Posts Tagged ‘crash’

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The economic crises that came to a head in 2008 and the massive response—by the U.S. government and corporations themselves—reshaped the world we live in.* Although sectors of the U.S. economy are still in one of their longest expansions, most people recognize that the recovery has been profoundly uneven and the economic gains have not been fairly distributed.

The question is, what has changed—and, equally significant, what hasn’t—during the past decade?

DJCA

Let’s start with U.S. stock markets, which over the course of less than 18 months, from October 2007 to March 2009, dropped by more than half. And since then? As is clear from the chart above, stocks (as measured by the Dow Jones Composite Average) have rebounded spectacularly, quadrupling in value (until the most recent sell-off). One of the reasons behind the extraordinary bull market has been monetary policy, which through normal means and extraordinary measures has transferred debt and put a great deal of inexpensive money in the hands of banks, corporations, and wealth investors.

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The other major reason is that corporate profits have recovered, also in spectacular fashion. As illustrated in the chart above, corporate profits (before tax, without adjustments) have climbed almost 250 percent from their low in the third quarter of 2008. Profits are, of course, a signal to investors that their stocks will likely rise in value. Moreover, increased profits allow corporations themselves to buy back a portion of their stocks. Finally, wealthy individuals, who have managed to capture a large share of the growing surplus appropriated by corporations, have had a growing mountain of cash to speculate on stocks.

Clearly, the United States has experienced a profit-led recovery during the past decade, which is both a cause and a consequence of the stock-market bubble.

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The crash and the Second Great Depression, characterized by the much-publicized failures of large financial institutions such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, raised a number of concerns about the rise in U.S. bank asset concentration that started in the 1990s. Today, as can be seen in the chart above, those concentration ratios (the 3-bank ratio in purple, the 5-bank ratio in green) are even higher. The top three are JPMorgan Chase (which acquired Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual), Bank of America (which purchased Merrill Lynch), and Wells Fargo (which took over Wachovia, North Coast Surety Insurance Services, and Merlin Securities), followed by Citigroup (which has managed to survive both a partial nationalization and a series of failed stress tests), and Goldman Sachs (which managed to borrow heavily, on the order of $782 billion in 2008 and 2009, from the Federal Reserve). At the end of 2015 (the last year for which data are available), the 5 largest “Too Big to Fail” banks held nearly half (46.5 percent) of the total of U.S. bank assets.

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Moreover, in the Trump administration as in the previous two, the revolving door between Wall Street and the entities in the federal government that are supposed to regulate Wall Street continues to spin. And spin. And spin.

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As for everyone else, they’ve barely seen a recovery. Real median household income in 2016 was only 1.5 percent higher than it was before the crash, in 2007.

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That’s because, even though the underemployment rate (the annual average rate of unemployed workers, marginally attached workers, and workers employed part-time for economic reasons as a percentage of the civilian labor force plus marginally attached workers, the blue line in the chart) has fallen in the past ten years, it is still very high—9.6 percent in 2016. In addition, the share of low-wage jobs (the percentage of jobs in occupations with median annual pay below the poverty threshold for a family of four, the orange line) remains stubbornly elevated (at 23.3 percent) and the wage share of national income (the green line) is still less than what it was in 2009 (at 43 percent)—and far below its postwar high (of 50.9 percent, in 1969).

Clearly, the recovery that corporations, Wall Street, and owners of stocks have engineered and enjoyed during the past 10 years has largely bypassed American workers.

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One of the consequences of the lopsided recovery is that the distribution of income—already obscenely unequal prior to the crash—has continued to worsen. By 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the share of pretax national income going to the top 1 percent had risen to 20.2 percent (from 19.9 percent in 2007), while that of the bottom 90 percent had fallen to 53 percent (from 54.2 percent in 2007). In other words, the rising income share of the top 1 percent mirrors the declining share of the bottom 90 percent of the distribution.

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The distribution of wealth in the United States is even more unequal. The top 1 percent held 38.6 percent of total household wealth in 2016, up from 33.7 percent in 2007, that of the next 9 percent more or less stable at 38.5 percent, while that of the bottom 90 percent had shrunk even further, from 28.6 percent to 22.8 percent.

So, back to my original question: what has—and has not—changed over the course of the past decade?

One area of the economy has clearly rebounded. Through their own efforts and with considerable help from the government, the stock market, corporate profits, Wall Street, and the income and wealth of the top 1 percent have all recovered from the crash. It’s certainly been their kind of recovery.

And they’ve recovered in large part because everyone else has been left behind. The vast majority of people, the American working-class, those who produce but don’t appropriate the surplus: they’ve been forced, within desperate and distressed circumstances, to shoulder the burden of a recovery they’ve had no say in directing and from which they’ve been mostly excluded.

The problem is, that makes the current recovery no different from the run-up to the crash itself—grotesque levels of inequality that fueled the bloated profits on both Main Street and Wall Street and a series of speculative asset bubbles. And the current recovery, far from correcting those tendencies, has made them even more obscene.

Thus, ten years on, U.S. capitalism has created the conditions for renewed instability and another, dramatic crash.

 

*In a post last year, I called into question any attempt to precisely date the beginning of the crises.

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The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thoughtRudi Dornbusch

Last week, a wide variety of U.S. media (including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today) marked what they considered to be the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of the global economic crisis—from which we still haven’t recovered.

The event in question, which occurred on 9 August 2007, was the announcement by international banking group BNP Paribas that, because their fund managers could not calculate a reliable net asset value of three mutual funds, they were suspending redemptions.

But, as I explain to my students, “Beware the appearance of precision!” For example, the more numbers after the decimal point (2.9, 2.93, 2.926, etc.), the more real and precise the number appears to be. But such a number is only ever an estimate, a best guess, about what is going on (whether it be the growth of output or the increase in new home sales).

The same holds for dates. It would be odd to choose a particular day ten years ago that, among all the possible causes and precipitating events, put the U.S. and world economies on the road to the Second Great Depression. That would be like saying World War I was caused on 28 June 1914, when Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Or that the first Great Depression began on Black Thursday, 24 October 1929.

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Given the centrality of housing sales, mortgages, and mortgage-backed securities in creating the fragility of the financial sector, we could just as easily choose July 2005 (when, as in the green line in the chart above, new one-family house sales peaked), January 2006 (when, as in the blue line, new privately owned housing units starts peaked), or February 2007 (when the Case-Shiller home price index, the red line, started its slide).

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Or, alternatively, we could choose the third quarter of 2006, when the U.S. corporate profit share (before taxes and without adjustments) reached its peak, at almost 12 percent of national income. After that, it began to fall, and the decisions of capitalists dragged the entire economy to the brink of disaster.

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Or the year 2005, when the profits of the financial and insurance sector were at their highest level—at $158.3 trillion—and then began to decline. Then, of course, it was bailed out after falling into negative territory in 2008.

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Or, given the centrality of inequality in creating the conditions for the crash, we can go all the way back to 1980, when the share of income going to the top 1 percent was “only” 10.7 percent—since after that it started to rise, reaching an astounding 20.6 percent in 2006.

Those are all possible dates, some of course more precise than others.

What is important is each one of those indicators gives us a sense of how the normal workings of capitalism—in housing, finance and insurance, corporate profits, and the distribution of income—created, together and over time, the conditions for the most severe set of crises since the first Great Depression. And now, as a result of the crash and the nature of the recovery, all of them have been restored.

Thus creating the conditions for the next crash to occur, ten years after the last one.

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Income inequality continues to grow in the United States—which represents the very definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

According to recent data by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, from 1979 through 2006, the share of pre-tax income going to the bottom 50 percent of U.S. households fell from an already-low 20.1 percent to an even-lower 13.5 percent. During that same period, the top 1 percent went from 11.1 percent to 20.1 percent. (Their respective shares crossed in 1995, when each—the bottom 50 percent and the top 1 percent—took home about 15.5 percent of pre-tax income). In 1979, top 1-percent individuals earned on average 28 times more than bottom 50-percent individuals before tax while they earned 74 times more in 2006.

Then, after the crash (when the share of the top 1 percent decreased, as expected), during the so-called recovery (starting in 2009), the share of the bottom 50 percent continued to fall (to 12.5 percent, in 2014, the last year for which data are available) while that of the top 1 percent was restored (to 20.2 percent, in 2014). By 2014, top 1-percent individuals earned on average 81 times more than bottom 50-percent individuals. The share of income going to the top 1 percent is now almost twice as large as that of the bottom 50-percent share, a group that is by definition fifty times more numerous.

And government redistribution has offset only a tiny fraction of the increase in pre-tax inequality. Even after taxes and transfers, the growth in average income for working-age adults in the bottom 50 percent of the distribution since 1979 has been much lower than that of working-age adults in the top 1 percent (34 percent vs. 141 percent).*

So, the growing inequality that has characterized the years of the recovery from the crash of 2007-08 mirrors the decades of rising inequality that caused the crash in the first place.

And that, in a word, is insane.

*In other words, while the aggregate flow of government transfers has increased, these transfers are largely targeted to the elderly and the middle-class (individuals above the median and below the 90th percentile). Transfers that go to the bottom 50 percent have not been large enough to lift income significantly, especially compared to those at the top. Thus, for example, in terms of shares of post-tax income from 1979 to 2014, the bottom 50 percent has fallen from 25.6 percent to 19.4 percent, while the share of the top 1 percent has risen, from 9.1 percent to 15.6 percent.

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While Wells Fargo (whose CEO blamed employees for his bank’s failings) has put traditional banks in the news lately, the resurgence of the so-called shadow banking sector has largely gone unnoticed.

Until now.

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The Dallas Fed (pdf) has issued an alarming report concerning the growth of financial activities that, while connected to traditional banks, remains largely unregulated—even under Dodd-Frank.

“Shadow banking,” an almost sinister-sounding term that originated in 2007, describes large banks’ practice of constructing off-balance-sheet legal entities to circumvent regulatory oversight. These operations initially traded in instruments that repackaged bank-issued loans as bonds, selling them to investors.

Shadow banking has since become a catchall for financial markets and intermediaries that perform bank-like activities—transforming the maturity, liquidity or credit quality of capital. True to the term’s origins, shadow banking remains lightly regulated, potentially harboring unique risks without the oversight and deposit insurance offered to more traditional counterparts.

The risk arises, not only from the size of shadow-banking activities, but also because of the “intricate and inextricable links to its regulated peers through lines of credit, derivatives, insurance, coinvestments, securitization and securities clearing, wealth management, counterparty arrangements and other bilateral services” and the fact that, given the multiple links before banks and nonbank intermediaries, a collapse in shadow banking can spread throughout the rest of the banking sector.

That’s exactly what happened in 2007-08.

Some nonbank intermediaries (such as money market mutual funds and securitization vehicles) were highly leveraged or had large holdings of illiquid assets and proved vulnerable to runs when investors withdrew large sums on short notice.

The forced sell-off led to fire sales of assets, reducing their value and propagating the stress onto traditional banks. Banks, facing their own financial difficulties and fearing heightened economic risk, tightened lending standards across the board, potentially impacting otherwise creditworthy borrowers and leading to a broad economic slowdown.

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Clearly, Federal Reserve and taxpayer-financed bailouts worked for the financial sector—as profits quickly rebounded and have continued to soar since 2008. But the search for additional financial profits has recreated some of the same systemic risks that, just eight years ago, shook the world economy and took it to the brink of disaster.

Once again, the shadows of the financial institutions continue to lengthen.

I keep finding myself reminding relatives and friends that, when it comes to the pronouncements of mainstream economists (like Greg Mankiw) and presidential candidates (of which we’re now down to two, at least in terms of major political parties), there’s another America out there, which many of us only dimly view.

But every once in a while, we get a sense of what is going on, often through good reporting (in addition to, as Bill Moyers suggests, short stories, novels, and plays by working-class writers).

One example is the remarkable—and bone-chilling—article by Shane Bauer for Mother Jones. Back in 2014, Bauer went undercover at a private, for-private prison in Louisiana, working as a guard. Conditions at the prison were extraordinarily bad, for inmates and guards alike. Four months later he was found out, when a Mother Jones videographer was arrested while gathering footage nearby. The resulting essay is 35,000-word opus accompanied by a six-part video series (of which the first is at the top of this post). Basically, it’s a story of how the corporate search for profits led to a lack of resources in the cell blocks Bauer patrolled, while low wages created a constant turnover among employees. Inmates lived in overcrowded squalor and were routinely denied health care for serious psychological and physical sickness. And prison officials and guards resorted to the use of arbitrary force in the absence of of proper staffing and facilities.

Here’s a short excerpt (from chapter 3):

The walk is eerily quiet. Crows caw, fog hangs low over the basketball courts. The prison is locked down. Programs have been canceled. With the exception of kitchen workers, none of the inmates can leave their dorms. Usually, lockdowns occur when there are major disturbances, but today, with some officers out for the holidays, guards say there just aren’t enough people to run the prison. (CCA says Winn was never put on lockdown due to staffing shortages.) The unit manager tells me to shadow one of the two floor officers, a burly white Marine veteran. His name is Jefferson, and as we walk the floor an inmate asks him what the lockdown is about. “You know half of the fucking people don’t want to work here,” Jefferson tells him. “We so short-staffed and shit, so most of the gates ain’t got officers.” He sighs dramatically. (CCA claims to have “no knowledge” of gates going unmanned at Winn.)

“It’s messed up,” the prisoner says.

“Man, it’s so fucked up it’s pitiful,” Jefferson replies. “The first thing the warden asked me [was] what would boost morale around here. The first two words out of my mouth: pay raise.” He takes a gulp of coffee from his travel mug.

“They do need to give y’all a pay raise,” the prisoner says.

It’s a story, in other words, of contemporary America—not just of private prisons (although it is an indictment of the growth of for-private incarceration), but also of the frustrations associated with the military-like occupation of U.S. streets (with an understanding of what that means for both the occupiers and the occupied).

The second article appeared in Tuesday’s New York Times, on the uneven recovery in Las Vegas, the epicenter of the housing crisis. The story is very different, about middle-class people who couldn’t be more different from inmates and prison guards, who are suffering from being underwater on their mortgages and struggling to negotiate a sale to avoid foreclosure.

But I was struck by two similarities—of people imprisoned in their homes (because they can’t get out from under their high mortgage payments) and of the violence (real or perceived) of their once-prosperous housing developments. Consider the story of Michael Hutchings who, with his wife and their children, still lives in their 10-year-old dream home.

A Marine veteran, Mr. Hutchings is now a block captain for the neighborhood association near Sunrise Mountain, 10 miles east of the Strip. Like many residents of the scattered American cities where violent crime is rising, he got so concerned that he installed iron gates and 12 security cameras to watch over his 1-year-old son, Maxim, and 3-year-old daughter, Natalia, as they play. When he takes them to the park, he goes armed.

The inmates and guards of the Winn Correctional Center and the Las Vegas homeowners who still have not experienced a recovery from the crash of 2007-08 are, in their different ways, prisoners of the American Dream.

The new paper by Johns Hopkins University economist Laurence Ball, “The Fed and Lehman Brothers” (pdf), is creating quite a stir. And for good reason.

Fed officials have not been transparent about the Lehman crisis. Their explanations for their actions rest on flawed economic and legal reasoning and dubious factual claims.

Ball, on the basis of exhaustive research, calls out the officials in charge—Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (played by William Hurt in the clip from Too Big to Fail at the top of the post), Fed chair Ben Bernanke, and New York Fed President Timothy Geithner—for not bailing out Lehman Brothers in September 2008. His argument is that the Federal Reserve did have the authority to rescue Lehman but chose not to—and they chose not to because they acceded authority to Paulson, who “feared the political firestorm that would have followed a rescue.”

Of course the decision not to rescue Lehman Brothers was political. And, if they’d taken the decision to bailout the failed global financial services firm, that would have been political, too.

The fact is, Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner (as well as mainstream economists and other economic policymakers) were caught in their own logic of deregulating financial institutions and letting “the market” work according to its own rules (because, as Paulson admits, “they were making too much money”). That meant the emergence of a giant financial bubble—based on a toxic mix of subprime mortgages, mortgage-backed securities, and credit-default swaps—that would eventually burst. To save Lehman would have meant questioning those same private, market-based rules—with the hope that letting Lehman go under would restore order and not bring the rest of the financial system to its knees.

But, just so we understand, if they had chosen to rescue Lehman, that also would have been a political decision—to save the bankers that had made enormous profits from fees and bets on both simple and complex financial deals while, from 2007 on, everyone else was suffering from mounting foreclosures, homelessness, and unemployment.

As we know, they took the political decision not to bailout Lehman and then they covered it up, behind a series of stories—they had carefully examined the adequacy of Lehman’s collateral and they lacked the legal authority to intervene—that are convincingly disputed by Ball. Documenting the lack of transparency on the part of U.S. financial authorities about the decisions that were and were not taken in 2008 (from Bear Sterns through Lehman Brothers to AIG) is the real significance of Ball’s investigation.

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But it’s not the real political issue. Whether or not to rescue Lehman pales into insignificance when compared to two other events: the decision to let the financial system spiral out of control, and the decision not to nationalize the major financial institutions. The fact is, profits in the financial sector were enormous, reaching 40 percent of total domestic profits by the mid-2000s. It was a political decision to allow those profits to grow, even as the financial mechanisms that generated those profits were creating the financial fragility that led to the crash of 2007-08.

And then, after the crash, when the U.S. government owned an increasingly large share of the financial sector (from AIG to Ally Bank, the former GM financing arm), it was a political decision not to nationalize—or, better, not to effectively utilize the de facto nationalization of—the financial institutions it had rescued. The Obama administration and the Fed could have taken over decisionmaking in the banks, insurance companies, and government-sponsored enterprises it then owned (in exchange for the direct bailouts and other financial commitments) but they chose not to, preferring instead to negotiate payback plans and return them as quickly as possible to private ownership. That, too, was a political decision.

Ball admits “We will never know what Lehman Brothers’ long-term fate would have been if the Fed rescued it from its liquidity crisis.” True.

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But we do know what the fate of the U.S. economy has been as the result of two, much more important political decisions—to deregulate financial markets beginning in the 1990s and to not nationalize the major financial institutions after they were rescued with trillions of dollars of public financing and commitments. The first decision led directly to the crash of 2007-08, the second to the Second Great Depression and further concentration of Too Big to Fail financial institutions.

And, in the United States and around the world, we’re still living through the disastrous consequences of both of those essentially political decisions.

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I cited Andrew O’Heir’s critical review of Boom Bust Boom, Terry Jones and Theo Kocken’s Monty Pythonesque documentary about the crash of 2007-08 back in March but I hadn’t seen the film itself until last night.

In many ways, I wish I hadn’t.

Oh, sure, there are a couple of good moments. Introducing the work of Hyman Minsky to a larger audience. A cameo by John Cusack, who suggests that economics students should pelt their professors with vegetables and rotten fruit if they continue to parrot the party line. “Maybe urinate on them. That’s what I would do.” And some well-deserved attention to the students in the Post-Crash Economics Society at the University of Manchester.

But otherwise, the film is just not very good. For starters, consider the fact that, after the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression, only once is capitalism itself even mentioned!

Then, as O’Heir wrote, there’s not a single mention of John Maynard Keynes (who published his General Theory in 1936, in the midst of the earlier depression), let alone Karl Marx (who, along with Friedrich Engels, was writing about capitalism’s crisis tendencies in the middle of the nineteenth century). Since Jones and Kocken decided to make forgetting a central part of their story—especially failing to remember and draw lessons from previous financial crises—they might also have mentioned the deliberate forgetting by mainstream economists and economic policymakers of other economic ideas, now as in the past.

And, in this day and age, it smacks viewers in the face that, as Shane Ferro wrote, “Women and minorities are almost entirely left out of this film—not unlike the way they’ve been left out of financial and economics professions.” The only two expert women the movie manages to feature are Lucy Prebble, a playwright who once wrote a play about the collapse of Enron, and Laurie Santos, a Yale psychology professor who studies how monkeys make decisions. Neither, as it turns out, has a background in economics, or much knowledge of capitalism, its history, or the 2007-08 crash.*

But the worst part of this high-budget, cleverly animated documentary is the actual story Terry and Kocken decided to tell. What it boils down to is this: financial crises have always been with us (at least since Tulip Mania in the 1630s), people tend to make irrational decisions (e.g, by forgetting about previous crises and taking on too much risk), and making irrational decisions is part of our human nature, as determined by evolutionary behavioral psychology (hence the monkeys).

Actually, the film is more confused than that. At one point, it features Minsky (in an animated dialogue with his son)—and, if it had continued in that vein, it would have been able to reveal something about the financial fragility inherent in the regular boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism (since the key actors in Minsky’s approach are capitalist enterprises and banks). But then Minksy is dropped and the filmmakers decide to go in a different direction, with a fanciful discussion of human nature (continuing an approach that, from the beginning, features an undifferentiated “we” who is responsible for speculation, risk-taking, euphoria, forgetting, and so on) and then an attempt to ground human nature in primate behavior (this after criticizing the scientistic pretensions of neoclassical economics).

There’s no attempt to identify the dynamics of a particular economic system, which we usually refer to as capitalism. No attempt to identify particular and differentiated actors and institutions within capitalism, such as bankers, workers, consumers, politicians, enterprises, financial markets, and so on. No references to other countries today, in addition to the United States and the United Kingdom. No mention of the grotesques levels of inequality in the lead-up to the crash, and no discussion of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and so on after the crash.

Instead, what we are presented with is a succession of financial crises, which in the end are grounded in our singular human nature.

That, to say the least, is not a particularly insightful analysis of the causes and consequences of the crash. And the best the filmmakers and the various talking heads can come up with by way of policies is the need, since human nature can’t be changed, to regulate the financial system (perhaps, at its most adventurous, by restoring Glass-Steagal barriers between commercial and investment banking) to keep “us” from making the same mistakes.

To which we can all respond: “Been there, done that. Now let’s try something that might actually work, beginning with the inherent instabilities of capitalism itself.”

 

*Here’s the list of the contributors: Dan Ariely, Dirk Bezemer, Zvi Bodie, Willem Buiter, John Cassidy, John Cusack, John K. Galbraith, James K. Galbraith, Andy Haldane, Daniel Kahneman, Steve Keen, Stephen Kinsella, Larry Kotlikoff, Paul Krugman, George Magnus, Paul Mason, Perry Mehrling, Hyman P. Minsky, Alan Minsky, Lucy Prebble, Laurie Santos, Robert J. Shiller, Nathan Tankus, Sweder Van Wijnbergen, and Randall Wray.