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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Transparency Report: The UK, Kazakhstan, Domestic and Extra-Territorial Human Rights Obligations

Original Article:

“British Prime Minister David Cameron helped inaugurate the world’s costliest oil project in Kazakhstan on Sunday on a trip aimed at sealing business deals but quickly beset by questions over the Central Asian nation’s poor human rights record.

Kazakhstan hopes Cameron’s visit, the first by a serving British prime minister, will cement its status as a rising economic power and confer a degree of the legitimacy from the West it has long sought.”

“With a $200 billion economy, the largest in Central Asia, and deep oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan is a tempting target. Britain is already among the top three sources of foreign direct investment, according to Kazakh officials.

Since its 1991 independence, officials say British firms have invested about $20 billion in their economy, part of a total $170 billion ploughed into Kazakhstan since then.

But more high profile trade links carry political risks.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Cameron had a duty to use his trip to denounce human rights abuses.

‘We are very concerned about the serious and deteriorating human rights situation there in recent years, including credible allegations of torture, the imprisonment of government critics, (and) tight controls over the media and freedom of expression and association,’ it said in a letter on Friday.

Answering questions from reporters in Atyrau on Sunday, Cameron said he never put trade and business interests before rights.

‘We will raise all the issues, including human rights. That’s part of our dialogue and I’ll be signing a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan,’ he said.

‘Nothing is off the agenda, including human rights.’

“[Nursultan] Nazarbayev, a former Communist party apparatchik, has overseen market reforms and maintains wide popularity among the 17-million strong population, but has tolerated no dissent or opposition during his more than two decades in power.”

“Nazarbayev, a former steelworker who now holds the title “The Leader of the Nation”, says that he puts stability and rising living standards before hasty political changes in his steppe nation, the world’s ninth-largest by area and five times the size of France.

Comparing Kazakhstan to ‘Asian economic tigers’ like South Korea and Singapore, he has said he wants to turn it into ‘the economic snow leopard of Central Asia’

International human rights law places the state as the central and primary duty bearer for human rights obligations. Human rights include economic, social and cultural rights, in addition to political and civil rights. These rights are indivisible and interdependent, and must be upheld indiscriminately. Certain rights cannot be violated in the name of others—when Nazarbayev says he is putting economic and social progress ahead of political freedoms, he is failing to live up to international human rights law.

The reason behind this is that, without certain political and civil rights, developments are not sustainable. If standard of living gains are made at the benevolence of a dictator, these gains are unlikely to be made in an egalitarian way. Additionally, any gains made can easily be taken away in without any accountability or redress for society as a whole.

The state, however, is not the only actor accountable for the human rights implications of its actions. According to a recent publication, “Who Will Be Accountable”, released by the UN OHCHR and the CESR, “Under international human rights law, States are primarily accountable for respecting and protecting the rights of those within their jurisdiction. The proliferation of actors in international development—from business enterprises and multilateral economic institutions to private foundations—has made it necessary to develop a more multidimensional approach to accountability…However, the notion of shared responsibility has not led in practice to a clearer attribution of the respective and differentiated duties of each of the many actors in the development process. If all parties are responsible for achieving development goals, the risk is that no party can be held accountable for anything. (p 17-18)”

It certainly seems that nobody is willing to take responsibility for human rights violations in Kazahkstan—not the Kazakh government, not Cameron, not UK investors.

Cameron’s government has even been unresponsive to the UK and EU wide effects of austerity on human rights (the UK has been a strong supporter of austerity in the face of the Great Recession). Austerity programs have contributed to the prolonged economic slump in the UK (and the EU as a whole) that is some ways has been worse than even the Great Depression.

One would hope Cameron’s time spent as co-chair of the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda would make him more in-tune with the importance of human rights for conflict prevention, economic growth and sustainable human development. Even if it has, it is also clear that Mr. Cameron, as an elected official, has more short-term concerns to deal with.

I am curious to hear what my readers think. Do states and private investors really have extra-territorial human rights obligations? Is it possible for external parties to even affect a dictator’s policies? Can economic and social progress be achieved without political and civil rights? Is international human rights law too idealistic and not pragmatic enough to be realistically applicable?

There is no question that whenever large sums of money are involved, human rights implications will follow. A large investment in Kazakh oil fields will undoubtedly further entrench the rulers.  But if a government is unwilling to listen to even its citizens, will it listen to other world leaders and investors? Perhaps it will—as they say, “money talks”.

Is it realistic to expect UK actors, who greatly need new avenues for economic growth and are seemingly unresponsive to proximal human rights issues, will risk a “slam dunk” investment in order to champion human rights (especially when that demand would likely be rebuffed by an insulated authoritarian regime)?

The stability and security needed for long term investments to pay off seems to exist in Kazakhstan. Is this the extent to which international actors care about human rights issues, or does a greater moral and long-term sustainable human development imperative exist?  

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Economic Outlook: European Youth Unemployment, Public-Private Partnerships and the “Magic” of Fiscal Stimulus

Indepensible Taxing and Spending

Original Articles:

Reuters

“European leaders agreed on new steps to fight youth unemployment and promote lending to credit-starved small business on Thursday after deals on banking resolution and the long-term EU budget gave their summit a much needed lift.

The 27 leaders resolved to spend 6 billion euros over the next two years to support job creation, training and apprenticeships for young people, and to raid unspent EU budget funds to keep the effort going thereafter.

Critics say the money is a drop in the ocean with more than 19 million people unemployed in the EU, and more than half of all young people under 25 without a job in Spain and Greece.”

“Separately, negotiators for the European Parliament, the European Commission and EU member governments clinched a deal on a 960 billion euro ($1.25 trillion) seven-year budget for the bloc for the period 2014-20, ending months of squabbling.”

“The leaders unanimously endorsed the agreement, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy said, overcoming a last minute snag over Britain’s rebate, which will remain intact. The European Parliament must approve the deal next month so the new budget can take effect next January.

The banking resolution agreement designed to shield European taxpayers from having to foot the bill for rescuing troubled banks will be implemented on a national basis from 2018.

It lays the ground for a single system to resolve failed banks in the euro zone and the 27-nation EU, the second stage of what policymakers call a European banking union, meant to strengthen supervision and stability of the financial sector.”

“Most of Europe has been either in recession or on the brink for the past three years, while unemployment has steadily risen. EU unemployment now stands at 11 percent, the highest since records began, with youth unemployment a particular problem, especially in Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus.

The new EU fund will back a “youth employment initiative” that would offer people under 25 a promise of a job, training or apprenticeship within four months of leaving education or becoming unemployed.

Politicians and sociologists are worried that extended unemployment for young Europeans will lead to a “lost generation” that never gets fully incorporated into economic life, with deep psychological and financial implications.”

NYT

“The European Union may soon have a new budget — including the first cut to spending in its history — after a surprise breakthrough deal on Thursday.”

“The budget still needs final approval by the European Parliament, but that is looking more likely thanks to this agreement. The European Parliament president, Martin Schulz, called the deal “acceptable” and said he was optimistic that he would have a majority of Parliament members backing it at a vote next week.”

“Separate from national spending, the budget is designed in part to balance out the economic development of its members by giving funding to poorer countries. The European Union has funded thousands of infrastructure and capital projects over the years, from the installation of broadband networks to the upgrade of road networks.

The budget also includes items meant to generate economic growth, like research and development and a new, more accurate satellite navigation system. It also funds regulation and administration in such areas as mergers and competition, the review of national budgets to ensure they do not include excessive deficits, and banking supervision.

If the European Union fails to get a seven-year deal passed by Parliament before the end of the year, the bloc would have to revert to annual budgets, which would make long-term planning difficult.”

It seems as if the leaders of the European Union–much of which has been mired by historically high unemployment and stagnant growth / recession since 2008–are finally realizing that greater fiscal coordination is needed in order to sustain the Monetary Union.

While it is true that the 7 year, 960 billion euro budget proposal represents an austerity program, in reality coming to an agreement creates the certainty and stability needed for businesses to make long term decisions (and thereby stimulating the economy more as opposed to hoarding cash for instance). It also allows for targeted long term spending, as opposed to a year-by-year budget which would complicate meaningful long-term investments in human and physical capital.

By concentrating on lower income European countries, the European Union will be picking the “low hanging fruit”, realizing a greater return on investment as these countries grow at faster rates. As these countries fully modernize, social spending will go down and new markets will open up, stimulating aggregate demand in the European Union as a whole.

In countries where such “low hanging fruit” does not exist, more specialized growth-targeting projects will help Europe’s higher income countries stay competitive in cutting edge fields going forward.

The plan also sets aside funding for administrative expenses, which will be important in ensuring compliance and accountability from the financial industries / MNCs (which is itself an important aspect in correcting Europe’s fiscal outlook). Managing too-big-too-fail financial institutions and tax evasions / illicit financial flows will be the two most important regulatory steps the EU can take to hold the ultra-wealthy accountable for their role in the current economic crisis and help prevent future crises.

Targeting youth unemployment has particularly significant implications for sustainable growth in Europe. While it is true $ 6 billion is not a lot of money, I believe that this small “drop in the bucket” can have a large impact. The reason for this optimism is the ability to augment public spending through “public-private partnerships” (PPP).

Public-private partnerships are particularly suited for targeting youth unemployment. The private sector is uniquely positioned to give insight into exactly what skills young people will need for the jobs of today and tomorrow. The government is uniquely positioned to implement these programs into school curricula and unemployment conditions–targeting non-workers with skills needed to obtain jobs. The question is how much money can $6 billion in public investment leverage in private investment?

While there is no exact formula, at the ECOSOC Partnerships forum this past April, Mr. Chirstian Friis Bach, the Minister for Economic Development Coordination in Denmark, told the audience (including myself) how he was able to leverage over 500 million euros in private money from 40 million euros in public investment for various sustainable development initiatives. While the scale is not the same (40 million v. 6 billion initial public investment), this still suggests that leveraging a few hundred to a thousand percent in private funding is not an unrealistic expectation–especially considering the importance of Europe’s youth as a future employment pool / consumption engine, and evidence of large cash reserves held by MNCs.

As the yearly ECOSOC forum in Geneva kicks off July 1st, a golden opportunity presents itself to frame this youth-employment initiative as a large scale public-private partnership. If that $6 billion turns into $60 billion, suddenly that “drop in the ocean” represents a much more meaningful investment.

There is also the importance of proving to employers that the youth is ready and able to work. Employers may believe young people are unemployed because they are lazy or incompetent, leading to the passing over of an otherwise qualified younger person for an older more experienced worker–youth uneployment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the youth employment program can show that young people indeed posses the skills, passion, energy and innovative ideas needed to be productive workers, then young people will be able to shed the negative stigmas associated with unemployment.

As youth salaries and consumption increase aggregate demand, businesses will have to expand to meet that demand, creating even more jobs which would be more likely to be filled by younger candidates (an example of how the fiscal multiplier is currently >1, as public investment will not crowd out private investment but rather they are be mutually reinforcing).

The Great Recession has turned into a full blown economic Depression throughout much of Europe. To address this, fewer public funds must be channeled in a more concentrated way and supplemented by private funds. Governments bailed-out large private sector actors in the wake of the Great Recession because they understood the interdependence of people, government and the private sector. Now it is time for the private sector to return the favor by augmenting sustainable development initiatives.

To be clear, PPPs are not a call for charity–they represent mutually beneficial and sustainable economic arrangements. Businesses need future employees and customers, governments need non-dependent tax payers, and young people need jobs.


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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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Conflict Watch: Austerity v. Human Rights

Original article:

“Austerity cuts in Spain could lead to the effective dismantling of large parts of its healthcare system and significantly damage the health of the population, according to a study published on Thursday.”

“The study published in the British medical Journal (BMJ) found that Spain’s national budget cuts of almost 14 percent and regional budget cuts of up to 10 percent in health and social services in 2012 have coincided with increased demands for care, particularly from the elderly, disabled and mentally ill.

The researchers also noted increases in depression, alcohol-related disorders and suicides in Spain since the financial crisis hit and unemployment increased.”

“The findings in Spain chime with other studies in Europe and North America which found budget cuts had a devastating effect on health, driving up suicides, depression and infectious diseases and reducing access to medicines and care.”

“‘If no corrective measures are implemented, this could worsen with the risk of increases in HIV and tuberculosis — as we have seen in Greece where healthcare services have had severe cuts — as well as the risk of a rise in drug resistance and spread of disease,’ said Helena Legido-Quigley, a lecturer in Global Health at LSHTM who worked with McKee.”

“In a book published in April, researchers said around 10,000 suicides and a million cases of depression had been diagnosed during what they called the “Great Recession” and the austerity measures that have come with it across Europe and North America.”

This is Spain we are talking about here–a high income, EU country. Perhaps incomes are too high, as unemployment remains above 27.2% (and 57 % for people under 25). Since Spain is a Euro country, it cannot devalue it’s currency to bring its wages back to a competitive level, it must pursue painful “internal devaluation”–a mixture of austerity and structural reform that has a contractionary effect on the economy in the short-run (especially when the fiscal-multiplier is >1, as evidence suggests it currently is).

This is of course unacceptable. Fiscal constraints did not stop large scale financial sector bailouts or military expenditure, but when it comes to financing social programs needed for governments to fulfill their basic human rights obligations there is suddenly no money available. Clearly governments around the world have their priorities out of order.

Unemployment, especially long term unemployment and youth unemployment, has a corrosive effect on society. In America, people are outraged over 8% unemployment, can you imagine a rate 300% higher? 700% higher!? There is literally Great Depression level unemployment in Spain and Greece, now 5 years after the Great Recession began.

The corrosive impact of unemployment creates a vicious cycle of human suffering. A lack of demand leads companies to lay workers off. Lower output leads to less tax revenue for the government, and global economic factors made resources scarcer, driving up borrowing costs. Governments, unable to borrow  money at reasonable rates, must slash social programs and government employment.

The unemployed, increasingly pessimistic, turn to risky behavior, including prostitution and drug use. This in turn leads to greater unfulfilled health needs, including untreated mental disorders. Long term unemployment, drug use, physical and mental illness all deteriorate worker skills, making them increasingly dependent on shrinking government resources. Stigmatization, the idea that the unemployed and homeless are that way because they are lazy or bad, becomes self-fulfilling.

Anti-social behavior becomes the norm, and before long even those who were not directly affected by the economic downturn begin to experience the realities of general societal degradation–increased crime and reduced personal security. Taken to it’s extreme, austerity in the face of a depressed economy lays the groundwork for protracted social conflict (PSC).   

The problem here is that social programs are being cut precisely when people need them the most. Fiscal policy should be counter-cyclical. When times are good, a prudent nation will save money for a rainy day. This is what President Clinton was attempting, and had President Bush’s “starve the beast” tax and military policies not bankrupted America, our national debt would be much lower today.

But America is seen as a safe haven, allowing debt to be rolled-over sustainably despite a high debt/GDP ration. If anything, Obamacare is evidence that the U.S. government is moving in the direction of greater public service expenditure.

This is not the case in Europe. Due to a lack of fiscal integration, peripheral EU countries (the GIPSI countries) suffered from higher interest rates (nobody wanted to lend to them as them scrambled to rescue a failing banking sector) leading to a “sovereign debt crisis”. The European Central Bank eventually decided to play the “lender of last resort” role, but on the condition that economically crippling austerity measures are passed.

It has always been clear that austerity programs have adverse human rights implications. The programs that are cut go predominantly to the most vulnerable people–human rights violations tend to compound one another.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, Europe is not heading for anarchy and regular unchecked violence in the streets. However, in some areas protests have already become the norm, and such a future is not impossible to foresee especially if the combination of depression-level unemployment rates, anti-social behavior, and crippling austerity persists.

Recently, the IMF admitted it was wrong about its the impact it believed austerity would have in Greece. This lesson will be painfully learned in many other countries unless something is done to fix this mistake (ending austerity conditions in order to unlock bailout loans). Admitting you made a mistake is the first step towards redress and accountability–it is past time governments were held accountable for their human rights obligations, in both the developing and developed world.

Only when human rights obligations are fulfilled can we achieve sustainable human development and economic growth, predominantly through the real and creative economies (as opposed to unsustainable economic development based on “financialization“).

However, this is only the first step, now international economic institutions have to “put their money where their mouths are” and make up for the needless suffering caused by general incompetence.

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Economic Outlook: Fiscal Policy, Monetary Policy, and the Zero Bound

Paul Krugman does a nice job of explaining why unprecedented monetary expansion (“quantitative easing”) has not really moved the needle in terms of reducing unemployment and increasing aggregate demand.

It would be prudent to remind the reader that there has been very little counterfactual analysis of the Feds policies since the Great Recession began (that I am aware of). The situation would almost certainly be worse, higher unemployment and deflation, had the Fed failed to act in the way it is. If you would like to read further on the downward spiral of debt, austerity and deflation in a depressed economy, Irving Fischer wrote on the subject following the Great Depression in a way that is both easy to understand and still as relevant today (perhaps even more-so given how much less politically charged expansionary monetary policy is post-gold standard).

A liquidity trap is a situation when slashing interest rates on government bonds to near zero percent is insufficient to provide enough credit to allow the economy to produce at full productive capacity. Investors would rather invest in safe government assets with almost no yield then invest in private markets.

I believe a liquidity trap is in itself justification for expansionary fiscal policy. It is basically investors saying to the government, “here, we don’t want to invest our money, so do it for us and just promise to pay us back in the future, don’t even worry about the interest”. But fiscal policy, which originates in the House of Representatives, is politically charged (especially when a government is already highly indebted, then every spending program comes under close scrutiny).

Monetary policy, on the other hand, is much more politically isolated. It originates within the Federal Reserve, which is staffed with economists who understand economics better than politicians. The Fed began by cutting rates, hoping to stimulate aggregate demand.

Once this conventional monetary policy failed, unconventional means were taken; the Fed is buying assets on a large scale, expanding the monetary base. The Fed has pledged to continue to pursue expansionary monetary policy by buying assets on a monthly basis until either the unemployment rate falls below a certain level (I believe 6.5%) or inflation rises above a certain level (I believe 2%).

The Fed made this announcement to try to change people’s expectations. Since you cannot cut nominal interest rates below zero percent (the “Zero Lower Bound”), the Fed hopes to stimulate demand by making people think that in the future inflation will be higher than it is now. If money is worth less in the future, then people will want to spend it now while it is worth more. More spending stimulates the economy and reduces unemployment.

So why has this policy been ineffective? Well, as I said before, I am not so sure it has been—certainly the situation would be worse right now, not only for America but for the rest of the world which overwhelmingly relies on dollars for international transactions.

But as to why expansionary fiscal policy would be unquestionably more effective, Professor Krugman hits the nail on the head:

“I’m not claiming that there is nothing the central bank can do; but as I’ve tried to explain before, monetary policy can, for the most part, gain traction under current circumstances only by changing expectations about future actions (and changing them a lot). Meanwhile, fiscal policy has a direct, current effect on the economy, which easily trumps attempts to move the economy by changing the Fed’s messaging.

Sorry, guys, but as a practical matter the Fed – while it should be doing more – can’t make up for contractionary fiscal policy in the face of a depressed economy.”

Think of beginners national income accounting, where aggregate demand (Y) = C (consumption) + I (investment) + G (government spending).

Fiscal policy can stimulate AD directly by increasing either G, C, or I depending on how the program is designed.  Monetary Policy, on the other hand, has a much less direct effect. It tries to incentivize people to act a certain way (increase C or I), but people do not always act “rationally” in the economic sense. Sometimes people are so risk averse that even reducing the yield on an investment does not reduce the demand for this investment (particularly in times of economic uncertainty, when I would argue investors tend to become more risk averse).

Also, there is inherently less scrutiny in exactly how monetary policy works. While it is true that some portion of fiscal expansion may be used inefficiently, it is much more tractable than monetary policy.

Monetary policy stimulates AD, but it can also feed into financial bubbles. By providing low interest loans to banks, the Fed is making a leap of faith that the money will be spent wisely. The money should be going to helping people restructure underwater mortgages, or generally providing low cost financing, freeing money for people to spend and stimulate demand. And to a certain extent it is does, but it can just as easily be spent in other less egalitarian ways. If this money goes to Wall St.  investments, the gains will be realized almost entirely by the wealthy.

Evidence exists that this is happening—unemployment remains stuck while financial markets have reached record highs. Securitization, which became taboo after the financial crisis hit, has began to become common practice again. Without meaningful financial reform, the Feds policies could be fueling the next asset bubble.

The Fed has maintained it is keeping a close watch on how its money is being spent, and given the suffering caused by the Great Recession I’m sure it is, but there is only so much it can do. The Fed cannot possibly micromanage how all of its “cheap money” is being spent. The Fed could try to only lend to more people-friendly institutions, such as “credit unions”, or establish mechanisms to lend directly to people and small businesses, but up until this point has either has not or cannot do so (either due to its mandate or due to insufficient manpower for such oversight).

So expansionary monetary policy has kept the recovery from not being worse than it is (or not being a recovery at all), but it has predictably fallen short of its intended goal. It needs to be complimented by expansionary fiscal policy. That’s not to say that there are no inefficient programs that can be made to more efficient–there almost assuredly are. The stimulus-advocate policymaker should have concrete examples of how resources can be used more effectively, if he has any hopes of convincing his austerity minded counterpart of coming to an agreement. Policy, like markets, requires both competition and coordination to be made as efficient as possible.

The Fed should not reverse course now, but should ensure proper oversight for its policies. The Federal government, on the other hand, seems to be slowly moving from austerity to stimulus. Will common sense and text-book macroeconomics prevail, or will business as usual continue? Only time will tell.

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