Book Review: Makers and Takers

Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar

Crown Business; 1st edition (May 17, 2016)

Ms. Foroohar does a fine job of journalistic reporting here. She identifies many of the failures of the current economic policy regime that has led to the dominance of the financial industry. She follows the logical progression of central bank credit policy to inflate the banking system, that in turn captures democratic politics and policymaking in a vicious cycle of anti-democratic cronyism.

However, her ability to follow the money and power is not matched by an ability to analyze the true cause and effect and thus misguides her proposed solutions. Typical of a journalistic narrative, she identifies certain “culprits” in this story: the bankers and policymakers who favor them. But the true cause of this failed paradigm of easy credit and debt is found in the central bank and monetary policy.

Since 1971 the Western democracies have operated under a global fiat currency regime, where the value of the currencies are based solely on the full faith and credit of the various governments. In the case of the US$, that represents the taxing power of our Federal government in D.C.

The unfortunate reality, based on polling the American people (and Europeans) on trust in government, is that trust in our governmental institutions has plunged from almost 80% in 1964 to less than 20% today. Our 2016 POTUS campaign reflects this deep mistrust in the status quo and the political direction of the country. For good reason. So, what is the value of a dollar if nobody trusts the government to defend it? How does one invest under that uncertainty? You don’t.

One would hope Ms. Foroohar would ask, how did we get here? The essential cause is cheap excess credit, as has been experienced in financial crises all through history. The collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971, when the US repudiated the dollar gold conversion, called the gold peg, has allowed central banks to fund excessive government spending on cheap credit – exploding our debt obligations to the tune of $19 trillion. There seems to be no end in sight as the Federal Reserve promises to write checks without end.

Why has this caused the complete financialization of the economy? Because real economic growth depends on technology and demographics and cannot keep up with 4-6% per year. So the excess credit goes into asset speculation, mostly currency, commodity, and securities trading. This explosion of trading has amped incentives to develop new financial technologies and instruments to trade. Thus, we have the explosion of derivatives trading, which essentially is trading on trading, ad infinitum. Thus, Wall Street finance has come to be dominated by trading and socialized risk-taking rather than investing and private risk management.

After 2001 the central bank decided housing as an asset class was ripe for a boom, and that’s what we got: a debt-fueled bubble that we’ve merely re-inflated since 2008. There is a fundamental value to a house, and in most regions we have far departed from it.

So much money floating through so few hands naturally ends up in the political arena to influence policy going forward. Thus, not only is democratic politics corrupted, but so are any legal regulatory restraints on banking and finance. The simplistic cure of “More regulation!” is belied by the ease with which the bureaucratic regulatory system is captured by powerful interests.

The true problem is the policy paradigm pushed by the consortium of central banks in Europe, Japan, China, and the US. (The Swiss have resisted, but not out of altruism for the poor savers of the world.) Until monetary/credit policy in the free world becomes tethered and disciplined by something more than the promises of politicians and central bankers, we will continue full-speed off the eventual cliff. But our financial masters see this eventuality as a great buying opportunity.

The Guardian view on central bankers: growing power and limited success

I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest. I expect to see the State, which is in a position to calculate the marginal efficiency of capital-goods on long views and on the basis of the general social advantage, taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment.

– John Maynard Keynes

This editorial by The Guardian points out the futilities of current central banking policy around the world. Unfortunately, they only get it half right: the prescience of Keynes’s first sentence is only matched by the absurdity of his second sentence. Calculate the marginal efficiency of capital? Directing investment? Solyndra anyone? The captured State is the primary problem of politicized credit…

Reprinted from The Guardian, Thursday 25 August 2016

To find the true centre of power in today’s politics, ignore the sweaty press releases from select committees, look past the upcoming party conferences – and, for all our sakes, pay no mind to the seat allocations on the 11am Virgin train to Newcastle. Look instead to the mountains of Wyoming, and the fly-fishers’ paradise of Jackson Hole.

Over the next couple of days, the people who set interest rates for the world’s major economies will meet here to discuss the global outlook – but it’s no mere talking shop. What’s said here matters: when the head of the US Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, speaks on Friday, the folk who manage our pension funds will take a break from the beach reads to check their smartphones for instant takes.

This year the scrutiny will be more widespread and particularly intense. Since the 2008 crash, what central bankers say and do has moved from the City pages to the front page. That is logical, given that the Bank of England created £375bn of new money through quantitative easing in the four years after 2009 and has just begun buying £70bn of IOUs from the government and big business. But the power and prominence of central banks today is also deeply worrying. For one, their multibillion-pound interventions have had only limited success – and it is doubtful that throwing more billions around will work much better. For another, politicians are compelling them to play a central role in our politics, even though they are far less accountable to voters. This is politics in the garb of technocracy.

Next month is the eighth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Since then the US central bank has bought $3.7tn (£2.8tn) of bonds. [Note: We’re going on $4 trillion of free money pumped into the financial sector, folks] All the major central banks have cut rates; according to the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, global interest rates are at their lowest in 5,000 years. Despite this, the world economy is, in his description, “stuck”. This government boasts of the UK’s recovery, but workers have seen a 10% drop in real wages since the end of 2007 – matched among developed economies only by Greece. Fuelling the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is the fact that the US is suffering one of the slowest and weakest recoveries in recent history. In April, the IMF described the state of the global economy as “Too Slow for Too Long”.

Having thrown everything they had at the world economy, all central bankers have to show is the most mediocre of score sheets. When it comes to monetary policy, the old cliche almost fits: you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it avail itself of super-low interest rates to kickstart a sustainable recovery. Two forces appear to be at work. First, monetary policy has been used by politicians as a replacement for fiscal policy on spending and taxes, when it should really be complementary. Second, major economies – such as Britain after Thatcher’s revolution – have become so unequal and lopsided that vast wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few who use it for speculation rather than productive investment. QE has pushed up the price of Mayfair flats and art by Damien Hirst. It has done next to nothing for graphene in Manchester. [Does it take a rocket scientist to figure this out?]

All this was foreseen by Keynes in his General Theory: “I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest. I expect to see the State, which is in a position to calculate the marginal efficiency of capital-goods on long views and on the basis of the general social advantage, taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment.”

Eighty years on, it is time those words were heeded by policymakers. In Britain, that means using state-owned banks such as RBS and Lloyds to direct loans to those industries and parts of the country that elected and accountable politicians see as being in need. Couple that with a tax system that rewards companies on how much value they add to the British economy, and the UK might finally be back in business.

The State, run by the political class and their technocrats? Yikes!!! Will we ever learn?

The Fed Is as Clueless as You Are

Some analysts noted that the Fed has lost credibility. But perhaps traders have just had too much faith in the omniscience of central bankers all along. They don’t have a crystal ball and are apparently as vulnerable as anyone else to misreading economic tea leaves. There is no corner on certainty in an uncertain world.

‘Nuff said.

In the last 30 years, the FED has been good at only one thing and that is creating bubbles. Greenspan started them, handed off to Bernanke who then handed off to Yellen. One double talking FED chair after another seeking to destroy the middle class under the guise of ‘this is good for you.’ Financial engineering is reaching epidemic proportions while destroying everything in its path.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s the Clueless FED


Statistical Fixations

Martin Feldstein is nowhere near as excitable as David Stockman on Fed manipulations (link to D.S.’s commentary), but they both end up at the same place: the enormous risks we are sowing with abnormal monetary policies. The economy is not nearly as healthy as the Fed would like, but pockets of the economy are bubbling up while other pockets are still deflating. There is a correlation relationship, probably causal.

The problem with “inflation targeting” is that bubble economics warps relative prices and so the correction must drive some prices down and others up. In other words, massive relative price corrections are called for. But inflation targeting targets the general price level as measured by biased sample statistics – so if the Fed is trying to prop up prices that previously bubbled up and need to decline, such as housing and stocks, they are pushing against a correction. The obvious problem has been these debt-driven asset prices, like stocks, government bonds, and real estate. In the meantime, we get no new investment that would increase labor demand.

The global economy needs to absorb the negative in order to spread the positive consequences of these easy central bank policies. The time is now because who knows what happens after the turmoil of the US POTUS election?

Ending the Fed’s Inflation Fixation

The focus is misplaced—and because it delays an overdue interest-rate rise, it is also dangerous.

The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2016 7:02 p.m. ET

The primary role of the Federal Reserve and other central banks should be to prevent high rates of inflation. The double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s and early ’80s were a destructive and frightening experience that could have been avoided by better monetary policy in the previous decade. Fortunately, the Fed’s tighter monetary policy under Paul Volcker brought the inflation rate down and set the stage for a strong economic recovery during the Reagan years.

The Federal Reserve has two congressionally mandated policy goals: “full employment” and “price stability.” The current unemployment rate of 5% means that the economy is essentially at full employment, very close to the 4.8% unemployment rate that the members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee say is the lowest sustainable rate of unemployment.

For price stability, the Fed since 2012 has interpreted its mandate as a long-term inflation rate of 2%. Although it has achieved full employment, the Fed continues to maintain excessively low interest rates in order to move toward its inflation target. This has created substantial risks that could lead to another financial crisis and economic downturn.

The Fed did raise the federal-funds rate by 0.25 percentage points in December, but interest rates remain excessively low and are still driving investors and lenders to take unsound risks to reach for yield, leading to a serious mispricing of assets. The S&P 500 price-earnings ratio is more than 50% above its historic average. Commercial real estate is priced as if low bond yields will last forever. Banks and other lenders are lending to lower quality borrowers and making loans with fewer conditions.

When interest rates return to normal there will be substantial losses to investors, lenders and borrowers. The adverse impact on the overall economy could be very serious.
A fundamental problem with an explicit inflation target is the difficulty of knowing if it has been hit. The index of consumer prices that the Fed targets should in principle measure how much more it costs to buy goods and services that create the same value for consumers as the goods and services that they bought the year before. Estimating that cost would be an easy task for the national income statisticians if consumers bought the same things year after year. But the things that we buy are continually evolving, with improvements in quality and with the introduction of new goods and services. These changes imply that our dollars buy goods and services with greater value year after year.

Adjusting the price index for these changes is an impossibly difficult task. The methods used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics fail to capture the extent of quality improvements and don’t even try to capture the value created by new goods and services.

The true value of the national income is therefore rising faster than the official estimates of real gross domestic product and real incomes imply. For the same reason, the official measure of inflation overstates the increase in the true cost of the goods and services that consumers buy. If the official measure of inflation were 1%, the true cost of buying goods and services that create the same value to consumers may have actually declined. The true rate of inflation could be minus 1% or minus 3% or minus 5%. There is simply no way to know.

With a margin of error that large, it makes no sense to focus monetary policy on trying to hit a precise inflation target. The problem that consumers care about and that should be the subject of Fed policy is avoiding a return to the rapidly rising inflation that took measured inflation from less than 2% in 1965 to 5% in 1970 and to more than 12% in 1980.

Although we cannot know the true rate of inflation at any time, we can see if the measured inflation rate starts rising rapidly. If that happens, it would be a sign that true inflation is also rising because of excess demand in product and labor markets. That would be an indication that the Fed should be tightening monetary policy.

The situation today in which the official inflation rate is close to zero implies that the true inflation rate is now less than zero. Fortunately this doesn’t create the kind of deflation problem that would occur if households’ money incomes were falling. If that occurred, households would cut back on spending, leading to declines in overall demand and a possible downward spiral in prices and economic activity.

Not only are nominal wages and incomes not falling in the U.S. now, they are rising at about 2% a year. The negative true inflation rate means that true real incomes are rising more rapidly than the official statistics imply. [Sounds good, huh? Not quite. Read Stockman’s analysis.]

The Federal Reserve should now eliminate the explicit inflation target policy that it adopted less than five years ago. The Fed should instead emphasize its commitment to avoiding both high inflation and declining nominal wages. That would permit it to raise interest rates more rapidly today and to pursue a sounder monetary policy in the years ahead.


Beyond Piketty’s Capital


What Ben Franklin and Billie Holiday Could Tell Us About Capitalism’s Inequalities

It has now been two years since French economist Thomas Piketty published his tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and one year since it was published in English, raising a fanfare of praise and criticism. It has deserved both, most notably for “putting the distributional question back at the heart of economic analysis.”[1] I would imagine Professor Piketty is also pleased by the attention his work has garnered: What economist doesn’t secretly desire to be labeled a “rock-star” without having to sing or pick up a guitar to demonstrate otherwise?

Piketty’s study (a collaborative effort, to be sure) is an important and timely contribution to economic research. His datasets across time and space on wealth, income, and inheritances provide a wealth of empirical evidence for future testing and analysis. The presentation is long, as it is all-encompassing, tackling an ambitious, if not impossible, task. But for empirics alone, the work is commendable.

Many critics have focused on methodology and the occasional data error, but I will dispense with that by accepting the general contour of history Piketty presents as accurate of real trends in economic inequality over time. And that it matters. Inequality is not only a social and political problem, it is an economic challenge because extreme disparities break down the basis of free exchange, leading to excess investment lacking productive opportunities.[2] (Piketty ignores the natural equilibrium correctives of business/trade cycles, presumably because he perceives them as interim reversals on an inevitable long term trend.) I have followed Edward Wolff’s research long enough to know there is an intimate causal relationship between capitalist markets and material outcomes. I believe the meatier controversy is found in Piketty’s interpretations of the data and his inductive theorizing because that tells us what we can and should do, if anything, about it. Sufficient time has passed for us to digest the criticisms and perhaps offer new insights.

Read the full essay, formatted and downloadable as a pdf…


[1] Distributional issues are really at the heart of our most intractable policy challenges. Not only are wealth and income inequalities distributional puzzles, so are hunger, poverty, pollution, the effects of climate change, etc. Unfortunately, the profession tends to ignore distributional puzzles because the necessary assumptions of high-order mathematical models that drive theory rule out dynamic network interactions that characterize markets. Due to these limitations, economics is left with the default explanations of initial conditions, hence the focus on natural inequality, access to education, inheritance, etc. General equilibrium theory (GE) also assumes distributional effects away: over time prices and quantities will adjust to correct any maldistributions caused by misallocated resources. For someone mired in poverty or hunger, it’s not a very inspiring assumption.

[2] As opposed to distributional problems, modern economics is very comfortable studying and prescribing economic growth. Its mathematical models provide powerful tools to study and explain the determinants of growth. This is why growth is often touted as the solution to every economic problem. (When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) But sustainable growth relies on the feedback cycle within a dynamic market network model, so stable growth is highly dependent on sustainable distributional networks.

The Ironies of ZIRP


This is an excellent explanation of the behavioral illogic of Zero Interest Rate Policies being imposed by the major central banks of the world. If only they paid more attention to how they were increasing perceived risks and uncertainty in markets.

From Barrons:

Low Interest Rates: A Self-Defeating Strategy

Instead of encouraging spending and boosting the economy, low rates can lead people to squirrel more money away to meet their retirement or other goals.

April 17, 2015
When I think back on all the crap I learned in grad school, it’s a wonder I can think at all, to paraphrase Paul Simon. And that also goes for what was drummed into me as an undergraduate, way back when we used Kodachrome film to take photographs with Nikon cameras, instead of iPhones (and Eastman Kodak was among the elite 30 Dow industrials).Among those shibboleths was that low interest rates always stimulate the economy. Reduced borrowing costs make it easier for folks to buy houses and companies to invest and expand. Lower yields on savings cut the incentives for consumers to stash their cash in the banks like Scrooge and instead make them more inclined to go out and spend and have a good time. And all that spending should tend to push up prices and, in due time, set up the next cycle of rising rates.

And if interest rates ever hit zero, money would be free, which should mean the economy should be like an open bar—a real party. Then think about what would happen if rates went where they never had gone before—below zero percent and into negative territory. Lenders would be paying borrowers, rather than the other way around.

This isn’t some alternate universe, but rather what’s actually happening in Europe. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, some borrowers in Spain had the rates on their mortgages fall below zero, which meant the bank owed them money. That comes as approximately one-third of all European government bonds carry negative yields.

Those are mainly short-to-intermediate maturities whose yields have followed the European Central Bank’s minus 0.20% deposit rate into negative territory. But, by week’s end, the benchmark 10-year German bund yield seemed inexorably headed below zero, as it set another record closing low of 0.073%, according to Tradeweb. At that return, investors would double their money in a mere 1,000 years.

But the boom that the textbooks predict is nowhere in evidence. That’s not a surprise to Jason Hsu, vice chairman and co-founder of Research Affiliates and also a card-carrying Ph.D. and adjunct professor at UCLA. As a frequent visitor to Japan over more than a decade, he’s had a chance to observe firsthand the effect of near-zero interest rates.

In the complete opposite of what classical economics teaches, low returns actually have induced Japanese consumers to spend less, he says. As the aging population saves more to get to a threshold of assets needed for retirement, firms seeing no spending are loath to spend, invest, or hire. “This is a bad spiral that never was predicted,” Jason explains (appropriately enough, over a sushi lunch).

This had always been assumed to reflect both the demographics and cultural traits of Japan. But that world view will have to be revised, as there’s evidence of the same thing happening in Europe, he adds, with Germans reacting to zero interest rates by saving more. This behavioral dimension helps explain the tepid payoff from the unprecedented “financial repression” that has taken interest rates to zero and below.

The restraints on spending from forcing savers to save more in a low-rate environment has been a theme sounded by a number of critics, including David Einhorn, the head of Greenlight Capital, a hedge fund. At a recent Grant’s Interest Rate Observer conference, he quoted Raghuram Rajan, the head of India’s central bank, who, in a lecture at the Bank for International Settlements in 2013, spoke of the plight of someone nearing retirement and facing losses on savings (from two bear markets this century) and low prospective returns. That “can imply low real interest rates are contractionary—savers put more aside as interest rates fall in order to meet the savings they think they will need when they retire.” Indeed, according to a widely cited estimate by Swiss Re, U.S. savers have foregone some $470 billion in interest earnings since 2008.

That conundrum was quantified in a report by David P. Goldman, head of Americas research at Reorient Capital in Hong Kong. A saver who accumulates assets for retirement through stocks would want to “annuitize” or convert that wealth into a stream of income for retirement. “But the amount of income investors can expect to receive from an equity portfolio converted into bonds actually has fallen over the past 18 years,” he writes.

At the peak of the stock market in 2000, Goldman calculates that one unit of the Standard & Poor’s 500 annually earned the real equivalent of $1,900 (adjusted for inflation, in 1982 dollars) when invested in Baa (medium-grade) corporate bonds. At the market’s recovery in 2007, one unit of the S&P would earn $1,300; now, it’s only $1,100.

The same goes for home prices. A house bought for $500,000 in 2000 and sold today and reinvested in Baa bonds would yield $16,000 annually in 1982 dollars, versus $22,000 when it was bought 15 years ago. Bottom line: “Assets have soared, but the prospective interest on these assets has shrunk.”

Which means that even the affluent top 20% of Americans (who accounted for 61% of domestic consumption in 2012, up from 53%, according to data cited by Goldman) who actually have assets are more cautious about spending than a naïve view of the wealth effect might suggest, he concludes.

To be fair, what we learned about interest rates and the economy were predicated on “normal” levels. A decline in mortgage rates from, say, 7% to 5% could reliably be counted on to set off a rebound. That would lower the monthly payment on a $300,000, 30-year loan by nearly 25%, to around $1,600 from $2,000. First-time home buyers then might qualify to get into a house; the sellers could trade up to nicer digs; those who stayed put could refinance and cut their payment or take down more money to pay off other debt or spend on a car, boat, or college tuition.

It may be that, as interest rates—which represent the time value of money [plus the risk premium for uncertain outcomes]—approach zero, their impact is distorted, just as time is distorted as the speed of light is approached, according to Einstein.

Financial repression that has depressed rates to levels that are unprecedented in history is having unpredictable effects, which shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. Even if we didn’t learn about them in school.

The Bull Market Bull


From David Stockman’s blog:

Never has there been a more artificial—-indeed, phony—–gain in the stock market than the 215% eruption orchestrated by the Fed since the post-crisis bottom six years ago today. And the operative word is “orchestrated” because there is nothing fundamental, sustainable, logical or warranted about today’s S&P 500 index at 2080.

In fact, the fundamental financial and economic rot which gave rise to the 672 index bottom on March 9, 2009 has not been ameliorated at all. The US economy remains mired in even more debt, less real productive investment, fewer breadwinner jobs and vastly more destructive financialization and asset price speculation than had been prevalent at the time of the Lehman event in September 2008.

Indeed, embedded in Friday’s allegedly “strong” jobs report is striking proof that the main street economy is the very opposite of bullish. In January 2015 there were still 2 million fewer full-time, full-pay “breadwinner” jobs in the US economy than there were before the crisis in December 2007.


Read more


Why You Should be INTERESTed


My policy primer, Common Cents, explains why the interest rate(s) is the most important price in a free market economy. Distorting it has far-reaching consequences, as David Stockman explains in this post from his blog, Contra Corner, from which I quote below:

The single most important price in all of capitalism is the money market interest rate. That is the price of poker in the Wall Street casino; it is the cost of production for the carry traders and gamblers who provide the marginal “bid” for risk assets.

By supplanting free market price discovery with an artificially pegged price of zero, the Fed is unleashing the furies of greed and reckless speculation in the financial system once again. So it has truly become a serial bubble machine headed by a babbler who apparently believes in make pretend.

Read full article here.


The Sinister Evolution Of Our Modern Banking System


Repost from Peak Prosperity blog. (Link to podcast and blog here.)

Because we’re all about those banks, ’bout those banks…
Saturday, January 31, 2015

I quit Wall Street and decided that it was time to talk more about what was going on inside it, as it had changed. It had become far more sinister and far more dangerous. ~ Nomi Prins

Today, the ‘revolving door’ connecting our political and financial systems is evident to anyone with eyes. But this entwined relationship between Washington DC and Wall Street is nothing new, predating even the formation of the Federal Reserve.

To chronicle the evolution to where we find ourselves today, we welcome Nomi Prins, Wall Street veteran turned financial industry reformist, and author of the excellent expose All The Presidents Bankers.

In this well-detailed interview, Nomi goes into depth of the rationale and process behind the creation of the Federal Reserve, and more important, how its mandate — and the behavior of the banking system overall — metastasized into the every-banker-for-himself regime of sanctioned theft we now live with.

Chris Martenson:   To me, it couldn’t have been more obviously obscene then in 2010, and I believe maybe 2009, right after the big banks had been handed just vast, huge, very favorable handouts and bailouts during the Great Recession — and then they handed themselves record bonuses. I thought optically that was just horrible. As somebody who was inside the banking system: Are they that tone deaf? What’s behind that sort of behavior?

Nomi Prins:   Indeed, they have become very isolated.

It began with the period before the 1970s when different people were rising to leadership in banks, and worsened in the 80s when we started seeing people who had more sociopathic tendencies or less ability to appreciate the idea of the public’s economic stability being beneficial to growing their institutions. They no longer viewed it as necessary.

And with the advent of the larger futures market, the options market, the derivatives market, and all the off-shore elements of banking that were able to be developed, so much capital was now available and off of the books that the idea of maintaining some sort of a connection to stability policy — or even to whatever the Presidency might want — dissolved. At the same time, all the Presidents that were involved in running the country around that time didn’t ask or require accountability towards financial stability from them.

So there was a bunch of things that were happening at the same time, and that’s why the media does a poor job of critiquing this because they’re not looking at all the strands. None of this is simple. A lot of things happened at the same time to create these kinds of shifts. On the one hand, you have no restraint: you don’t have the Gold Standard anymore, so you have less of a strain on having something physical be reserved against your leverage. You now have this ability of petrodollars being recycled. You have the ability to leverage more debt. You have less humility. You have a more technologically-advanced, less transparent global financial system, so you can make and hide money easier. And then you have ascendancies of leadership in banks and in the government that are OK with all this, and allow it to fester.

It’s all defended as some sort of example of a free market and competition — “the best gets the best”, and so forth — when the reality is it just destabilizes the entire system and creates an artificiality. We see central banks supporting all of this mess, as opposed to figuring out what the exit policy is — which none of them have a clue about. That’s really where we’ve evolved to.

Listen to the entire podcast.

Rethinking Inequality and Redistribution in a Free Society


Inequality has become a hot political topic these days and may be most contentious issue of the 2016 presidential election (unless a geopolitical crisis occurs before then). The study of economic inequality and what to do about it has a long history though, and not much has changed.

In this post I would like to suggest some different ways of looking at the problem and what to do about it from a policy perspective. Many people look at the distributional outcomes of success in a winner-take-all society and declaim the results as unfair. It probably is unfair, just like it is when all the tallest kids get chosen to play on the basketball team. But, more seriously, fairness is not an objective measure by which we can set policy.

Most people think they can define what’s fair and what’s not. I would tend to agree, but mine probably departs from the common sense definition. When looking at results in life, one person’s fairness (the winners’ bracket) is another’s unfairness (the losers’ bracket). So, should fairness be determined by who has the most political power and influence in society, even if that is a tyranny of the majority? I fail to see how that would be fair.

Fairness can actually be defined by the legal idea that consequence should follow action. In other words, the guilty, not the innocent, should pay for their sins. In finance, this idea of fairness is couched in the concept of risk and reward: he who takes the risk, reaps the reward (or the loss).

The question is how do we apply this objective idea of fairness (I would prefer the word “justice”) to policies to mitigate unequal outcomes? Or even should we?

I will argue that we should, but that we’re devising all the wrong policies because we are trapped in a conceptual maze. Economic inequality is truly a maze of confusion. There are many different factors that lead to unequal results and it’s quite easy and common to focus on the wrong ones. The factors that have become politically salient today are related to the diverging returns between capital and labor. This is at the root of all the hullabaloo over French economist Thomas Piketty’s work, a work that has been politicized to confirm the worse fears of labor advocates.

In short, globalization and technology has led to wage repression for the 99%, while increasing the returns to capital (the 1%). The keen-jerk solution is to tax capital after the fact and redistribute the funds to labor. The POTUS stated this proposal explicitly in his recent SOTU address: “Let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top 1 percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth.” In effect, he was advocating for tax reform, but he failed to specify details. But we have a good idea on what kind of economic policies Mr. Obama favors: free community college tuition, minimum wage laws, family childcare and education credits, paid sick leave. One can argue the pros and cons of these policies, but none of them really addresses the growing problem of inequality. My guess is that is because the administration really doesn’t have any new ideas about what to do about inequality except to wave it as a red flag during election season.

There is a serious problem with trying to tax capital to redistribute to labor that I would like to present here in the simplest of terms. Capital has dominant strategies to win any conflict with labor in a free society. If we tax capital, it can instantly move elsewhere to avoid the tax. Financial capital is fungible, it can change it’s use. Or it can lie dormant in the bank vault or a mattress. Labor enjoys none of these advantages: we can’t easily get up and move, we are specialized by skills and education, and we can’t be idle for long because we have to eat. In a class war between capital and labor, labor must capitulate, at least in a free society.

The political measures that seek to prevent this – such as repatriation laws, tax penalties, capital controls, crackdowns on tax havens and accounting rules – are largely ineffective because capital enjoys these freedoms that are partly incumbent to its nature. Eliminating capital mobility would require the complete coordination of the international community, which implies state control over the deployment of capital. This would be contradictory to a free society, as much as the complete state control of labor mobility would. In other words, state coercion is incompatible with a free society and thus any tax costs will fall mostly on labor. This is not the result we want.

So, are we stuck in an impossible situation where those who own and control capital dominate those who don’t? I don’t believe so, but the solutions lie outside the present constellation of policies.

The first lesson is that if capital dominates the distribution of returns, then success in capitalism requires access, ownership, and control of capital.  Simply put, in a capitalist society, why aren’t we all clamoring to become capitalists? (You don’t have to run a business to be a capitalist, you just need to buy into public corporate share ownership and control.)

The next objection is that capital ownership and control cannot be pried from the hands of the rich and powerful without coercion by a democratically-elected government. In other words, we’re back to tax coercion. It is certainly true that we can tax physical capital and wealth through property and estate taxes. A mansion cannot be moved or disappear because it is taxed and the tax cannot be avoided by selling the property since the sales price will instantly reflect the tax liability. Wealth taxes are probably necessary due to the massive transfer of wealth under the misguided policies of the past two decades, but we’re missing the larger point if we focus solely on this redistribution of wealth after the fact. (My proposal for estate taxes is that they could be avoided entirely if the estate distributed the capital in limited amounts voluntarily according to the wishes of the principal. This happens to a certain extent with charitable gifts, but I would broaden the idea to cover any beneficiaries.)

However, beyond wealth taxes, there IS a way to incentivize someone to surrender at least some of their capital voluntarily. In fact, we all do it all the time when we buy insurance. By paying insurance premiums we surrender capital wealth in order to reduce risk and preserve the remainder. The rich have long practiced capital preservation strategies to protect their wealth. So risk is exchanged with capital.

This is also how Wall Street bankers get rich – they assume risk, manage it successfully, and then reap the rewards. So, if those without capital assume the equity risks going forward, and their property rights are vigorously defended, they can reap the rewards of economic success through their labor and their capital accumulation. The rich willingly give up some of their control in return for reducing their risks. As a society we can redistribute wealth by redistributing and managing risk.

This happens now when we save and invest in new business ventures, or accumulate a portfolio of financial assets such as stocks and bonds. But to really make a dent in inequality we must broaden and deepen capital ownership with a range of policy reforms that consistently reward working, saving, investing, accumulating capital, and diversifying risk. In a free society the government was never meant to do all of this for us, especially when we can do it better ourselves. I also would not expect most politicians in Washington to someday wake up and discover these reforms by themselves.





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