Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The purpose of government debt…

An important post from Izabella Kaminska at FT Alphaville and recommended reading (h/t rjs): 

On the new purpose of government debt –   Frances Coppola has whipped up an absolutely fabulous commentary on this Bank of Iinternational Settlements working paper on safe assets, which cuts straight to the point of. As she neatly expresses, in our new looking glass world of finance… “the purpose of government debt is not to fund government spending. It is to provide safe assets.”

Therefore, governments whose debt is regarded as a safe asset must operate monetary and fiscal policy in such a way that their debt retains its value. They cannot allow inflation to rise significantly, and they must maintain control of public spending to ensure that they can always meet their liabilities when they fall due. The very existence of safe assets relies on the soundness of sovereign monetary and fiscal policy.
From a national economic perspective, this looks completely ridiculous. On the one hand, government must produce unlimited amounts of debt to meet the financial system’s demand for safe assets, and allow the central bank to exchange this debt freely for new money. But on the other hand, they must maintain strict control of inflation and government spending so that the safe assets they are producing remain safe. So the debt/GDP level can rise to the skies, though they will pay nothing much for it: in fact debt/GDP would become a completely meaningless measure of the soundness of public finances. But woe betide any government that ran a deficit. The BIS paper envisages governments running primary surpluses to fund debt issuance:


Lifted from comments Frances Copppola says…

This isn’t about private debt – it’s about public debt morphing into an asset that is so important to financial stability that governments must organise their monetary and fiscal policies around supporting it. In fact as people rely on public debt as a safe home for long-term savings, the more savings they have the greater the need for public debt.

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Trade and Development

Trade and Development

Run 75411 picked up this recent report over at Economists View where someone (Goldilocksisableachblond?) pointed to a recent UN report TRADE AND DEVELOPMENT REPORT, 2012

Run says: There are some interesting comments within the Overview to the much longer report, which I found germaine to what is happening in the US and which have been addressed before by many of us. I have not had a chance to read the entire report. Bolding within the quotes are my own. I am more interested in your thoughts and comments. This is on developed countries and there is more on developing countries to be added later.

The turning point: financial liberalization and “market-friendly” policy reforms
In order to comprehend the causes of growing inequality, it should be borne in mind that the trend towards greater inequality has coincided with a broad reorientation of economic policy since the 1980s. In many countries, trade liberalization was accompanied by deregulation of the domestic financial system and capital-account liberalization, giving rise to a rapid expansion of international capital flows. International finance gained a life of its own, increasingly moving away from financing for real investment or for the international flow of goods to trading in existing financial assets. Such trading often became a much more lucrative business than creating wealth through new investments.

More generally, the previous more interventionist approach of public policy, which strongly focused on reducing high unemployment and income inequality, was abandon. This shift was based on the belief that the earlier approach could not solve the problem of stagflation that had emerged in many developed countries in the second half of the 1970s. It was therefore replaced by a more “market-friendly” approach, which emphasized the removal of presumed market distortions and was grounded in the strong belief in a superior static efficiency of markets.” (Page 18)

The failure of labour market and fiscal reforms
Just ahead of the new jump in unemployment in developed countries − from an average of less than 6 per cent in 2007 to close to 9 per cent in 2011 − the share of wages in GDP had fallen to the lowest level in the post-war era. Due to their negative effect on consumer demand, neither lower average wages nor greater wage differentiation at the sector or firm level can be expected to lead to a substitution of labour for capital and reduce unemployment in the economy as a whole. In addition, greater wage differentiation among firms to overcome the current crisis in developed countries is not a solution either, because it reduces the differentiation of profits among firms. Yet it is precisely the profit differentials which drive the investment and innovation dynamics of a market economy. If less efficient firms cannot compensate for their lower profits by cutting wages, they must increase their productivity and innovate to survive.”
(Page 22)

A reorientation of wage and labour market policies is essential ?????????????????

In addition to employment- and growth-supporting monetary and fiscal policies, an appropriate incomes policy can play an important role in achieving a socially acceptable degree of income inequality while generating employment-creating demand growth. A central feature of any incomes policy should be to ensure that average real wages rise at the same rate as average productivity. Nominal wage adjustment should also take account of an inflation target. When, as a rule, wages in an economy rise in line with average productivity growth plus an inflation target, the share of wages in GDP remains constant and the economy as a whole creates a sufficient amount of demand to fully employ its productive capacities.”

Run here: I think as Spencer and others have so aptly pointed out, productivity gains have been skewed to Capital since the seventies.

Influencing income distribution through taxation

The net demand effect of an increase in taxation and higher government spending is stronger when the distribution of the additional tax burden is more progressive, since part of the additional tax payments is at the expense of the savings of the taxpayers in the higher income groups, where the propensity to save is higher than in the lower income groups.

The experience of the first three post-war decades in developed countries, when marginal and corporate tax rates were higher but investment was also higher, suggests that the willingness of entrepreneurs to invest in new productive capacity does not depend primarily on net profits at a given point in time; rather, it depends on their expectations of future demand for the goods and services they can produce with that additional capacity. These expectations are stabilized or even improve when public expenditures rise, and, through their income effects, boost private demand.

Taxing high incomes, in particular in the top income groups, through greater progressivity of the tax scale does not remove the absolute advantage of the high income earners nor the incentive for others to move up the income ladder. Taxing rentier incomes and incomes from capital gains at a higher rate than profit incomes from entrepreneurial activity – rather than at a lower rate as practiced so far in many countries – appears to be an increasingly justifiable option given the excessive expansion of largely unproductive financial activities.
Page 26

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Populist rehetoric for the election campaign

Via The Dailey Beast is a link to Lehman Brother’s e-mails and documents and an unanswered question for investors and the public

With the Occupy protesters resuming battle stations, and Mitt Romney in place as the presumptive Republican nominee, President Obama has begun to fashion his campaign as a crusade for the 99 percent–a fight against, as one Obama ad puts it, “a guy who had a Swiss bank account.”

  

Casting Romney as a plutocrat will be easy enough. But the president’s claim as avenging populist may prove trickier, given his own deeply complicated, even conflicted, relationship with Big Finance.
…  

“There hasn’t been any serious investigation of any of the large financial entities by the Justice Department, which includes the FBI,” says William Black, an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who, as a government regulator in the 1980s, helped clean up the S&L mess. Black, who is a Democrat, notes that the feds dealt with the S&L crisis with harsh justice, bringing more than a thousand prosecutions, and securing a 90 percent conviction rate. The difference between the government’s response to the two crises, Black says, is a matter of will, and priorities. “You need heads on the pike,” he says. “The first President Bush’s orders were to get the most prominent, nastiest frauds, and put their heads on pikes as a demonstration that there’s a new sheriff in town.”

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Where Has All The Money Gone, Part II – Finance Sector

In Part I we saw that labor’s earnings have lagged far behind GDP growth.  (More on earnings stagnation here) Meanwhile, corporate profits have grown at a rate that, until recently, increased over time, and they are now at a historically high fraction of GDP.
Here is a specific look at the Finance Sector. The graph shows finance sector profits as a percentage of total corporate profits – all after tax.

 
That’s a pretty impressive sweep up over time. I threw some best fit curves through the whole data set, and also though the peaks and valleys. Curves through the extremes are exponential.

Along with the increased percentage we get a dramatic increase in the data spread.

When lines jump around a lot, you can sometimes get clarification by looking at a long average. I tried that here with a 13 year average.

A long average filters out the hash, and reveals the underlying trend. Or, I should say, trends, since there are two, with a sharp break at the beginning of 1986. A best-fit least squares trend line on the data through ’85 is a near-perfect match to the average line, which barely even wiggles. We see a bit more action in the post-85 segment, but the new trend is still very clear, indeed. The earlier trend line in green is now the lower channel support line.

The finance sector has captured an increasing fraction of corporate profits, which have been growing at an increasing rate since WWII.  And the growth rates are greatest when the economy is doing the worst.  Take another look at the first graph.  The correlation of finance sector profit peaks with recessions is close to perfect.  Peaks are in Q2-1949, Q3-1952, Q4-1953, Q1-1958, Q1-1961, Q4-1970,  Q1-1986, Q1-1991, Q4-2001.  The peak in 1986 is the only one that does not correspond to a recession.

The finance sector provides a vital function.  It is there to facilitate and enable the wheels of industry to turn.  But policy matters.  What has happened in the age of deregulation and lax taxation is that the finance sector has come to dominate the economy.  This is madness. And here is your Great Stagnation, folks.

Beyond the point of supplying necessary financing for businesses and mortgages, financial manoeuvrings – speculation in particular, and most especially so with sophisticated derivatives that nobody knows how to rationally evaluate – become rent seeking.  This is a massive misallocation of resources, diverting capital from real investment into totally non-value-added financial tail chasing.

And I’m not the only who thinks so.  Here, Paul Krugman calling the whole operation A Giant Scam, quotes Andrew Haldane, Executive Director, Financial Stability, Bank of England:

In fact, high pre-crisis returns to banking had a much more mundane explanation. They reflected simply increased risk-taking across the sector. This was not an outward shift in the portfolio possibility set of finance. Instead, it was a traverse up the high-wire of risk and return. This hire-wire act involved, on the asset side, rapid credit expansion, often through the development of poorly understood financial instruments. On the liability side, this ballooning balance sheet was financed using risky leverage, often at short maturities.

In what sense is increased risk-taking by banks a value-added service for the economy at large? In short, it is not.

Haldane’s article was reposted at Naked Capitalism. What he is getting at is the derivatives market, the unregulated darling of the World of High Finance.  Estimates vary, since there is no good way to get a handle on it, but the highly leveraged derivatives market has a notional value somewhere between 10 and 25 times the aggregate value of global GDP.  In the wake of Phil Graham’s undoing of Glass-Steagal came a sea change in the way the Finance Sector does business, and along with this came a shift from risk management to risk-making.  As Haldane put it: “If risk-making were a value-adding activity, Russian roulette players would contribute disproportionately to global welfare.”

Since none of this activity does anything to create real wealth, it is nothing but rent-seeking.  That is bad, in and of itself.  Worse, still, in Krugman’s words: “Wall Street and the City were con artists extracting huge rents from an unwary public (and eventually dumping much of the cost, when things went bad, on taxpayers).”   What is perhaps worst of all is that the money locked up in these ventures is diverted from real investment.

So, here is the picture.  While the average earnings of working stiffs has been stagnant, at best, corporate profits have grown at an increasing rate.  Further, the percentage of those profits going to the Finance sector has also grown at an increasing rate.  Total profit growth is above exponential, and Finance Sector profit growth is super-exponential.

To summarize:
1) Over the last 30 years banking has devolved from a necessary financial function involved in the allocation of resources and management of risk to essentially non-value-added rent-seeking activities implemented through high risk practices.
2) When the whole house of cards came tumbling down, the losses were socialized, while the criminals who perpetrated the underlying fraud walked off not only scot-free, but with huge bonuses.

There might be some way to justify this if it were leading to greater GDP growth or a rising tide that lifted all the boats.  But the opposite has happened.  GDP growth has been in decline for decades, and the tsunami of profits floating the yachts in the Finance Sector has swamped all the dinghies.

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A Billion Here, A Billion There…

This is why Andrew Leonard (h/t Yves Smith) gets paid for blogging and I don’t. He tries to do the impossible: make sense out of Michelle Bachmann’s “economics“:

1) The interest can easily be paid for …

Bachmann is making the argument here that the U.S. can choose to pay its creditors — the various holders of government-issued debt — first, and thus not technically be in default. It’s an open question whether credit rating agencies and bond investors will accept that technicality. China might get paid in full, but millions of Americans would immediate get stiffed. Of course, Bachmann doesn’t mention that choosing such a strategy would require extraordinarily severe and immediate spending cuts — around $4.5 billion a day — in programs such as Social Security, Medicare, defense, unemployment benefits, et cetera. Economists generally agree — the negative economic impacts of such drastic short-term cuts in government spending would almost surely drive the U.S. straight back into recession.

Furthermore, a failure to reach agreement on the debt limit would guarantee bond market jitters, pushing up interest rates and raising the cost at which the U.S. government can borrow funds — and thus end up increasing the deficit.

So what happened today? There was a seven-year Treasury auction:

Today the 7 yr saw a yield of 2.43%, 3 bps above the when issued

The WI is where that same note was trading even as it was being auctioned. Which works out to be about a 19.2 cent reduction per $100 of security.

19.2 cents doesn’t sound like much, but there was almost $30 Billion in securities issued. So that’s $55,642,171
that didn’t get paid to the U.S. Treasury (or $57,433,536 if you’re counting the Open Market Activities).

Even if you want to be generous and assume—it’s crazy optimistic, but let’s be really generous—that half a basis point of that is just a long tail (not entirely unreasonable, but rather generous), there are still $46,376,844 (or $47,869,918) that just got left on the table out of fear of near-term deficit issues.

Not incidentally, that’s $46-57+ million dollars that isn’t available for maneuvering to avoid an official default (as opposed to the practical default that has been in effect for almost two months now). From just one of the nearly 300 auctions that are held every year.

But not raising the debt ceiling won’t mean anything. Michelle Bachmann assures us that just because Social Security/Disability/Medicare etc. payments won’t be made for August 3rd, it’s not a problem.

Sooner or later, we’ll be talking about really money. Right now, it’s just your mother’s livelihood. But at least that money has been saved by those who are investing in seven-year Treasuries. Maybe they’ll loan her some of that savings. Oh, right:

At least we know where they got the money to buy the notes.

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Consumption and compensation: explicit and implicit wealth effects in finance

Readers of this blog know that I am in finance, specifically global fixed income. This blog post covers wealth effects in the financial industry, which is a relatively dominant share of total US compensation, 7.3% in 2009 and likely higher now (data are truncated at 2009). My view is that economists underestimate the wealth effects on consumption in the financial industry, given that financial wealth affects not only portfolio net worth but also the present value of labor income. Therefore, the sell-off in global risk assets may hit consumption more than expected in coming quarters, given that finance is the fifth largest industry, as measured by total compensation, on average spanning the years 1989-2009.

Why US consumption matters. The outlook for the US economy is of utmost importance to that for the world, given that the US will hold an average 22.1% of World GDP through 2016 (measured in $US), according to the IMF April 2011 World Economic Outlook. And the outlook for the US consumer is of utmost importance to that of the US economy, given that personal consumption expenditures hold a large 71% share of 2010 US GDP. Therefore, holding the US consumer share constant, US consumption is expected to be 15% of the global economy on average through 2016.

How wealth usually matters for US consumption. In economics, one of the drivers of consumption patterns ‘now’ is the wealth effect, usually defined as the shift in consumption due to changes in tangible (home values) and intangible (paper assets, like stocks and bonds) net assets.

(click to enlarge)

(Read more after the jump!)
The chart above illustrates the ‘wealth effect’ on consumption as the ratio of net worth to disposable income (blue dotted line) as it’s correlated to the consumption share (outlays really, see table 1 for the breakdown) of disposable income (green line). The consumption (outlay) share is is 100 less the saving rate.

A large part of the Fed’s quantitative easing program (QE) was targeted at stimulating the positive wealth effects on consumption via higher risk asset prices. I would argue that this has been largely successful to date. The two year moving average of the consumption share (green solid line) fell precipitously following the financial crisis, only to generally stabilize since Q1 2009; this is largely coincident with the outset of QE1.

Back to why I brought up finance. There’s another effect in play here, more specifically related to the compensation structure in the financial industry. See, along with the tangible and intangible net asset values, total wealth includes the present value of labor income, i.e., the present value of lifetime compensation.

For all industries except finance, lifetime income is generally not associated with financial markets and risk assets, except via interest payments on fixed income. However, in finance total compensation is directly impacted by asset values via the bonus structure, often a large part of total compensation. Therefore, when asset markets are challenged, this likely affects the present-value of labor income adversely.

There’s an outsized wealth effect of net asset values in the financial industry: the direct wealth channel (net asset worth) plus the indirect channel (present value of labor income) on consumption.

Why is the financial industry important? It’s pretty simple: financial compensation is a large part of total US compensation, 7.3% in 2009, which has grown an average of 6% annually since 1988 in nominal terms. (Note: you can get this data from the BEA’s industry tables).

As financial markets take a turn for the worse – the S&P grew 5.4% December 31, 2010 through March 31, 2011 and is now down 4.1% since March 31, 2011 – the adverse wealth effect is likely to be stronger in the financial industry than in any other industry. For north of 7% of total US compensation, labor income is challenged in expectation, which is likely to drag consumption.

Purely anecdotal evidence. This strong wealth effect exists in my household. Both my husband (equities) and I (fixed income) are in finance; and when markets are challenged, we tend to save more. And it’s not because our stock portfolio is showing holes – actually, we don’t have much of a stock portfolio – it’s because our household income falls in expectation via the ‘bonus’ component of financial salaries.

I haven’t seen any work done on this wealth effect channel – but it does beg the question of whether there will be further downgrades to the US economic forecast if risk assets continue to sell off.

Rebecca Wilder

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How We Got Here, and Why We’re Not Getting Out, in One Paragraph

The NYT pretends that the Cuomo/Rattner battle is about personalities, but briefly let’s the mask slip:

Neither side seems willing to budge, each insisting he is the wronged party: the attorney general feels deceived and affronted, and the Wall Street money manager feels persecuted for conduct he views as standard business practice.

“‘Feels’ deceived and affronted” is Newspeak for:

The notes reveal a previously undisclosed 2007 meeting in which Mr. Rattner first provided his account to Mr. Cuomo’s investigators about how his private equity firm, Quadrangle Group, had obtained a $150 million investment from the pension fund. That account, investigators said, was later undercut by Mr. Rattner’s own e-mails, enraging Mr. Cuomo, who had extended Mr. Rattner deference and immunity from criminal prosecution.

Just hurt feelings; nothing to do with reality.

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In Other News, 90% of VeloNews Readers Consider Themselves Above-Average Cyclist

Floyd Norris discovers a mathematical impossibility:

Asked to rank, on a scale of one (excellent) to five (poor), the ability of their board’s compensation committee to “effectively manage C.E.O. compensation, 83 percent of the directors chose one or two, and only 4 percent picked four or five.

But asked, “In general, do you believe U.S. company board are having trouble controlling the size of C.E.O. compensation?” 58 percent thought the boards were having trouble, while 34 percent disagreed and the rest were unsure.

Since CompComs generally benchmark against the packages of CEOs in “similar” companies, you have to be really stupid or ignorant as a Director to believe you do it right while your competitors don’t.

But don’t think the Directors know they are incompetent:

Even if directors are not doing a good job, it is not a good idea to give others a say, at least to most directors. More than three-quarters are against giving shareholders a vote on C.E.O. compensation….

As for their own pay, the directors split almost down the middle: 45 percent thought pay should rise, and 53 percent thought it should not. The other 2 percent thought director pay should be reduced. If their identities leak, they are unlikely to be renominated.

Michael Jensen is rolling over in his grave, despite not being dead yet.

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The Gift that Keeps on Giving

During the discussions about the Fannie Mae project I still regret having turned down, one of the topics was which security would be better for a portfolio (assuming their risk-adjusted prices provided the same value): a four-year-old MBS or a seven-year-old MBS?

I noted that the four-year-old MBS provided more potential upside but came gradually to agree that the seven-year-old security was preferable: an MBS that is that “seasoned” is effectively a generic amortizing bond. There shouldn’t be any surprises—in either direction—so a portfolio manager would prefer it.

As usual, The Old Firm manges to prove that what should be correct for an MBS isn’t necessarily so for a CMBS:

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services today lowered its ratings on
three classes of commercial mortgage pass-through certificates from Bear
Stearns Commercial Mortgage Securities Trust 2002-TOP6, a U.S. commercial
mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) transaction….

The downgrade of class M to ‘D’ follows a principal loss sustained by the
class, which was detailed in the August 2010 remittance report….

The principal loss and corresponding credit support erosion resulted from the
liquidation of an asset….The Nortel Networks asset is a 281,758-sq.-ft. office
property in Richardson, Texas. The asset had a total exposure of $28.6
million. The asset was transferred to the special servicer in September 2009
and became real estate owned (REO) in March 2010. The trust incurred a $12.0
million realized loss when the asset was liquidated during the August
reporting period…[T]he loss severity for this asset was 44.2%

As corporations are increasingly using “jingle mail,” the prospect for the future of CMBSes—even those that went through several good years. Or for the concept of an “ongoing concern,” or a strong recovery. (That latter concept seems to fade with each passing day.)

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Three to Read for the Solvency Crisis

Simon Johnson on the possible consequences of Goldman Going Greek.

Economics of Contempt explains why economist John Cochrane should not be allowed to talk about finance. (Bonus coverage: EofC’s previous piece on John Taylor)

Alea’s jck on how all the talk about risk management became mainstreamed.

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