Category Archives: Banking

Are Index Funds Evil?

A growing chorus of experts argue that they’re strangling the economy—and must be stopped.
By Frank Partnoy – Index funds have grown exponentially since John Bogle founded Vanguard in the mid-1970s.

The top three families of index funds each manage trillions of dollars, collectively holding 15 to 20 percent of all the stock of major U.S. corporations. Best of all for their investors, index funds have consistently beaten the performance of stock-pickers and actively managed funds, whose higher fees may support the Manhattan lifestyle of many bankers, but turn out not to deliver much to customers.

Concerns about the potential dangers of shareholder diversification first surfaced back in 1984, not long after index funds themselves did. Julio Rotemberg, then a newly minted economist from Princeton, posited that “firms, acting in the interest of their shareholders,” might “tend to act collusively when their shareholders have diversified portfolios.” The idea, which Rotemberg explored in a working paper, was that if investors own a slice of every firm, they will make more money if firms compete less and collectively raise prices, at the expense of consumers. Knowing this, the firms’ managers will de-emphasize competition and behave more cooperatively with one another. more>

A decade after the crisis’ first tremor, are we ready for another?

By David Wessel – It was 10 years ago, on Aug. 9, 2007, that France’s BNP Paribas suspended withdrawals from three funds that held U.S. mortgages, a move seen in hindsight as the first tremor of the global financial crisis that shook the world economy.

So this seems a good moment to ask if we are ready for the next financial crisis. The short answer is: No.

Dodd-Frank created a way to “resolve” (that is, wipe out the shareholders, convert some debt to equity and sell off the pieces) of any future Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers or AIG so that the Federal Reserve and other agencies don’t have to improvise the way it did in 2008 and we don’t suffer the aftershocks of a Lehman-style bankruptcy. This “orderly liquidation authority” is under assault from Republicans in Congress. My bet is that it will survive, but we really won’t know how well this new mechanism works until it has been tested.

The politics of responding to an economy-shaking financial crisis are never easy: What’s needed to protect the economy from another Great Depression will never be popular politically because it looks like bailing out the very folks who created the problem in the first place. more>


The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, And Status In The Twenty-first Century


The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century, Author: Ryan Avent.

By Ryan Avent – The digital revolution actually is probably going to be as transformative as the industrial revolution and the big technologies like electricity and steam that we saw then were. I think this transformation has already begun, and ironically, the evidence of that is in the struggles that we’re seeing across lots of countries that workers are facing in terms of limited growth in wages, in terms of rising inequality.

What my book tries to point out though is that in fact the biggest effect is not going to be mass unemployment. The biggest effect of the digital revolution is not going to be massive numbers of workers who just can’t find any work; it’ll be that the work they find ends up being very low-paying, because the displacement effect of these new technologies is so great, and the economy is asked to absorb so many new workers, that that’s just going to put an incredible amount of downward pressure on wages. That’s the real short-run challenge, I think.

.. The difficulty I think, again, comes in deciding who is entitled to a share of that ownership. If you’re socialising the gains, is that limited to citizens of the country, and then are any immigrant workers second-class citizens? If you don’t limit it, then suddenly you probably have social pressure to shut out immigrants, and then that leaves people on the outside of the country all the poorer. more>

Away from Oil: A New Approach

By Basil Oberholzer – Two main problems arise from the connections between monetary policy, financial markets and the oil market: the first is financial and economic instability caused by oil price volatility. The second is an environmental problem: a lower oil price inevitably means more oil consumption. This is a threat to the world climate.

Is there a joint answer to these problems? There is. While hitherto existing policy propositions like futures market regulation or a tax on fossil energy face some advantages and disadvantages, they are not able to deal with both the economic instability and the environmental problem at the same time. What is proposed here is a combination of monetary and fiscal policy. Let’s call it the oil price targeting system.

First, to achieve economic stability in the oil market, a stable oil price is needed. Second, to reduce oil consumption, the oil price should be increasing. So, let us imagine that the oil price moves on a stable and continuously rising path in order to fulfill both conditions. To implement this, the oil price has to be determined exogenously. Due to price exogeneity, speculative attacks cannot have any influence on the price and bubbles cannot emerge anymore. The oil price target can be realized by monetary policy by means of purchases and sales of oil futures. Since the central bank has unlimited power to exert demand in the market, it can basically move the oil price wherever it wants. more>

Venezuela’s Unprecedented Collapse

By Ricardo Hausmann – Media worldwide have been reporting on Venezuela, documenting truly horrible situations, with images of starvation, hopelessness, and rage.

The cover of The Economist’s July 29 issue summed it up: “Venezuela in chaos.”

The most frequently used indicator to compare recessions is GDP. According to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela’s GDP in 2017 is 35% below 2013 levels, or 40% in per capita terms. That is a significantly sharper contraction than during the 1929-1933 Great Depression in the United States, when US GDP is estimated to have fallen 28%. It is slightly bigger than the decline in Russia (1990-1994), Cuba (1989-1993), and Albania (1989-1993), but smaller than that experienced by other former Soviet States at the time of transition, such as Georgia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Ukraine, or war-torn countries such as Liberia (1993), Libya (2011), Rwanda (1994), Iran (1981), and, most recently, South Sudan.<

Put another way, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe dwarfs any in the history of the US, Western Europe, or the rest of Latin America. more>

Recovery is Not Resolution

By Carmen Reinhart – A few days ago, Greece, the most battered of Europe’s crisis countries, was able to tap global financial markets for the first time in years. With a yield of more than 4.6%, Greece’s bonds were enthusiastically snapped up by institutional investors.

Do recent positive developments in the advanced countries, which were at the epicenter of the global financial crisis of 2008, mean that the brutal aftermath of that crisis is finally over?

Good news notwithstanding, declaring victory at this stage (even a decade later) appears premature. Recovery is not the same as resolution.

It may be instructive to recall that in other protracted post-crisis episodes, including the Great Depression of the 1930s, economic recovery without resolution of the fundamental problems of excessive leverage and weak banks usually proved shallow and difficult to sustain.

During the “lost decade” of the Latin American debt crisis in the 1980s, Brazil and Mexico had a significant and promising growth pickup in 1984-1985 – before serious problems in the banking sector, an unresolved external debt overhang, and several ill-advised domestic policy initiatives cut those recoveries short. more>

Bribery, Cooperation, and the Evolution of Prosocial Institutions

By Michael Muthukrishna – There is nothing natural about democracy. There is nothing natural about living in communities with complete strangers. There is nothing natural about large-scale anonymous cooperation.

There is something very natural about prioritizing your family over other people. There is something very natural about helping your friends and others in your social circle. And there is something very natural about returning favors given to you.

The trouble is that these smaller scales of cooperation can undermine the larger-scale cooperation of modern states. One scale of cooperation, typically the one that’s smaller and easier to sustain, undermines another.

When a leader gives his daughter a government contract, it’s nepotism. But it’s also cooperation at the level of the family, well explained by inclusive fitness, undermining cooperation at the level of the state. When a manager gives her friend a job, it’s cronyism. But it’s also cooperation at the level of friends, well explained by reciprocal altruism , undermining the meritocracy.

Bribery is a cooperative act between two people, and so on. It’s no surprise that family-oriented cultures like India and China are also high on corruption, particularly nepotism.

Even in the Western world, it’s no surprise that Australia, a country of mates, might be susceptible to cronyism.

Part of the problem is that these smaller scales of cooperation are easier to sustain and explain than the kind of large-scale anonymous cooperation that we in the Western world have grown accustomed to.

So how is it that some states prevent these smaller scales of cooperation from undermining large-scale anonymous cooperation? more>

The quitting economy

When employees are treated as short-term assets, they reinvent themselves as marketable goods, always ready to quit

Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today, Author: Ilana Gershon.

By Ilana Gershon – Saying that ‘the market is the best way to organize or determine value’ overlooks many sorts of life dilemmas.

Inspired by the Nobel Prize-winner Gary Becke in adopting the market idiom, business writers began to talk about how people need to think about investing in themselves, and viewing themselves as an asset whose value only the market could effectively determine. Over time, a whole body of literature emerged advocating that people should view themselves as a business – a bundle of skills, assets, qualities, experiences and relationships to be managed and continually enhanced.

Not so long ago, business people thought that companies provided a wide variety of benefits to a large number of constituents – to upper management, to employees, to the local community, as well as to shareholders. Many of these benefits were long-term.

But as market value overtook other measures of a company’s value, maximising the short-term interests of shareholders began to override other concerns, other relationships. Quarterly earnings reports and stock prices became even more important, the sole measures of success.

How companies treated employees changed, and has not changed back.

In general, to keep stock prices high, companies not only have to pay their employees as little as possible, they must also have as temporary a workforce as their particular business can allow. The more expendable the workforce, the easier it is to expand and contract in response to short-term demands. These are market and shareholder metrics. Their dominance diminished commitment to employees, and all other commitments but to shareholders. more>

Would Free Trade Be OK If The U.S. Had A Trade Surplus?

By Nathan Lewis – There are a lot of issues surrounding trade – for example, the tendency of trade agreements to come attached with globalist institutions that erode national sovereignty. The European Coal and Steel Community (1951) not only allowed trade in coal and steel, it introduced a whole new supranational government structure, including three branches of government and a parliamentary body, that later grew into the European Union. This sort of thing should be avoided with extreme prejudice.

Today’s environment of floating fiat currencies introduces new problems. The devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1995, shortly after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, caused all sorts of hardship for U.S. competitors that cannot be attributed to any meaningful “comparative advantage.”

At present, gross exports of goods and services are about 80% of gross imports. The 20% difference is the “trade deficit.” Today, gross exports of goods and services are greater than at any time before 2007 – around 12% of GDP. We don’t seem to have any trouble selling our wares to foreigners. We are selling more to foreigners than ever. In the 1960s, when the U.S. had a trade surplus, total exports were about 5% of GDP. Imports, of course, were less than this.

If the amount we sell to foreigners has been steadily rising, why can’t we manage to run a trade surplus? more>

How bosses are (literally) like dictators

By Elizabeth Anderson – American public discourse doesn’t give us helpful ways to talk about the dictatorial rule of employers.

Instead, we talk as if workers aren’t ruled by their bosses. We are told that unregulated markets make us free, and that the only threat to our liberties is the state. We are told that in the market, all transactions are voluntary. We are told that since workers freely enter and exit the labor contract, they are perfectly free under it.

We prize our skepticism about “government,” without extending our critique to workplace dictatorship.

Why do we talk like this? The answer takes us back to free market ideas developed before the Industrial Revolution. In 17th- and 18th-century Britain, big merchants got the state to grant them monopolies over trade in particular goods, forcing small craftsmen to submit to their regulations. A handful of aristocratic families enjoyed a monopoly on land, due to primogeniture and entail, which barred the breakup and sale of any part of large estates. Farmers could rent their land only on short-term leases, which forced them to bow and scrape before their landlords, in a condition of subordination not much different from servants, who lived in their masters’ households and had to obey their rules.

The problem was that the state had rigged the rules of the market in favor of the rich. more>