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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: “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).