Posts Tagged ‘crisis’

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Special mention

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The Social Security system, now in its 81st year, is (according to the Congressional Budget Office [pdf]) solvent until 2029. In that year, the trust fund will be exhausted—but, still, even without any changes, the program will be able to pay out at least 71 percent of mandated benefits. And all it would take is eliminating the earnings cap (currently $118,500) to make the program fully financed for the foreseeable future.

But you wouldn’t know that from Wharton economist Olivia S. Mitchell, who like many others who have attempted to propose “reforms” to the system attempts to gin up the numbers. Her particular version is to get people to delay taking their monthly payments by promising them a lump-sum payout at the later date.

The problem, of course, is we should be doing exactly the opposite—lowering the retirement age and expanding benefits (which we could do by eliminating the earnings cap).

Even more, as Michael Hiltzik explains, Mitchell cites a particular statistic in order to create the specter of a system facing imminent crisis, to which she can then offer a “painless solution.”

The questionable part of her article appears near the bottom, where she writes:

“The Social Security shortfall is enormous. Actuaries have estimated that it’s on the order of $28 trillion in present value. That’s twice the size of the gross domestic product of the U.S. So a small delay in claiming won’t solve the problem. We’re also going to have to change the benefit formula. We’re going to have to make changes in the retirement age.” (Emphasis added.)

Most Social Security experts view that $28-trillion figure as a red flag. That’s because many people who cite it are ideologues aiming to scare the public into thinking the program’s finances are far worse than they really are. Let’s see what makes the statistic, and Mitchell’s use of it, so misleading.

The figure is an estimate of the present value of Social Security’s unfunded obligation not as it exists today, but as if it were calculated out to infinity. Economists find the so-called infinite horizon model useful in some contexts. But as it’s typically applied to Social Security it’s beloved by ideologues because it produces a really big, and really scary, estimate of the accumulated deficit.

The infinite projection appears in the annual Social Security Trustees Report, but its placement there is controversial. The Social Security Advisory Board’s 2015 technical panel of economists, actuaries and demographers recommended dropping the infinite projection from the trustees reports altogether, for two reasons. One is that it incorporates enormous uncertainties. Estimating costs, revenues and policy changes for Social Security’s conventional 75-year forecasts is hard enough; the influences playing on the program hundreds or thousands of years into the future are literally unimaginable. That makes the infinite projection “unhelpful as a guide to policy-making,” the panel reported.

The second reason is that it’s so vulnerable to misinterpretation. As an earlier technical panel observed, the projection is sometimes “quoted in policy discussions without including its relation to corresponding GDP, which is both misleading and shifts the focus from more useful metrics.”

Interestingly, that’s exactly what Mitchell does. (We should mention in passing that Mitchell actually gets her numbers wrong. The infinite projection deficit, as published by the trustees in their most recent report, was $25.8 trillion as of Jan. 1, not $28 trillion; U.S. GDP, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, was $18.2 trillion as of the end of 2015, not $14 trillion as Mitchell implies.)

In her MarketWatch article, Mitchell doesn’t disclose that the figure she’s citing is the infinite projection, which could lead some readers to think she’s talking about Social Security’s current deficit. (In current terms, Social Security actually runs an annual surplus and is expected to do so until 2020.) Even worse, she juxtaposes it with current gross domestic product by stating that it’s “twice the size” of GDP today. The unwary reader might be led to think that a Social Security “crisis” is on the verge of bankrupting the U.S. in the here and now. . .

Mitchell’s lump-sum plan might be a useful element in a Social Security fix if it were entirely clear that a fix was necessary. But the fact that she relied on an exaggerated statistic to make her case suggests that there may not be such a strong case, after all.

The CBO’s projection of the 75-year actuarial deficit of the Social Security program as a share of GDP is only 1.45 percent—not nearly as dramatic as Mitchell’s statistic. It’s a number that doesn’t conjure up crisis or induce panic. All it suggests is that “tweaking” the system (by, as I suggested, raising the earnings cap) will make the program solvent and create the space for what we should really be doing, lowering the retirement age and expanding benefits for American workers.

Lies, damned lies, and Mitchell’s statistic serve a very different purpose.

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The latest bank to admit criminal fraud is Wells-Fargo. The largest U.S. mortgage lender and third-largest U.S. bank by assets, Wells-Fargo deceived the U.S. government into insuring thousands of risky mortgages, and formally reached a record $1.2 billion settlement of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit. Several lenders, including Bank of America Corp, Citigroup Inc, Deutsche Bank AG, and JPMorgan Chase & Co, previously settled similar federal lawsuits.

To read Paul Krugman (who’s “been doing a lot of shovel work for the Hillary Clinton campaign lately”), the real problem in the run-up to the spectacular crash of 2007-08 was not Too Big to Fail banks like Wells-Fargo, but the so-called shadow-banking system. But, as Matt Taibi [ht: db] explains, “Krugman is just wrong about this.”

The root problem of the ’08 crisis lay in a broad criminal fraud scheme in the mortgage markets. Real-estate agents fanned out into middle- and low-income neighborhoods in huge numbers and coaxed as many people as possible into loans, whether they could afford them or not.

Those loans in turn were bought up by giant financial companies on Wall Street, who chopped them up into a kind of mortgage hamburger. Out of this hamburger, they made securities. These securities were then sold to institutional investors like pension funds, unions, insurance companies and hedge funds.

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source (pdf)

There’s no doubt shadow-banking activities surpassed those of the traditional banking system in the years leading up to the crash. But—and this is crucial—they weren’t two separate systems or sets of institutions; they were just two different sets of activities by a wide variety of firms within the financial system. And so-called traditional banks were heavily involved in the shadow-banking activities.

The two economically most important shadow banking activities are securitization and collateral intermediation. According to Stijn Claessens, Zoltan Pozsar, Lev Ratnovski, and Manmohan Singh,

The first key shadow banking function, securitisation, is a process that repackages cash flows from loans to create assets that are perceived by market participants as almost fully safe and liquid. The repackaging occurs in steps, and takes the form of risk transfer. First, risky long-term loans are ‘tranched’ into safe and complementary (‘equity’ and ‘mezzanine’ respectively) tranches. Then the safe tranche is funded in short-term money markets, with additional protection provided by liquidity lines from banks. The resulting assets, such as Asset-Backed Commercial Papers (ABCPs), were regarded prior to the crisis by market participants as safe, liquid, and short-term, i.e. almost money-like, but with returns exceeding those on short-term government debt. . .

Another key function of shadow banking is supporting collateral-based operations within the financial system. Such operations include secured funding (of bank and, especially, nonbank investors), securities lending, and hedging (including with OTC derivatives). Collateral helps deal with counterpart risks and more generally greases financial intermediation. One of the main challenges in using collateral is its scarcity. The shadow banking system deals with the scarcity through an intensive re-use of collateral, so that it can support as large as possible a volume of financial transactions. The multiplier of the volume of transactions to the volume of collateral (the ‘velocity’ of collateral) was recently about 2.5 to 3.

The key is that traditional banks (such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, and Citibank in the United States, in addition to Barclays, BNP Paribas, Crédit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Société Générale, Nomura, and UBS elsewhere—all of them classified as “strategically important financial institutions”) both financed and directly participated in shadow-banking activities. The traditional banks made record profits from those activities and served both to expand shadow banking and to increase the degree of risk, instability, and contagion.

In other words, traditional banks played a key role in creating the financial house of cards that came crashing down in 2007-08.

So, it’s simply wrong to assert that Too Big to Fail or Jail banks were peripheral in creating the conditions that caused the global financial crisis—or, for that matter, that continue to plague the financial system today.

What this means is that regulating and transforming the financial system—by taxing financial transactions, breaking up the now-Too Bigger to Fail banks, and creating new forms of financial intermediation (such as various forms of public and community banking)—are still on the agenda.

It’s time, then, to bring both the financial system and arguments by mainstream economists that attempt to shield traditional banks and their favorite political candidates out of the shadows.

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We’re more than seven years out from the most severe economic crash since the First Great Depression and nothing much on Wall Street has changed.

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As everyone knows, the Too Big To Fail banks that got us into the current mess are now Too Bigger to Fail. The top five U.S. banks had approximately 30 percent of U.S. banking assets in 1998; this rose to 45 percent by 2008 and to more than 47 percent in 2013 (the last year for which data are available).

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Meanwhile, the U.S. banking industry topped off 2015 with record profits of $163.63 billion, the highest net income of any year in the SNL bank regulatory database, which dates back to 1991. The largest four banks—JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citibank—together captured 42.7 percent of the industry’s income in 2015.

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And, as it turns out, the three big ratings firms that played such a central role in the financial crisis—Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services, Moody’s Investors Service, and Fitch Ratings—have themselves never been downgraded.

The three issue more than 95% of global bond ratings, a total virtually unchanged from the pre-2008 period.

Profits also are nearing all-time highs as they ride a recent wave of debt sales and push into new lines of business. . .

The fallout from the financial crisis was supposed to crimp the credit-ratings model. Firms awarded rosy ratings to residential mortgage bonds that later soured, triggering widespread losses.

Lawmakers and regulators called for a major shake-up of the way the firms made their money. But seven years later, the industry’s business blueprint—in which banks and debt issuers still pay ratings firms to have their deals graded—remains in place despite concerns about its potential conflicts.

No wonder folks are still angry at Wall Street.

*Yes, for those who follow such things, that’s the image from the cover of the 1975 Supertramp album, “Crisis? What Crisis?”

Update

And just as I posted this, I learned, according to a new Institute for Policy Studies report, the $25 billion in bonuses Wall Street banks handed out to their 172,400 New York City-based employees last year amounted to double the combined earnings of all 895,000 Americans who work full-time at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

The Wall Street bonus pool has become so large that in 2015 it would’ve been enough to have lifted all of America’s 2.6 million fast food prep and serving workers up to $15 per hour — and still have had $4 billion left over. Or that bonus pool could have raised to $15 the hourly wage of all our nation’s 1.6 million home care aides or all of our 2.6 million restaurant servers and bartenders.

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Students often ask me if the discipline of economics has changed since the spectacular crash of 2007-08.

“Not much,” I tell them. “The economists and economic theories that prevailed before the crash are still pretty much the ones that are on top today.”

The good students, of course, get the irony: the mainstream economics they’ve been taught celebrates free markets and “creative destruction” but the discipline itself seems to be anything but.

And that’s exactly what Frederico Fubini found when he compared the rankings of top economists in 2006 and 2015: barely anything had changed.

Despite the profound – and largely unpredicted – financial and economic turmoil of the intervening decade, the intellectual influence of those whose theories suffered the most evidently remains undented.

After a succession of bursting multi-trillion-dollar credit bubbles, you might wonder what to make of Robert Lucas’s view that rational expectations enable perfectly calculating “agents” to maximize economic utility. You might also want to rethink Eugene Fama’s efficient markets hypothesis, according to which prices of financial assets always reflect all available information about economic fundamentals.

You must not be an economist. In fact, Lucas and Fama both moved up in the RePEc rankings during the period I examined, from 30 to nine and from 23 to 17, respectively. And the persistence at the top is striking across the board. Among the top ten economists in September 2015, six were already there in December 2006, and another two were ranked 11 and 13.

Mobility in the RePEc rankings remains subdued even after widening the sample. For example, of the top 100 economists in September 2015, only 14 were absent from the much wider top 5% in 2006, and only two others had advanced more than 200 spots over the previous decade. Among those recently ranked from 101 to 200, just 24 were not in the top 5% in 2006, and only ten others had moved up by more than 200 places. The rate of renewal among the 200 most influential economists was as low as 25% – and just 16% among the top 100 – during a decade in which the explanatory power of prevailing economic theory had been found severely wanting.

So, as mainstream economists gather in San Francisco for their annual meeting, they’ll be listening to pretty much the same figures and presenting the same ideas they did back in 2006.

Addendum

Here is the list of the top 20 economists as of November 2015:

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Every time someone like David Leonhardt [ht: ja] writes a review of economic ideas and texts, I realize how narrow their conception of economics truly is—and how, once again, I and many of my friends and colleagues are simply defined out of the discussion.

In the beginning, for Leonhardt, there was Adam Smith. Then, somewhat later, we have the classical liberalism of the Chicago school and the flexible models of Dani Rodrick (who, in his book, refers to Milton Friedman as “one of the twentieth century’s greatest economists”). All three the New York Times writer distinguishes from the contemporary economists Lanny Ebenstein refers as the “utopians working toward and often living in a mythical land, ‘Libertania’”—the contemporary right-wing libertarians.

For writers like Leonhardt, that’s pretty much the beginning and end of economics, the limits of the discipline and of the debate. Everything and everyone else fall outside the walls he and many economists are so intent on erecting and policing.

It’s a view of economic theory focused entirely on markets, as if there are no other ways human beings, now and historically, have organized economic life. It’s a view of economic policy that celebrates markets, with a modicum of government intervention, as if more free-market and more government-regulated forms of capitalism are the limits of the debate of the possible.

That’s the narrow definition of economics that emerges from Ebenstein’s and Rodrick’s books and from Leonhardt’s approving review of those books. Ultimately, it amounts to a call for moderation—in theory and policy—which reduces the relevant debate to one or another version of mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) economics.

What Leonhardt and Co. refuse to acknowledge is that mainstream economic theory and policy are what got us into the current mess in the first place, and that mainstream economists have had no answer to the current crises of capitalism—except to impose even more suffering on workers and the vast majority of people in order to attempt to engineer their particular notion of recovery.

In the end, mainstream economists are the real utopians, who imagine that capitalism works (or can be made to work) by being modeled in and through the correct economic theories, which they alone possess.