The Score, a New Monthly Column, is Now Live!

Aug 9, 2014Mike Konczal

I'm excited to tell you about The Score, a new monthly economics column page in The Nation magazine, that I'll be writing with Bryce Covert. Each month will have a lead essay based on a chart, along with sidebars of information related to the economy as a whole. Check it out in print if you can, because the formatting of the page itself is very sharp.

It will also be online, and our first column on wealth inequality went up this week. Given so much interest in wealth inequality (it is the basis of the two best works from the left in 2014), what would a wealth equality agenda look like?

The Nation also recently launched The Curve, a great blog on the intersection of feminism and economics, spearheaded by Kathy Geier. It's great to see The Nation moving in this direction, and I hope you check it all out!

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I'm excited to tell you about The Score, a new monthly economics column page in The Nation magazine, that I'll be writing with Bryce Covert. Each month will have a lead essay based on a chart, along with sidebars of information related to the economy as a whole. Check it out in print if you can, because the formatting of the page itself is very sharp.

It will also be online, and our first column on wealth inequality went up this week. Given so much interest in wealth inequality (it is the basis of the two best works from the left in 2014), what would a wealth equality agenda look like?

The Nation also recently launched The Curve, a great blog on the intersection of feminism and economics, spearheaded by Kathy Geier. It's great to see The Nation moving in this direction, and I hope you check it all out!

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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The Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income Doesn't Add Up

Aug 8, 2014Mike Konczal

Cato Unbound has a symposium on the “pragmatic libertarian case” for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), as argued by Matt Zwolinski. What makes it pragmatic? Because it would be a better alternative to the welfare state we now have. It would be a smaller, easier, cheaper (or at least no more expensive) version of what we already do, but have much better results.

Fair enough. But for the pragmatic case to work, it has to be founded on an accurate understanding of the current welfare state. And here I think Zwolinski is wrong in his description in three major ways.

He describes a welfare state where there are over a hundred programs, each with their own bureaucracy that overwhelms and suffocates the individual. This bureaucracy is so large and wasteful that simply removing it and replacing it with a basic income can save a ton of money. And we can get a BIG by simply shuffling around the already existing welfare state. Each of these assertions are misleading if not outright wrong.

Obviously, in an essay like this, it is normal to exaggerate various aspects of the reality in order to convince skeptics and make readers think in a new light. But these inaccuracies turn out to invalidate his argument. The case for a BIG will need to be built on a steadier footing.

Too Many Programs?

Zwolinski puts significant weight on the idea that there are, following a Cato report, 126 welfare programs spending nearly $660 billion dollars. That’s a lot of programs! Is that accurate?

Well, no. The programs Zwolinski describes can be broken down into three groups. First you have Medicaid, where the feds pay around $228 billion. Then you have the six big programs that act as “outdoor relief” welfare, providing cash, or cash-like compensation. These are the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), housing vouchers and the Child Tax Credit. Ballpark figure, that’s around $212 billion dollars.

So only 7 programs are what we properly think of as welfare, or cash payments for the poor. Perhaps we should condense those programs, but there aren't as many as we originally thought. What about the remaining 119 programs?

These are largely small grants to local institutions of civil society to provide for the common good. Quick examples involve $2.5 billion to facilitate adoption assistance, $500 million to help with homeless shelters, $250 million to help provide food for food shelters (and whose recent cuts were felt by those trying to fight food insecurity), or $10 million for low income taxpayer clinics.

These grants go largely to nonprofits who carry out a public purpose. State funding and delegation of public purpose has always characterized this “third sector” of civil institutions in the United States. Our rich civil society has always been built alongside the state. Perhaps these are good programs or perhaps they are bad, but the sheer number of programs have nothing to do with the state degrading the individual through deadening bureaucracy. If you are just going after the number of programs, you are as likely to bulldoze our nonprofit infrastructure that undergirds civil society as you are some sort of imagined totalitarian bureaucracy.

Inefficient, out-of-control bureaucracy?

But even if there aren’t that many programs, certainly there are efficiencies to reducing the seven programs that do exist. Zwolinski writes that “[e]liminating a large chunk of the federal bureaucracy would obviously...reduce the size and scope of government” and that “the relatively low cost of a BIG comes from the reduction of bureaucracy.”

So are these programs characterized by out of control spending? No. Here they are calculated by Robert Greenstein and CBPP Staff.

The major programs have administrative costs ranging between 1 percent (EITC) and 8.7 percent (housing vouchers), each proportionate to how much observation of recipients there is. Weighted, the average administrative cost is about 5 percent. To put this in perspective, compare it with private charity. According to estimates by Givewell, their most favored charities spend 11 percent on administrative costs, significantly more than is spent on these programs.

More to the point, there isn’t a lot of fat here. If all the administrative costs were reduced to 1 percent, you’d save around $25 billion dollars. That’s not going to add enough cash to create a floor under poverty, much less a BIG, by any means.

Pays for Itself?

So there are relatively few programs and they are run at a decent administrative cost. In order to get a BIG, you’ll need some serious cash on the table. So how does Zwolinski argues that “a BIG could be considerably cheaper than the current welfare state, [or at least it] would not cost more than what we currently spend”?

Here we hit a wall with what we mean by the welfare state. Zwolinski quotes two example plans. The first is from Charles Murray. However, in addition to the seven welfare programs mentioned above, he also collapses Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and social insurance more broadly into his basic income. If I recall correctly, it actually does cost more to get to the basic income he wants when he wrote the book in 2006, but said that it was justified because Medicare spending was projected to skyrocket a decade out, much faster than the basic income.

His other example is a plan by Ed Dolan. Dolan doesn’t touch health care spending, and for our purposes doesn’t really touch Social Security. How does he get to his basic income? By wiping out tax expenditures without lowering tax rates. He zeros out tax expenditures like the mortgage interest deduction, charitable giving, and the personal exemption, and turns the increased revenue into a basic income.

We have three distinct things here. We have the seven programs above that are traditionally understood as welfare programs of outdoor relief, or cash assistance to the poor. We have social insurance, programs designed to combat the Four Horsemen of “accident, illness, old age, loss of a job” through society-wide insurance. And we have tax expenditures, the system that creates an individualized welfare state through the tax code.

Zwolinski is able to make it seem like we can get a BIG conflict-free by blurring each of these three things together. But social insurance isn’t outdoor relief. People getting Social Security don’t think that they are on welfare or a public form of charity. Voters definitely don’t like the idea of scratching Medicare and replacing it with (a lot less) cash, understanding them as two different things. And social insurance, like all insurance, is able to get a lot of bang for the buck by having everyone contribute but only take out when necessary, for example they are too old to work. Public social insurance, through its massive scale, has an efficiency that beats out private options. If Zwolinski wants to go this route, he needs to make the full case against the innovation of social insurance itself.

Removing tax expenditures, which tend to go to those at the top of the income distribution, certainly seems like a good way to fund a BIG. However we’ll be raising taxes if we go this route. Now, of course, the idea that there is no distribution of income independent of the state is common sense, so the word “redistribution” is just a question-begging exercise. However the top 20 percent of income earners will certainly believe their tax bill is going up and react accordingly.

So?

Zwolinski is trying to make it seem like we can largely accomplish a BIG by shuffling around the things that state does, because the state does them poorly. But the numbers simply won’t add up. Or his plan will hit a wall when social insurance is on the chopping block, or when the rich revolt when their taxes go up.

The case for the BIG needs to be made from firmer ground. Perhaps it is because the effects of poverty are like a poison. Or maybe it will provide real freedom for all by ensuring people can pursue their individual goals. Maybe it is because the economy won’t produce jobs in the capital-intensive robot age of the future, and a basic income will help ensure legitimacy for this creatively destructive economy. Heck, maybe it just compensates for the private appropriation of common, natural resources.

But what won’t make the case is the idea that the government already does this, just badly. When push comes to shove, the numbers won’t be there.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Cato Unbound has a symposium on the “pragmatic libertarian case” for a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), as argued by Matt Zwolinski. What makes it pragmatic? Because it would be a better alternative to the welfare state we now have. It would be a smaller, easier, cheaper (or at least no more expensive) version of what we already do, but have much better results.

Fair enough. But for the pragmatic case to work, it has to be founded on an accurate understanding of the current welfare state. And here I think Zwolinski is wrong in his description in three major ways.

He describes a welfare state where there are over a hundred programs, each with their own bureaucracy that overwhelms and suffocates the individual. This bureaucracy is so large and wasteful that simply removing it and replacing it with a basic income can save a ton of money. And we can get a BIG by simply shuffling around the already existing welfare state. Each of these assertions are misleading if not outright wrong.

Obviously, in an essay like this, it is normal to exaggerate various aspects of the reality in order to convince skeptics and make readers think in a new light. But these inaccuracies turn out to invalidate his argument. The case for a BIG will need to be built on a steadier footing.

Too Many Programs?

Zwolinski puts significant weight on the idea that there are, following a Cato report, 126 welfare programs spending nearly $660 billion dollars. That’s a lot of programs! Is that accurate?

Well, no. The programs Zwolinski describes can be broken down into three groups. First you have Medicaid, where the feds pay around $228 billion. Then you have the six big programs that act as “outdoor relief” welfare, providing cash, or cash-like compensation. These are the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), housing vouchers and the Child Tax Credit. Ballpark figure, that’s around $212 billion dollars.

So only 7 programs are what we properly think of as welfare, or cash payments for the poor. Perhaps we should condense those programs, but there aren't as many as we originally thought. What about the remaining 119 programs?

These are largely small grants to local institutions of civil society to provide for the common good. Quick examples involve $2.5 billion to facilitate adoption assistance, $500 million to help with homeless shelters, $250 million to help provide food for food shelters (and whose recent cuts were felt by those trying to fight food insecurity), or $10 million for low income taxpayer clinics.

These grants go largely to nonprofits who carry out a public purpose. State funding and delegation of public purpose has always characterized this “third sector” of civil institutions in the United States. Our rich civil society has always been built alongside the state. Perhaps these are good programs or perhaps they are bad, but the sheer number of programs have nothing to do with the state degrading the individual through deadening bureaucracy. If you are just going after the number of programs, you are as likely to bulldoze our nonprofit infrastructure that undergirds civil society as you are some sort of imagined totalitarian bureaucracy.

Inefficient, out-of-control bureaucracy?

But even if there aren’t that many programs, certainly there are efficiencies to reducing the seven programs that do exist. Zwolinski writes that “[e]liminating a large chunk of the federal bureaucracy would obviously...reduce the size and scope of government” and that “the relatively low cost of a BIG comes from the reduction of bureaucracy.”

So are these programs characterized by out of control spending? No. Here they are calculated by Robert Greenstein and CBPP Staff.

The major programs have administrative costs ranging between 1 percent (EITC) and 8.7 percent (housing vouchers), each proportionate to how much observation of recipients there is. Weighted, the average administrative cost is about 5 percent. To put this in perspective, compare it with private charity. According to estimates by Givewell, their most favored charities spend 11 percent on administrative costs, significantly more than is spent on these programs.

More to the point, there isn’t a lot of fat here. If all the administrative costs were reduced to 1 percent, you’d save around $25 billion dollars. That’s not going to add enough cash to create a floor under poverty, much less a BIG, by any means.

Pays for Itself?

So there are relatively few programs and they are run at a decent administrative cost. In order to get a BIG, you’ll need some serious cash on the table. So how does Zwolinski argues that “a BIG could be considerably cheaper than the current welfare state, [or at least it] would not cost more than what we currently spend”?

Here we hit a wall with what we mean by the welfare state. Zwolinski quotes two example plans. The first is from Charles Murray. However, in addition to the seven welfare programs mentioned above, he also collapses Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and social insurance more broadly into his basic income. If I recall correctly, it actually does cost more to get to the basic income he wants when he wrote the book in 2006, but said that it was justified because Medicare spending was projected to skyrocket a decade out, much faster than the basic income.

His other example is a plan by Ed Dolan. Dolan doesn’t touch health care spending, and for our purposes doesn’t really touch Social Security. How does he get to his basic income? By wiping out tax expenditures without lowering tax rates. He zeros out tax expenditures like the mortgage interest deduction, charitable giving, and the personal exemption, and turns the increased revenue into a basic income.

We have three distinct things here. We have the seven programs above that are traditionally understood as welfare programs of outdoor relief, or cash assistance to the poor. We have social insurance, programs designed to combat the Four Horsemen of “accident, illness, old age, loss of a job” through society-wide insurance. And we have tax expenditures, the system that creates an individualized welfare state through the tax code.

Zwolinski is able to make it seem like we can get a BIG conflict-free by blurring each of these three things together. But social insurance isn’t outdoor relief. People getting Social Security don’t think that they are on welfare or a public form of charity. Voters definitely don’t like the idea of scratching Medicare and replacing it with (a lot less) cash, understanding them as two different things. And social insurance, like all insurance, is able to get a lot of bang for the buck by having everyone contribute but only take out when necessary, for example they are too old to work. Public social insurance, through its massive scale, has an efficiency that beats out private options. If Zwolinski wants to go this route, he needs to make the full case against the innovation of social insurance itself.

Removing tax expenditures, which tend to go to those at the top of the income distribution, certainly seems like a good way to fund a BIG. However we’ll be raising taxes if we go this route. Now, of course, the idea that there is no distribution of income independent of the state is common sense, so the word “redistribution” is just a question-begging exercise. However the top 20 percent of income earners will certainly believe their tax bill is going up and react accordingly.

So?

Zwolinski is trying to make it seem like we can largely accomplish a BIG by shuffling around the things that state does, because the state does them poorly. But the numbers simply won’t add up. Or his plan will hit a wall when social insurance is on the chopping block, or when the rich revolt when their taxes go up.

The case for the BIG needs to be made from firmer ground. Perhaps it is because the effects of poverty are like a poison. Or maybe it will provide real freedom for all by ensuring people can pursue their individual goals. Maybe it is because the economy won’t produce jobs in the capital-intensive robot age of the future, and a basic income will help ensure legitimacy for this creatively destructive economy. Heck, maybe it just compensates for the private appropriation of common, natural resources.

But what won’t make the case is the idea that the government already does this, just badly. When push comes to shove, the numbers won’t be there.

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Progress, Yet No Progress: The Two Lines of Defense Against Too-Big-To-Fail

Aug 7, 2014Mike Konczal

It’s been a week of whiplash when it comes to the issue of Too Big To Fail (TBTF). First the GAO released a report saying that it is difficult to find any bailout subsidy for the largest banks, implying that there's been progress on ending TBTF. Then, late Tuesday, the FDIC and Federal Reserve released a small bombshell saying that the living wills submitted by the 11 largest banks “are not credible and do not facilitate an orderly resolution under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.” These living wills were designed to make sure that banks could fail without causing chaos in the economy, and this report implies TBTF is still with us.

One of them has to be wrong, right? In order to understand this contradiction it's important to map out where the actual disagreement is. Doing so will also help explain how the battle over TBTF will play out in the near future.

So look - a large, systemically risky financial firm is collapsing! Oh noes! What has happened and will happen?

There are two levels of defense when it comes to ending this firm. The first is through a bankruptcy court, and the second is through the FDIC taking over the firm, much like what it does to a failing regular bank. The next several paragraphs give some technical details (skip ahead if your eyes are already glazing over).

<technical>

As you can see in the graphic above, before the failure, regulators will have failed to use “prompt corrective action” to guide the firm back to solvency. These are efforts regulators use to push a troubled firm to fix itself before a collapse. For example, if bank capital falls below a certain point, the bank can’t pay out bonuses or make capital purchases in order to attempt to make it more secure.

Once a failure happens, there are two lines of defense. The default course of action is putting the firm in bankruptcy, similar to what happened with Lehman Brothers. Why might this be a problem for a major financial firm? The Bankruptcy Code is slow and deliberate, when financial firms often need to be resolved fast. It isn't designed to preserve ongoing firm business, which is a problem when those businesses are essential to the economy as a whole. It can’t prevent runs by favoring short-term creditors. There is no guaranteed funding available to keep operations running and to help with the relaunch. And there are large problems handling the failure of a firm operating in many different countries.

With these concerns in mind, Dodd-Frank sets up a second line of defense. Regulators can direct the FDIC to take over the failed firm and do an emergency resolution (OLA), like they do with commercial banks. In order to active the OLA, there’s a comically complicated procedure in which the Treasury Secretary, the Federal Reserve Board, and the FDIC all have to turn their metaphoric keys.

OLA, particularly with its new "single point of entry" (SPOE) framework, solves many of the problems mentioned above. OLA comes with a line of emergency funding from Treasury to facilitate resolution if private capital isn’t available, as it likely won’t be in a crisis. OLA would also be able to prioritize speed, as well as protect derivatives and short-term credit, stopping potential runs. SPOE, by focusing its energy at the bank's holding company level, also helps to deal with coordinating the failure internationally. However, OLA would be executed by administrators instead of judges, and it could put taxpayer money at risk. (More on all of this here.)

</technical>

The Contradiction

So, what is the battle over? How are we making progress yet also making no progress?

All the innovation in the past 18 months in combating TBTF has taken place at the second line of defense. When Sheila Bair, for instance, says there’s been significant progress in ending taxpayer bailouts, or the Bipartisan Policy Institute releases a statement saying adopting an SPOE approach has the potential to eliminate TBTF, they are referencing the progress that is taking place at this second line of defense.

But there's no progress at the first line of defense. The living wills that regulators found insufficient are, by statute, part of the first line of defense. Dodd-Frank says that if the living will “would not facilitate an orderly resolution of the company under title 11, [Bankruptcy]” then the FDIC and the Fed “may jointly impose more stringent capital, leverage, or liquidity requirements, or restrictions on the growth, activities, or operations of the company.” They purposefully didn't drop the hammer in their announcement, instead telling the banks to go back to the drawing board rather than enforcing stricter requirements. But they can get as aggressive as they want here. 

So the FDIC and the Fed are drawing a line in the sand here - the first line of defense needs to work. The regulators call out the banks for their “failure to make, or even to identify, the kinds of changes in firm structure and practices that would be necessary to enhance the prospects for orderly resolution.” So making this line of defense work will not be a trivial endeavor.

If the first line of defense doesn’t work, why don’t we just rely on the second line? Thomas Hoenig, Vice Chairman of the FDIC and an aggressive opponent of TBTF, released a statement accompanying the regulators' release, specifically saying that they would not find this argument convincing. It’s worth noting how clear he is about this:

“Some parties nurture the view that bankruptcy for the largest firms is impractical because current bankruptcy laws won’t work given the issues just noted. This view contends that rather than require that these most complicated firms make themselves bankruptcy compliant, the government should rely on other means to resolve systemically important firms that fail. This view serves us poorly by delaying changes needed to assert market discipline and reduce systemic risk, and it undermines bankruptcy as a viable option for resolving these firms. These alternative approaches only perpetuate 'too big to fail.'”

That’s a strong statement that they are going to hold the first line.

Note here that the GAO results could still stand. The market's lack of a subsidy could reflect the second line of defense. Or it could reflect that even if they both fail, Congress, which is gridlocked, would not pass a bailout. It's not clear what would happen if a major bank failed, but the market is right not to assume the banks are permanently safe.

Politics

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Those who think reform didn’t go far enough like the idea of fighting on the first line, because there is significant leeway to push for more systemic changes to Wall Street. To get a sense of the stakes, Sheila Bair told Tom Braithwaite back in 2010 that she would break up an institution that couldn’t produce a credible living will.

This will also animate the Right, but in a different way. From the get-go, their preferred approach to TBTF was just to create a special new bankruptcy code Chapter, removing any type of independent regulatory administrative state like the FDIC from the issue. It’s not clear if they’ll support regulators pushing aggressively to restructure firms so they can go through the bankruptcy code as it is written right now.

The administration appears to be silent for now. It’s also not clear whether it will see this as a second bite to get higher capital requirements, or if they is happy enough with the second line of denfense as it is. If the second is true, that would be unfortunate. The banks remain undercapitalized and too complex for bankruptcy, and regulators have a responsiblity to make sure each line of defense is capable of stopping the panic of 2008.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

It’s been a week of whiplash when it comes to the issue of Too Big To Fail (TBTF). First the GAO released a report saying that it is difficult to find any bailout subsidy for the largest banks, implying that there's been progress on ending TBTF. Then, late Tuesday, the FDIC and Federal Reserve released a small bombshell saying that the living wills submitted by the 11 largest banks “are not credible and do not facilitate an orderly resolution under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.” These living wills were designed to make sure that banks could fail without causing chaos in the economy, and this report implies TBTF is still with us.

One of them has to be wrong, right? In order to understand this contradiction it's important to map out where the actual disagreement is. Doing so will also help explain how the battle over TBTF will play out in the near future.

So look - a large, systemically risky financial firm is collapsing! Oh noes! What has happened and will happen?

There are two levels of defense when it comes to ending this firm. The first is through a bankruptcy court, and the second is through the FDIC taking over the firm, much like what it does to a failing regular bank. The next several paragraphs give some technical details (skip ahead if your eyes are already glazing over).

<technical>

As you can see in the graphic above, before the failure, regulators will have failed to use “prompt corrective action” to guide the firm back to solvency. These are efforts regulators use to push a troubled firm to fix itself before a collapse. For example, if bank capital falls below a certain point, the bank can’t pay out bonuses or make capital purchases in order to attempt to make it more secure.

Once a failure happens, there are two lines of defense. The default course of action is putting the firm in bankruptcy, similar to what happened with Lehman Brothers. Why might this be a problem for a major financial firm? The Bankruptcy Code is slow and deliberate, when financial firms often need to be resolved fast. It isn't designed to preserve ongoing firm business, which is a problem when those businesses are essential to the economy as a whole. It can’t prevent runs by favoring short-term creditors. There is no guaranteed funding available to keep operations running and to help with the relaunch. And there are large problems handling the failure of a firm operating in many different countries.

With these concerns in mind, Dodd-Frank sets up a second line of defense. Regulators can direct the FDIC to take over the failed firm and do an emergency resolution (OLA), like they do with commercial banks. In order to active the OLA, there’s a comically complicated procedure in which the Treasury Secretary, the Federal Reserve Board, and the FDIC all have to turn their metaphoric keys.

OLA, particularly with its new "single point of entry" (SPOE) framework, solves many of the problems mentioned above. OLA comes with a line of emergency funding from Treasury to facilitate resolution if private capital isn’t available, as it likely won’t be in a crisis. OLA would also be able to prioritize speed, as well as protect derivatives and short-term credit, stopping potential runs. SPOE, by focusing its energy at the bank's holding company level, also helps to deal with coordinating the failure internationally. However, OLA would be executed by administrators instead of judges, and it could put taxpayer money at risk. (More on all of this here.)

</technical>

The Contradiction

So, what is the battle over? How are we making progress yet also making no progress?

All the innovation in the past 18 months in combating TBTF has taken place at the second line of defense. When Sheila Bair, for instance, says there’s been significant progress in ending taxpayer bailouts, or the Bipartisan Policy Institute releases a statement saying adopting an SPOE approach has the potential to eliminate TBTF, they are referencing the progress that is taking place at this second line of defense.

But there's no progress at the first line of defense. The living wills that regulators found insufficient are, by statute, part of the first line of defense. Dodd-Frank says that if the living will “would not facilitate an orderly resolution of the company under title 11, [Bankruptcy]” then the FDIC and the Fed “may jointly impose more stringent capital, leverage, or liquidity requirements, or restrictions on the growth, activities, or operations of the company.” They purposefully didn't drop the hammer in their announcement, instead telling the banks to go back to the drawing board rather than enforcing stricter requirements. But they can get as aggressive as they want here. 

So the FDIC and the Fed are drawing a line in the sand here - the first line of defense needs to work. The regulators call out the banks for their “failure to make, or even to identify, the kinds of changes in firm structure and practices that would be necessary to enhance the prospects for orderly resolution.” So making this line of defense work will not be a trivial endeavor.

If the first line of defense doesn’t work, why don’t we just rely on the second line? Thomas Hoenig, Vice Chairman of the FDIC and an aggressive opponent of TBTF, released a statement accompanying the regulators' release, specifically saying that they would not find this argument convincing. It’s worth noting how clear he is about this:

“Some parties nurture the view that bankruptcy for the largest firms is impractical because current bankruptcy laws won’t work given the issues just noted. This view contends that rather than require that these most complicated firms make themselves bankruptcy compliant, the government should rely on other means to resolve systemically important firms that fail. This view serves us poorly by delaying changes needed to assert market discipline and reduce systemic risk, and it undermines bankruptcy as a viable option for resolving these firms. These alternative approaches only perpetuate 'too big to fail.'”

That’s a strong statement that they are going to hold the first line.

Note here that the GAO results could still stand. The market's lack of a subsidy could reflect the second line of defense. Or it could reflect that even if they both fail, Congress, which is gridlocked, would not pass a bailout. It's not clear what would happen if a major bank failed, but the market is right not to assume the banks are permanently safe.

Politics

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Those who think reform didn’t go far enough like the idea of fighting on the first line, because there is significant leeway to push for more systemic changes to Wall Street. To get a sense of the stakes, Sheila Bair told Tom Braithwaite back in 2010 that she would break up an institution that couldn’t produce a credible living will.

This will also animate the Right, but in a different way. From the get-go, their preferred approach to TBTF was just to create a special new bankruptcy code Chapter, removing any type of independent regulatory administrative state like the FDIC from the issue. It’s not clear if they’ll support regulators pushing aggressively to restructure firms so they can go through the bankruptcy code as it is written right now.

The administration appears to be silent for now. It’s also not clear whether it will see this as a second bite to get higher capital requirements, or if they is happy enough with the second line of denfense as it is. If the second is true, that would be unfortunate. The banks remain undercapitalized and too complex for bankruptcy, and regulators have a responsiblity to make sure each line of defense is capable of stopping the panic of 2008.

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The GAO Can't Distinguish Between a Good and a Bad Liquidation

Aug 1, 2014Mike Konczal

To emphasize a point I made yesterday, we need to think of ending Too Big To Fail (TBTF) as a continuum rather a simple yes-no binary. The process of failing a large financial firm through the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) can go very well, or it could go very poorly. It's important to understand that the recent GAO report, arguing that the TBTF subsidy has largely diminished, is incapable of telling the difference.

What would make for a successful termination of a failed financial firm under OLA? To start, bankruptcy court would be a serious option as a first response. Assuming that didn't work, capital in the firm is structured in such a way that facilitates a successful process. There's sufficient loss-absorbing capital both to take losses and give regulators options in the resolution. There's also sufficient liquidity, both within the firm due to strong new capital requirements and through accountable lender-of-last-resort lending, that prevents a panic from destroying whatever baseline solvency is in the firm. As a result, less public funding is necessary to achieve the goals.

Living wills actually work, and allow the firm to be resolved in a quick and timely manner. The recapitalization is sufficient to repay any public funding without having to assess the financial industry as a whole. There's no problems with international coordination, and the ability of the FDIC to act as a receiver for derivatives contracts is standardized and clear in advance, reducing legal uncertainty.

That's a lot! And it's a story about what could go right or wrong that is becoming more and more prevalent in the reform community [1]. Let's chart it out, along with the opposite happening.

Again, from the point of view of the GAO report, these are identical scenarios. Both would impose credit losses on firms. Thus the GAO's empirical model, scanning and predicting interest rates spreads to imply credit risk, picks up both scenarios the same way. Whether OLA goes smoothly or is a disaster doesn't matter. But from the point of view of taxpayers, those trying to deal with the uncertainty and panic that would come with such a scenario, and the economy as a whole, the bad scenario is a major disaster. And we are nowhere near the point where success can be taken for granted. Tightening the regulations we have is necessary to making the successful scenario more likely, and the apparent lack of a subsidy should not distract us from this.

 

[1] Note the common similarities along these lines in the critical discussion of OLA from across the entire reform spectrum. You can see this story in different forms in Stephen Lubben's "OLA After Single Point of Entry: Has Anything Changed?" for the Unfinished Mission project,  the comment letter from the Systemic Risk Council, Too Big to Fail: The Path to a Solution from the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the "Failing to End Too Big to Fail" report from the Republican Staff of the House Committee on Financial Services.

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To emphasize a point I made yesterday, we need to think of ending Too Big To Fail (TBTF) as a continuum rather a simple yes-no binary. The process of failing a large financial firm through the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) can go very well, or it could go very poorly. It's important to understand that the recent GAO report, arguing that the TBTF subsidy has largely diminished, is incapable of telling the difference.

What would make for a successful termination of a failed financial firm under OLA? To start, bankruptcy court would be a serious option as a first response. Assuming that didn't work, capital in the firm is structured in such a way that facilitates a successful process. There's sufficient loss-absorbing capital both to take losses and give regulators options in the resolution. There's also sufficient liquidity, both within the firm due to strong new capital requirements and through accountable lender-of-last-resort lending, that prevents a panic from destroying whatever baseline solvency is in the firm. As a result, less public funding is necessary to achieve the goals.

Living wills actually work, and allow the firm to be resolved in a quick and timely manner. The recapitalization is sufficient to repay any public funding without having to assess the financial industry as a whole. There's no problems with international coordination, and the ability of the FDIC to act as a receiver for derivatives contracts is standardized and clear in advance, reducing legal uncertainty.

That's a lot! And it's a story about what could go right or wrong that is becoming more and more prevalent in the reform community [1]. Let's chart it out, along with the opposite happening.

Again, from the point of view of the GAO report, these are identical scenarios. Both would impose credit losses on firms. Thus the GAO's empirical model, scanning and predicting interest rates spreads to imply credit risk, picks up both scenarios the same way. Whether OLA goes smoothly or is a disaster doesn't matter. But from the point of view of taxpayers, those trying to deal with the uncertainty and panic that would come with such a scenario, and the economy as a whole, the bad scenario is a major disaster. And we are nowhere near the point where success can be taken for granted. Tightening the regulations we have is necessary to making the successful scenario more likely, and the apparent lack of a subsidy should not distract us from this.

 

[1] Note the common similarities along these lines in the critical discussion of OLA from across the entire reform spectrum. You can see this story in different forms in Stephen Lubben's "OLA After Single Point of Entry: Has Anything Changed?" for the Unfinished Mission project,  the comment letter from the Systemic Risk Council, Too Big to Fail: The Path to a Solution from the Bipartisan Policy Center, and the "Failing to End Too Big to Fail" report from the Republican Staff of the House Committee on Financial Services.

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Let's Hope the GAO Report Ends the Too-Big-to-Fail Subsidy Distraction

Jul 31, 2014Mike Konczal

The GAO just released its long-awaited report on whether Wall Street receives an implicit subsidy for still being seen as Too Big To Fail (TBTF). I'm still working through the report, but the headline conclusion is that "large bank holding companies had lower funding costs than smaller ones during the financial crisis" and that there is "mixed evidence of such advantages in recent years. However, most models suggest that such advantages may have declined or reversed."

For a variety of reasons, whether this subsidy exists has become a major focal point in the discussion about financial reform. The Obama administration wants the headline that TBTF is over, and the President's opponents want to argue that Dodd-Frank has institutionalized bailouts. Hopefully this GAO report puts that "permanent bailouts" talking point to rest.

More generally, however, I find that there are three problems with this emphasis on a possible Wall Street subsidy in the financial reform debate:

The first is that it makes it seem like the bailouts were the only problem with the financial sector. Let's do a thought experiment: imagine that in September 2008, Lehman Brothers went crashing into bankruptcy and...nothing happened. There was no panic in interbank lending or the money market mutual funds. The Federal Reserve didn't do emergency lending, and nobody suggested that Congress pass TARP. There was nothing but crickets out there in the financial press.

Even if that had happened, we'd still have needed a massive overhaul of the financial system. Think of all the other things that went wrong: Wall Street fueled a massive housing bubble that destroyed household wealth and generated bad debts that have choked the economy for half a decade. Neighborhoods were torn apart by more than 6 million foreclosures while bankers laughed all the way to the bank. A hidden derivatives market radically distorted the price of credit risk and led to the creation of instruments designed to rip off investors. Wall Street failed at its main job -- to allocate capital to productive ends in the economy. Instead, it went on a rampage that did serious harm to investors, households, and ultimately our economy. 

TBTF is the most egregious example of the out-of-control financial system, and it's a major problem that needs to be checked. But if emphasized too much, it makes it seem as if the problem is only how much damage a firm can do to the economy when it fails. In fact, the problem is much broader than that, and solving it requires transparency in the derivatives market, consumer protections, accountability in the securities Wall Street makes and sells, a focus on actual business lines, and regulation of shadow banking as a whole, not just last rites for individual firms.

This is important because the second problem is that some will take this report as evidence that reform is just right, or has even gone too far. And scanning the coverage, I see that the commentators who are applauding the GAO's conclusions are often the same people who have said that, for instance, liquidity rules in Dodd-Frank have gone too far, or that the Volcker Rule should be tossed out. This is even as the GAO points to these provisions as necessary reforms.

We can debate whether a subsidy for failing banks exists or how big it is, but the goal of regulation should not be to fine-tune that number. The subsidy is only a symptom of much larger problems with the financial system, and the point of regulation is to build a system that works. 

Finally, the third issue is that emphasizing the subsidy makes us think of ending TBTF as a binary, check-yes-or-no, pass-fail kind of test. Again, there are political reasons for this emphasis, but TBTF isn't a switch that can be flipped on or off. Addressing the problem is an ongoing process that will be carried out through the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), and that process can be either more or less robust.

It's good that the financial markets have confidence in the OLA, but the FDIC is still crafting the living wills and the details of how they will be implemented. Major questions and challenges still remain. For instance, a rule has not yet been written to determine how much unsecured debt firms are required to carry. And conservatives are already floating the idea that a successful OLA would be a "bailout" anyway

The success of an orderly liquidation process will depend on many different factors, but we should think of it not as a binary, but as a continuum -- a continuum on which one end has more capital and slimmer business lines to protect taxpayer dollars and keep the risks contained, and the other end has us crossing our fingers and hoping that the aggregate damage isn't too bad. [UPDATE: See more on this point from me here.]

The GAO report is welcome news. We've made progress on the most outrageous problem with the financial sector. But that doesn't mean the work is done by any means.

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Header image via Thinkstock

The GAO just released its long-awaited report on whether Wall Street receives an implicit subsidy for still being seen as Too Big To Fail (TBTF). I'm still working through the report, but the headline conclusion is that "large bank holding companies had lower funding costs than smaller ones during the financial crisis" and that there is "mixed evidence of such advantages in recent years. However, most models suggest that such advantages may have declined or reversed."

For a variety of reasons, whether this subsidy exists has become a major focal point in the discussion about financial reform. The Obama administration wants the headline that TBTF is over, and the President's opponents want to argue that Dodd-Frank has institutionalized bailouts. Hopefully this GAO report puts that "permanent bailouts" talking point to rest.

More generally, however, I find that there are three problems with this emphasis on a possible Wall Street subsidy in the financial reform debate:

The first is that it makes it seem like the bailouts were the only problem with the financial sector. Let's do a thought experiment: imagine that in September 2008, Lehman Brothers went crashing into bankruptcy and...nothing happened. There was no panic in interbank lending or the money market mutual funds. The Federal Reserve didn't do emergency lending, and nobody suggested that Congress pass TARP. There was nothing but crickets out there in the financial press.

Even if that had happened, we'd still have needed a massive overhaul of the financial system. Think of all the other things that went wrong: Wall Street fueled a massive housing bubble that destroyed household wealth and generated bad debts that have choked the economy for half a decade. Neighborhoods were torn apart by more than 6 million foreclosures while bankers laughed all the way to the bank. A hidden derivatives market radically distorted the price of credit risk and led to the creation of instruments designed to rip off investors. Wall Street failed at its main job -- to allocate capital to productive ends in the economy. Instead, it went on a rampage that did serious harm to investors, households, and ultimately our economy. 

TBTF is the most egregious example of the out-of-control financial system, and it's a major problem that needs to be checked. But if emphasized too much, it makes it seem as if the problem is only how much damage a firm can do to the economy when it fails. In fact, the problem is much broader than that, and solving it requires transparency in the derivatives market, consumer protections, accountability in the securities Wall Street makes and sells, a focus on actual business lines, and regulation of shadow banking as a whole, not just last rites for individual firms.

This is important because the second problem is that some will take this report as evidence that reform is just right, or has even gone too far. And scanning the coverage, I see that the commentators who are applauding the GAO's conclusions are often the same people who have said that, for instance, liquidity rules in Dodd-Frank have gone too far, or that the Volcker Rule should be tossed out. This is even as the GAO points to these provisions as necessary reforms.

We can debate whether a subsidy for failing banks exists or how big it is, but the goal of regulation should not be to fine-tune that number. The subsidy is only a symptom of much larger problems with the financial system, and the point of regulation is to build a system that works. 

Finally, the third issue is that emphasizing the subsidy makes us think of ending TBTF as a binary, check-yes-or-no, pass-fail kind of test. Again, there are political reasons for this emphasis, but TBTF isn't a switch that can be flipped on or off. Addressing the problem is an ongoing process that will be carried out through the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), and that process can be either more or less robust.

It's good that the financial markets have confidence in the OLA, but the FDIC is still crafting the living wills and the details of how they will be implemented. Major questions and challenges still remain. For instance, a rule has not yet been written to determine how much unsecured debt firms are required to carry. And conservatives are already floating the idea that a successful OLA would be a "bailout" anyway

The success of an orderly liquidation process will depend on many different factors, but we should think of it not as a binary, but as a continuum -- a continuum on which one end has more capital and slimmer business lines to protect taxpayer dollars and keep the risks contained, and the other end has us crossing our fingers and hoping that the aggregate damage isn't too bad. [UPDATE: See more on this point from me here.]

The GAO report is welcome news. We've made progress on the most outrageous problem with the financial sector. But that doesn't mean the work is done by any means.

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Quick Thoughts on Ryan's Poverty Plan: What Are the Risks?

Jul 25, 2014Mike Konczal

Paul Ryan released his anti-poverty plan yesterday, and lots of people have written about it. Bob Greenstein has a great overview of the block-granting portion of the plan.

Paul Ryan released his anti-poverty plan yesterday, and lots of people have written about it. Bob Greenstein has a great overview of the block-granting portion of the plan. I'm still reading and thinking about it, but in the interest of answering the call for constructive criticism, a few points jump out that I haven't seen others make yet.

How did we get here?

Republicans obviously have an interest in branding themselves as a "party of ideas." And many liberals and Democrats also have an interest in trying to make the GOP seem like it's been devoid of any ideas in the past several years.

But it's worth noting that within a year of Democrats and liberal thinkers getting actively behind a serious increase in the minimum wage, and many activists making strides toward it on the local level, Paul Ryan just wholesale adopted President Obama's EITC expansion program. That demonstrates the value of pushing the envelope.

Complexity and the EITC

Ryan's plan, correctly, makes a big deal out of the complexity of receiving the EITC. The difficulty of navigating the system, the large number of improper payments, people not receiving what they should, people having to use tax-prep services to get the credit, and so on.

This is why I'm a huge fan of higher minimum wages as a complement to the EITC. Instead of 40 pages of rules and a dozen potential forms to fill out, you just put a sign that reads "$10.10 an hour" on the wall. Bosses and workers can't trick each other or get confused about this, and nobody has to pay a tax-prep service to figure it out. Easy peasy.

Ryan wants to "direct the Treasury Department to investigate further" how to fix this, but in practice Treasury just turns around and yells at the IRS. And if the IRS knew how to fix it, they'd probably be on it.

There is also a simpler plan to fix this issue: just have the government mail people their tax forms already filled out, for them to either sign or correct. When a trial version of this, "Ready Return," was tried in California, people immediately saw the potential for this to fix EITC delivery issues. Perhaps anti-poverty advocates can help provide momentum on this front.

Bosses and the EITC

Both Ryan and Marco Rubio have referred to putting the ETIC credit directly into workers' paychecks. Ryan: "[A]nother potential area of reform should focus upon EITC simplicity and delivery. If families received the credit with their paychecks, the link between work and the EITC would be that much clearer."

I'd be worried if employers were the ones responsible for adding this wage subsidy. I don't think there's a convincing argument that the EITC or food stamps lower wages directly (though there is one indirectly for the EITC), but if employers got a wage subsidy themselves to pass to their workers, it's easy to imagine them pocketing part of it through lower wages, especially in the monopsony of low-wage labor markets.

A discussion of welfare reform

Rather than a "welfare reform -- yay or nay?" conversation, it would be really useful if people arguing for the block-granting of the entire anti-poverty agenda would point out what they do and do not like about what happened in the 1990s. Especially as proponents hold up welfare reform as the model.

As Matt Bruenig notes, the work requirements and other restrictions go against the concept of subsidiarity. Greenstein writes, "the block grant would afford state and local officials tantalizing opportunities to use some block grant funds to replace state and local funds now going for similar services...That’s what happened under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant." In retrospect, TANF didn't survive the business cycle, and it clearly has cut spending by cutting the rolls. Is that what people want to accomplish with food stamps, which have done wonders to boost childhood life outcomes? If not, what can be done other than assert that this time will be different?

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Live at TNR: Dodd-Frank at Year Four

Jul 23, 2014Mike Konczal

Live at The New Republic, I have a piece describing Year Four of Dodd-Frank, which celebrates its birthday this week. The news coverage of the past year has had a "stuck, spinning its wheels" argument to it. I argue that this past year saw some major and important advancements, directions on where to go next, and also made what will be the biggest challenges going forward very clear. I hope you check it out.

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Live at The New Republic, I have a piece describing Year Four of Dodd-Frank, which celebrates its birthday this week. The news coverage of the past year has had a "stuck, spinning its wheels" argument to it. I argue that this past year saw some major and important advancements, directions on where to go next, and also made what will be the biggest challenges going forward very clear. I hope you check it out.

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Dr. Strangelove and the Halbig Decision

Jul 22, 2014Mike Konczal

"Yes, but the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?" - Dr. Strangelove

So the DC Circuit Court ruled in Halbig v. Burwell hat health care subsidies can only go to states that set up their own health care exchanges rather than use the federal ones. That means indivdiuals from the 34 states who get subsidized health care from the federal exchange would no longer be able to get subsidies. (Another court ruled against this logic today.) I don't normally do health care stuff, but I've read a lot about this case and something strikes me as very odd.

As I understand it, those on the right who are pushing the Halbig case argue that there's a doomsday machine built into Obamacare. (Adam Serwer at MSNBC also caught this doomsday machine analogy.) If states don't set up their health care exchanges then they don't receive subsidies for health care from the federal government. According to this theory, the liberals who designed health care reform did this knowing that if subsidies were pulled, the system would collapse for states that didn't set up their exchanges.

It's important to note that those on the right are not arguing that this is a typo in the bill, because that wouldn't necessarily be sufficient to overturn the subsidies. They are arguing that Congress intentionally put this language in there to compel, bribe, incentivize, and otherwise threaten states that didn't set up their own exchanges. In the rightwing argument, liberals were saying "we are making the citizens of your state purchase health care, and if you don't set up an exchange they won't get the subsidies necessary to make the system work, so you'd better set up an exchange."

The right's argument hinges on the idea that since there's no evidence that this isn't the intent, it must be the intent. As the two authors of the legal challenge put it, Obamacare "supporters’ approval of this text reveals that their intent was indeed to enact a bill that restricts tax credits to state-run Exchanges. At no point have defenders of the rule identified anything in the legislative history that contradicts" their reading.

Here's the thing, though: like Strangelove notes, a doomsday machine only works if you tell others about it. So, why weren't the people in the vast network associated with Obamacare telling everyone about this threatening doomsday device after the bill passed?

If this was actually the intent, you'd expect that during the period where states were debating whether to set up exchanges, this would have been a major threat raised by somebody. Anyone, from President Obama to congressional leaders to health care experts and lawyers to activist groups on the ground in red states fighting for implementation, would have been saying, "if your state doesn't set up a health care exchange, your citizens are screwed. At the very least, you'll be leaving money on the table." ("Leaving money on the table" is always a good point to bring up, and if this doomsday machine really were the intent of the law, it would be true.)

I know of no evidence of this being the case. Does anybody? Numerous people are arguing that the legislative intent is clearly on providing subsidies to the federal exchange users. No wonder the dissent argued that the Halbig ruling was "a fiction, a post hoc narrative concocted to provide a colorable explanation for the otherwise risible notion that Congress would have wanted insurance markets to collapse in States that elected not to create their own Exchanges."

That doesn't change what the DC Circuit did, of course, but it should make a random person stop and wonder how much of a cynical ploy this whole thing is.

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"Yes, but the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?" - Dr. Strangelove

So the DC Circuit Court ruled in Halbig v. Burwell hat health care subsidies can only go to states that set up their own health care exchanges rather than use the federal ones. That means indivdiuals from the 34 states who get subsidized health care from the federal exchange would no longer be able to get subsidies. (Another court ruled against this logic today.) I don't normally do health care stuff, but I've read a lot about this case and something strikes me as very odd.

As I understand it, those on the right who are pushing the Halbig case argue that there's a doomsday machine built into Obamacare. (Adam Serwer at MSNBC also caught this doomsday machine analogy.) If states don't set up their health care exchanges then they don't receive subsidies for health care from the federal government. According to this theory, the liberals who designed health care reform did this knowing that if subsidies were pulled, the system would collapse for states that didn't set up their exchanges.

It's important to note that those on the right are not arguing that this is a typo in the bill, because that wouldn't necessarily be sufficient to overturn the subsidies. They are arguing that Congress intentionally put this language in there to compel, bribe, incentivize, and otherwise threaten states that didn't set up their own exchanges. In the rightwing argument, liberals were saying "we are making the citizens of your state purchase health care, and if you don't set up an exchange they won't get the subsidies necessary to make the system work, so you'd better set up an exchange."

The right's argument hinges on the idea that since there's no evidence that this isn't the intent, it must be the intent. As the two authors of the legal challenge put it, Obamacare "supporters’ approval of this text reveals that their intent was indeed to enact a bill that restricts tax credits to state-run Exchanges. At no point have defenders of the rule identified anything in the legislative history that contradicts" their reading.

Here's the thing, though: like Strangelove notes, a doomsday machine only works if you tell others about it. So, why weren't the people in the vast network associated with Obamacare telling everyone about this threatening doomsday device after the bill passed?

If this was actually the intent, you'd expect that during the period where states were debating whether to set up exchanges, this would have been a major threat raised by somebody. Anyone, from President Obama to congressional leaders to health care experts and lawyers to activist groups on the ground in red states fighting for implementation, would have been saying, "if your state doesn't set up a health care exchange, your citizens are screwed. At the very least, you'll be leaving money on the table." ("Leaving money on the table" is always a good point to bring up, and if this doomsday machine really were the intent of the law, it would be true.)

I know of no evidence of this being the case. Does anybody? Numerous people are arguing that the legislative intent is clearly on providing subsidies to the federal exchange users. No wonder the dissent argued that the Halbig ruling was "a fiction, a post hoc narrative concocted to provide a colorable explanation for the otherwise risible notion that Congress would have wanted insurance markets to collapse in States that elected not to create their own Exchanges."

That doesn't change what the DC Circuit did, of course, but it should make a random person stop and wonder how much of a cynical ploy this whole thing is.

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Search Models, Mass Unemployment, and the Minimum Wage

Jul 15, 2014Mike Konczal

How have search models influenced the current economic debates? John Quiggin had an interesting post up at Crooked Timber about how poorly the branch of economics that falls under search theory has done in the age of the internet. (Noah Smith has follow-up.)

Search and matching models are fascinating to me because they are central to both the debate over mass unemployment during the Great Recession as well as how economists understand the minimum wage. And here you can see search model being deployed for worse and for better.

The Great Recession

In his 2010 Annual Report, Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota President Narayana Kocherlakota gave a presentation using the popular Diamond-Mortensen-Pissarides (DMP) search model to explain what he thought was wrong with the labor markets. Given that Kocherlakota was dissenting against QE2 at the time, a lot of eyes were on his arguments. Many focused on his infamous argument he later reversed that low rates cause disinflation, but I found this equally fascinating at the time.

The economy suffered from low job openings. But why were employers not creating job openings and hiring? Kocherlakota summarized the DMP model in this graphic:

Job openings and hires are a function of unemployment, productivity, and what was going on with the unemployed. He concluded that productivity after taxes was falling because of an increase in government debt, regulations and the proposed repeal of some of the Bush-era tax cuts. Also expansions of social insurance, including unemployment insurance and presumably the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare, was increasing the "utility" of not working. This, he believed, was the major reason why unemployment was so high and job openings so low. Using a back-of-the-envelope estimate with made-up numbers, he proposed that the natural rate of unemployment could be around 8.7 percent - very close to the then current 9.0 percent unemployment.

Think about this model and the recession long enough, and two things should jump out. The first is that this model, going back to Robert Shimer’s (2005) seminal work on the topic, is terrible at explaining movements in unemployment. The volatility in vacancies and productivity aren’t anywhere near the magnitude necessary to cause unemployment movements that we see in recessions. Productivity would need to drop significantly to create the changes in unemployment we see in recessions, and it doesn’t move to anywhere near that extent.

The second is that, as Robert Hall and many others have pointed out, productivity actually increased during the recent recession. It’s moving the wrong direction for it to impact unemployment the way we’d see it during the Great Recession. The unemployment-to-vacancy ratio also increased - 2009 was a fantastic time to create job openings according to this model, yet they collapsed. This is extra problematic given that economists have tried to respond to the initial problem by amplifying productivity movements in their models. But, out here in the actual world, the thing is simply moving in the wrong direction to make any sense.

Note that there’s no place for things like aggregate demand or the zero lower bound to plug into the equation. The only things that can matter are things like taxes, government uncertainty and social insurance, and they all work in the negative direction. That search models have become so influential to the background knowledge of unemployment helps explains the default ideology of why economists were so eager to find "structural" explanations for why unemployment was so high.

Minimum Wage

There’s some debate on this, but it looks like economists are softening on their opposition to raising the minimum wage, particularly if the question is phrased as whether or not a slightly higher minimum wage would pass a cost-benefit test. Search theory might be a reason why. If you are schooled in thinking of the labor markets in a search model, the idea that the minimum wage might not have an adverse employment effect makes more sense. A higher minimum wage means that low-wage workers will search harder for low-end jobs. They’ll be more likely to accept those jobs, and less likely to turn them over as well. These all would help raise the equlibrium employment level.

Even further, if you think that each job has a bit of a search friction surrounding it, then the idea that the employer has a little bit of monopoly power over the job makes sense. Employers might not raise wages to a market clearing rate because that, in turn, would mean having to raise the wages for all their workers. A minimum wage pushes against that. Understanding the labor markets through this lens ideas helps explain why any disemployment effects are minimial compared to the economics 101 story.

As I read it, much of this theory took hold in labor economics to help explain the data people were seeing. Why were there so many vacancies in fast food? Why didn't minimum wage hikes obviously cause unemployment in the data? This should tell us something - theory, when built up out of observations and data, can tell us something useful. But the same theory moved over to the business cycle, where it ignores conflicting data and is propelled downward by partisan and ideological forces, can be an utter disaster.

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How have search models influenced the current economic debates? John Quiggin had an interesting post up at Crooked Timber about how poorly the branch of economics that falls under search theory has done in the age of the internet. (Noah Smith has follow-up.)

Search and matching models are fascinating to me because they are central to both the debate over mass unemployment during the Great Recession as well as how economists understand the minimum wage. And here you can see search model being deployed for worse and for better.

The Great Recession

In his 2010 Annual Report, Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota President Narayana Kocherlakota gave a presentation using the popular Diamond-Mortensen-Pissarides (DMP) search model to explain what he thought was wrong with the labor markets. Given that Kocherlakota was dissenting against QE2 at the time, a lot of eyes were on his arguments. Many focused on his infamous argument he later reversed that low rates cause disinflation, but I found this equally fascinating at the time.

The economy suffered from low job openings. But why were employers not creating job openings and hiring? Kocherlakota summarized the DMP model in this graphic:

Job openings and hires are a function of unemployment, productivity, and what was going on with the unemployed. He concluded that productivity after taxes was falling because of an increase in government debt, regulations and the proposed repeal of some of the Bush-era tax cuts. Also expansions of social insurance, including unemployment insurance and presumably the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare, was increasing the "utility" of not working. This, he believed, was the major reason why unemployment was so high and job openings so low. Using a back-of-the-envelope estimate with made-up numbers, he proposed that the natural rate of unemployment could be around 8.7 percent - very close to the then current 9.0 percent unemployment.

Think about this model and the recession long enough, and two things should jump out. The first is that this model, going back to Robert Shimer’s (2005) seminal work on the topic, is terrible at explaining movements in unemployment. The volatility in vacancies and productivity aren’t anywhere near the magnitude necessary to cause unemployment movements that we see in recessions. Productivity would need to drop significantly to create the changes in unemployment we see in recessions, and it doesn’t move to anywhere near that extent.

The second is that, as Robert Hall and many others have pointed out, productivity actually increased during the recent recession. It’s moving the wrong direction for it to impact unemployment the way we’d see it during the Great Recession. The unemployment-to-vacancy ratio also increased - 2009 was a fantastic time to create job openings according to this model, yet they collapsed. This is extra problematic given that economists have tried to respond to the initial problem by amplifying productivity movements in their models. But, out here in the actual world, the thing is simply moving in the wrong direction to make any sense.

Note that there’s no place for things like aggregate demand or the zero lower bound to plug into the equation. The only things that can matter are things like taxes, government uncertainty and social insurance, and they all work in the negative direction. That search models have become so influential to the background knowledge of unemployment helps explains the default ideology of why economists were so eager to find "structural" explanations for why unemployment was so high.

Minimum Wage

There’s some debate on this, but it looks like economists are softening on their opposition to raising the minimum wage, particularly if the question is phrased as whether or not a slightly higher minimum wage would pass a cost-benefit test. Search theory might be a reason why. If you are schooled in thinking of the labor markets in a search model, the idea that the minimum wage might not have an adverse employment effect makes more sense. A higher minimum wage means that low-wage workers will search harder for low-end jobs. They’ll be more likely to accept those jobs, and less likely to turn them over as well. These all would help raise the equlibrium employment level.

Even further, if you think that each job has a bit of a search friction surrounding it, then the idea that the employer has a little bit of monopoly power over the job makes sense. Employers might not raise wages to a market clearing rate because that, in turn, would mean having to raise the wages for all their workers. A minimum wage pushes against that. Understanding the labor markets through this lens ideas helps explain why any disemployment effects are minimial compared to the economics 101 story.

As I read it, much of this theory took hold in labor economics to help explain the data people were seeing. Why were there so many vacancies in fast food? Why didn't minimum wage hikes obviously cause unemployment in the data? This should tell us something - theory, when built up out of observations and data, can tell us something useful. But the same theory moved over to the business cycle, where it ignores conflicting data and is propelled downward by partisan and ideological forces, can be an utter disaster.

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Do Taxpayers Care if Student Loans Are Paid Off Too Quickly? (On Fair Value Accounting)

Jun 11, 2014Mike Konczal

With President Obama’s student loan announcement in the news this week, an argument over whether or not taxpayers make a profit from student loans is no doubt close behind. We do make a profit using the government’s accounting tools, but there’s an argument that we should instead use “fair value accounting,” or the rate at which the private market adjusts for risk (here’s Jared Bernstein with a recent piece). By that standard, we see a much smaller profit.

Most people reference the CBO on this, though its numbers are entirely opaque. For instance, it says that it “relied mainly on data about the interest rates charged to borrowers in the private student loan market,” but there are gigantic adverse selection problems right out of the gate. The private student loan market is where the worst credit risks go, so of course they have higher rates. Is the CBO able to control for this? Nobody knows.

But beyond that, there’s a simple finance logic reason for why I don’t buy the argument for fair value accounting. I don’t believe that taxpayers face prepayment risk, and to whatever extent they do, it’s a matter of politics, not economics, that determines this.

The concept of prepayment risk might not make sense for people without some financial background, so let’s walk through it. If you lend money to a person you know, whether it’s a questionable relative or a partner who asks to hold some money until they get their check next week, you just want to get paid back in full. And, here’s the kicker, you are really happy if you get paid back sooner than you had expected. You want the money back.

Is that how private capital markets work? No. Let’s say you manage a large portfolio of private student loans. And let’s say you get a note at the office that they are being paid back more quickly than you had expected. Are you happy? No. You are not, and you might even get fired.

Why wouldn’t you be happy about getting paid back earlier?

1. You have to physically do something with the money you get paid back to get it earning more money again. No matter what you end up doing -- reinvesting it in student loans, putting it into a different set of assets, or just stuffing it in the equivalent of a mattress -- it takes time, energy, and resources, all of which cost money.

2. Often you want to set a certain time frame for repayment. Say you really want to have a cash flow at a certain date far off into the future because you are funding a pension or insurance liability. Getting paid back earlier doesn’t meet that goal, and it confuses your expectations for cash flows.

3. Crucially, you are likely to get paid back exactly when you don’t want the money. Say you locked in private student loans at a high interest rate, but then interest rates decline dramatically. At this point students will pay back their loans more quickly, which leaves you with more cash on hand at a time when interest rates are low.

This isn’t some partisan ideological point; it’s just basic finance. You can see it described in a CFA study guide under call and prepayment risk and reinvestment risk. (People more baller than I who actually did the CFA can nitpick specifics, but the general layout is correct.)

So private investors in student loans are genuinely worried that they’ll get paid back too quickly, and as a result charge a higher interest rate which leads to a larger discount rate. Because, and follow this, their goal isn’t to “get paid back.” Their goal is to achieve a consistent rate of return given a risk profile, with predictable cash flows given other institutional constraints. Getting paid back quickly is a risk to all this.

So, here’s my question: do taxpayers face this prepayment risk? If you saw a headline that said “student debtors are paying off their public student loans faster than expected,” would you be happy as a citizen, or furious?

I’d say happy. As a citizen, I’m not interested in earning a certain amount of profit consistently and with certainty over time, especially with the money paid back by student debtors, though I am as a private investor. If citizens were paid back more quickly, we could return the money to taxpayers, or use it for different purposes, or whatever. I certainly wouldn’t say “how are we going to continue to make the profit we were making?” as a citizen, though that’s exactly what I’d say if I were an investor in a private student loan portfolio. We could debate this -- perhaps you think the goal of the government here is to extract maximum financial profits no matter what. But it would be a political debate, divorced from the logic of financial market valuation.

This is not a trivial concern. Anyone with experience modeling a mortgage-backed security is very conscious of how greater prepayments impose massive risks and uncertainty. Normally the private sector goes to great lengths to imposes penalties and limitations on paying back loans early, though the government doesn’t do this for student loans. And since citizen do not face prepayment risks the way the private sector does, the discount rate for public funds, by definition, must be less than private funds when it come to student loans. Hence private sector discount rates aren’t a valid benchmark.

Note that the Financial Economist Roundtable (cited approvingly by Jason Delisle here) brings up prepayment risk specifically as something that fair value accounting is meant to capture. But the prepayment risk they specify -- which is “costly to lenders because prepayments are most likely to occur when market interest rates have decreased and loan values have appreciated,” reflecting the third issue noted above -- exists primarily because private capital has to reinvest money in a worse environment. Do taxpayers have to reinvest money they get from student loans? No, unlike private direct lenders, they don’t. The financial logic has broken down. (And don’t even get me started on using the private sector’s liquidity risk as a measure of the state’s.)

I have yet to see an argument addressing this head-on, much less a convincing one, but perhaps this post will change that.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

With President Obama’s student loan announcement in the news this week, an argument over whether or not taxpayers make a profit from student loans is no doubt close behind. We do make a profit using the government’s accounting tools, but there’s an argument that we should instead use “fair value accounting,” or the rate at which the private market adjusts for risk (here’s Jared Bernstein with a recent piece). By that standard, we see a much smaller profit.

Most people reference the CBO on this, though its numbers are entirely opaque. For instance, it says that it “relied mainly on data about the interest rates charged to borrowers in the private student loan market,” but there are gigantic adverse selection problems right out of the gate. The private student loan market is where the worst credit risks go, so of course they have higher rates. Is the CBO able to control for this? Nobody knows.

But beyond that, there’s a simple finance logic reason for why I don’t buy the argument for fair value accounting. I don’t believe that taxpayers face prepayment risk, and to whatever extent they do, it’s a matter of politics, not economics, that determines this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The concept of prepayment risk might not make sense for people without some financial background, so let’s walk through it. If you lend money to a person you know, whether it’s a questionable relative or a partner who asks to hold some money until they get their check next week, you just want to get paid back in full. And, here’s the kicker, you are really happy if you get paid back sooner than you had expected. You want the money back.

Is that how private capital markets work? No. Let’s say you manage a large portfolio of private student loans. And let’s say you get a note at the office that they are being paid back more quickly than you had expected. Are you happy? No. You are not, and you might even get fired.

Why wouldn’t you be happy about getting paid back earlier?

1. You have to physically do something with the money you get paid back to get it earning more money again. No matter what you end up doing -- reinvesting it in student loans, putting it into a different set of assets, or just stuffing it in the equivalent of a mattress -- it takes time, energy, and resources, all of which cost money.

2. Often you want to set a certain time frame for repayment. Say you really want to have a cash flow at a certain date far off into the future because you are funding a pension or insurance liability. Getting paid back earlier doesn’t meet that goal, and it confuses your expectations for cash flows.

3. Crucially, you are likely to get paid back exactly when you don’t want the money. Say you locked in private student loans at a high interest rate, but then interest rates decline dramatically. At this point students will pay back their loans more quickly, which leaves you with more cash on hand at a time when interest rates are low.

This isn’t some partisan ideological point; it’s just basic finance. You can see it described in a CFA study guide under call and prepayment risk and reinvestment risk. (People more baller than I who actually did the CFA can nitpick specifics, but the general layout is correct.)

So private investors in student loans are genuinely worried that they’ll get paid back too quickly, and as a result charge a higher interest rate which leads to a larger discount rate. Because, and follow this, their goal isn’t to “get paid back.” Their goal is to achieve a consistent rate of return given a risk profile, with predictable cash flows given other institutional constraints. Getting paid back quickly is a risk to all this.

So, here’s my question: do taxpayers face this prepayment risk? If you saw a headline that said “student debtors are paying off their public student loans faster than expected,” would you be happy as a citizen, or furious?

I’d say happy. As a citizen, I’m not interested in earning a certain amount of profit consistently and with certainty over time, especially with the money paid back by student debtors, though I am as a private investor. If citizens were paid back more quickly, we could return the money to taxpayers, or use it for different purposes, or whatever. I certainly wouldn’t say “how are we going to continue to make the profit we were making?” as a citizen, though that’s exactly what I’d say if I were an investor in a private student loan portfolio. We could debate this -- perhaps you think the goal of the government here is to extract maximum financial profits no matter what. But it would be a political debate, divorced from the logic of financial market valuation.

This is not a trivial concern. Anyone with experience modeling a mortgage-backed security is very conscious of how greater prepayments impose massive risks and uncertainty. Normally the private sector goes to great lengths to imposes penalties and limitations on paying back loans early, though the government doesn’t do this for student loans. And since citizen do not face prepayment risks the way the private sector does, the discount rate for public funds, by definition, must be less than private funds when it come to student loans. Hence private sector discount rates aren’t a valid benchmark.

Note that the Financial Economist Roundtable (cited approvingly by Jason Delisle here) brings up prepayment risk specifically as something that fair value accounting is meant to capture. But the prepayment risk they specify -- which is “costly to lenders because prepayments are most likely to occur when market interest rates have decreased and loan values have appreciated,” reflecting the third issue noted above -- exists primarily because private capital has to reinvest money in a worse environment. Do taxpayers have to reinvest money they get from student loans? No, unlike private direct lenders, they don’t. The financial logic has broken down. (And don’t even get me started on using the private sector’s liquidity risk as a measure of the state’s.)

I have yet to see an argument addressing this head-on, much less a convincing one, but perhaps this post will change that.

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