Normative Narratives


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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: Financial Flows,Taxation, and Accountability

The primary function of taxation is to collect revenue to pay for public goods and services. Public goods and services are non-rival and non-excludable, they therefore often suffer from a “free-rider problem” (people benefit from the positive externalities regardless of whether they pay into the cost of the good or not). It is because of this free-rider problem that the private sector cannot efficiently provide public goods, necessitating what is sometimes referred to as the “social contract” between people and their governments (I will give up something, in this case money via taxation, in order to have certain publicly provided provisions). Examples of public goods are basic infrastructure (such as roads), and public services (such as police officers, firefighters, and public school teachers). 

Individual countries decide for themselves at what level taxes should be set, and what should be provided for via taxation. Individual countries also decide to what extent taxes should be progressive or flat. But across the world, in societies as fundamentally different as you can imagine, this general “social contract” relationship exists. Taxes also provide resources for social safety-net programs, which are important for inter-generational income smoothing, social mobility, and reducing inequalities (despite the “47% argument”)

Taxes can also be used for legitimizing purposes. Every modern country has tax collection and income monitoring services (performing similar functions as the IRS in America). One of the major functions of these organizations is ensuring that everyone pays what they are supposed to. A secondary function is to provide legitimacy to ones income; if someone claims large amounts of money with a questionable source, it will raise a red flag, and an investigation will ensue (if the system is working properly).

Taxes can also be used to influence ones behavior. The tax on cigarettes in NY is a good example of this. While the government cannot stop people from smoking, they can make it prohibitively expensive to smoke in hopes that people pursue healthier activities.

These are just some of the general functions of taxation.

As we know here at NN, not everyone plays by the rules, particularly when it comes to taxation. Offshore banking is a huge problem, perpetuating income inequality,  human rights abuses, and robbing governments of resources to fulfill their obligations. Some countries systematically provide rock-bottom tax rates and legitimacy for depositors without properly vetting the source of their money, leading to destabilizing financial inflows that dwarf the countries annual output (Cyprus is the most recent example you may remember).

As governments face difficult choices in the wake of the Great Recession, it has become more and more obvious that greater coordination and accountability are needed between countries to ensure that the world’s wealthiest pay their fair share for the public goods and services that have helped them to amass their wealth (and are held accountable for their role in the Great Recession).

The silver-lining of the Great Recession is that much more focus has been put on destabilizing forces that have accompanied financial globalization (and more recently technological advances which have made high speed / arbitrage seeking investment all the more possible). One example of this is the breaking of secrecy by Swiss Banks. Swiss Accounts are arguably the most famous example of elite tax-evasion; their exposure serves as a symbolic as well as practical turning point in offshore banking history. Another example is the imposition of a financial transaction tax (FTT), even if it has been watered down for now.

Swiss Banking:

“The Swiss government said on Wednesday that it would allow its banks to disclose information on American clients with hidden accounts, a watershed move intended to help resolve a long-running dispute with the United States over tax evasion.

The decision, which comes amid widening scrutiny in Europe of tax havens, is a turning point in what has been an escalating conflict between Switzerland and the United States.

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, Switzerland’s finance minister, said the move would enable Swiss banks to accept an offer by the United States government to hand over broad client details and pay fines in exchange for a promise by United States authorities not to indict any banks.”

“Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf declined to say how much banks might have to pay. But she said the Swiss government would not make any payments as part of the agreement. Sources briefed on the matter say the total fines could eventually total $7 billion to $10 billion, and that to ease any financial pressure on the banks, the Swiss government might advance the sums and then seek reimbursement.

“It is important for us to be able to let the past be the past,” Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf said at a news briefing in Bern, Switzerland. She declined to give any details about the program, but said banks would have one year to decide whether to accept the American offer.

American clients whose names are handed over by Swiss banks but who have not voluntarily disclosed hidden accounts to the Internal Revenue Service would probably face criminal tax-evasion charges, lawyers said. Dozens of Americans have been indicted or charged in recent years for failing to disclose their accounts.”

Calling the decision ‘a good, a pragmatic solution for the banks to emerge from their past,’ Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf said, ‘We expect this to create the base for banks to again gain some room for maneuver so that calm can return to the sector.’”

“‘This is an important step for the banks; it will apparently allow them to disclose statistical information, such as the number of accounts with U.S. beneficial owners, the number of accounts with foreign corporations or foundations, and the amount of assets under management,’ said Scott Michel, a tax lawyer in Washington, D.C. ‘The I.R.S. and D.O.J. can use this information as the basis for financial penalties under settlement agreements, which might be deferred-prosecution agreements or non-prosecution agreements.’”

It seems Switzerland wants to shed it’s stigma of an off-shore tax haven, and move forward with a more sustainable and transparent financial sector.

“‘Resolution of the conflict ‘has taken longer than it should have, with a lot of otherwise avoidable damage suffered on the Swiss side,’ said Robert Katzberg, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer in New York with Swiss and American bank clients. ‘But it now appears the end is in sight.’”

Financial Transaction Tax: It is no secret that irresponsible lending practices perpetuated financial bubbles around the world which eventually led to the Great Recession. One way of holding financial institutions responsible for their role in the Great Recession, while also raising revenue governments desperately need, is a financial transaction tax (FTT). CESR is a great resource for background info on the financial sectors role and human rights implication of The Great Recession, as well as the FTT.

A recent NYT article is critical of a watered down FTT in the works in Europe. While I agree it is disappointing the tax has been significantly reduced, the introduction of any FTT is a movement in the right direction. An incremental approach may be the best way to introduce this important new policy, and give it a real chance to work (instead of leading to large-scale capital flight to non-FTT countries):

“European countries planning a tax on financial transactions are set to drastically scale back the levy, cutting the charge by as much as 90 percent and delaying its full roll-out for years, in what would be a major victory for banks.

“Under the latest model, the standard rate for trading bonds and shares could drop to just 0.01 percent of the value of a deal, from 0.1 percent in an original blueprint drafted by Brussels. That would raise only about 3.5 billion euros, rather than the 35 billion initially forecast, a senior official said.”

“The tax may now also be introduced more gradually: rather than applying to trades in stocks, bonds and some derivatives from 2014, it may apply next year only to shares. Bond trades would not be taxed for two years and derivatives even later.

The roll-out could be scrapped altogether if, for example, the tax pushed traders to move deals abroad to avoid paying it.”

“The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) resurrects an idea first conceived by U.S. economist James Tobin more than 40 years ago and has been symbolically important for politicians to show they are tackling the banks blamed for causing the financial crisis.”

‘You can introduce it on a staggered basis,’ said a second official. ‘We start with the lowest rate of tax (0.01 percent) and increase it bit by bit.'”

“‘The risk is that if you have some countries not participating, you have some shift of business from the countries in the tax to the countries without the tax,’ said one official, familiar with French government thinking. ‘This step by step approach can make sense.’

There is also the issue of which financial assets should be included in the proposed FTT:

“Within the group of 11 countries, Italy and France have expressed concerns about widening the tax beyond shares to government debt as both believe it could discourage investors from buying their bonds.”

I agree with Italy and France on this issue. The main reason many Euro countries are facing such crippling austerity is due to a “sovereign debt crisis“. These countries cannot afford to borrow sustainably, forcing them to make painful cuts which have led to a double-dip recession and high unemployment throughout Europe.

The FTT could potentially add to the borrow costs governments face if it included bonds as well. If however, a tax included everything except bonds, it would have the effect of lowering government borrowing costs. Making other financial transactions more expensive would make bond purchases more profitable by comparison (assuming financial institutions will pass on some portion of the tax to the customer, which is a pretty safe assumption). While the difference would be marginal, even a marginal decrease in borrowing costs can unlock millions if not billions in government resources.

What we see is the international community slowly working to make financial globalization more accountable and sustainable. While we may be frustrated with the slow rate of progress (as the author of the NYT article clearly is), it is important to realize that we are making meaningful progress.

Despite the political and economic cynics out there, who in their great “wisdom” will tell you nothing is happening to hold powerful interests accountable for their role in the financial crisis, we have as a global community learned lessons (albeit incredibly hard learned lessons) and are taking steps to ensure we do not repeat our past mistakes.

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