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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.

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.

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.]

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.

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? ...

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

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.

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.

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.

November 11 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.

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.

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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.

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