Tag Archives: finance

Larry Summers and Finance

By James Kwak

I think some people didn’t understand the point I was making about the question of whether the government made money on TARP in my earlier post. Summers said, “The government got back substantially more money than it invested.” This is true, at least if you give him some slack on the word “substantially.” The money repaid, including interest on preferred stock and sales of common stock, exceeded the money invested.

My point begins with the observation that, as of late last year, the government had earned an annual return of less than 0.5%. My point itself is that it is silly to evaluate an investment by whether or not it has a positive return in nominal terms. You can only meaningfully evaluate an investment by comparing it to some benchmark. Saying that a nominal return of 0.5% is greater than 0% is meaningless, since the 0% benchmark is meaningless. Most obviously, it doesn’t account for inflation; since inflation has been about 1–2%, the government lost money in real terms.

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Retirement Accounts for Everyone

By James Kwak

The Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that create a publicly administered retirement plan that would be open to anyone who works at a company with more than five employees. Employees would, by default, be enrolled in the plan (at a contribution rate to be determined), but could choose to opt out. The money would be pooled in a trust, but each participant would have an individual account in that trust, and the rate of return on that account would be specified each December for the following year. Upon retirement, the account balance would by default be converted into an inflation-indexed annuity, although participants could request a lump-sum deferral.

The legislative session ends in less than two weeks, and while the bill has passed through committees, I believe it’s not certain whether it will be put to a floor vote. On Friday I wrote on op-ed for The Connecticut Mirror about the bill.

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The Cost of (Equity) Capital

By James Kwak

For years, the world’s largest banks have been up in arms over threats by regulators to increase their (equity) capital requirements. Making banks hold more capital, they argue, will force them to reduce lending and will increase their cost of funding, making credit more expensive throughout the economy. One of the chief defenders of the megabanks has been Josef Ackermann, CEO of Deutsche Bank until last year and also chair of the Institute of International Finance, which claimed that higher capital requirements would reduce economic output by a whopping 3.2 percent.

Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig have been tirelessly debunking the myth that higher capital levels will force banks to curtail lending and torpedo the global economy, most recently in their excellent new book, The Banker’s New Clothes. Some of the arguments against higher capital requirements are simply incoherent, like the idea that banks would be forced to set aside capital instead of lending it. (Capital is the difference between assets and liabilities, not cash that you put somewhere for safekeeping; were it not for reserve requirements, which are something else, a bank could lend out 100 percent of the money it can raise.) 

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Why Is Finance So Big?

By James Kwak

This is a chart from “The Quiet Coup,” an article that we wrote for The Atlantic three years ago next month. Many people have noted that the financial sector has been getting bigger over the past thirty years, whether you look at its share of GDP or of profits.

The common defense of the financial sector is that this is a good thing: if finance is becoming a larger part of the economy, that’s because the rest of the economy is demanding financial services, and hence growth in finance helps overall economic growth. But is that true?

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Finance and the Housing Bubble

By James Kwak

Adam Levitin and Susan Wachter have written an excellent paper on the housing bubble with the somewhat immodest title, “Explaining the Housing Bubble” (which has been sitting in my inbox for a month). My main complaint with it is that it’s eighty-one pages long (single-spaced), which is most likely a function of law review traditions; had it been written for economics journals, it could have been one-third the length. I also have some quibbles with the seemingly obligatory paean to the importance of homeownership, which I think is an assumption that deserves to be contested. But overall it presents both a readable overview of the history and the issues, and a core argument I have a lot of sympathy for.

The argument is that the motive force behind the credit bubble was an oversupply of housing finance—in other words, the big, bad, banking industry. Levitin and Wachter’s key evidence is that the price of residential mortgage debt was falling in 2004-06 even as the volume of such debt was rising. As Brad DeLong’s parrot would say, that can only happen if the supply curve is shifting outward, not if the demand curve is shifting outward (which is what would happen if it were all the fault of greedy borrowers who wanted to flip houses).

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Calvin Trillin’s Theory

According to Calvin Trillin (or, more accurately, the probably-at-least-semi-fictional interlocutor he meets at a bar in Midtown), the financial crisis was caused by smart people going to work on Wall Street. In the old days, the story goes, it was the lower third of the class that went to Wall Street, and “by the standards that came later, they weren’t really greedy. They just wanted a nice house in Greenwich and maybe a sailboat. A lot of them were from families that had always been on Wall Street, so they were accustomed to nice houses in Greenwich. They didn’t feel the need to leverage the entire business so they could make the sort of money that easily supports the second oceangoing yacht.”

Then, however, as college debts and Wall Street pay grew in tandem, the smart kids started going to Wall Street to make the money, leading to derivatives and securitization, until finally: “When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class! Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was.”

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How Much Does the Financial Sector Cost?

Benjamin Friedman, in the Financial Times (hat tip Yves Smith), questions the high cost (read: compensation) of our financial sector. But he does not simply say that huge bonuses for bankers are unfair. Instead, he says that the costs of financial services need to be balanced against their benefits.

The discussion of the costs associated with our financial system has mostly focused on the paper value of its recent mistakes and what taxpayers have had to put up to supply first aid. The estimated $4,000bn of losses in US mortgage-related securities are just the surface of the story. Beneath those losses are real economic costs due to wasted resources: mortgage mis-pricing led the US to build far too many houses. Similar pricing errors in the telecoms bubble a decade ago led to millions of miles of unused fibre-optic cable being laid.

The misused resources and the output foregone due to the recession are still part of the calculation of how (in)efficient our financial system is. What has somehow escaped attention is the cost of running the system.

In particular, Friedman wonders at the relationship between the value provided by financial services and the opportunity cost involved: “Perversely, the largest individual returns seem to flow to those whose job is to ensure that microscopically small deviations from observable regularities in asset price relationships persist for only one millisecond instead of three. These talented and energetic young citizens could surely be doing something more useful.”

This reminds me of something Felix Salmon wrote about a while back: If profits and compensation in the financial sector go up and keep going up, that’s a priori evidence of inefficiency, not efficiency. Those higher profits mean that customers are paying more for their financial services over time, not less, which means that financial services are imposing a larger and larger tax on the economy. Now, it is possible that they are also increasing in value fast enough to cover the tax, but that is something to be proven.

By James Kwak