Author: Simon Johnson

Jump-Starting America

Can the United States grow faster, create more good jobs, and genuinely spread opportunity?

Yes: by investing more in science and technology, by placing those investments strategically around the country, and by creating an Innovation Dividend – paying cash to all Americans every year, based on the success of public investments in the tech sector.

What technologies should receive support?  Which cities have the potential to become the next generation tech hubs?  How do we ensure that benefits from the next tech boom are shared more broadly?

Join Jon Gruber and Simon Johnson in discussing their new book, Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream, in a series of events and media appearances around the country.

The first public event is on Tuesday, April 9, organized by Harvard Book Store and held at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA: http://www.harvard.com/event/jonathan_gruber_and_simon_johnson/

All are welcome!

What Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Really All About?

By Simon Johnson

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the United States and 11 other countries.  It is comprised of two main parts: reductions in tariffs (and related non-tariff barriers), of the kind typically seen in trade agreements; and new rules for foreign direct investment and intellectual property rights, which have not previously been prominent in FTAs.

The new rules part has become controversial.  The case for introducing an investor-state dispute settlement seems less than compelling – this would favor foreign investors over domestic investors, not an idea that sits well with the standard idea of equality before the law (going back at least 800 years) and a direct contradiction to the usual principles of FTAs (emphasizing non-discrimination across types of investors).  As currently formulated, it would also be open to considerable abuse.  And the precise rules under consideration for patent protection appear likely to reduce access to affordable medicines in both our trading partners and potentially also in the United States.

As a result, advocates of TPP are now emphasizing the benefits of tariff reductions in terms of boosting US exports.  But the administration’s claims in this regard are greatly exaggerated and the United States Trade Representative (USTR) is unfortunately refusing to fully discuss the broader trade impact, including the precise impact of higher imports into the United States. Continue reading “What Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Really All About?”

Why Is The White House Threatening To Veto An Imaginary Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)?

By Simon Johnson

At today’s daily briefing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest communicated the president’s threat to veto any trade promotion authority (TPA) that “could undermine the independence or ability of the Federal Reserve to make monetary policy decisions”.  (The question was posed at minute 42:50, Mr. Earnest’s answer starts at 43:31, and the lead up to this quote starts around 45:20.)

Mr. Earnest’s statement seems clear enough, but what potential TPA is he talking about?  Either the White House is confused or some other communications strategy is at work here.  Either way, Mr. Earnest is describing some imaginary version of TPA that is simply not on the congressional table.

He most certainly cannot be accurately describing the bipartisan Portman-Stabenow amendment, currently before the Senate.  This amendment specifically goes out of its way to state that it would not “restrict the exercise of domestic monetary policy.” Continue reading “Why Is The White House Threatening To Veto An Imaginary Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)?”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): This Is Not About Ricardo

By Simon Johnson and Andrei Levchenko

The Obama administration is lobbying hard for Congress to pass a trade promotion authority (TPA) and to quickly approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that is on the verge of being finalized.

The administration and its supporters on this issue, including leading Republicans, argue that the case for TPP rests on basic economic principles and is only strengthened by the findings of modern research.  On both counts their claims are greatly exaggerated – particularly with regard to the notion that more trade, on these terms, is necessarily better for the United States.

There is a strong theoretical and empirical case – dating back to David Ricardo in 1817 – that freer trade should make countries better off. However, modern-day trade agreements, including those currently being negotiated, are very different from earlier experiences with trade liberalization. Continue reading “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): This Is Not About Ricardo”

Preventing Currency Manipulation

By Simon Johnson

As Congress debates the trade promotion authority, TPA, the issue of currency manipulation remains firmly on the table.  The administration and Republican leadership insist that language discouraging currency manipulation should not be included in the TPA (and also not in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, a trade agreement currently under negotiation).  Many Democrats and Republicans continue to argue in favor of prohibiting currency manipulation.

On Tuesday, the Treasury Department and White House claimed that the amendment proposed by Senators Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Deborah Stabenow (D., Michigan) would actually impede the ability of the Federal Reserve to conduct monetary policy.  This is absurd.  The Portman-Stabenow amendment clearly and precisely addresses protracted one-way intervention in foreign exchange markets, i.e., large-scale purchases of foreign assets by a central bank.  The Federal Reserve does not engage in such activities – nor will it engage in this kind of intervention in the foreseeable future.  US monetary policy involves buying and selling domestic assets.  The Fed does not buy foreign assets on any significant scale.  There is nothing in this amendment that would impede the workings of US monetary policy.  To suggest otherwise is to mischaracterize the nature of this amendment.

There are instead three main issues of substance worth further consideration. Continue reading “Preventing Currency Manipulation”

No More Cheating: Restoring the Rule of Law in Financial Markets

By Simon Johnson

The political debate about finance in the US is often cast as markets versus regulation, as if “more regulation” means the efficiency of private sector decisions will necessarily be impeded or distorted. But this is the wrong way to think about the real policy choices that – like it or not – are now being made. The question is actually what kind of markets do you want: fair and well-functioning, with widely shared benefits; or deceptive, dangerous, and favoring just a relatively few powerful people?

In a speech on Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., MA) laid out a vision for better financial markets. This is not a left-wing or pro-big government agenda. Senator Warren’s proposals are, first and foremost, pro-market. She wants – and we should all want – financial firms and markets that work for customers, that encourage innovation, and that do not build up massive risks which can threaten the financial system and bring down the economy. Continue reading “No More Cheating: Restoring the Rule of Law in Financial Markets”

What Is Citigroup Hiding From Its Shareholders Now?

By Simon Johnson

In the early and mid-2000s, Citigroup had compensation practices that can fairly be described as a disaster for shareholders (and for the broader economy). Top executives, such as then-CEO Chuck Prince, received big bonuses and generous stock options. Lower level managers and traders were paid along similar lines. These incentives encouraged Citi employees to take risks and boost profits. Unfortunately for shareholders, the profits proved largely illusory – when the dangers around housing and derivatives materialized fully, the consequences almost destroyed the firm.

The market value of Citigroup’s stock dropped from $277 billion in late 2006 to under $6 billion in early 2009. The shareholders could easily have been wiped out – they were saved from oblivion by a generous series of bailouts provided by the federal government (see Figure 7 in the final report of the Congressional Oversight Panel; direct TARP assistance was $50 billion but “total federal exposure” was close to $500 billion). In the next credit cycle, the experience for Citi shareholders could be even worse. So it is entirely reasonable for shareholders to look carefully at, among other things, the details of how executives and other key employees are paid – and to understand the current incentives for taking and managing risk.

But Citigroup is resisting efforts to disclose fully the structure of relevant compensation contracts. What is Citigroup hiding now? Continue reading “What Is Citigroup Hiding From Its Shareholders Now?”

Nominate A Qualified Undersecretary Of Domestic Finance Now

By Simon Johnson

The Obama administration urgently needs to nominate a qualified individual as Undersecretary for Domestic Finance at the Treasury Department. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms are under sustained and determined attack, and the lack of a confirmed Undersecretary is making it significantly harder for Treasury to effectively defend this important legislation. Failing to fill this Undersecretary position would constitute a serious mistake that jeopardizes a signature achievement of this presidency.

In the continuing absence of an Undersecretary for Domestic Finance, the administration has recently displayed an inconsistent – or perhaps even incoherent – policy stance on financial sector issues. On the one hand, in mid-December, the White House agreed to rollback a significant part of Dodd-Frank – the so-called “swaps push-out,” which was shamefully attached at the behest of Citigroup to a must-pass government spending bill. The White House put up little resistance to this tactic and, at the critical moment, lobbied House Democrats to support the repeal of Section 716. Continue reading “Nominate A Qualified Undersecretary Of Domestic Finance Now”

Vote in the Democratic Shadow Primary Now: Support Elizabeth Warren

By Simon Johnson

The shadow primary for the Democratic Party is in full swing. What will be the ideas, themes, and messages that win support in 2016 – and will they carry the day in the presidential election?

You can vote now at the Big Ideas project on almost every viable proposal from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Expressions of interest will feed into conversations on Capitol Hill and with presidential candidates. Nearly 1 million votes have already been cast.

Voting ends Friday at noon. Currently, in the section on the Economy & Jobs, the proposal to restore Glass-Steagall is in third place; breaking up Citigroup is close behind. (Vote now for these or for your own priorities.) Continue reading “Vote in the Democratic Shadow Primary Now: Support Elizabeth Warren”

The Republican Strategy To Repeal Dodd-Frank

By Simon Johnson

On January 7, 2015, Day 2 of the new Congress, the House Republicans put their cards on the table with regard to the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reforms. The Republicans will chip away along all possible dimensions, using a combination of legislation and pressure on regulators – with the ultimate goal of relaxing the restrictions that have been placed on the activities of very large banks (such as Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase).

The initial target is the Volcker Rule, which limits the ability of megabanks to place very large proprietary bets – and their ability to incur massive losses, with big negative consequences for the rest of us. But we should expect the House Republican strategy to be applied more broadly, including all kinds of measures that will reduce capital requirements (i.e., make it easier for the largest banks to fund themselves with relatively more debt and less equity, taking more risk while remaining Too Big To Fail and thus benefiting from larger implicit government subsidies.)

The repeal of Dodd-Frank will not come in one fell swoop. Rather House Republicans are moving in several stages to reduce the scope of the Volcker Rule and to gut its effectiveness.

The first step in this direction came on Wednesday, with a bill brought to the floor of the House supposedly to “make technical corrections” to Dodd-Frank. This legislation was not considered in the House Financial Services Committee, and was rushed to the House floor without allowing the usual debate or potential for amendments (formally, there was a “suspension” of House rules). Continue reading “The Republican Strategy To Repeal Dodd-Frank”

Citigroup Will Be Broken Up

By Simon Johnson

Citigroup is a very large bank that has amassed a huge amount of political power. Its current and former executives consistently push laws and regulations in the direction of allowing Citi and other megabanks to take on more risk, particularly in the form of complex highly leveraged bets. Taking these risks allows the executives and traders to get a lot of upside compensation in the form of bonuses when things go well – while the downside losses, when they materialize, become the taxpayer’s problem.

Citigroup is also, collectively, stupid on a grand scale. The supposedly smart people at the helm of Citi in the mid-2000s ran them hard around – and to the edge of bankruptcy. A series of unprecedented massive government bailouts was required in 2000-09 – and still the collateral damage to the economy has proved enormous. Give enough clever people the wrong incentives and they will destroy anything.

Now the supposedly brilliant people who run Citigroup have, in the space of a single working week, made a series of serious political blunders with long-lasting implications. Their greed has manifestly proved Elizabeth Warren exactly right about the excessive clout of Wall Street, their arrogance has greatly strengthened a growing left-center-right coalition concerned about the power of the megabanks, and their public exercise of raw power has helped this coalition understand what it needs focus on doing – break up Citigroup. Continue reading “Citigroup Will Be Broken Up”

Don’t Repeal Swaps Push-Out Requirements (Section 716 of Dodd-Frank)

By Simon Johnson

Section 716 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act requires that some derivative transactions be “pushed-out” from those part of banks that have deposit insurance (run by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) and other forms of backstop (provided by the Federal Reserve). This is a sensible provision that, if properly implemented, would help keep our financial system safer, protect taxpayers and reduce the likely need for bailouts.

Now, at the behest of the biggest Too Big To Fail banks and as part of the House’s spending bill (to be voted on tomorrow or in coming days), this “push out” requirement is on the verge of being repealed. Democrats and Republicans should refuse to vote for the spending bill as long as it contains this requirement.

This is not a left vs. right issue. It is a fundamental systemic risk issue, on which people across the political spectrum who want to lower those risks can agree – Section 716 should not be repealed. In fact, some of the sharpest voices on this issue come from the right. Continue reading “Don’t Repeal Swaps Push-Out Requirements (Section 716 of Dodd-Frank)”

A Conference On Finance For Everyone Else

By Simon Johnson

It is hard to move around in Washington these days without bumping into a conference on the future of finance. But most of these are either closed to the public, or run on behalf of large banks as part of their lobbying efforts.

Next week, there will be a conference open to everyone at George Washington University to discuss where we really are on financial reform, and what still needs to be done. You should register in advance through the web page (link given above), but there is no cost to attend.

Featured speakers include Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and Thomas Hoenig, vice chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. We also have a wide range of other technical experts – on issues from resolution to “shadow banking” – who are willing to speak frankly and engage in honest discussion.

GW Center for Law, Economics and Finance (C-LEAF), Stanford Graduate School of Business, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, and Better Markets generously made this event possible.

If you want to understand what has really happened to finance, show up.

An Elizabeth Warren for New York

By Simon Johnson

These days, almost everyone likes to complain about institutional corruption – and various forms of intellectual capture of government orchestrated by big corporate interests. But very few people are willing to do anything meaningful about it.

Zephyr Teachout is an exception. Not only has she written about the history of political corruption in the United States, both in long form (her recent book) and in many shorter versions (e.g., see this paper), she is competing for the Democratic nomination to become governor of New York.

In many countries, Ms. Teachout would sweep to victory. She has smart ideas about many dimensions of public policy (here are her economic policies), she has assembled a strong team, and – most of all – she represents exactly the kind of responsible reform that we need at this stage of our republic.

Elizabeth Warren offered exactly the same sort of promise to the people of Massachusetts in 2012 – real reform through pragmatic and effective politics. She has delivered on this promise and there is every indication that her influence will only grow in the years to come. Continue reading “An Elizabeth Warren for New York”

The Too Big To Fail Subsidy Debate Is Over

By Simon Johnson

No doubt there is still a lot of shouting to come, but this week a team at the International Monetary Fund completely nailed the issue of whether large global banks receive an implicit subsidy courtesy of the American government.   Is there a subsidy, is it large, and how much damage could it end up causing to the broader economy?

The answers, in order, are: yes, there is an implicit subsidy that lowers the funding costs for very large banks; the subsidy is big, with costs of borrowing for these banks lowered by as much as 100 basis points, i.e., 1 percentage point; and yet this large scale of implicit support is small relative to the macroeconomic damage that is likely to be caused by the high leverage and incautious risk-taking that the subsidy encourages.

If anything the IMF’s work provides a conservative (i.e., low) set of estimates.

Still, as I explain in my NYT.com Economix column, I’m a big fan of this work because the Fund’s report is very good on how to handle and reconcile the main alternative methodologies for getting at the issue.

The Fund offers an entirely reasonable approach that sets a very high quality bar. The Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.) is expected to produce a report on TBTF subsidies in the summer; their work now needs to be at least as careful and as comprehensive as that of the IMF. The same applies to the Federal Reserve and anyone in the private sector who attempts to dispute these numbers.