Category Archives: Commentary

Larry Summers Should Keep His Mouth Shut

By James Kwak

Larry Summers is well on his way to rehabilitating his public image as a brilliant intellectual, moving on from his checkered record as president of Harvard University and as President Obama’s chief economic adviser during the first years of the administration. Unfortunately, he can’t resist taking on his critics—and he can’t do it without letting his debating instincts take over.

I was reading his review of House of Debt by Mian and Sufi. Everything seemed reasonable until I got to this passage justifying the steps taken to bail out the financial system:

“The government got back substantially more money than it invested. All of the senior executives who created these big messes were out of their jobs within a year. And stockholders lost 90 per cent or more of their investments in all the institutions that required special treatment by the government.”

I have no doubt that every word in this passage is true in some meaninglessly narrow sense or other. But on the whole it is simply false.

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Worse Than We Even Imagined

By James Kwak

I’m giving a talk at the UConn Law School reunions tomorrow, and one of my closing points is about the plethora of banking crimes/scandals/whoopsies that we’ve seen in the past few years—even those having nothing to do with the financial crisis. This is the slide I created to illustrate the point:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 3.01.01 PM

 

I know I’m forgetting a few, but I figured that was enough. It does really take your breath away.

Czars, Kings, and Presidents

By James Kwak

Over the years, Tim Geithner has come in for a lot of well-deserved criticism: for putting banks before homeowners, for lobbying for Citigroup when it wanted to buy Wachovia, for denying even the possibility of taking over failed banks, and so on. The release of his book, whatever it’s called, has revived these various debates. Geithner is certainly not the man I would want making crucial decisions for our country. But it’s also important to remember that he was only an upper manager. The man who called the shots was his boss: Barack Obama.

That’s the theme of Jesse Eisinger’s column this week. I’m on Eisinger’s email list, and he described the tendency to focus on Tim Geithner—while ignoring the role of the president—as “If only the Tsar knew what the Cossacks are doing!” I wasn’t familiar with the Russian version, but I’ve always been fond of the seventeenth-century French version. In September 2009, for example, Simon and I wrote this about the financial reform debate: 

“During the reign of Louis XIV, when the common people complained of some oppressive government policy, they would say, ‘If only the king knew . . . .’ Occasionally people will make similar statements about Barack Obama, blaming the policies they don’t like on his lieutenants.

“But Barack Obama, like Louis XIV before him, knows exactly what is going on.”

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Why Regulation Goes Astray

By James Kwak

The Harvard Law Review recently published a multi-book review by Adam Levitin, the go-to guy for congressional testimony on toxic mortgages, illegal foreclosures, and homeowner relief (or, rather, the failure of the administration to provide any). It’s a tough genre: Levitin had to write something coherent about six very different books by Bernanke, Bair, Barofsky, Blinder, Connaughton, and Admati and Hellwig, whose sole point of commonality is that they all had something to do with the financial crisis. I don’t agree with all the aspects of his discussions of each individual book, but I think Levitin did a good job using the books as a starting point for a discussion of the incentives problem in financial regulation: the problem that regulators have stronger incentives to favor the industry than to defend the public interest.

HLR asked me to write an online “response,” which in some ways is an even less appetizing prospect—writing something interesting about something someone else (whom I generally agree with) wrote about six other things by different people. On the other hand, they only wanted 2,000 words, so I said yes.

My response focuses on a separate reason that regulation can be captured by industry: ideology. This is something that Levitin does discuss in the body of his article, but I think is not directly addressed by his proposed solutions. If you want to read more, you can download it from SSRN or read it at the HLR site.

Connecticut Public Retirement Plan Passes, More or Less

By James Kwak

A couple of weeks go I wrote an op-ed about a proposal in Connecticut to create a new tax-preferred retirement plan that would, by default, include almost all workers who don’t currently have access to an employment-based plan (like a 401(k)). That proposal took some major steps forward when it was included in an end-of-session bill that was passed by the Connecticut legislature. As it stands, the bill authorizes a feasibility study and implementation plan for the new retirement option, which must contain a number of features (default enrollment, portability, default annuitization at retirement, a guaranteed return to be specified at the beginning of each year, etc.).

As I said in the op-ed, this is a decent step forward that will increase the amount of retirement saving by low- and middle-income workers, put those savings in a relatively low-cost, low-risk investment option, and spread some of the benefits of the retirement tax break to those workers (although you do have to pay income tax to benefit from the deduction). One of the claims made by the plan’s opponents is that it cannot be managed for less than the 1 percent of assets mandated by the bill, but that seems laughable to me: the State of Connecticut’s current retirement plans for its employees have administrative costs of 10 basis points, plus investment expense ratios as low as 2 basis points (for index funds from Vanguard). This is a slightly different animal, since the idea is to invest in low-risk securities and buy downside insurance, but still it doesn’t follow that you have to pay more than 1 percent for asset management is.

Connecticut is one of several states, most famously California, that are in the process of implementing these public retirement plans to cover people who are left out by the current “system,” which favors people who work for large companies.   They can solve several of the common problems with 401(k) plans: nonexistence (at many employers), low participation rates, investment risk, pre-retirement withdrawals, lump-sum distributions at retirement, to name a few.

But they can’t solve the underlying problem, which is that many people just don’t make enough for saving 3 percent of their salary each year to make much of a difference. A big constraint is that the Connecticut plan was designed to not cost taxpayers any money: administrative fees will come out of plan balances, and the insurance is there to limit the chance that the state will have to bail out the plan in the future. If we really want to protect people against retirement risk, we need to actually spread risk by making either the funding mechanism or the benefit formula progressive, which means we can’t regard the idea of the untouchable individual account as sacrosanct. (See my recent paper for more on this topic.) That’s what Social Security does, and it’s vastly popular. But in today’s political environment of me me me me me, and so we’re stuck with treating symptoms.

Tax Policy Revisionism

By James Kwak

In an otherwise unobjectionable article about The Piketty, the generally excellent David Leonhardt wrote this sentence: “In the 1950s, the top rate exceeded 90 percent. Today, it is 39.6 percent, and only because President Obama finally won a yearslong battle with Republicans in early 2013 to increase it from 35 percent.”

Is “yearslong” really a word?

But that’s not what I mean to quibble with. It’s that “yearslong battle with Republicans.”

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The “Chicken(expletive) Club”

By James Kwak

Update: See notes in bold below.

The only “Wall Street” “executive” to go to jail for the financial crisis was Kareem Serageldin, the head of a trading desk at Credit Suisse, according to Jesse Eisinger in a recent article. Serageldin pleaded guilty to—get this—holding mortgage-backed securities at artificially high marks in order to minimize reported losses on his trading portfolio.

Now if that’s a crime, there are a lot of other people who are guilty of it. In fact, a major premise of the federal government’s crisis response strategy was exactly that: allowing banks to keep assets at inflated marks in order to pretend they were solvent when they weren’t. FASB changed its rules in April 2009 in order to make it easier for banks to inflate their marks. And the Obama administration’s “homeowner relief program” was designed to allow banks to delay realizing losses on their mortgage loans by dragging out—but generally not preventing—foreclosures. (Remember “foam the runway”?)

Combine Serageldin’s story with the story of the vigorous prosecution of Abacus Federal Savings Bank—a little Chinatown bank that, if anything, was probably allowing its borrowers to underreport their income on loan applications—which Matt Taibbi tells in the first chapter of his latest book, and the picture you get isn’t pretty. It’s a picture of the immense resources of the American criminal justice system being deployed against bit players, with no consequences for the people responsible for the financial crisis. The judge in Serageldin’s case even called his conduct “a small piece of an overall evil climate within the bank and with many other banks.”

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