Unicorns, Tooth Fairies, and Free Markets

The most frequent criticism of free markets lies in their comparison to unicorns, fairies, and leprechauns. In other words, they exist only in our imaginations and thus are unworthy of serious discussion. This is sheer nonsense. It is like denying the value of Plato’s ideal forms as a means of comparison and judgment. Democracy also does not exist in its pure, idealistic form, so, is it a useless figment of our imaginations? I don’t believe so.

Free markets should be thought of as markets for free people, much like democracy is a political market for free people. In terms of exchange, people are free when buyer and seller can either mutually agree on an exchange or walk away. This freedom obtains best when there are lots of competing and comparable alternatives to any particular good or service. Also, voluntary action is enhanced when the terms of the transaction are transparent to both parties. Some markets offer better and more options than others, while some are more transparent than others, so markets are defined along a continuum from “free” to “unfree.” The whole thrust of free market theory is to point us in the right direction.

Oddly enough, the failure of unfree, or controlled, markets is often cited as proof that markets don’t work. This is like pulling the wheels off my car and then stating that since it can’t go anywhere, cars are a poor form of transportation. Such arguments should be the butt of jokes, not serious debate. Some may qualify this argument by saying some markets are easier to manipulate or control by narrow interests or are less transparent, and thus need to be regulated by a disinterested third party such as a government bureaucracy. But that just begs the more important question over what means will insure that any particular market becomes freer?

Regulation vs. Competition

We can’t really answer this question without a careful analysis of behavioral incentives, of both the economic and political variety. It is widely accepted that economic and political actors pursue their narrow self-interests, with economic behavior determined by loss aversion and profit/utility maximization and political behavior more influenced by power, status, and control. These behaviors dovetail in real people as we all seek to survive by pursuing wealth, power, and control over our own destinies. When we scrape beneath the surface we find that survival is more about not losing (loss aversion), than winning (big rewards).

We would assume from these incentives that most actors would like to manipulate markets to their personal advantage, so how do we constrain or redirect this?

Most people would look to contract law as the explanation for what keeps us honest, but that offers only a narrow understanding of how markets work. We make dozens, if not hundreds, of market transactions every day and very few ever reach that threshold where we feel the need to consult legal counsel or call our Congressperson in Washington. Instead, we rely on more efficient means, such as trust, reciprocity, the implicit value of repeat business, and competing alternatives to guide our choices.

This point about competing alternatives is crucial because while trust, reciprocity, and relationships help ameliorate the need for transparency, competition gives us freedom of choice. Anti-competitive monopolies are considered economic evils because they control the market for their product or service, so consumers must pay their price or go without. (Likewise why we despise political tyranny.) Critics often deride market capitalism as a competitive conflictual system, but that too is a myopic point of view. Markets foster cooperation as much as competition, and many of the transactions in economic markets are win-win positive sum games rather than win-lose zero-sum games.

Think about it: Sellers compete among themselves in order to develop a long-term cooperative relationship with their buyers and suppliers. Ever wonder why a department store takes back that dress or pair of shoes you bought last week because you changed your mind? That doesn’t seem in their immediate profit interest, but it does when you consider how the retailer values repeat business against the freedom you have to take your business elsewhere.

It is not laws or regulatory watchdogs but open competition under accepted market rules that constrains most of our selfish economic behavior. In addition, market competitors have the biggest incentive to insure all play by the established rules, thus they are the watchdogs. This implies the need for transparency. Third party regulatory agencies are inadequate to the task of monitoring the multitude of transactions in markets, especially financial markets. For example, the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the US, and yet the financial crisis of “too big to fail” revealed how ineffective that regulation was. So the test should not be regulation OR competition, but regulation FOR competition. Financial markets in particular need to be open, transparent, and competitive to constrain behavior that risks the integrity of the financial system. In financial markets, failure is a big inducement for prudence.

For an illustrative case, consider the policy response to the financial crisis of 2008, the 2010 Dodd-Frank law. Under that legislation, “too big to fail” banks have gotten even bigger, while 1,500 community banks—the source of half of all loans to local businesses—reportedly have been destroyed. The remaining community banks have had to hire 50% more compliance staff just to keep up with the regulations. That means far less competition among lenders to serve borrowers and more concentrated finance that does not respond to the bankruptcy constraint. It means a far less efficient and just credit market and far more control centralized in a financial oligopoly seeking to influence the policymaking process in its favor. According to the practice of regulatory capture – where lobbyists “buy” politicians with campaign contributions to formulate policy to constrain their competitors – we’ve discovered too often that big government mostly works for big business, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected to the detriment of open and honest competition among free people.

One could make the same argument against health care reform under the Affordable Care Act. Has policy made the market more open, transparent, and competitive, or less? Health care provision is really about competition and abundance in the supply of health care rather than the price and distribution of access. With an abundance of competitive health care providers, price and access take care of themselves.

The most important argument in favor of markets is the crucial role they play in providing information feedback signals. Free markets provide the most accurate and essential signals to consumers and producers needed to make efficient economic decisions, like comparing alternatives to maximize preferences, or where to invest and how much to produce, and how to adapt to changing market conditions. These signals are embodied in prices and inventory quantities and without these, producers are operating in the dark about what people want. Hayek was the first to point out the lack of private exchange markets would make central planning under socialism untenable over time. He was right.

Market failures do exist and we don’t live in a world of idealized free markets. But in addressing those failures we should strive not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, because free markets support free people and that’s the bottom line.

Besides, it would be heartbreaking to admit to our children that this is best we can do when it comes to unicorns and tooth fairies:

adult-unicorn-costume toothfairy1

Debate? What Debate?

I can’t imagine a more sophomoric attempt at moderating a Presidential primary debate than what occurred last night under the direction of CNBC. Apparently there was no clear winner as much as an overwhelmingly clear loser: CNBC. One wonders when the media elites will address the real challenges and issues the American polity faces. I won’t hold my breath.

The last fiscally responsible adult we had in public service in Washington was Paul Volcker, and he was a Democrat. And elites wonder why the average American is fed up with national politics. Kudos to Cruz.

David Stockman eviscerates the pathetic performance in his blog reposted below:

The Fed’s elephantine $4.5 trillion balance sheet represents the greatest fiscal fraud ever conceived.

The fact is, the monetary madness in the Eccles Building is destroying free market capitalism by systematically and massively falsifying the prices of financial assets, and fueling a relentless, debilitating accumulation of debt throughout the warp and woof of the American economy and the rest of the world; and it’s simultaneously extinguishing political democracy by deeply subsidizing our crushing $19 trillion national debt.

Yet not one of three moderators during the entire two hour period asked a question about the elephant in the room.

The Debate: GOP Candidates Elevated, CNBC Eviscerated

by  • October 29, 2015

Well now. We actually got our money’s worth last night.

Almost with out exception the GOP candidates conveyed a compelling message that the state is not our savior, while the CNBC moderators spent the night fumbling with fantasy football and inanities about which vitamin supplements Ben Carson has used or endorsed.

But this was about more than tone. The interaction between the candidates and the CNBC moderators revealed the yawning gap between the bubble world at the intersection of Washington and Wall Street and the hard scrabble reality of economic stagnation and political alienation on main street America.

Yes, the CNBC moderators engaged in a deplorable display of gotcha journalism punctuated by a snarky self-righteousness that was downright offensive. John Harwood is surely secretly on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee and it was more than obvious why Becky Quick excels at serving tea to blathering old fools like Warren Buffett.

So they deserved the Cruz missile that came flying at them mid-way through the debate.

At that point the Senator from Texas had had enough, especially from Carl Quintanilla. The latter has spend years on CNBC commentating about the “market”, but wouldn’t know honest capitalism is if slapped him upside the head, and has apparently never meet a Washington intervention that he didn’t cheer on as something to help the stock averages go higher:

Let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. And if you look at the questions—Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math?… Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about substantive issues?”

Nor did the Texas Senator let up:

“Carl, I’m not finished yet. The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every thought and question from the media was ‘Which of you is more handsome and wise?”

As one pundit put it afterwards, “given the grievous injuries inflicted on Team CNBC”  by Cruz and the rest of the candidates, the only thing left to do was “to shoot the wounded”.

Actually, there is rather more. Last night was billed as a debate on domestic issues and the economy and CNBC is the communications medium of record about the daily comings and goings of the US economy and the financial markets at its center. Yet not one of three moderators during the entire two hour period asked a question about the elephant in the room.

They had to bring in from the sidelines the intrepid Rick Santelli to even get the Federal Reserve on the table. Its almost as if the CNBC commentators work on the set of the Truman Show and have no clue that it’s all make believe.

In the alternative, call this condition Bubble Blindness. It’s a contagious ideological disease that afflicts the entire corridor from Wall Street to Washington, and CNBC is the infected host that propagates it.

The fact is, the monetary madness in the Eccles Building is destroying free market capitalism by systematically and massively falsifying the prices of financial assets, and fueling a relentless, debilitating accumulation of debt throughout the warp and woof of the American economy and the rest of the world; and it’s simultaneously extinguishing political democracy by deeply subsidizing our crushing $19 trillion national debt.

The GOP politicians appropriately sputtered last night about the bipartisan beltway scam rammed through the House yesterday by Johnny Lawnchair, but they were given no opportunity by their clueless moderators to explore exactly why this kind of taxpayer betrayal happens over and over.

Well, there is a simple answer. The Fed’s elephantine $4.5 trillion balance sheet represents the greatest fiscal fraud ever conceived. Last year it paid the Treasury approximately $100 billion in absolutely phony profits scalped from its massive trove of Treasury debt and quasi-government GSE paper.

That is, over time Uncle Sam has purchased $4.5 trillion worth of real economic resources——in the form of goods, services, salaries and transfer payments——from the US economy, which were paid for with IOUs. These obligations to be redeemed in equivalent goods and services were eventually purchased by the Fed, but with merely fiat credits it conjured out of thin air.

And then the monetary charlatans behind the curtain at the Fed send back to the US treasury the coupons earned on these airballs, causing the politicians to think the national debt is no problem; and that they can buy aircraft carriers and GS-15 salaries indefinitely while booking a “profit” on their borrowings.

Folks, this is just plain madness. Back 1989 when the real median household income first hit its current level of about $54,000, this entire monetization scam would have been considered beyond the pale by even the inhabitants of the Eccles Building, and most certainly by everyone else in Washington——from the US Treasury to the Congressional budget committees to the summer interns in the Rayburn Building.

But after 25 years of central bank induced financialization of the US economy, there has developed a cult of the stock market and a Wall Street regime of relentless financial gambling in the guise of “investment”. Consequently, the massive aritificial inflation of financial asset values is not even recognized by CNBC and its fellow travelers in the main stream financial press—to say nothing of the gleeful punters who inhabit the casino.

But here’s the thing. How did the real median household income stagnant at $54,000 while the real value of the S&P 500 soared by nearly 4X? market cap of US debt and equity issues soared from 200% to 540% of GDP, and now weigh in a $93 trillion?

Real Median Household Income Vs. Inflation Adjusted S&P 500 - Click to enlarge

Likewise, how did the aggregate “market cap” of US debt and business equity soar from 200% to 540% of GDP when main street living standards were not rising at all? Could it be that something rotten and deformed has been injected into the very financial bloodstream of American capitalism—-something which the CNBC cheerleaders dare not acknowledge or even allow conservative politicians to explore in a public forum?

Total Marketable Securities and GDP - Click to enlarge

Worse still, this entire Fed-driven regime of Bubble Finance has inculcated in the casino and its media megaphones the insidious notion that the arms and agencies of government exist for one purpose above all others. Namely, to do “whatever it takes” to keep the bubble inflated and the stock market averages rising—–preferably every single day the market is open.

There was no more dramatic demonstration of that proposition than after the Wall Street meltdown in September 2008 when the as yet un-house broken GOP had had the courage to vote down TARP.

But when they were dragged back into the House chambers by Goldman Sachs and its plenipotentiaries in the US Treasury, the message was unmistakable. On one side of the CNBC screen was the House electronic voting board and on the other side was the second-by-second path of the S&P 500.  And delivering the voice-over narrative were the same clowns who could not even mention the Fed last night. The US Congress not dare to vote down TARP again, they fulminated.

It obviously didn’t. Yet right then and there the conservative opposition was broken, and the present statist regime of Bubble Finance was off to the races.

During the coming decade the nation will be battered and shattered by a monumental fiscal crisis and the bankruptcy of the bogus “trust funds” which now pay out upwards of $2 trillion per year to 70 million citizens. At length, the bearers of pitchforks and torches descending on Washington will surely ask how this all happened.

But they will not need to look much beyond last night’s debate for the answers. The nation’s fiscal process has been literally shutdown by the Fed and the Wall Street gamblers and media cheerleaders who insouciantly and relentlessly demand of Washington that it do “whatever it takes” to keep the bubble inflated.

As a result, we have had the absurdity of 82 months of ZIRP and a orgy of public debt monetization that has driven the weighted average cost of the Federal debt to a mere 1.75%.  And when a few courageous remnants of fiscal sanity like Senators Cruz and Rand Paul have had the courage to resist still another increase in the public debt ceiling, they have been treated as pariahs by Wall Street and the kind of snarky financial media types on display last night.

The fact is, the President has clear constitutional powers to prioritize spending in the absence of an increase in the debt ceiling. That is, he can pay the interest on the debt, keep the Veterans hospitals open, send out the social security checks and prioritize any other category of spending that he chooses from the current inflow of tax revenues, and for as long as it takes to legislate an honest fiscal retrenchment.

Needless to say, that would create howls of pain from the Federal vendors who wouldn’t get paid, the state and local governments which would have to wait for their grant payments and the Federal employees who would be put on furlough.

But that is not the reason that Mitch McConnell and Johnny Lawnchair have capitulated every time a debt ceiling crisis has reached the boiling point. That kind of action-forcing circumstance was managed by Washington innumerable times in the pre-Bubble Finance world, including upwards of a dozen times during my time in the Reagan White House.

But back then no one thought that Wall Street would have a hissy fit if the government shutdown for a few days or if the fiscal gravy train was temporarily put on hold; nor did politicians much care if it did.

My goodness. Paul Volcker had taught Wall Street a thing or two about the requisites of financial discipline in any event.

No, what is different now is that the establishment GOP politicians are petrified of a stock market collapse, and have been brow-beaten into the false belief that a government shutdown will create severe political costs.

Baloney. Even the totally botched affair in October 2013 created no lasting damage—-as attested to by the GOP sweep in the 2014 elections.

At the end of the day, all the hyperventilation about the political costs of a government shutdown or the forced prioritization of spending in the absence of a debt ceiling increase is pure Wall Street propaganda; and its an untruth amplified and repeated endlessly, loudly and often hysterically by its financial media handmaidens.

At least last night some GOP politicians gave it back to them good and hard.

Maybe there is some hope for release from the destructive pall of Bubble Finance, after all.

America’s Bank – A Review

Interesting book review with highlights of the history of the Federal Reserve. We should keep in mind that all financial crashes are rooted in excess credit creation. Unconstrained credit creation has now become the primary strategy of our central banks.

An All Too Visible Hand

When Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was yet to be invented

By James Grant

The Federal Reserve is America’s problem and the world’s obsession. When will Janet Yellen choose to lift the federal-funds rate from its longtime resting place of zero, thereby upending or not upending (it depends on whom you ask) individuals and markets in all four corners of the earth? Her subjects await a sign. While tapping their feet, they may ponder how things ever came to this pass. How, indeed, did such all-powerful body come into existence in the first place—and why?

Roger Lowenstein’s “America’s Bank,” which chronicles the passage of the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, is victor’s history. Its worldview is that of today’s central bankers, the bailers-out of markets, suppressors of interest rates and practitioners of money conjuring. In Mr. Lowenstein’s telling, what preceded the coming of the Federal Reserve was a financial and monetary dark age. What followed was the truth and the light.

It sticks in the craw of good Democrats that, in 1832, their own Andrew Jackson vetoed the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, the predecessor of the Federal Reserve. Just as galling is the fact that Old Hickory’s veto message is today counted as one of America’s great state papers. In it, Jackson denies to Congress the power to delegate its constitutionally given duty to “coin money and regulate the value thereof.” To do so, Jackson affirmed, would render the Constitution a “dead letter.”

America’s Bank

By Roger Lowenstein

Mr. Lowenstein contends that, in the creation of the Federal Reserve 80 years later, Congress and the people commendably put that hard-money Jacksonian claptrap behind them. Mandarin rule is the way forward in monetary policy, he suggests—the Ph.D. standard, as one might call it, under which former tenured economics faculty exercise vast discretionary power over the value of money and the course of interest rates, financial markets and business activity. Give Mr. Lowenstein this much: As the world awaits the raising of the Fed’s minuscule interest rate, the questions he provokes have never been timelier. Not for the first time the thoughtful citizen must wonder: What’s money and who says so?

When Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the dollar was defined as a weight of gold. You could exchange the paper for the metal, and vice versa, at a fixed and statutory rate. The stockholders of nationally chartered banks were responsible for the solvency of the institutions in which they owned a fractional interest. The average level of prices could fall, as it had done in the final decades of the 19th century, or rise, as it had begun to do in the early 20th, without inciting countermeasures to arrest the change and return the price level to some supposed desirable average. The very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was uninvented. Who or what was in charge of American finance? Principally, Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

How well could such a primitive system have possibly functioned? In “The New York Money Market and the Finance of Trade, 1900-1913,” a scholarly study published in 1969, the British economist C.A.E. Goodhart concluded thus: “On the basis of its record, the financial system as constituted in the years 1900-1913 must be considered to have been successful to an extent rarely equalled in the United States.”

The belle epoque was not to be confused with paradise, of course. The Panic of 1907 was a national embarrassment. There were too many small banks for which no real diversification, of either assets or liabilities, was possible. The Treasury Department was wont to throw its considerable resources into the money market to effect an artificial reduction in interest rates—in this manner substituting a very visible hand for the other kind.

Mr. Lowenstein has written long and well on contemporary financial topics in such books as “When Genius Failed” (2000) and “While America Aged” (2008). Here he seems to forget that the past is a foreign country. “Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth,” he contends, “the United States—alone among the industrial powers—suffered a continual spate of financial panics, bank runs, money shortages and, indeed, full-blown depressions.”

If this were even half correct, American history would have taken a hard left turn. For instance, William Jennings Bryan, arch-inflationist of the Populist Era, would not have lost the presidency on three occasions. Had he beaten William McKinley in 1896, he would very likely have signed a silver-standard act into law, sparking inflation by cheapening the currency. As it was, President McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act of 1900, which wrote the gold dollar into the statute books.

The doctrine that interest rates are the Federal Reserve’s to manage has come to be regarded, at least by the mandarins, as settled science. It was not so when the heroes of Mr. Lowenstein’s story were conspiring to create a new central bank. Abram Piatt Andrew Jr. took to the scholarly journals to denounce the government’s attempts to pin down money-market interest rates.

Indiana-born, Andrew came East to study, taught economics at Harvard and lent his talents to the National Monetary Commission in 1909 and 1910—the group that conducted the field work to prepare for the grand banking reform. Somewhere along the line, he conceived the idea that the money market should be free of federal manipulation. As prices had been rising—a gentle inflation had begun just before the turn of the 20th century—interest rates should have followed prices higher. That they did not was the complaint that Andrew laid at the doorstep of the government.

Andrew contended that the Treasury Department—under Lyman J. Gage, who served from 1897 to 1902, and his successor, Leslie M. Shaw, who resigned in 1907—“succeeded in keeping the money rate of interest below the rate which would have been ‘normal’ or ‘natural.’ . . . They had kept alive a continuously excessive demand for credit by making it available at less than the normal cost. They had sown the wind and their successor was to reap the whirlwind.”

It is an indictment that comes ready-written against the Federal Reserve’s policy today. Interest rates are prices. Far better that they be discovered in the marketplace than administered from on high. One has to wonder what Andrew would say if he were spirited back to earth to read a random edition of this newspaper in the seventh year of the Fed’s attempt to create prosperity through the technique of zero-percent interest rates. He might want a quiet word with Ms. Yellen.

Andrew is not the only vivid personality in this tale of unintended consequences. Mr. Lowenstein entertainingly limns a gallery of them: Paul Warburg, a German-banker immigrant eager to import European ideas into his adopted country; Carter Glass, an irritable Virginia newspaperman turned congressman (later senator) and currency reformer; Nelson Aldrich, a suspiciously affluent Rhode Island senator and central-bank exponent; Robert Owen, a former Indian agent from the Oklahoma Territory who pushed the Federal Reserve Act through the Senate; William Gibbs McAdoo Jr., the Treasury secretary who married the boss’s daughter; that boss himself, Woodrow Wilson; and Frank Vanderlip, president of what today is Citigroup.

Vanderlip, not alone among his fellow agitators for a central bank, was keen on the gold standard and “fervent,” as Mr. Lowenstein puts it, in his “denunciations of government control.” Here is a fine piece of irony. Government control is exactly what the authors of the Federal Reserve Act unintentionally achieved, though Andrew, at least, might have anticipated this public-policy reversal. He noticed that, under Leslie Shaw’s meddling stewardship in the early years of the 20th century, the Treasury had shifted government deposits to private institutions in times of crisis. “Outside relief in business, like outdoor charity,” as Mr. Lowenstein quotes him saying, “is apt to diminish the incentives to providence, and to slacken the forces of self-help.”

Centralized government control arrived in force with the Banking Act of 1935. It established the centralization of monetary power within the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, and it repealed the so-called double-liability law on bank stocks: No more would the holders of common stocks in failed banks be assessed to help defray the debts of the institutions in which they had invested. Anyway, there would be precious few failures to deal with, proponents of the new thinking contended. Knowing that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stood behind their money, depositors would give up running; they would rather walk to the bank.

The new doctrines repulsed H. Parker Willis, a key player during the organization of the Fed and later a professor of banking at Columbia University. “It is far better, both for the depositor and the banker,” said Willis of the FDIC, “that the actual net irreducible losses growing out of bank failure should fall where they belong. The universal experience with this kind of insurance—if it may be called—has pointed to the danger of increasing losses as the result of bad banking management induced by belief in deposit guarantee.”

Willis didn’t imagine the half of it. On top of deposit insurance evolved the notion that some banks—Citi, for instance—were too big to fail. They must be nurtured through subsidy and bank-friendly monetary policy: low money-market interest rates, for example. It happened that the Citigroup that evolved from Vanderlip’s National City Bank became a ward of the state in 2008. The massive federal bailout of Citi exacted many costs, including a level of regulatory micromanagement that Vanderlip could not have begun to conceive.

J.P. Morgan Chase, which did not fail in 2008, recently went public to describe the intensity of the federal oversight it labors under. More than 950 employees, it revealed, are dedicated to complying with 750 requirements laid down by 21 government entities to achieve and maintain capital adequacy. The Fed itself is high among those demanding overseers. The workers shuffle 20,000 pages of documentation and manipulate 225 econometric models.

The rage to micromanage spans the world. “It can’t be,” the head of Sweden’s Nordea Bank was quoted forlornly saying last year in the Financial Times, “that the only purpose of banking is to stop banks from going bankrupt.” Oh, yes it can.

One thinks back to the supposed financial dark ages when, in 1842, New Orleans bankers, setting down a kind of operational manifesto, succeeded in committing the essentials of safe and sound banking practice to one side of one page. They prospered by simple maxims—e.g., do what you will with your own capital but do not abuse the depositor’s funds—well after the Civil War. Some may protest that banking has become more complex since those days. The boggling, 23,000-page length of the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (complete with supporting rules) would suggest that it has become 23,000 times more complex. I doubt that.

The legislation to which President Wilson affixed his signature in 1913—Mr. Lowenstein observantly notes that he signed with gold pens—included no intimation of the revolutionary techniques of monetary control that would come into being after 2008: zero-percent interest rates, “quantitative easing,” and central-bank-sponsored bull markets in stocks and real estate, among others.

The great value of “America’s Bank” is the comparison it invites between what lawmakers intend and what they achieve. The act’s preamble described a modest effort “to provide for the establishment of the Federal Reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper and to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States and for other purposes.” “And for other purposes”—our ancestors should have known.

What Is Inclusive Capitalism?

We can distill “inclusive capitalism” down to a single word that captures the concept in its fullest dimensions. That word is EQUITY.

There is a movement afoot called The Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism that counts Prince Charles, Pope Francis, Bill Clinton, and the world’s richest industrialist Carlos Slim among its supporters. Our first reaction to this news might be to ask, “What exactly is meant by the term Inclusive Capitalism?”

The Coalition provides this definition:

“Inclusive Capitalism provides that firms should account for themselves, not just on the bottom line, but on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics… Every firm has a license to operate from the society in which it trades. This is both a legally and socially defined license… Firms must contribute proportionately to the societies in which they operate. Without fairly contributing, firms free-ride on services that other people have paid for. Firms that practice unsustainable activities, disrespect their stakeholders and the communities in which they operate will find their licenses threatened, first by the engaged consumer, then by government. Firms practicing Inclusive Capitalism will see their license strengthened.”

While laudable in its aspirations, operationalizing this value-laden definition poses a few questions and challenges.

First, this definition focuses on firm responsibility according to ESG sustainability metrics and firm performance. In fact, citing studies of corporate performance measures, the IC literature asserts that such practices deliver superior firm performance in terms of profit and market valuations. If true, then market competition should insure the widespread adoption of best practices with the gradual attrition of less profitable, less sustainable firm behavior. In other words, markets should provide sufficient correctives. If they do not, we probably need to question such assumptions that the market is functioning as expected, that it is complete, or that best practices across firms and industries are readily transparent.

Second, one can inadvertently blur the operational differences between public corporations and non-corporate, small business where ESG metrics are more difficult to discern or measure. Since much of capitalism’s innovation, job creation, and business expansion occurs at the small business level, we need to expand the idea of inclusion beyond corporate management practices and stakeholder governance.

Third, the search for an acceptable definition can also put different class segments of society at odds. The British Guardian has already described the Coalition’s efforts as a “Trojan Horse” cynically deployed to placate the public so that crony capitalism can thrive unscathed. Our definition then must not only articulate a vision and a direction, but also gain acceptance and buy-in from all segments of society. In other words, our definition must be “inclusive” in order to mediate conflicts among groups that appear to harbor diverging interests.

Finally, when we probe practitioners we find that different people have different ideas of what Inclusive Capitalism means, so we still lack a consistent and concise definition. Perhaps we can start by eliminating what it is not. It’s more than just corporate social responsibility (CSR) or ESG sustainability. It’s not defined by charity, philanthropy, or noblesse oblige. It’s more than “people-centered” and not really Robin Hood-style tax and redistribution, or even social welfare.

This is not to declaim or disparage these policies and activities, which in many cases yield positive social and economic results. The problem is that these policies are not really designed to be inclusive; rather they target compensation for past exclusion. In contrast, we should understand that inclusive capitalism seeks to reduce the need for such compensation. Thus, the motivating criterion is bottom-up empowerment, not top-down redirection. For example, inclusive capitalism is less about artificially raising wages, and more about creating the demand for and utilization of labor where a minimum or living wage becomes a moot issue.

With this objective, I believe we can distill “inclusive capitalism” down to a single word that captures the concept in its fullest dimensions. That word is EQUITY. Why equity? Because the multiple meanings and usage of the word “equity” expand the idea into every realm of a free society: political equity in terms of democratic participation, legal equity in terms of rights and accountability, moral equity in terms of justice, and economic equity in terms of capital ownership structures, control, risk, and reward. A free society that lacks any one of these dimensions of equity is in need of repair.

Economic Equity

Naturally, the focus of the term “inclusive capitalism” applies primarily to economic equity, begging the next question of how we define and understand economic equity. This can be problematic because a moral precept of equity as “fairness” is not definitive. In other words, What is economically fair? is a question that cannot really be answered objectively. In economic relations, equity implies a linkage between action and consequence; in finance we might refer to the direct link between risk and reward. In fact, the financial framework may offer the clearest insight into the logic of economic equity in capitalism.

Economic growth is a result of successful risk-taking and productive work. The rewards of success are, or should be, distributed accordingly. The simplest formulation asserts that capital takes the risks and labor does the work. The distributional outcomes of success or failure are then perceived as a protracted conflict between capital and labor over issues of equity. I would argue this conflict is misconstrued.

The linkage between risk and reward is inter-temporal. In other words, financial risks are assigned and taken before the enterprise is engaged: capital is borrowed and invested, suppliers are paid, and labor is contracted. The payment contracts reflect a complex web of legal relations and covenants that stipulate the assignment of liabilities and the seniority of claims over the product after it has been produced and, hopefully, sold. The liability risks of all participants are encoded in these contracts. After standard accounting practices measure the results, the returns to success or the losses of failure are distributed accordingly.

In starkest terms: In capitalism, she who takes the risk, gets the reward (or the loss). We can see the importance of residual claimancy over the profits of the enterprise. Under most corporate legal covenants, these profits accrue to “equity holders,” also referred to as shareholders or owners of firm assets. We should note the usage of that word “equity.”

Inclusive capitalism warrants “inclusion” in the profit-making enterprise of capitalism, which by legal necessity requires contractual claims on residual profits as well as the assumption of liabilities for loss. To control the financial risks associated with these liabilities, the corporate charter was deliberately designed to limit liability to the liquidation value of the firm’s assets.

Some correctly make the argument that wider stakeholders in capitalism (those without ownership claims) have rights that should be reflected in the governance of capitalist enterprise. An example might be a community downriver that suffers water contamination from a producer upstream. Economic externalities, such as environmental degradation, are important considerations for inclusion. Politically imposed regulation can be one means of asserting stakeholders’ interests, but the preferred strategy would be to assign stakeholder claims through the accepted legal structures of ownership and control. In other words, stakeholders should be represented as the voice of shareholders participating as owners in capitalist enterprise. In this way, stakeholders assert their interests and can also claim the material benefits of success, i.e., profits.

Thus, inclusive capitalism explicitly requires inclusion in the economic system as “capitalists,” as well as workers. This all can be as simple as being a passive shareholder. This begs the penultimate question of why, in a capitalist economy, we are not all striving to be capitalists? Alternatively, we might ask: Why is economic inclusion so elusive?

I believe this is where the discussion of inclusive capitalism gets interesting. The answers hinge on the risk-taking nature of capitalist enterprise juxtaposed against the risk-averse, loss-averse behavior dictated by our natural survival instinct. There is a selective bias among successful capitalists to perceive a natural order of things whereby some people are natural risk-taking innovators, while others are not. For them, this “natural order” explains the distribution of success in a capitalist society. The elitist bias can reveal itself in attitudes of paternalism and noblesse oblige.

This perspective is largely the product of a theoretical approach to the market economy where participants are grouped by function: producers vs. consumers; employers vs. workers; investors and borrowers vs. savers and lenders; innovators and wealth-creators vs. welfare dependents. When it comes to distributional outcomes, this is a limited analytical paradigm. Let us just consider the risk-takers. Innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Google’s Page and Brin are perhaps one in a million. But each of these immensely successful individuals has been eager to share the risks and returns of their enterprise through the sale of equity in financial markets. The important lesson is not the fact that Gates may have a net worth of more than $30 billion, but that Microsoft (and Apple and Amazon) has enriched thousands of other stakeholders along the way. This is the key to inclusion and we should pay mind to how it is narrowing.

Though risk preferences and animal spirits do vary across the population, economic risk is ubiquitous and borne in some manner by all. As the capitalist risks loss of principal, the worker risks loss of income. The real question is whether the risk-bearers are receiving just compensation commensurate with those risks and whether the risk-takers are also accountable for losses. This is equity in the moral and economic sense of the word. A free society demands that the innocent not pay for the mistakes of the guilty and this applies in capitalist enterprise as well. (Our recent financial bail-outs appear to have violated this moral imperative.)

For inclusion to work, participants in capitalist enterprise must also be empowered to control and manage their risks. Inclusion and participation then becomes a question of enforceable property rights and gets us back to the legal conventions of assigning ownership rights and risks to tangible assets of the firm. In many situations, different stakeholders eschew the risks because they cannot control or manage them, so they pay to have someone else assume them (i.e., sign a labor contract for a lower risk-return profile). Overcoming these impediments to equity participation inherent to the governance issue is the main challenge of inclusion.

Unfortunately, we have many tax and regulatory policies, as well as financial practices and conventions, that contradict the goal of inclusion through equity. Access to credit, debt leverage, collateral requirements, capital and income taxes, conflicts of interest in governance, etc. work to the disadvantage of those who are thereby excluded from the financialization of the economy. A long laundry list of reforms can be offered in this respect, but that is beyond the purview of this effort, which is to first define what we mean by inclusive capitalism.

A more serious challenge is posed by an industrial global economy being transformed by the digital information age, globalization, and AI robotics. Production in the digital age is revealing itself as labor-saving, capital and skill intensive, with winner-take-all product and service markets. Some of the effects we observe are the rise of celebrity branding; the marginalization of wage labor as a distributional mechanism and mode of inclusion; and the explosive growth of wealth concentration enjoyed by those who feed off digital processes—companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook. These trends present a dire challenge to the concept of equity and inclusion. It is a challenge that will require far deeper thinking and rethinking of the 21st century economy and how we conceive of a free society. Despite what politicians may promise, I would advise there is no going back.

Why the World Wants Capitalism

In the forests of India, something exciting is going on. Villagers are regaining property taken from them when the British colonial authorities nationalized their forests. Just as exciting, in urban Kenya and elsewhere, people are doing away with the need for banks by exchanging and saving their money digitally. All over the world, poor people are discovering the blessings of bottom-up capitalism.


I repost this interesting article on economic development around the world, specifically in the poorest societies. The key words to note are property, ownership, and capital. Another key concept is control over that capital, constituting legal rights. The development and accumulation of capital assets (incl. human) also leads to the expansion of credit to leverage present capital into future capital.

Gee, maybe that’s why we call it capitalism, ya’ think?


Philosophical Moral Traditions

Quote from David Brooks in today’s NY TImes:

We’re the inheritors of an array of moral traditions. There’s the Greek tradition emphasizing honor, glory and courage, the Jewish tradition emphasizing justice and law, the Christian tradition emphasizing surrender and grace, the scientific tradition emphasizing reason and logic, and so on.

Colleges can insist that students at least become familiar with these different moral ecologies. Then it’s up to the students to figure out which one or which combination is best to live by.

Bernanke Spinning the Roulette Wheel

The central bank did its job. What about everyone else?

In today’s Wall St. Journal, former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered up this generous performance review of his stint leading monetary policy after the financial crisis (appended below).

Bernanke assertions regarding unemployment and inflation are questionable on both fronts. First, misguided monetary policy has made a mess of full productive resource utilization. Fed policies such as ZIRP and QE4ever distort relative prices and lead to uncertainty of fundamental valuations over time. Thus, investment time horizons and commitments are shortened (who lends out 30 years now at a fixed rate of interest?). Second, the misallocation of resources leads to increased malinvestment (see housing), portending even more dislocations and corrections in the future. The Fed’s fantasies are further aided by distorted statistical measures like “core inflation” and unemployment. The labor participation rate is weak and weakening and the real growth rate is anemic – that is a true lasting drag on Americans’ well-being. All of this will eventually be borne out by empirical studies, proving the ineffectiveness of global central bank policy.

What the Fed has really accomplished is to let the politicians off the hook by accommodating their dereliction of duty over productive fiscal policy. If economic headline statistics had threatened re-election chances, maybe the executive and legislatures would have stopped playing petty power games and gotten down to the business of governing the nation. This is Washington D.C. at work.

How the Fed Saved the Economy

Full employment without inflation is in sight. The central bank did its job. What about everyone else?

By Ben S. Bernanke

Oct. 4, 2015

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Federal Reserve is considering raising its target interest rate, which would end a long period of near-zero rates. Like the cessation of large-scale asset purchases in October 2014, that action will be an important milestone in the unwinding of extraordinary monetary policies, adopted during my tenure as Fed chairman, to help the economy recover from a historic financial crisis. As such, it’s a good time to evaluate the results of those measures, and to consider where policy makers should go from here.

To begin, it’s essential to be clear on what monetary policy can and cannot achieve. Fed critics sometimes argue that you can’t “print your way to prosperity,” and I agree, at least on one level. The Fed has little or no control over long-term economic fundamentals—the skills of the workforce, the energy and vision of entrepreneurs, and the pace at which new technologies are developed and adapted for commercial use.

What the Fed can do is two things: First, by mitigating recessions, monetary policy can try to ensure that the economy makes full use of its resources, especially the workforce. High unemployment is a tragedy for the jobless, but it is also costly for taxpayers, investors and anyone interested in the health of the economy. Second, by keeping inflation low and stable, the Fed can help the market-based system function better and make it easier for people to plan for the future. Considering the economic risks posed by deflation, as well as the probability that interest rates will approach zero when inflation is very low, the Fed sets an inflation target of 2%, similar to that of most other central banks around the world.

How has monetary policy scored on these two criteria? Reasonable people can disagree on whether the economy is at full employment. The 5.1% headline unemployment rate would suggest that the labor market is close to normal. Other indicators—the relatively low labor-force participation rate, the apparent lack of wage pressures, for example—indicate that there is some distance left to go.

But there is no doubt that the jobs situation is today far healthier than it was a few years ago. That improvement (as measured by the unemployment rate) has been quicker than expected by most economists, both inside and outside the Fed.

On the inflation front, various measures suggest that underlying inflation is around 1.5%. That is somewhat below the 2% target, a situation the Fed needs to remedy. But if there is a problem with inflation, it isn’t the one expected by the Fed’s critics, who repeatedly predicted that the Fed’s policies would lead to high inflation (if not hyperinflation), a collapsing dollar and surging commodity prices. None of that has happened.

It is instructive to compare recent U.S. economic performance with that of Europe, a major industrialized economy of similar size. There are many differences between the U.S. and Europe, but a critical one is that Europe’s economic orthodoxy has until recently largely blocked the use of monetary or fiscal policy to aid recovery. Economic philosophy, not feasibility, is the constraint: Greece might have limited options, but Germany and several other countries don’t. And the European Central Bank has broader monetary powers than the Fed does.

Europe’s failure to employ monetary and fiscal policy aggressively after the financial crisis is a big reason that eurozone output is today about 0.8% below its pre-crisis peak. In contrast, the output of the U.S. economy is 8.9% above the earlier peak—an enormous difference in performance. In November 2010, when the Fed undertook its second round of quantitative easing, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble reportedly called the action “clueless.” At the time, the unemployment rates in Europe and the U.S. were 10.2% and 9.4%, respectively. Today the U.S. jobless rate is close to 5%, while the European rate has risen to 10.9%.

Six years after the Fed, the ECB has begun an aggressive program of quantitative easing, and European fiscal policy has become less restrictive. Given those policy shifts, it isn’t surprising that the European outlook appears to be improving, though it will take years to recover the growth lost over the past few years. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is enjoying a solid recovery, in large part because the Bank of England pursued monetary policies similar to the Fed’s in both timing and relative magnitude.

It is encouraging to see that the U.S. economy is approaching full employment with low inflation, the goals for which the Fed has been striving. That certainly doesn’t mean all is well. Jobs are being created, but overall growth is modest, reflecting subpar gains in productivity and slow labor-force growth, among other factors. The benefits of growth aren’t shared equally, and as a result many Americans have seen little improvement in living standards. These, unfortunately, aren’t problems that the Fed has the power to alleviate. [Does Mr. Bernanke really think Fed policies have had a benign effect on these trends?]

With full employment in sight, further economic growth will have to come from the supply side, primarily from increases in productivity. That means that the Fed will continue to do what it can, but monetary policy can no longer be the only game in town. Fiscal-policy makers in Congress need to step up. As a country, we need to do more to improve worker skills, foster capital investment and support research and development. Monetary policy can accomplish a lot, but, as I often said as Fed chairman, it is no panacea. New efforts both inside and outside government will be essential to sustaining U.S. growth.

Bernanke prayer

House of Cards: Truth Stranger Than Fiction

As a political economist and policy analyst I have to say I’ve found the NetFlix series, House of Cards very entertaining. Of course, it is over the top with political sleaze and corruption, something that probably syncs well with the public’s impression of Washington politics these days. (I find it interesting that the writers chose to designate the depraved, murderous POTUS Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, as a big “D” Democrat. With an annoyingly ambitious, self-righteous wife as co-president – sound familiar? Apparently, depravity with good intentions is somewhat acceptable these days in partisan circles, with Underwood often turning to the audience to explain the bare facts of Machiavellian realpolitik. How unfortunate for poor Niccolo, who was a true republican patriot, but recast by history as the apologist for a ruthless, depraved Prince.)

I have been most amused by Season 3, where Pres. Underwood proposes a massive jobs program paid for by slashing entitlements. This is just too juicy to let pass unnoticed. Let’s translate this “promise” of a full employment Nirvana: “I’m going to take your hard earned money we extorted through Social Security and Medicare taxes and give it away to companies that will employ workers for jobs that the productive private economy will not create because they lose money. Isn’t that grand? We’ll all feel better about humanity, even though we’ll be poorer for it (all except me, that is).”

The irony is that this absurd fiction is actually proposed too often as serious politics in the real Washington D.C. Quite a few other bloggers have explained the surrealness of a POTUS creating jobs from whole cloth just because he can command it from the White House. The numbers just don’t add up. But I was struck more by the widely accepted premise that asserts “jobs” as the end-all of what ails a society of free citizens. The Underwood character actually says, “People are dying from unemployment!” This cuts pretty close to home with Obama recently claiming that “chanting ‘Death to America’ does not create jobs.” Really? Is that what they’re beheading innocents over, a few good jobs?

People don’t die from unemployment, they die from poverty, deprivation, and disease. They die from oppression and violence. Unproductive jobs subsidized by governments do not alleviate poverty, they merely spread poverty around. The thing is, politicians focus on jobs because that is the only way they know how to spread the benefits of capitalism around the population. But we are moving into a new age that departs from the skilled labor-intensive manufacturing of the post-WWII years. Our financial policies have accelerated this trend away from labor by providing cheap capital to take advantage of cheaper labor overseas or machine/robot substitution. We are entering the information, artificial intelligence, and robotics age, and yet our politicians are still making false promises of a job and two chickens in every pot. Not going to happen. We need to think outside that box to discover how we are going to create and share wealth in the new economy. There are many alternative ways to participate in a market economy than solely as a labor input.

In the meantime, enjoy the entertainment. It’s hilarious. But don’t expect a job from America Works.