After Divestment, What Comes Next for College Campuses?

May 20, 2015Torre Lavelle

From championing civil rights through Freedom Summer to fighting sexual assault, college students have long made a name for themselves as leaders of ideas, activism, and innovation.

From championing civil rights through Freedom Summer to fighting sexual assault, college students have long made a name for themselves as leaders of ideas, activism, and innovation. It should therefore come as no surprise that the fossil-fuel divestment movement—the campaign to get institutions to pull their financial investments from fossil fuels and redirect that money to clean, renewable energy as a way of tackling climate change—has its roots in U.S. college campuses. With a total of $50 billion from 837 institutions and individuals divested so far, the campaign has succeeded at an unprecedented rate, growing faster than the divestment movements against both South African apartheid and tobacco.

Last fall’s stunning news that the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune were pulling their philanthropic funds out of fossil fuel officially confirmed divestment’s transition from campus movement to the financial mainstream. Combined with the commitment of more than 25 universities to move beyond coal, with more to follow in the upcoming year, student leaders and activists should carefully consider their role in deciding where climate change policy goes from here. After successfully pressuring the administration of my own school, the University of Georgia, to shut down its coal-fired boiler, the campus Beyond Coal group effectively called it quits and disbanded. But as pipelines for progressive environmental solutions, campus groups should just be getting started.

The Hoover Institution published The State Clean Energy Cookbook in 2014, which includes a dozen “recipes” for cost-effective and easily supportable policies that have already been implemented in both blue and red states with strong overall results. Now we need a new wave of student activism focused on building media strategy, coalitions, and administrative and legislative relationships to take this natural next step and enter a larger policy arena.

On the heels of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging governors and state officials to “think twice” before submitting plans for state compliance with the EPA Clean Power Plan, college students should examine the role of states and regional networks in advancing clean energy policy. The work of UGA’s Beyond Coal group and others must extend beyond individual campuses, and should strongly oppose any calls to ignore federal deadlines for state carbon plans.

Regional cap and trade systems are another critical area for post-divestment work. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) among nine Northeast and mid-Atlantic states became the first market-based approach to reducing pollution by selling carbon credits and reinvesting the revenue into clean energy technology and consumer benefits. With a goal of reducing 10 percent of power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions across the northeastern U.S. by 2020, the RGGI instead caused emissions to drop more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2012 and generated $102.5 million in revenue. An estimated $1.4 billion in lifetime energy bill savings are coupled with bill credits to low-income families and clean energy job training for workers. RGGI also served as the baseline policy model for California’s cap and trade system, the first state with a program of this kind.

State adoption of these programs has so far been lacking in leadership and provides an excellent road map for student involvement. I’m not calling on students alone to make this happen, though; I’m also calling on the Sierra Club, 350.org, and other environmental organizations with strong student involvement to step up to the next challenge. Let’s celebrate our victories while capturing the momentum focused on divestment and recognize that it’s time we expanded our reach.

Torre Lavelle is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment. She is majoring in ecology and environmental economics at the University of Georgia.

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Better Community Investment Will Pay Dividends for Colleges

May 19, 2015Emma Copeland

We need to start holding colleges accountable as anchor institutions that provide economic growth and stability to their communities.

We need to start holding colleges accountable as anchor institutions that provide economic growth and stability to their communities.

In recent weeks, the debate about holding colleges accountable has focused on schools’ responsibilities toward failing students, continuously rising tuition, and increasing student debt. What’s been overlooked is the role of colleges as a potential force for good within their more immediate communities. Indeed, one of the most profound ways a university can improve the holistic experience of its students is to invest more in the surrounding community.

Presently, many four-year institutions entrust the bulk of their money to low-risk funds or national banks like Bank of America. The money that flows into a school never directly returns to the community, and it is often the case that low-income residents near a college must battle gentrification, stagnation, or both. For example, New York University’s $3.5 billion endowment is currently invested in national banks such as Bank of America, Chase, and Citibank, none of which are directly involved in developing the community around NYU.

Outside of investment, universities and colleges spend a huge amount of money that has the potential to directly affect the communities around them. Big schools like Michigan State University, which purchases nearly $87 million worth of goods and services annually, could spend mere fractions of this number on local small businesses, causing them to flourish like never before.

As a student at a four-year public university in Northern Virginia, I know a few things about debt and personal economic stagnation. To say “the United States can’t afford the status quo in higher education” might be the understatement of the decade. So how can we shake up the status quo?

We need to start holding colleges accountable not just to the government but to their communities. As anchor institutions, they have the power to provide economic growth and stability and serve as cornerstones of their communities due to their role as large permanent employers with significant investment capabilities. They are also permanent physical landmarks that serve as points of pride for their members as well as nearby residents.

Colleges and universities tend to be huge anchor institutions due to their extensive reach in a variety of commercial activities, immense diversity of employment throughout their numerous departments, and the vital exchange of wealth between students, alumni, trustees, fans, and neighbors to the school. It is time for these institutions to begin making a concerted effort to develop and invest locally for the long term.

The first way we can hold colleges accountable as anchor institutions is by encouraging and facilitating responsible purchasing from locally owned and operated businesses for anything from food to office supplies. This would allow small businesses to leap into the big leagues, and colleges have a responsibility to support the entrepreneurial efforts of graduates who choose to settle nearby as well as the local business owners who employ their students and alumni. Even 10 percent of the funds earmarked for paper products for a large public institution such as the University of Michigan would be the number one account for a local business struggling to compete with national suppliers. Working with these businesses to help increase their production capacity and streamline various processes would ultimately result in a symbiotic exchange of tailored quality for vital business development. Colleges have too long relied on one-size-fits-all corporations to supply their food, office supplies, cleaning services, and more. In the long-run, establishing relationships with local providers enables both the institution and the businesses to thrive as each respects and relies on the other.

Second, universities should be responsible for investing locally. Universities often have access to far more capital than the cities and towns that surround them, but they invest in distant fossil fuel companies, huge national banks, or even Israeli military efforts.  As anchor institutions, colleges should invest in their communities through community development financial institutions (CDFIs). By promising to invest a majority of its cash-on-hand in the surrounding community, a CDFI is able to safely give loans to small businesses, prospective college students and families, and new homeowners. These kinds of investments improve the lives and livelihoods of community members not directly affiliated with the anchor institutions. This is particularly vital because non-anchor institutions like large-scale banks are often unwilling to invest in these low-income communities because of the economic risk.

Colleges are institutions that can help a struggling or non-competitive community find its feet. If we hold them accountable in the right way, as institutions of economic growth for the long-term, colleges can begin to boast many more achievements and far fewer failures.

Emma Copeland is a junior at George Mason University, a 10 Ideas author, and a member of the Campus Network's Braintrust.

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Beyond Divestment: How NYU Can Still Invest in the Public Good

May 12, 2015Eugenia Kim

The fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses highlights two distinct aspects of the problem of climate change. The first and most obvious is that climate change and environmental issues are drastically changing our planet and require immediate action. The second is the responsibility of our colleges and universities to be stewards of responsible social change.

The fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses highlights two distinct aspects of the problem of climate change. The first and most obvious is that climate change and environmental issues are drastically changing our planet and require immediate action. The second is the responsibility of our colleges and universities to be stewards of responsible social change. While climate change appears to have caught the public eye in recent weeks, this question of responsibility continues to be overlooked. Both of these issues are now coming to a head at New York University (NYU).

On March 26, a working group of NYU’s University Senate voted to recommend not divesting from fossil fuels. On April 30, the larger University Senate, which encompasses both student representatives and faculty, will also vote on divestment.

The stated argument against divestment is twofold: political and fiduciary. The report released by NYU’s working group is emblematic of the faulty assumptions school administrations across the country have about divestment. The report claims that it is not in the nature of a university to take a stand on a political issue such as climate change, and that NYU would be better suited to combat climate change through increased research investments. Further, the report states that it would be financially irresponsible for the university to divest.

However, the working group’s argument is self-contradictory. The university cannot simultaneously claim to have no position on climate change and actively fund research that works to combat it. Further, the sheer existence of climate change is no longer a debate; broad consensus has been reached among independent agencies and scientists that climate change is real. The political question that does arise is what the institution is going to do about it. The working group also fails to recognize that divesting from fossil fuels and investing in research are not mutually exclusive. The administration has the power to do both while maintaining its fiduciary responsibilities.

NYU’s arguments against divestment are in no way unique; they exemplify the fundamental assumption of college administrations that an institution must choose between the social good and economic profitability. This is not the case, but the divestment movement has failed to demonstrate that university investments can be both profitable and environmentally friendly. Advocates committed to the divestment movement must provide more guidance as to how administrators can better spend their money.

While divestment is an important symbolic gesture toward a university’s commitment to sustainability, meaningful investments in green energy businesses are a more tangible request, if perhaps less likely to inspire rallies. Investment alternatives offer practical solutions that enable activists to work with, rather than against, administrations. For example, Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University has not divested from fossil fuels, but it has invested in the Evergreen Cooperatives, thereby promoting economic growth in the Cleveland community, and still maintains a commitment to tackling larger questions around sustainability and climate change.

While these investment campaigns are harder to organize around, there are students who are interested in analyzing the economic responsibility of their universities, and student involvement in this process is vital. The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Rethinking Communities initiative is geared toward identifying and developing smarter economic decision-making practices for colleges and universities. The project is led by students who support divestment but offer smart and socially responsible local investment solutions.

NYU, for example, could stand to gain higher returns on its investments if it would simply move some of its funds from large banks like Chase into community development banks. By divesting just $500,000 (0.014 percent of NYU’s $3.5 billion endowment) from fossil fuels and moving it to community development banks, NYU could increase its returns while helping middle- and low-income residents get loans, promoting financial literacy, and providing secure financial services. This idea that investments can be both socially responsible and profitable holds true for universities across the nation.  

Students are important but overlooked stakeholders in university policy. They are the ones doing the research and asking the important questions about their schools’ social responsibility. Sit-ins, protests, and rallies across the country are the product of a large number of young people feeling left out of the decision-making process at institutions designed to serve them. These students want to participate and engage with their school administrations in making financial decisions and developing viable solutions, In short, these students want to be part of universities that embody the values they teach.

Eugenia Kim is student at New York University and a member of the Rethinking Communities Brain Trust.

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The Rules are What Matter for Inequality: Our New Report

May 12, 2015Mike Konczal

I’m very excited to announce the release of “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy” (pdf report), Roosevelt Institute’s new inequality agenda report by Joe Stiglitz. I’m thrilled to be one of the co-authors, as I think this report really tells a compelling story about inequality and the challenges the economy faces.

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion about a “new” conventional wisdom (“a force to be reckoned with” according to one observer), one in which choices about the rules of the economy are a major driver of the outcomes we see. This is in contrast to the normal narrative about inequality we hear, one in which globalization, technology, or individual choices are the only important parts. I like to think this report is a major advancement in this discussion, bringing together the best recent research on this topic.

As we argue, inequality is not inevitable: it is a choice that we’ve made with the rules that structure our economy. Over the past 35 years, the rules, or the regulatory, legal and institutional frameworks, that make up the economy and condition the market have changed. These rules are a major driver of the income distribution we see, including runaway top incomes and weak or precarious income growth for most others. Crucially, however, these changes in the rules have not made our economy better off than we would be otherwise; in many cases we are weaker for these changes. We also now know that “deregulation” is, in fact, “reregulation”—that is, a new set of rules for governing the economy that favor a specific set of actors, and that there's no way out of these difficult choices. But what were these changes?

Financial deregulation exploded both the size of finance and its incomes, roughly doubling the share of finance in the top 1 percent. However, finance grew as a result of intermediating credit in a “shadow banking” sector, which led to disastrous results. It also grew from asset management, a field in which pay is often determined by luck and by fees driven by the increasing prevalence of opaque alternative investment vehicles like hedge funds. For all the resources it uses, finance is no more efficient than it was a century ago.

Corporate governance also radically changed during this period, led by public policy decisions. CEO pay fundamentally shifted toward a high pay model in the 1980s. The shareholder revolution also changed the nature of investment. We now see finance acting as a mechanism for getting money out of firms rather than into them; similarly, private firms are investing more than public firms. CEOs regularly use buybacks to hit earnings targets and say they’d rather hit accounting goals than invest long-term, indicating that short-termism is now a serious problem for investment and its positive spillovers.

High marginal tax rates were cut, but there’s no evidence that the high-end marginal tax rate has any effect on growth; cutting it does, however, raise the share of income the top 1 percent takes home. Low taxes don’t just make the equalizing effects of taxes weaker; they also mean that CEOs and other executives in the top 1 percent have more of an incentive to bargain aggressively with boards or seek opportunities for extracting rents, all zero-sum games for the economy. Lowering capital taxes showed no impact on higher investment, but a positive effect on increased capital payouts; capital income growth is one of the main drivers of inequality during this time period.

During this time, the Federal Reserve’s focus moved toward low and stable inflation at the cost of higher unemployment. Unemployment from weak Federal Reserve action rises the most for low-skilled and minority workers. Inequality generally doesn’t come down unless unemployment is below 6 percent, and this has become less of a priority.

The rules changed, or were not updated, for the labor market as well. Decreasing unionization has taken a toll on workers’ wages. Men’s inequality, in particular, has risen due to collapsing unionization rates. Women’s inequality has suffered due to a falling minimum wage, which went from 54 percent of the average hourly wage in the late 1960s to just 35 percent now. Labor market protections and institutions that give workers voice and power, in general, have not been updated for a new world of service and care work.

Though not an effective driver of lower crime rates, a dramatic turn toward mass and punitive incarceration has reduced the employment prospects for millions of Americans, especially people of color. In particular, there’s a dense web of discriminatory codes for those with a record, which pushes them toward second-class citizenship. One estimate finds 38,000 such punitive statutes, with most of them related to employment and having no end date.

Our institutions and rules haven’t been updated to fully facilitate women’s ability to participate in the labor force. As a result of gender discrimination in the workplace, lack of paid sick and family leave, and the unavailability of affordable child care, women’s participation in the U.S. labor force has declined over the past 15 years, while it increased in most other OECD countries.

Many people agree inequality is a challenge, but would say that this is all driven by technology and globalization. We discuss this at length in the report, but we don’t find these traditional stories either convincing, in the case of technology, or sufficient, in the case of globalization. Both of these forces are playing out, in quite similar ways, in other advanced countries, whose growth of inequality nowhere mirrors our own. Technology and globalization don’t fall from the sky, but instead are determined in important ways by rules and institutions. This is especially important in the era of free trade agreements, which are really managed trade agreements. These agreements are less about trade and more about the regulatory environment corporations face.

But rules matter even in these straightforward stories about supply and demand for labor. Advancements in search theory tell us that supply and demand, rather than strictly determining wages, instead place boundaries or endzones on where wages can go. What determines where wages fall within those boundaries is a whole host of economic rules, including bargaining power, institutions, and social conventions. Even in the strong version of these arguments, the rules matter.

This report describes what has happened, going far deeper than this summary here. It also has a policy agenda focused on both taming the top and growing the rest of the economy. Some may emphasize some pieces more than others; but no matter what this argument about the rules is what is missing in the current debates over the economy. I hope you get a chance to check out the report!

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

I’m very excited to announce the release of “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy” (pdf report), Roosevelt Institute’s new inequality agenda report by Joe Stiglitz. I’m thrilled to be one of the co-authors, as I think this report really tells a compelling story about inequality and the challenges the economy faces.

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion about a “new” conventional wisdom (“a force to be reckoned with” according to one observer), one in which choices about the rules of the economy are a major driver of the outcomes we see. This is in contrast to the normal narrative about inequality we hear, one in which globalization, technology, or individual choices are the only important parts. I like to think this report is a major advancement in this discussion, bringing together the best recent research on this topic.

As we argue, inequality is not inevitable: it is a choice that we’ve made with the rules that structure our economy. Over the past 35 years, the rules, or the regulatory, legal and institutional frameworks, that make up the economy and condition the market have changed. These rules are a major driver of the income distribution we see, including runaway top incomes and weak or precarious income growth for most others. Crucially, however, these changes in the rules have not made our economy better off than we would be otherwise; in many cases we are weaker for these changes. We also now know that “deregulation” is, in fact, “reregulation”—that is, a new set of rules for governing the economy that favor a specific set of actors, and that there's no way out of these difficult choices. But what were these changes?

Financial deregulation exploded both the size of finance and its incomes, roughly doubling the share of finance in the top 1 percent. However, finance grew as a result of intermediating credit in a “shadow banking” sector, which led to disastrous results. It also grew from asset management, a field in which pay is often determined by luck and by fees driven by the increasing prevalence of opaque alternative investment vehicles like hedge funds. For all the resources it uses, finance is no more efficient than it was a century ago.

Corporate governance also radically changed during this period, led by public policy decisions. CEO pay fundamentally shifted toward a high pay model in the 1980s. The shareholder revolution also changed the nature of investment. We now see finance acting as a mechanism for getting money out of firms rather than into them; similarly, private firms are investing more than public firms. CEOs regularly use buybacks to hit earnings targets and say they’d rather hit accounting goals than invest long-term, indicating that short-termism is now a serious problem for investment and its positive spillovers.

High marginal tax rates were cut, but there’s no evidence that the high-end marginal tax rate has any effect on growth; cutting it does, however, raise the share of income the top 1 percent takes home. Low taxes don’t just make the equalizing effects of taxes weaker; they also mean that CEOs and other executives in the top 1 percent have more of an incentive to bargain aggressively with boards or seek opportunities for extracting rents, all zero-sum games for the economy. Lowering capital taxes showed no impact on higher investment, but a positive effect on increased capital payouts; capital income growth is one of the main drivers of inequality during this time period.

During this time, the Federal Reserve’s focus moved toward low and stable inflation at the cost of higher unemployment. Unemployment from weak Federal Reserve action rises the most for low-skilled and minority workers. Inequality generally doesn’t come down unless unemployment is below 6 percent, and this has become less of a priority.

The rules changed, or were not updated, for the labor market as well. Decreasing unionization has taken a toll on workers’ wages. Men’s inequality, in particular, has risen due to collapsing unionization rates. Women’s inequality has suffered due to a falling minimum wage, which went from 54 percent of the average hourly wage in the late 1960s to just 35 percent now. Labor market protections and institutions that give workers voice and power, in general, have not been updated for a new world of service and care work.

Though not an effective driver of lower crime rates, a dramatic turn toward mass and punitive incarceration has reduced the employment prospects for millions of Americans, especially people of color. In particular, there’s a dense web of discriminatory codes for those with a record, which pushes them toward second-class citizenship. One estimate finds 38,000 such punitive statutes, with most of them related to employment and having no end date.

Our institutions and rules haven’t been updated to fully facilitate women’s ability to participate in the labor force. As a result of gender discrimination in the workplace, lack of paid sick and family leave, and the unavailability of affordable child care, women’s participation in the U.S. labor force has declined over the past 15 years, while it increased in most other OECD countries.

Many people agree inequality is a challenge, but would say that this is all driven by technology and globalization. We discuss this at length in the report, but we don’t find these traditional stories either convincing, in the case of technology, or sufficient, in the case of globalization. Both of these forces are playing out, in quite similar ways, in other advanced countries, whose growth of inequality nowhere mirrors our own. Technology and globalization don’t fall from the sky, but instead are determined in important ways by rules and institutions. This is especially important in the era of free trade agreements, which are really managed trade agreements. These agreements are less about trade and more about the regulatory environment corporations face.

But rules matter even in these straightforward stories about supply and demand for labor. Advancements in search theory tell us that supply and demand, rather than strictly determining wages, instead place boundaries or endzones on where wages can go. What determines where wages fall within those boundaries is a whole host of economic rules, including bargaining power, institutions, and social conventions. Even in the strong version of these arguments, the rules matter.

This report describes what has happened, going far deeper than this summary here. It also has a policy agenda focused on both taming the top and growing the rest of the economy. Some may emphasize some pieces more than others; but no matter what this argument about the rules is what is missing in the current debates over the economy. I hope you get a chance to check out the report!

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Besides Failing Corporate Finance 101, Holtz-Eakin's Attack on Dodd-Frank Sets a Terrible Priority

May 8, 2015Mike Konczal

The American Action Forum jumps into the financial reform debate with a letter on the growth consequences of Dodd-Frank penned by its president, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. This letter is a bad analysis, immediately violating the first thing you learn in corporate finance: capital structure doesn’t dictate funding costs. But there’s a deeper context that makes this letter reckless and a bad development, and I hope they are willing to walk back part of it.

Why reckless? It’s important to understand the role people like Holtz-Eakin play in the conservative movement. It is less about providing analysis (which is good, because this is a bad analysis), and more about signaling priorities. What should be done about Dodd-Frank if the Republicans win in 2016? This letter signals a new front I haven’t seen before on the right: one focused on going after higher capital requirements. Worse, going after them as if they were, using that conservative trigger word, a “tax.” I think that is a terrible move with serious consequences, and if they are going to do it, they need to do better than this.

A Bad Analysis

Americans for Financial Reform and David Dayen give us a solid overview of what is lacking in this analysis. It contains no benefits, confuses one-time and ongoing costs, assumes all costs derive from the cost of capital rather than profits, and so on. I’m also pretty sure there’s an error in the calculations, which would reduce the estimate by a third; I’m waiting for a response from them on that [1].

But I want to focus on capital requirements. Holtz-Eakin argues that the Solow growth model “can be used to transform the roughly 2 percentage point rise in the leverage ratio of the banking sector” into “a rise in the effective tax rate.” Wait, the tax rate? “The banking sector responded to Dodd-Frank by holding more equity capital,” writes Holtz-Eakin, “thus require it to have greater earnings to meet the market rate of return – the same impact as raising taxes.” Higher capital requirements, in this argument, function just like a tax.

He concludes that a 2 percentage point rise in capital requirements, much like what we just had, increases the cost of capital somewhere between 2 and 2.5 percent. (I believe I understand that to be the argument, though the paper itself is quick and not cited to any body of research.)

This is wrong, full stop. The Holtz-Eakin argument is predicated on the idea that capital structure directly affects funding costs. But our baseline assumption should be that there is virtually no impact of capital requirements on cost of capital. Economics long ago debunked the notion that changes in aggregate funding mixes can have an effect on the value of a business itself, much less a widespread, durable, macroeconomic effect. This is a theorem they teach you in Corporate Finance 101: the Modigliani–Miller theorem. And this has been one of the most important arguments in financial reform, with Anat Admati being a particularly influential advocate of pointing this out.

Just step back and think about what Holtz-Eakin’s model means. If Congress passed a law requiring companies to fund themselves with half as much equity as they did before, would the economy experience a giant growth spurt from changing the aggregate funding mix? No, of course not. The price of capital would simply adjust with this new balance; funding with more equity means funding with less debt, though the business is still the same. Investors are not stupid; they respond to a changing funding mix by simply changing the prices accordingly. This is how markets are supposed to work.

Of course, the real world doesn’t work exactly like these abstract economic models. If there’s a hierarchy of financing options, which seems reasonable, then moving up or down that ladder can impose some costs. Doug Elliott from Brookings, for instance, writes quite a bit arguing that the idea that equity and higher capital requirement is costless is a dangerous “myth” of financial reform. (Here is Admati responding.)

So Elliott’s not on the costless side, but does he agree with Holtz-Eakin’s numbers? Not even remotely. According to Elliott’s estimate, the cost of the entirety of Dodd-Frank increases the cost of capital 0.28 percent, and the “low levels of economic costs found here strongly suggest that the benefits in terms of less frequent and less costly financial crisis would indeed outweigh the costs.”

As shown in the graphic above, a model of higher capital requirements by Kashyap, Stein, and Hanson put the estimate of a 2 percent capital increase at between 0.05 percent (driven by the tax effects) and 0.09 percent (driven by a large slippage of Modigliani-Miller they assume to get a high-end estimate). These are broadly in line with other estimates throughout the past several years. Even the most industry-driven estimates designed to weaken capital requirements don't remotely approach this 2.00+ percent increase.

(As a coincidence, Elliott did estimate what it would take to make the cost of capital rise Holtz-Eakin’s estimated 2 percent. In his view, it would be capital requirements on the order of 30 percent, which is the reach goal for some. But when you analyze Dodd-Frank and get numbers consistent with 30 percent capital ratios, you are probably doing it wrong.)

A Worse Priority

So the estimate is wrong in a fundamental way; but this is less about a specific analysis than it is about setting priorities for the conservative movement when it comes to Dodd-Frank. And if attacking capital requirements becomes a major priority for conservatives, that’s a worrying sign. When conservatives start calling things “taxes,” institutional forces go into play beyond the control of any specific person, and that’s dangerous for a successful reform with lots of support that is important for a better financial system.

A broad group of people has come together to argue for capital requirements. This includes important commentators across the spectrum, from Simon Johnson to John Cochrane to many others. And there’s good reason for this. The current capital requirement regime hits six birds with one stone: helping with solvency, balancing risk management, making resolution and the ending of Too Big to Fail more credible, preventing liquidity crises in shadow banking, right-sizing the scale and scope of the largest financial institutions, and macroeconomic prudential policy.

There are disagreements about specifics of what is the best way to do higher capital requirements—quite intense ones, actually. But there’s a broad consensus in favor of them. Having watched this from the beginning, this broad coalition is one of the most promising developments I’ve seen.

I’m excited to see the right go after Dodd-Frank. Is the argument that there’s too much accountability for consumers now, and we need to gut those regulators at the CFPB? Is it that derivatives regulations are too extensive, and we should build our future prosperity by letting a thousand AIGs bloom? Is it that there should be few, if any, consequences for firms that break the law or commit fraud? (As someone who is worried about over-policing, this is one area where I believe we are criminally under-policed.) Please, by all means, make these arguments.

But taking on capital requirements with this weak argument is a bad development. The financial market is not understudied, and though nobody has ever found anything like these results, and though it's clear Holtz-Eakin’s analysis doesn’t even engage with this other research, those who think the cost of capital requirements are low could be wrong. But to prove that, we’ll need an analysis far better than the one provided here. And until one has that, the responsible thing is to not unleash the conservative movement against reform that is doing good work and that should be advanced rather than dismantled.

 

[1] I’m pretty sure for “rL-C” in equation 11 he uses net income ($151.2bn) rather than EBIT ($218.7bn), though, from equation 9, “rL-C” should be pre-tax. However using the wrong number is the only way I can replicate the estimate he has. I’ll update this either way if they respond.

If I’m right this decreases Holtz-Eakins’ growth costs of regulations by about 30%, meaning that the economy will probably be skyrocketing any second now.

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The American Action Forum jumps into the financial reform debate with a letter on the growth consequences of Dodd-Frank penned by its president, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. This letter is a bad analysis, immediately violating the first thing you learn in corporate finance: capital structure doesn’t dictate funding costs. But there’s a deeper context that makes this letter reckless and a bad development, and I hope they are willing to walk back part of it.

Why reckless? It’s important to understand the role people like Holtz-Eakin play in the conservative movement. It is less about providing analysis (which is good, because this is a bad analysis), and more about signaling priorities. What should be done about Dodd-Frank if the Republicans win in 2016? This letter signals a new front I haven’t seen before on the right: one focused on going after higher capital requirements. Worse, going after them as if they were, using that conservative trigger word, a “tax.” I think that is a terrible move with serious consequences, and if they are going to do it, they need to do better than this.

A Bad Analysis

Americans for Financial Reform and David Dayen give us a solid overview of what is lacking in this analysis. It contains no benefits, confuses one-time and ongoing costs, assumes all costs derive from the cost of capital rather than profits, and so on. I’m also pretty sure there’s an error in the calculations, which would reduce the estimate by a third; I’m waiting for a response from them on that [1].

But I want to focus on capital requirements. Holtz-Eakin argues that the Solow growth model “can be used to transform the roughly 2 percentage point rise in the leverage ratio of the banking sector” into “a rise in the effective tax rate.” Wait, the tax rate? “The banking sector responded to Dodd-Frank by holding more equity capital,” writes Holtz-Eakin, “thus require it to have greater earnings to meet the market rate of return – the same impact as raising taxes.” Higher capital requirements, in this argument, function just like a tax.

He concludes that a 2 percentage point rise in capital requirements, much like what we just had, increases the cost of capital somewhere between 2 and 2.5 percent. (I believe I understand that to be the argument, though the paper itself is quick and not cited to any body of research.)

This is wrong, full stop. The Holtz-Eakin argument is predicated on the idea that capital structure directly affects funding costs. But our baseline assumption should be that there is virtually no impact of capital requirements on cost of capital. Economics long ago debunked the notion that changes in aggregate funding mixes can have an effect on the value of a business itself, much less a widespread, durable, macroeconomic effect. This is a theorem they teach you in Corporate Finance 101: the Modigliani–Miller theorem. And this has been one of the most important arguments in financial reform, with Anat Admati being a particularly influential advocate of pointing this out.

Just step back and think about what Holtz-Eakin’s model means. If Congress passed a law requiring companies to fund themselves with half as much equity as they did before, would the economy experience a giant growth spurt from changing the aggregate funding mix? No, of course not. The price of capital would simply adjust with this new balance; funding with more equity means funding with less debt, though the business is still the same. Investors are not stupid; they respond to a changing funding mix by simply changing the prices accordingly. This is how markets are supposed to work.

Of course, the real world doesn’t work exactly like these abstract economic models. If there’s a hierarchy of financing options, which seems reasonable, then moving up or down that ladder can impose some costs. Doug Elliott from Brookings, for instance, writes quite a bit arguing that the idea that equity and higher capital requirement is costless is a dangerous “myth” of financial reform. (Here is Admati responding.)

So Elliott’s not on the costless side, but does he agree with Holtz-Eakin’s numbers? Not even remotely. According to Elliott’s estimate, the cost of the entirety of Dodd-Frank increases the cost of capital 0.28 percent, and the “low levels of economic costs found here strongly suggest that the benefits in terms of less frequent and less costly financial crisis would indeed outweigh the costs.”

As shown in the graphic above, a model of higher capital requirements by Kashyap, Stein, and Hanson put the estimate of a 2 percent capital increase at between 0.05 percent (driven by the tax effects) and 0.09 percent (driven by a large slippage of Modigliani-Miller they assume to get a high-end estimate). These are broadly in line with other estimates throughout the past several years. Even the most industry-driven estimates designed to weaken capital requirements don't remotely approach this 2.00+ percent increase.

(As a coincidence, Elliott did estimate what it would take to make the cost of capital rise Holtz-Eakin’s estimated 2 percent. In his view, it would be capital requirements on the order of 30 percent, which is the reach goal for some. But when you analyze Dodd-Frank and get numbers consistent with 30 percent capital ratios, you are probably doing it wrong.)

A Worse Priority

So the estimate is wrong in a fundamental way; but this is less about a specific analysis than it is about setting priorities for the conservative movement when it comes to Dodd-Frank. And if attacking capital requirements becomes a major priority for conservatives, that’s a worrying sign. When conservatives start calling things “taxes,” institutional forces go into play beyond the control of any specific person, and that’s dangerous for a successful reform with lots of support that is important for a better financial system.

A broad group of people has come together to argue for capital requirements. This includes important commentators across the spectrum, from Simon Johnson to John Cochrane to many others. And there’s good reason for this. The current capital requirement regime hits six birds with one stone: helping with solvency, balancing risk management, making resolution and the ending of Too Big to Fail more credible, preventing liquidity crises in shadow banking, right-sizing the scale and scope of the largest financial institutions, and macroeconomic prudential policy.

There are disagreements about specifics of what is the best way to do higher capital requirements—quite intense ones, actually. But there’s a broad consensus in favor of them. Having watched this from the beginning, this broad coalition is one of the most promising developments I’ve seen.

I’m excited to see the right go after Dodd-Frank. Is the argument that there’s too much accountability for consumers now, and we need to gut those regulators at the CFPB? Is it that derivatives regulations are too extensive, and we should build our future prosperity by letting a thousand AIGs bloom? Is it that there should be few, if any, consequences for firms that break the law or commit fraud? (As someone who is worried about over-policing, this is one area where I believe we are criminally under-policed.) Please, by all means, make these arguments.

But taking on capital requirements with this weak argument is a bad development. The financial market is not understudied, and though nobody has ever found anything like these results, and though it's clear Holtz-Eakin’s analysis doesn’t even engage with this other research, those who think the cost of capital requirements are low could be wrong. But to prove that, we’ll need an analysis far better than the one provided here. And until one has that, the responsible thing is to not unleash the conservative movement against reform that is doing good work and that should be advanced rather than dismantled.

 

[1] I’m pretty sure for “rL-C” in equation 11 he uses net income ($151.2bn) rather than EBIT ($218.7bn), though, from equation 9, “rL-C” should be pre-tax. However using the wrong number is the only way I can replicate the estimate he has. I’ll update this either way if they respond.

If I’m right this decreases Holtz-Eakins’ growth costs of regulations by about 30%, meaning that the economy will probably be skyrocketing any second now.

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Marina Gorbis: Get Money Out of Politics to Make Room for Rational Decision-Making

May 7, 2015Laurie Ignacio

This week, Marina Gorbis from the Institute for the Future presents her idea on the best way to ensure a good economy in 25 years: Let’s get money out of politics.

This week, Marina Gorbis from the Institute for the Future presents her idea on the best way to ensure a good economy in 25 years: Let’s get money out of politics.

“We need to get money out of politics. Unless we do that, it will be hard to work on any other issue. It’s a fundamental issue that needs to be fixed,” and we must “limit election season to make space for rational decision-making to improve lives of everyday people and not big monied groups and lobbyists."

To learn more about money in politics, check out the following articles:

"The Top 10 Things Every Voter Should Know About Money in Politics, Center for Responsive Politics" (OpenSecrets)

"40 charts that explain money in politics" (Vox)

Marina Gorbis is Executive Director of the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research and consulting organization based in Silicon Valley. She has brought a futures perspective to hundreds of organizations in business, education, government, and philanthropy.

Gorbis has blogged and written for BoingBoing.net, Fast Company and major media outlets, and is a frequent speaker on future organizational, technology, and social issues. Marina’s current research focus is social production and how it is changing the face of major industries, a topic explored in detail in her 2013 book The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World

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Why Democrats Should Worry About Republicans' Newfound Economic Populism

May 7, 2015Richard Kirsch

It would be a huge mistake for Democrats to dismiss the newfound economic populism of Republican presidential candidates as obviously laughable given Republicans’ deep alliance with corporate America. Republicans are aiming to pull off a populist jiu jitsu, using anger at corporate influence over government to justify even more dismantling of government. It could work.

It would be a huge mistake for Democrats to dismiss the newfound economic populism of Republican presidential candidates as obviously laughable given Republicans’ deep alliance with corporate America. Republicans are aiming to pull off a populist jiu jitsu, using anger at corporate influence over government to justify even more dismantling of government. It could work.

The good news for progressives is that attention to the squeeze on the middle class and the capture of government by corporations is finally taking center stage in American politics. Pollsters for both political parties are advising candidates to recognize the struggle of families to meet the basics, and the cynicism about government being able to do anything about their problems because it's under the control of the rich and powerful corporations.

This should be a huge opening for Democrats who are aggressive in assigning blame to corporations and pushing for what should be the obvious solution: stand up to those powerful forces with tough measures. If the banks are screwing homeowners, government should enact regulations that stop bank rip-offs and make housing affordable. If corporations and the rich are profiting from huge loopholes in the tax code, close those loopholes and raise their taxes.

But Republicans on the campaign trail are offering a different solution: if government is captured, then shrink government. Marco Rubio laid it out most clearly in an interview on NPR:

And so I hope the Republican Party can become the champion of the working class because I think our policy proposals of limited government and free enterprise are better for the people who are trying to make it than big government is. The fact is that big government helps the people who have made it. If you can afford to hire an army of lawyers, lobbyists and others to help you navigate and sometimes influence the law, you'll benefit. And so that's why you see big banks, big companies, keep winning. And everybody else is stuck and being left behind.

Rand Paul, who champions free-market, anti-regulatory economics, began his announcement speech for president by declaring, "We have come to take our country back from the special interests that use Washington as their personal piggy bank, the special interests that are more concerned with their personal welfare than the general welfare."

And Carly Fiorina bounced off the scourge of Wall Street abuses, Elizabeth Warren, to turn around Warren’s argument: “Crony capitalism is alive and well. Elizabeth Warren, of course, is wrong about what to do about it. She claims that the way to solve crony capitalism is more complexity, more regulations, more legislation, worse tax codes. And of course the more complicated government gets — and it's really complicated now — the less the small and the powerless can deal with it."

It’s easy to laugh at their argument, which can be reduced to “if the fox is getting into the hen house, tear down the hen house.” But it would be foolish to do so. It starts where people are at, as one Republican message guru wrote after the election last fall: “[F]rom the reddest rural towns to the bluest big cities, the sentiment is the same. People say Washington is broken and on the decline, that government no longer works for them — only for the rich and powerful.”

The argument takes advantage of the record-high public distrust of government, reached in no small part because of decades of Republicans stripping government’s effectiveness at tackling problems and championing shrinking government and cutting taxes as the solutions for everything.

Having said that, the current political environment should still be winning turf for Democrats who are willing to tell their own version of the problem and solution. After all, building a hen house that keeps out the foxes is clearly a better way to be sure you get fresh eggs for breakfast. But winning the debate will take something Democrats are not always willing to do: naming villains and pushing solutions that will really address the problems facing American families.

As I wrote in a column analyzing the messages that Democrats who won used last fall, naming specific villains is essential to demonstrating that the candidate understands who is responsible for the problem and is willing to stand up to those powerful forces. Because of our campaign finance system, this is more of a challenge for Democrats. If they actually take on the rich and powerful, it will result in less campaign cash. Republicans don’t have to worry about that, since their patrons understand the game.

Having named the villains, Democrats then need to propose bold solutions that demonstrate that they understand the depth of the problems people face, solutions that people can imagine might actually help. Naming bold solutions is another way to demonstrate to people that you are willing to take on the status quo.

In a debate—whether real or the virtual debates of ad campaigns—Democrats will win if they point out that what Republicans want to do is tear down the hen house, and then name the foxes and describe the fortified, fox-slaying house.

Of course, that’s the biggest question for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Will she name the villains and keep naming them, even though many of them will supply her campaign with funds? Will she advance bold solutions or try to duck tough issues? We know one thing: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and the Draft Warren campaign will be making it tough for her to hide.

It’s a question not just for Clinton, but for every Democrat. Will Democrats be bold enough to advance a politics that meets the despair and cynicism of Americans with directness, honesty, and hope for a better future?

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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Message to Mayor Emanuel: Play Hardball with Wall Street

May 6, 2015Saqib Bhatti

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he plans to preemptively terminate a large portion of the City of Chicago’s remaining interest rate swaps, which will cost taxpayers $200 million in penalties. He is trying to sell this as a shrewd move that will protect Chicago from future risk and help return the city to financial health. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he plans to preemptively terminate a large portion of the City of Chicago’s remaining interest rate swaps, which will cost taxpayers $200 million in penalties. He is trying to sell this as a shrewd move that will protect Chicago from future risk and help return the city to financial health. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, this is little more than a capitulation to Wall Street that will guarantee maximum profits for banks at taxpayers’ expense. This is the moment for the mayor to play hardball and force the banks to take significant concessions to protect the interests of the city’s communities and its bondholders alike. He can do this by suing the banks for misrepresenting risks associated with these deals, in violation of their duty to deal fairly with municipal borrowers, and by initiating a debt strike against the swap counterparties by strategically defaulting on the swap payments.

Emanuel’s decision to pay the banks the full face value of the swap penalties is indefensible. When the termination clauses on Detroit’s swaps were triggered, a federal judge pushed the city to drive a hard bargain with the banks and forced them to take a 75 percent haircut on the penalties. The judge made clear that he believed the city had a strong argument to declare the swaps invalid and said the city would be “reasonably likely” to prevail if it took legal action to get out of the deals. The judge encouraged the city to stop making payments on the swaps and to sue the banks instead. As a result of these negotiations, the city paid just $85 million in penalties instead of $347 million.

Emanuel similarly has a strong argument that the banks that sold toxic swaps to both the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) did so illegally, and he should use both the legal and financial options at his disposal to get a better deal from the banks. Instead of giving away $200 million to banks, the mayor should launch a debt strike against the swap counterparties. He should refuse to pay them another dime on the city and school district’s swaps. Corporations often use this tactic, which they call a debt moratorium, to increase their leverage in negotiations with creditors. Emanuel should also sue the banks to recover $1.3 billion in past and future payments on these deals. This would give the city and CPS tremendous leverage to extract major concessions from the banks and renegotiate these toxic deals.

The course that Emanuel has instead chosen, to preemptively pay the banks $200 million in penalties to terminate the swaps, will actually serve to maximize taxpayer losses rather than save the city money. The penalties are calculated based on the interest rate environment, and because variable interest rates are still at record lows, it means that paying the banks now guarantees that the city will pay a higher amount than if it has to terminate the swaps later. There is a growing consensus that the Federal Reserve will start raising interest rates soon, which will drive these penalties down. Now is the worst possible time to voluntarily pay these penalties, especially because the mayor actually has a lot of leverage to get a better deal for Chicagoans, if he chooses to exercise it.

Playing Hardball with Wall Street

The amount of the termination penalties is not set in stone. When a swap termination event occurs, municipal borrowers and banks typically enter into negotiations with each other, during which cities can use legal and financial leverage to get a better deal. The reality is that Chicago has a lot more leverage in these negotiations than its swap counterparties. For one, the city has a very strong legal argument that the banks that pitched its swap deals violated their legal duty to deal fairly with the city by downplaying and misrepresenting risks and failing to mention that many of them were rigging the interest rates that the swaps were based on. The city should take legal action to get out of these deals. But beyond that, the city also has tremendous financial leverage vis-à-vis the banks, because it could simply stop making its swap payments, which would actually free up money for the city’s residents, pensioners, and bondholders. In Detroit, a federal judge advocated both of these strategies, and the city was able to save $262 million on its termination penalties as a result.

Suing the Banks

When the City of Detroit was placed under an emergency manager in 2013 and then filed bankruptcy, it triggered termination clauses on its interest rate swaps, which came with hefty penalties that stood at $347 million according to the city’s bankruptcy filing. Through negotiations, the banks agreed to settle for just $250 million. The bankruptcy judge rejected this settlement, and urged the city to either negotiate a better deal or file a legal challenge against the swaps. The city and banks went back to the bargaining table and came back with an offer to settle for $165 million. The judge again rejected the proposal, saying that, “In the absence of this settlement, the city might pursue an underlying claim challenging the swaps themselves,” and adding that the city would be “reasonably likely” to be successful in such a challenge. Ultimately, the judge approved an $85 million settlement, a 75 percent discount on the original figure of $347 million.

This should be a lesson for Emanuel. Of course Detroit, unlike Chicago, got its swap termination penalties reduced during the course of bankruptcy proceedings. The judge’s legal rationale, however, was not tied to the specifics of the bankruptcy process. He believed the swaps themselves were likely invalid based on the facts of the underlying deals and that the city would have been on strong legal footing if it had stopped making payments altogether.

Similarly, Emanuel should challenge the legality of the city’s swap deals and those of CPS and use that legal leverage to try to get a better deal. Whereas Detroit was able to make the banks take a 75 percent haircut on its penalties, Emanuel is proposing to pay the banks 100 cents on the dollar. That is financially irresponsible.

Although city officials often worry that they will get cut off from the credit markets if they sue banks, these concerns are unfounded because the interests of bondholders and swap counterparties are actually at odds with each other. In Detroit, bondholders were actually advocating for the city to take an even harder line against the banks because the swap penalties would have left less money for the bondholders. Many of the city’s creditors objected even to the final $85 million settlement. In fact, taking legal action against the banks should theoretically improve Chicago’s standing among bondholders, because it would free up money for payments to bondholders.

Instead of preemptively paying Wall Street $200 million in penalties to terminate the swaps, Emanuel should sue the banks to recover nearly $800 million in past and future payments on the deals for the city and $500 million for CPS. The banks that pitched these deals like violated the fair dealing rule of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board by misrepresenting or omitting “the facts, risks, potential benefits, or other material information” with respect to these deals. Emanuel has several legal options at its disposal to recover that money, including filing a lawsuit in state court for breach of contract.

Launching a Debt Strike

In addition to suing the banks, Emanuel should also follow the Detroit bankruptcy judge’s advice and refuse to make any more payments on the swaps. The banks have little leverage to compel the city to pay. The worst they can do is terminate the swaps and demand the city pay $200 million in penalties, but since Emanuel already stands ready to pay them that, the city really doesn’t have much to lose. In fact, Emanuel should coordinate with the city’s other governmental units that also have interest rate swaps and launch a coordinated debt strike against their swap counterparties. Corporations routinely use this tactic, which they call a debt moratorium, to increase their leverage in negotiations with creditors and compel them to write down debt.

Chicago Public Schools is already facing more than $260 million in penalties because the termination clauses on its swaps have already been triggered. The city’s enterprise funds also have swaps tied to their debt that could carry penalties of more than $200 million if the funds’ ratings are downgraded. Between the city, its enterprise funds, and CPS, Emanuel controls more than $660 million that the banks want. This represents money that is pure profit for the banks—they have not lent the city or CPS any money against this amount. Instead, interest rate swaps are side deals that simply involve an interest rate exchange between two parties—an exchange that has turned into an unexpected windfall for banks as a result of the financial crash that they caused.

If Emanuel were simply to withhold this money, the banks would be at a loss. Banks cannot compel municipalities to file bankruptcy to try to recover this money (and in Illinois in particular, municipalities are not allowed to file bankruptcy anyway). They could seek a court order, but if Emanuel were also to take legal action against the banks, the judge could very well grant a stay on any payments until the court case was resolved, which could take years and would involve a discovery process that would likely be embarrassing for the banks. That would leave the banks with two options: strike a cheaper negotiated settlement like Detroit’s counterparties did, or risk an adverse court ruling through which they could actually be forced to pay back the city and CPS all the money they have already made on these deals—up to $1.3 billion.

Some may have concerns that strategically defaulting on the swaps would cause the city’s credit ratings to slide further. However, the city’s bonds are already trading at junk levels. Moreover, the rating agencies have already made clear that they intend to further downgrade Chicago’s credit rating anyway when the state’s blatantly unconstitutional “pension reform” bill is overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. Ironically, a strategical default on  swap payments could actually improve the city’s credit rating, since it would free up more cash for payments to bondholders, as mentioned above.

The Termination Penalties Maximize Bank Profits

Instead of using the city’s leverage to drive a hard bargain with the banks, Emanuel is proposing to preemptively terminate the swaps and pay $200 million in penalties. The mayor’s contention that doing this will protect the city against future termination risk is illogical. In effect, his argument is that he is eliminating the risk that the city could be forced to pay banks $200 million in the future by paying them $200 million now. He isn’t eliminating the risk; he is realizing it by voluntarily signing a $200 million check to Wall Street. This may be proactive, but that’s cold comfort to the Chicagoans who need that $200 million to fund essential services in their communities like mental health clinics and libraries. This $200 million payment isn’t just bad for communities, it is also bad finance.

The standard interest rate swap contract has termination clauses built in. If any “termination events” take place, then the bank has the right to terminate the swap and collect termination penalties. These termination events include credit rating downgrades below a certain threshold, among other things. In the case of Chicago, further downgrades in the city’s credit rating could trigger termination clauses on the its swaps. Conversely, if a municipal borrower wishes to terminate a swap, it may do so at any time by paying the termination penalty to the bank. This is what Emanuel has decided to do.

These termination penalties are equal to the fair value of the swap at the time that it is terminated, which is calculated as the net present value of all future payments on the swap over its remaining life, based on the current interest rate curve. What that means is that these penalties guarantee the banks all of their future profits on the swaps. The standard way the penalties are calculated does not change regardless of which party terminates the swap or for what reason. Emanuel is not saving Chicago any money by terminating the swaps, but instead is simply choosing to absorb those losses now, so he can claim he was proactive.

In reality, the city is actually likely to save money if he waits. Variable interest rates have been stuck at historic lows since 2008, when the Federal Reserve slashed rates to near zero in response to the financial crisis. This has caused taxpayer payments on all traditional interest rate swaps in the country to balloon. Chicago now pays approximately $70 million a year on its swaps, and CPS pays another $36 million a year. Because the termination penalties represent future payments based on the current interest rate curve, this has also caused the penalties to skyrocket. As the Federal Reserve gradually increases interest rates, which it is widely expected to do, these penalties will come down. By paying the banks $200 million now, while rates are still at historic lows, Emanuel will guarantee that the banks get a larger payment than they would if the swaps were terminated six months or a year from now.

Furthermore, the mayor plans to issue new debt to pay off the $200 million. What that means is that Chicago taxpayers will also be stuck paying interest on this $200 million for the next 30 years or so. On traditional 30-year bonds, the interest ends up being roughly equal to the principal, which means these termination penalties could end up costing taxpayers around $400 million.

* * * *

Emanuel is trying to spin his decision to pay the banks $200 million to terminate the city’s swaps as a bold move that will save the city money in the long run. This is untrue. Paying the banks now would amount to little more than a handout to Wall Street that would maximize their profits at taxpayers’ expense. First of all, there is no financial benefit to paying the banks early since interest rates are expected to rise, which would cause the penalties to decline. Secondly and more importantly, the city has tremendous legal and financial leverage to get a better deal from the banks and could likely bring the $200 million penalty down to a fraction of itself if Emanuel played hardball. If he sued the banks, the city could win nearly $800 million in past and future payments and CPS could win $500 million. If he launched a debt strike against the swaps, the banks would have limited recourse. Instead of paying the banks $200 million in a feeble attempt to put the swap fiasco behind him, the mayor should take legal action against these toxic swaps and immediately cease all payments on these deals. That would be the bold thing to do.

For more bold solutions that Mayor Rahm Emanuel can pursue to bring new, progressive revenue into Chicago’s coffers, see the ReFund America Project’s report, Our Kind of Town: A Financial Plan that Puts Chicago’s Communities First.

Saqib Bhatti is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow and Director of the ReFund America Project.

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L.A. Port Truck Drivers Put Their Jobs on the Line for Decent Pay and Cleaner Air

May 5, 2015Richard Kirsch

Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

Eco Flow Transportation’s founding came out of a long-running dispute between port drivers and Total Transportation Services, which had fired some 35 drivers who had filed claims for their unlawful misclassification as independent contractors and for illegal deductions from their paychecks.

The new company, breaking with the widespread, illegal practice of treating drivers as independent contractors, already employs 80 drivers with a goal of expanding to 500 within a year. The firm promises to be neutral in efforts by its employees to join the Teamsters Union, which has been supporting the drivers’ protests and legal actions against misclassification as contractors.

Eco Flow also aims to address diesel pollution from port trucks that are not maintained at standards, established in 2008, which aimed at drastically lowering the environmental health threats from the trucks. A court ruling in 2010 effectively placed the cost of maintaining clean trucks on drivers. The port drivers, who are forced by the trucking companies to be “independent contractors,” work an average of 59 hours a week, with take-home pay of under $29,000. The drivers’ low-pay makes it difficult for them to keep trucks at a level to meet clean air standards. But because Eco Flow owns the trucks, it assumes full responsibility for maintaining the fleet’s clean air standards.

Eco Flow is also working to introduce a new model for the ports, called “free flow” cargo, which can help move cargo out of terminals more rapidly and increase the velocity of Port of Los Angeles terminals. The benefits will be less pollution from idling trucks and less port congestion. More efficient deliveries will also make it easier for the firm to pay the drivers a decent salary. This is a sharp contrast from most port-trucking companies who, by treating drivers as contractors, pay them by delivery and so pass on the cost of idling time to the drivers.  

What does it take for workers to risk their jobs in actions that often result in retaliation by employers? I talked with Nick Weiner, an organizer at Change to Win, about the transformation that port drivers went through over several years, which led them to go from accepting their status to protesting.

Q: What has been the barrier to port drivers taking actions?

Weiner: The Teamsters have tried over the last 30 years but failed because we’ve allowed the illusion that drivers are independent contractors to drive strategies in the past. The drivers had used the language of the boss—calling themselves independent owner-operators. Part of the helping them come together was to use different language, so they could engage one another.

In ’96 in L.A. there was a big strike. And there were smaller ones. All failed, because drivers didn’t have right language, and didn’t engage government officials to enforce law. We learned our history.

Sometimes they said, ‘we want to be reclassified as employees.’ But they weren’t saying – ‘we are your employees now.’ That’s what’s needed to go from defensive. It’s not just we want to be employees and everything is fine. It’s by being employees, we can join a union and negotiate a contract. The end is not being an employee; there are a lot of employees not doing well.

We have this term misclassification—a very wonky, inside-baseball but now it means something. ‘Yea, we know we’re misclassified. It means taking away our rights, employers stealing from us.’ New language has been liberating.

Q. How do drivers get an understanding of how they could do better through organizing?

Weiner: Drivers see that [unionized] longshoremen get treated well: they are paid well, get time off. While the drivers sit for hours on line [at the ports], without getting paid. They’ve come to see that the do critical work and are the largest set of workers in the port economy who are left out of the prosperity of the port economy.

We’ve worked to tie those things together, being employees and the union. They thought they needed to deal with misclassification and then organize. Instead, needed to get them to understand you’re an employee now, you can organize now.

It takes time for drivers to undo the brainwashing. To engage in collective struggle. 

The collective struggle has taken two forms. The first has been a series of unfair labor practice pickets, aimed at specific companies, which block access to the ports of those companies trucks. The second is legal action under California law. Drivers have filed more than 400 claims against companies under California’s wage and hour law. The first 19 rulings resulted in an average award of $66,240, largely for wage and hour violations and illegal paycheck deductions for items like truck leases.

The drivers are also filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which governs union organizing.

Slowly, the organizing is paying off. One firm, Green Fleet, avoided being picketed last week by reaching a comprehensive labor peace agreement with the Teamsters. After a U.S. Department of Labor ruling, another firm, Shippers Transport Express, reclassified its "independent contractors" as employees and in February signed a contract with the Teamsters, which resulted in higher pay and fully paid health care benefits for the drivers.

The growing militancy of exploited workers, from Uber drivers to Wal-Mart “associates” to home care workers and many more is building a new movement of workers to challenge the 21st century economy, in the same way that workers built the labor movement 100 years ago. Their organizing and militancy helped drive the New Deal economic reforms which built the middle class in the 20th century. The fight of today’s workers is laying the foundation for the reforms we need to rebuild the middle class today in an economy based on good jobs and environmental sustainability. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the new trucking company would be employee-owned.

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Will the 2016 Election Include a Real Debate About Racial Justice in America?

May 1, 2015Andrea Flynn

Hillary Clinton's bold speech was a good start, but events in Baltimore show we're still a long way from addressing inequities.

Earlier this week Hillary Clinton used the first major policy address of her campaign to speak passionately about the systemic inequities and injustices that afflict communities of color in the United States, and presented herself as a markedly more progressive, empathetic, and authentic candidate than we’ve seen in the past.

Hillary Clinton's bold speech was a good start, but events in Baltimore show we're still a long way from addressing inequities.

Earlier this week Hillary Clinton used the first major policy address of her campaign to speak passionately about the systemic inequities and injustices that afflict communities of color in the United States, and presented herself as a markedly more progressive, empathetic, and authentic candidate than we’ve seen in the past.

Clinton’s remarks at Columbia University come against the backdrop of protests and unrest in the streets of Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, whose spine was nearly severed while in police custody. As Andrew Rosenthal wrote in The New York Times yesterday, our nation’s leaders should be at the forefront of a national conversation on “race, policing, and the crisis that exists in so many of our cities.” In many ways, Clinton’s remarks show she knows what the contours of that conversation should be, and that she has what it takes to elevate it to the forefront of our national consciousness.

“From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable,” she began, as she listed a handful of the men whose lives have been cut short as a result of police violence. Walter Scott of Charleston. Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old from Cleveland. Eric Garner of Staten Island. And now Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

“We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” she said, adding that there is something “profoundly wrong” when Black men are more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and handed longer prison sentences than their white peers; when 1-in-3 young Black men in Baltimore are unemployed and approximately 1.5 million Black men are missing from their families and communities as a result of incarceration and premature death.

Clinton could have kept her remarks limited to the broken criminal justice system, but she ventured further, acknowledging that the fractures in that system are just one cause—and also a symptom—of deep social and economic injustices that must be corrected if communities of color are to live safe, healthy, and economically secure lives. 

We also have to be honest about the gaps that exist across our country, the inequality that stalks our streets. Because you cannot talk about smart policing and reforming the criminal justice system if you also don't talk about what's needed to provide economic opportunity, better educational chances for young people, more support to families so they can do the best jobs they are capable of doing to help support their own children…

You don't have to look too far from this magnificent hall to find children still living in poverty or trapped in failing schools. Families who work hard but can't afford the rising prices in their neighborhood. Mothers and fathers who fear for their sons' safety when they go off to school—or just to go buy a pack of Skittles. These challenges are all woven together. And they all must be tackled together.

She enumerated the real marks of a nation’s prosperity: how many children can escape poverty and stay out of prison; how many can go to college without being saddled with debt; how many new immigrants can start small businesses; and how many parents can get and keep jobs that allow them to “balance the demands of work and family.” These indicators, she said, are a far better measurement of our prosperity “than the size of the bonuses handed out in downtown office buildings.”

In many ways, it is a sad commentary on the state of our nation’s politics that Clinton’s speech feels significant. But given our political discourse on race (or lack thereof), and the gender, race, and social and economic inequities that continue to rage on unchecked, it did indeed feel significant.

Of course, Hillary didn’t have far to climb to pass the low, low bar that has been set by Republicans. This week we saw members of the GOP blame the protests and uprising in Baltimore on everything from President Obama inflaming racial tensions (thank you, Ted Cruz) to the legalization of same-sex marriage (that gem of wisdom from Representative Bill Flores of Texas). GOP presidential hopeful Rand Paul blamed the “breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society” and remarked on how glad he was that his train didn’t stop in Baltimore because it’s depressing, sad, and scary. And Jeb Bush proposed that there be a rapid investigation into the death of Freddie Gray “so that people know the system works for them” (even though—as Rosenthal pointed out—it clearly doesn’t).  

Clinton’s remarks were of an entirely different caliber than we’re hearing from the GOP (not that rising above that nonsense alone should win one points). But she still has a steep road ahead to convince justifiably cynical voters that she will run her campaign—and the nation, should she become our next president—with the same commitment to racial and economic justice that she espoused yesterday. The 2008 campaign left a bitter taste in the mouths of many progressives, especially those in communities of color. And, as Bill Clinton himself said yesterday, it was the tough-on-crime policies of his own administration that led to the over-policing and mass incarceration that his wife criticized.

It remains to be seen if yesterday’s speech will mark a real evolution in her long political career, and not, as some suspect, a calculated political pivot to appease the voters she will need to win this campaign. All things considered, it was a bold start to what will be a long campaign. This is the Hillary many have been waiting for. This moment requires a leader who will boldly challenge the inequities and injustice in our society—whether at the voting booth, on the job, in our neighborhoods, or within our criminal justice system—and lay out a clear path forward. That's the challenge and opportunity for Hillary; we don't yet know if she will accept it.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

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