Tag Archives: Debt

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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Ending short-termism by keeping score

By Klaus Schwab – As finance ministers gather in Washington, DC, for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s annual meetings, they will face no shortage of urgent matters to discuss. Fears of a global recession, the US-China trade war, the fallout of the Brexit talks, and a dangerous debt overhang make this the most stressful economic juncture in a decade. These issues must be discussed, and we should all hope that they can be resolved with minimal damage.

All of this assumes an end to the economic short-termism that underpins policymaking today. For that, we should develop scorecards to track our performance on these long-term priorities. To that end, I have three suggestions.

First, we need to rethink GDP as our “key performance indicator” in economic policymaking.

Second, we should embrace independent tracking tools for assessing progress under the Paris agreement and the SDGs (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).

Third, we must implement “stakeholder capitalism” by introducing an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scorecard for businesses.

On the first point, we desperately need to change our overall economic frame of reference. For 75 years, the world marched to the beat of the drum called “Gross Domestic Product.” Now, we need a new instrument. GDP gained traction when economies were primarily seen as vehicles for mobilizing wartime production. Yet today’s economies are expected to serve an entirely different purpose: maximizing wellbeing and sustainability.

It is time to consider a new approach. A group of economists from the private sector, academia, and international institutions, including Diane Coyle and Mariana Mazzucato, has already been working on alternate measures and ways to correct for the failings of GDP.

Their Wealth Project, which evolved from efforts initiated by the World Bank, has offered a number of proposals for how we can move forward. more>

How to Survive a Recession: 12 Steps You Should Take Now to Protect Your Money

By Diane Harris – “The global economy is facing increasingly serious headwinds,” said OECD chief economist Laurence Boone. “An urgent response is required.”

It shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise then that the latest Gallup poll found about half of Americans now believe that a recession in the next year is likely—a more pessimistic reading than the survey found 12 years ago, just two months prior to the start of the Great Recession.

Even more affluent households are often cash-strapped. Among those making $85,000 or more—the top 25 percent of the income range—the typical family only has enough in liquid savings to replace 40 days of income.

If a recession hits, what would your biggest financial problem be? Taking steps to address that pain point now will make your life a lot easier if trouble comes.

“Your emotions are your best clue,” says Stephanie McCullough. “What stresses you out the most—credit card debt, the feeling that you’re spending beyond your means? Whatever the little nagging voice in your head is telling you is what you should tackle first.”

These moves address the most common contenders for many families.

  1. Pay down the plastic
  2. Earmark spending cuts
  3. Get a check-up

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Consumerism isn’t a sellout – if capitalism works for all

By Richard V. Reeves – The essential thinginess of capitalism has been one of its most-criticized features. Materialism, and specifically consumerism, are almost always used as pejorative terms. Nostalgic conservatives, egalitarian progressives and environmentalists loudly agree on at least one thing: we are just buying too much stuff.

They’re not wrong. The U.S. self-storage market is already worth $38 billion, and growing fast. Almost one in ten households are now renting extra space. One feature of late capitalism is that many of us have more things than we have space for things.

At its best, however, consumerism is a powerful, positive force. It allows for the expression of identity, it can hold sellers to public account, and it drives new thinking and development. But this is only the case when consumers are being served fairly in the market. Today, there is a pressing concern about whether the forces of “bigness” – a trend toward fewer larger companies – combined with a reluctance on the part of governments to intervene in consumer markets, is dampening innovation and narrowing choice.

Before worrying about whether the market is serving consumers, we need to agree that it should. Critiques of consumerism have to be taken seriously before examining whether contemporary capitalism is friendly to consumers. These critiques usually come in four types: moral, aesthetic, financial, or environmental.

The moral critique of consumerism is that the acquisition of things displaces more worthwhile activities or priorities. Instead of shopping, we should be spending time with friends and family, in places of worship, or in nature. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Who’s at fault for student-loan defaults?
By Howard R. Gold – A central driver of growing income inequality in recent decades has been the earnings premium commanded by those with technical skills, and a widening gap between college graduates and those with a high-school diploma or less.

Workers in the United States have responded by seeking college courses to improve their skills, and many have been drawn to for-profit institutions, which offer two- or four-year degrees or professional certificates in fields such as health administration, culinary arts, and cosmetology. But rather than enjoying an income boost, many graduates of for-profit schools have found themselves struggling to pay back student loans, and defaulting on their debts.

This has particularly affected nontraditional students, according to research by Harvard’s David J. Deming, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence F. Katz.

Nontraditional students tend to be older than 25 and often they are the first in their families to attend college. They tend to have lower family incomes than typical college students. They are disproportionately women and single parents. They are more likely to be Hispanic or African American.

To be sure, college tuition rose almost 360 percent between 1985 and 2015, and graduates of professional schools, which boast some of the highest tuition rates, tend to owe the most. The median student debt of a new medical-school graduate was $190,000 in 2017, as reported by the Association of American Medical Colleges, while the average debt for graduates of US business schools was $70,000, according to the consumer-finance site SoFi.com, which derived the figure from 60,000 student-loan refinancing applications submitted between January 2014 and September 2016. more>

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How Adam Smith became a (surprising) hero to conservative economists

By Glory M Liu – People like to fight over Adam Smith. To some, the Scottish philosopher is the patron saint of capitalism who wrote that great bible of economics, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Its doctrine, his followers claim, is that unfettered markets lead to economic growth, making everyone better off. In Smith’s now-iconic phrase, it’s the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, not the heavy hand of government, that provides us with freedom, security and prosperity.

To others, such as the Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Smith is the embodiment of a ‘neoliberal fantasy’ that needs to be put to rest, or at least revised. They question whether economic growth should be the most important goal, point to the problems of inequality, and argue that Smith’s system would not have enabled massive accumulations of wealth in the first place. Whatever your political leanings, one thing is clear: Smith speaks on both sides of a longstanding debate about the fundamental values of modern market-oriented society.

But these arguments over Smith’s ideas and identity are not new. His complicated reputation today is the consequence of a long history of fighting to claim his intellectual authority.

Smith’s first biographer, Dugald Stewart, deliberately portrayed him in the 1790s as an introverted, awkward genius whose magnum opus was an apolitical handbook of sorts. Stewart downplayed Smith’s more politically subversive moments, such as his blistering criticism of merchants, his hostility towards established religion, and his contempt for ‘national prejudice’, or nationalism. Instead, Stewart shined a spotlight on what he believed was one of ‘the most important opinions in The Wealth of Nations’: that ‘Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.’

Stewart’s biography (first delivered as an eulogy in 1793, then published in 1794 and 1795) appeared in the wake of major events that terrified British audiences: the French Revolution of 1789, the Reign of Terror that followed and the sedition trials that followed in both England and Scotland. As the British historian Emma Rothschild has shown, Stewart’s depiction of Smith’s ideas cherrypicked in order to imbue political economy with scientific authority. She writes that he wanted to portray political economy as ‘an innocuous, technical sort of subject’, to help construct a politically ‘safe’ legacy for Smith during politically dangerous times. Stewart’s effort marked the beginning of Smith’s association with ‘conservative economics’.

Smith would soon earn a reputation as the father of the science of political economy – what we now know as economics. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Given an out, people still fall back into debt
Research finds that keeping people out of debt traps isn’t as simple as paying off their loans
By Dee Gill – To the frustration of financial counselors everywhere, millions of people doom themselves to perpetual debt by repeatedly taking out small but expensive short-term loans they can barely afford. In the United States, these typically come from payday or car title lenders and go to financially strapped individuals.

In developing countries, small-scale entrepreneurs rely on daily or weekly loans for working capital. In both cases, borrowers pay exorbitant interest rates and, often, additional fees to extend a loan over and over. Interest payments can quickly add up to more than the loan amount.

Understanding how people get sucked into these debt traps is an important public-policy issue, according to Northwestern’s Dean Karlan, Chicago Booth’s Sendhil Mullainathan, and Harvard’s Benjamin N. Roth.

They conducted a series of experiments with indebted entrepreneurs in India and the Philippines and find that having their short-term loans paid off took the participants out of debt only temporarily. The entrepreneurs in question quickly took out new, profit-sapping loans. more>

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Time for a red shift from Germany’s ‘black zero’

By Peter Bofinger – If our children and grandchildren look back on the present day in 30 years, they will wonder how it was that such a civilised country as the United Kingdom could actually entertain leaving the European Union and robbing itself of its economic and political prospects.

In Germany they could ask the question why the land of poets and thinkers came up with the idea of ​​blindly sacrificing itself to the ideology of the ‘black zero’.

How could it be that Germany deliberately renounced investments in the future—and even believed that in doing so it was doing future generations a favor?

The German social-democrat party (SPD) is currently correcting mistakes from the past. This applies in particular to the 2005 ‘Hartz IV’ labor-market reform proposed by the eponymous commission, chaired by the personnel director of Volkswagen, established when Gerard Schröder was SPD chancellor. It has been celebrated as a great success for many years. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to resemble the fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

Today, Germany has a ratio of public debt to gross domestic product of 56 per cent, which is already below the 60 per cent threshold set by the Maastricht treaty. It is considerably below the level of the other G7 countries: Japan has the highest debt at 237 per cent of GDP, followed by Italy (129 per cent), the United States (108), France (96), the United Kingdom (87) and Canada (85).

Economics has so far failed to derive convincingly an upper limit on the debt-to-GDP ratio. more>

How Bronze Age Rulers Simply Canceled Debts

By Michael Hudson – My book And forgive them their debts”: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year  is about the origins of economic organization ad enterprise in the Bronze Age, and how it shaped the Bible. It’s not about modern economies. But the problem is – as the reviewer mentioned – that the Bronze Age and early Western civilization was shaped so differently from what we think of as logical and normal, that one almost has to rewire one’s brain to see how differently the archaic view of economic survival and enterprise was.

Credit economies existed long before money and coinage. These economies were agricultural. Grain was the main means of payment – but it was only paid once a year, at harvest time. You can imagine how awkward it would be to carry around grain in your pocket and measure it out every time you had a beer.

We know how Sumerians and Babylonians paid for their beer (which they drank through straws, and which was cleaner than the local water). The ale-woman marked it up on the tab she kept. The tab had to be paid at harvest time, on the threshing floor, when the grain was nice and fresh. The ale-woman then paid the palace or temple for its advance of wholesale beer for her to retail during the year.

If the crops failed, or if there was a flood or drought, or a military battle, the cultivators couldn’t pay. So what was the ruler to do? If he said, “You owe the tax collector, and can’t pay. Now you have to become his slave and let him foreclose on your land.”

Suddenly, you would have had a slave society. The cultivators couldn’t serve in the army, and couldn’t perform their corvée duties to build local infrastructure.

To avoid this, the ruler simply cancelled the debts (most of which were owed ultimately to the palace and its collectors). The cultivators didn’t have to pay the ale-women. And the ale women didn’t have to pay the palace.

All this was spelled out in the Clean Slate proclamations by rulers of Hammurabi’s dynasty in Babylonia (2000-1600 BC), and neighboring Near Eastern realms. They recognized that there was a cycle of buildup of debt, reaching an unpayably high overhead, followed by a cancellation to restore the status quo ante in balance.

This concept is very hard for Westerners to understand. more>

The Liberal Conception Of ‘Freedom’ Is Incapable Of Addressing The Problems Of Contemporary Capitalism

By Andrea Lorenzo Capussela – In a forthcoming book, Branko Milanović identifies four ‘troublesome features’ in ‘meritocratic liberal capitalism’.

In its simplest form, liberal theory – equal rights for all citizens, which guarantee their freedom, which is in turn conceived as absence of interference – has no obvious answer to those problems. For if freedom is non-interference, then it is compatible with both inequality and private domination, at least within certain bounds, as neither directly interferes with people’s individual choices.

Indeed, accepting precarious employment is a choice. And as liberals cannot say that Milanović’s four ‘troublesome features’ pose a fundamental challenge to their idea of a good society, their answer is a Ptolemaic one: sets of diverse, if potentially effective remedies such as redistribution, poverty relief, active labor market policies, civic education, and policing fake-news.

For the liberal conception of freedom is not the only conceivable one. Another notion, equally negative, is the republican or neo-roman one, which views freedom as non-domination. If I depend on someone else’s arbitrary will, or am subject to their enormous and unchecked power, I am not free, irrespective of how that power is exercised.

Hence the paradox of the ‘free slave’, frequent in republican literature: liberal theory implies that the slave who has a kind master is free, as she suffers no interference in her choices; republicans object that this depends entirely on the master’s benevolence, which can be revoked at will and may have to be cultivated: domination and unfreedom remain, therefore, and typically lead to self-censorship and a slavish mentality. more>