Category Archive for: Market Failure [Return to Main]

Friday, June 04, 2010

Stiglitz: Financial Re-Regulation and Democracy

Joe Stiglitz on financial reform legislation and the danger that the outcome will "be a sad day for democracy":

Financial Re-Regulation and Democracy, by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Commentary, Project Syndicate: It has taken ... more than three years since the beginning of the global recession brought on by the financial sector’s misdeeds for the United States and Europe finally to reform financial regulation. Perhaps we should celebrate the regulatory victories in both Europe and the United States. ... But the battle – and even the victory – has left a bitter taste. ...
Banks that wreaked havoc on the global economy have resisted doing what needs to be done. Worse still, they have received support from the Fed, which ... reflects the interests of the banks that it was supposed to regulate.
This is important not just as a matter of history and accountability: much is being left up to regulators. And that leaves open the question: can we trust them? To me, the answer is an unambiguous no, which is why we need to “hard-wire” more of the regulatory framework. The usual approach – delegating responsibility to regulators to work out the details – will not suffice.
And that raises another question: whom can we trust? On complex economic matters, trust had been vested in bankers ... and in regulators... But the events of recent years have shown that bankers can make megabucks, even as they undermine the economy and impose massive losses on their own firms. Bankers have also shown themselves to be “ethically challenged.” ...
We should toast the likely successes: some form of financial-product safety commission will be established; more derivative trading will move to exchanges and clearing houses...; and some of the worst mortgage practices will be restricted. Moreover, it looks likely that the outrageous fees charged for every debit transaction – a kind of tax that goes not for any public purpose but to fill the banks’ coffers – will be curtailed.
But the likely failures are equally noteworthy: the problem of too-big-to-fail banks is now worse than it was before the crisis. Increased resolution authority will help, but only a little: in the last crisis, US government “blinked,” failed to use the powers that it had, and needlessly bailed out shareholders and bondholders – all because it feared that doing otherwise would lead to economic trauma. As long as there are banks that are too big to fail, government will most likely “blink” again. ...
The Senate bill’s provision on derivatives is a good litmus test: the Obama administration and the Fed, in opposing these restrictions, have clearly lined up on the side of big banks. If effective restrictions on the derivatives business of government-insured banks ... survive in the final version of the bill, the general interest might indeed prevail over special interests, and democratic forces over moneyed lobbyists.
But if, as most pundits predict, these restrictions are deleted, it will be a sad day for democracy – and a sadder day for prospects for meaningful financial reform.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

"Bankers Have Been Sold Short"

Raghuram Rajan:

Bankers have been sold short by market distortions, by Raghuram Rajan, Commentary, Financial Times: ...Inquiries under way are bound to unearth more instances of ethically, and even legally, challenged bankers. ... How do we instill more social values in the industry? Or is banker greed mostly good? ...
Take for instance a trader who sells short the stock of a company he feels is being mismanaged. He does not see the workers who lose their jobs or the hardship that unemployment causes their families. But short sellers perform a valuable social function by depriving poorly managed companies of resources they will waste. A company whose stock price tanks will not be able to raise financing easily and could be forced to close down.
The trader does not cause the company to go out of business. ... Mismanagement is the source of the company’s troubles; the trader merely holds up a mirror to reflect it. The best measure of the trader’s value to society is whether he made money from the trade... This is why free-market capitalism works and why bankers usually do good even as they do very well for themselves.
However, when the discipline of markets breaks down, as it sometimes does, the finely incentivized financial system can derail quickly and cause immense damage. The very anonymity of money then makes it a poor mechanism for guiding financiers’ activities toward socially desirable ends. Did the mortgage broker make his fees by offering a variety of sensible options to the professional couple who were looking to upgrade their house, or did he do so by urging an elderly couple to refinance into a mortgage they could not afford? When the broker’s loans are scrutinized by sensible banks that refuse to refinance shaky mortgages, there is a market check on his behavior that forces him to focus on persuading the professional couple instead of deluding the elderly one. When the market is willing to buy any loan he makes, however, he leans towards easy pickings.
The key then to understanding the recent crisis is to see why markets offered inordinate rewards for poor and risky decisions. Irrational exuberance played a part, but perhaps more important were the political forces distorting the markets. The tsunami of money directed by a US Congress ... towards expanding low income housing, joined with the flood of foreign capital inflows to remove any discipline on home loans. And the willingness of the Fed to stay on hold until jobs came back, and indeed to infuse plentiful liquidity if ever the system got into trouble, eliminated any perceived cost to having an illiquid balance sheet. Chastise the banker who hankers after his bonus, but also pity him for he is looking for his primary measure of self-worth to be restored. Rather than attempting to instill social purpose in him, however, it is probably more useful for society to target the forces that distorted the market.

I agree that it we should correct bad incentives when we are aware they exist, but as I've argued before, we are never going to be able to ensure that financial markets are perfectly safe. Another meltdown is always possible. So we should also put measures such as strict leverage ratios in place that limit the damage when the next crisis occurs.

Also, in addition to the causes of the crisis that he mentions, I'd add poor risk assessment due to the use of mathematical models that did not properly account for systemic risks, and the reliance on ratings agencies that used the same bad models and had incentives to rubber stamp approvals indicating assets of high quality. I'd also mention deregulation of the financial sector, and an ideology that promoted the idea that greed (maximizing self-interest) is good independent of the conditions that exist in a particular market, i.e. independent of whether the market discipline mentioned above is present.

A change in thinking that recognizes that markets do not necessarily self-correct or lead to optimal societal outcomes on their own, that oversight and regulation is needed to ensure that markets function properly (and safely when a meltdown could threaten the larger economy), is an important part of the solution to the problem. If regulators had taken seriously the possibility that financial markets could meltdown the way that they did and insisted upon the proper safeguards, we might not even be talking about a crisis or what new regulations are needed, the crisis might have been prevented. I think new regulation is needed, as well as a new attitude from those who are charges with enforcing the regulations on the books. But the attitude of regulators can change with the administration in power, and regulators make mistakes in any case, so some part of the new regulation must make discretionary errors by regulators less costly (hence the call for measures such as strict leverage ratios in the previous post).

Let me also add this from Paul Krugman (as noted below, this point has been made repeatedly -- for quite a bit more on the role, or lack thereof, of the CRA, Fannie, and Freddie in the crisis, see here and here.):

Things Everyone In Chicago Knows, by Paul Krugman: Which happen not to be true.

It was deeply depressing to see Raguram Rajan write this:

The tsunami of money directed by a US Congress, worried about growing income inequality, towards expanding low income housing, joined with the flood of foreign capital inflows to remove any discipline on home loans.

That’s a claim that has been refuted over and over again. But what happens, I believe, is that in Chicago they don’t listen at all to what the unbelievers say and write; and so the fact that those libruls in Congress caused the bubble is just part of what everyone knows, even though it’s not true.

Just to repeat the basic facts here:

1. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 was irrelevant to the subprime boom, which was overwhelmingly driven by loan originators not subject to the Act.

2. The housing bubble reached its point of maximum inflation in the middle years of the naughties:

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Robert Shiller

3. During those same years, Fannie and Freddie were sidelined by Congressional pressure, and saw a sharp drop in their share of securitization:

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FCIC

while securitization by private players surged:

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FCIC

Of course, I imagine that this post, like everything else, will fail to penetrate the cone of silence. It’s convenient to believe that somehow, this is all Barney Frank’s fault; and so that belief will continue.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Rogoff: The BP Oil Spill’s Lessons for Regulation

Kenneth Rogoff frets over our ability to regulate complex emerging technologies:

The BP Oil Spill’s Lessons for Regulation, by Kenneth Rogoff, Commentary, Project Syndicate: As the damaged BP oil well continues to spew millions of gallons of crude..., the immediate challenge is how to mitigate an ever-magnifying environmental catastrophe. ... The disaster, however, poses a much deeper challenge to how modern societies deal with regulating complex technologies. The accelerating speed of innovation seems to be outstripping government regulators’ capacity to deal with risks, much less anticipate them.
The parallels between the oil spill and the recent financial crisis are all too painful: the promise of innovation, unfathomable complexity, and lack of transparency (...we know only a very small fraction of what goes on at the oceans’ depths.) Wealthy and politically powerful lobbies put enormous pressure on even the most robust governance structures. It is a huge embarrassment for US President Barack Obama that he proposed – admittedly under pressure from the Republican opposition – to expand offshore oil drilling greatly just before the BP catastrophe struck.
The oil technology story, like the one for exotic financial instruments, was very compelling and seductive. Oil executives bragged that they could drill a couple of kilometers down, then a kilometer across, and hit their target within a few meters. Suddenly, instead of a world of “peak oil” with ever-depleting resources, technology offered the promise of extending supplies for another generation. ... Some developing countries, most notably Brazil, have discovered huge potential offshore riches.
Now all bets are off. ... Will Brazil really risk its spectacular coastline for oil, now that everyone has been reminded of what can happen? What about Nigeria, where other risks are amplified by civil strife? ...
The basic problem of complexity, technology, and regulation extends to many other areas of modern life. Nanotechnology and innovation in developing artificial organisms offer a huge potential boon to mankind, promising development of new materials, medicines, and treatment techniques. Yet, with all of these exciting technologies, it is extremely difficult to strike a balance between managing “tail risk” – a very small risk of a very large disaster – and supporting innovation.
Financial crises are almost comforting by comparison. Speculative bubbles and banking crises have been a regular feature of the economic landscape for centuries. Awful as they are, societies survive them. ... If ever there were a wake-up call for Western society to rethink its dependence on ever-accelerating technological innovation for ever-expanding fuel consumption, surely the BP oil spill should be it. ...
Economics teaches us that when there is huge uncertainty about catastrophic risks, it is dangerous to rely too much on the price mechanism to get incentives right. Unfortunately, economists know much less about how to adapt regulation over time to complex systems with constantly evolving risks, much less how to design regulatory resilient institutions. Until these problems are better understood, we may be doomed to a world of regulation that perpetually overshoots or undershoots its goals.
The finance industry already is warning that new regulation may overshoot – that is, have the unintended effect of sharply impeding growth. Now, we may soon face the same concerns over energy policy, and not just for oil. ...
The balance of technology, complexity, and regulation is without doubt one of the greatest challenges that the world must face in twenty-first century. We can ill afford to keep getting it wrong.

Just one comment. If the risks of too little regulation are very large -- catastrophic oil spills, financial crises, and the like -- much larger than the potential costs from too much regulation stifling innovative activity -- then there should be a bias toward erring on the side of too much rather than too little regulation. Thus, the fact that "new regulation may overshoot" is not worrisome, it is optimal, and it seems to be we could have used what would have appeared to be overshooting prior to the recent financial and oil spill crises.

In addition, suppose that regulation had prevented the recent meltdowns and accidents. We never would have known -- catastrophic events that don't occur are not observable -- and there would have been considerable pressure to ease the regulations that were in place. There would have been argument after argument about regulatory overshooting, and considerable pressure from the "loan, baby, loan" and "drill, baby, drill" crowds to ease off (see Obama opening up offshore areas to drilling). I can even imagine Rogoff writing a Project Syndicate piece making the argument that financial markets are unduly constrained. So I am not particularly persuaded by worries that we will overshoot. As I said, we could have used a little more of what would have been called overshooting prior to the recent crises.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Digital Robber Barons?"

Paul Krugman is on vacation, so I essentially picked an article randomly (by date) from the PKarchive. This column appeared December 6, 2002. Not much has changed:

Digital Robber Barons?, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Bad metaphors make bad policy. Everyone talks about the "information highway." But in economic terms the telecommunications network resembles not a highway but the railroad industry of the robber-baron era — that is, before it faced effective competition from trucking. And railroads eventually faced tough regulation, for good reason: they had a lot of market power, and often abused it.
Yet the people making choices today about the future of the Internet — above all Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission — seem unaware of this history. They are full of enthusiasm for the wonders of deregulation, dismissive of concerns about market power. And meanwhile tomorrow's robber barons are fortifying their castles.
Until recently, the Internet seemed the very embodiment of the free-market ideal — a place where thousands of service providers competed, where anyone could visit any site. And the tech sector was a fertile breeding ground for libertarian ideology, with many techies asserting that they needed neither help nor regulation from Washington.
But the wide-open, competitive world of the dial-up Internet depended on the very government regulation so many Internet enthusiasts decried. Local phone service is a natural monopoly, and in an unregulated world local phone monopolies would probably insist that you use their dial-up service. The reason you have a choice is that they are required to act as common carriers, allowing independent service providers to use their lines.
A few years ago everyone expected the same story to unfold in broadband. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to create a highly competitive broadband industry. But it was a botched job; the promised competition never materialized.
For example, I personally have no choice at all: if I want broadband, the Internet service provided by my local cable company is it. I'm like a 19th-century farmer who had to ship his grain on the Union Pacific, or not at all. If I lived closer to a telephone exchange, or had a clear view of the Southern sky, I might have some alternatives. But there are only a few places in the U.S. where there is effective broadband competition.
And that's probably the way it will stay. The political will to fix the 1996 act, to create in broadband the kind of freewheeling environment that many Internet users still take for granted, has evaporated.
Last March the F.C.C. used linguistic trickery — defining cable Internet access as an "information service" rather than as telecommunications — to exempt cable companies from the requirement to act as common carriers. The commission will probably make a similar ruling on DSL service, which runs over lines owned by your local phone company. The result will be a system in which most families and businesses will have no more choice about how to reach cyberspace than a typical 19th-century farmer had about which railroad would carry his grain.
There were and are alternatives. We could have restored competition by breaking up the broadband industry, restricting local phone and cable companies to the business of selling space on their lines to independent Internet service providers. Or we could have accepted limited competition, and regulated Internet providers the way we used to regulate AT&T. But right now we seem to be heading for a system without either effective competition or regulation.
Worse yet, the F.C.C. has been steadily lifting restrictions on cross-ownership of media and communications companies. The day when a single conglomerate could own your local newspaper, several of your local TV channels, your cable company and your phone company — and offer your only route to the Internet — may not be far off.
The result of all this will probably be exorbitant access charges, but that's the least of it. Broadband providers that face neither effective competition nor regulation may well make it difficult for their customers to get access to sites outside their proprietary domain — ending the Internet as we know it. And there's a political dimension too. What happens when a few media conglomerates control not only what you can watch, but what you can download?
There's still time to rethink; a fair number of Congressmen, from both parties, have misgivings about Mr. Powell's current direction. But time is running out.

One way to induce competition is to follow the model used for phone services and force internet service providers to sell their services at wholesale rates to other providers (e.g., see unbundled network elements). In any case, there's no reason why there should be so little competition in this industry other than political power that these firms have.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"The Effects of Airline Deregulation: What’s The Counterfactual?"

Tom Bozzo argues that the case for airline deregulation isn't as clear as many people would have you believe:

The Effects of Airline Deregulation: What’s The Counterfactual?, by Tom Bozzo: Matt Welch at the Reason blog takes credit for airline deregulation on behalf of libertarianism:

The “worldview” of libertarianism suggested, back in the early 1970s, that if you got the government out of the business of setting all airline ticket prices and composing all in-flight menus, then just maybe Americans who were not rich could soon enjoy air travel. At the time, people with much more imagination and pull than Gabriel Winant has now dismissed the idea as unrealistic, out-of-touch fantasia. They were wrong then, they continue to be wrong now about a thousand similar things, and history does not judge them harsh enough.

Mark Kleiman observes that transportation deregulation was more directly the progeny of 1970s Brookings-esque neoliberalism (though I’d grant Welch that libertarians got there first), though Kleiman doesn’t take issue with the basic claim that deregulating prices and service offerings “was, on balance, a good thing.” This argument ultimately rests on the declines in airfares and resulting democratization of air travel that Welch cites; indeed that’s what the Brookings-esque neoliberals I know cite when they’re defending the deregulatory record.

The catch is that all such economic comparisons must be counterfactual: they must show an improvement not with respect to CAB-set fares of the late-1970s, but rather with respect to what reasonably competent regulation could have produced under the other circumstances of the deregulated era. (This, FWIW, is one of Robert W. Fogel’s central insights into what makes economic history economic history.) If the comparison exercise is tough by the (inappropriate) historical yardstick thanks to declines in (average) service quality and the airline industry’s trail of fleeced stakeholders, then the counterfactual comparison is going to be tougher still thanks to a couple of factors that should have produced large declines in airline costs and hence fares even in the absence of deregulation.

The factors of note are a pair of technological advancements — the development of high bypass ratio turbofans suitable for shorter-haul airliners and the demise of the flight engineer’s job thanks to cockpit automation, both of which have origins predating deregulation — and the long secular decline in oil prices through the deregulated era’s zenith prior the crash of the 1990s stock market bubble. Since a regulator could have promoted adoption of the cost-saving technologies and passed the resulting productivity improvements and input cost decreases through to fare-payers using elementary regulatory technologies, deregulation must have produced substantial fare reductions relative to the late CAB era to have a claim to constituting a true improvement.

One of the airline industry’s problems is that it isn’t “revenue adequate” or able to recover its total costs including a normal return to investors. If you thought airlines were incurring costs efficiently, then moving towards revenue adequacy would require more revenues and hence higher average fares. On the face of things, that wouldn’t look good for a regulated alternative providing more secure revenues to the industry. However, there are dynamic efficiency counterbalances to the apparent static inefficiency under regulation: revenue adequacy implies having money for efficiency-improving investments. For instance, U.S. legacy airlines have somewhat notoriously kept relatively aged fleets in the air. Partly, that was a deliberate strategy that blew up when the Goldilocks conditions of the late-90s ended, and partly they don’t have the money to turn over their fleets as fast as they arguably should.

The formerly regulated transportation industries shared, to one extent or another, cost structures under which an efficient carrier would go broke under econ 101 perfect competition with prices driven down to marginal costs. So the question isn’t so much whether carriers will exercise such market power as they have in order to survive, but how. Real firms might or might not do that better than a real regulator. I do think there’s a good case to be made for some degree of pricing and service liberalization with regulatory policing of “excessive” use of market power; that’s a one-sentence version of the Staggers Act’s approach to the (very successful) freight rail industry.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Reich: Obama’s Regulatory Brain

I don't fully agree with Robert Reich's view expressed below and elsewhere that breaking up the big banks is the key to solving the too big too fail problem. It does mean that the failure of an individual firm would be less worrisome, and hence less likely to get help from the government, but that assumes shocks are idiosyncratic rather than common. However, the shocks we should worry about are common -- systemic to use another term. The shocks that are capable of bringing down large institutions would, if the large banks had been broken up into smaller pieces, bring down all the smaller banks just as easily. Collectively they would still be too big too fail and still require a bailout. And it's certainly true that there are historical episodes where the failure of a large number of small banks was the problem.

But there is another reason to worry about big banks, the economic and political power that comes with size. Even if it's true that breaking banks into smaller pieces doesn't help much, if at all, to make the system safer, all else equal, it does make it much less likely that banks will capture regulators and legislators. And it makes it harder for banks to use their economic power in the marketplace to increase profits at the expense of consumers, or to maintain a financial marketplace where high risk, high reward, taxpayers pay the bill it things go sour strategies are allowed.

So yes, break up the big banks if for no other reason than to curtail economic and political power. And if I'm wrong and this also makes the system substantially safer, so much the better. But what I was really interested in here is the distinction Reich makes between the regulatory and structural approaches, a distinction I think is important:

Obama’s Regulatory Brain, by Robert Reich: The most important thing to know about the 1,500 page financial reform bill passed by the Senate last week — now on he way to being reconciled with the House bill — is that it’s regulatory. If does nothing to change the structure of Wall Street. The bill omits two critical ideas for changing the structure of Wall Street’s biggest banks so they won’t cause more trouble in the future, and leaves a third idea in limbo. The White House doesn’t support any of them. 
First, although the Senate bill seeks to avoid the “too big to fail” problem by pushing failing banks into an “orderly” bankruptcy-type process, this regulatory approach isn’t enough. The Senate roundly rejected an amendment that would have broken up the biggest banks... You do not have to be an algorithm-wielding Wall Street whizz-kid to understand that the best way to prevent a bank from becoming too big to fail is preventing it from becoming too big in the first place. ... Because traders and investors know they are too big to fail, these banks have a huge competitive advantage over smaller banks.
Another crucial provision left out of the Senate bill would be to change the structure of banking by resurrecting the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act and force banks to separate commercial banking ... from investment banking. Here, too, the bill takes a regulatory approach..., it would not erode the giant banks’ monopoly over derivatives trading, adding to their power and inevitable “too big to fail” status.
Which brings us to the third structural idea, advanced by Senator Blanche Lincoln. She would force the banks to do their derivative trades in entities separate from their commercial banking. This measure is still in the bill, but is on life-support after Paul Volcker, Tim Geithner, and Fed chair Ben Bernanke came out against it. Republicans hate it. The biggest banks detest it. ... Almost no one in Washington believes it will survive the upcoming conference committee. But it’s critical. ...
Wall Street’s lobbyists have fought tooth and nail against these three ideas because all would change the structure of America’s biggest banks. The lobbyists won on the first two, and the Street has signaled its willingness to accept the Dodd bill, without Lincoln’s measure. The interesting question is why the president, who says he wants to get “tough” on banks, has also turned his back on changing the structure of American banks — opting for a regulatory approach instead.
It’s almost exactly like health care reform. Ideas for changing the structure of the health-care industry — a single payer, Medicare for all, even a so-called “public option” — were all jettisoned by the White House in favor of a complex set of regulations that left the old system of private for-profit health insurers in place. The final health care act doesn’t even remove the exemption of private insurers from the nation’s antitrust laws. 
Regulations don’t work if the underlying structure of an industry — be it banking or health care — got us into trouble in the first place. ... A regulatory rather than structural approach to deep-seated problems in complex industries like banking and health care is also vulnerable to the inevitable erosion that occurs when industry lobbyists insert themselves into the regulatory process. Tiny loopholes get larger. Delays get longer. Legislative words are warped and distorted to mean what industry wants them to mean. ...
Inevitably, top regulators move into the industry they’re putatively trying to regulate, while top guns in the industry move temporarily into regulatory positions. This revolving door of regulation also serves over time to erode all serious attempt at overseeing an industry.
The only way to have a lasting effect on industries as large and intransigent as banking and health care is to alter their structure. That was the approach taken to finance by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, and by Lyndon Johnson to health care (Medicare) in the 1960s. 
So why has Obama consistently chosen regulation over restructuring? Because restructuring Wall Street or health care would surely elicit firestorms from these industries. Both are politically powerful, and Obama did not want to take them on directly.
A regulatory approach allows for more bargaining, not only in the legislative process but also, over time, in the rule-making process as legislation is put into effect. It’s always possible to placate an industry with a carefully-chosen loophole or vague legislative language that will allow the industry to continue to go on much as before. 
And that’s precisely the problem. 

The line between structural and regulatory intervention is a bit vague in some cases, but it's still conceptually useful to categorize the types of intervention in this way. As I've said many times, we should try as hard as we can to make the system safe, but we'll never be able to guarantee that the financial system is immune to sudden collapse. Thus, as we think about the structural and regulatory changes that are needed, we should be sure to make changes that minimize the fallout when another collapse occurs, as it eventually will. Much of the change that is needed is structural in nature, but not all, e.g. I'd categorize leverage limits, which I view as critical to minimizing the fallout when problems occur, as regulatory.

However, as noted above structural change is harder than imposing new regulations. The fact that legislators are shying away from the harder to impose types of change out of fear of losing reelection support from the financial industry points to the political power the industry still has, and to the need for structural change to reduce this political (and economic) power. If we cannot muster the political will to make such changes in light of the most devastating financial collapse since the Great Depression, that does not bode well for the future.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"James Tobin's Hirsch Lecture"

Rajiv Sethi discusses James Tobin's "four distinct conceptions of financial market efficiency," particularly his notion of functional efficiency"

James Tobin's Hirsch Lecture, by Rajiv Sethi: James Tobin's Fred Hirsch Memorial Lecture "On the Efficiency of the Financial System" was originally published in a 1984 issue of the Lloyds Bank Review, and republished three years later in a collection of his writings. Willem Buiter discussed the essay at some length about a year ago in a provocative post dealing with the regulation of derivatives. Both the original essay and Buiter's discussion of it remain well worth reading today as guides to the broad principles that ought to underlie financial market reform.

In his essay, Tobin considers four distinct conceptions of financial market efficiency:

Efficiency has several different meanings: first, a market is 'efficient' if it is on average impossible to gain from trading on the basis of generally available public information... Efficiency in this meaning I call information arbitrage efficiency.

A second and deeper meaning is the following: a market in a financial asset is efficient if if its valuations reflect accurately the future payments to which the asset gives title... I call this concept fundamental valuation efficiency.

Third, a system of financial markets is efficient if it enables economic agents to insure for themselves deliveries of goods and services in all future contingencies, either by surrendering some of their own resources now or by contracting to deliver them in specified future contingencies... I call efficiency in this Arrow-Debreu sense full insurance efficiency.

The fourth concept relates more concretely to the economic functions of the financial industries... These include: the pooling of risks and their allocation to those most able and willing to bear them... the facilitation of transactions by providing mechanisms and networks of payments; the mobilization of saving for investments in physical and human capital... and the allocation of saving to to their more socially productive uses. I call efficiency in these respects functional efficiency.

The first two criteria correspond, respectively, to weak and strong versions of the efficient markets hypothesis. Tobin argues that the weak form is generally satisfied on the grounds that "actively managed portfolios, allowance made for transactions costs, do not beat the market." He notes, however that efficiency in the second (strong form) sense is "by no means implied" by this, and that "market speculation multiplies several fold the underlying fundamental variability of dividends and earnings."

My own view of the matter (expressed in an earlier post) is that such a neat separation of these two concepts of efficiency is too limiting: endogenous variations in the composition of trading strategies result in alternating periods of high and low volatility. Nevertheless, as an approximate view of market efficiency over long horizons, I feel that Tobin's characterization is about right. 

Full insurance efficiency requires complete markets in state contingent claims. This is a theoretical ideal that is impossible to attain in practice for a variety of reasons: the real resource costs of contracting, the thinness of potential markets for exotic contingent claims, and the difficulty of dispute resolution. Nevertheless, Tobin argues for the introduction of new assets that insure against major contingencies such as inflation, and securities of this kind have indeed been introduced since his essay was published.

Finally, Tobin turns to functional efficiency, and this is where he expresses greatest concern:

What is clear that very little of the work done by the securities industry, as gauged by the volume of market activity, has to do with the financing of real investment in any very direct way. Likewise, those markets have very little to do, in aggregate, with the translation of the saving of households into corporate business investment. That process occurs mainly outside the market, as retention of earnings gradually and irregularly augments the value of equity shares...

I confess to an uneasy Physiocratic suspicion, perhaps unbecoming in an academic, that we are throwing more and more of our resources, including the cream of our youth, into financial activities remote from the production of goods and services, into activities that generate high private rewards disproportionate to their social productivity. I suspect that the immense power of the computer is being harnessed to this 'paper economy', not to do the same transactions more economically but to balloon the quantity and variety of financial exchanges. For this reason perhaps, high technology has so far yielded disappointing results in economy-wide productivity. I fear that, as Keynes saw even in his day, the advantages of the liquidity and negotiability of financial instruments come at the cost of facilitation nth-degree speculation which is short sighted and inefficient...
Arrow and Debreu did not have continuous sequential trading in mind; when that occurs, as Keynes noted, it attracts short-horizon speculators and middlemen, and distorts or dilutes the influence of fundamentals on prices. I suspect that Keynes was right to suggest that we should provide greater deterrents to transient holdings of financial instruments and larger rewards for long-term investors.

Recall that these passages were published in 1984; the financial sector has since been transformed beyond recognition. Buiter argues that Tobin's concerns about functional efficiency are more valid today than they have ever been, and is particularly concerned with derivatives contacts involving directional bets by both parties to the transaction:

[Since] derivatives trading is not costless, scarce skilled resources are diverted to what are not even games of pure redistribution.  Instead these resources are diverted towards games involving the redistribution of a social pie that shrinks as more players enter the game.

The inefficient redistribution of risk that can be the by-product of the creation of new derivatives markets and their inadequate regulation can also affect the real economy through an increase in the scope and severity of defaults.  Defaults, insolvency and bankruptcy are key components of a market economy based on property rights.  There involve more than a redistribution of property rights (both income and control rights).  They also destroy real resources.  The zero-sum redistribution characteristic of derivatives contracts in a frictionless world becomes a negative-sum redistribution when default and insolvency is involved.  There is a fundamental asymmetry in the market game between winners and losers: there is no such thing as super-solvency for winners.  But there is such a thing as insolvency for losers, if the losses are large enough.
The easiest solution to this churning problem would be to restrict derivatives trading to insurance, pure and simple.  The party purchasing the insurance should be able to demonstrate an insurable interest.  [Credit Default Swaps] could only be bought and sold in combination with a matching amount of the underlying security. 

The debate over naked credit default swaps is contentious and continues to rage. While market liquidity and stability have been central themes in this debate to date, it might be useful also to view the issue through the lens of functional efficiency. More generally, we ought to be asking whether Tobin was right to be concerned about the size of the financial sector in his day, and whether its dramatic growth over the couple of decades since then has been functional or dysfunctional on balance.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Shiller: How Nutritious Are Your Investments?

Robert Shiller hopes that regulatory reform will include the requirement that financial products have "a standardized disclosure label analogous to the nutritional labels on foods":

How Nutritious Are Your Investments?, by Robert J. Shiller, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Those labels that you see on packaged foods listing their ingredients and nutritional values had their beginnings in an international scandal and in the efforts by governments to deal constructively with the public outrage that followed.
The scandal erupted with the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle... The public response to the book’s description of unsanitary conditions in the industry was so strong that the United States Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act – the first law to require labeling of contents on food packages – the very same year. ...
These labels are undoubtedly useful to consumers, but it is unlikely that many manufacturers, if given the choice, would have introduced them on their own.
That is how regulatory progress is often made. The history of legislative reform is ... long periods of time during which public apathy prevents any progress, interrupted by scandals that suddenly make progress possible. Entrenched interests ... resist change with all of their lobbying efforts, but public outrage is too strong for them to win.
We have to hope that the same kind of outcome will emerge from the financial scandals that have produced public outrage analogous to that directed at the food industries in Upton Sinclair’s day. As was the case then, public outrage today is at a level that might well overwhelm the lobbying efforts of entrenched interests. ...
For today we need laws that will require purveyors of financial products to provide the essential information that consumers need. ...[I]nvestment products like mutual funds should include a standardized disclosure label analogous to the nutritional labels on foods. The structure of the label should be developed by a committee of academics, regulators, and industry executives with the objective of promoting informed comparison among consumers of investment products. ...
The ... standardized disclosure should give the consumer an understandable measure of long-term risk. ... Not all investors will be able to interpret even ... simple measures of the outlook for an investment. But neither are all consumers of food able to interpret the quantities of nutrients that are shown on nutritional labels. These facts should be there to allow those people who will look at them to do so, and to encourage them to spread the information...
The standardized disclosure label should not, however, include past returns on investments. This is because most investors overreact to past returns... Moreover,... when an advertisement for an investment product does report a prior average return, it should also include a statement of the uncertainty associated with that return. ...
Including such information on financial products would give an enormous boost to the efficiency and efficacy of our financial products in serving customers’ needs. The only reason that such labeling has not yet been required is the same reason that nutritional labels were not required long ago on foods. Public outcry at a time of scandal forced progressive change then; we should hope that it does so now.

I don't think it's on the financial reform agenda, though there was talk of providing "plain vanilla" options for some financial products awhile back to help with this problem. But that got dropped due to opposition from the financial industry.

Is there a good reason not to do this? I couldn't think of one. There is a small cost to the banks to develop the labels, but if it's a standard form that shouldn't be too costly, particularly relative to the potential benefit to consumers from overcoming the informational market failure.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Rebirth of Regulation?

Robert Reich says its time for regulation to make a comeback:

The Rebirth of Regulation, by Robert Reich: What do oil giant BP, the mining company Massey Energy, and Goldman Sachs have in common? They’re all big firms involved in massive plunder. BP’s oil spill is already one of the biggest and most damaging in American history. Massey’s mine disaster, claiming the lives of 29 miners, is one of the worst in recent history. Goldman’s alleged fraud is but a part of the largest financial meltdown in 75 years. ...

Where were the regulators? Why didn’t the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service make sure offshore oil rigs have backup systems to prevent blowouts? One clue: You may remember MMS’s wild drinking parties exposed during the Bush era.

Where was the Mine Safety and Health Administration before the Upper Big Branch mine exploded? MSHA says it fined the company for a whole string of violations, but the law didn’t allow fines high enough to deter the company. Which raises the next question: Given Massey’s record, why didn’t the Bush-era MSHA seek to change the law and increase the penalties?

Why didn’t the Securities and Exchange Commission spot fraud on the Street when it was happening? Well, as we all now know, the Bush SEC was asleep at the wheel.

But don’t blame it all on George W. For thirty years, deregulation has been all the rage in Washington. Even where regulations exist, Congress has set such low penalties that disregarding the regulations and risking fines has been treated by firms as a cost of doing business. And for years, enforcement budgets have been slashed, with the result that there are rarely enough inspectors to do the job. The assumption has been markets know best, and when they don’t civil lawsuits and government prosecutions will deter wrongdoing.

Wrong. When shareholders demand the highest returns possible and executive pay is linked to stock performance, many companies will do whatever necessary to squeeze out added profits. And that will spell disaster – giant oil spills, terrible coal-mine disasters, and Wall Street meltdowns – unless the nation has tough regulations backed up by significant penalties, including jail terms for executives found guilty of recklessness, and vigilant enforcement.

After thirty years of deregulation, it’s time for the rebirth of regulation: Not heavy-handed and unncessarily costly regulation, but regulation that’s up to the task of protecting the public from companies and executives that will do almost anything to make a buck.

It's not at all clear that "the largest financial meltdown in 75 years" will result in new financial regulation that is more than window dressing designed to appease voters without actually curtailing financial sector activity. If, in the end, the regulatory change that is implemented does little to make us safer from future financial meltdowns even after such a large economic downturn, that's not a good sign for those who are hoping that the gulf oil spill will provide the motivation for new and substantial environmental regulation. But maybe financial regulation will turn out better than I expect.

Monday, May 03, 2010

FRBSF Economic Letter: Is the “Invisible Hand” Still Relevant?

Steven LeRoy asks if "free markets", i.e. markets free of government intervention, generally perform better than markets where government intervenes:

Is the “Invisible Hand” Still Relevant?, by Stephen LeRoy, FRBSF Economic Letter: The single most important proposition in economic theory, first stated by Adam Smith, is that competitive markets do a good job allocating resources. Vilfredo Pareto’s later formulation was more precise than Smith’s, and also highlighted the dependence of Smith’s proposition on assumptions that may not be satisfied in the real world. The financial crisis has spurred a debate about the proper balance between markets and government and prompted some scholars to question whether the conditions assumed by Smith and Pareto are accurate for modern economies.
The single most important proposition in economic theory is that, by and large, competitive markets that are relatively, but generally not completely, free of government guidance do a better job allocating resources than occurs when governments play a dominant role. This proposition was first clearly formulated by Adam Smith in his classic Wealth of Nations. Except for some extreme supporters of free markets, today the preference for private markets is not an absolute. Almost everyone acknowledges that some functions, such as contract enforcement, cannot readily be delegated to market participants. The question is when and to what extent—not whether—private markets fail and therefore must be supplanted or regulated by government.
The answer to that question is something of a moving target, with views of the public and policymakers tending to ebb and flow. In much of the latter part of the 20th century, support for Smith’s pro-private-market verdict gained favor, as reflected in the partial deregulation of financial and nonfinancial markets in the 1980s and subsequent decades. The financial and economic debacle of the past few years, however, has led many to revisit this question, particularly in Europe, but also in the United States and elsewhere. To many, financial markets in the last several years appeared dysfunctional to an extent that was never imagined possible earlier. Did Adam Smith get it wrong about private markets?
This Economic Letter discusses two versions of the argument in favor of private markets: that of Adam Smith in the 18th century and that formulated in the 19th century by the Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto. The discussion in this Letter points to the key assumptions in the arguments. Differing views on the degree of applicability of those assumptions underlie a good deal of the debate over the appropriate balance between relying on markets versus government intervention. Also important are views on the effectiveness of government involvement.
Competitive markets work: Adam Smith
In 17th and 18th century England prior to Smith it was taken for granted that economic and political leadership came from the king, not from private citizens. If the king wanted to initiate some large economic project, such as expanding trade with the colonies, he would encourage formation of a company to conduct that project, such as the East India Company. The king would grant that company a monopoly, usually in exchange for payment. Smith thought that these monopoly grants were a bad idea, and that instead private companies should be free to compete. He called on the king to discharge himself from a duty “in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient; the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it toward the employments most suitable to the interests of the society.” (Smith 1776 Book IV, Chapter 9)
Thus, Smith’s conclusion was that private markets worked better if they were free from government supervision, and for him it was just about that simple. Smith’s idea received its biggest challenge when the Soviet Union achieved world power status following World War II. In the 1960s, reported gross national product grew at much higher rates in the Soviet Union than in the United States or western Europe. Such authorities as the Central Intelligence Agency estimated that, before long, Soviet gross national product per capita would exceed that in the United States. To many, it looked as though centrally planned economies could achieve higher growth rates than market economies.
Economists who saw themselves as followers of Smith took issue. To them, it was simply not possible for centrally planned economies to achieve higher standards of living than market economies. As Smith put it, government could not be expected successfully to superintend the industry of private people. Too much information was required, and it was too difficult to structure the incentives. G. Warren Nutter, an economist at the University of Virginia, conducted a detailed study of the Soviet economy, arguing that the CIA’s estimates of Soviet output were much too high (Nutter 1962). At the time, those findings were not taken seriously. But, by the 1980s, we knew that Nutter had been correct. If anything, the Soviet Union was falling further and further behind. By 1990, this process came to its logical conclusion: the Soviet empire disintegrated. Score a point for Adam Smith.
Competitive markets work: Vilfredo Pareto
By the 19th century, economists had largely abandoned the informal and literary style of Smith in favor of the more precise—if less engaging—style of today’s economics. Increasingly, economists came to appreciate the role of formal mathematical model-building in enforcing logical consistency and clarity of exposition, although that development did not get into high gear until the 20th century. Under the leadership of Pareto and others, Adam Smith’s argument in favor of private competitive markets underwent a major reformulation.
Pareto’s version of the argument is usually taken to be a refinement of Smith’s. But, for the present purpose, it’s best to emphasize the differences rather than the similarities. First, Pareto provided a more precise definition than Smith of efficient resource allocation. An allocation is “Pareto efficient” if it is impossible to reallocate goods to make everyone better off. Or, to put it another way, you cannot make someone better off without making someone else worse off. This idea captures part of what we usually mean by “good performance,” but not all of it. For example, attaining a reasonably equal income distribution is often taken to be part of what we mean by good performance, but an equal income distribution is not an implication of Pareto efficiency. Indeed, public policies designed to reduce the degree of income inequality can involve redistribution of income, making some better off and others worse off. (See Yellen 2006 for a discussion of income inequality.)
Pareto reached the remarkable conclusion that competitive markets generate Pareto-efficient allocations. In competitive markets, prices measure scarcity and desirability, so the profit motive leads market participants to make efficient use of productive resources. The English economist F.Y. Edgeworth made a similar argument at about the same time as Pareto. Economists Kenneth Arrow and Gérard Debreu presented precise formulations of the Pareto-Edgeworth result in the 1950s and 1960s.
A mathematical proof that competitive allocations are Pareto efficient required a characterization of a competitive economy that is more precise than anything Smith had provided. For Pareto, unlike Smith, it was not enough that the economy be free of government intervention. The essential characteristic for Pareto was that a buyer’s payment and a seller’s receipts from any transaction be in strict proportion to the quantity transacted. In other words, individuals cannot affect prices. This assumption is satisfied, to a close approximation, by the classical competitive markets, such as those for corn, wheat, and other agricultural commodities. The assumption rules out monopoly and monopsony, in which individual sellers and buyers are large enough to be able to manipulate prices by altering quantities supplied or demanded. When monopolists and monopsonists can distort prices in this way, allocations will not be Pareto efficient.
Pareto’s efficiency result was first formulated in mathematical models of economies that were static and deterministic—that is, models in which time and uncertainty were not explicitly represented. In the 20th century, economists realized that the validity of the Pareto-efficiency result does not depend on these extreme restrictions. Arrow and Debreu showed that allocations will be Pareto efficient even in economies in which time and uncertainty are explicitly represented. They showed that, in any economy, there is an irreducible minimum level of risk that somebody has to bear. In a competitive economy with well-functioning financial markets, this risk will be borne by those who are most risk tolerant and who therefore require the least compensation in terms of higher expected return for bearing the risk. This is exactly as one would expect—risk-tolerant participants use financial markets to insure the risk averse. These aspects of equilibrium are discussed in standard texts on financial economics (such as LeRoy and Werner 2001).
However, demonstrating these results mathematically depends on assuming symmetric information—that is, assuming that everyone has unrestricted access to the same information. Such an assumption is less unrealistic than excluding uncertainty altogether, but it is still a strong restriction. The advent of game theory in recent decades has made it possible to relax the unattractive assumption of symmetric information. But Pareto efficiency often does not survive in settings that allow for asymmetric information. Based on mathematical economic theory, then, it appears that the argument that private markets produce good economic outcomes is open to serious question.
Nonmathematical economists such as Friedrich Hayek proposed an argument for the superiority of market systems that did not depend on Pareto efficiency. In fact, Hayek’s argument was the exact opposite of that of Arrow and Debreu. For him, it was the existence of asymmetric information that provided the strongest rationale in favor of market-based economic systems. Hayek emphasized that prices incorporate valuable information about desirability and scarcity, and the profit motive induces producers and consumers to respond to this information by economizing on expensive goods. He expressed the view that economies in which prices are not used to communicate information—planned economies, such as that of the Soviet Union—could not possibly induce suppliers to produce efficiently. This is essentially the same as the argument against socialism discussed above.
Reevaluating the balance between markets and the government
The financial crisis that we have just experienced puts the question about the appropriate balance between reliance on markets and government intervention on center stage. Those who believe that unregulated markets generally work well express the view that misconceived interference by the government was the major cause of the crisis. In contrast, those who take a more critical view about the functioning of private markets believe that the crisis stemmed mainly from the destructive consequences of factors such as information asymmetries in financial markets and distortions to incentives that encouraged excessive risk-taking. The problem was not government involvement per se, but rather government’s failure to place checks on destructive market practices.
This latter view dominates most of the recent proposals for financial reform. And, while the particulars of financial reform are still to be determined, it appears that current sentiment is less supportive of Adam Smith’s verdict on the efficiency of markets than was the case prior to the financial crisis. At the same time, it seems clear that neither extreme view of the causes of the financial crisis is accurate. Reforms based only on one of these views to the exclusion of the other will not lead to a set of changes that will guarantee improvement of the performance of financial markets and prevent recurrence of financial crisis. The problems are complex, and sweeping changes in the regulatory structure could do more harm than good. A better strategy may be to identify specific problems in the financial system and introduce regulatory changes that address these clearly defined weaknesses, such as executive compensation practices that encourage excessive risk-taking.

In response, I'll point, once again, to Markets Are Not Magic which makes the point that for all of the nice properties identified by Pareto and others to hold, having markets that are free of government intervention is not enough. To obtain optimality, markets must be competitive, and a competitive marketplace requires some fairly restrictive assumptions to hold, assumptions that, in many cases, can only be satisfied with government intervention.

When it comes to government intervention, the one thing I wish people would understand is the difference between free markets and competitive markets. Markets that are free of government oversight are also free to exploit consumers in a variety of ways, from fraud to higher than necessary prices. Markets that are free, but not competitive, do not necessarily result in the best possible outcome.

When problems do exist, we should still ask if government intervention will actually help, but I believe we have been far too cautious in intervening to solve market failures. For example, as I've discussed many times, obvious market failures exist at almost every stage of mortgage markets, from the real estate agent, appraisers, and loan originators all the way through the securitization process. Somehow, we were led to believe that these failures that were so profitable to those able to exploit them would fix themselves. But they don't, and didn't, and the belief that they would caused us to stand by and do nothing as these markets departed further and further from the competitive ideal.

Hopefully we've learned something about the need for government oversight and intervention to correct problems, but it's not yet clear that we have. In coming months, we will see an attempt by market fundamentalists to tell a story about the economy recovering on its own despite government intervention. We'll hear all about the miraculous self-healing properties of the economy, and we will be told that it would have been even more miraculous if the government would have stayed out of the way.

When they try to sell you this story, remember that these are many of the same people who went to the government, hat in hand, begging for the government to give them the help they needed to save their too big to fail bank (OK, maybe the hats weren't in hand, maybe they demanded a bailout with the economy held hostage, but the point is that they wanted and needed the bailout). Their arguments are self-serving, just as Adam Smith said they'd be, and your interests are not the primary concern of the people trying to resist stricter government regulation and oversight of the financial industry. You'd be well advised not to buy the market fundamentalism they'll be selling.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

"The 'Real' Causes of China’s Trade Surplus"

Zheng Song, Kjetil Storesletten, and Fabrizio Zilibotti argue, based upon their forthcoming AER article, that although China has accumulated nearly two and a half trillion in reserves in the last two decades, "it is wrong, and even dangerous, to blame this on a manipulation of the exchange rate." They argue that the existence of credit market imperfections leading to the need for high levels of internal savings provides a better explanation:

The “real” causes of China’s trade surplus, by Zheng Song, Kjetil Storesletten, and Fabrizio Zilibotti, Vox EU: Over the last two decades, China has run large trade surpluses. Its foreign reserves swelled from $21 billion in 1992 (5% of its annual GDP) to $2.4 trillion in June 2009 (close to 50% of its GDP). The effect of this gigantic build up of reserves has been a source of growing public attention in the context of the debate on global imbalances. This debate has gained momentum during the global crisis. Lobbyists and politicians voice the popular concern that by swamping western markets with its products, China contributes to the failure of domestic firms and job losses. The call for protectionism is mounting.

Did China engineer a trade surplus?

A common argument, especially in the US, is that the culprit of global imbalances is the exchange rate manipulation carried out by the Chinese authorities, who peg the renminbi to the dollar at a low value. According to Fred Bergsten, head of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the renminbi is undervalued by at least 25% to 40%. This "hostile" policy raises calls for robust retaliation.

While economists have so far opposed any measure that might ignite a vicious cycle of trade retaliations and protectionism, even their front is cracking. Krugman (2010) advocated using the threat of a 25% import surcharge to force China to revalue. Last month, 130 lawmakers signed a letter asking the US Treasury to increase tariffs on Chinese-made imports. On 12 April 2010, Barack Obama openly criticized the Chinese exchange-rate policy in front of Hu Jintao, arguing that currencies should "roughly" track the market so that no country has an advantage in trade. Meanwhile, Senator Charles Schumer called for high tariffs against Chinese imports in order to force Beijing to revalue its currency.

The exchange rate manipulation premise

The manipulation thesis rests on the simple postulate that the imbalance itself is evidence of a misalignment of the exchange rate. Letting market forces determine the exchange rate would restore trade balance.

This argument has weak foundations. What matters is the real exchange rate, not the nominal one. While the Chinese surplus has persisted for almost two decades, the real exchange rate has remained as flat as a pancake (see McKinnon 2006, Figure 3). A misaligned real exchange rate should feed domestic inflation, e.g., by increasing the demand of non-traded goods and stimulating domestic wage pressure. Yet, until very recently it does not appear as if China has experienced any major inflationary pressure – between 1997 and 2007 the inflation rate was on average about the same as in the US. Moreover, wages have grown slower than output per worker (see Banister 2007).

In a recent article on this site, Helmut Reisen (2010) shows that a large part of the alleged undervaluation of the renminbi can be attributed to the Balassa-Samuelson effect (i.e., the fact that non-traded goods do not follow the law of one price and are relatively cheap in developing countries). He concludes that "the undervaluation in 2008 of the renminbi was only 12% against the regression-fitted value for China's income level." This is by no means a large number: “Both India and South Africa (which had a current-account deficit) were more undervalued in 2008.” In summary, while it is reasonable to expect some appreciation of the real exchange rate in the years to come (through either inflation or adjustments in the nominal exchange rate), the government manipulation of the nominal exchange rate is unlikely to be the primary cause of the two-decades-long imbalance.

A “real” explanation: Growing like China

What, then, can account for the Chinese surplus? We believe that the answer lies in real (i.e., structural) factors rather than in nominal rigidities. Let us look at the imbalance from an asset flow perspective: 

Continue reading ""The 'Real' Causes of China’s Trade Surplus"" »

Monday, April 26, 2010

Is Market Fundamentalism the Easier Argument?

This is probably a "grass is greener on the other side" argument, but when I listen to market fundamentalists argue for their side, as many have so far today in the sessions I've attended at the Milken Global Conference, I get envious. It's such an easy argument to make. No matter what the problem, the solution -- though stated in many, many creative ways -- is always the same. Get government out of the way and let markets do their magic. A tax cut, a reduction in government spending, or easing of regulation will always make things better, not worse. And if there are problems in markets, they can always be blamed on government. Even when fundamentalists admit there is a market failure because it cannot be denied, they can (and do) argue that the government will still make things worse if it intervenes. Thus, no matter the problem, there is always a simple explanation and a simple solution. When you argue for government intervention, the job is much harder. You have to identify the specific market failure, argue that it's significant enough to justify government intervention, come up with a policy that will address the particular failure without making other things worse, and then argue that the political process won't mangle the policy so badly as to make it worthless or counterproductive.

I don't have a problem with the baseline assumption being that we should leave markets alone unless it can be demonstrated that significant problems exist, and that there's a chance of making things better, but the deck does seem to be stacked against the interventionist position.

Paul Krugman: Berating the Raters

Paul Krugman continues the discussion on the problems with the ratings agencies, and the failure of congress to do anything about it:

Berating the Raters, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Let’s hear it for the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Its work on the financial crisis is increasingly looking like the 21st-century version of the Pecora hearings, which helped usher in New Deal-era financial regulation. In the past few days scandalous Wall Street e-mail messages released by the subcommittee have made headlines.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the headlines were about the wrong e-mails. When Goldman Sachs employees bragged about the money they had made by shorting the housing market, it was ugly, but that didn’t amount to wrongdoing.
No, the e-mail messages you should be focusing on are the ones from employees at the credit rating agencies, which bestowed AAA ratings on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of dubious assets, nearly all of which have since turned out to be toxic waste. And no, that’s not hyperbole: of AAA-rated subprime-mortgage-backed securities issued in 2006, 93 percent — 93 percent! — have now been downgraded to junk status.
What those e-mails reveal is a deeply corrupt system ... that financial reform, as currently proposed, wouldn’t fix.
The rating agencies ... play a central role in our whole financial system, especially for institutional investors like pension funds, which would buy your bonds if and only if they received that coveted AAA rating.
It was a system that looked dignified and respectable on the surface. Yet it produced huge conflicts of interest. Issuers of ... securities ... could choose among several rating agencies. So they could direct their business to whichever agency was most likely to give a favorable verdict, and threaten to pull business from an agency that tried too hard to do its job. It’s all too obvious, in retrospect, how this could have corrupted the process.
And it did. The Senate subcommittee has focused its investigations on the two biggest credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s; what it has found confirms our worst suspicions. In one e-mail message, an S.& P. employee explains that a meeting is necessary to “discuss adjusting criteria” for assessing housing-backed securities “because of the ongoing threat of losing deals.” Another message complains of having to use resources “to massage the sub-prime and alt-A numbers to preserve market share.” Clearly, the rating agencies skewed their assessments to please their clients.
These skewed assessments, in turn, helped the financial system take on far more risk than it could safely handle. ...
So what can be done to keep it from happening again?
The bill now before the Senate tries to do something..., but all in all it’s pretty weak... The only provision that might have teeth is one that would make it easier to sue rating agencies if they engaged in “knowing or reckless failure” to do the right thing. But that surely isn’t enough...
What we really need is a fundamental change in the raters’ incentives..., something ... to end the fundamentally corrupt nature of the the issuer-pays system.
An example of what might work is a proposal by Matthew Richardson and Lawrence White of New York University ... in which firms issuing bonds continue paying rating agencies to assess those bonds — but ... the Securities and Exchange Commission, not the issuing firm, determines which rating agency gets the business.
I’m not wedded to that particular proposal. But doing nothing isn’t an option. It’s comforting to pretend that the financial crisis was caused by nothing more than honest errors. But it wasn’t; it was, in large part, the result of a corrupt system. And the rating agencies were a big part of that corruption.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Formula for Gaming the Ratings Agencies

It looks like it wasn't too hard to game the formula the ratings agencies used to evaluate bonds:

Rating Agency Data Aided Wall Street in Mortgage Deals, by Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story, NY Times: One of the mysteries of the financial crisis is how mortgage investments that turned out to be so bad earned credit ratings that made them look so good.
One answer is that Wall Street was given access to the formulas behind those magic ratings — and hired away some of the very people who had devised them.
In essence, banks started with the answers and worked backward, reverse-engineering top-flight ratings for investments that were, in some cases, riskier than ratings suggested...
The rating agencies made public computer models that were used to devise ratings to make the process less secretive. That way, banks and others issuing bonds — companies and states, for instance — wouldn’t be surprised by a weak rating that could make it harder to sell the bonds or that would require them to offer a higher interest rate.
But by routinely sharing their models, the agencies in effect gave bankers the tools to tinker with their complicated mortgage deals until the models produced the desired ratings.
“There’s a bit of a Catch-22 here, to be fair to the ratings agencies,” said Dan Rosen, a member of Fitch’s academic advisory board and the chief of R2 Financial Technologies in Toronto. “They have to explain how they do things, but that sometimes allowed people to game it.” ...
But for Goldman and other banks, a road map to the right ratings wasn’t enough. Analysts from the agencies were hired to help construct the deals. ... For example, a top concern of investors was that mortgage deals be underpinned by a variety of loans. Few wanted investments backed by loans from only one part of the country or handled by one mortgage servicer.
But some bankers would simply list a different servicer, even though the bonds were serviced by the same institution, and thus produce a better rating... Others relabeled parts of collateralized debt obligations in two ways so they would not be recognized by the computer models as being the same...
Banks were also able to get more favorable ratings by adding a small amount of commercial real estate loans to a mix of home loans, thus making the entire pool appear safer.
Sometimes agency employees caught and corrected such entries. Checking them all was difficult, however. “If you dug into it, if you had the time, you would see errors that magically favored the banker,” said one former ratings executive... “If they had the time, they would fix it, but we were so overwhelmed.”

There are two problems that need to be fixed. The first is the incentive that ratings agencies have to give high ratings, and the second is the gaming of the ratings formula described above

The first problem, the incentive to provide high ratings, arises because the firm paying to have the financial asset evaluated also picks the ratings agency. A reputation as a tough rater is not good for future business, so there is an incentive for the agency to provide the rating the company is looking for. There are a variety of ways to fix this, e.g. a third party selects the particular agency that will do the rating (so that low rating does not affect the probability of being selected in the future), but so far Congress has not proposed the needed reform.

The second problem, the gaming of the ratings formula, is also helped by having a third party select the ratings agency. When the company gets to select the ratings agency itself, it can craft a strategy to precisely take advantage of the formula used by that agency. But if each company has different strengths and weaknesses, and any company could be selected by the third party, it won't be as easy to know which particular game to play. If the wrong agency is chosen, the result could be a lower than expected rating. This doesn't stop all potential gaming, for example a common flaw across all ratings agencies can still be exploited, but it does make it generally harder to game the system.

I don't think ratings agencies were the root cause of the financial crisis, but they did make it much, much worse by allowing so many highly rated but actually toxic assets onto the balance sheets of financial institutions. There is a need to fix the ratings agency problem, but as noted above there has been no action from Congress on this issue. Perhaps the recent attention to the role the ratings agencies played in the crisis will change that, but I'm certainly not counting on it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Why Did Bad Bonds Get Good Ratings?

When I was asked what was missing from the proposed financial reform legislation, I should have mentioned the lack of effective reform measures for ratings agencies, particularly the incentive to provide high ratings to encourage future business. As noted below, part of the reform legislation is directed at the ratings agencies, but it doesn't get at the main problem, which is the incentive to tell its customers what they want to hear, i.e. the incentive to deliver higher ratings than deserved. For some reason ($$$???), the ratings agencies seem to be escaping the legislative and regulatory attention they ought to be receiving:

Senate to ask Moody's chief why bad bonds got good ratings, by Kevin G. Hall, McClatchy Newspapers: ...On Friday, Moody's CEO Raymond McDaniel Jr. will face the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which is looking into the role the credit-rating agencies played in the ... financial crisis...

McDaniel has yet to face the kind of congressional grilling already suffered by bank executives. However, an earlier hearing revealed a transcript in which McDaniel told his board of directors that his firm was constantly pressured to inflate ratings — and that sometimes Moody's "drank the Kool-Aid." ...

Legislation to revamp financial regulations threatens to leave them more open to lawsuits for bad ratings, although not as open as consumer advocates hoped. ...

The special role of the ratings agencies was underscored last Friday when the Securities and Exchange Commission brought civil fraud charges against Goldman Sachs. The SEC alleges that Goldman failed to disclose vital information to investors... Goldman's alleged deception of investors may have extended to the ratings agencies. ... However, even if the ratings agencies were duped, their participation in these complex deals gives the appearance of complicity. At minimum, Goldman and its competitors had a symbiotic relationship with the ratings agencies. ...

[I]n a McClatchy investigation late last year, former Moody's officials recounted how Wall Street investment powers like Goldman played the three major ratings agencies off each other to get the ratings they needed to attract investors. The carrot for the ratings agencies was a big reward, $1 million or more, for providing an investment grade to a complex deal.
Moody's dominated the rating of "structured-finance products"... Chief among these were collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities ... that were sold to investors. Institutional investors such as pension funds ... are often restricted to purchasing only investment-grade securities, so Wall Street worked feverishly to win investment grades from Moody's or its competitors, Standard & Poor's and Fitch. ...
Moody's ... ratings quality eroded as analysts were under intense pressure from ... McDaniel to maintain market share and a "business-friendly" environment. ...

Perhaps the Senate hearing on Friday will begin to raise awareness of the problems with ratings agencies and prompt legislative and regulatory remedies, but given the lack of scrutiny so far, I'm certainly not counting on it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Concentration of the US Banking System


[source]

As noted in the post below this one, I don't think bank size and stability of the banking system are closely related, we still had financial meltdowns in the days when banks were small. But I do think bank size and political power are highly correlated, and that banks have far too much political influence. So the question is, why do banks need to be so much bigger today? If we were to cut the share of total commercial banking sector assets held by the top three banks back to its historical average of 10-15%, which still seems relatively concentrated, would that be a disaster? I certainly haven't seen convincing evidence that economies of scale require banks to be this large, so why allow it?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"The Case Against Gene Patents"

Joseph Stiglitz and John Sulston argue that "the patenting of human genes is wrong."

[I've been sitting on this post for a couple of days hoping to think of something to say about it, but haven't come up with much. One of the main ideas is that patents are not the only way to solve the market failure associated with innovative activity (the problem is the inability to stop others from taking advantage of your investment in research). An alternative is "government- and foundation-supported research in universities and research laboratories," and they prefer this alternative when "basic knowledge" is involved. I like this idea, but I'm not sure how "basic knowledge" should be defined.]:

The Case Against Gene Patents, by Joseph Stiglitz and John Sulston, Commentary, WSJ: Last month, a federal court in New York ... ruled that patents were improperly granted to Myriad Genetics on two human genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. We participated in the case supporting the plaintiffs ... because we believe the patenting of human genes is wrong as a matter of science and as a matter of economics. ...
The court held that genes and human genetic sequences are naturally occurring things, not inventions. They ... contain the most fundamental information about humanity—information that should be available to everyone. The researchers and private companies that applied for these gene patents did not invent the genes; they only identified what was already there.
Proponents of gene patents argue that private companies will not engage in genetic research unless they have the economic incentives created by the patent system. We believe ... exactly the opposite... Patents such as those in this case not only prevent the use of knowledge in ways that would most benefit society, they may even impede scientific progress. ...
As we move into an era where the sequencing of all of an individual's genes is common and necessary for personalized medicine,..., the basic data must be freely available to everyone to interpret and develop. Our genetic makeup is far too complicated for a single entity to hold the keys to any given gene and to be able to choose when, if ever, to share.
Patents are also not necessary for ensuring that genetic tests come to market. Currently, Myriad does not allow any other lab ... to perform full diagnostic testing on patients ... at increased risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Because of this monopoly, Myriad is able to charge more than $3,000 to perform the test, a prohibitively high amount that keeps some women from being tested...
Other labs have said they would be willing to perform the test for a few hundred dollars,... and could also develop new tests... The information provided by the tests is of enormous importance: The lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is as high as 85% for mutation carriers.
Any marginal social benefits of patenting genes clearly do not measure up to the profound costs of locking down knowledge. ... Like basic mathematical theorems, genes are an example of "basic knowledge"—the kind of knowledge that typically cannot and should not be patented. ... It's true that knowledge cannot be produced without cost, but there is a proven alternative: government- and foundation-supported research in universities and research laboratories. ...
We see this ruling as a turning point in our thinking about our patent system, and more broadly, scientific research.

They say that patenting of human genes is wrong "as a matter of science and as a matter of economics." Economics and science don't deal well with this, but ethics might be involved as well.

One thing I'm confused about in the article is the difference between patenting the genes and patenting the test that looks for them. I understand why genes shouldn't be patented, but what about the test? If a company develops a life-saving test for a genetic disorder, but decides to use a patent to charge monopoly prices that exclude many people from taking the test, how should we respond? Give subsidies to those who can't afford it? Define it as basic research and outlaw the patent? Do nothing and let the market decide? We don't want to discourage the research that produced the test, but we don't want to exclude people either, so a new model is needed for these cases. The question for me is whether "government- and foundation-supported research in universities and research laboratories" provides the correct incentives. It does solve the patent/monopoly prices problem, but will it produce the research we need?

Another alternative is for the government to offer prizes for significant discoveries, e.g. for new, important drugs, but it's not clear to me that government can design the correct incentive system particularly in areas where we know little about which direction to proceed. As Sitglitz notes elsewhere:

Of course, the patent system is itself a prize system, albeit a peculiar one: the prize is temporary monopoly power, implying high prices and restricted access to the benefits that can be derived from the new knowledge. By contrast, the type of prize system I have in mind would rely on competitive markets to lower prices and make the fruits of the knowledge available as widely as possible. With better-directed incentives (more research dollars spent on more important diseases, less money spent on wasteful and distorted marketing), we could have better health at lower cost.

That said, the prize fund would not replace patents. It would be part of the portfolio of methods for encouraging and supporting research. A prize fund would work well in areas in which needs are well known – the case for many diseases afflicting the poor – allowing clear goals to be set in advance. For innovations that solve problems or meet needs that have not previously been widely recognized, the patent system would still play a role.

Continuing:

The market economy and the profit motive have led to extremely high living standards in many places. But the health care market is not an ordinary market. Most people do not pay for what they consume; they rely on others to judge what they should consume, and prices do not influence these judgments as they do with conventional commodities. The market is thus rife with distortions. It is accordingly not surprising that in the area of health, the patent system, with all of its distortions, has failed in so many ways. A medical prize fund would not provide a panacea, but it would be a step in the right direction, redirecting our scarce research resources toward more efficient uses and ensuring that the benefits of that research reach the many people who are currently denied them.

Stiglitz calls for a "portfolio of methods," and perhaps that's the best we can do. But once a portfolio approach including patents is adopted big business, e.g. the pharmaceutical industry, can use its power to distort the portfolio choice in its favor. Thus, the portfolio approach requires countervailing power, power that does not exist in sufficient quantity. Unchecked, the portfolio approach would likely end up looking much like the system we already have, so it's not clear to me that this is the answer.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"Doctors with Ownership in Surgery Center Operate More Often"

Are you surprised to find out that there is evidence suggesting that doctor's with a financial stake in surgery centers do more surgery?:

Doctors with ownership in surgery center operate more often, U-M study finds, EurekAlert: When doctors become invested in an outpatient surgery center, they perform on average twice as many surgeries as doctors with no such financial stake, according to a new study from the University of Michigan Health System.
"Our data suggest that physician behavior changes after investment in an outpatient facility. Through what some have labeled the 'triple dip,' physician owners of surgery centers not only collect a professional fee for the services provided, but also share in their facility's profits and the increased value of their investment. This creates a potential conflict of interest," says study author John Hollingsworth, M.D., M.S., a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at the U-M Medical School.
"To the extent that owners are motivated by profit, one potential explanation for our findings is that these physicians may be lowering their thresholds for treating patients with these common outpatient procedures," Hollingsworth adds.
The study looked at all patients in Florida who underwent one of five common outpatient procedures: carpal tunnel release, cataract excision, colonoscopy, knee arthroscopy and myringotomy with tympanostomy tube placement (a procedure to insert tubes in the ear).
The researchers determined which doctors were owners of a surgery center. They then compared surgery use among owners in two time periods—before and after they acquired ownership—with that of physicians who remained non-owners.
Results of the study appear in the April issue of Health Affairs. The findings include:
Owners operated on an average of twice as many patients as non-owners. While caseloads increased overall between the earlier and later time periods for all physicians, the increases were more rapid and dramatic among owners.
The number of surgery centers has increased nearly 50 percent over the last decade, largely driven by the investment of physicians, who had a stake in 83 percent of these facilities. For doctors, investment may give them more control over their practice environment, from scheduling cases to purchasing surgical equipment. For patients, these centers often have shorter wait times than hospitals and may provide more amenities.

"There are some definite advantages for surgeons, as well as patients, associated with care at surgery centers. However, we need to better understand the implications of these new findings, in particular their overall effect on health care expenditures. Insofar as our results are due to lowered treatment thresholds, policymakers should consider, at the very least, requiring all physicians to disclose their financial interests to their patients," Hollingsworth says.

[Traveling here today - this should post automatically while I'm in the air...]

Imperfect Competition in "Transparency Services"

The lack of competition in markets for "transparency services" is a problem:
The Lehman bankruptcy examiner report: And then there were none, by Michael Pomerleano, Economist's Forum: What are the broader implications of the report on Lehman Brothers issued by the bankruptcy examiner?
The report details the effort to conceal Lehman’s true debt levels through the so-called “Repo 105” structure. It finds “credible evidence” to back a claim that the failure of Dick Fuld, Lehman chief executive, to disclose the transactions was “grossly negligent”.
Anton Valukas, the report’s author, also found that there was sufficient evidence to back a claim that Mr Fuld and other executives breached their fiduciary duties by “allowing and certifying the filing of financial statements that omitted or misrepresented material information”. ...
The broader implications of this case are serious and will have lasting impact. First, transparency is at the foundation of a well-functioning system, and it relies on multiple gatekeepers such as accountants, auditors, lawyers, and rating agencies. However, instead of developing a competitive, transparent system of gatekeepers, we are witnessing the shrinking of the global gatekeepers industry. ...
We are witnessing increased concentration in a form of imperfect competition in which a large number of buyers face a very small number of sellers of “transparency” services. Clearly this market structure is prone to distortions. We are down to four big national accounting firms and three rating agencies. The rating agencies and accounting firms know that they have the regulators and financial industry over a barrel... This situation is not conducive to reforms.
A second and more troublesome problem is the incoherence in international financial regulation, which has permitted a race to the bottom in a process of regulatory arbitrage designed to maintain the hegemony of London as a financial center. ... As long as this global regulatory arbitrage continues, the forces of competition may force the most “straight-laced” financial firms, auditors, lawyers, and rating agencies to compromise their sound judgment.
The credit rating agencies and accounting firms have played a critical role in the debacle of the past two years. As a result, we are witnessing efforts to heighten regulation of the rating agencies... It is my hope that the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic will investigate the culpability of lawyers and accountants and, if found guilty, pursue action to the full extent permissible by the law. ...

The proposed financial reform legislation doesn't do much to address the problems in the ratings agencies. That's been one of the disappointing aspects of the financial reform effort. As for accounting firms, more competition couldn't hurt, and yes, we should prosecute fraud, but the more general problem of establishing reporting principles that cannot be gamed, that convey information accurately, etc. is tougher. Any ideas?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Corporations, Social Insurance, and Unchecked Power

James Madison was not a fan of corporations:

Early Americans had a far more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of corporations than the Court gives them credit for. They were much more comfortable with retaining pre-Revolutionary city or school charters than with creating new corporations that would concentrate economic and political power in potentially unaccountable institutions. When you read Madison in particular, you see that he wasn't blindly hostile to banks during his fight with Alexander Hamilton over the Bank of the United States. Instead, he's worried about the unchecked power of accumulations of capital that come with creating a class of bankers.

More here: What the Founding Fathers Really Thought About Corporations, by Justin Fox. [See also: The Founders were deeply skeptical of corporations, by Michael Giberson.]

When thinking about corporations, I think it's useful to keep this in mind:

David A. Moss, a Harvard Business School professor ... explains that the first application of social insurance in our latitudes actually was aimed ... at ... supporting the growth of modern capitalism. Its main instrument to that end was the legal sanction of the principle of limited liability of the owners of corporations.
Prior to this form of social insurance, the owners of a business were legally liable with their personal wealth for damages the business might have inflicted on others. With limited liability, the corporation’s shareholders are liable only up to their equity stake in the company. ... Beyond that, someone else in society — often the taxpayer — bears the financial risk for damages attributable to the corporation.
One wonders how many business executives and members of chambers of commerce ... realize that the limited liability of shareholders is social insurance.

In return for this protection, it's not unreasonable to impose regulation on corporations that, should they fail, impose large damages on society that do not have to be paid be the owners and managers. (As is the case with too big too fail financial institutions, e.g. do you think the behavior of banks might have been different if the bank managers' personal assets were at stake in a bank failure, with a high likelihood that bank failure would leave the managers penniless? In the current financial meltdown that was so costly to society, many managers paid little penalty when the firms they managed failed.)

For a managers and owners, if failure in the future is likely, the game here is simple. Transfer as much wealth as possible as fast as possible from the corporation to managers/owners where it will be safe from creditors and others who face costs if and when the corporation fails.

I'm not suggesting an end to limited liability -- though clawback provisions that return assets to the corporation are needed to give managers an incentive to maximize long-run rather than short-run gains and to prevent the looting of troubled firms. Only that the regulation of firms that benefit from substantial amounts of implicit social insurance is needed to align the incentives of managers with stockholders and, more generally, society at large.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Market Discipline?

How much did executives at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers lose as a result of the financial crisis?:

Paid to Fail, by Lucian Bebchuk, Alma Cohen, and Holger Spamann, Commentary, Project Syndicate: ...Lehman’s executives made deliberate decisions to pursue an aggressive investment strategy, take on greater risks, and substantially increase leverage. Were these decisions the result of hubris and errors in judgment or the product of flawed incentives?
After Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers melted down, ushering in a worldwide crisis, media reports largely assumed that the wealth of these firms’ executives was wiped out, together with that of the firms they navigated into disaster. This “standard narrative” led commentators to downplay the role of flawed compensation arrangements and the importance of reforming the structures of executive pay.
In our study, “The Wages of Failure: Executive Compensation at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers 2000-2008,” we examine this standard narrative and find it to be incorrect. We ... find that,... during 2000-2008, the top five executives at Bear Stearns and Lehman pocketed about $1.4 billion and $1 billion, respectively, or roughly $250 million per executive. These cash proceeds are substantially higher than the value of the holdings that the executives held at the beginning of the period. Thus, while the long-term shareholders in their firms were largely decimated, the executives’ performance-based compensation kept them in positive territory.
The divergence between how top executives and their companies’ shareholders fared raises a serious concern that the aggressive risk-taking at Bear Stearns and Lehman – and other financial firms with similar pay arrangements – could have been the product of flawed incentives. ...
It is important for financial firms – and firms in general – to reform compensation structures to ensure tighter alignment between executive payoffs and long-term results. ...
Had such compensation structures been in place at Bear Stearns and Lehman, their top executives would not have been able to derive such large amounts of performance-based compensation for managing the firms in the years leading up to their collapse. This would have significantly reduced the executives’ incentives to engage in risk-taking.
Indeed,... comprehensive and robust reform of pay structures ... could do a great deal to improve incentives and prevent the type of excessive risk-taking that firms encouraged in the years preceding the financial crisis... Reforms that redress these destructive incentives should stand as an important lesson and legacy of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and the crisis they helped to fuel.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Toward a More Competitive, Efficient, and Innovative Financial System"

In a speech today, Ben Bernanke says the financial system is far from the "competitive ideal," and that the too-big-to-fail problem is the primary cause of the "insidious barriers to competition" and "competitive inequities" that currently exist in these markets.

One thing I'd add is that there is reason to be concerned about the size of these firms over and above the too-big-to-fail problem, i.e. for traditional reasons involving the exercise of market power. Bernanke says that:

our technologically sophisticated and globalized economy will still need large, complex, and internationally active financial firms to meet the needs of multinational firms, to facilitate international flows of goods and capital, and to take advantage of economies of scale and scope

But I'd like to have more precise information about how large these firms need to be until the economies of scope and scale begin bottoming out. If it's so large that firms can gain a substantial market share by moving down the cost curve, then regulators need to ensure that firms do not exploit their market power:

...Toward a More Competitive, Efficient, and Innovative Financial System The United States has a financial system that is remarkably multifaceted and diverse. Some countries rely heavily on a few large banks to provide credit and financial services; our system, in contrast, includes financial institutions of all sizes, with a wide range of charters and missions. We also rely more than any other country on an array of specialized financial markets to allocate credit and help diversify risks. Our system is complex, but I think that for the most part its variety is an important strength. We have many, many ways to connect borrowers and savers in the United States, and directing saving to the most productive channels is an essential prerequisite to a successful economy.
That said, for the financial system to do its job well, it must be an impartial and efficient arbiter of credit flows. In a market economy, that result is best achieved through open competition on a level playing field, a framework that provides choices to consumers and borrowers and gives the most innovative and efficient firms the chance to succeed and grow. Unfortunately, our financial system today falls substantially short of that competitive ideal.
Among the most serious and most insidious barriers to competition in financial services is the too-big-to-fail problem. Like all of you, I remember well the frightening weeks in the fall of 2008, when the failure or near-failure of several large, complex, and interconnected firms shook the financial markets and our economy to their foundations. ... It is unconscionable that the fate of the world economy should be so closely tied to the fortunes of a relatively small number of giant financial firms. If we achieve nothing else in the wake of the crisis, we must ensure that we never again face such a situation.
The costs to all of us of having firms deemed too big to fail were stunningly evident during the days in which the financial system teetered near collapse. But the existence of too-big-to-fail firms also imposes heavy costs on our financial system even in more placid times. Perhaps most important, if a firm is publicly perceived as too big, or interconnected, or systemically critical for the authorities to permit its failure, its creditors and counterparties have less incentive to evaluate the quality of the firm's business model, its management, and its risk-taking behavior. As a result, such firms face limited market discipline, allowing them to obtain funding on better terms than the quality or riskiness of their business would merit and giving them incentives to take on excessive risks.
Having institutions that are too big to fail also creates competitive inequities that may prevent our most productive and innovative firms from prospering. In an environment of fair competition, smaller firms should have a chance to outperform larger companies. By the same token, firms that do not make the grade should exit, freeing up resources for other uses. Our economy is not static, and our banking system should not be static either.
In short, to have a competitive, vital, and innovative financial system in which market discipline encourages efficiency and controls risk, including risks to the system as a whole, we have to end the too-big-to-fail problem once and for all. But how can that be done? Some proposals have been made to limit the scope and activities of financial institutions, and I think a number of those ideas are worth careful consideration. Certainly, supervisors should be empowered to limit the involvement of firms in inappropriately risky activities. But even if such proposals are implemented, our technologically sophisticated and globalized economy will still need large, complex, and internationally active financial firms to meet the needs of multinational firms, to facilitate international flows of goods and capital, and to take advantage of economies of scale and scope. The unavoidable challenge is to make sure that size, complexity, and interconnectedness do not insulate such firms from market discipline, potentially making them ticking time bombs inside our financial system.
To address the too-big-to-fail problem, the Federal Reserve favors a three-part approach.

Continue reading ""Toward a More Competitive, Efficient, and Innovative Financial System"" »

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Make Markets Be Markets


(clearer version of the graph in the presentation)

Here's the full set of videos from the conference:

Thursday, March 04, 2010

"A New Age of Monopolies"

Monopoly power was a much bigger concern in the past than it is today. Why aren't people more concerned about this?:

A New Age of Monopolies, by Thomas frank, Commentary, WSJ: ...Barry C. Lynn's recent book ... arises directly from the old antitrust tradition, and it presents us with an amazing catalogue of present-day monopolies, oligopolies and economic combinations. Its subjects are, by definition, some of the largest and most powerful organizations in the world. And yet almost none of it was familiar to me.
Mr. Lynn tells us, for example, about the power of single companies or small groups of companies over such disparate fields as eyeglasses, certain categories of pet food, washer-dryer sales, auto parts, many aspects of food processing, surfboards, medical syringes...
Nor had I ever heard about what Mr. Lynn calls "the vitamin cartel," or the "nearly complete roll-up" of advertising agencies, or that the "key industrial legacy" of now-imprisoned business executive Dennis Kozlowski was a company "that specialized in forging monopolies over U.S. marketplaces for everything from catheters to fire sprinklers to clothes hangers," or that a recent management book encourages readers to see monopoly power as the main goal of business strategy.

Mr. Lynn is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington; he first came to my attention with a memorable 2006 essay in Harper's Magazine in which he described the power Wal-Mart exerted over its suppliers...

Mr. Lynn ... describes companies that swallow their rivals and then, with competitive pressure diminished, set about "destroying product variety and diversity." ... We learn of entire industries where competitors have grown so close to one another that a collapse at one company would probably bring down many of the others as well.

This is, we are often reminded, a populist age, with fresh flare-ups of fury every time Wall Street bonuses hit the headlines. ...Mr. Lynn's anger at the Wall Street bailout, his fondness for small business, and his frequent homages to the nation's founders may seem superficially similar to the attitudes of the tea party protesters. But Mr. Lynn also takes pains to demonstrate that the economic "freedom" so beloved by the snake-flag set has actually yielded the opposite of freedom: a "neofeudal" system of "private corporate governments" answerable to no one. ...

Sunday, February 28, 2010

"We Can't Wish Away Climate Change"

Al Gore says "a hubristic 'bubble' of market fundamentalism" tilted the political playing field against action on global warming:

We Can’t Wish Away Climate Change, by Al Gore, Commentary, NY Times: It would be an enormous relief if the recent attacks on the science of global warming actually indicated that we do not face an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it. ... We would no longer have to worry that our grandchildren would one day look back on us as a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands. ...
I, for one, genuinely wish that the climate crisis were an illusion. But unfortunately, the reality of the danger we are courting has not been changed... In fact, the crisis is still growing...
January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.
Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.
The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm. ...
The political paralysis that is now so painfully evident in Washington has thus far prevented action by the Senate — not only on climate and energy legislation, but also on health care reform, financial regulatory reform and a host of other pressing issues. ...
The decisive victory of democratic capitalism over communism in the 1990s led to a period of philosophical dominance for market economics worldwide and the illusion of a unipolar world. It also led, in the United States, to a hubristic “bubble” of market fundamentalism that encouraged opponents of regulatory constraints to mount an aggressive effort to shift the internal boundary between the democracy sphere and the market sphere. Over time, markets would most efficiently solve most problems, they argued. Laws and regulations interfering with the operations of the market carried a faint odor of the discredited statist adversary we had just defeated.
This period of market triumphalism coincided with confirmation by scientists that earlier fears about global warming had been grossly understated. But by then, the political context in which this debate took form was tilted heavily toward the views of market fundamentalists, who fought to weaken existing constraints and scoffed at the possibility that global constraints would be needed to halt the dangerous dumping of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere.
Over the years, as the science has become clearer and clearer, some industries and companies whose business plans are dependent on unrestrained pollution of the atmospheric commons have become ever more entrenched. They are ferociously fighting against the mildest regulation — just as tobacco companies blocked constraints on the marketing of cigarettes for four decades after science confirmed the link of cigarettes to diseases of the lung and the heart.
Simultaneously, changes in America’s political system — including the replacement of newspapers and magazines by television as the dominant medium of communication — conferred powerful advantages on wealthy advocates of unrestrained markets and weakened advocates of legal and regulatory reforms. Some news media organizations now present showmen masquerading as political thinkers who package hatred and divisiveness as entertainment. And as in times past, that has proved to be a potent drug in the veins of the body politic. Their most consistent theme is to label as “socialist” any proposal to reform exploitive behavior in the marketplace.
From the standpoint of governance, what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption. After all has been said and so little done, the truth about the climate crisis — inconvenient as ever — must still be faced. ...
We have overcome existential threats before. Winston Churchill is widely quoted as having said, “Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes, you must do what is required.” Now is that time. Public officials must rise to this challenge by doing what is required; and the public must demand that they do so — or must replace them.

The financial crisis might help to dissuade people of the notion that the market can solve the climate change problem by itself, and that it's best to let it do so.

I suppose the financial crisis could also convince people that the market can't necessarily prevent big meltdowns by itself, and that government can't stop meltdowns either. And -- thinking, for example, of unemployment -- it could show that once the government wakes up to the fact that a crisis has started, it will do far short of what's needed to counteract the effects.

We're all doomed.

[Note: the original article is much longer; also, Thomas Friedman is far more hopeful about Republican participation in climate change legislation than I am.]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Don't Save the Press"

Should traditional media by saved by the government?:

Don’t Save the Press, by Žiga Turk, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Throughout history, political leaders have supported existing communication technologies in order to defend the system in which they rule. Today, too, governments may be tempted to protect newspapers and public TV on the pretext of “saving democracy as we know it.” But efforts to block technological change have been futile in the past, and they would be unwise today. ...
Faced with an existential crisis as new technologies lure away their readers and viewers, traditional news media ... are increasingly turning to governments for help. But, such is the undertone, their cause is nobler. The media are a cornerstone of democracy. Left to the blogs and tweets, without journalists to report the news, how can citizens decide what politics to support?
Such thinking reflects an age-old fear: as Plato put it, citizens would get “information without proper instruction and, in consequence, be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” It is a fear that has echoed down through history ever since, from the Catholic Church cursing Gutenberg’s movable type to the Victorian bourgeois complaining of the newly discovered freedom of the press.
Political rulers, too, have never liked new communication technology, because the political system in which they rule is adapted to the existing technology. Scarcity of parchment required all decision-making to be concentrated in a court consisting of a handful of people. When cheap paper and printing presses – the first true mass-communication technology – challenged this system, the Catholic Church and the monarchs defended the parchment-based monopoly. They failed.

Continue reading ""Don't Save the Press"" »

Reich: Bust the Health Care Trusts

Health insurance markets are "highly concentrated," but that could change:

Bust the Health Care Trusts, by Robert Reich, Commentary, NY Times: My health insurer here in California is Anthem Blue Cross. So far, my group policy hasn’t been affected by Anthem’s planned rate increase of as much as 39 percent for its customers with individual policies — but the trend worries me, as it should everyone. Rates are soaring all over the country. Insurers have been seeking to raise premiums 24 percent in Connecticut, 23 percent in Maine, 20 percent in Oregon and a wallet-popping 56 percent in Michigan. How can insurers raise prices as much as they want without fear of losing customers?
Astonishingly, the health insurance industry is exempt from federal antitrust laws, which is why a handful of insurers have become so dominant in their markets that their customers simply have nowhere else to go. But that protection could soon end: President Obama on Tuesday announced his support of a House bill that would repeal health insurers’ antitrust exemption, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled that she would put it toward an immediate vote. This is promising news. ...
Health insurers ... are making boatloads of money. America’s five largest health insurers made a total profit of $12.2 billion last year; that was 56 percent higher than in 2008... It’s not as if health insurers have been inventing jazzy software or making jet airplanes. Basically, they just collect money from employers and individuals and give the money to providers. In most markets, consumers wouldn’t pay this much for so little. We’d find a competitor that charged less and delivered more. What’s stopping us? Not enough choice.
More than 90 percent of insurance markets in more than 300 metropolitan areas are “highly concentrated,” as defined by the Federal Trade Commission... A 2008 survey by the Government Accountability Office found the five largest providers of small group insurance controlled 75 percent or more of the market in 34 states, and 90 percent or more in 23 of those states, a significant increase in concentration since the G.A.O.’s 2002 survey. ...
With size has come not only market power but political clout. Big for-profit insurers deploy enough campaign money and lobbyists to get their way with state legislators and insurance commissioners. ... These companies have even been known to press states to limit how many other health insurers they license.
And when they can’t get their way, insurers go to court. In Maine — one state that aggressively regulates rates — WellPoint’s Anthem subsidiary has sued the insurance superintendent for reducing its requested rate increase.
Political clout can be especially advantageous at the federal level, as the big Wall Street banks have so brazenly demonstrated. Over the past two and a half years, WellPoint’s employees and associates have contributed more than $922,000 to federal political campaigns, and the company has spent $7.8 million lobbying Washington policymakers... It should not be surprising that WellPoint was one of the leading opponents of the public insurance option, which would have subjected it to competition even where it had sewn up the market.
Antitrust is no substitute for broader health care reform, but it’s an important prerequisite. If a handful of giant health insurers are allowed to dominate the industry, many of the other aspects of reform (establishing insurance exchanges, requiring people to have insurance, even allowing consumers to buy insurance across state lines) won’t bring down the price of insurance.
Regardless of what happens at the White House’s health care meeting on Thursday, we’ve got to make sure health insurers compete for every one of our dollars. ...

The build up of excessive market power in some industries, and the failure of regulators to step in and do something about it based partly upon attitudes toward deregulation that began in the 1970s, has been frustrating to observe. But in financial, health care, and other markets that slowly seems to be changing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Paul Krugman: California Death Spiral

The recent, large increases in health insurance premiums in California demonstrate the need for "comprehensive, guaranteed coverage":

California Death Spiral, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Health insurance premiums are surging — and conservatives fear that the spectacle will reinvigorate the push for reform. On the Fox Business Network, a host chided a vice president of WellPoint, which has told California customers to expect huge rate increases: “You handed the politicians red meat at a time when health care is being discussed. You gave it to them!”
Indeed. Sky-high rate increases make a powerful case for ... comprehensive, guaranteed coverage — which is exactly what Democrats are trying to accomplish.
Here’s the story: About 800,000 people in California who buy insurance on the individual market — as opposed to ... through their employers — are covered by Anthem Blue Cross, a WellPoint subsidiary. These ... people ... were recently told to expect dramatic rate increases,... as high as 39 percent.
Why the huge increase? It’s ... a classic insurance death spiral.
Bear in mind that private health insurance only works if insurers can sell policies to both sick and healthy customers. If too many healthy people ... take their chances and remain uninsured, the risk pool deteriorates, forcing insurers to raise premiums. This ... leads more healthy people to drop coverage, worsening the risk pool even further, and so on.
Now,... cash-strapped Californians have been dropping their policies or shifting into less-comprehensive plans. Those retaining coverage tend to be people with high current medical expenses. And the result, says the company, is a drastically worsening risk pool: in effect, a death spiral.
So the rate increases, WellPoint insists, aren’t its fault... Indeed,... there have been steep actual or proposed increases in rates by a number of insurers.
But ... suppose..., provisionally, that the insurers aren’t the main villains... Even so, California’s death spiral makes nonsense of all the main arguments against comprehensive health reform.
For example, some claim that health costs would fall dramatically if only insurance companies were allowed to sell policies across state lines. But California is already a huge market, with much more insurance competition than in other states; unfortunately,... competition hasn’t averted a death spiral. So why would creating a national market make things better?
More broadly, conservatives would have you believe that health insurance suffers from too much government interference. ... But California’s individual insurance market is already notable for its lack of regulation...
Finally, there have been calls for minimalist health reform that would ban discrimination on the basis of pre-existing conditions and stop there. It’s a popular idea, but ... a ban on medical discrimination would lead to higher premiums for the healthy, and ... more and bigger death spirals.
So California’s woes show that conservative prescriptions for health reform just won’t work.
What would work? By all means, let’s ban discrimination... — but we also have to keep healthy people in the risk pool, which means requiring that people purchase insurance. This, in turn, requires substantial aid to lower-income Americans so that they can afford coverage.
And if you put all of that together, you end up with something very much like the health reform bills that ... passed both the House and the Senate.
What about claims that these bills would force Americans into the clutches of greedy insurance companies? Well, the main answer is stronger regulation; but it would also be a very good idea, politically as well as substantively, for the Senate to use reconciliation to put the public option back into its bill.
But the main point is this: California’s death spiral is a reminder that our health care system is unraveling, and that inaction isn’t an option. Congress and the president need to make reform happen — now.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"Fine Print, Deceptive Pricing, and Buried Tricks"

How bad is the asymmetric information problem in credit card markets? This is from Wall Street's Race to the Bottom, by Elizabeth Warren, arguing for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. She describes what happened when Citigroup offered its credit card customers a better deal:

Wall Street executives explain privately that they cannot get rid of fine print, deceptive pricing, and buried tricks unilaterally without losing market share.
Citigroup ... in 2007 ... decided to clean up its credit card just a little bit by eliminating universal default—the trick that allowed it to raise rates retroactively, even for consumers that did nothing wrong. Citi's reform resulted in lower revenues and no new customers, triggering an embarrassing public reversal.

Citi explained sheepishly that credit cards were now so complicated that customers couldn't tell when a company offered something a little better. So Citi went back to something a little worse...

[See also Elizabeth Warren Calls Out Wall Street by James Kwak.]

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Is It Time for Obama to "Pick a Fight with the Banks"?

I don't put much of the blame for the financial crisis on the bad incentives embedded in executive pay structures. But that doesn't meant that pay structures didn't contribute to the problem. And it certainly doesn't mean that executive pay is justified by productivity, or that there are no important market failures associated with the way executive pay is structured:

The CEO Pay Slice, by Lucian Bebchuk, Martijn Cremers, and Urs Peyer, Commentary, Project Syndicate: ...In our recent research, we studied the distribution of pay among top executives in publicly traded companies... Our analysis focused on the CEO “pay slice” – that is, the CEO’s share of the aggregate compensation such firms award to their top five executives.
We found that the pay slice of CEOs has been increasing over time. Not only has compensation of the top five executives been increasing, but CEOs have been capturing an increasing proportion of it. The average CEO’s pay slice is about 35%,... typically ... more than twice the average pay received by the other top four executives. Moreover, we found that the CEO’s pay slice is related to many aspects of firms’ performance and behavior.
To begin, firms with a higher CEO pay slice generate lower value for their investors..., such firms have lower market capitalization for a given book value. ... Moreover, firms with a high CEO pay slice are associated with lower profitability. ...
What makes firms with a higher CEO pay slice generate lower value for investors? We found that the CEO pay slice is associated with several dimensions of company behavior and performance that are commonly viewed as reflecting governance problems.
First, firms with a high CEO pay slice tend to make worse acquisition decisions. ... Second, such firms are more likely to reward their CEOs for “luck.” They are more likely to increase CEO compensation when the industry’s prospects improve for reasons unrelated to the CEO’s own performance... Financial economists view such luck-based compensation as a sign of governance problems.
Third, a higher CEO pay slice is associated with weaker accountability for poor performance. In firms with a high CEO pay slice, the probability of a CEO turnover after bad performance ... is lower. ... Finally, firms with a higher CEO pay slice are more likely to provide their CEO with option grants that turn out to be opportunistically timed. ...
What explains this emerging pattern? Some CEOs take an especially large slice ... because of their special abilities... But the ability of some CEOs to capture an especially high slice might reflect undue power and influence over the company’s decision-making. As long as the latter factor plays a significant role, the CEO pay slice partly reflects governance problems. ...
[O]ur evidence indicates that, on average, a high CEO pay slice may signal governance problems that might not otherwise be readily visible. Investors and corporate boards would thus do well to pay close attention not only to the compensation captured by the firms’ top executives, but also to how this compensation is divided among them.

Which opens the door to ask the question, is it time for Obama to pick a fight with the banks?:

Whatever happens today in Massachusetts, finding 60 votes in the Senate for meaningful financial regulatory reform is likely impossible. That means it is now high time to jettison the middle road, and go full bore against the banks. Given Obama's cautious approach so far in his administration, it is difficult to feel any confidence in such a prospect, but really, at this point one has to ask, what's he got to lose?

We've got a lot to lose if we don't get meaningful financial reform, so just as with health care, if what we can get through Congress actually improves conditions in financial markets, we need to take what we can get and hope to build upon it later. The question is how to construct a political strategy that will allow us to get as much done as possible. It may be that aggressively going after big banks can create public support for reform, support that would be difficult for politicians of either party to ignore. But there's also a chance that such a strategy will harden the resolve of those now opposed to reform making it harder to get anything done at all.

So a second question is whether the baseline level of reform we could get without an all out, "jettison the middle road" strategy is acceptable, If it is, I'd prefer to protect that and proceed cautiously. My loss function is asymmetric. Getting something, even if it isn't as much as we'd like, is much better than nothing at all.

But my sense is that right now the administration can't get enough support to do anything except fairly cosmetic changes. If that's the case, and I'm not completely sure that it is, but if so, then hammering the big banks relentlessly may be the only chance we have to create the coalition needed to implement more meaningful measures.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Please Sir, May We Have Some Justice?"

Maxine Udall:

Please, sir, may we have some justice?, by Maxine Udall: We have just witnessed highly compensated investment bankers asserting that they are the clueless victims of an unforeseeable, unpreventable hundred year financial crisis (except when it happens every five to seven years).
Until last year, Maxine had always assumed that at least one reason for investment bankers' high compensation was that the market had chosen to reward them for competence and knowledge about high finance, things we lesser mortals couldn’t possibly grasp with our mundane, tiny little minds. Now we find out that they apparently hadn’t even grasped the basics... “The higher the returns, the higher the risk, and if the returns are high and sustained, you’re in a Ponzi scheme or a bubble. ...” ...
It seems so basic and no amount of clever math and models can really change it...: Higher returns means higher risk and if the returns are high and sustained, you’re in a Ponzi scheme or a bubble.
We and our elected representatives have a choice to make. We can continue to compensate clueless victims way beyond the value of their marginal product in any domain of productivity you care to name and we can continue to allow them to cluelessly manage financial institutions for their own short-term short-sighted gains until they plunge the rest of us into serfdom or we can change how they are compensated and maybe even who is compensated (as in throw the bums out) and we can change the rules by which they are allowed to "play" with our money.
The latter shouldn’t be rocket science were it not for the wealth and power bankers are able to exert in their own interest. If the political will is not there now to do this, for heaven’s sake, when will it be????
Oh, right...after a full-blown depression, like last time.
But even then, reform and regulation will not be enough. We need a new language about business and markets that is sensible and grounded in reality. In the last thirty years, both have been elevated to near religion, with financiers and CEOs as high priests.
Something has been lost in that transformation. When Adam Smith wrote about the value and advantages of commercial society, he saw all of society (and, of course, was comparing it to the vestigial remains of feudalism which set a very low, preliminary standard). He wrote about how even those at the bottom were made better off. He appeared to care about them. He worried that because of the drudgery of the work at the lower end of society, people in those roles would require additional inputs, like education, paid for by the larger society. He viewed the entire wealth of the nation including the distribution not only of wealth but of opportunity (admittedly within the confines of a rather rigid class structure). And he was quite critical of the ne’er-do-well rich and of businessmen who colluded to extract welfare from consumers in the form of higher prices.
Perhaps most importantly, Adam Smith appears to have understood the value of the moral side effects of commercial transactions: trust, sympathy for our fellow tradesmen and women, for our customers, for our neighbors, a sense of community and of the common good, all traded in the marketplace along with the money, goods, and services that change hands. He recognized the interdependencies that markets create and reinforce, interdependencies that bind us to common objectives and that lower the transaction costs of achieving them.
So you see it isn’t just about the money. ... It’s about the moral side effects of market transactions and exchange. Morally clueless investment bankers have trashed the fabric that binds us together as a nation. They have sent a message loud and clear that short-sighted, immoral cluelessness that serves only one’s own short-run self-interest is what is rewarded. That unearned wealth, power and prestige have more political and economic currency than the hard-earned trust, confidence, and lower profit margins of honest businessmen embedded in, committed to, and serving their customers and their communities. ...
Moral, socially responsible, honest (usually small) businessmen and women ... provide some of the moral glue that holds us together. Market forces in small, truly competitive, transparent markets (which financial markets most definitely are not) often reinforce the moral glue and sometimes even provide it by reining in the Mr. Potters and the Gyges of the world.
Mr. Potter testified last week, pockets bulging with cash earned on the backs of the people of Bedford Falls, that he is clueless and incompetent and that stuff happens. He harmed Main Street, both the people who shop there and the people who own businesses there. He harmed the backbone of our democratic society. We bailed him out. Isn’t it time we held him to account?
We can reduce the moral hazard we’ve created with a no-strings bailout, we can reduce the moral side-effects of the moral hazard, and we can help Main Street. Let’s start by using all the bonus money to extend the safety net for unemployed workers, please. Then let’s tax the finance sector’s inordinate Ponzi scheme profits and use the proceeds to build new infrastructure and to retool the US workforce for the 21st century. And for God’s sake, let's regulate Mr. Potter.  Let’s take a longer-term view of economic and societal well-being. Let’s make something good from this that will benefit our grandchildren.
Please, sir, may we have some justice?

Businesses will do whatever they can to give themselves an advantage over their customers and increase profits. How can we level the playing field? Adam Smith believed that competition was the best regulator of economic behavior. You can't trust government to intervene and protect people because the rich and powerful will bend government to satisfy their needs. We should rely upon competition instead, that's our best chance of making these markets work for everyone, not just one side of the transaction.

It's easy to make the case that the financial system does not satisfy or even closely approximate the conditions necessary for the textbook version of "pure competition," conditions that must be present if markets are going to maximize social welfare in the textbook fashion. For example, pure competition calls for free entry and free exit. Have we seen free exit among too big to fail firms? Pure competition calls for a large number of firms, none of which is big enough to influence market conditions on its own. Do those conditions exist? Pure competition requires that all parties in transactions be equally informed, but that certainly wasn't the case in these markets. The list of violations of the conditions for pure competition is a long one, too long to list here extensively, but there is little doubt that substantial departures from ideal conditions were present and pervasive in the financial industry.

There was a time when I would have called for us to reestablish competitive conditions in the financial industry as a means of fixing the problems that led to its breakdown. I still think that is an important part of the solution -- I think the consequences of departures from pure competition in these markets are larger than most people recognize -- and it is part of what is behind my calls to reduce banks to their minimum effective size. But is competition enough to fix the problems? If it is enough, can we actually achieve an adequate approximation of pure competition in this industry?

 I have lost my "faith" that competition alone is enough to regulate these markets (I find that sentence surprisingly hard to write and do not wish to assert it for all markets). Regulation, particularly regulation that reduces the impact on the broader economy if the financial industry implodes again (and it will) is essential. Perhaps the test that led to this conclusion was unfair since, as just noted, the conditions in financial markets were nowhere near competitive. If we could actually establish competitive conditions in these markets, maybe they'd be fine. It's hard to say because I don't think those conditions were present in financial markets, and I've come to doubt that they can ever be present.

Some people argue that these firms are natural monopolies (or that there's only room for a few fully efficient firms). I don't think they are, but if so, they should be heavily regulated just like any other natural monopoly. In any case, natural monopolies or not, over time these markets appear to tend toward concentration rather than competition, and inherent and important market failures do not appear to self-correct (e.g., to name just one, participants in these markets do not consider the externalities their failure would impose on the broader economy as they decide how much risk to take on, or, to say it another way, how much capital to hold in reserve).

If we could overcome these market imperfections, would competition be enough to maximize the safety of these markets? I don't know because an approximation of the textbook conditions for pure competition have never existed in this industry, and the structure of the industry works strongly against such conditions ever existing. If that's the case, if we are unsure that competition would be enough to fully protect us, and if we are unsure that we can get to those conditions and then maintain them in any case, then the important role that these markets play in our economy makes it essential that we insulate ourselves from the consequences of this happening again.

I don't think we can ever fully guarantee that we are safe from collapse in the financial industry (though we should do our best to prevent it), but we can reduce the consequences if and when the financial system does collapse again. That's why I've been emphasizing broad measures such as limiting leverage/increasing capital requirements/increasing margin requirements (which all amount to the same thing), measuring and limiting interconnectedness, etc., rather than trying to identify and fix specific problems. The individual problems are important and need to be addressed, that will reduce the likelihood of collapse so I don't mean to ignore them, but insulation from big shocks and widespread collapse comes mainly through the more broad-based measures.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Market Evangelists

This is part of Robert Solow's review of How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities written by John Cassidy:

Hedging America, by Robert M. Solow: ...[I]n the course of producing and distributing goods and services, market outcomes generate incomes, wealth, status, and power. Any modification of market outcomes modifies the allocation of incomes, wealth, status, and power. So it is no wonder that the discussion has become thickly encrusted with ideology. And one convenient way to turn subtle argument into ideology is to create dichotomies where there are originally fine gradations of more and less. For example: are you for or against “the free market”?
Today, of course, no one is against markets. The only legitimate questions are: What are their limitations? Can they go wrong? If so, how can we distinguish the ones that do from the ones that don’t? What can be done to fix the ones that do go wrong? When is some regulation needed, how much, and what kind? ...
To begin..., if a market economy is to be advertised as doing an acceptable job, we need a definition of a good economic outcome.
The standard version says that one allocation of goods and services to individuals (call it A) is better than another (B) if everyone is at least as well off (in his or her own estimation) in A as in B, and at least one person is better off. So there is to be no trading off of one person’s well-being against another’s. That sounds fair; but notice that judgments about inequality are ruled out: if everyone is equal but poor in A, and B differs only by making one person fabulously rich, B is better than A. That sounds a little less appetizing, but this extreme case underscores the individualistic nature of the whole exercise: nothing is supposed to matter to anyone but his or her own access to goods and services. Notice also that, by this definition, most As and Bs simply cannot be compared: some people are better off and some worse off in A than in B, so neither is “better” than the other.
The next step is to say that such an allocation is “efficient” if no feasible allocation can leave everybody at least as well off as they were and make somebody better off. In other words, there is no “better” allocation. You would like your economy to lead to an efficient outcome. There are many efficient allocations, some egalitarian and some just the opposite, and none of them is better or worse than any of the others. They cannot be said to be equal either; they are simply not comparable in this language.
It is important to understand what this definition does not mean: it does not say that any efficient allocation is better, more desirable, than any inefficient one. Why not? Suppose you happen to gain from the inefficiency and I happen to lose. Then eliminating the inefficiency does not meet the test for a “better” state: you lose and I gain. ...
I have insisted on these gory--or dreary--details for a reason. Careful analysis shows that, if there are no distortions (and under further assumptions, to be discussed in a moment), a competitive market economy in equilibrium will achieve an efficient allocation of resources. ... Now comes the layer of ideology: advocates, some of whom may know better, use the “efficiency of free markets” to argue against taxes and regulation in general--they are distortions--and in favor of laissez-faire. Any interference with the free market, they declaim, is ipso facto a bad thing.
There are at least two things wrong with this ploy. The first has already been discussed. If a tax or regulation creates an inefficiency, “better” outcomes are available, but the pre-tax or pre-regulation situation is very unlikely to be among them. Some group will have gained from the regulation or from the tax and the use of its revenues. ... Perhaps I should be explicit also on the other side: many taxes and regulations create large inefficiencies for very little gain. The point is that no blanket statement is possible.
The second reason is that the Invisible Hand Theorem is valid only under certain assumptions, some of which only need to be stated to be seen as very dodgy. Clarifying those assumptions is the role of Cassidy’s “reality-based economics.” One of them is the absence of distorting taxes and regulations. Another is the absence of elements of monopoly, or monopolistic imperfections that fall well short of monopoly, like catchy brand names or advertising gimmicks that give a seller some freedom in setting prices, or other barriers to competition. Of course such imperfections are ubiquitous in every modern economy. The existence of economies of large-scale production in some industries is already a deal breaker for the Invisible Hand, and they make some element of monopoly essentially inevitable.
And that is far from the end of the matter. The informational requirements for the validity of the Invisible Hand Theorem are considerable..., and they must be willing and able to behave rationally in the light of it. ... Yet another requirement is the absence of significant external effects or “externalities.” ... Again, externalities are ubiquitous in a densely populated modern economy. ...
Faced with this list of obstacles, one might be tempted to give up on the market economy altogether. That would be as much of a mistake as the one made by doctrinaire free marketeers. The real point is that the choice is not either/or, but when and how much. Many distortions, imperfections, and externalities are small. To try to correct them all would be intolerably bureaucratic. The large ones cannot be wished away or ignored for reasons of piety; they cause large inefficiencies, and they can redistribute income in ways that most people would reject. And so there is no good alternative to case-by-case decision-making. ...
The market evangelists, who tend to claim more for unregulated markets than solid theory can justify, are ideologically motivated. They dislike and distrust governments so much that they overlook the exceptions and the implausible assumptions, and simply propose the blanket principle that the market knows best. What is improper in this manner of argument is the frequent casual hint that it is authorized by economic theory. Nothing so general is ever authorized by economic theory. ...

It makes interesting reading, but I wish he had asked himself an additional question. Why, in the marketplace of ideas, have the evangelists for the unrestricted market attracted so much attention and the “realists” so little? He argues, fairly convincingly, that the truth does not lie predominantly on that side of the issue. So is it that believers always make more effective advocates than skeptics do? Are we for some reason more receptive to simple answers than to complex ones? Is it that, in the nature of the case, there is more money backing one side than the other? Perhaps the long postwar prosperity provided good growing conditions for conservative political and economic ideology. If so, it will be interesting to see if the current recession and financial meltdown leave traces in the course of serious economics. ...

It could also be that those with the most wealth and power attribute their success to their own individual abilities. If so, then theories that attribute rewards, even at executive compensation levels, to the contributions the individual makes to society are naturally attractive, far more so than theories that say the success is due in any way to market imperfections or some other external factor.

[My take on the topic of market evangelism: Markets are not Magic.]

Sunday, January 03, 2010

"AD, AS, Y, Output Gaps, Cuba, Monopolistic Competition, and Recalculation"

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Nick Rowe has a nice explanation of why output in the U.S. is generally demand determined, and why this isn't necessarily true in all countries. See here.

Just one peripheral comment. Nick says that it took "half a century for monopolistic competition to make the transition to macro." That is true, for a long time perfect competition was assumed in these models for analytical convenience. But I've always thought that Keynes had monopolistically competitive markets in mind when he wrote the General Theory, and that this came about due to the influence of Joan Robinson (her theory of monopolistic competition appeared in 1933), something that was lost in the macroeconomics literature until the revival of these models in the early 1980s and their incorporation into the New Keynesian framework.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Google's Monopoly Power

It is not illegal to have monopoly power, but there are limits on how that power can be used. Has Google crossed over the line?:

Search, but You May Not Find. by Adam Raff, Commentary, NY Times: ...Today, search engines like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s new Bing have become the Internet’s gatekeepers, and the crucial role they play in directing users to Web sites means they are now as essential a component of its infrastructure as the physical network itself. The F.C.C. needs to look [at]... “search neutrality”: the principle that search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance.
The need for search neutrality is particularly pressing because so much market power lies in the hands of one company: Google. With 71 percent of the United States search market (and 90 percent in Britain), Google’s dominance of both search and search advertising gives it overwhelming control. ...
One way that Google exploits this control is by imposing covert “penalties” that can strike legitimate and useful Web sites, removing them entirely from its search results or placing them so far down the rankings that they will in all likelihood never be found. For three years, my company’s vertical search and price-comparison site, Foundem, was effectively “disappeared” from the Internet in this way.
Another way that Google exploits its control is through preferential placement. With the introduction in 2007 of what it calls “universal search,” Google began promoting its own services at or near the top of its search results... Google now favors its own price-comparison results..., its own map results..., its own news results..., and its own YouTube results for video queries. And Google’s stated plans for universal search make it clear that this is only the beginning.
Because of its domination of the global search market and ability to penalize competitors while placing its own services at the top of its search results, Google has a virtually unassailable competitive advantage. And Google can deploy this advantage well beyond the confines of search to any service it chooses. Wherever it does so, incumbents are toppled, new entrants are suppressed and innovation is imperiled. ...
The preferential placement of Google Maps helped it unseat MapQuest from its position as America’s leading online mapping service virtually overnight. ... Without search neutrality rules to constrain Google’s competitive advantage, we may be heading toward a bleakly uniform world of Google Everything — Google Travel, Google Finance, Google Insurance, Google Real Estate, Google Telecoms and, of course, Google Books.
Some will argue that Google is itself so innovative that we needn’t worry. But the company isn’t as innovative as it is regularly given credit for. Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Groups, Google Docs, Google Analytics, Android and many other Google products are all based on technology that Google has acquired rather than invented. Even AdWords and AdSense ... are essentially borrowed inventions...
Google ... now faces a difficult choice. Will it embrace search neutrality...? Or will it try to argue that discriminatory market power is somehow ... harmless in the hands of an overwhelmingly dominant search engine? ...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

FTC Files Antitrust Suit against Intel

Maybe I was wrong when I said that the administration is all talk and no action when it comes to reining in market power. Hope so:

F.T.C. Accuses Intel of Trying to Stifle Competition, by Steve Lohr, NY Times

Monday, December 14, 2009

Too Big to File Suit?

I've been somewhat encouraged by this administration's attention to anti-trust issues, but so far there's been more talk than action. I don't think this issue received enough attention in the previous administration -- if anything the Bush administration promoted the interests of large, powerful firms -- and the movement away from strict enforcement of anti-trust rules can be traced to Ronald Reagan's push against government intervention in markets. There have been a few headline cases, e.g. Microsoft, but not the kind of systematic examination of markets and the enforcement of rules to promote competition as I'd like to see. I've been hoping this administration would change that.

Maybe there's a reason for the lack of action. One cost of a severe recession is that anti-trust enforcement is likely to be pursued with less vigor. Suppose, for example, that the government is considering initiating an anti-trust suit against a few large, systemically important firms within the economy (e.g. Google and Wal-Mart? Goldman Sachs?). The government might worry that doing so would create uncertainty in these businesses and cause them to pull back on expansion plans, be less aggressive, etc. That could make already bad conditions even worse, and it could also create uncertainty more broadly within the business community and cause similar, amplifying effects. Thus, the government might prefer to withhold action until things got better (much as though it might be willing to let a car company fail during good times, but not in a recession).

Even if the initiation and pursuit of such action has no effect at all on economic activity, the recovery from the recession could drag on for awhile, and the sluggish recovery could be attributed, in part, to the government's action. Thus, initiating an anti-trust suit against a large, economically important firm would leave the party in power vulnerable to a charge from the other side that their "overly zealous" enforcement of these laws prolonged the recession. As a political calculation, why not wait until things improve before taking such potentially politically volatile action?

There may be other reasons to wait as well. e.g. needing votes to pass a stimulus package that might be lost if anti-trust action is announced. So it seems quite likely that an administration might decide to delay action until the economy is on more solid footing rather than taking action that might upset the economy or leave them politically vulnerable to charges of making conditions worse. It could also be that these types of cases are complicated and take time to build, and with no foundation from the previous administration to build upon, it's too soon to expect results.

But I also worry that, for whatever reason, the administration won't actually take the needed action even when things get better and they've had plenty of time to build their case. One argument used in the past to forestall the regulation of market power is the argument that markets are self-regulating, that they can take care of market power problems by themselves (and it's best to let them do so). We've seen how well the self-regulation argument works when it's applied to financial markets, and it doesn't work any better when it comes to market power. Regulation and effective enforcement of the rules are needed to solve the problem.

It's costly when one or a few firms dominate markets, and it's not just the economic losses that are the problem. Excessive size also gives firms political power and influence and this, too, is costly. We should have done something about this long ago -- perhaps more attention to the costs associated with excessive size and power would have left us less tolerant of too big to fail firms in the financial sector. But in any case, I hope the administration follows up on its increased scrutiny of market power and anti-competitive behavior with meaningful action. We shall see.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Stiglitz: Too Big to Live

When Ben Bernanke was asked about the "too big to fail" problem not too long ago, the WSJ Economics blog reports:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke voiced skepticism that breaking-up big banks is the way to solve the so-called too big to fail problem...

Asked for his thoughts on Bank of England Gov. Mervyn King’s recent speech that advocated breaking up banks that were so large that their failure would represent a risk to the broader financial system, Bernanke said that making banks smaller would not necessarily be the solution to the problem. Smaller banks can also play important roles in financial systems, he said. He noted that during the 1930s, the U.S. didn’t have too many large bank failures, but the country suffered thousands of failures of smaller banks that added to the woes of the Great Depression. “I don’t think simply making banks smaller is the way to do it,” he said.

Still, more than once during his comments to the Economic Club of New York, Bernanke emphasized that it is crucial that large financial firms be allowed to fail in order to return market discipline to the financial system.

It is not at all clear to me that breaking large banks into smaller pieces addresses the connectedness issue. Smaller banks can be just as interconnected as larger banks, and hence simply breaking banks up without examining the effect it has on the underlying financial network connections may not reduce systemic risk.

Joseph Stiglitz says break them up whenever possible, regulate them heavily when it's not possible:

Too Big to Live, by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Commentary, Project Syndicate: A global controversy is raging... Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, has called for restrictions on the kinds of activities in which mega-banks can engage. ... King is right to demand that banks that are too big to fail be reined in. In the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, large banks have been responsible for the bulk of the cost to taxpayers. ...
The crisis is a result of at least eight distinct but related failures:
  • Too-big-to-fail banks have perverse incentives; if they gamble and win, they walk off with the proceeds; if they fail, taxpayers pick up the tab.
  • Financial institutions are too intertwined to fail...
  • Even if individual banks are small, if they engage in correlated behavior – using the same models – their behavior can fuel systemic risk;
  • Incentive structures within banks are designed to encourage short-sighted behavior and excessive risk taking.
  • In assessing their own risk, banks do not look at the externalities that they (or their failure) would impose on others, which is one reason why we need regulation in the first place.
  • · Banks have done a bad job in risk assessment – the models they were using were deeply flawed.
  • · Investors, seemingly even less informed about the risk of excessive leverage than banks, put enormous pressure on banks to undertake excessive risk.
  • · Regulators, who are supposed to understand all of this and prevent actions that spur systemic risk, failed. They, too, used flawed models and had flawed incentives; too many didn’t understand the role of regulation; and too many became “captured” by those they were supposed to be regulating.
... There are, of course, costs to regulations, but the costs of having an inadequate regulatory structure are enormous. We have not done nearly enough to prevent another crisis... King is right: banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist. If they continue to exist, they must exist in what is sometimes called a “utility” model, meaning that they are heavily regulated.

In particular, allowing such banks to continue engaging in proprietary trading distorts financial markets. Why should they be allowed to gamble, with taxpayers underwriting their losses? What are the “synergies”? Can they possibly outweigh the costs? Some large banks are now involved in a sufficiently large share of trading ... that they have, in effect, gained the same unfair advantage that any inside trader has.

This may generate higher profits for them, but at the expense of others. It is a skewed playing field – and one increasingly skewed against smaller players. Who wouldn’t prefer a credit default swap underwritten by the US or UK government; no wonder that too-big-to-fail institutions dominate this market.

The one thing nowadays that economists agree upon is that incentives matter. ... Given the lack of understanding of risk by investors, and deficiencies in corporate governance, bankers had an incentive not to design good incentive structures. It is vital to correct such flaws – at the level of the organization and of the individual manager.

That means breaking up too-important-to fail (or too-complex-to-fix) institutions. Where this is not possible, it means stringently restricting what they can do and imposing higher taxes and capital-adequacy requirements, thereby helping level the playing field. ...

Even if we fix bank incentive structures perfectly ... the banks will still represent a big risk. The bigger the bank, and the more risk-taking in which big banks are allowed to engage, the greater the threat to our economies and our societies. ... What is required is a multi-prong approach, including special taxes, increased capital requirements, tighter supervision, and limits on size and risk-taking activities.

Such an approach won’t prevent another crisis, but it would make one less likely – and less costly if it did occur.

I think limiting connectedness and limiting leverage ratios are both essential elements of reform. There will always be vulnerabilities, even in a system that has only small financial institutions, and we may not be able to identify the vulnerabilities in time. Shocks are going to happen. Limiting connectedness and leverage ratios for both big and small firms (along with regulation on what types of activities they can engage in, which addresses an aspect of connectedness) will reduce the magnitude of the damage to the financial system and the broader economy that those inevitable shocks are able to bring about.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Did Bank Executives Lose Enough to Learn their Lesson?

Will the losses that financial executives suffered as a result of the crisis provide the discipline necessary to prevent excessive risk taking in the future? Not according to this analysis:

Bankers had cashed in before the music stopped, by Lucian Bebchuk, Alma Cohen, and Holger Spamann, Commentary, Financial Times: According to the standard narrative, the meltdown of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers largely wiped out the wealth of their top executives. Many – in the media, academia and the financial sector – have used this account to dismiss the view that pay structures caused excessive risk-taking and that reforming such structures is important. That standard narrative, however, turns out to be incorrect.
It is true that the top executives at both banks suffered significant losses on shares they held when their companies collapsed. But our analysis ... shows the banks’ top five executives had cashed out such large amounts since the beginning of this decade that, even after the losses, their net pay-offs during this period were substantially positive. ...
Our analysis undermines the claims that executives’ losses on shares during the collapses establish that they did not have incentives to take excessive risks. ...[R]epeatedly cashing in large amounts of performance-based compensation based on short-term results did provide perverse incentives – incentives to improve short-term results even at the cost of an excessive rise in the risk of large losses at some (uncertain) point in the future.
To be sure, executives’ risk-taking might have been driven by a failure to recognise risks or by excessive optimism, and thus would have taken place even in the absence of these incentives. But given the structure of executive pay, the possibility that risk-taking was influenced by these incentives should be taken seriously.

The need to reform pay structures is not, as many have claimed, simply a politically convenient sideshow. ... To understand what has happened, and what lessons should be drawn, it is important to get the facts right. In contrast to what has been thus far largely assumed, the executives were richly rewarded for, not financially devastated by, their leadership of their banks during this decade.

It doesn't really matter whether executive compensation structures caused or contributed to the crisis or not. If the manner in which executives are paid creates perverse incentives and distorts decisions away from the best interests of shareholders, as it appears to do, then both the level and structure of the compensation should be fixed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Powerful Interests are Trying to Control the Market"

For the first few years I was doing this, I'd often complain that government regulators weren't doing enough to intervene in cases where firms had substantial market power. But this was mainly an economic worry about how market power leads to the inefficient utilization of resources. Over time, however, I've started to worry more and more about the harm that comes when large firms have the ability to exert undue influence on the political process (see health care, financial, or greenhouse gas emission reform just for starters). So I agree with this call to limit rent-seeking activities:

Powerful interests are trying to control the market, by John Kay, Commentary, Financial times: ...Control of rent-seeking requires decentralisation of economic power. These policies involve limits on the economic role of the state; constraints on the concentration of economic power in large business; constant vigilance at the boundaries between government and industry; and a mixture of external supervision and internal norms to limit the capacity of greedy individuals in large organisations to grab corporate rents for themselves. Vigorous pursuit of these is the difference between a competitive market economy and a laisser-faire regime, and it is a large difference. ...
[T]he scale of corporate rent-seeking activities by business and personal rent-seeking by senior individuals in business and finance has increased sharply.
The outcomes can be seen in the growth of Capitol Hill lobbying and the crowded restaurants of Brussels; in the structure of industries such as pharmaceuticals, media, defence equipment and, of course, financial services; and in the explosion of executive remuneration.
Because innovation is dependent on new entry it is essential to resist concentration of economic power. A stance which is pro-business must be distinguished from a stance which is pro-market. In the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that distinction has not been appreciated well enough. ... The essence of a free market economy is not that the government does not control it. It is that nobody does.

On government's role in the economy, this is from a previous post:

Free markets - where free simply means minimal government involvement - are not necessarily the same as competitive markets. There is nothing that says what many interpret as freeing markets - lifting all government restrictions - will give us competitive markets, not at all. Government regulation (as well as laws, social norms, etc.) is often necessary to help markets approach competitive ideals. Environmental restrictions that force producers to internalize all costs of production make markets work better, not worse. Rules that require full disclosure, or that impose accounting standards help to prevent asymmetric information improve market outcomes. Breaking up firms that are too large prevents exploitation of monopoly power (or prevents them from becoming "too large to fail") which can distort resource flows and distort the distribution of income. Making sure that labor negotiations between workers and firms are on an equal footing doesn't move markets away from an optimal outcome, just the opposite, it helps to move us toward the efficient, competitive ideal, and it helps to ensure that labor is rewarded according to its productivity (unlike in recent years where real wages have lagged behind). There is example after example where government involvement of some sort helps to ensure markets work better by making sure they are as competitive as possible.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wal-Mart versus Amazon?

James Surowiecki looks at the latest price war:

Priced to Go, by James Surowiecki: In the spring of 1992, the airline industry ... found itself in the middle of a full-fledged price war. In a matter of months, the airlines collectively lost four billion dollars. ...[A]t bottom it was just like other price wars: all the companies involved got hurt.

So you might wonder why Wal-Mart recently decided to start its own price war, taking on Amazon in the online book market. ...Amazon and Wal-Mart are surely losing money every time they sell one of the discounted titles. The more they sell, the less they make. That doesn’t sound like good business.

It’s easy to see how price wars get started. In industries where a lot of competitors are selling the same product—mangoes, gasoline, DVD players—price is the easiest way to distinguish yourself. The hope is that if you cut prices enough you can increase your market share, and ... your profits. But this works only if your competitors won’t, or can’t, follow suit. More likely, they’ll cut prices, too, and you’ll end up selling the same share of mangoes, only at a lower price...: everyone loses. ...
The best way to win a price war, then, is not to play in the first place. Instead, you can compete in other areas: customer service or quality. Or you can collude...—since overt collusion is usually illegal—you can employ subtler tactics ... like making public statements about the importance of “stable pricing.” The idea is to let your competitors know that you’re not eager to slash prices—but that, if a price war does start, you’ll fight to the bitter end. One way to establish that peace-preserving threat of mutual assured destruction is to commit yourself beforehand, which helps explain why so many retailers promise to match any competitor’s advertised price. Consumers view these guarantees as conducive to lower prices. But ... offering a price-matching guarantee should make it less likely that competitors will slash prices, since they know that any cuts they make will immediately be matched. It’s the retail version of the doomsday machine.
These tactics and deterrents don’t always work, though, which is why price wars keep breaking out. Sometimes it’s rational: when a company is genuinely more efficient than its competitors, lowering prices is usually a smart move. (That’s how competition is supposed to work.) More often, price wars are reckless gambles. ...
Amazon and Wal-Mart hardly seem reckless, though. So why did they go to war? The answer is that they didn’t, really. Sure, Wal-Mart is making a statement that it’s a player in the online world, but the real goal of this conflict isn’t to lure readers away from Amazon... It’s to lure them online, away from big booksellers and other retailers, and then sell them other stuff... It’s textbook loss-leader economics. ...

The real competition in this price war is not between Wal-Mart and Amazon but between those behemoths and everyone else—and the damage everyone else is incurring is deliberate, not collateral. Wal-Mart and Amazon have figured out how to fight a price war and win: make sure someone else takes the blows.

[Traveling: Preset to post automatically.]

One more time, is CEO pay justified?:

Banker Bonus Rain, by Nancy Folbre, Economix: ...Wall Street firms have always been famous for their generous bonuses to managers and traders — their so-called “rainmakers.” The graph ... shows that employee bonuses have actually exceeded the estimated pre-tax profits of United States securities dealers in many years. What is especially striking is the high level of these bonuses in 2007 and 2008, years in which profits were negative. ...
Much of the justification offered for current pay caps in the United States rests on indignation about government bailouts. As long as companies are not subsidized by taxpayer money, perhaps market forces should be allowed to determine pay.
But do market forces determine pay the way most economists assume? Many arguments to the contrary are effectively mobilized by the University of Massachusetts economist James Crotty in a recent working paper.
Top executives of financial firms often choose the very board members who are expected to monitor their pay decisions.
Investment banking is a demanding job. “Rainmakers” typically work long hours under high stress. Yet the number of highly qualified graduates from top colleges eager to enter investment banking has typically far exceeded the demand. Why hasn’t the excess of supply over demand failed to drive earnings down?
The importance of personal networks and contacts gives rainmakers leverage. As the Nobel laureate Oliver Williamson emphasizes, the threat of withdrawing from or disrupting productive relationships can give employees considerable power. The apprenticeship structure of the job gives senior managers and traders control over their successors.
The very qualities that contribute to success on the trading floor — including aggressive use of technical expertise — may be deployed in joint efforts to reduce competition from new job entrants...
In any case, highly paid employees in finance earn large premiums compared to their counterparts in other industries — pay differences that persist even when virtually all measurable differences in individual characteristics are taken into account. ...
Deregulation made it easier for rainmakers to conceal risks that short-term profits would morph into long-run losses. The oligopolistic structure of the industry — now more concentrated than ever as a result of bank failures and mergers — made it easier for them to collude.
Financial firms are investing heavily in lobbying to block efforts to make the industry more competitive. Their rainmakers are still pretty good at making rain for one another.

The article doesn't directly answer the question "is CEO pay justified?," but I will. No it isn't, and the way the pay is structured has led to bad incentives within these firms that contributed to our current problems (too much emphasis on short-term profits at the expense of what is best for stockholders in the long-run). There are still a few apologists -- those who argue that CEO pay is justified by their high productivity, i.e. by what they add to the firm, but their numbers are dwindling.

[Traveling: Preset to post automatically.]

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Bernanke: Smaller Banks Not Necessarily the Answer"

Ben Bernanke does not want to lose "the economic benefit of multi-function, international (financial) firms," so he is hesitant to break large banks into smaller sized institutions. I don't have much problem with the economics, if there are efficiencies that come with bank size we should exploit them, especially if breaking up banks into smaller entities does little to reduce systemic risk but instead simply fragments the problem into many more pieces (though I'd still like to know where the minimum efficient scale is, anything larger than that is unnecessary). Obtaining resolution authority for banks in the shadow system is also very important, so I don't disagree with the emphasis on this in Bernanke's remarks.

But there seems to be the view that if they have resolution authority, higher capital requirements, etc., that will make the probability of a major breakdown small enough so that the expected benefits of size outweigh the expected costs. While I agree that obtaining resolution authority and other regulatory change is extremely important, I wouldn't bet my house, or housing and asset markets more generally, that this will eliminate the chance of a major breakdown, or make the chance small enough to justify huge, powerful, market-dominating institutions.

I would like to see more effort to measure and regulate connectedness within the system (which can be very high even with banks broken into smaller pieces) since that would add another layer of protection, the degree of leverage should come under scrutiny as well, and I would also like to see more attention to the political risks (e.g. capture of legislators and hence regulation) posed by large financial firms:

Bernanke: Smaller Banks Not Necessarily the Answer for ‘Too Big to Fail’ Dilemma, by David Wessel, WSJ: Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, says the solution to banks that are “too big to fail” is to have smaller banks. But Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, says he isn’t convinced that’s the best answer.
Mr. Bernanke ... said he would prefer “a more subtle approach without losing the economic benefit of multi-function, international (financial) firms.” ...
Mr. Bernanke suggested alternatives such as higher capital requirements against bank trading books, higher capital for “systemically important” institutions and a congressionally created process for coping with failing big financial firms in ways other than bankruptcy or bail out.
He also expressed interest in what have been dubbed “living wills” — plans that big banks would have to maintain for winding down their operations.
The goal, Mr. Bernanke said, is to reduce “the artificial incentives for size” — including the incentive to grow large so that government bailouts are anticipated — so that financial firms instead grow to a size that is economically valuable in a global economy populated by large multinational companies.
The Fed chairman did emphasize that supervisors should have the authority and willingness to tell the management of a large institution, where appropriate, that it cannot expand unless it improves its management and risk-management capabilities.
Both in answering the question and in his prepared text, Mr. Bernanke again beseeched Congress to act soon to give regulators “resolution authority” to cope with the imminent collapse of a big financial firm other than a bank, and to address other vulnerabilities in the regulatory regime exposed during the crisis.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"How Moody's Sold its Ratings -- and Sold Out Investors"

Robert Waldmann says "This McClatchy article by Kevin G Hall seems important to me." It does seem like there was "market failure in everything" when it comes to mortgage markets, from the incentives faced by the homeowner (non-recourse loans) and real estate agent ( maximize commission income) at the very first point of contact, through other points in the system such as appraisers, mortgage brokers, and bank managers.

Maybe fixing the incentive problems at each of these steps would have stopped the problem, or at least made it much less severe, but maybe not. In any case, it's clear that markets failed to self regulate at many key points, and that there are problems that need to be fixed covering the entire spectrum from the sale of higher priced, higher profit mortgage contracts to unwary homeowners when better options were available to the incentives bank managers had to maximize short-run profits and accumulate too much risk.

But the flow of toxic paper upward through the system should have had a gatekeeper of last resort, or at least a thorough checkpoint, and that was the ratings agencies. I don't think the failure of the ratings agencies, by itself, caused the financial crisis, but it was an important contributor and it's one of the things that needs to be fixed:

How Moody's sold its ratings -- and sold out investors, by Kevin G. Hall, McClatchy Newspapers: As the housing market collapsed in late 2007, Moody's Investors Service, whose investment ratings were widely trusted, responded by purging analysts and executives who warned of trouble and promoting those who helped Wall Street plunge the country into its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
A McClatchy investigation has found that Moody's punished executives who questioned why the company was risking its reputation by putting its profits ahead of providing trustworthy ratings for investment offerings.
Instead, Moody's promoted executives who headed its "structured finance" division, which assisted Wall Street in packaging loans into securities for sale to investors. It also stacked its compliance department with the people who awarded the highest ratings to pools of mortgages that soon were downgraded to junk. Such products have another name now: "toxic assets."
As Congress tackles the broadest proposed overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s, however, lawmakers still aren't fully aware of what went wrong at the bond rating agencies, and so they may fail to address misaligned incentives...
The Securities and Exchange Commission issued a blistering report on how profit motives had undermined the integrity of ratings at Moody's and its main competitors, Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's,... but the full extent of Moody's internal strife never has been publicly revealed.
Moody's ... disputes every allegation against it. "Moody's has rigorous standards in place to protect the integrity of ratings from commercial considerations," said Michael Adler, Moody's vice president for corporate communications... Insiders, however, say that wasn't true before the financial meltdown.
To promote competition, in the 1970s ratings agencies were allowed to switch from having investors pay for ratings to having the issuers of debt pay for them. That led the ratings agencies to compete for business by currying favor with investment banks that would pay handsomely for the ratings they wanted.
Wall Street paid as much as $1 million for some ratings, and ratings agency profits soared. This new revenue stream swamped earnings from ordinary ratings. ... Ratings agencies thrived on the profits that came from giving the investment banks what they wanted, and investors worldwide gorged themselves on bonds backed by U.S. car loans, credit card debt, student loans and, especially, mortgages. ...
Nobody cared about due diligence so long as the money kept pouring in during the housing boom. ...
One Moody's executive who soared through the ranks during the boom years was Brian Clarkson, the guru of structured finance. He was promoted to company president just as the bottom fell out of the housing market. Several former Moody's executives said he made subordinates fear they'd be fired if they didn't issue ratings that matched competitors' and helped preserve Moody's market share. ...
Clarkson rose to the top in August 2007, just as the subprime crisis was claiming its first victims. Soon afterward, a number of analysts and compliance officials who'd raised concerns about the soundness of the ratings process were purged and replaced with people from structured finance. ...
Another mid-level Moody's executive ... recalls being horrified by the purge. "It is just something unthinkable, putting business people in the compliance department. It's not acceptable. I was very upset, frustrated," the executive said. "I think they corrupted the compliance department." ...
Others who worked at Moody's at the time described a culture of willful ignorance in which executives knew how far lending standards had fallen and that they were giving top ratings to risky products.
"I could see it coming at the tail end of 2006, but it was too late. You knew it was just insane," said one former Moody's manager. "They certainly weren't going to do anything to mess with the revenue machine." ...[...more...]...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Transaction Cost Economics"

Why do firms exist? Why is it sometimes beneficial to, say, produce a part needed in the production process yourself, and why is it better to contract with an outside firm at other times? Where are the boundaries between what will be performed internally, and what will be performed externally? How should firms be organized? Robert Salomon explains the contributions of Oliver Williamson to the field of Transaction Cost Economics, and he reacts to some of the reactions to the announcement of the award:

Oliver Williamson, Nobel Honoree, by Robert Salomon: I was delighted to hear that Oliver Williamson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (shared with Elinor Ostrom). Oliver Williamson is recognized for his contribution to the field of Transaction Cost Economics, building on the path-breaking work of scholars like Ronald Coase.
Transaction Cost Economics is a central theory in the field of Strategy. It addresses questions about why firms exist in the first place (i.e., to minimize transaction costs), how firms define their boundaries, and how they ought to govern operations.
In Transaction Cost Economics, the starting point is the individual transaction (the synapse between the buyer and the seller). The question then becomes: Why are some transactions performed within firms rather than in the market, as the neoclassical view prescribes.
The answer, not surprisingly, is because markets break down.
As a consequence of human cognitive limitations, coupled with the costs associated with transacting, the basic assumptions associated with efficient markets (e.g., anonymous actors, atomistic actors, rational actors, perfect information, homogeneous goods, the absence of liquidity constraints) fail to hold. For these reasons it is often more advantageous to structure transactions within firms. And this is why firms are not just ubiquitous in our society, but also worthy of study in their own right. This contrasts with the typical view of firms in neoclassical economic theory as, at worst, a market aberration that ought not exist, and at best, a black box production function.
Williamson’s contributions to the field of Transaction Cost Economics complement, and extend, those of Coase. First, Williamson started with an explicitly behavioral assumption of human behavior (bounded rationality). Second, he recognized that transacting parties sometimes behave opportunistically and take advantage of their counterparties. Finally, he identified features of transactions (e.g., specificity, uncertainty, frequency) that cause markets to fail; and hence, are likely to lead certain transactions to be organized within firms (hierarchies) rather than markets.
I was pleased to see Oliver Williamson recognized not just because of my inherent intellectual bias — my research has drawn on, and contributed to, the field of Transaction Cost Economics and I have worked with students of Williamson (see my research page for details) — but also because of what his selection implies for the broader field of economics. It implies that the field is moving in the direction of greater inclusion of economic perspectives that are based more on behavioral theories (see Krugman on the Future of Economics).
It was also fun to watch establishment economists make sense of the selection (see the Economists View post for some perspective). For example, Steven Leavitt writes:
When I was a graduate student at MIT back in the early 1990’s, there was a Nobel Prize betting pool every year. Three years in a row, Oliver Williamson was my choice. At the time, his research was viewed as a hip, iconoclastic contribution to economics — something that was talked about by economists, but that students were not actually trying to emulate (and probably would have been actively discouraged from had they tried to do so). What’s interesting is that in the ensuing 15 years, it seems to me that economists have talked less and less about Williamson’s research, at least in the circles in which I run.
My comment: I think Leavitt underestimates the impact of Williamson’s work because he is neither a Strategy scholar, nor is he in a Strategy or Management department. Go to any Strategy or Management department and you will find oodles of researchers (and doctoral students) working on Transaction Cost problems. It is a dominant paradigm.
Paul Krugman (in his post An Institutional Economics Prize) writes:
The way to think about this prize is that it’s an award for institutional economics, or maybe more specifically New Institutional Economics.
Neoclassical economics basically assumes that the units of economic decision-making are a given, and focuses on how they interact in markets. It’s not much good at explaining the creation of these units — at explaining, in particular, why some activities are carried out by large corporations, while others aren’t. That’s obviously an interesting question, and in many cases an important one.
…Oliver Williamson’s work underlies a tremendous amount of modern economic thinking; I know it because of the attempts to model multinational corporations, almost all of which rely to some degree on his ideas.
My comment: Krugman gets it partially right, but he does a lot of handwaving with respect to Williamson’s specific contributions. But with all due respect, he certainly makes no claim to be a Strategy scholar. He is right in the sense that the award speaks volumes about New Institutional Economics, broadly defined. However, in the case of Williamson, the specific contribution is to the field of Transaction Cost Economics. Moreover, the contributions of Williamson’s work extend far beyond the field of international business (or international strategy), but I agree that Transaction Cost Economics has been influential in those fields as well.
Nevertheless, my congratulations to Oliver Williamson, and to his students (many of whom I know well), who have long carried the torch for this important, yet underappreciated, branch of economics.

Friday, October 09, 2009

"Skewed Rewards for Bankers"

Joseph Stiglitz remembers another Nobel:

Skewed rewards for bankers, Joseph Stiglitz, Project Syndicate:  -- The recent death of Norman Borlaug provides an opportune moment to reflect on basic values and on our economic system. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing about the "green revolution," which saved hundreds of millions from hunger and changed the global economic landscape. ...

Continue reading ""Skewed Rewards for Bankers"" »

Friday, October 02, 2009

Do Regulators Have Distorted Incentives?: Beatrice Weder di Mauro Roundtable at Free Exchange

I'm participating in a roundtable discussion at Free Exchange. The lead article by Beatrice Weder di Mauro argues that regulators need better incentives:

Here's my response:

Here are other responses:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stiglitz Interview

James Surowiecki interviews Joseph Stiglitz about "the mishandling of the financial crisis, the relationship between government and markets, and the future of capitalism around the world."

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Regulating for an Independent Media"

This research says that advertising has "seriously interfered with the quality, accuracy, and breadth of content and programming in the media." The proposed solution is to ensure that there is "vigorous competition in media markets," and to provide "public funding of informative media as a public good":

Regulating for an independent media: The problems of political and commercial bias, by Matthew Ellman and Fabrizio Germano, Vox EU: There is a crisis in media and journalism, and policymakers have to tackle both political and commercial influence in the media.

Continue reading ""Regulating for an Independent Media"" »

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Solving the Free Rider Problem using fMRI Measurements

If we hook up a randomly chosen set of people to magnetic neural imaging machines to see if they are truthfully revealing their valuation of public goods, we can improve our ability to provide these services, but the intrusiveness of the solution seems problematic, at least to me. Does this bother you, or does it seem like a good idea to move in this direction? [Update: Cheap Talk has good comments on the research]:

Caltech scientists develop novel use of neurotechnology to solve classic social problem, EurekAlert: Economists and neuroscientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have shown that they can use information obtained through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measurements of whole-brain activity to create feasible, efficient, and fair solutions to one of the stickiest dilemmas in economics, the public goods free-rider problem—long thought to be unsolvable.
This is one of the first-ever applications of neurotechnology to real-life economic problems, the researchers note. "We have shown that by applying tools from neuroscience to the public-goods problem, we can get solutions that are significantly better than those that can be obtained without brain data," says Antonio Rangel, associate professor of economics at Caltech and the paper's principal investigator.
The paper describing their work was published today in the online edition of the journal Science, called Science Express.
Examples of public goods range from healthcare, education, and national defense to the weight room or heated pool that your condominium board decides to purchase. But how does the government or your condo board decide which public goods to spend its limited resources on? And how do these powers decide the best way to share the costs?

Continue reading "Solving the Free Rider Problem using fMRI Measurements" »

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Financial Transactions Tax?

Is a Tobin tax on financial transactions just what the deficit and efficiency doctors ordered? Dean Baker has been advocating for a financial transactions tax, and here's his explanation for why it is needed:

A Financial Transactions Tax, by Dean Baker, Commentary, Counterpunch: Just like that perfect sweater, a financial transactions tax (FTT) would look just great on those Wall Street bankers and financiers. A modest tax, which would be too small for normal investors to even notice, could easily raise more than $100 billion a year. ...
[A]n FTT makes a huge amount of sense. The basic point is quite simple. A tax of 0.25 percent on the sale or purchase of a share of stock will make little difference to a person who intends to hold the share for 5-10 years as a long-term investment. ... A small increase in trading costs would be a very manageable burden for those who are using financial markets to support productive economic activity. However, it would impose serious costs on those who see the financial markets as a casino in which they place their bets by the day, hour, or minute. Speculators who hope to jump into the market at 2:00 and pocket their gains by 3:00 would be subject to much greater risk if they had to pay even a modest financial transaction tax. ...
The Wall Streeters and their flacks will insist that an FTT is unenforceable and will simply result in trading moving overseas. There is a small problem with this argument call the “United Kingdom.” The U.K. has had a tax on stock trades ... for decades. The revenue raised each year would be equivalent to $30 billion in the U.S. economy. Obviously, the tax is enforceable.
In fact, we can go beyond the U.K. and add other measures to make enforcement more fun. For example, we can give workers an incentive to turn in their cheating bosses by awarding them 10 percent of any revenue and penalties that the government collects. ...
Of course, the prospect of the financial industry moving overseas should not be troubling any case. Why should we be any more bothered by buying our financial services from foreigners than by buying our steel from foreigners? If the industry moved overseas, then it could corrupt some other country’s politics.
The basic point is simple. A FTT can allow us to raise more than $100 billion annually to finance health care or any other budget item that we consider important. It does so in a way that is very progressive and will weaken the financial industry both economically and politically. In fact, even Larry Summers, the head of President Obama’s National Economic Council, even argued that a FTT was a good idea. ...

Here's a bit more on the tax, whether the Obama administration might support it, and Summer's support of the tax in the past:

A Tobin tax for Wall Street?, by Robert Kuttner, Prospect: Now that Adair Turner has opened the door to a forbidden subject—Tobin taxes on financial transactions—could the Obama administration embrace such an idea?
Professor Tobin first proposed his tax to address currency speculation. This was in 1972, when the fixed-rate regime of Bretton Woods had collapsed. His concern was that speculative trades were fundamentally distorting currency values and damaging the real economy. The tax that he proposed was intended to damp down the volatility in currency movements, and take much of the profit out of purely speculative, short-term moves.
The early 1970s was a period ... before the general financial deregulation that followed. Since that time, speculative trading has distorted not just currency markets, but the broad financial market itself. The volume of short-term trades has grown far faster than the value of the stock market or the real economy. The most recent case in point is ultra high-speed computerised trading...
A small tax on very short-term financial transactions would have two immense benefits. It would discourage purely speculative trades, while having no significant effects on long-term investments, and it would thus help restore the legitimate function of financial markets: connecting investors to entrepreneurs. Secondly, it could raise a substantial amount of revenue in a highly progressive fashion—at a time when large deficits loom.
The Obama administration might take a serious look at a Tobin tax for both of these reasons. Early in his career, Larry Summers, Obama’s economic policy chief, was a supporter of the Tobin tax. In a 1989 paper, co-authored with his former wife, Victoria Summers, he wrote that there might be times when it was salutary to throw a little sand in the gears of trading markets. The paper was titled: “When Financial Markets Work too Well: a Cautious Case for a Securities Transaction Tax.”
However, the Obama administration’s regulatory stance is still a long distance away from taking serious measures to discourage speculative trading markets as a general policy goal. The more likely motivation would be concerns about the federal budget deficit. ...
The tax, of course, would be fiercely resisted by Wall Street. For a reform administration, Obama’s government has approached any confrontation with Wall Street very gingerly. ... Even if Obama comes to a Tobin tax via the back door of revenue needs, this would be most welcome, as it would also lead to examination a larger, neglected issue: how to rein in financial engineering for the good of the larger economy.

Since I don't have a strong opinion on this, let's play "he said-he said." Here's Willem Buiter with an alternative view:

Forget Tobin tax: there is a better way to curb finance, by Willem Buiter, Commentary, Financial Times: Lord Turner, chairman of the UK’s Financial Services Authority, has set the cat among the financial pigeons by making highly critical comments about ... financial intermediation... He recommended some drastic remedies, and suggested considering a global tax on financial transactions – a generalised Tobin tax. ...
What problem would a Tobin tax on financial transactions solve? Lord Turner asserts ... that the UK financial sector has grown too big; that some financial sector activity is worthless from a social perspective; that the sector is destabilising...; and that new taxes may be required to curb excessive profits and pay in the sector. ... Even if all these assertions are correct, they do not imply the need for a Tobin tax.
Economics teaches us that taxes and other public interventions to correct distortions and other market failures should be targeted directly at the distortion or failure in question. What distortion is a tax on financial transactions targeted at?
The financial sector is too big throughout the overdeveloped world in part because much of it enjoys a free state guarantee against default on its unsecured debt. ... The cost of capital to the banking sector is subsidised, causing the sector to be too large.
The solution is clear, and it is not a tax on financial transactions: bring default risk back into the calculations of unsecured creditors and other counterparties of the financial sector. This would eliminate the capital subsidy to the industry. The obvious way to do this is through the creation of a “special resolution regime” as an alternative to bankruptcy for all systemically important financial institutions. This would permit their unsecured creditors and other counterparties to be forcibly and swiftly converted into shareholders, until the institutions are adequately capitalised. It must be possible to achieve such a mandatory recapitalisation by unsecured creditors and counterparties for any institution overnight, and without interrupting normal business. A regularly updated “will” for each systemically important financial institution would eliminate any remaining “too big, too interconnected, too complex and too international to fail” obstacles to the Darwinian discipline of the market, which has been sorely missed in the financial sector.
I believe that efficient financial intermediation and a dynamic financial sector are essential for the proper functioning of any decentralised market economy; I also believe that too much financial sector activity is not only socially worthless, but actually harmful. Take financial derivatives. ... To tame the rampant excessive speculation in the derivatives markets, it is sufficient to require that at least one of the parties involved in a derivatives transaction has an insurable interest. The Tobin tax does nothing to achieve this. ...
“Churning” can be a problem for individual savers. Excessive transaction volumes can be caused by perverse incentive systems that link the remuneration of traders – acting as agents for owners of wealth – to trading volumes. Even here, the right solution is not transaction taxes but regulation restricting the undesirable features of these contracts directly. If excessive pay in the financial sector is a problem, tax pay.
I agree with Lord Turner that the UK financial sector – too large to fail and possibly also too large to save – has become a destabilising force for the UK. ... One can share Lord Turner’s diagnosis that the UK financial sector was allowed to grow too large and to get out of control – almost a law unto itself – without accepting the Tobin tax as part of the solution. Tobin was a genius, but the Tobin tax was probably his one daft idea. Creating a viable and socially useful UK financial sector does not require this unfortunate fiscal intervention.

The efficiency properties of the tax depend upon how speculation is viewed. If you believe speculation is efficiency enhancing, and it can be, then reducing speculation would reduce rather than increase efficiency. But if you believe speculation is destabilizing, and it can be this too, then reducing speculation would be beneficial. I am not as negative toward speculation as many, and believe that while it can be both good and bad from a market efficiency perspective, on net, it does good. A general tax would reduce both the good and bad types of speculation, so it is not clear to me that this would be beneficial. I would prefer a mechanism that targets that bad speculation, but leaves the good type alone, but since it is difficult to tell the two apart, even ex-post, it is not practical to levy a tax on just the bad transactions while giving the good ones a free pass. But it may be possible to target the underlying market failures and distortions driving the problems in financial markets, which amounts to the same thing, and these extend far beyond just speculative ventures. Thus, I am somewhat persuaded by Buiter's argument that "public interventions to correct distortions and other market failures should be targeted directly at the distortion or failure in question." It's not clear a financial transactions tax has this property.

From a revenue point of view, the calculation is different. Given the government's spending needs (whatever they are), the question is how to best raise the revenue to pay for that spending. In that regard, the question is whether a financial transactions tax would be the least distortive (and fairest) means of raising the revenue needed to support government spending. Since I am somewhat on the fence regarding speculation, there is good speculation and bad speculation and it's not clear which prevails (though I give an edge to the good type), it may be that a tax of this type creates more distortions than it resolves. However, that also means that it may not create, on net, as many distortions as the next best alternative tax that would raise the same amount of revenue, and hence a financial transactions tax may be a desirable way to provide additional funds to the government.

Update: More reactions to the tax at Salvation or suicide? Experts react to a Tobin tax.