Occupy Wall Street’s Outrage at Greed Can Expand to Corporate Stock Manipulation

Oct 6, 2011William Lazonick

stockmarket-1500001Rather than invest profits in building a strong economy, corporate execs invest in their own pay.

stockmarket-1500001Rather than invest profits in building a strong economy, corporate execs invest in their own pay.

Occupy Wall Street is keeping our focus on the insatiable greed and undemocratic influence of those who run our major financial institutions. But the quest for personal wealth and political power by the top executives of U.S. business corporations goes well beyond the Wall Street banks. It pervades industrial as well as financial corporations.

Even though, as Table 1 shows, the pay of top corporate executives is down from its pre-financial-crisis levels, it remains out of control. The average remuneration of the top 100 highest paid corporate executives (named in annual proxy statements) was $33.8 million in 2010, up 10 percent from a 2009 average of $30.1 million (in 2010 dollars). Since the financial meltdown, executive pay has remained far higher than it was in the early 1990s, when it was already viewed as extraordinarily excessive.

Table 1.  Mean pay of the highest paid corporate executives and percent of pay from exercising stock options, 1992-2010

lazonick-table-1

As can be seen in Table 1, much, and in many years most, of this exorbitant pay comes from the exercise of stock options. The gains from stock options depend on rising stock prices. What better way for corporate executives to give a manipulative boost to a company's stock price than to spend hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars buying back its stock.

As Figure 1 shows, in 2003 buybacks were already substantial among S&P 500 companies, with an average of $300 million. But over the next four years, that amount quadrupled, so that on the eve of the financial crisis these companies averaged over $1.2 billion in buybacks. During the financial crisis, they dropped back down to about $300 million per company, but in 2010 doubled to around $600 million. In 2011, buybacks of S&P 500 companies are on pace to hit an average of $900 million, and there is every indication that they will continue to escalate in 2012 and beyond, as happened in 2003-2007. For overpaid U.S. corporate executives, this form of stock-price manipulation has become an addiction.

Figure 1.  Repurchases (RP) and dividends (DV), 1997-2010, of 419 companies in the S&P 500 Index in January 2011 that were publicly listed back to 1997; mean distributions and proportions of net income (NI)

lazonick-figure-11As shown in Table 2, the top 50 repurchasers from 2001-2010 represent a range of industries. Combined, over the decade they spent more than $1.5 trillion repurchasing their own stock.

Of these 50 companies, 11 spent more than 100 percent of their net income over the decade on buybacks, 32 more than 50 percent, and 43 spent 30 percent or more. When dividends are added to buybacks, half of these 50 companies expended all of their profits and more in distributions to shareholders from 2001 through 2010.

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Table 2. Top 50 stock repurchasers among U.S. corporations, 2001-2010

lazonick-table-2-revised

Research on these various industries and companies has revealed the deleterious impacts of stock repurchases on economic performance. For example, over the decade 11 of the 12 ICT companies on this list spent more on buybacks than on R&D, while for the twelfth, Intel, the proportion was 93 percent. Most of the financial services companies on the list had to be bailed out by the federal government in 2008-2009. Led by Exxon Mobil, the three petroleum refining companies in the top 50 wasted a combined $222 billion on buybacks while charging high oil prices and neglecting substantial investments in alternative energy. For the three aerospace companies, defense contracting generates much of the profits that they then use to manipulate their stock prices through buybacks. Pharmaceutical companies charge drug prices that are twice as high in the United States as in the rest of the world, yet use much or all of their profits for buybacks. Health insurers use their profits to jack up their stock prices, and executive pay, while giving us high cost, low quality health coverage.

Executives like to say that buybacks are financial investments that signal confidence in the future of their company as measured by its stock price performance. In fact, however, companies that do buybacks never sell the shares at higher prices to cash in on these investments. To do so would be to signal to the market that their stock prices have peaked, something that no executive would ever do. Executives often say that they do buybacks because of a lack of more attractive investment opportunities. Yet we live in a world of rapidly changing technology, burgeoning new product markets, and intense global competition. Any CEO of a major U.S. corporation who says that buybacks are the best investments that his or her company can make should take the next logical step: fire him or herself!

William Lazonick is director of the UMass Center for Industrial Competitiveness and president of The Academic-Industry Research Network. His book, Sustainable Prosperity in the New Economy? Business Organization and High-Tech Employment in the United States (Upjohn Institute 2009) was awarded the 2010 Schumpeter Prize.

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What Would Our Founding Radicals Have Thought About Occupy Wall Street?

Oct 5, 2011William Hogeland

american_colonial_flagOccupy Wall Street isn't just a threat to financial elites -- it's a challenge to lazy historians.

american_colonial_flagOccupy Wall Street isn't just a threat to financial elites -- it's a challenge to lazy historians.

Among other intriguing and possibly problematic features, Occupy Wall Street, now in its third week and spreading, seems to represent an inchoate attempt at reviving an American radicalism that has deep roots in our founding period. The Tea Party has of course made its own highly explicit and politically successful claim on that period. Because OWS, like the Tea Party, focuses on national economic and financial issues, the new movement offers a disquieting, potentially illuminating alternative to the Tea Party's right-wing interpretation of America's founding economic values.

I began writing New Deal 2.0's "Founding Finance" series last winter in hopes of shining light both on the financial elitism of the famous American founders, who we often wrongly cast as pioneers (or at least half-conscious seed-sowers) of equality, and on what I see as historical tendentiousness on the part of the Tea Party, whose claims on the founding period are meant to support a low-tax, small-government, anti-debt agenda. I've tried to show that this agenda, which may or may not have its merits as policy, in no way accords with the avowed purposes of the founders across their own political spectrum from Hamilton to Madison.

In the series, I've also tried to bring to the fore some routinely marginalized yet highly resonant 18th century economic thought, as well as the actions of those who sought to obstruct wealth concentration and make cash and credit more readily available to ordinary Americans. It's an unsettling fact that our founding democratic, economic activism was not against England but against the homegrown American investing and creditor class that was leading the resistance to England.

I've explored that founding economic radicalism in the debtor riots and "regulations" of the late colonial period; in the overthrow of Pennsylvania during the run-up to the Declaration; in the period after victory over England, when foreclosed Massachusetts debtors, the so-called Shays Rebels, marched on the armory at Springfield; and in the early Federal period, when the so-called Whiskey Rebels of trans-Appalachia, criticizing the new U.S. Constitution on bases very different from those of antifederalist elites, went so far as to fly their own flag, hoping to launch a new, more economically egalitarian country in what was then the American West.

Throughout those struggles, the activists' goal was to pressure and in some cases to use government to restrain the power of wealth and promote economic equality through legislation. They wanted to outlaw monopolies, build debt relief into currency, institute easy-term, small-scale government lending, and take banking charters away from crony insiders. Some wanted progressive taxation on income; some wanted what we call Social Security. Much later phenomena like the Square Deal, the New Deal, and the Great Society, which can seem hypermodern (and even, to the Tea Party, unconstitutionally anomalous), actually have deep American roots. However, those roots are not in the thinking of the famous founders -- New Dealers' claims on Jefferson possibly to the contrary -- but in grassroots, 18th century movements that, while little-known today, were of immense importance during our founding.

So important in their day were those now-buried radical movements, in fact, that much of the famous founders' behavior can't be understood without the context of elite dedication at times to collaborating uneasily with the economic radicals, at other times to squelching them and pushing back their political advances. Many historians of the period ignore that context. Hamilton's biographers, for example, do not deem the people's movement important. Hamilton did; he spent his career trying to kill it. We therefore learn almost nothing important about Hamilton's purposes by reading his biographies. Much founder biography, and much mainstream history, operates on just such comfortably foregone, ultimately useless conclusions.

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In place of founding radicalism, historians tend to emphasize the emergence, from the Revolutionary period through the Jackson era, of a rowdy, fluid, non-deferential, competitive America. They place developing ideas of American democracy almost solely in that 19th century context. But Thomas Paine, the best-known of the radical 18th century egalitarians, would surely have been crushed if he'd glimpsed the kind of society that passed for a democratic one in Jacksonian America.

Paine's intensity gives both liberals and radicals a problem. It was a widely held view in the Washington administration -- and it's been widely held in more or less liberal American history ever since -- that Paine's awful experiences in the French Revolution give us cause to celebrate the failure of Paine-ite radicalism in America. Fair enough: Today, as every day, it would be wise to recall not only crimes against humanity committed by bankers but also those committed on behalf of a supposedly collective, supposedly revolutionary "People," from the French Terror to the Stalinist mass murders and well beyond.

Still, the French Terror, which almost killed Paine, has served as a convenient pretext for exercising historical complacency about the suppression of his and others' fervently democratic visions for America in 1776. Without those visions, anathema as they were to the famous founding elitists -- anathema as they were, for that matter, to Jacksonian capitalism and are today to high-finance "neo-liberalism" -- we might never have declared independence at all.

So from a certain historical point of view, I think Occupy Wall Street rebukes, even more sharply than it rebukes rightist Tea Party claims on the founding, a familiar and complacent history of American democracy -- especially that history's failure to confront our long struggle over the relationship between high finance and government. Occupy Wall Street may be going about things all wrong, as some on what remains of the American left have asserted. I find those assertions hard to dispute. I've been critical of what I suspect may turn out to be a cultural premium, part and parcel of objections to elitism, on intellectual sloppiness and incoherence. That mode was never adopted by the activist 18th century working class, whose objections and demands (pace the lazy snobbism of Hamilton's biographers) took the form not only of action but also of crystal-clear, deeply informed, published resolutions. The 18th century activists remind us that resolutions don't have to be handed down from above; they can filter up and be adopted by majority or by consensus.

The very concept of "up" may be anathema to the new movement. We'll see.

But the most honest answer to any and all objections to Occupy Wall Street may be "So what?" Criticism often comes down to no-cost fantasizing about more appealing actions that nobody has actually bothered to take. When American high finance takes over America, "occupy" is what some American people do, and have always done.

William Hogeland is the author of the narrative histories Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion and a collection of essays, Inventing American History. He has spoken on unexpected connections between history and politics at the National Archives, the Kansas City Public Library, and various corporate and organization events. He blogs at http://www.williamhogeland.com.

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Occupy Wall Street: Not Anarchy, But Beautiful Sincerity

Oct 4, 2011Jeff Madrick

The media may mock the Wall Street protesters, but their commitment and their cause are no joke.

The media may mock the Wall Street protesters, but their commitment and their cause are no joke.

The contrast between the press accounts of Occupy Wall Street and the reality is stark. That is what I noticed first when I was invited there to speak on Sunday and joined Joe Stiglitz in a teach-in. At first it indeed looks like anarchy. People are sleeping there overnight. You think you may never find an organizer, but my wife and I were guided by the young man who invited me. Soon you find that amid the seeming confusion there is organization. It is, I must say, organization of a most beautiful kind.

There are “facilitators,” who somehow round up the people, pick a spot and, oops, spontaneously, the teach-in begins. These facilitators organize who will speak at the general assembly, which addresses the entire crowd. And they create the now-famous echo, which overcomes the seemingly major obstacle that the police have not allowed the protesters and their guests any microphones or other amplification.

The echo chamber is extraordinary. You must speak in half sentences, which the group then repeats. In the general assembly, each phrase is repeated twice, once by those nearest the speaker, then again for those behind the front group. This has produced surprising benefits: People are engaged, they pay attention, and they force the speakers to talk briefly and get to the points. Ah, the benefits of no technology.

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The other characteristic of the crowd is how friendly and courteous it is. The young people (though they were not all young) that Joe Stiglitz and I spoke to, perhaps a hundred or more, were very attentive, very much wanting to absorb what information and opinions we had to offer. We talked about income distribution, predatory lending, and ways to get out of the mess. They were eager and they were grateful. Finally, they asked good questions. They were also, after all, talking to a Nobel laureate standing on the wet grounds of Zuccotti Park.

Later, as dark descended, I spoke to the general assembly. It seemed like perhaps 500 people. I spoke briefly, telling them about how much money the top 1 percent make, about how steep the Great Recession is, about the lack of prosecutions, about the inadequacy of reregulation, and about how we need a serious conversation about what Wall Street is for.

As I left, I heard one sincere "thank you" after another.

Many criticize the protesters for not having formal objectives or an agenda. That is just fine for now. But many of the protesters are concerned about specific issues. They may well develop agendas over time, and people like Joe and myself may help them get better informed and focus their views.

What is most aggravating is how the press has mischaracterized this group and treated it as an event with no meaning and the participants as clowns. Even the progressive press often has a tone of condescension. Many of these people are educated, but all of them are frustrated and angry. Is there some reason they should not be? Try to get a good job if you are in your twenties today. Try to make sense of why Washington has not been harder on Wall Street. Try to understand why the unemployment rate is still 9 percent and may rise in 2012, not fall. Dressing up as zombies to mock Wall Streeters -- is that so wrong for capturing attention, letting off steam, and fighting wealth not with violence, but with humor?

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the author of Age of Greed.

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The Young Are on the Streets Because They Have the Most to Lose

Oct 3, 2011Mike Konczal

mike-konczal-newWhy are so many of the protesters on Wall Street college-age kids? Because their futures are at stake.

This Occupy Wall Street sign is my favorite:

The sign has a clever double meaning. The young have the most to lose by standing idle and not having their voices heard in the political process, and they have the most to lose by actually being idle -- or unemployed.

Why are so many of the protesters on Wall Street college-age kids? Because their futures are at stake.

This Occupy Wall Street sign is my favorite:

The sign has a clever double meaning. The young have the most to lose by standing idle and not having their voices heard in the political process, and they have the most to lose by actually being idle -- or unemployed.

The media hasn't learned the lessons from the 1960s, as there is still a tendency to dismiss young people protesting because they are young. You can see this phenomenon in the original New York Times coverage, and it appears in much of the rest. But at the heart of dismissals of young college kids in the 1960s was the idea that they had a very bright future ahead of them that they were taking for granted. For instance, here's President Nixon in the New York Times, May 1970:

You know, you see these bums, you know, blowin' up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are, burnin' up the books, I mean, stormin' around about this issue, I mean you name it -- get rid of the war, there'll be another one.

Can it be argued that young people, college educated or not, are particularly lucky in this recession? Every category of worker is doing terribly in the Lesser Depression. My former editor Derek Thompson has a must-read article, "Who's Had the Worst Recession: Boomers, Millennials, or Gen-Xers?," which compares the three age categories across employment, income and wealth, and finds that everyone is suffering across the board.

But let's focus on the young. The issue of debt, especially student debt, hovers over the protests. How is the employment ratio looking for young people with a college degree? Here's data from last year:

And that doesn't factor in the fact that many college educated workers are working jobs that don't require college degrees. They are essentially using their degrees to crowd out those with a high school diploma or some college education from the jobs they would normally take. And no matter what jobs they are able to get, student debt hangs around their necks like an albatross.

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This impacts everyone who is young. Here's a summary of the recent 2010 Census' American Community Survey by PBS:

  • Employment among young adults between the ages of 16 to 29 was at its lowest level since the end of World War II. Just 55 percent were employed, compared with 67 percent in 2000.
  • Nearly 6 million Americans between the ages of 25 to 34 lived in their parents' homes last year.
  • Young men are nearly twice as likely as women to live with their parents.
  • Marriages among young adults hit a new low. Just 44 percent of Americans in that age group were married last year.
  • Other trends were also headed in the wrong direction. In 43 of the 50 largest metro areas -- often a magnet for 20-and-30-somethings -- employment declined.

In our desperate bid to replicate Japan, we are also replicating the poverty and joblessness among Japanese youths. This 2010 AOL article, "Japan's Economic Stagnation Is Creating a Nation of Lost Youths," can give you a sense of our trajectory.

Will we get our own version of the hikikomori? Young people are doubling up and not moving out of their parents' houses in this recession. If we looked at solely their own income, their poverty rates would be astounding. From the Census Bureau:

These “doubled-up” households are defined as those that include at least one “additional” adult -- in other words, a person 18 or older who is not enrolled in school and is not the householder, spouse or cohabiting partner of the householder...

In spring 2007, there were 19.7 million doubled-up households, amounting to 17.0 percent of all households. Four years later, in spring 2011, the number of such households had climbed to 21.8 million, or 18.3 percent...

Young adults were especially hard-hit, with 5.9 million people ages 25 to 34 living in their parents’ household in 2011, up from 4.7 million before the recession. That left 14.2 percent of young adults living in their parents’ households in March 2011, up more than two percentage points over the period.

These young adults who lived with their parents had an official poverty rate of only 8.4 percent, since the income of their entire family is compared with the poverty threshold. If their poverty status were determined by their own income, 45.3 percent would have had income falling below the poverty threshold for a single person under age 65.

Even if we can ever move out of the short-term recession, it will impact young people for years to come. Looking at a research summary compiled previously by Roosevelt Institute super-intern Charlie Eisenhood, Beaudry and DiNardo (1991) found “that every percentage increase in the [national] unemployment rate is associated with a 3-7 percent drop in entry-level contract wages.” Kahn (2009) found an estimate on the high end of that spectrum, discovering an “initial wage loss of 6 to 7% for a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate measure.”

Unfortunately, the recession’s effect is not limited just to the initial job search and wages. The negative impact persists far beyond that. Kahn found that the effect “falls in magnitude by approximately a quarter of a percentage point each year after college graduation. However, even 15 years after college graduation, the wage loss is 2.5% and is still statistically significant.”

Job mobility is also affected. Kahn found a “negative correlation between the national unemployment rate and occupational attainment (measured by a prestige score) and a slight positive correlation between the national rate and tenure.” She concludes that “workers who graduate in bad economies are unable to fully shift into better jobs after the economy picks up.” Worse, Oreopoulos found permanent wage effects on workers with low expected earnings (based on occupational prestige).

So yes, young people have an important stake in what happens going forward. Do we continue policies that benefit Wall Street and the top 1 percent? Do we tax the rich to rebuild America? Do we reform a financial sector that dominates the economy? The list of choices in front of us goes on and on. Their whole future, indeed all of ours, depends on it. It's no wonder that they've taken to the streets.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Joseph Stiglitz: Government Must Play a Role in the Housing Market

Sep 19, 2011

Housing policy is central to our economy and the Great Recession, and Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Joseph Stiglitz made that abundantly clear in his remarks at a recent event, "The Government's Role in Housing." Americans spend so much of their income on housing that "when we're talking about housing, we're talking about standards of living," he said. Meanwhile, "How we solve our housing market problems will have a lot to do with the recovery." But while hardline Republicans think there is no role for government in practically anything, Stiglitz contended, "If the government now just walked out of [housing], the market would collapse and our economic downturn would be worse."

Housing policy is central to our economy and the Great Recession, and Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Joseph Stiglitz made that abundantly clear in his remarks at a recent event, "The Government's Role in Housing." Americans spend so much of their income on housing that "when we're talking about housing, we're talking about standards of living," he said. Meanwhile, "How we solve our housing market problems will have a lot to do with the recovery." But while hardline Republicans think there is no role for government in practically anything, Stiglitz contended, "If the government now just walked out of [housing], the market would collapse and our economic downturn would be worse."

The government got involved in the mortgage market in the first place because it wasn't working. "We didn't have a good mortgage market... we had discrimination," Stiglitz pointed out. Plus it had to address "continuing market failures." As a country, we used to understand that markets aren't perfect and that there is a role for government. "There was in the past a view that yes, we understand that markets sometime behave badly, they make shoddy products, they don't live up to what they're supposed to do," he said. "That's why we have regulation."

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No time like the present, and no place like the housing market. "The market failures in this market are pervasive," Stiglitz said. "There will need to be government intervention in one form or another." So what should it look like? He outlined seven key areas that need to be addressed:

1. Reform the bankruptcy code: We've made it more difficult for borrowers to discharge debts, but "we have to solve the problems of the past," he said, including the heaping pile of underwater mortgages.

2. Make financial markets more competitive, including the payments mechanism.

3. Deal with TBTF institutions: It's not just banks that are too large, but even without government involved, Fannie Mae as an institution "was too big to fail," he said.

4. Re-focus the banking system: Get it "back to doing what it should be doing, and that is lending," not speculating or pushing paper around to make a profit.

5. "We need strong consumer protection." End of story.

6. Deal with the structure of the mortgage market: "We have a whole system of conflicts of interest and an intstiontal structure of the market is one that makes it not work in the way that it should," he said.

7. Understand the fundamental flaws of securitization: "The benefits have been overestimated and the cost underestimated."

Just a few small suggestions, right? But without addressing these issues, we'll continue to have a housing market that fails the American people and creates a huge drag on our stagnant recovery.

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Happy Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy Day

Sep 15, 2011Matt Stoller

Three years later we still haven't dealt with the problems in the financial crisis. (Follow Matt Stoller on Twitter at @matthewstoller)

Lehman's bankruptcy happened three years ago today. It should be quite clear at this point that another Lehman is going to happen again. Policymakers didn't deal with the crisis of 2008-2009; they turned it into a much longer crisis with far greater lasting damage.

Three years later we still haven't dealt with the problems in the financial crisis. (Follow Matt Stoller on Twitter at @matthewstoller)

Lehman's bankruptcy happened three years ago today. It should be quite clear at this point that another Lehman is going to happen again. Policymakers didn't deal with the crisis of 2008-2009; they turned it into a much longer crisis with far greater lasting damage.

There are two intertwined issues with any major financial panic. One issue is liquidity -- can an asset be sold or traded without significant movement in the price? Can an institution exchange its assets for assets of similar value? In a bank run, the answer is no. People are too afraid to accept that their bank deposit is worth what is in the account because they don't trust the bank that tells them what they have in the account. The second issue is solvency -- is there enough value to pay off all creditor claims? Are assets greater than liabilities, even in a liquid market?

The basic point to understand about the financial crisis is that it isn't in fact over. The liquidity crisis of 2008-2009 was temporarily abated, but the solvency problem hasn't been dealt with. The global financial architecture is essentially dominated by too many obligations, a.k.a. debt, that cannot be paid. This can only be addressed by a mass writedown of debts. Usually creditors don't like being told they can't have the money they think they have and force is required. Debtor deals are often preceded by civil wars, world wars, or depressions. But not always -- sometimes a debtor cartel can force writedowns. So that's the solvency issue.

What does this have to do with Lehman Brothers? Well, Lehman's bankruptcy was the moment when the financial system looked feeble and insolvent. If you did not have an FDIC insured account, you could not be sure that money would be there the next day. Essentially, Lehman's bankruptcy was the moment that the global bank run for businesses and billionaires became real. Companies that needed to make payroll, insurance companies that needed to pay out claims, corporations that funded themselves in the commercial paper markets, nonprofits and cities using auction rate securities -- basically anyone with any need for liquidity -- could no longer do business. Investors piled into "safe assets," a.k.a. Treasury bills, sending the yield "down to a few hundreds of a percent."

In the repo market, which is where the shadow banking system got much of its funding, there were margin calls because previously somewhat safe assets like corporate bonds required larger haircuts. It was, again, a giant bank run. The Fed and Treasury eventually stopped the bank run, providing enough liquidity and fiscal help to restore temporary confidence to the banking system. But the solvency crisis wasn't solved. It has been papered over, and remains with us today, ready to rear its ugly head at any moment (see the Eurozone).

A solvency crisis is often accompanied by a liquidity crisis, which is why the FDIC tries to shut down a bankrupt bank on a Friday and reopen it on Monday under new management. You don't want a bank run when a bank goes under. You want depositors to be made whole and, ideally, to have so much confidence the system works that the real economy is entirely insulated from financial shocks. Unfortunately, the failure to address the solvency problem or put forward a framework that insures the banking system (using a scheme sketched out by Jane D'Arista in this prescient 1991 paper titled "No More Bank Bailouts") means that users of the financial system are nervous.

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Lehman Brothers itself was insolvent, but its problems were probably common among investment banks at the time. I don't have anything to add on why that institution went under. For that, the Valukas report on the firm's bankruptcy provides an excellent explanation. Basically, everyone in a position of power in and around the investment bank was corrupt. Lehman had fairly reasonable risk controls; management just ignored them. Senior Lehman officer Ian Lowitt noted this in the summer of 2007, after a decision to ignore risk limits. “In case we ever forget; this is why one has concentration limits and overall portfolio limits. Markets do seize up.”

Yes, they do.

The regulators knew. As Anton Valukas, the bankruptcy trustee said, "So the agencies were concerned. They gathered information. They monitored. But no agency regulated."

There was the failure of information sharing among regulatory agencies, about which Valukas said:

Like most Americans, I was disturbed to learn after 9/11 that various intelligence agencies did not always share information with one another. I thought we learned something from that, but apparently not.

And then there was the whole misleading investors problem, with Repo 105. But all of this was framed by a basic solvency crisis, which Tim Geithner memorialized with his comment about "air in the marks" in the bad assets on Lehman's books. The investment bank owed more than it owned, and everyone knew it. It was a solvency crisis, that then became a liquidity crisis.

This could have been fixed. But it hasn't been, because of an overall failure of financial-friendly economists. I'll quote Alice Rivlin, in a "let them eat cake" moment in 2008 on the foreclosure wave that triggered the crisis.

We should not forget that a lot of good came from the housing boom. Millions of people moved into new or better housing. Most of them (including most sub-prime borrowers) are living in those houses and making their mortgage payments on time.

Why should anyone think that Lehman won't happen again? Elites have learned nothing. This was obvious during the crisis itself, when Nouriel Roubini noted the stark difference between public and private conversations:

And while policy makers and regulators now claim that everything is on the table in terms of reforming a faulty financial system they stress in private that their preferred approach would be one of “self-regulation” and reforms undertaken by private financial institutions rather than new rules and regulation imposed by authorities.

Many people are frustrated that the response to the crisis hasn't been stronger. But it was always obvious that the goal of the crisis measures was to get the financial elites back to ordinary business as quickly as possible. In that context, the most reasonable question in the world is, why wouldn't Lehman happen again? We don't have a persuasive answer to that question. And until we do, we're still in crisis.

Matt Stoller is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the former Senior Policy Advisor to Congressman Alan Grayson.

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Banks and Business Have Bounced Back, but Consumers Still Struggle to Pay Off Debt

Sep 14, 2011Bryce Covert

While families have made progress paying down credit card bills, mortgage and student debt levels remain stubbornly high.

In the run up to the financial crisis, everyone took on boatloads of debt: banks, corporations, consumers. In the aftermath, most have been eager to pay that debt off and get out from under the burden. Yet some are doing better than others. Corporations are now sitting on cash, having corrected their balance sheets. Banks are faring well after raising capital and selling off assets. But families aren't so lucky.

While families have made progress paying down credit card bills, mortgage and student debt levels remain stubbornly high.

In the run up to the financial crisis, everyone took on boatloads of debt: banks, corporations, consumers. In the aftermath, most have been eager to pay that debt off and get out from under the burden. Yet some are doing better than others. Corporations are now sitting on cash, having corrected their balance sheets. Banks are faring well after raising capital and selling off assets. But families aren't so lucky.

Households have made some progress in lowering credit card debt. According to TransUnion, consumers spent $72 billion more paying those bills than buying things in 2009 and 2010. In the first quarter of 2011, average credit card debt reached a 10-year low of $4,679. And the national delinquency rate (those who are 90 or more days past due on their credit card bill) was at .6 percent in the second quarter of 2011, the lowest level in 17 years.

Overall, household debt has fallen to 2004 levels. But mortgage debt isn't looking as positive as credit card bills. As the Wall Street Journal puts it:

Until the late 1990s, the sum of all American mortgages was about 40% of the value of the underlying homes. Americans borrowed heavily against their houses and then house prices fell. By this metric, the debt burden rose to about 62% -- and hasn't yet come down. (This is an average, of course... About one in five homeowners with a mortgage owes more than 100% of the current value of the house.)

Part of this, the article explains, is that unlike banks, households can't raise capital to pay it down. So to get housing-related debt levels down, consumers will have to see a rise in price appreciation or an increased ability to writedown or modify their mortgages. That, or they'll face foreclosures.

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And we're doing worse than ever before in another category of debt. Student loan debt is set to hit a total $1 trillion this year for the first time ever. Beyond that hefty load, though, default rates are rising. Overall, 8.8 percent of borrowers defaulted last year, up from 7 percent the year before. It gets even worse at for-profit schools, though, where the rate was 15 percent, up from 11.6. And while they only enroll about 10 percent of the nation's undergraduates, those students make up almost half of the defaults. They also tend to serve low-income students, who may already be struggling with the cost of an education.

But the problem doesn't stop there. In fact, it may be worse than those numbers show. The default rates only take a look at a two-year window -- but some studies show that as few as one in five defaults at for-profit colleges occur in that timeframe. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports:

A recent study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that for every borrower who defaults, at least two more fall behind in payments. The study found that only 37 percent of borrowers who started repaying their student loans in 2005 were able to pay them back fully and on time.

Banks and corporations may be feeling great about their debt levels, but they would do well to remember that consumers drive our economy. If we're all still buried under a mountain of debt that we can't pay off, the economy will continue to suffer.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.

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China "Cheats" -- and So Should We

Sep 13, 2011Jon Rynn

CB013130If the U.S. wants to tackle climate change and stay competitive in the global economy, it needs to stop playing by the old rules and start making new ones.

CB013130If the U.S. wants to tackle climate change and stay competitive in the global economy, it needs to stop playing by the old rules and start making new ones.

The looming global warming catastrophe could be worse, in the long term, than any war, social collapse, or single famine in human history. We need to scale up renewable technologies as quickly as possible -- by any means necessary. And that is exactly what the Chinese are doing. According to Steven Lacey at Climate Progress, while world solar cell manufacturing capacity was only 100 MW in 2000, it is now 50,000 MW –- and China by itself accounts for 57 percent. But this puts Americans, including Lacey and other environmentalists, in a peculiar position. On the one hand, we desperately want more solar and other renewable technologies. But on the other hand, by scaling up so fast, the Chinese might wipe out the American solar panel industry. Instead of trying to stop the Chinese from doing what they are doing, the U.S. needs to learn from them.

The environmental community has tended to contradict itself when it comes to rolling out renewable technologies. On the one hand, leaders such as Al Gore and my personal favorite global visionary, Lester Brown, call for a World War II-style mobilization to quickly convert our civilization so that we can avert ecological calamity. But the means advocated, such as putting a price on carbon, are not up to the task. We can't afford to wait to see if the market will do what is necessary.

The Chinese are not putting a price on carbon. In fact, they won't even negotiate a target for how much carbon they will output by 2020 or any other date. But they are doing something much more important: They are showing the world how you scale up a technology with a World War II type of effort. Some call it “cheating,” but if this is cheating, let's have much more. What are the Chinese doing right?

First, China has a five-year plan. In the U.S., corporations have five-year plans, and so does the Department of Defense. But imagine a president giving a State of the Union address announcing such a plan. There would be cries of “socialism!” I say, socialism, shmocialism, whatever works. The longer the time range, the better. Congress is now debating a multi-year transportation bill; the same should be done for the entire energy sector.

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Second, many Chinese “banks," if you want to call them that, make money virtually free, and often don't even get their “loans” back. The government gives companies land –- which, by the way, Lincoln and the Republicans gave to railroads when obstructionist Southern Democrats were out of the way during the Civil War. Where would the U.S. be today if the railroad industry hadn't received a huge boost at the dawn of the industrial era, or if the Internet hadn't received a similar boost 100 years later?

Third, the Chinese import foreign technology and require foreign companies that set up factories in China to train Chinese engineers. Ever since the British tried to prohibit their engineers from traveling at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution so that Britain could maintain its dominance, other countries have been trying obtain -- or, as the originating country calls it, steal -- new technology. In a way this, is all part of a 1,000-year cycle, as the West gained many important technologies like the compass, printing, and gunpowder from the Chinese, who are now borrowing technology back.

Fourth, the Chinese are producing hundreds of thousands of engineers for their expanding manufacturing economy. Forty percent of the engineers in the U.S. are involved with manufacturing, according to a New York Times piece by Louis Uchitelle. Uchitelle reports that the Chinese manufacturing sector has either just grown larger than the American one or will shortly do so. As manufacturing declines here, it becomes much less attractive to have a career as an engineer. In China, on the other hand, being an engineer is a clear way to make it into the good life.

The point is not to idolize China. Far from it -- China is in a race to see whether it can switch to clean technologies before its dirty ones overwhelm its ecosystem and cause its economy to collapse, and its currency is much too low. But nations have always learned from other nations. Sometimes, the “teachers” cry “unfair!” when the “students” don't play by the rules. One hundred years ago, the British complained that the Americans were always copying their inventions.

But innovation is not simply a matter of technology; it is also a matter of policy. If something works, use it, even if it offends conventional wisdom. In fact, particularly if it offends conventional wisdom. That's what happened during the New Deal era of the 1930s, when the old policies were clearly failing and new ones had to be put in place (for instance, instead of tinkering with market rules in order to develop the Tennessee Valley, the TVA rebuilt the whole area). With global warming and other environmental problems, such as the end of cheap oil, threatening civilization, we need policy innovations even more than we need technological ones.

Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.

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The CFPB Stands Up to Banks' Overblown Financial Firepower

Sep 7, 2011Bryce Covert

Republicans claim that allowing Richard Cordray to head the CFPB imbues him with too much power, ignoring the immense influence on the other side of the equation.

This week's credit check: The 10 Republicans blocking Richard Cordray's nomination have received over $31 million in campaign cash from the financial sector. The median American family saw yearly earnings fall $5,261 over the past decade.

Republicans claim that allowing Richard Cordray to head the CFPB imbues him with too much power, ignoring the immense influence on the other side of the equation.

This week's credit check: The 10 Republicans blocking Richard Cordray's nomination have received over $31 million in campaign cash from the financial sector. The median American family saw yearly earnings fall $5,261 over the past decade.

The least remarkable part of yesterday's Senate Banking Committee hearing on Richard Cordray, President Obama's nominee to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), was Cordray's testimony itself. In fact, Republicans made it clear that his credentials are not what's up for debate. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) called a recent meeting with him "pleasant" and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) said he has a "good background." Rather, they want to debate whether his post should exist at all. Their reasoning? That having one person in charge of this new watchdog will imbue Cordray with far too much power. As Shelby put it, "No one person should have so much unfettered power over the American people."

But what of the power of the opposition, the banks themselves, who stand to have new oversight and regulation from someone on the side of the average consumer? If we're going to talk about power imbalances, we might want to look at what the financial sector can marshal against the American people. Elizabeth Warren herself, the originator of the idea for the CFPB, estimates that it will police a $3 trillion consumer financial services industry. And Wall Street, along with its other corporate counterparts, is doing pretty well compared to the rest of us. Corporate profits have taken in 88 percent of the raise in national income since the recovery began, while household incomes only took in 1 percent.

It's not just profits banks wield in this fight, however. That money can easily turn into lobbying and campaign contributions. As Ari Berman reported in June, "According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 156 groups -- the vast majority representing corporate interests -- lobbied the government about the CFPB in the second half of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011. The list ranged from JPMorgan Chase to McDonald's." The Chamber of Commerce even has an entire division devoted to fighting Dodd-Frank, and it spent $17 million on federal lobbying in the first quarter of this year with a dozen lobbyists focused on just the CFPB.

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Individual Republican Senators are also getting lavish gifts from the financial sector while opposing its newest regulator. The 10 Republican members of the Senate Banking Committee, who signed a letter to Obama in May demanding debilitating changes to the CFPB before any candidate can be confirmed, have received over $31 million in campaign cash from the financial sector during their time in Congress. Meanwhile, Sen. Shelby himself has taken $6.2 million from the financial sector, including about $1 million from commercial banks. His top career donors include JP Morgan ($140,771), Citigroup ($109,199), and Goldman Sachs ($67.600).

Compare all that financial firepower to what's going on for everyday Americans. A new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that nearly one in three Americans who grew up middle-class has fallen out of that group. It's not hard to see why so many people are moving down the ladder when wages have been heading in the same direction. While the financial sector is bringing in $3 trillion, the median American family saw yearly earnings fall $5,261 over the past decade, from $52,388 in 2000 to $47,127 in 2010.

Things are even worse for low-income families. Over the past 10 years, the percentage of children living in poverty has soared, increasing by 18 percent, or 2.4 million more, from 2000-2009. These children and their families are set to fall on even harder times, as states slash vital services to balance their budgets. They face the loss of unemployment benefits, income tax credits, and cash assistance, among other safety net supports.

Those who find themselves in such financial hardship have one place to turn when they can't make ends meet: debt. Credit card companies already employ a variety of tactics to entice middle-class families into debt and keep them there. But those tactics will be under strict scrutiny if the CFPB has its full powers. Low-income families often find themselves prey to unregulated non-banks like payday lenders and check cashers, but those will also come under the supervision of the Bureau.

The CFPB isn't taking on dictatorial powers. It's standing up to the formidable forces preying upon struggling American consumers.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.

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What’s “Perfect” About Perfect Competition? A Prosperous Economy Needs Innovators

Sep 1, 2011William Lazonick

workers-200In the latest installment of his “Breaking Through the Jobless Recovery” series, economist William Lazonick explains why pushing big corporations to transform their products is just what our economy needs.

workers-200In the latest installment of his “Breaking Through the Jobless Recovery” series, economist William Lazonick explains why pushing big corporations to transform their products is just what our economy needs.

To claim that something is "perfect" is to say that it cannot be done better. With the start of another academic year, hundreds of thousands of college students who take introductory microeconomics courses will learn from their professors that the best possible allocation of society's resources occurs when "perfect competition" characterizes the organization of industry.

It is a well worked out theory that has been around for over a century. Unfortunately, the theory of perfect competition is nonsensical when applied to an economy such as the United States, dominated as it is by large corporations. The theory of perfect competition enables economists to ignore the conditions under which, through innovation, business enterprises grow large and often come to dominate their industries. As a result, these economists lack a theory of how government policy should respond when the top executives of the large corporations, upon which we rely for our prosperity, fail to invest in innovation and job creation in the United States.

The theory of perfect competition can be found in any conventional economics textbook. In a nutshell, households, who work and consume, maximize "utility" (their satisfaction) in supplying paid labor services and capital (their savings) on input markets as well as in demanding goods and services on output markets. Firms, which buy inputs to produce outputs, maximize profits on the basis of cost structures -- a combination of technologies and input prices -- available to all firms that want to participate in the industry. "Perfect competition" is achieved when, in a particular industry, all firms have exactly the same cost structures and there are a sufficiently large number of these identical firms so that the output decision of any one firm has no discernible impact on the price at which its product is sold.

The basic problem with the theory of perfect competition is that as consumers and workers, not to mention as taxpayers, we want some firms in an industry to transform technologies to generate higher quality, lower cost products than their competitors. We do not want firms to maximize profits subject to given technological conditions. Firms that can achieve these technological transformations are innovative enterprises that drive a society's economic growth.

By creating new sources of value (embodied in higher quality, lower cost products), the innovative enterprise makes it possible (but by no means inevitable) that, simultaneously, all participants in the economy can share in the gains of innovation. Employees may get higher pay and better work conditions, creditors more secure paper, shareholders higher dividends and stock prices, governments more tax revenues, and the innovative firm a stronger balance sheet, even as consumers get higher quality, lower cost products. Indeed, from this perspective, a key issue for economic analysis is the relation between the generation of innovation and the distribution of its gains among participants in the economy.

There are countless examples of innovative enterprise in the history of the U.S. economy. Think of, to mention only a few prominent ones, General Electric's innovations in electrical power systems and light bulbs in the first decades of the 20th century, General Motors' closed car in the 1920s, Du Pont's nylon in the 1930s, Boeing and Douglas in the modern aircraft in the 1930s, RCA in television in the 1940s and 1950s, IBM in computers in the 1950s and 1960s, Intel in microprocessors in the 1970s and 1980s, Cisco Systems in Internet routers in the 1990s, Amazon in electronic retailing in the late 1990s and 2000s, Google in Internet search engines in the 2000s, and Apple in digital devices in the 2000s.

Today, many of these companies remain substantial resource allocators in the U.S. economy. They are innovative enterprises, not "perfect" competitors. To be sure, there are always small firms in the economy, but through innovation the best among them can quickly become very large. For a few well-known examples, Cisco Systems, founded in 1984, grew from 254 employees in 1990 to 34,000 in 2000; Amazon, founded in 1995, had 33,700 employees in 2010; while Google, founded in 1998, had 24,400 employees in 2010.

More generally, large corporations, some dating back to the 19th century, dominate the economy. In 2010, the top 500 U.S. corporations by revenues had combined sales of $10.8 trillion, profits of $702 billion, and employment of 24.9 million people worldwide. That's a per company average of $21.6 billion in sales, $1.4 billion in profits, and almost 50,000 employees. The operation and performance of these corporations, not "perfect competition," need to be at the center of economic analysis.

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That large corporations dominate the US economy is hardly news (except perhaps to the economics professors who write the conventional microeconomics texts). In 1977, business historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr. published a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, aptly entitled The Visible Hand, in which he documented that already by the beginning of the 1920s, the "managerial revolution in American business" was complete. The innovative investment strategies of these corporations drove the consumer durable boom of the 1920s. At the same time, sectors such as textiles, coal mining, and agriculture that were characterized by large numbers of perpetually small firms were known as "sick industries" precisely because of the inability of a few firms to set themselves apart from the rest through innovation.

Today, in my view, the greatest economic policy challenge is how to keep major business corporations innovative. Once they have become successful, the executives who run these mammoth companies may choose to allocate resources in ways that live off the past rather than invest for the future. Indeed, justified by the free market ideology of "maximizing shareholder value," in the United States we reward top executives with unindexed stock options that give them strong personal incentives to do massive stock buybacks to jack up their companies' stock prices even as they eschew investments in innovation.

Here's an example that has recently been in the news. Hewlett-Packard (HP), the world's largest information technology company and an icon of  U.S. business, announced that it intends to exit the personal computer industry, including the rapidly expanding smartphone and tablet segments. HP's top executives deem that the investments required to compete with the likes of Apple pose too great a burden on HP's cash flow. But that's because HP's executives decided to squander $11 billion on stock buybacks in 2010 and another $7.3 billion in the first half of 2011. During the same 18 months, HP spent only $4.6 billion on R&D, just 25 percent of what it forked out to manipulate its stock price through buybacks. Over the past decade, HP has wasted 118 percent of its net income on buybacks. HP was once a great technology company, but in the 2000s it expended only 4.2 percent of sales on R&D, compared with 7.6 percent in the 1990s and 10.5 percent in the 1980s. In 2010, HP's R&D as a percent of sales was a meager 2.3 percent, the lowest in the company's 62-year history.

What determines whether a company invests for the future or lives off the past? Our college students won't find any answers to this crucial question in the conventional economics textbooks. In a world of "perfect competition," there is no room for innovative enterprise. By the same token, the textbooks make the pretense of analyzing "big business" through the theory of monopoly, put forth as the proof of the superiority of perfect competition. The argument is that compared with perfect competition, a firm that has a monopoly restricts output and raises prices to consumers.

To get this result, however, it is assumed that the monopolist firm maximizes profits subject to the same cost functions as perfectly competitive firms. This comparison entails an amazing leap of illogic, ironic for an academic profession that claims to be rigorously scientific: If it is possible for perfectly competitive firms to exist, how did the monopolist get to be a monopolist?

In contrast, in the theory of innovative enterprise a firm can become dominant by transforming its cost structures, gaining competitive advantage over firms that do not. In the process, the innovating firm generally contributes to an expansion of industry output and a reduction of product prices -- just the opposite of what the textbook theory of monopoly predicts.

That the illogical argument of the superiority of "perfect" competition has been ensconced in the microeconomics textbooks for over six decades attests to the failure of orthodox economists to come to grips with an economy dominated by large corporations. Applied to such an economy -- and the United States has been one for over a century -- perfect competition is perfect nonsense.

What then accounts for the persistence of the theory of perfect competition as a linchpin of economics erudition? In brief, there are two mutually reinforcing explanations for what I have called "the myth of the market economy": the ignorance among economists about how the actual economy functions and the ideology that "free markets" can solve all our economic problems. It is about time that we got rid of both.

William Lazonick is director of the UMass Center for Industrial Competitiveness and president of The Academic-Industry Research Network. His book, Sustainable Prosperity in the New Economy? Business Organization and High-Tech Employment in the United States (Upjohn Institute 2009) was awarded the 2010 Schumpeter Prize.

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