Archives: 03/2009

Slow Learners in Corporate America

They just figured this out? During the bruhaha surrounding bonuses paid by AIG,  reports the Washington Post:

The attack by lawmakers on AIG pay has provoked renewed complaints from some financial company executives that federal involvement in business decisions is making it difficult for struggling firms to return to profitability. In particular, executives say they need to offer bonuses to keep and motivate their most valuable employees and are already seeing an exodus of talent.

Duh, how could anyone in business not expect federal interference?  The government constantly meddles even when it is not bailing out everyone hither and yon.  But if it’s paying the corporate bills, how could anyone expect it not to get involved?

I have a novel idea.  Maybe business should stop going to Uncle Sam hat-in-hand asking for taxpayer alms.

Who’s Going to Buy All the U.S. Treasuries?

With Uncle Sam having to sell trillions of dollars worth of treasuries to finance all of the bailouts, stimuli, and normal wasteful spending, no one is sure whether foreign demand will continue.  The Chinese have bluntly questioned the safety of their U.S. holdings, and foreign demand has fallen in recent months.  Writes Brad Setser:

I wanted to highlight one trend that I glossed over on Monday, namely that foreign demand for long-term Treasuries has disappeared over the last few months. Consider a chart showing foreign purchases of long-term Treasuries over the past 3 months. Incidentally, the split between private and official purchases in this data should largely be ignored. The revised (i.e. post-survey) data generally have attributed nearly all the flow from 2003 to the official sector.

The rolling 3m sum bounces around a bit, but foreign demand for long-term Treasuries in November, December and January was as subdued as it has been for a long-time. Among other things, that fall in foreign demand for long-term Treasuries after October suggests — at least to me — that the big Treasury rally late last year (and subsequent sell-off this year) doesn’t seem to have been driven by external flows. Foreigners weren’t big buyers of long-term Treasuries back when ten year Treasury yields fell to around 2%.

It’s difficult to accurately predict future demand.  But U.S. borrowing will be truly staggering in coming years.  If international demand is down, the Treasury will have to rely on American investors.  Whether the domestic market can easily absorb so much debt – and particularly, to what extent federal debt offerings will crowd out private investment during what we hope will be a recovery – are questions that our spendthrift leaders have not bothered trying to answer.

American Prospect Strikes Mother Lode of Falsehood

Dana Goldstein of the American Prospect blogs that “research clearly shows that students using vouchers perform no better academically than their socio-economically similar peers in public schools.” This is flamboyantly false.

I recently reviewed the literature comparing public, private, and truly free market school systems, and an expanded version of that study is forthcoming in the Journal of School Choice. The JSC version tabulates the findings of 65 scientific studies (including every U.S. and foreign voucher study I am aware of), collectively reporting 156 comparisons of educational outcomes. What does the research “clearly show”? It shows this:

Summary of Findings Comparing Private and Government Schooling,
by Result and Outcome Category

 

Total

Ach

Eff

Sat

Ord

Fac

Ear

Att

Int

Sig Priv. Advantage

106

46

25

11

5

2

5

11

1

Insignificant

37

28

1

0

0

0

5

3

0

Sig. Gov’t Adv.

13

10

3

0

0

0

0

0

0

 

The above table summarizes the results of the scientific literature, showing the number of findings favoring the private sector by a statistically significant margin, the number that are insignificant, and the number favoring the public sector by a statistically significant margin. It does this for all eight available outcome measures: academic achievement, efficiency (achievement per dollar spent per pupil), parental satisfaction, the orderliness of classrooms, the condition in which facilities are maintained, the later earnings of graduates, the highest school grade or degree completed, and effect on measured intelligence. And it incontrovertably shows that private sector outperforms the public sector in education across all of those measures.

But there’s more. As I note in the conclusion: “It is in fact the least regulated market school systems that show the greatest margin of superiority over state schooling.” When the above results are winnowed down so that we compare only free markets of private schools that are funded at least in part directly by parents to public school monopolies like those of the United States, the findings are even more starkly divided:

Summary of Findings Comparing Market and Gov’t Monopoly Schooling,
by Result and Outcome Category

 

Total

Ach

Eff

Sat

Ord

Fac

Ear

Att

Sig Mkt Adv.

59

20

17

6

4

1

3

8

Insignificant

13

7

0

0

0

0

3

3

Sig. Gov’t Adv.

4

4

0

0

0

0

0

0

 

Note the staggering overall results. Findings favoring free market school systems outnumber contrary findings by a margin of 15 to 1. They also outnumber the combined insignificant findings and the findings favoring monopolies by more than 3 to 1. Most tellingly, when we look at efficiency we find that there are NO results in the literature that favor government schooling and NO results that are statistically insignificant. EVERY study that compares academic achievement per dollar spent per pupil between market school systems and public school systems finds a significant market advantage.

Goldstein and The American Prospect should obviously print a retraction. But if they are interested in the truth, they might want to do something more. They might want to ask themselves why they continue to cling to a monopoly system that has been overwhelmingly discredited in the scientific literature….

Tuesday Podcast: “Labor Relations, Collective Choice and ‘Card Check”’

Congress introduced the “Employee Free Choice Act” last week, which would end the secret ballot system currently in place for workers who vote on whether to start a union.

The bill could have disastrous effects on companies and would throw another wrench in U.S. labor relations, says University of Chicago law Professor and Cato Adjunct Scholar Richard A. Epstein in Tuesday’s Cato Daily Podcast:

It would be a major transformation of the American labor force, all for the worse as far as I’m concerned. Because it would mean that the monopoly model of the labor statutes that were intro under the Wagner Act would now become gov policy to the extent that a card check could allow a union essentially to contain partial ownership rights over the management and prerogatives of the firm.

A worse piece of legislation I cannot imagine, with respect to this field.

Epstein offers a more detailed look at the card-check legislation in the Spring issue of Cato’s magazine Regulation, which will be released March 26.

Oh C’mon, NYT!

C@L readers know that I’m a fan of the NY Times’s news and business reporting. If you want depth and detail (especially today, when papers increasingly read like Tweets), the NYT’s news coverage is about as good as it gets.

The opinion page, sadly, is another matter.

Case in point, last Friday’s lead editorial chastising Japan and Europe for not adopting large fiscal stimulus plans. The lede:

The world economy has plunged into what is likely to be the most brutal recession since the 1930s, yet policy makers in Europe and Japan seem to believe there are more important things for them to do than to try to dig the world, including themselves, out.

That’s actually OK — the editorial board is free to believe (and espouse) that massive fiscal stimulus is the best policy for dealing with the current recession. But to use an old saying, they’re entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Ignoring that admonition, the ed led off its final graf with this howler:

In a recent speech, Christina Romer, another of President Obama’s economic advisers, pointed out some lessons [sic] from the Great Depression: fiscal stimulus works.

If you follow the economic history literature, this is a stunner; some of Romer’s most important academic work demonstrates the opposite, namely that fiscal stimulus did little to get the United States out of the Depression [$] and subsequent U.S. recessions [$]. Has she rejected her own findings?

I tracked down the speech transcript and found out that, nope, she hasn’t; in fact, she was explicit that “fiscal policy was not the key engine of recovery in the Depression.”

Romer did go on to say that she strongly supports the Obama stimulus plan, believing it will be effective and worthwhile. But this belief is rooted in one school of economic thought (or ideology, to borrow from NYT columnist Paul Krugman), not history. Whatever the merits of Romer’s belief, the NYT’s line about the Depression proving that “fiscal stimulus works” is just plain horseradish.

In recent years, the NYT editorial board has repeatedly chastised non-progressives, claiming they put ideology over objective fact. Will the ed board scold itself?

The Subway Business Administration

Yesterday, President Obama announced a government initiative to help small businesses, largely through the Small Business Administration (SBA). But more on that in a bit…

A February 24th Wall Street Journal article discussed the fact that defaults of SBA-backed loans to franchisees at 500 franchises went up 52% in fiscal year 2008. Loan losses went up 167%. Sure, the economy isn’t doing too hot right now. What grabs my attention is the fact that taxpayers are backing loans to business operations like Subway, Domino’s Pizza, and Planet Beach tanning salons. Is capitalism in this country so incapable, recession or not, that the government needs to ensure an adequate supply of credit to sandwich shops? Tanning salons? A recent headline on MSNBC.com reads, “In many cities, tanning salons exceed Starbucks.”

The Journal reported that in the last eight years 42% of SBA-backed loans to Cornwell Quality Tools Co. franchisees went into default. Yet, Cornwell’s CEO says that it opened 127 new franchisees last year and indicated that “relatively few used SBA lending to enter the business,” according to the article. Proponents of the SBA argue that the agency is needed to help businesses that are unable to obtain credit or financing through traditional channels. What this story shows is there’s obviously a very good reason why these businesses couldn’t obtain private financing. It also shows that, in the case of Cornwell, there’s no “need” to have taxpayers backing loans to its franchisees when so many are opening up without such help.

Is it even true that small businesses are generally so unable to obtain credit that the government must fill the void? According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Between October 2006 and March 2008, SBA determined that 31 of the 97 lenders reviewed had failed to consistently document that borrowers met the credit elsewhere requirement or personal resources test.” In other words, a third of the borrows didn’t prove they couldn’t obtain money elsewhere. Moreover, the GAO says, “we found that lenders evaluate a borrower’s ability to obtain credit elsewhere on reasonable terms against their own conventional lending policies.” That litmus test hardly provides proof that deserving small businesses are being left out in the cold. The reality is that the SBA-backs loans to small businesses that could have obtained credit through private means – or shouldn’t have been loaned money in the first place.

Cato adjunct scholar, Dr. Veronique de Rugy, has found that “no more than 1 percent of [all] small business loans each year are SBA loans. The private sector finances most loans without government guarantee and, hence, the SBA is largely irrelevant in the capital market.” Moreover, because SBA financed loans have below market rates, small businesses who aren’t subsidized by the government are placed at a competitive disadvantage. Table 3 of de Rugy’s study for Regulation magazine (download article here and go to pdf page 7), lays bare the SBA’s irrelevance, and the competitive disadvantage the vast majority of small businesses face because of the agency’s subsidies.

The table shows the top 25 industries receiving SBA 7(a) loans for fy2002. At the top of the list are full-service restaurants, with limited-service eating places in second, and automotive repair and maintenance in third. The SBA loan ratio (SBA loans divided by total number of small business establishments in the industry) for the top three, are 1.5%, 1.2%, and 0.6%. The ratio for the top 25 industries was 0.3%; the ratio for all industries was 0.2%. I’m not a math whiz, but less than 1% isn’t very much.

Let’s circle back to the President’s announcement…

First, the President said the U.S. Treasury “will begin making direct purchases of securities backed by [Small Business Administration] loans to get the credit market moving again, and it will stand ready to purchase new securities to ensure that community banks and credit unions feel confident in extending new loans to local businesses.” That idea sounds kind of familiar to me. Oh, right.

Second, the President said “These purchases, combined with higher loan guarantees and reduced fees, will help provide lenders with the confidence that they need to extend credit, knowing they both have a backstop against their risk and a source of liquidity.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Obama’s plan, aimed at helping troubled small businesses, will increase that guarantee to as much as 90% of a loan. The plan also will temporarily eliminate many of the loan fees that help pay for the program and cover potential defaults.”

It’s this second part that should be particularly galling to regular taxpayers and the vast majority of small businesses dealing with subsidized competitors. The President mentions some temporary tax breaks, but as Raymond Keating, chief economist at the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, told the Journal, “the Obama administration would accomplish much more in terms of boosting confidence and getting the economy moving by, at the very least, moving away from imposing higher personal income, capital gains, dividend and estate taxes on investors and business owners.” Additionally, a small business owner writing in Slate, in a piece entitled “Why Small Business Hates the Taxman,” says that what rankles a lot of small businesses is “the sheer hassle of compliance with the tax laws and the complete loss of control you feel when dealing with the government.”

Instead, the administration’s idea of helping small businesses is perpetuating the same moral hazzards that has the government already bailing out reckless private interests to the tune of trillions of dollars in current and future taxpayer dollars. This is change we can believe in? Unbelievable.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a list of bloggers who wrote about Cato this week:

  • Freedom Politics linked to Andrew J. Coulson’s blog post that notes the lack of media coverage of injustice in education.

If you’re blogging about Cato, contact Chris Moody at cmoody [at] cato [dot] org (subject: blogging%20about%20Cato) .