on something more sustainable.”

So how are Cyprus’s prospects for economic diversification? Actually, this is a potential bright spot in an otherwise dismal picture (for data, see end of the post):

Cyprus has increased its spending, per person, at all levels of schooling over recent years. There has also been a shift to more advanced technological manufacturing, which could be a growth industry (High-technology exports as % of manufactured exports have risen from around 4% in 1990 to close to 40% in 2010). Energy production, specifically a natural gas field adjoining the Cyprus-Israel border, has been discussed as a potential growth sector.

The problem is such exploration requires large upfront costs and profits will not be realized for at least a few years. Given Cyprus’s high borrowing costs, an immediate bailout is needed—Cyprus simply cannot afford to wait for its economy to diversify, even if it was able to secure the funding needed explore it’s gas fields and / or avoid a Euro Zone exit.

Luckily, Cyprus has been laying down the seeds of economic diversification, but those seeds are not ready to sprout. Economic diversification will be painful, based on the composition of Cyprus’s labor force (agriculture 8.5%, industry 20.5%, services 71% (2006 est.); presumably a large portion of people in the services sector work in financial services).

Compounding the problem; “There’s still a real estate bubble to implode, there’s still a huge problem of competitiveness (made worse because one major export industry, banking, has just gone to meet its maker), and the bailout will leave Cyprus with Greek-level sovereign debt.”

Cyprus needs the troika (IMF, ECB, and EC) to provide emergency liquidity to allow its economy time to diversify. There will inevitably be some growing pains—hopefully harsh austerity is not imposed as a condition for receiving these loans, although recent history suggests it will be. Some internal devaluation will be needed to make Cypriot wages competitive again—something that is politically and socially undesirable (as wages tend to be “sticky”) but an inevitable consequence of losing control of monetary autonomy (being in the EU, Cyprus cannot devalue it’s currency to increase export competitiveness)

Cyprus has been investing in human capital, and already has the infrastructure for export based growth through its advanced system of ports, what is needed is stimulus spending to help mobilize Cyprus’s factors of production away from the financial sector.

Just like a child who knows he must do something he doesn’t want to do, Cyprus initially faced it’s unfortunate reality by trying to return to its security blanket—the financial sector. Ultimately, Cyprus needs to be weaned off the teat of the financial sector—even Russia, the biggest loser if large depositors take a loss, has stated it will not extend financing to Cyprus until it secures troika financing (Cyprus pursued Russian financing as an alternative to a troika bailout, presumably to allow it continue with its unsustainable banking practices, in exchange for preferential exploration rights by Russian firms of Cyprus’s natural gas fields. These talks thankfully did not bear fruit, as they would’ve moved Cyprus in the wrong direction; doubling down on an unsustainable financial sector while compromising its most obvious means of economic diversification–it’s natural gas reserves).

It is important to avoid a Euro Zone exit, as this would undermine investor confidence which is needed alongside troika loans to allow Cyprus to diversify its economy. Ultimately, investors will react favorably if Cyprus admits its financial sector is unsustainable and commits to economic diversification. A sustainable economic outlook will attract investment, especially in an industry as profitable a natural gas exploration, but also in other sectors due to low taxes (10% corporate tax rate in Cyprus–lowest in the EU, can help offset the current high wages in Cyprus and temper the social costs of internal devaluation).

Uncertainty and trying to hold onto an exposed unsustainable financial sector will drive away investors. Everybody can now see that Cyprus will have to force a “haircut” on large depositors. The sooner Cyprus “takes its medicine”, the sooner it can get on the path to sustainable economic development.

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