Category Archives: External perspectives

Luck, Wealth, and Richard Posner

By James Kwak

I disagree with Richard Posner—the old Richard Posner behind the law and economics movement—on so many things that I always worry when he seems to agree with me. Did I do write something stupid? I wonder.

A friend forwarded me Posner’s latest blog post, “Luck, Wealth, and Implications for Policy,” parts of which sound vaguely like a post I wrote three years ago, “Do Smart, Hard-Working People Deserve To Make More Money?“* In that post, I argued that even if differences in incomes are due to things that people ordinarily think of as “merit,” like intelligence and hard work, that doesn’t mean that rich people have a moral entitlement to their wealth, because they didn’t do anything to deserve their intelligence or their propensity to work hard. In summary, “I have little patience for the idea that rich people deserve what they have because they worked for it. It’s just a question of how far back you are willing to acknowledge that chance enters the equation.”

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Why Taxes Should Pay for Health Care

By James Kwak

William Baumol and some co-authors recently published a new book on what is widely known as “Baumol’s cost disease.” This is something that Simon wanted to include in White House Burning, but I couldn’t find a good way to fit it in (and it would have gone in one of the chapter’s I was writing), so I it isn’t in there. (Baumol is cited for something else.) But in retrospect, I should have put it in.

Baumol’s argument, somewhat simplified, goes like this: Over time, average productivity in the economy rises. In some industries, automation and technology make productivity rise rapidly, producing higher real wages (because a single person can make a lot more stuff). But by definition, there most be some industries where productivity rises more slowly than the average. The classic example has been live classical music: it takes exactly as many person-hours to play a Mozart quartet today as it did two hundred years ago. You might be able to make a counterargument about the impact of recorded music, but the general point still holds. One widely cited example is education, where class sizes have stayed roughly constant for decades (and many educators think they should be smaller, not larger). Another is health care, where technology has vastly increased the number of possible treatments, but there is no getting around the need for in-person doctors and nurses.

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File Under Fascinating

By James Kwak

A reader pointed me to “Instability and Concentration in the Distribution of Wealth,” a paper by Ricardo and Robert Fernholz (Vox summary here). It’s a pretty mathematical paper (and I’m not just talking about the usual multivariate regression here), and I didn’t make it through all the equations. But the basic idea is to come up with a model that might explain the high degree of income and wealth inequality we see in advanced economies and particularly in the United States, where 1 percent of the population holds 33 percent of all wealth.

What’s fascinating is that the model assumes that all households are identical with respect to patience (consumption decisions) and skill (earnings ability). Household outcomes differ solely because they have idiosyncratic investment opportunities—that is, they can’t invest in the market, only in things like privately-held businesses or unique pieces of real estate. Yet when you simulate the model, you see an increasing share of wealth finding its way into fewer and fewer hands:

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Does Disclosure Help?

By James Kwak

Following up on yesterday’s column about corporate spending, I saw that John Coates (Harvard Law School) and Taylor Lincoln (Public Citizen) have published a study of the relationship between voluntary disclosure of political spending and company value (summary here). In short, after applying a bunch of controls, they find that companies with voluntary disclosure policies have price-to-book values that are 7.5 percent higher than companies that don’t.

Citing earlier research, they also say, “among the S&P 500 – which accounts for 75 percent of the market capitalization of publicly traded companies in the U.S. – firms active in politics, whether through company-controlled political action committees, registered lobbying, or both, had lower price/book ratios than industry peers that were not politically active.”

Of course, the causality could run either way, and Coates and Lincoln are not claiming that voluntary disclosure in itself makes a company more valuable. Disclosure policies make it less likely the CEO will blow company money on her pet political projects, and so it stands to reason that companies that are better governed in general—and hence more valuable—are more likely to have such policies. But it certainly implies that disclosure policies are not going to bankrupt the Great American Corporation.

Are Subsidized Student Loans Worth the Price?

By James Kwak

Previous guest blogger Anastasia Wilson has written a post on her own blog comparing the student loan racket (for-profit colleges help people take out lots of federally guaranteed student loans to pay for their tuition, then do a lousy job educating them, walking away with the money and leaving students to default) to the subprime loan racket. The flagbearer for this parallel is Steve Eisman, who has gone from shorting subprime mortgages to now shorting for-profit colleges.

In theory, for-profit colleges should not be able to do this. If too many of their former students go into default, the Department of Education is supposed to prevent their new students from taking out federally subsidized loans. (Since the government is ultimately underwriting these loans, it should have the power to make sure that the loans are being used to buy an education that will help borrowers pay back those loans.) But colleges have so far been able to get around the rules by pushing defaults outside the time period that matters for regulatory purposes, as described by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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And in This Corner . . .

By James Kwak

Over in the less-prestigious and less-well-paid online section of the Times, Bruce Bartlett has a good column on the comparative tax burden across advanced economies. He makes the point that one reason European taxes look higher is that we provide subsidies through the tax code while they do it through spending programs like family allowances — another example of how aggregate statistics are distorted by calling something a “tax credit” as opposed to “spending.” His other main point is that the main substantive reason why we pay lower taxes is that we pay for less of our health care spending through the government — and that isn’t working out so well for us.

Renting and Buying Compared

By James Kwak

Loyal readers already know what I think of housing as an investment. The main issue, in my mind, is that it’s extremely risky as an investment: not only are most middle-class families putting more than their total net worth in a single asset class (and one with low average real returns compared to the stock market), but they are putting it into a single asset, which violates the most fundamental principle of investing.

That said, on a pure expectation basis (not considering risk), buying is probably better than renting. It’s not as simple as saying that “renting is throwing money away while paying a mortgage is building equity” because (a) homeowners usually pay more cash than renters on an ongoing basis (mortgage, homeowner’s insurance, maintenance, etc.) and (b) you have to consider the returns you could get by investing your capital (down payment and principal payments) in another asset class. But the tax deduction for mortgage interest probably tilts the scale toward buying.

So if you’re thinking about buying or renting, I recommend that you read “The Effectiveness of Homeownership in Building Household Wealth” by Jordan Rappaport, an economist at the Kansas City Fed (hat tip David Leonhardt). The most valuable part of the paper is that it clearly outlines the financial tradeoffs between owning and renting. Rappaport creates a model that estimates the cash flows from buying a house and selling it ten years later and renting for ten years, assuming that you invest all the money you save by renting. He then looks at historical ten-year periods beginning from the 1970s through the 1990s to see which strategy would have been preferable.

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The Myth of the Natural Economy

By James Kwak

“The general equilibirum view tends to lend support to those who want to make the economy more efficient in the sense of having fewer ‘distortions’—you know, all of these neutral economic words—from taxes, from labor unions, from minimum wages, and so on. Now, what has happened in the last thirty years—and this is what Hacker and Pearson note in their book [Winner-Take-All Politics]—is we have gotten ourselves into a feedback situation. As people have gotten richer, conservative people have funded organizations which generate economic research promoting their political views.”

That’s from an excellent interview with economic historian Peter Temin in The Straddler. Temin’s main point is that what he calls general equilibrium approaches to macroeconomics have a political agenda, but they hide that agenda behind an ideology of naturalness. The “natural,” perfectly clearing, perfectly efficient economy, of course, has never existed and can never exist, but it is used to justify certain political prescriptions.

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$3 Billion Banks

By James Kwak

Jon Macey is no friend of regulation. In 1994, he wrote a paper titled “Administrative Agency Obsolescence and Interest Group Formation: A Case Study of the SEC at Sixty” arguing, in no uncertain terms, that the SEC was obsolete: “the market forces and exogenous technological changes catalogued in this Article* have obviated any public interest justification for the SEC that may have existed” (p. 949). This diagnosis was not confined to the SEC, either.

“The behavior of regulators in [the financial services] industry is due to exogenous economic pressures that, left alone, would result both in major changes in the structure of the financial services industry and in the need for regulation. However, these economic pressures threaten the interests of bureaucrats in administrative agencies and other interest groups by causing a diminution in demand for their services and products. In response to these threats, pressure is brought to bear for ‘reforms’ that will eliminate the ‘disruption’ caused by these market forces.

“The net result of this dynamic is as clear as it is depressing. One observes continued government intervention in the financial markets long after the need for such intervention has ceased. Such intervention stifles the incentives of entrepreneurs to devote the resources and human capital necessary to develop new financial products and to de- velop strategies that assist the capital formation process by helping markets operate more efficiently.”

So what does Jon Macey think of big banks?

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“It’s All Relative”

By James Kwak

I finally saw Inside Job at a friend’s house tonight. I don’t have anything original to say about it. I thought it was a very, very good movie. There were lots of little things that weren’t quite right (many of which were probably conscious decisions to simplify details for the sake of comprehension), but I don’t think any of them were substantively misleading. I wouldn’t have made some emphases or drawn some connections that Ferguson did. For example, the parallel between the rise of finance and the decline of manufacturing at the end felt a little shallow to me, not because they’re not related, but because the causality could run down any number of paths. But everyone would tell the story a little differently. Overall I thought it was both a relatively accurate narrative of what happened and a compelling explanation of why it happened.

My favorite scene was when the interviewer (Ferguson, I assume) asked Scott Talbott, the chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, about the “very high” compensation in the financial sector. Talbott said something like (I may not have the words quite right), “I wouldn’t agree with ‘very high.’ It’s all relative.”

Made-Up Definitions

By James Kwak

Many commentators who want to blame Fannie and Freddie for the financial crisis base their arguments on analysis done by Edward Pinto. (Peter Wallison bases some of his dissent from the FCIC report on Pinto; even Raghuram Rajan cites Pinto on this point.) According to Pinto’s numbers, about half of all mortgages in the U.S. were “subprime” or “high risk,” and about two-thirds of those were owned by Fannie or Freddie. Last year I pointed out that Pinto’s definition of “subprime” was one he made up himself and that most of the “subprime” loans held by Fannie/Freddie were really prime loans to borrowers with low FICO scores. Unfortunately, I made that point in an update to a post on the somewhat obscure 13 Bankers blog that was mainly explaining what went wrong with a footnote in that book.

Fortunately, there’s a much more comprehensive treatment of the issue by David Min. One issue I was agnostic about was whether prime loans to people with low (<660) FICO scores should have been called “subprime,” following Pinto, or not, following the common definition. Min shows (p. 8) that prime loans to <660 borrowers had a delinquency rate of 10 percent, compared to 7 percent for conforming loans and 28 percent for subprime loans, implying that calling them the moral equivalent of subprime is a bit of a stretch. Min also shows that most of the Fannie/Freddie loans that Pinto classifies as subprime or high-risk didn’t meet the Fannie/Freddie affordable housing goals anyway — so to the extent that Fannie/Freddie were investing in riskier mortgages, it was because of the profit motive, not because of the affordable housing mandate imposed by the government.

Min also analyzes Pinto’s claim that the Community Reinvestment Act led to 2.2 million risky mortgages and points out that, as with “subprime” loans, this number includes loans made by institutions that were not subject to the CRA in the first place. Of course, the CRA claim is ridiculous on its face (compared to the Fannie/Freddie claim, which I would say is not ridiculous on its face) for a number of reasons, including the facts that only banks are subject to the CRA (not nonbank mortgages originators) and most risky loans were made in middle-income areas where the CRA is essentially irrelevant.

Mainly, though, I’m just glad that someone has dug into this in more detail than I did.

The Moderate Republican Stimulus

By James Kwak

One of the great things about the Internet, as opposed to, say, law school, is that other smart people will do my homework for me. Last week I said that Obama’s position on the tax cuts was a “moderate-Republican line in the sand” and that the tax deal was closer to the Republicans’ ideal outcome than the Democrats’, but the latter argument was based on some guesses about Republican preferences. Now Mike Konczal has done some of the harder argument, uncovering hard evidence that the Republicans would have agreed to the extended child tax credit sweetener anyway and presenting five points for the argument that the Republicans wanted payroll tax cuts – in particular, they wanted them more than Making Work Pay tax credit that they replaced.

Here’s Mike’s version of the administration’s chart:

He calls it the “Moderate Republican Stimulus Package 2.0.”

This American DREAM

By James Kwak

Brad DeLong reminded me that the DREAM Act is being considered by Congress right now and has an outside chance of passage. If you are a Senator on the fence about this issue, or you work for one, you should listen to the last segment of this This American Life episode, starting about forty-six minutes in. It will break your heart.

Oh, and given that opposition has been basically along party lines: aren’t the people who would qualify for citizenship under the act natural Republican voters, anyway? Basically the act would reward people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, without the benefit of federal aid. Or is that no longer what the Republican Party is about?

Good Economics

By James Kwak

On my way to and from New Haven, I listen to podcasts, including a lot of TED Talks. Today I listened to a talk by Esther Duflo, the recent winner of the Clark Medal (top economist under forty), from earlier this year. The topic was using randomized experiments to test alternative social policies and determine what measures of fighting poverty are more effective than others. It was probably the best and most inspiring economics talk I’ve heard in a long time.

The Best Thing I Have Read on SEC-Goldman (So Far)

By James Kwak

Actually, two things, both by Steve Randy Waldman.

Part of Goldman’s defense is that it was in the nature of CDOs for there to be a long side and a short side, and the investors on the long side (the ones who bought the bonds issued by the CDO) must have known that there was a short side, and hence there was no need to disclose Paulson’s involvement. Waldman completely dismantles this argument, starting with a point so simple that most of us missed it: a CDO is just a way of repackaging other bonds (residential mortgage-backed securities, in this sense), so it doesn’t necessarily have a short investor any more than a simple corporate bond or a share of stock does. Since a synthetic CDO by construction mimics the characteristics of a non-synthetic CDO, the same thing holds. (While the credit default swaps that go into constructing the synthetic CDO have long and short sides, the CDO itself doesn’t have to.) Here’s the conclusion:

“Investors in Goldman’s deal reasonably thought that they were buying a portfolio that had been carefully selected by a reputable manager whose sole interest lay in optimizing the performance of the CDO. They no more thought they were trading ‘against’ short investors than investors in IBM or Treasury bonds do. In violation of these reasonable expectations, Goldman arranged that a party whose interests were diametrically opposed to those of investors would have significant influence over the selection of the portfolio. Goldman misrepresented that party’s role to the manager and failed to disclose the conflict of interest to investors.”

Waldman follows this up with an analysis of the premium that Goldman extracted from the buy-side investors and transferred to Paulson (in exchange for its own fee). The point here is that Goldman could have simply put Paulson and the buy-side investors together and had Paulson buy CDS on RMBS directly — but that would have affected the price of the deal, because Paulson wanted to take a big short position. So instead, they created the CDO (a new entity) and then drummed up buyers for it, in order to avoid moving the market against Paulson. The advantage of thinking about it this way is it shows what the function of a market maker is and how that differs from the role Goldman played in this transaction.

The posts are long, so sit back and enjoy.

Update: Nemo points out that I misinterpreted Waldman’s post, and Nemo is right, although I think I got the substance of Waldman’s point right. Here is what Waldman says:

“There is always a payer and a payee, and the payee is ‘long’ certain states of the world while the payer is short. When you buy a share of IBM, you are long IBM and the firm itself has a short position. Does that mean, when you purchase IBM, you are taking sides in a disagreement with IBM, with IBM betting that it will collapse and never pay a dividend while you bet it will succeed and be forced to pay? No, of course not. There are many, many occasions when the interests of long investors and the interests of short investors are fully aligned. When IBM issues new shares, all of its stakeholders — preexisting shareholders, managers, employees — hope that IBM will succeed, and may have no disagreement whatsoever on its prospects. . . . The existence of a long side and a short side need imply no disagreement whatsoever.”

So I was clearly wrong when I said, “a CDO is just a way of repackaging other bonds (residential mortgage-backed securities, in this sense), so it doesn’t necessarily have a short investor any more than a simple corporate bond or a share of stock does.”

But — and I don’t think I’m engaging in sophistry here — Waldman’s underlying point is that even though there is a short position, that doesn’t mean that the long and short investors have diametrically opposed interests. That’s true of stocks, and it’s also true of CDOs. And so it’s disingenuous of Goldman to imply that buyers of any CDO always know that there is someone who is actively betting on it to go down in value.