Category Archives: Books

The Last Chapter Problem

By James Kwak

Like many analytically minded liberals, I’m good at identifying problems and less good at coming up with solutions—a common disease sometimes called the “last chapter problem.” I recently finished reading The Reconnection Agenda by Jared Bernstein (which you can even download from his blog), which takes the opposite approach.

The problem he addresses is one that we all know about—inequality, stagnant real wages, the divergence between productivity gains and living standards, etc. Bernstein recalls a meeting with a group of insiders in 2014, when a pollster interrupted a discussion of the post-Great Recession economic recovery to say:

If you mention the word “recovery” to people, they don’t know what you’re talking about. And they conclude you don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s not just that they feel disconnected from an economy that’s supposedly growing. It’s that they don’t think anyone understands or knows what to do about their situation.

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And the Award for Best Financial Crisis Book …

… goes to Chain of Title, by David Dayen (with apologies to Jennifer Taub, Alyssa Katz, Michael Lewis, and many others, including my co-author, Simon Johnson).

Chain of Title isn’t primarily about the grand narrative of the financial crisis: subprime lending, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, synthetic CDOs, the collapse of the global financial system in 2008, and the frenzied bailout that followed. Instead, it’s about foreclosure fraud: how mortgage servicers, banks, and the law firms they hired systematically broke the law to force people out of their homes. At the same time, it’s about securitization fraud: the fact that an untold number of securitizations were not properly executed, meaning that they violated the terms of their underlying agreements, meaning that their investors should have been able to force rescission of the entire deal.

The substance of the argument has been well known for years, so I’ll try to pack it into one sentence: The banks creating mortgage-backed securities failed to properly transfer notes (the documents proving a borrower’s obligation) to the trusts that issued the MBS, so not only was the securitization itself faulty, but the trust did not have legal standing to foreclose on homeowners—so the banks paid third-party companies to forge the required paper trail, and lawyers knowingly submitted fraudulent evidence to courts, who usually accepted it.

This has been common knowledge on the Internet since 2009 or 2010. But Dayen does what good writers do: he tells the story of a few real human beings figuring out the workings of this vast fraudulent system on their own, fighting against it … and ultimately, for the most part, losing. The book makes you feel the anger, disbelief, hope, and disappointment of those days over again. Even though I knew how the story ended—in a whimper of liability-eliminating settlements and self-congratulatory back-patting by politicians—it was still painful to read. Continue reading

Mysteries of Money

By James Kwak

Have you heard this story before?

The first assets deemed safe were coins made of precious metals.  As a technology, coins had many problems: they could be clipped or, debased by the sovereign. They had to be assayed and weighed to determine their value in the best of times; whole currencies would collapse in the worst, when the “fraudulent arts” gained the upper hand. Coins were bulky, too, and vulnerable to theft. But they worked: they were always liquid, their edges could be milled to prevent clipping; and, for long periods of time, coins served as fairly reliable stores of value.

As trade expanded, problems with coins gradually led to the creation of paper money – privately-produced circulating debt in all its early forms: moneys of account; bank notes and bills; goldsmith notes; and merchants’ bills of exchange, all of them convertible on short notice into coins.

That’s David Warsh, paraphrasing Gary Gorton, who’s really just recounting conventional wisdom, handed down from economist to economist since time immemorial.

Except it leaves out the most interesting part of the story.

I’ve been reading Christine Desan’s book Making Money, on the history of money in late medieval and early modern Europe. It’s a fascinating story, full of both meticulous historical detail and compelling conceptual arguments about the relationship between forms of currency, political authority, and the creation of the modern state. Continue reading

Finance and Democracy

By James Kwak

Roger Myerson, he of the 2007 Nobel Prize, wrote a glowing review of The Banker’s New Clothes, by Admati and Hellwig, for the Journal of Economic Perspectives a while back. Considering the reviewer, the journal, and the content of the review (which describes the book as “worthy of such global attention as Keynes’s General Theory received in 1936″), it’s about the highest endorsement you can imagine.

Myerson succinctly summarizes Admati and Hellwig’s key arguments, so if you haven’t read the book it’s a decent place to start. To recap, the central argument is that under Modigliani-Miller, the debt-to-equity ratio doesn’t affect the cost of capital and therefore doesn’t affect banks’ willingness to extend credit; the real-world factors that make Modigliani-Miller untrue (deposit insurance, taxes, etc.) rely on a transfer of value from another party that makes society no better off.

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The Desperation of the Vanishing Middle Class

By James Kwak

I recently finished reading Pound Foolish, by Helaine Olen, which I discussed earlier (while one-third of the way through). The book is a condemnation of just almost every form of personal financial advice out there, from the personal finance gurus (Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey) to the variable annuity salespeople to the peddlers of real estate get-rich-quick schemes to Sesame Street‘s corporate-sponsored financial education programs. (Of them all, Jane Bryant Quinn is one of the few who generally come off as more good than evil.)

A lot of what’s going on is just semi-sleazy entrepreneurs trying to make a buck, taking “advice” that is equal parts routine, wrong, and contradictory and packaging it into attractive-looking books, TV shows, and in-person events. A lot of the rest is marketing by the real financial industry, which either (a) wants to make a show of promoting financial education so people will think they are good or (b) wants to teach people that they need their products. (You pick.)

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A Book That Needed To Be Written

By James Kwak

I have previously written about (here, for example) what I call economism, or excessive belief in the little bit that you remember from Economics 101. The problem is twofold. First, Economics 101 usually paints a highly stylized, unrealistic view of the world in which free markets always produce optimal outcomes. Second, most people in the world who have taken any economics have only taken first-year economics, and so they never learned that, from a practical perspective, just about everything in Economics 101 is wrong. (Complete information? Rational actors? Perfectly competitive markets?) This produces a nation of people like Paul Ryan, who repeats reflexively that free market solutions are always good, journalists who repeat what Paul Ryan says, and ordinary people who nod their heads in agreement.

The problem is not the economics profession per se. These days, to make your mark as an economist, it helps to be arguing (or, better yet, proving) that the free market caricature of Economics 101 is wrong. The problem is the way it is taught to first-year students, which pretty much assumes that Joseph Stiglitz, Daniel Kahnemann, Elinor Ostrom, and many others had never existed.

What we need, I have often thought, is a companion book for students in Economics 101, one that points out the problems with the standard material that is covered in the textbook. For a while I was thinking of writing such a book, but I decided against it for a number of reasons, one of them being that I am not actually an economist. Fortunately, John Komlos, who really is an economist, has written a book along these lines, titled What Every Economics Student Needs to Know and Doesn’t Get in the Usual Principles Text.

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The Politics of Intellectual Fashion

By James Kwak

Update: See bottom of post.

For years now, Anat Admati has been leading the charge for higher capital requirements for banks, especially large banks that benefit from government subsidies, first in a widely cited paper and more recently in her book with Martin Hellwig, The Banker’s New Clothes. Admati’s great service has been clearing the underbrush of misunderstandings and half-truths so that it is possible to have a debate about the benefits of higher capital requirements. Yet even after all this work, the media (and, of course, the banking lobby) continue to repeat claims that are simply false or highly misleading.

In another effort to beat back the tides of ignorance, Admati and Hellwig have put out a new document, “The Parade of the Bankers’ New Clothes Continues,” which catalogs and addresses these claims. In the simply false category, the most common is probably that capital is “set aside”; in fact, banking capital is assets minus liabilities, and the capital requirement places no restrictions on what a bank can do with those assets.

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