Normative Narratives


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

Original article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investment v. Speculation

 Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

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

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

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

Consider the following definition from Investopia.com:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor Share of Nonfarm Business Sector

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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