Author Archives: James Kwak

Insurance Companies and Systemic Risk

By James Kwak

The systemic risk posed by insurance companies is something that I’ve never been entirely clear about. I know it’s an enormous issue for large insurers who want to avoid additional oversight by the Federal Reserve. I’m well aware of the usual defense, which is that insurers are not subject to bank runs because their obligations are, in large measure, pre-funded by policyholder premiums, and policyholders must pay a price in order to stop paying premiums. But this has never seemed entirely convincing to me, because some insurers are enormous players in the financial markets, and the nature of systemic risk seems to be that it can arise in unusual places.

So I find very helpful Dan and Steven Schwarcz’s new paper discussing the ins and outs of systemic risk and insurance. Because it’s written for a law review audience, it covers all the basics, so you can follow it even if you know little about insurance. They cover the usual arguments for why insurers do not pose a threat to the financial system, but then posit a number of reasons for why they could pose such a threat.

A big reason is that insurers make up a large proportion of the buy side, especially for particular markets—owning, for example, one-third of all investment-grade bonds. Furthermore, insurers tend to concentrate their purchases within certain types of securities that provide them with regulatory benefits (sound familiar?)—such as the structured products that promised higher yield while providing the investment-grade ratings that insurers needed. The big fear is that large numbers of insurers could be forced to dump similar securities at the same time, causing prices to fall and harming other types of financial institutions. This may seem unlikely, since insurers only have to make cash payouts when insurable events occur (houses burn down, people die). But insurers have to meet capital requirements just like banks, so falling asset values will require them to adjust their balance sheets.

Another major problem is that it’s not clear that insurers are prepared for those insurable events. For example, insurers are not prepared for a global pandemic, just like they weren’t prepared for large-scale terrorist attacks prior to September 11, 2001.

Finally (and I’m skipping several factors), it’s possible that entire segments of the insurance industry are under-reserving for certain types of risks. This stems from the usual cause: companies compete for market share, and the way to win share is to charge lower prices, and the way to charge lower prices is to underestimate risk. This is all good in the short term, resulting in larger bonuses, and bad in the long term, when the risk actually materializes. Yet it seems that insurance regulators are shifting to “a process of principles-based reserving (‘PBR’), which would grant insurers substantial discretion to set their own reserves based on internal models of their future exposures.” For even a casual observer of the last financial crisis, this sounds like the system is taking on a large amount of model risk and regulatory competency risk, and we know how that story ended last time.

Schwarcz and Schwarcz conclude that the federal government should play a larger role in monitoring systemic risk in the insurance industry, which will make them just about the least popular people in most insurance circles. Given the downside risks, though, it seems like pretending that there’s no reason to worry about insurers is not a good long-term strategy.

 

The Cost of Comp Plans

By James Kwak

Enterprise software is the industry that I know best. Both of the real companies I worked for (sorry, McKinsey is a fine institution in many ways, but it isn’t a real company) were in enterprise software: big, complicated, expensive software systems for midsize and large companies that can take years to sell.

Although the development of enterprise software is (often) highly sophisticated, sales is typically governed more by tribal custom. One trait we probably shared with other big ticket, business-focused industries is the “comp plan”: the system for calculating salespeople’s commissions on sales. The comp plan is just about the most important thing to any red-blooded salesperson. (Its only competition would be the territory assignment, which determines what companies he is allowed to sell to—or, more specifically, for sales to what companies he will earn a commission.) It is the source of months of lobbying, the subject of intense executive- and even board-level scrutiny, and the target of almost every complaint.

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It Keeps Getting Better

By James Kwak

Remember when Steve Schwarzman said that taxing carried interest was “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939″? Or when Lloyd Blankfein said he was doing “God’s work”? Apparently, titans of finance can’t stop themselves from giving good copy. The latest is in Max Abelson’s Bloomberg article in Bloomberg on Wall Street’s search for a Republican presidential candidate who will wave their flag: low individual taxes and a rollback of financial regulation. John Taft, U.S. CEO of RBC Wealth Management, “likened his fear for the country to ‘hiding under my desk during air-raid drills because of the Cuban missile crisis,’ when ‘literally the future of humanity hung in the balance,’” before beginning a suggestion, “If I were God.”

More seriously, the financial sector expects to be able to choose the next Republican presidential nominee. In the words of one political strategist, with Chris Christie on the rocks, “The establishment is now looking for another favorite. . . . And by the establishment, I mean Wall Street.” At the moment, the big money is desperate enough to be looking at fringe candidates like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio (although what they most long for is the third coming of Bush). Basically, there are huge piles of cash looking for a friendly political home, and the level of hysteria is likely to surpass what we saw in 2012. We should at least get some entertaining quotes out of it.

The Free Market’s Weak Hand

By James Kwak

“Except where market discipline is undermined by moral hazard, owing, for example, to federal guarantees of private debt, private regulation generally is far better at constraining excessive risk-taking than is government regulation.”

That was Alan Greenspan back in 2003. This is little different from another of his famous maxims, that anti-fraud regulation was unnecessary because the market would not tolerate fraudsters. It is also a key premise of the blame-the-government crowd (Wallison, Pinto, and most of the current Republican Party), which claims that the financial crisis was caused by excessive government intervention in financial markets.

Market discipline clearly failed in the lead-up to the financial crisis. This picture, for example, shows the yield on Citigroup’s subordinate debt, which is supposed to be a channel for market discipline. (The theory is that subordinated debt investors, who suffer losses relatively early, will be especially anxious to monitor their investments.) Note that yields barely budged before 2008—despite the numerous red flags that were clearly visible in 2007 (and the other red flags that were visible in 2006, like the peaking of the housing market).

 

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Good Times for Capital

By James Kwak

Last week, the Wall Street Journal highlighted a Federal Reserve report on total household net worth. Surprise! Americans are richer than ever before, both in nominal and real terms.

At the same time, though, wealth inequality is increasing from its already Gilded Era levels. The main factor behind increasing household net worth over the past year was the rising stock market (followed far behind by rising housing prices). These obviously only help you if you own stocks—not if, say, you never had enough money to buy stocks, or you had to cash out your 401(k) in 2009 because you were laid off. Put another way, rising asset values help you if you are a supplier of capital more than a supplier of labor.

Is there anything we can do about this? The conventional wisdom from the political center all the way out to the right fringe is that we shouldn’t tinker too much with the wealth distribution—otherwise people won’t work as hard, which is bad for everyone. But perhaps it isn’t true.

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The Fallacy of Financial Education

By James Kwak

In White House Burning, there is a section on the rise and political influence of the conservative media. At one point, I looked up the top ten talk radio shows by audience. Nine of them were unabashedly right-wing, politically oriented shows. The tenth was Dave Ramsey. Ramsey has plenty of conservative elements: religion, moralism, glorification of wealth. But his show isn’t about conservative politics. It’s about personal finance.

Ramsey is a huge success because—in addition to his charisma and marketing skills—he is peddling one of the huge but popular illusions of American culture: that people can become rich by making better financial decisions. He’s also one of the characters skewered by Helaine Olen in her recent book, Pound Foolish, which describes the fallacies, hypocrisies, and borderline-corrupt schemes of personal finance gurus like Ramsey and Suze Orman. It’s a fun read—a bit repetitive, but that’s largely because all personal finance “experts” are pushing a small handful of myths.*

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Posturing from Weakness

By James Kwak

President Obama’s 2015 budget proposes a number of tax increases that will mainly affect the rich. They include:

  • Limiting the tax savings on deductions to 28 percent of the deduction amount (and applying this limit to exclusions as well, such as the one for employer-provided health benefits)
  • Requiring a minimum 30% income tax on income less charitable contributions, which is intended to limit the benefit of tax preferences on capital gains and qualified dividends
  • Reducing the estate tax exemption from $5.34 million to $3.5 million and raising the estate tax rate from 40% to 45%
  • Eliminating tax preferences for retirement accounts once someone’s account balance is enough to fund a $200,000 annuity in retirement (simplifying slightly)

These are all good things, given the size of the projected national debt and the urgent needs elsewhere in society. But, of course, they have no chance of actually happening.

If President Obama really wanted these outcomes, there was a way to get them. He could have let the Bush tax cuts expire for good a year ago, making high taxes on the rich a reality. Then, a year later, he could have proposed a middle-class tax cut and dared the Republicans to block it in an election year. (He could also have traded a reduction in the top marginal rate—from the 39.6% that would have resulted, not counting the 3.8% Medicare tax—for the reforms he is now proposing.)

But no. Instead, he locked in low marginal rates, including low rates on dividends, that cannot be budged so long as Republicans have 41 votes in the Senate. And today he’s left waving a “roadmap” that has no chance of becoming reality.

“Retirement Security in an Aging Society,” or the Lack Thereof

By James Kwak

James Poterba wrote up a very useful overview of the retirement security challenge in a new NBER white paper. (I think it’s not paywalled, but I’m not sure.) He provides overviews of much of the recent research and data on life expectancies, macroeconomic implications of a changing age structure, income and assets of people at or near retirement, and shifts in types of retirement assets.

In the past, I’ve used the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances as my source for data about the inadequacy of many households’ retirement savings. Poterba has a new, perhaps even more stark snapshot:

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Politics: Another Way To Waste Shareholder Money

By James Kwak

I don’t often go to academic conferences. My general opinion is that at their best, sitting in a windowless room all day listening to people talk about their papers is mildly boring—even when the papers themselves are good. And it takes a lot to justify my spending a night away from my family.

Despite that, a little over a year ago I attended a conference at George Washington University on The Political Economy of Financial Regulation. I went partly because my school’s Insurance Law Center was one of the organizers, partly because there was a star-studded lineup (Staney Sporkin, Frank Partnoy, Michael Barr, Anat Admati, Robert Jenkins, Robert Frank, Joe Stiglitz (who ended up not showing), James Cox, and others, not to mention Simon), and partly because I have friends in family in DC whom I could see. It was one of the best conferences I’ve been to, both for the quality of the ideas and the relatively non-soporific nature of the proceedings.

Many of the papers and presentations from the conference are now available in an issue of the North Carolina Banking Institute Journal (not yet on their website), which should be of interest to financial regulation junkies. My own modest contribution was a paper on the issue of corporate political activity. (In a moment of unwarranted self-confidence, I told one of the organizers I could be on any of three different panels, and they put me on the panel on “political accountability, campaign finance, and regulatory reform.”)

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Software Is Great; Software Has Bugs

By James Kwak

I’m not qualified to comment on the internals of Bitcoin; I’m neither a programmer (OK, Alex, not much of a programmer) nor a computer scientist. But I do know that Bitcoin exists because of software that people wrote, and every means by which we use Bitcoin also operates because of software that people wrote. The problem here is the “people” part—people make mistakes under the best of circumstances, and especially when they have an economic incentive to rush out products. That’s why, while we love what software can do for us, we also like having a safety net—like, say, the human pilots who can take over a plane if its computers crash. This is the subject of my latest column over at The Atlantic. Enjoy.

The Costs of Bad 401(k) Plans

By James Kwak

Mixed in with blogging about this, that, and the other thing, it’s nice to occasionally write on a topic I actually know something about. 401(k) plans and the law surrounding them were the subject of my first law review article (blog post). They have also been in the crosshairs of Ian Ayres (who simultaneously works on something like nineteen different topics) and Quinn Curtis, who have written two papers based on their empirical analysis of 401(k) plan investment choices. The first, which I discussed here, analyzed the losses that 401(k) plans—or, rather, their administrators and managers—impose on plan participants by inflicting high-cost mutual funds on them. The second, “Beyond Diversification: The Pervasive Problem of Excessive Fees and ‘Dominated Funds’ in 401(k) Plans,” discusses what we should do about this problem. To recap, the empirical results are eye-opening. Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 3.21.48 PM This table shows that 401(k) plan participants lose about 1.56 percentage points in risk-adjusted annual returns relative to the after-fee performance available from low-cost, well-diversified plans. The first line indicates that participants only lost 6 basis points because their employers failed to allow them to diversify their investments sufficiently. The big losses are in the other three categories:

  • Employers forcing participants to invest in high-cost funds by not making low-cost alternatives available
  • Investors failing to diversify their investments, even when the plan makes it possible
  • Investors choosing high-cost funds when lower-cost alternatives are available

Now you could say that the latter two sources of losses are the fault of individual plan participants, but that is cutting the employers (and the plan administrators they hire) too much slack. In particular, administrators should know that, if you offer both an S&P 500 index fund and an actively managed fund that closet-indexes the S&P 500 for 120 basis points more, some people will put their money in the latter. Continue reading

Rich People Save; Poor People Don’t

By James Kwak

It seems obvious. Yet it’s often lost, both by the scolds who lecture Americans for not saving enough and by the self-appointed personal finance gurus who claim that anyone can become rich simply ye saving more (and following their dodgy investment advice). Saving is sometimes seen as some kind of moral virtue, but from another perspective it’s just the ultimate consumption good: saving now buys you a sense of security, insurance against misfortune, and free time in the future, which are all things that ordinary people don’t have enough of.

Real Time Economics (WSJ) links to a new survey being pushed by America Saves (which appears to be a marketing campaign run by the Consumer Federation of America, which seems not to be evil*). According to the survey, there are significant differences in savings rates and accumulated savings between lower-middle- and middle-income households. And that’s treating all households in the same income bracket as being alike, leaving aside differences in family structure, cost of living, etc.

I’m all for living within your means and saving for retirement and all that. But it’s a myth to say, as America Saves does on its home page, “Once you start saving, it gets easier and easier and before you know it, you’re on your way to making your dreams a reality.” The underlying problems are stagnant real incomes for most people, rising costs (in real terms) for education and health care, increasing financial risk due to the withdrawal of the safety net, and increased longevity (good in some ways, but bad if incomes aren’t rising and you want to retire at 65). That’s why households are showing up at age 64 with less in retirement savings than they had just last decade. And why, if you feel like you’re not saving enough, it’s probably not your fault.

* But America Saves itself is supported by a bunch of financial institutions and trade associations like the Investment Company Institute, which have a vested interest in getting people to entrust more money to them.

Résumé Put Hall of Fame

By James Kwak

Before 2006, people used to talk about the Greenspan put: the idea that, should the going get rough in the markets, Chairman Al would bail everybody out. But there’s something even better than having the Federal Reserve watching your back. It’s the résumé put.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Vikram Pandit, former CEO of Citigroup, is starting a new firm called TGG which will . . . well, it’s not entirely clear. In one email, they claim “a novel approach to address the challenges that large complex organizations face in compliance, fraud, corruption, and culture and reputation.” (That’s the standard marketing tactic of describing what benefits you will provide without mentioning what you actually do.) Now, Pandit certainly has experience in a large, complex organization with compliance, fraud, corruption, culture, and reputation problems. Citigroup checks pretty much every box. But is it experience you would want to pay for?

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$100M for Eric Schmidt?

By James Kwak

Over on Twitter, Matt O’Brien wrote:

That inspired me to take a look at the article O’Brien referred to: a column by Steven Davidoff asking why JPMorgan gets pilloried for giving CEO Jamie Dimon $20 million while Google can give Chairman Eric Schmidt $106 million without incurring the wrath of the public.

I went into it thinking I would agree with O’Brien—that there is something worse about lavish Wall Street pay packages than lavish Silicon Valley pay packages. Part of that was home team bias: I spent most of my business career working for companies based in Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, San Mateo, and Foster City (that’s two companies and five office moves). But I ended up mainly agreeing with Davidoff.

I think O’Brien is right on the narrow question of why people are mad: JPMorgan has done a lot of bad things in recent years, while Google’s role in the world is more ambiguous. But at the end of the day, voting the chairman of the board enough money to buy a Gulfstream 650 and an entourage of 550s is not a good use of shareholder money. And it’s shockingly tone-deaf in this age of rising inequality and cuts to food stamps. That’s the topic of my latest Atlantic column.

Random Variation

By James Kwak

As I previously wrote on this blog, one of my professors at Yale, Ian Ayres, asked his class on empirical law and economics if we could think of any issue on which we had changed our mind because of an empirical study. For most people, it’s hard. We like to think that we form our views based on evidence, but in fact we view the evidence selectively to confirm our preexisting views.

I used to believe that no one could beat the market: in other words, that anyone who did beat the market was solely the beneficiary of random variation (a winner in Burton Malkiel’s coin-tossing tournament). I no longer believe this. I’ve seen too many studies that indicate that the distribution of risk-adjusted returns cannot be explained by dumb luck alone; most of the unexplained outcomes are at the negative end of the distribution, but there are also too many at the positive end. Besides, it makes sense: the idea that markets perfectly incorporate all available information sounds too much like magic to be true.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone who beats the market is actually good at what he does, even if that person gets a $100 million annual bonus. That person would be Andy Hall, the commodities trader who stirred up controversy when he apparently earned a $100 million bonus at Citigroup—in 2008, of all years. (That was a year with huge volatility in the commodities markets.)

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