Tag Archives: Capital

The Greatest Balancing Act

Nature and the global economy
By David Attenborough and Christine Lagarde – In nature, everything is connected. This is equally true of a healthy environment and a healthy economy. We cannot hope to sustain life without taking care of nature. And we need healthy economies to lift people out of poverty and achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In our current model these goals sometimes seem to collide, and our economic pursuits encroach too closely on nature. But nature—a stable climate, reliable freshwater, forests, and other natural resources—is what makes industry possible. It is not one or the other. We cannot have long-term human development without a steady climate and a healthy natural world.

The bottom line is that when we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves. The impact of our growing economic footprint threatens our own future directly. By some estimates, more than 50 percent of the world’s population is now urbanized, increasing the likelihood of people losing touch with nature.

With the projected rise in ocean levels and increase in the average temperature of the planet, large swaths of land, even whole countries, will become uninhabitable, triggering mass climate-induced migration. Never has it been more important to understand how the natural world works and what we must do to preserve it.

A necessary first step is to recognize that waste is the enemy. Wasting food, energy, or materials flies in the face of sustainability. Producing plastics fated to end up as litter is a waste, especially when these plastics pollute our oceans. If we could live by the simple injunction to “do no harm,” both individually and as businesses and economies, we could all make a difference. Overconsumption and unsustainable production have put the planet in peril.

Since the natural and economic worlds are linked, similar principles apply to both.

In the financial world, for example, we would not eat into capital to the point of depletion because that would bring about financial ruin. Yet in the natural world, we have done this repeatedly with fish stocks and forests, among many other resources—in some cases to the point of decimation. We must treat the natural world as we would the economic world—protecting natural capital so that it can continue to provide benefits well into the future. more>

There is No Economics without Politics

Every economic model is built on political assumptions
By Anat Admati – There is absolutely no way to understand events before, during, and since the financial crisis of 2007-2009 while ignoring the powerful political forces that have shaped them. Yet, remarkably, much of the economics and finance literature about financial crises focuses on studying unspecified “shocks” to a system that it largely accepts as inevitable while ignoring critical governance frictions and failures. Removing blind spots would offer economists and other academics rich opportunities to leverage their expertise to benefit society.

The history of financial economics is revealing in this regard. By the second half of the 20th century, when modern finance emerged as part of economics, the holistic approach of early thinkers such as Adam Smith—which combined economics, moral philosophy, and politics—was long gone. Narrow social-science disciplines replaced the holistic approach by the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, economists sought to make economics formal, precise, and elegant, similar to Newton’s 17th-century physics.

The focus in much of economics, particularly in finance, is on markets. Even when economists postulate a “social planner” and discuss policy, they rarely consider how this social planner gets to know what is needed or the process by which policy decisions are made and implemented. Collective action and politics are messy. Neat and elegant models are more fun and easier to market to editors and colleagues.

Lobbyists, who engage in “marketing” ideas to policymakers and to the public, are actually influential. They know how to work the system and can dismiss, take out of context, misquote, misuse, or promote research as needed. If policymakers or the public are unable or unwilling to evaluate the claims people make, lobbyists and others can create confusion and promote misleading narratives if it benefits them. In the real political economy, good ideas and worthy research can fail to gain traction while bad ideas and flawed research can succeed and have an impact.

Having observed governance and policy failures in banking, I realized that the focus on shareholder-manager conflicts is far too narrow and often misses the most important problems. We must also worry about the governance of the institutions that create and enforce the rules for all. How power structures and information asymmetries play out within and between institutions in the private and public sectors is critical. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Does America have an antitrust problem?
Markets are becoming more concentrated—and, arguably, less competitive
By Jeff Cockrell – To those who are worried about the state of contemporary American politics—those who are concerned about the historically high levels of polarization between the two main political parties, who despair of the disappearance of anything that could be called common ground, who bristle at the apparent unwillingness of any occupant of national, state, or local office to recognize the common sense or basic human decency of any proposal coming from the opposite side of the aisle—we offer you this single harmonious word of relief: antitrust.

A vocal concern for the power held by some of the United States’ most dominant companies—especially tech giants such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google—may be the only shared material among the talking points of President Donald Trump and the Democrats vying to run against him in 2020. Trump has asserted that the US should follow the European Union’s lead in handing down large fines to big tech companies for antitrust violations, and during his presidential campaign, he charged that Amazon has a “huge antitrust problem.” A number of prominent Democrats, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are on the same page, having suggested that many such companies may need to be broken up. In July, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it was “reviewing whether and how market-leading online platforms have achieved market power and are engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers.”

Concerns about competition are not unique to the tech industry. Aggregate levels of US industrial concentration—or how market share is divided among manufacturing companies—began to increase in the early 1980s after decades of relatively little change, according to research by Chicago Booth’s Sam Peltzman. The trend continued into the 21st century. Between 1987 and 2007, average concentration—as measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschman index, a commonly used gauge of market concentration—within the 386 industries included in his analysis increased by 32 percent.

If this trend toward more-concentrated industries has been accompanied by a small number of companies expanding their market power as a result of diminished competitive pressures, the effects could be momentous. In fact, some research suggests the exercise of market power could be responsible for everything from higher prices to reduced investment to the steadily diminishing share of the US economy that’s enjoyed by the labor force. more>

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Updates from McKinsey

How smart choices on taxation can help close the growing fiscal gap
The growing fiscal gap has policy makers in a difficult position. Swift action in a few areas can help them improve the operational efficiency of fiscal systems.
By Aurélie Barnay, Jonathan Davis, Jonathan Dimson, and Marco Dondi – Governments around the world have implemented a range of fiscal and debt measures to fund policy initiatives over recent decades. As a result, tax revenues as a proportion of GDP have risen four percentage points across Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries since 1980. However, many governments remain inadequately funded. Despite higher tax revenues, spending is rising faster than income, leading to widening budget deficits and higher levels of debt.

Four distinct trends are playing out: increasing automation in the workplace, leading to pressure on employment; the evolution of global trade through the proliferation of e-commerce and digital business, raising questions over cross-border taxation; rising self-employment; and an aging population. Each of these could further widen the fiscal deficit in the years ahead. Moreover, we see all four accelerating, placing policy makers in an ever-tightening fiscal bind.

Basic economics provides two options for balancing the books: either increase revenues or decrease spending.

The bottom line for governments is that there are no easy answers. Whether they seek to increase taxation or boost efficiency, they are likely to face headwinds. Still, decisive and rapid action is essential to optimize tax collections and keep pace with an inevitable rise in demand for services.

Tax revenues in OECD countries have risen slightly over the past 35 years. However, spending has risen more, leading to widening deficits that governments have bridged with debt. OECD tax revenues were 34 percent of GDP in 2017. Because of tax deficits and the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the average ratio of gross debt to GDP rose from 66 percent of GDP in 1995 to 88 percent in 2017.

Sources of tax revenue have remained stable over time. Over three decades, personal income and consumption together accounted for 82 to 89 percent of revenues. The biggest single contributor was payroll and income tax, accounting for 50 to 55 percent of revenues (even though the contribution of personal income tax declined by nearly 7 percentage points). Consumption and excise duties remain little changed at 32 to 34 percent of revenues.

More people are working for themselves, either as a contractor to several companies or a single company. This emerging gig economy accounts for an estimated 28 percent of EU and US employment. The proportion would rise to 46 percent if everyone had their preferred working arrangement, according to MGI research.

However, the gig economy creates challenges for tax authorities. First, independent workers are generally less compliant than their employed peers, and in some countries are required to pay less taxes. Evidence from the US suggests that workers subject to limited information reporting, such as the self-employed, have an around 50 percentage point lower rate of tax compliance than traditional workers. There are also ongoing legal debates in some jurisdictions over whether gig economy workers are employees for the purposes of worker classification and social security contributions.

Governments can close the widening gap between revenues and expenditures in a variety of ways through tax revenues, nontax revenues, and spending optimization. In addition, some governments are either implementing or considering approaches based on monetary finance.

The gap between government revenues and spending has widened and is likely to continue to do so. The onus, then, is on tax authorities to act now. more>

We’re All Free Riders. Get over It!

By Nicholas Gruen – Anathematized and stigmatized today, free-riders built the lion’s share of the prosperity we enjoy today.

Does that mean we should ‘share’ or ‘pirate’ more copyrighted things on the internet? Not necessarily. The free rider problem is real enough.

But here’s the thing. In addition to the free rider problem, which we should solve as best we can, there’s a free rider opportunity. And while we whine about the problem, the opportunity has always been far larger and its value grows with every passing day.

The American economist Robert Solow demonstrated in the 1950s that nearly all of the productivity growth in history – particularly our rise from subsistence to affluence since the industrial revolution – was a result not of increasing capital investment, but of people finding better ways of working and playing, and then being copied. A little of this innovation was fostered by intellectual property rights which give temporary monopolies in technology. But much less than you’d think.

Most innovation can’t be patented. And after patents expire in 20 years (it used to be less) it’s open slather. We’re not paying royalties to the estates of Matthew Bolton and James Watt for their refinements to the piston engine. But we’re still free riding on their work. In other words, free-riding made us what we are today.

At the birth of modernity Thomas Jefferson spoke of the free rider opportunity more eloquently than any statesman then or since:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Far from wanting to ignore the free rider problem, Jefferson was on top of that too, spearheading the institutionalization of intellectual property. But having done so, throughout his life, including in his administration of patents, he sought balance between dealing with the problems and seizing the opportunities presented by free riding. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Startups, forget about the technology
New ventures should focus all their efforts on problem-solving
By Michael D. Alter – Soon after Brian Chesky graduated in 2007 with a degree in industrial design, he moved from Rhode Island to San Francisco. He was shocked by the cost of living, at one point owing $1,200 for his share of the rent for an apartment, but with only $1,000 in his bank account. Chesky saw an ad for an international design conference being held in the city, which mentioned that all the nearby hotels were completely booked up. He immediately saw an opportunity: designers needed a place to stay, and he needed rent money. So he set up a website and advertised that his roommates had space to accommodate three visitors, if they would sleep on inflatable air beds. What would later become Airbnb was born.

The following year, Chesky was reading an article about the Democratic National Convention, which was due to be held in Denver. How, the article wondered, would Denver, which had some 28,000 hotel rooms at the time, accommodate about 80,000 convention goers? The entrepreneur immediately recognized that this could be a big break for his fledgling startup. “Obama supporters [could] host other Obama supporters from all over the world,” Chesky recalled three years later. “All we did was become part of the story.”

As well as being a memorable origin story that explains their name (air mattresses were the air in Airbnb), this is an instructive lesson in entrepreneurship. Chesky and his cofounders identified a twofold problem—lack of affordable accommodations and sky-high rents—and thought creatively of how they might be able to solve it and make some money at the same time.

In the startup world, it isn’t necessarily the best product that ultimately wins out. Rather, it’s the best way to solve the problem. Once you do that, you can figure out how to scale it. more>

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Preventing digital feudalism

By Mariana Mazzucato – The use and abuse of data by Facebook and other tech companies are finally garnering the official attention they deserve. With personal data becoming the world’s most valuable commodity, will users be the platform economy’s masters or its slaves?

Prospects for democratizing the platform economy remain dim.

Algorithms are developing in ways that allow companies to profit from our past, present, and future behavior – or what Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School describes as our “behavioral surplus.” In many cases, digital platforms already know our preferences better than we do, and can nudge us to behave in ways that produce still more value. Do we really want to live in a society where our innermost desires and manifestations of personal agency are up for sale?

Capitalism has always excelled at creating new desires and cravings. But with big data and algorithms, tech companies have both accelerated and inverted this process. Rather than just creating new goods and services in anticipation of what people might want, they already know what we will want, and are selling our future selves. Worse, the algorithmic processes being used often perpetuate gender and racial biases, and can be manipulated for profit or political gain. While we all benefit immensely from digital services such as Google search, we didn’t sign up to have our behavior cataloged, shaped, and sold.

To change this will require focusing directly on the prevailing business model, and specifically on the source of economic rents. Just as landowners in the seventeenth century extracted rents from land-price inflation, and just as robber barons profited from the scarcity of oil, today’s platform firms are extracting value through the monopolization of search and e-commerce services. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Why do analysts low-ball earnings forecasts?
By Martin Daks – The market-research company FactSet reports that for each quarter over the past five years, an average of 72 percent of companies in the S&P 500 beat earnings estimates. Past research, including by University of Pennsylvania’s Scott Richardson, University of California at Irvine’s Siew Hong Teoh, and Boston University’s Peter D. Wysocki has found that analysts’ forecasts become more pessimistic and thus beatable as the quarter end approaches, but an unaddressed question is how this walk-down affects clients. If analysts revise their forecasts downward each quarter to placate managers, wouldn’t this confuse the investors who ultimately pay for their services?

According to Chicago Booth’s Philip G. Berger and Washington University’s Charles G. Ham and Zachary R. Kaplan, analysts walk down forecasts by suppressing positive news from quarterly forecasts, not by issuing misleading negative revisions. When analysts have positive news, they will often revise the share price target upward or state explicitly that they expect companies to beat earnings estimates, while leaving the quarterly forecast unrevised. Suppressing positive news leads to beatable forecasts—behavior that benefits corporate executives but carries important implications for both the individual investors who rely on these predictions and researchers studying investor expectations.

When securities analysts receive updated information after issuing a quarterly forecast, they have three options: revise the current-quarter earnings forecast; issue an alternative forecast signal, such as a revision to the share price target or future-quarter earnings; or issue no additional forecast.

By not disseminating all information through the current-quarter earnings forecast, which is widely available through commercial databases, analysts provide an advantage to investment clients who have paid for access to the full breadth of their research product.

“Analysts convey information in ways that enable them to be of service to clients, who they care about, and, at the same time, to avoid displeasing corporate managers, who they also care about,” Berger says. “Non-clients, who rely on earnings forecasts because they do not have access to the whole of an analysts’ work product, end up with skewed information, but this is not a primary concern for the analysts’ business.”

The researchers demonstrate that a simple strategy based on buying companies expected to beat earnings, using share price target revisions and the text of reports, yields significant abnormal returns, suggesting the market does not see through the analysts’ strategy for conveying information selectively. more>

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New Microeconomics: How Evolution Explains Resource Distribution

By Blair Fix – Through years of schooling, mainstream economists are trained to ignore the obvious facts about human nature. The theories that economists learn make it impossible for them to understand human sociality.

Economists are trained that humans are asocial ‘globules of desire’. This is Thorstein Veblen’s satirical term for ‘homo economicus’, the economic model of man.

As Veblen makes clear, economists’ model of human behavior is bizarre. Indeed, the assumptions are so far-fetched that one wonders how this ‘theory’ ever gained acceptance. I’ve spent years trying to make sense of homo economicus as a scientific theory. I’ve concluded that this is a waste of time. Economists’ selfish model of humanity is best treated not as science, but as ideology.

Unlike scientific theories, ideologies are not about the search for ‘truth’. Instead, they are about rationalizing a certain worldview — usually the worldview of the powerful. Economists’ selfish model of humanity is a textbook example.

The discipline of economics emerged during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. During this period of social upheaval, business owners battled to wrench power from the landed aristocracy. To supplant the aristocracy, business owners needed to frame their power as legitimate (and the power of aristocrats as illegitimate). Their solution was devilishly clever. The new business class appealed to autonomy — the mirror opposite of the ideals of feudalism.

Feudalism was based on ideals of servitude and obligation. Serfs were obligated to perform free work for feudal lords. And these lords, in return, were obligated to protect serfs from outside attackers. This web of obligation was rationalized by religion — it was a natural order ordained by God.

To upend this order, business owners championed the ideals of autonomy and freedom. Business owners claimed to want nothing but to be left alone — to pursue profit unfettered by government or aristocratic power. From this world view, the autonomous model of man was born. It had nothing to do with how humans actually behaved. It was about rationalizing the goals of business owners. They wanted power, but they framed it as the pursuit of freedom and autonomy. “Power in the name of freedom” is how Jonathan Nitzan puts it. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

How multinational companies help spread recessions
By Bob Simison – The Great Recession a decade ago was one example of how economic cycles across the world can move in parallel, a phenomenon that economists don’t fully understand. It could be that a common event, such as a surge in oil prices, affects many economies at the same time—or perhaps linkages between countries transmit economic shocks from one country to the world economy.

One such linkage is multinational corporations,  according to Marcus Biermann, a postdoctoral scholar at the Catholic University of Louvain, and Chicago Booth’s Kilian Huber, who explore the role of multinationals in spreading the global recession by analyzing the ripple effects of one German bank’s struggles during the 2008–09 financial crisis.

Commerzbank was Germany’s second-biggest commercial lender behind Deutsche Bank. Losses on trading and investments abroad hammered the bank, especially after Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008. Commerzbank’s capital fell by 68 percent between December 2007 and December 2009, which forced the bank to reduce its aggregate lending stock by 17 percent. Biermann and Huber find that this pullback in credit available to German parent companies affected subsidiaries in other countries, thus helping to transmit the economic contraction. more>

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