Category Archives: External perspectives

More on Wasting Shareholders’ Money

By James Kwak

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my most recent “academic” paper, on the issue of whether corporate political contributions might constitute a breach of insiders’ fiduciary duty toward shareholders. The thrust of that paper was that some political contributions could be contested as breaches of the duty of loyalty—for example, if a CEO causes the corporation to give money to a candidate who promises to lower the CEO’s individual income taxes—which would result in the courts applying a higher standard of review.

Joseph Leahy, another law professor, recently directed me to a paper that he wrote last year (but is still being edited for publication in the Missouri Law Review) on basically the same topic. He argues first that corporate political contributions do not qualify as “waste” (which has a precise legal definition), barring the kind of extreme facts that you only see in law school hypotheticals. I agree with that, although my only discussion of the point was in a footnote (79).

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There’s No Substitute for the Government

By James Kwak

Mike Konczal wrote an excellent article for Democracy about the problems with a voluntary safety net and the superiority of government social insurance. The article draws on serious historical research (by other people) to prove two main points: first, there never was a Golden Age of purely voluntary charity; second, and more important, what charitable support mechanisms existed were not up to the challenges of the Second Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century and completely collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are basic economic reasons why public social insurance is superior to voluntary charity. The goal here is to protect people against risk: of unemployment, of health emergency, of outliving one’s savings, and so on. For a risk-mitigation scheme to work, there are a few things that are necessary. One is that people actually be covered. This is something you can never have with a private system (unless it’s regulated to the point of being essentially public), since charities get to pick and choose whom they want to help. As Konczal says of private agencies before the Depression,

“They were also concerned they’d lose their ability to stigmatize—or to protect—various populations; by playing a role in determining who wasn’t deserving of assistance, they could shield those they felt worthy of their support.”

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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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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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The Social Value of Finance

By James Kwak

It’s been more than five years since the peak of the financial crisis, and it seems clear (to me, at least) that not much has changed when it comes to the structure of the financial sector, the existence of too-big-to-fail banks, and the types of activities that they engage in. It’s also clear that the Dodd-Frank Act and its ensuing rulemakings have embodied a technocratic perspective according to which important decisions should be left to experts and made on the grounds of economic efficiency. Even the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Dodd-Frank achievement most beloved of reformers, is essentially dedicated to correcting market failures, which means attempting to achieve the outcomes that would be generated by a perfect market.

The big question is why we went down this route. The traditional explanation, and one that I’ve tended to assume in the past, is that it was a question of political power. Wall Street banks and their lawyers simply want less regulation of their industry, and they feel more comfortable granting actual rulemaking power to regulatory agencies that they feel confident they can dominate through the usual mix of congressional pressure, lobbying, and the revolving door. Given that the Obama administration also wanted to avoid structural reforms and preferred to rely on supposedly expert regulators, the outcome was foreordained.

In a recent (draft) paper, Sabeel Rahman puts forward a different, though not necessarily incompatible explanation. He draws a contrast between a managerial approach to financial regulation, which relies on supposedly depoliticized, expert regulators, and a structural approach, which imposes hard constraints on financial firms. Examples of the latter include the size caps that Simon and I argued for in 13 Bankers and the strict ban on proprietary trading that has been repeatedly watered down in what is now the Volcker Rule.

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“All You Need for a Financial Crisis . . .

By James Kwak

. . . are excess optimism and Citibank.”

That’s a saying that someone, probably Simon, repeated to me a few years ago. Crash of 1929, Latin American debt crisis, early 1990s real estate crash (OK, that wasn’t a financial crisis, just a crisis for Citibank), Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998, and, of course, the biggie of 2007–2009: anywhere you look, there’s Citi. Sometimes they’re just in the middle of the profit-seeking pack, but sometimes they play a leading role: for example, the Citicorp-Travelers merger was the final nail in the coffin of the Glass-Steagall Act and the immediate motivation for Gramm-Leach-Bliley.

Citigroup is also the poster child for one of the key problems with our megabanks: the fact that they are too big to manage and, on top of that, the usual mechanisms that are supposed to ensure half-decent management don’t work. Around 2009, if you were to describe the leading characters in the TBTF parade, they were JPMorgan, the last man standing (not so much anymore); Goldman, the sharks who bet on the collapse; Bank of America, the ego-driven empire-builder; and Citi, the incompetent (“I’m still dancing”) fools.

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The Wall Street Takeover, Part 2

By James Kwak

Five years later, and things seem marginally better in some areas (the CFPB exists), significantly worse in others (LIBOR, money laundering, London Whale, etc.). There has been some debate recently about whether we have a safer financial system today than before Lehman collapsed. But the fundamental issue, as Simon and I discussed in 13 Bankers, is whether our political system will put the interests of society at large ahead of the interests of large financial institutions. On that score, there is little to be encouraged about.

In 2002, Art Wilmarth wrote a mammoth (262 pages) article titled “The Transformation of the U.S. Financial Services Industry, 1975–2000.” In that article, he identified many of the key trends in the financial sector—consolidation, deregulation, breakdown of Glass-Steagall, complex products, increased risk-taking—that would not only produce a financial crisis but make it so destabilizing for the economy later in the decade. Now he has written a shorter (164 pages) article, “Turning a Blind Eye: Why Washington Keeps Giving into Wall Street,” on the key question: why our government doesn’t do anything about it, even after the financial crisis.

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The Costs of “Good” Economics

By James Kwak

If there is a central argument to 13 Bankers, it is that politics matters. The financial crisis was the result of a long-term transformation of the financial sector and its place in the overall economy, and that transformation occurred because of—and contributed to—a shift in the political balance of power.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of Why Nations Fail, take up this theme on a much broader scale in their recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Economics Versus Politics: Pitfalls of Policy Advice,” burnishing their reputations as two of the most subversive thinkers around. People have always known that economics and politics are related: that economic power produces political power and that political institutions constrain economic policy choices. Still, however, at least for the past several decades, the universal assumption has been that good economic policy is always good policy, full stop: for example, that it is always good to eliminate market failures.

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New Research in Financial Regulation

By James Kwak

Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of interesting research being done in the area of financial institutions, systemic risk, and regulatory reform. Last week I had the pleasure of attending a workshop for junior law professors held by the Insurance Law Center of the UConn Law School, where I am a professor. The workshop featured a long list of provocative and weighty papers at various stages of completion. Here I just want to point out a few that are fully drafted and available on SSRN.

Robert Weber presented what should be the canonical paper on stress testing as applied to financial institutions, which has been going on for a while but became front-page news in 2009, during the financial crisis. He traces the history of stress testing back to its engineering roots in Renaissance Italy with, perhaps unsurprisingly, Leonardo da Vinci. Weber is critical of box-checking stress testing, but argues that stress testing  can be useful as a way of encouraging or inducing bank executives and risk managers to more closely investigate their assumptions and beliefs and ultimately create a “morality of quantitative skepticism.”

Gallons of ink have been spilled over the Orderly Resolution Authority established in Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act, generally over whether and how it would be used in a crisis. In 13 Bankers, Simon and I expressed skepticism that it would be used, for practical and political reasons. Joshua Mitts’s paper takes the novel approach of looking at how OLA affects managerial incentives in the pre-crisis period, arguing that it encourages bank executives to design their firms in such a way as to maximize the chance of a taxpayer bailout. This would lead them to increase their exposure to other large financial institutions and to increase the correlation of their asset portfolios with those of other large firms.

Mehrsa Baradaran takes a historical view in her paper, which is about the social contract between banks and society as expressed through banking regulation. She begins with the Hamilton-Jefferson debates over banks (which is also where we began 13 Bankers) and covers the history of banking regulation (or non-regulation) up to the 1930s, which represented the most thorough codification of the social contract: the government needs banks, but banks also need the government. The past few decades, however, have seen an erosion of this social contract, giving banks the benefits of government sponsorship and support without the obligations necessary to ensure that they serve societal ends. Baradaran argues that banking regulation should incorporate a robust public benefit test to ensure that banks are in fact helping households, the economy, and society at large.

There are other interesting papers that are sure to come out of this workshop. One small side benefit of the financial crisis has certainly been the increased attention to the financial sector and the risks it presents to the rest of us.

“Gut Instinct Doesn’t Matter”

By James Kwak

I’m no fan of the genre of CEO interviews published in the Sunday Times. But this past Sunday’s CEO-of-the-week column featured Marcus Ryu, a good friend and someone I’ve worked with at three different companies.

Marcus is not only very smart and someone who really knows what it’s like to build a company from the ground up, but he’s also someone who has thought very hard about what it takes to succeed as a company and what a company needs in its CEO. Unlike many CEOs, he doesn’t believe in gut instinct or the magical ability to judge character. He believes that success in business is hard and, as I’ve heard him say many times, there never is a day when suddenly everything becomes easy. If you are or want to be a CEO someday, I recommend it.

Michael Lewis!

By James Kwak

On the title page of my copy of The Big Short, in black ink, it says:

“For James Kwak

With admiration”

And then a scrawl that I take to be Michael Lewis’s signature. (Christopher Lydon got the book signed for me, since Lewis was on his radio show a few days before I was.) It may be the only book I’ve ever bothered to get autographed.

So I was especially happy to read that Lewis also wants to break up the big banks (hat tip Ezra Klein):

“Along with the other too-big-to-fail firms, Goldman needs to be busted up into smaller pieces. The ultimate goal should be to create institutions so dull and easy to understand that, when a young man who works for one of them walks into a publisher’s office and offers to write up his experiences, the publisher looks at him blankly and asks, ‘Why would anyone want to read that?’”

When Simon and I made that the centerpiece of the last chapter of 13 Bankers, I thought our chances were slim. When we wrote, in the epilogue to the paperback edition, that a proposal to do exactly that had been voted down, 61 to 33, in the Senate, I thought they had changed from slim to none. It’s still a long shot, but the issue hasn’t died, and if anything is getting more attention now, what with people like George Osborne threatening to break up banks if they don’t reform themselves. Perhaps it isn’t impossible.

Another Perspective on Bad Software

By James Kwak

Last summer, Lawrence Baxter wrote these two posts about the toxic combination of bad software—actually, software in general, since no software system is perfect—and too-big-to-fail banks. Baxter knows whereof he speaks, as he was previously a technology executive at a very large bank. Here’s what he has to say about it:

I don’t care what a CIO or even a CEO might say:  if they claim that they can eliminate the real risk of such missteps, they just don’t know what they are talking about no matter how good they are.  And if such missteps are inevitable, then we simply cannot avoid the question whether the dangers posed by large, complex financial institutions and systems could outweigh their benefits.

Think about that the next time you hear some CEO talking about his company’s state-of-the-art technology.

 

Be Happy, Eat Fruits and Vegetables

By James Kwak

From the treasure trove that is the NBER working paper series, a friend forwarded me “Is Psychological Well-Being Linked to the Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables?” by David Blanchflower, Andrew Oswald, and Sarah Stewart-Brown (NBER subscription required). It got some media attention last month when the paper first came out, but I wanted to read it because, well, I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables: I generally aim for seven servings a day, although when life is busy it can be as low as three or four. (Right now I’m munching on dried mango slices.)

The core of the paper is a bunch of regressions that show that better psychological well-being (which is all the rage these days) is correlated with eating more fruits and vegetables, with benefits up to at least five servings and in some cases up to eight servings. This isn’t particularly surprising on its face, since eating fruits and vegetables is probably correlated with having a high income, exercising, being fit, cooking, and any number of other things that are conducive to happiness.

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The Effects of Golden Parachutes

By James Kwak

The indefatigable Lucian Bebchuk has written another empirical paper (Dealbook summary), this time with Alma Cohen and Charles Wang, on the impact of golden parachutes (agreements that pay off CEOs generously in case of acquisition by another company) on shareholder value.

Looking just at the question of whether a company is acquired and for how much, they find out that golden parachutes work about how you would expect. Companies whose CEOs have golden parachutes are more likely to get acquisition offers and are more likely to be acquired, presumably because their CEOs are les likely to contest takeovers. On the other hand, these companies tend to sell for lower acquisition premiums, again because their CEOs are more likely to be happy to be bought out.

“So far, so good,” Bebchuk writes. But the problem is that when you take a longer view, golden parachutes appear to be bad for shareholder value. Companies that adopt golden parachutes have lower risk-adjusted stock returns than their peers—despite the fact that they are more likely to be acquired. Some other factor is outweighing the positive effect (for the stock price) of more frequent takeovers.

Bebchuk proposes one explanation: Golden parachutes make being acquired relatively painless to CEOs. Therefore, they are less afraid of being acquired; and, therefore, they are less concerned about maximizing shareholder value in the first place.

Here’s another possibility: Companies are more likely to grant golden parachutes to their CEOs if they have: (a) CEOs who care more about maximizing their personal wealth than about their companies; (b) boards who are more concerned about doing favors for the CEO than about doing what’s right for the company; or (c) both. Those are not the kinds of companies you want to be investing in, since they’re likely to screw up all sorts of other things in addition to their executive compensation policies.

Revolving Doors Matter

By James Kwak

It is common fare for people like me to point disapprovingly to the revolving door between business and government, which ensures that every Treasury Department is well stocked with representatives of Goldman Sachs. In 13 Bankers, the revolving door was one of the three major channels through which the financial sector influenced government policy, alongside campaign contributions and the ideology of finance. The counterargument comes in various forms: people like Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson are dedicated civil servants who wouldn’t favor their firms or their industries, the government needs people with appropriate industry experience, etc.

It is certainly possible that industry experts provide valuable skills and experience to the government. But that value comes with a cost; put another way, it’s not just the public good that benefits. Using data on Defense Department appointments, Simon Luechinger and Christoph Moser (paper; Vox summary) measured the impact of political appointments on the stock market valuation of appointees’ former firms; they also measured the impact on firms’ stock market valuations of hiring a former government official. In both cases, the stock market reacted positively to new turns of the revolving door. Here’s the chart for political appointments:

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