Author Archives: James Kwak

Fees Add Up

By James Kwak

Public pension funds are having a tough time. On the one hand, the average funding ratio (assets as a percentage of the present value of future obligations) is below 80% because of inadequate contributions by sponsors (states and municipalities) and poor investment returns since the collapse of the technology bubble in 2000. On the other hand, because pensions responded to low returns by shifting more of their money into hedge funds and private equity funds, a larger proportion of their assets is siphoned off as investment fees each year.

Unlike some people, I am not against hedge funds and private equity funds in principle. I think it’s highly likely that there are people who can beat the market on a sustained basis—particularly if they are people who are especially good with computers—both for theoretical reasons (someone has to be the first person to discover each relevant piece of information or actionable pattern) and empirical reasons (see Fama and French 2010, for example). Hedge funds have lagged the stock market in recent years, but what critics sometimes overlook is that they are supposed to trail the market in boom periods, because many target a beta of around 0.5. But I am mystified by the fact that, in what is supposed to be a highly competitive and innovative industry, the price of investing in a hedge fund has stayed virtually fixed at 2-and-20 (2% of assets, plus 20% of investment returns) for decades.

The consequences of these high prices are added up in The Big Squeeze, a new report sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers. Because true investment fees are usually not disclosed—fund managers insist that they are confidential and require investors not to divulge them—the report simply quantifies the potential savings from reducing fees from 1.8-and-18 to 0.9-and-9. This may seem arbitrary, but I know anecdotally that some funds, even big ones, are charging something like 1-and-10 even to ordinary investors. Since state pension funds are some of the biggest investors that exist, you would think they would be able to negotiate even lower fees.

Not surprisingly, the numbers involved add up quickly. Lower fees over the past five years would have saved the average pension fund included in the study $1.6 billion; to put things in perspective, it would have improved the aggregate funding ratio for these funds by more than two percentage points, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The important question is why high fees persist despite the potential market power of big pension funds. There are probably multiple explanations. One is a culture of secrecy, which makes it difficult for any fund to find out what other funds are paying. Another is the marketing prowess of fund managers, who are adept at explaining whey their fund is unlike any other in the world and therefore merits its high fees. A third is that pension fund managers are playing with other people’s money (in this case, the other people are the fund’s beneficiaries—teachers, firefighters, and other government employees)—and may be more interested in ingratiating themselves with the asset management industry than with getting the best deal they can. (This is even more likely the case for the investment consultants who match pension funds with asset managers.) But in a political climate that makes tax increases on rich fund managers unlikely, state governments could achieve the same results by taking a harder line on investment management fees: requiring public disclosure of all fees or even imposing hard fee caps for pension fund investments. With the amount of money involved, it’s hard to imagine that major pension funds couldn’t find anyone competent to take their money for 0.9-and-9.

Soak the Poor, Feed the Rich

By James Kwak

After the dangerous clown show that has been the Trump White House, it’s comforting to return to some good, old-fashioned conservative policymaking: bashing the poor to cut taxes on the rich. I’m talking, of course, about the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Health care financing can sometimes seem like a complicated topic. Adverse selection, risk adjustment, blah blah blah. But it’s easy to understand the American Health Care Act or, as it is sure to be known, Trumpcare. In the medium term, financing policies have little effect on the price of health care. At most we can hope to “bend the [long-term] cost curve.” So health care policy essentially comes down to a single question: Who pays?

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Review Copies of Economism

By James Kwak

If you teach introductory economics or introductory micro, at either the high school or university level, and you’re interested in possibly using Economism in your class, let me know and I’ll send you a (free) review copy. Just email me at james.kwak@uconn.edu from your school account, tell me what class you are thinking of assigning the book to, and let me know your shipping address, and I’ll order a copy for you.*

Quick summary: The central theme of Economism is that some of the basic models taught in “Economics 101” have acquired disproportionate influence in contemporary society and are routinely and systematically misapplied to important policy questions. The problem is not that introductory models are wrong, but that too many people forget their limitations and believe that their simple conclusions can be reflexively applied to the real world. As Paul Samuelson said in the first edition of his textbook, 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.” In chapters on labor markets, taxes, trade, and other topics, Economism first walks through the implications of introductory models before explaining how a richer understanding of economic reality, including empirical research, teaches different and more interesting lessons.

If you worry that the typical first-year curriculum produces too many students who think unregulated markets are the answer to every problem, Economism may be the antidote you need. In the Financial Times, Martin Sandbu wrote, “Economics lecturers, take note: include [Economism] on your syllabus and set aside ample time to discuss its arguments in class.” The book has also received praise from many economists including Ian Ayres (Yale Law School), Jared Bernstein (former chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden), Heather Boushey (chief economist, Washington Center for Equitable Growth), Simon Johnson (MIT Sloan; former chief economist, IMF; and my frequent co-author), Dani Rodrik (Harvard), and Noah Smith (Bloomberg View).

For more about the book, you can visit economism.netThe Atlantic also published an excerpt. (It’s basically the first half of the labor market chapter, on the minimum wage; the second half of that chapter deals with the compensation of very high earners.) And again, email me if you want a review copy.

(Note: I’m not doing this for the money; I’m doing it to get the book in the hands of as many students as possible. I have donated all of my royalties from 13 BankersWhite House Burning, and Economism to charitable organizations. I can’t anticipate my financial situation for the rest of my life, but I will donate all royalties from Economism for at least the next five years.)

* The fine print (updated): In the past twelve hours, the large majority of requests I’ve gotten have not actually been from people who teach introductory economics classes, so here are some clarifications:

  • You know how publishers send you review copies of textbooks, hoping that you’ll assign them to your students? This is the same thing. That’s why I ask that you tell me what class you might use the book in. If it isn’t introductory economics or introductory micro, or if you don’t specify a class, I may send you a review copy, but only after seeing how many requests I get from people who are teaching those classes.
  • I’m not actually going to try to check what your teaching schedule is, so this is on the honor system. But please remember that I’m paying for these books, not the publisher.
  • Let me know if you prefer hard copy or Kindle. If the latter, I need to know the email address of your Amazon account.
  • Non-U.S. requests: I can’t send hard copies outside the U.S. because I’m ordering the books individually from Amazon. (It’s too much work for me to mail them individually.) I can send you a Kindle copy. So please send me the email address of your Amazon U.S. account; I don’t think the book is for sale from most other Amazon subsidiaries, and in any case I’m buying the books with my Amazon U.S. account.

 

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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