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. 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
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.
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?
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.
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.)
By James Kwak
That’s what Jesse Litvak’s lawyer said at the start of his trial earlier today. And technically speaking, it’s true. If you’re trying to sell a bond to a client, and during the course of the conversation you say you can bench press 250 pounds when you can only bench 150, that’s not a federal crime. But if you lie about a material aspect of the bond and the client relies on your lie in buying the bond, that’s another story.
Litvak’s case is (barely) in the news because it has a financial crisis connection; some of the buy-side clients he is alleged to have defrauded were investment funds financed by the infamous Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) set up in 2009 using TARP money, and hence one of the counts against Litvak is TARP-related fraud. But it bears on a much more widespread, and much more important feature of over-the-counter (OTC) securities markets.
By James Kwak
Nicholas Kristof’s ill-conceived diatribe against the supposed self-marginalization of academics has come in for a fair amount of criticism, notably from Corey Robin. The most obvious problem with Kristof’s
argument assertion is that anywhere you look in the policy sphere, you can’t help stumbling over academics left and right. Macroeconomics is an obvious one, but there many others. Take education, for example, where anyone pushing for any conceivable policy change can wave a fistful of academic papers in your face.
It’s easy to multiply examples of academics doing policy work or even occupying policy positions. The bigger question, and the less obvious problem with Kristof’s opinion, is whether more of us would do any good for the world.