Archives: 05/2015

When Billionaires Play Politics (As Is Their Right), Pundits Can Criticize Them

Free speech can get awfully expensive when billionaires are involved. Just ask the International Crisis Group, a charity that seeks to prevent war and related atrocities by monitoring conditions in the world’s most dangerous regions.

In 2003, ICG published a report on the political and social climate of Serbia following the assassination of Zoran Đinđić, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister after the fall of Slobodan Milošević. One of the issues noted there was the concern of “average Serbs” that powerful businesses were still benefiting from corrupt regulatory arrangements that dated back to the Milošević regime.

One of several oligarchs mentioned was Milan Jankovic, who also goes by the name Philip Zepter. With an estimated net worth of $5 billion, Jankovic is widely believed to be the richest Serb (and one of the 300 wealthiest men in the world). His holdings include Zepter International, which sells billions of dollars of cookware each year and has more than 130,000 employees.

One might think that a man responsible for running a vast business empire would have better things to do than suing a charity, but you’d be wrong. For the last decade, Jankovic has hounded ICG, relentlessly pressing a defamation suit, first in Europe and now in the United States. After 10 years of litigation, the case finally comes down to a single question: Is Milan Jankovic a public figure?

The Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment’s protection of speech (and political criticism) requires libel plaintiffs who are public figures—like politicians and celebrities—to show that potentially defamatory statements were not only false but also published with “actual malice.” Under this standard, the defendant must have actually known that the statements were false; a negligent misstatement or the innocent repetition of another’s falsehood isn’t enough.

In an amicus brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Cato, along with a diverse group of organizations including the Brookings Institution, Council on Foreign Relations, and PEN American Center, argues that while Jankovic is not a politician or other government official, he should still be treated as a public figure for the purpose of this case.

Under the “limited public figure” doctrine, the Supreme Court holds that private citizens become public figures when they “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” As we argue, Jankovic is in his own words one of Serbia’s most powerful and influential citizens, whose vast wealth and political connections gives him a near-unparalleled ability to shape the outcome of public debates. What’s more, Jankovic has played an active role in Serbian politics. He describes himself as one of the men responsible for overthrowing Milošević, and he once hired American lobbyists to represent the Serbian government in Washington. He’s even rumored to have used his own money to fund the government during a budget crisis!

In short, Jankovic is the very definition of a public figure—and criticism of public figures, whether they be elected officials like Frank Underwood or shadowy powerbrokers like Raymond Tusk, must be privileged. Unless the weakest are free to criticize the most powerful, democracy is nothing but a house of cards.

The D.C. Circuit will hear argument in Jankovic v. International Crisis Group later this spring or summer.

Lessons from the Ayr Bank Failure

One consequence of the financial crisis of 2008-09 has been renewed interest in the merits of contingent convertible debt as a mechanism for equity bail-ins at moments of acute financial distress. Should it fail, a financial institution’s contingent bonds are automatically converted into equity shares. History suggests that convertible debt can help to preserve financial stability by limiting the spillover effects of individual financial institution failures.

A particularly revealing historical illustration of this advantage of contingent debt comes from the Scottish free banking era. From 1716 to 1845, the Scottish financial system functioned with no official central bank or lender of last resort, no public (or private) monopoly on currency issuance, no legal reserve or capital requirements, and no formal limits on bank size, at a time when Scotland’s was a classic emerging economy with large speculative capital flows, a fixed exchange rate, and substantial external debt. Despite this, Scotland’s banking sector survived many major shocks, including two severe balance of payments crises arising from political disturbances during the Seven Years’ War.

The stability of the Scottish banking system depended in part on the use it made of voluntary contingent liability arrangements. Until the practice was prohibited in 1765, some Scottish banks included an “optional clause” on their larger-denomination notes. The clause allowed the banks’ directors to convert the notes into short-term, interest-bearing bonds. Although the clause was seldom invoked, it was successfully employed as a means for preventing large-scale exchange rate speculators from draining the Scottish banks’ specie reserves and remitting them to London during war-related balance of payments crises–that is, as a private and voluntary alternative to government-imposed capital controls.

Contingent debt also helped to make Scottish bank failures less costly and disruptive. If an unlimited liability Scottish bank failed, its shorter-term creditors were again sometimes converted into bondholders, while its shareholders were liable for its debts to the full extent of their personal wealth. Although the Scottish system lacked a lender of last resort, the unlimited liability of shareholders in bankrupt Scottish banks served as a substitute, with sequestration of shareholders’ personal estates serving to “bail them in” beyond their subscribed capital. The issuance of tradeable bonds to short-term creditors, secured by mortgages to shareholders’ estates, served in turn to limit bank counter-parties’ exposure to losses, keeping credit flowing despite adverse shocks.

A particularly fascinating illustration of how such devices worked came with the spectacular collapse in June 1772 of the large Scottish banking firm of Douglas, Heron & Co., better known as the Ayr (or Air) Bank, after the parish where its head office was located. The Ayr collapsed when the failure of a London bond dealer in Scottish bonds caused its creditors to panic. The creditors doubted that the bank could could meet liabilities that, thanks to its reckless lending, had ballooned to almost £1.3 million. The disruption of Scottish credit ended quickly, however, when the Ayr’s partners resorted to a £500,000 bond issue, secured by £3,000,000 in mortgages upon their often vast personal estates—including several dukedoms. By this means the Ayr Bank managed to satisfy creditors, at 5% interest, as the Ayr’s assets, together with those of its partners, were gradually liquidated. In modern parlance, the Ayr Bank had been transformed into a “bad bank,” whose sole function was to gradually work off its assets and repay creditors while the immense landed wealth of its proprietors’ personal estates provided a financial backstop. Creditors were thus temporarily satisfied with fully secured, negotiable bonds, which were eventually redeemed in full, with interest.

We are unlikely today to witness a return to unlimited liability for financial institution shareholders. The extensive and effective use of contingent liability contracts during the Scottish free banking episode nevertheless offers important evidence concerning private market devices for limiting the disruptive consequences of financial-market crises. When compared to the contemporary practice of public socialization of loss through financial bail-outs, such private market alternatives appear to deserve serious consideration. Most importantly, perhaps, by encouraging closer monitoring of financial institutions by contingently liable creditors and equity holders, these private alternatives appear, in the Scottish case at least, not only to have made crises less severe, but also to have made them far less common.

This post is based on Tyler Goodspeed’s doctoral dissertation, a revised version of which is under consideration at Harvard University Press under the title Legislating Instability: Adam Smith, Free Banking, and the Financial Crisis of 1772.

Universal Savings Accounts (USAs)

My op-ed today at The Federalist discusses exciting developments in Canada and Britain regarding personal savings. Both nations have implemented universal savings vehicles of the type I proposed with Ernest Christian back in 2002. The vehicles have been a roaring success in Canada and Britain, and both countries have recently expanded them.

In Canada, the government’s new budget increased the annual contribution limit on Tax-Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs) from $5,500 to $10,000. In Britain, the annual contribution limit on Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs) was recently increased to 15,240 pounds (about $23,000). TFSAs and ISAs are impressive reforms—they are pro-growth, pro-family, and pro-freedom.

America should create a version of these accounts, which Christian and I dubbed Universal Savings Accounts (USAs). As with Roth IRAs, individuals would contribute to USAs with after-tax income, and then earnings and withdrawals would be tax-free. With USAs, withdrawals could be made at any time for any reason.

Capital Unbound: The Cato Summit on Financial Regulation

Community chestInterested in how to advance economic growth? Join the Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives in New York on June 2nd for a day examining the current state of U.S. capital markets regulation at Capital Unbound: The Cato Summit on Financial Regulation.

We’ve assembled an impressive list of distinguished speakers to discuss efficient capital markets and offer proposals to unleash a new engine of American economic growth.

Our lineup includes such notables as Commissioner of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission J. Christopher Giancarlo, Commissioner of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Michael Piwowar, and our very own CMFA Director George Selgin.

The speakers will explore a wide variety of topics, including alternative vehicles for small business capital, the failure of mathematical modeling, and alternative solutions to monetary and financial instability.

Click here for the full schedule and to register for the event. We hope to see you in New York on June 2nd!

U.S. Should Avoid Ukraine Fight

The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is under strain as Kiev presses the West for more financial and military aid. Americans’ sympathies should go to both Ukrainians and Russians suffering in Vladimir Putin’s deadly geopolitical games, but Washington should stay out of the battle.

Putin obviously bears immediate responsibility for the conflict. However, Washington and Brussels consistently disregarded Russian security interests.

That still didn’t justify Putin’s actions and the results have been a horror for many Ukrainians, though Kiev’s military and nationalist militias have contributed to the unnecessary carnage. However, Moscow views the war less about expanding Russia’s “empire” than about protecting Russia from America’s expanding “empire.”

The U.S. should not intervene and treat Moscow as an adversary. To the contrary, Washington should stay out of the conflict and maintain a passable relationship with Russia.

Nike, Trade, and the Left’s “Race to the Bottom” Canard

To capitalism’s detractors, Nike symbolizes the Dickensian horrors of trade and globalization – a world ripened for mass exploitation of workers and the environment for the impious purpose of padding the bottom line. They are offended by President Obama’s selection of Nike headquarters as the setting for his speech, last week, in which he touted the benefits of the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. But Nike exemplifies the redeeming virtues of globalization and illustrates how self-interested capitalism satisfies popular demands – including, even, the demands of its detractors.

Fealty to the reviled bottom line incentivizes companies like Nike to deliver, in a sustainable manner, what those genuinely concerned about development claim to want. U.S. and other Western investments in developing-country manufacturing and assembly operations tend to raise local labor, environmental, and product safety standards. Western companies usually offer higher wages than the local average to attract the best workers, which can reduce the total cost of labor through higher productivity and lower employee turnover. Western companies often use production technologies and techniques that meet higher standards and bring best practices that are emulated by local firms, leading to improvements in working conditions, environmental outcomes, and product safety.

Perhaps most significantly, companies like Nike are understandably protective of their brands, which are usually their most valuable assets. In an age when people increasingly demand social accountability as an attribute of the products and services they consume, mere allegations – let alone confirmed instances – of labor abuses, safety violations, tainted products, environmental degradation, and other objectionable practices can quickly degrade or destroy a brand. Western brands have every incentive to find scrupulous supply chain partners and even to submit to third party verifications of the veracity of all sorts of practices in developing countries because the verdict of the marketplace can be swift and unambiguous.

Nike remembers the boycotts and the profit losses it endured on account of global reactions to its association with “sweatshop” working conditions in the past. Mattel’s bottom line took a beating when some of its toys manufactured in certain Chinese factories were found to contain dangerous levels of lead paint. There have been numerous examples of lax oversight and wanting conditions, but increasingly they are becoming the exception and not the rule.

You Ought to Have a Look: Competing Theories for Source of Bias in Scientific Research

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.


Two papers were announced this week that sought to examine the sources of bias in the scientific literature. They could not be more starkly opposed.

First off is a doozy of a new paper by Stephan Lewandowsky, Naomi Oreskes and colleagues that complains that skeptical viewpoints are disproportionately influencing the science of climate change. Recall that Lewandowsky and Oreskes are quixotic climate change denialslayers—conspiracy theorists of somewhat ill-repute.

According to a story in Science Daily (the Lewandowsky et al. paper was not available at the time of this writing) Lewandowsky and Oreskes argue that:

Climate change denial in public discourse may encourage climate scientists to over-emphasize scientific uncertainty and is also affecting how they themselves speak – and perhaps even think – about their own research.

Lewandowsky and Oreskes fret:

The idea that ‘global warming has stopped’ has been promoted in contrarian blogs and media articles for many years, and ultimately the idea of a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’ has become ensconced in the scientific literature, including in the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Science Daily article continues:

Recent warming has been slower than the long term trend, but this fluctuation differs little from past fluctuations in warming rate, including past periods of more rapid than average warming. Crucially, on previous occasions when decadal warming was particularly rapid, the scientific community did not give short-term climate variability the attention it has now received, when decadal warming was slower. During earlier rapid warming there was no additional research effort directed at explaining ‘catastrophic’ warming. By contrast, the recent modest decrease in the rate of warming has elicited numerous articles and special issues of leading journals.

This asymmetry in response to fluctuations in the decadal warming trend likely reflects what the study’s authors call the ‘seepage’ of contrarian claims into scientific work.