Why Is Connecticut Giving Its Employees’ Money to the Asset Management Industry?

By James Kwak

In general, the State of Connecticut offers pretty good defined contribution retirement plans to its employees. Most importantly, it offers several low-cost index funds in institutional share classes. For example, you can invest in the Vanguard Institutional Index Fund Institutional Plus Shares, which tracks the S&P 500 for just 2 basis points, or the TIAA-CREF Small-Cap Blend Index Institutional Class, which tracks the Russell 2000 for just 7 basis points. Administrative fees are unbundled, and are only 5 basis points. For no good reason I can discern, however, you can also invest in actively managed stock funds like the JPMorgan Mid Cap Value Fund, which costs 80 basis points.

As I’ve previously said, I have mixed feelings about target date funds. In principle, they do the reallocation and rebalancing for you, so they could be appropriate for people who want to make one choice and then forget about their investments (which, in many ways, is a good strategy). The hitch is that a target date fund is only as good as the funds inside it. Fidelity, for example, puts twenty-five different funds inside one of its target date funds, including thirteen U.S. stock funds, eleven of which appear to be actively managed. This is just a clever way to sneak expensive active management back in through the back door.

The Connecticut retirement plans do have target date funds, but luckily they use Vanguard’s versions, which are made up of index funds and only charge 14–16 bp (as opposed to 77 bp for the Fidelity Freedom 2040 fund) … until now. As of February, the Connecticut defined contribution plans are switching away from Vanguard to something called “GoalMaker,” which takes your money and spreads it out among the various funds offered by the plan—including those expensive, actively managed funds. For example, if you say you have a moderate risk tolerance and want to retire in 2034, it puts your money in fourteen different funds—including six U.S. stock funds, three of which are actively managed.

This is just fake diversification. On one level, it may seem more prudent to have money in both the Vanguard S&P index fund and the Fidelity VIP Contrafund Portfolio (wow, “VIP,” that must be special!). But mutual funds are already diversified—particularly index funds. If you have some reason for thinking that the VIP Contrafund Portfolio will beat the index, then you might choose to invest in it—but, in fact, it’s trailed the S&P 500 over 1, 3, 5, and 10 years.

Most likely, the people who are currently invested in Vanguard target date funds will get shifted into GoalMaker portfolios. They will pay several times as much in fees for basically the same thing, except with a little additional risk due to managers’ attempts to beat the market. It’s hard to see how this makes anyone better off—except the asset managers themselves.

The Right to Have Rights

By James Kwak

There’s a story you hear often these days. The story is that America has too many lawsuits: too many lawyers, too many people filing frivolous suits, too many excessive damages awards by juries, and so on. This story is the reason for all the “litigation reform” in recent decades: the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, the state-level tort reform movement, Bell Atlantic v. TwomblyAshcroft v. Iqbal, and so on.

There are two problems with this story. The first is that it isn’t true. Take medical malpractice, for example—a frequent target of tort reform advocates. Only a tiny fraction—probably under 2%—of people harmed by negligent medical care actually file suit. Of suits that are filed, according to an after-the-fact review by unaffiliated doctors, 63% involved errors by doctors, and another 17% showed some evidence of error. According to the most basic economic theory of torts, we want people harmed by negligence to sue, because otherwise potential defendants (doctors, companies, etc.) will not have sufficient incentive to make the efficient level of investments in preventing injuries. In short, it is highly likely that we suffer from not enough lawsuits, not from too many lawsuits.

The second problem is more important, however. That problem is that while the costs of litigation are real—not just money but also defensive medicine, intimidation of startups by patent trolls, intimidation of the media by billionaires—the exclusive focus on costs overlooks the crucial role of litigation in our democracy. That is the focus of the new book In Praise of Litigation by Alexandra Lahav, a colleague of mine at the University of Connecticut School of Law. (The book is also where I got the statistics in the previous paragraph.)

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Economism and Economics

By James Kwak

One point I try to be clear about in my new book is that economism—the assumption that simple Economics 101 models accurately describe the real world—is not the same as economics. There are people who think that all of economics, or at least all of modern, mathematically inclined, “neoclassical” economics, is at fault for the growth of neoliberal capitalism and the increase in inequality in rich countries. I am not one of them.

In my mind, the problem is knowing just a little bit of economics—the proverbial little bit of knowledge. (My favorite form of that proverb, despite its religious origins, is the following: “A little knowledge is apt to puff up, and make men giddy, but a greater share of it will set them right, and bring them to low and humble thoughts of themselves.”) When you learn more economics, you learn that the world has more than just supply, demand, price, and quantity.

Matt Yglesias has even tried to argue that “on a whole lot of issues the basic econ 101 view supports the liberal position.” I think he’s exaggerating his point—on a whole lot of issues, Economics 101 tells you that market failures are possible, but that doesn’t necessarily dictate a liberal policy outcome. But whatever is actually in an introductory textbook, the problem is that what people think they remember—or what people who never took economics think the subject teaches—is that competitive markets produce optimal outcomes. As Paul Samuelson wrote in the first edition of his textbook (and I never tire of quoting), the idea that “any interference with free competition by government was almost certain to be injurious … is all that some of our leading citizens remember, 30 years later, of their college course in economics.”

The historical development of economism, and its divergence from economics, is the subject of chapter 3 of my book, and also of my new article in the Chronicle Review. The article also includes some of my thoughts on how the teaching of economics might be modified to give students a richer and more balanced understanding of the discipline. For more, head on over there.

Economism and the Law

By James Kwak

Economism—the simplistic, unreflecting application of Economics 101 models to complex, real-world issues—is particularly influential in the law, including both legal academia and actual court opinions that decide important questions.

Noah Smith, for example, points to a paper by a law professor arguing that forced prison labor deters crime because it effectively raises the price of crime in a supply-and-demand model. The problem with this model is that it doesn’t accurately describe criminal behavior. Smith quotes economist Alex Tabarrok on what happened when the United States dramatically increased the harshness of punishments:

In theory, this should have reduced crime, reduced the costs of crime control and led to fewer people in prison. In practice … the experiment with greater punishment led to more spending on crime control and many more people in prison.

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Economism and Health Care

By James Kwak

A core feature of competitive markets, according to the basic model, is that they allocate goods to the people or companies that are willing to pay the most for them. In theory, and in many situations, this is a good thing: If I am willing to pay $1,000 for a custom portrait of my (daughter’s) dog, and you are only willing to pay $1 for it, then aggregate satisfaction is likely to be higher if I get the portrait. But not always: If I am willing to pay $10 for a turkey sandwich, but you are only willing to pay $1 because you only have $1, and have no borrowing capacity, then society may very well be better off if you get the sandwich. Yet in an ordinary, healthy market, I get the sandwich.

This problem is acutely apparent when it comes to health care. People place a high value on not dying, but when it comes to the allocation of medical treatment, they can’t bid more than their income allows. The obvious result is that markets deliver unnecessary procedures to rich people while denying essential care to poor people—because that’s what markets do. Obamacare attempted (with mixed success) to mitigate this problem. The Trump administration is rhetorically committed to deregulating health insurance; the question is whether they are willing to accept the political consequences of pricing millions of people out of not dying.

This is the topic of my new guest post, “Health Care and John D. Rockefeller’s Dog,” on Econbrowser (a fabulous economics blog, by the way, written by Menzie Chinn and James Hamilton). For more, head on over there.

Conflicts and Corruption

By James Kwak

To be clear, the idea that Donald Trump will be president while he or his children effectively own a company that does business all over the world is preposterous. (Quick primer on trust law: A trust is managed its trustees for the benefit of its beneficiaries. In this case, we know the trustees include two of Trump’s children, and the beneficiary is likely to be either Trump or his children.) If people, companies, and foreign governments want to pay bribes to the president of the United States, they need only give favorable deals to the Trump Organization. An in any of his official actions, the president will have the temptation to do what’s right for his company, not for the country.

The point I wanted to make in my Atlantic column today, however, is that this is just the most obvious and egregious example of the larger problem of corruption: government officials acting in the interests of themselves, their family and friends, or their business associates. The example I focus on is estate tax repeal, because that one thing alone would be worth more than $1 billion to the Trump family. It’s a classic example of a president doing what’s in his own personal interests and the interests of his core constituency of gazillionaires, while pretending it’s for the good of the country.

Betsy DeVos is another great example, perfectly illustrated by this graphic from the AFL-CIO:

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The way American politics works is that people and organizations with money—today, largely billionaire families—invest in politicians and demand policies that favor their private interests. Donald Trump just eliminated the middlemen—not only winning the presidency, but also inviting fellow billionaires like DeVos into his cabinet. This is why, beyond the ongoing catastrophe that is the Trump presidency (which technically hasn’t even started yet), we still need to fix our democracy, so everyone has an equal say in our government.

For more, see the full article in The Atlantic.

Economism Typo Contest

By James Kwak

Today, you may be getting your copy of Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality in the mail. Or you may even be able to buy it in a bookstore. But before you crack it open, I want to tell you something.

I hate typos.

I try to read each of my book manuscripts carefully before submitting them. I hire my own line editor to go through my writing for grammatical and stylistic errors. The publisher then does a copy edit. When I get the “galleys” back from the publisher, I hire my own proofreaders to scour them again for mistakes. But inevitably typos sneak into the published books. Here’s one from 13 Bankers:

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(That should be “economic policy,” in case you’re wondering.)

Furthermore, I am almost incapable of reading anything that I’ve written before. It’s just too boring when you already know what the next sentence is going to say; at best I can skim. So it’s very hard for me to catch mistakes in anything that I’ve published. Out of sympathy to my fellow writers, I often circle typos when I find them in books that I am reading. Sometimes I even email the author out of the blue with a list of mistakes, if there is still time to fix them in the paperback version.

So, before you start reading, I’d like you to know about the Economism Typo Contest. If you are the first person to find and tell me about a mistake, I will send you a limited edition, spiral-bound, 5×8 notebook with the jacket cover of Economism on the front (signed on the inside if you like). Or, if you prefer, I will pay you ten dollars in cash money.

The detailed rules and instructions for submitting mistakes are over at the version of this post over at Medium.

Thanks for your help.