Category Archives: External perspectives

Be Happy, Eat Fruits and Vegetables

By James Kwak

From the treasure trove that is the NBER working paper series, a friend forwarded me “Is Psychological Well-Being Linked to the Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables?” by David Blanchflower, Andrew Oswald, and Sarah Stewart-Brown (NBER subscription required). It got some media attention last month when the paper first came out, but I wanted to read it because, well, I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables: I generally aim for seven servings a day, although when life is busy it can be as low as three or four. (Right now I’m munching on dried mango slices.)

The core of the paper is a bunch of regressions that show that better psychological well-being (which is all the rage these days) is correlated with eating more fruits and vegetables, with benefits up to at least five servings and in some cases up to eight servings. This isn’t particularly surprising on its face, since eating fruits and vegetables is probably correlated with having a high income, exercising, being fit, cooking, and any number of other things that are conducive to happiness.

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The Effects of Golden Parachutes

By James Kwak

The indefatigable Lucian Bebchuk has written another empirical paper (Dealbook summary), this time with Alma Cohen and Charles Wang, on the impact of golden parachutes (agreements that pay off CEOs generously in case of acquisition by another company) on shareholder value.

Looking just at the question of whether a company is acquired and for how much, they find out that golden parachutes work about how you would expect. Companies whose CEOs have golden parachutes are more likely to get acquisition offers and are more likely to be acquired, presumably because their CEOs are les likely to contest takeovers. On the other hand, these companies tend to sell for lower acquisition premiums, again because their CEOs are more likely to be happy to be bought out.

“So far, so good,” Bebchuk writes. But the problem is that when you take a longer view, golden parachutes appear to be bad for shareholder value. Companies that adopt golden parachutes have lower risk-adjusted stock returns than their peers—despite the fact that they are more likely to be acquired. Some other factor is outweighing the positive effect (for the stock price) of more frequent takeovers.

Bebchuk proposes one explanation: Golden parachutes make being acquired relatively painless to CEOs. Therefore, they are less afraid of being acquired; and, therefore, they are less concerned about maximizing shareholder value in the first place.

Here’s another possibility: Companies are more likely to grant golden parachutes to their CEOs if they have: (a) CEOs who care more about maximizing their personal wealth than about their companies; (b) boards who are more concerned about doing favors for the CEO than about doing what’s right for the company; or (c) both. Those are not the kinds of companies you want to be investing in, since they’re likely to screw up all sorts of other things in addition to their executive compensation policies.

Revolving Doors Matter

By James Kwak

It is common fare for people like me to point disapprovingly to the revolving door between business and government, which ensures that every Treasury Department is well stocked with representatives of Goldman Sachs. In 13 Bankers, the revolving door was one of the three major channels through which the financial sector influenced government policy, alongside campaign contributions and the ideology of finance. The counterargument comes in various forms: people like Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson are dedicated civil servants who wouldn’t favor their firms or their industries, the government needs people with appropriate industry experience, etc.

It is certainly possible that industry experts provide valuable skills and experience to the government. But that value comes with a cost; put another way, it’s not just the public good that benefits. Using data on Defense Department appointments, Simon Luechinger and Christoph Moser (paper; Vox summary) measured the impact of political appointments on the stock market valuation of appointees’ former firms; they also measured the impact on firms’ stock market valuations of hiring a former government official. In both cases, the stock market reacted positively to new turns of the revolving door. Here’s the chart for political appointments:

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Luck, Wealth, and Richard Posner

By James Kwak

I disagree with Richard Posner—the old Richard Posner behind the law and economics movement—on so many things that I always worry when he seems to agree with me. Did I do write something stupid? I wonder.

A friend forwarded me Posner’s latest blog post, “Luck, Wealth, and Implications for Policy,” parts of which sound vaguely like a post I wrote three years ago, “Do Smart, Hard-Working People Deserve To Make More Money?“* In that post, I argued that even if differences in incomes are due to things that people ordinarily think of as “merit,” like intelligence and hard work, that doesn’t mean that rich people have a moral entitlement to their wealth, because they didn’t do anything to deserve their intelligence or their propensity to work hard. In summary, “I have little patience for the idea that rich people deserve what they have because they worked for it. It’s just a question of how far back you are willing to acknowledge that chance enters the equation.”

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Why Taxes Should Pay for Health Care

By James Kwak

William Baumol and some co-authors recently published a new book on what is widely known as “Baumol’s cost disease.” This is something that Simon wanted to include in White House Burning, but I couldn’t find a good way to fit it in (and it would have gone in one of the chapter’s I was writing), so I it isn’t in there. (Baumol is cited for something else.) But in retrospect, I should have put it in.

Baumol’s argument, somewhat simplified, goes like this: Over time, average productivity in the economy rises. In some industries, automation and technology make productivity rise rapidly, producing higher real wages (because a single person can make a lot more stuff). But by definition, there most be some industries where productivity rises more slowly than the average. The classic example has been live classical music: it takes exactly as many person-hours to play a Mozart quartet today as it did two hundred years ago. You might be able to make a counterargument about the impact of recorded music, but the general point still holds. One widely cited example is education, where class sizes have stayed roughly constant for decades (and many educators think they should be smaller, not larger). Another is health care, where technology has vastly increased the number of possible treatments, but there is no getting around the need for in-person doctors and nurses.

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File Under Fascinating

By James Kwak

A reader pointed me to “Instability and Concentration in the Distribution of Wealth,” a paper by Ricardo and Robert Fernholz (Vox summary here). It’s a pretty mathematical paper (and I’m not just talking about the usual multivariate regression here), and I didn’t make it through all the equations. But the basic idea is to come up with a model that might explain the high degree of income and wealth inequality we see in advanced economies and particularly in the United States, where 1 percent of the population holds 33 percent of all wealth.

What’s fascinating is that the model assumes that all households are identical with respect to patience (consumption decisions) and skill (earnings ability). Household outcomes differ solely because they have idiosyncratic investment opportunities—that is, they can’t invest in the market, only in things like privately-held businesses or unique pieces of real estate. Yet when you simulate the model, you see an increasing share of wealth finding its way into fewer and fewer hands:

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Does Disclosure Help?

By James Kwak

Following up on yesterday’s column about corporate spending, I saw that John Coates (Harvard Law School) and Taylor Lincoln (Public Citizen) have published a study of the relationship between voluntary disclosure of political spending and company value (summary here). In short, after applying a bunch of controls, they find that companies with voluntary disclosure policies have price-to-book values that are 7.5 percent higher than companies that don’t.

Citing earlier research, they also say, “among the S&P 500 – which accounts for 75 percent of the market capitalization of publicly traded companies in the U.S. – firms active in politics, whether through company-controlled political action committees, registered lobbying, or both, had lower price/book ratios than industry peers that were not politically active.”

Of course, the causality could run either way, and Coates and Lincoln are not claiming that voluntary disclosure in itself makes a company more valuable. Disclosure policies make it less likely the CEO will blow company money on her pet political projects, and so it stands to reason that companies that are better governed in general—and hence more valuable—are more likely to have such policies. But it certainly implies that disclosure policies are not going to bankrupt the Great American Corporation.