Tag Archives: Financial crisis

How evil happens

BOOK REVIEW

Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, Author: Noga Arikha.
Eichmann in Jerusalem, Author: Hannah Arendt.
The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Author: Simon Baron-Cohen.
Home Fire, Author: Kamila Shamsie.

By Noga Arikha – The ‘sapiens’ in Homo sapiens does not fully describe our species: we are as violent as we are smart.

This might be why we are the only Homo genus left over in the first place, and why we have been so destructively successful at dominating our planet. But still the question nags away: how are ordinary people capable of such obscene acts of violence?

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behavior, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.

The social neuroscientist Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig in Germany defines empathy as the ability to ‘resonate’ with the feelings of the other. It develops from babyhood on – as imitation at first, then joint attention – into the ability to adopt the point of view of another, along with a shift in spatial perception from self to other, as if one were literally stepping into another’s shoes.

This requires an ability to distinguish between self and other in the first place, an aspect of the so-called ‘theory of mind’ that one acquires over the first five years of life.

But while empathy ensures the cohesion of a group or a society, it is also biased and parochial. Revenge thrives on it. more>

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Updates from Chicago Booth

By Michael Maiello – Yale University’s Bryan T. Kelly, Chicago Booth’s Dacheng Xiu, and Booth PhD candidate Shihao Gu investigated 30,000 individual stocks that traded between 1957 and 2016, examining hundreds of possibly predictive signals using several techniques of machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence.

They conclude that ML had significant advantages over conventional analysis in this challenging task.

ML uses statistical techniques to give computers abilities that mimic and sometimes exceed human learning. The idea is that computers will be able to build on solutions to previous problems to eventually tackle issues they weren’t explicitly programmed to take on.

“At the broadest level, we find that machine learning offers an improved description of asset price behavior relative to traditional methods,” the researchers write, suggesting that ML could become the engine of effective portfolio management, able to predict asset-price movements better than human managers.

Of almost 100 characteristics the researchers investigated, the most successful predictors were price trends, liquidity, and volatility. more>

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Are Stock Buybacks Starving the Economy?

By Annie Lowrey – Stock buybacks are eating the world. The once illegal practice of companies purchasing their own shares is pulling money away from employee compensation, research and development, and other corporate priorities—with potentially sweeping effects on business dynamism, income and wealth inequality, working-class economic stagnation, and the country’s growth rate. Evidence for that conclusion comes from a new report by Irene Tung of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and Katy Milani of the Roosevelt Institute, who looked at share buybacks in the restaurant, retail, and food industries from 2015 to 2017.

Buybacks occur when a company takes profits, cash reserves, or borrowed money to purchase its own shares on the public markets, a practice barred until the Ronald Reagan administration.

The regulatory argument against allowing the practice is that it is a way for companies to manipulate the markets; the regulatory argument for it is that companies should be able to spend money how they see fit.

In recent years, with corporate profits high, American firms have bought their own stocks with extraordinary zeal.

Federal Reserve data show that buybacks are now equivalent to 4 percent of annual economic output, up from zero percent in the 1990s. Companies spent roughly $7 trillion on their own shares from 2004 to 2014, and have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on buybacks in the past six months alone. more>

Why The Only Answer Is To Break Up The Biggest Wall Street Banks

By Robert Reich – Glass-Steagall’s key principle was to keep risky assets away from insured deposits. It worked well for more than half century. Then Wall Street saw opportunities to make lots of money by betting on stocks, bonds, and derivatives (bets on bets) – and in 1999 persuaded Bill Clinton and a Republican congress to repeal it.

Nine years later, Wall Street had to be bailed out, and millions of Americans lost their savings, their jobs, and their homes.

Why didn’t America simply reinstate Glass-Steagall after the last financial crisis? Because too much money was at stake. Wall Street was intent on keeping the door open to making bets with commercial deposits. So instead of Glass-Steagall, we got the Volcker Rule – almost 300 pages of regulatory mumbo-jumbo, riddled with exemptions and loopholes.

Now those loopholes and exemptions are about to get even bigger, until they swallow up the Volcker Rule altogether. If the latest proposal goes through, we’ll be nearly back to where we were before the crash of 2008. more>

Fiscal Policy Remains In The Stone Age

By Simon Wren-Lewis – Or maybe the middle ages, but certainly not anything more recent than the 1920s. Keynes advocated using fiscal expansion in what he called a liquidity trap in the 1930s. Nowadays we use a different terminology, and talk about the need for fiscal expansion when nominal interest rates are stuck at the Zero Lower Bound or Effective Lower Bound.

When monetary policy loses its reliable and effective instrument to manage the economy, you need to bring in the next best reliable and effective instrument: fiscal policy.

The Eurozone as a whole is currently at the effective lower bound. Rates are just below zero and the ECB is creating money for large scale purchases of assets: a monetary policy instrument whose impact is much more uncertain than interest rate changes or fiscal policy changes (but certainly better than nothing). The reason monetary policy is at maximum stimulus setting is that Eurozone core inflation seems stuck at 1% or below. Time, clearly, for fiscal policy to start lending a hand with some fiscal stimulus.

You would think that causing a second recession after the one following the GFC would have been a wake up call for European finance ministers to learn some macroeconomics. Yet what little learning there has been is not to make huge mistakes but only large ones: we should balance the budget when there is no crisis. more>

The Troubling Transformation Of The EU

By Hans Kundnani – There are two quite different ways of thinking about the Commission’s proposals. For Macron, they were part of a vision for a “Europe qui protege” in which there would be greater “solidarity” between citizens and member states.

In the context of this vision, the new European Monetary Fund would be a kind of embryonic treasury for the eurozone. But many in Germany, including Wolfgang Schäuble, seem to support the same idea for entirely different reasons. They see it as a way to increase control over EU member states’ budgets and more strictly enforce the eurozone’s fiscal rules and thus increase European “competitiveness”. If that vision were to prevail, “more Europe” would mean “more Germany” – as many of the steps that have been taken in the last seven years since the euro crisis began have.

These different visions illustrate the way that deepening European integration is not automatically or inherently a good thing. In fact, steps such as turning the ESM (European Stability Mechanism) into a European Monetary Fund may form part of a troubling transformation of the EU that goes back to the beginning of the euro crisis.

It is as if the EU is in the process of being remade in the image of the IMF. It increasingly seems to be a vehicle for imposing market discipline on member states – something quite different from the project that the founding fathers had in mind and also quite different from how most “pro-Europeans” continue to imagine the EU.

Indeed, it is striking that, in discussions about debt relief for crisis countries, the European Commission has often been even more unyielding than the IMF. As Luigi Zingales put it in July 2015: “If Europe is nothing but a bad version of the IMF, what is left of the European integration project?” more>

Rational Irrational Exuberance?

By Andrés Velasco – The timing was exquisitely ironic: equity markets peaked – and a week later began crashing – just as pundits left this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, where they concluded that the global economy was on a steady upswing. In the weeks since, experts have divided into two camps.

Some, including new US Federal Reserve Board chairman Jerome Powell, believe that economic fundamentals are strong, and that what stock markets experienced in early February was only a temporary hiccup.

Then there are those who believe that fundamentals are in fact weak, that the current upswing will prove unsustainable, and that investors should regard stock-market gyrations as a necessary wakeup call.

Both schools of thought share a focus on fundamentals, unlike a third – and, in my opinion, highly plausible – view: that the asset-price volatility we have been seeing has little or nothing to do with changes in fundamentals.

The human brain is wired to structure knowledge around narratives in which we can tell if and how A (and B and C) causes X. We tend to be uncomfortable with the notion that an economy’s fundamentals do not determine its asset prices, so we look for causal links between the two. But needing or wanting those links does not make them valid or true. more>

Three Cheers for Financial Repression

By Tom Streithorst – “Financial repression.” It sounds terrifying, right? It smacks of authoritarian bureaucrats sucking the life-blood out of hard-working, innovative makers and doers.

Umm, no. That’s not even close. It’s about bondholders. Economists started using the term in the 1970s when bondholders were losing money because inflation exceeded the interest rate.

These days, it’s market forces more than government policy that push real interest rates below zero. Whether you call it a savings glut or secular stagnation, our collective desire to save far exceeds our collective desire to invest. Savers want safe assets more than borrowers want to invest in productive capacity.

Don’t cry for the rentier class. For the past forty years (ever since Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker manufactured a brutal recession in order to eliminate 1970s inflation) economic policymakers have concentrated on ensuring the profitability of the bond market more than just about anything else. They focused their attention on financial stability and low inflation rather than the traditional goal of promoting full employment.

Consequently, the financial sector has quadrupled in size relative to the rest of the economy, the rich absorb most of the benefits of growth, and workers’ real wages have stagnated or even declined. Financialization has made wealthholders richer than ever, but it hasn’t done much for the rest of us.

What is good for the bankers has not been good for the economy as a whole. more>

Europe’s Poor Need More Than Jobs

By Ive Marx – The idea that – to use a ubiquitous political slogan – “the best protection against poverty is a job” remains the mantra in the corridors of power right across Europe and indeed in Brussels. It is, alas, more tenet of faith than a statement of fact.

Unfortunately, things are not as simple. Employment growth never yielded the hoped-for reductions in poverty in the past (see here). There is no reason to expect that things will turn out any different this time.

First, many of the poor live in households where no adult has a job. Such “jobless households” often face severe financial hardship, including any children. In the past, employment growth never produced anywhere near commensurate drops in household jobless rates. Instead it tended to boost the number of double- or multi-earner households.

A second reason why more people in work does not automatically bring less poverty is that getting a job may not be enough for a household to escape poverty. Long considered a typically American phenomenon, there is now ample evidence that the “working poor” are to be found in significant numbers in every European country.

In conclusion: it is time to remind Europe’s politicians of the promises they made to bring poverty down. They seem to think that Europe’s buoyant labor markets will do the job. They will not. more>

Monopoly Now Wants You to Cheat—Just Like Real Capitalists

BOOK REVIEW

Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism & The Economics of Destruction, Author: Barry Lynn.

By Nick Cassella – The year was 1904, and Lizzie Maggie wanted to create a board game that acted as “a harsh criticism of wealth disparity.” Upset by the the inequality around her, Maggie aspired to ridicule and condemn the dire outcomes of unbridled capitalism. So she constructed the Landlord’s Game, which intended to educate players on the rules and regulations of realty and taxation. Eventually, it ended up being the precursor to the game-which-nobody-ever-finishes, Monopoly.

A long time has passed since then and it’s safe to say that Maggie’s hope has not been realized. Monopoly’s creator would look at today’s economic landscape and be disheartened.

It appears as if Hasbro is trying to draw attention to Monopoly’s original purpose by releasing a new “cheaters edition” this autumn.

The cheaters edition follows the rules of classic Monopoly, except this version encourages players to break them…They encourage players to cheat in various ways, from collecting rent on another player’s property or stealing money from the bank.

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