Tag: market

Why Wall Street Loves Obama

wall streetWas it just me, or did there seem to be a whole lot of applause during Obama’s Wall Street speech?  Remember this was a room full of Wall Street executives.  The President even started by thanking the Wall Street execs for their “warm welcome.”

While of course, there was the obligatory slap on the wrist, that “we will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess,” but there was no mention that the bailouts were a thing of the past.  Indeed, there is nothing in Obama’s financial plan that would prevent future bailouts, which is why I believe there was such applause.  The message to the Goldman’s of the world, was, you better behave, but even if you don’t, you, and your debtholders will be bailed out.

The president also repeatedly called for “clear rules” and “transparency” - but where exactly in his plan is the clear line dividing who will or will not be bailed out?  That’s the part Wall Street loves the most; they can all say we’ve “learned the lesson of Lehman:  Wall Street firms cannot be allowed to fail.”  At least that’s the lesson that Obama, Geithner and Bernanke have taken away.  The truth is we’ve been down this road before with Fannie and Freddie.  Politicians always called for them to do their part, and that their misdeeds would not be tolerated.  Remember all the tough talk after the 2003 and 2004 accounting scandals at Freddie and Fannie?  But still they got bailed out, and what new regulations were imposed were weak and ineffective.

As if the applause wasn’t enough, as Charles Gaspario points out, financial stocks rallied after the president’s speech.  Clearly the markets don’t see his plan as bad for the financial industry.

It would seem the best investment Goldman has made in recent years was in its employees deciding to become the largest single corporate contributor to the Obama Presidential campaign.  That’s an investment that continues to yield massive dividends.

Actually, Big Mistakes Are to Be Expected…

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has a helpful column on the WaPo’s “Answer Sheet” blog. In it, he notes that DC Public Schools advises its employees to teach to students’ ”diverse learning styles” (e.g. “auditory learners,” “visual learners,” etc.) despite the fact that research shows these categories are pedagogically meaningless.

But what really grabbed my attention was this comment: “a misunderstanding of a pretty basic issue of cognition is a mistake that one does not expect from a major school system. It indicates that the people running the show at DCPS are getting bad advice about the science on which to base policy.”

As cognitive scientists have been collecting and analyzing evidence on “learning styles” for generations, social scientists and education historians been doing the same for school systems. What these latter groups find is that it is perfectly normal for public school districts to be unaware of or even indifferent to relevant research and to make major pedagogical errors as a result. Furthermore, there is no evidence that large districts are any better at avoiding these pitfalls than smaller ones. If anything, the reverse is true.

Not only are such errors to be expected of public school systems, we can actually say why that is the case with a good degree of confidence: public schooling lacks the freedoms and incentives that, in other fields, both allow and encourage institutions to acquire and effectively exploit expert knowledge.

Districts such as Washington DC can persist year after year with abysmal test scores, abysmal graduation rates, and astronomical costs. That is because they have a monopoly on a vast trove of  government k-12 spending. In the free enterprise system, behavior like that usually results in the failure of a business and its disappearance from the marketplace. So, in the free enterprise sector, it is indeed rare to see large institutions behaving in such a dysfunctional manner, because it would be difficult if not impossible for them to grow that big in the first place. Long before they could scale up on that level, they would lose their customers to more efficient, higher quality competitors.

So if we want to see the adoption and effective implementation of the best research become the norm in education, we have to organize schooling the same way we organize other fields: as a parent-driven competitive marketplace.

The Legacy of TARP: Crony Capitalism

When Treasury Secretary Hank Paul proposed the bailout of Wall Street banks last September, I objected in part because the TARP meant that government connections, not economic merit, would come to determine how capital gets allocated in the economy. That prediction now looks dead on:

As financial firms navigate a life more closely connected to government aid and oversight than ever before, they increasingly turn to Washington, closing a chasm that was previously far greater than the 228 miles separating the nation’s political and financial capitals.

In the year since the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, paralyzing global markets and triggering one of the biggest government forays into the economy in U.S. history, Wall Street has looked south to forge new business strategies, hew to new federal policies and find new talent.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well… . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Read the rest of the article; it is truly frightening. We have taken a huge leap toward crony capitalism, to our peril.

Mr. President, Here Is Our Answer

President Obama continues to portray the debate over health care reform as a choice between his plan for a massive government-takeover of the US healthcare system and “doing nothing.”  Those who oppose his plan are said to be “obstructionist” or in favor of the status-quo.  Yesterday, the President again said, “I’ve got a question for all those folks [who oppose his plan]: What are you going to do? What’s your answer? What’s your solution?”

Well, I can’t speak for all his critics, but the Cato Institute has a long record of supporting health care reform based on free-markets and competition.  If the President wanted to know more he might have read my recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times or Michael Cannon’s piece in Investors Business Daily.  He could have read our book, Healthy Competition.  Or he might have just gone to healthcare.cato.org and read our plan:

  • Let individuals control their health care dollars, and free them to choose from a wide variety of health plans and providers.
  • Move away from a health care system dominated by employer-provided health insurance. Health insurance should be personal and portable, controlled by individuals themselves rather than government or an employer. Employment-based insurance hides much of the true cost of health care to consumers, thereby encouraging over-consumption. It also limits consumer choice, since employers get final say over what type of insurance a worker will receive. It means people who don’t receive insurance through work are put at a significant and costly disadvantage. And, of course, it means that if you lose your job, you are likely to end up uninsured as well.
  • Changing from employer to individual insurance requires changing the tax treatment of health insurance. The current system excludes the value of employer-provided insurance from a worker’s taxable income. However, a worker purchasing health insurance on their own must do so with after-tax dollars. This provides a significant tilt towards employer-provided insurance, which should be reversed. Workers should receive a standard deduction, a tax credit, or, better still, large Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)  for the purchase of health insurance, regardless of whether they receive it through their job or purchase it on their own.
  • We need to increase competition among both insurers and health providers. People should be allowed to purchase health insurance across state lines. One study estimated that that adjustment alone could cover 17 million uninsured Americans without costing taxpayers a dime.
  • We also need to rethink medical licensing laws to encourage greater competition among providers. Nurse practitioners, physician assistants, midwives, and other non-physician practitioners should have far greater ability to treat patients. Doctors and other health professionals should be able to take their licenses from state to state.   We should also be encouraging innovations in delivery such as medical clinics in retail outlets.
  • Congress should give Medicare enrollees a voucher, let them choose any health plan on the market, and let them keep the savings if they choose an economical plan. Medicare could even give larger vouchers to the poor and sick to ensure they could afford coverage.
  • The expansion of “health status insurance” would protect many of those with preexisting conditions. States may also wish to experiment with high risk pools to ensure coverage for those with high cost medical conditions.

Mr. President, the ball is back in your court.

Housing Bailouts: Lessons Not Learned

The housing boom and bust that occurred earlier in this decade resulted from efforts by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the government sponsored enterprises with implicit backing from taxpayers — to extend mortgage credit to high-risk borrowers. This lending did not impose appropriate conditions on borrower income and assets, and it included loans with minimal down payments. We know how that turned out.

Did U.S. policymakers learn their lessons from this debacle and stop subsidizing mortgage lending to risky borrowers? NO. Instead, the Federal Housing Authority lept into the breach:

The FHA insures private lenders against defaults on certain home mortgages, an inducement to make such loans. Insurance from the New Deal-era agency has enabled lending to buyers who can’t make a big down payment or who want to refinance but have little equity. Most private lenders have sharply curtailed credit to those borrowers.

In the past two years, the number of loans insured by the FHA has soared and its market share reached 23% in the second quarter, up from 2.7% in 2006, according to Inside Mortgage Finance. FHA-backed loans outstanding totaled $429 billion in fiscal 2008, a number projected to hit $627 billion this year.

And what is the result of this surge in FHA insurance?

The Federal Housing Administration, hit by increasing mortgage-related losses, is in danger of seeing its reserves fall below the level demanded by Congress, according to government officials, in a development that could raise concerns about whether the agency needs a taxpayer bailout.

This is madness. Repeat after me: TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch).

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z

FTC to Protect Us from Multi-Colored Beer Cans

bud lightRecently Anheuser-Busch  hit upon the marketing idea of selling Bud Light beer in cans decorated with the college-team colors.  As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn’t have much else to do - it’s not like there’s been say fraud going on in the mortgage market - it quickly turned its attention to the issue, expressing “grave concern” that these team-colored cans would encourage underage and binge drinking.

As quoted in the Wall Street Journal,  FTC attorney Janet Evans said “this does not appear to be responsible activity.”  What’s not responsible is the FTC wasting taxpayer resources wondering what color beer cans we are drinking out of.  When I was an underage drinker, the last thing on my mind was the color of the can.  The ultimate purpose of the marketing campaign is to shift demand away from boring, non-team color beer cans toward team color cans.  If beer drinkers (or can collectors) get some pleasure out of a certain colored can, where’s the fraud or deception in that?

The real purpose of FTC’s interest is revealed in the comments of the Licensing Resource Group, which represents the colleges in protecting their logos.  Almost all the colleges that have asked Anheuser-Busch to stop selling the cans have cited trademark concerns.  Yet none of the cans have any team logos.  While no one would dispute the right of a college to control the use of its team logo, is it really reasonable to conclude that the colleges also own the rights to the use of certain colors?

Federal Pay: Response to the Critics

My post yesterday on federal worker pay generated a large and aggressive response from federal workers, both in my inbox and on websites such as Fedsmith.com. (See also Federal Times and Govexec). Here are four points raised in criticism:

First, people accuse me of producing distorted data somehow. Actually, it’s essentially just raw Bureau of Economic Analysis data, but the data is usually overlooked by the media because I don’t think the BEA puts out a press release on it. Anyway, the average wage data is from BEA Table 6.6D. The average compensation data is simply total compensation (Table 6.2D) divided by the number of workers (Table 6.5D).

Second, people argue that reporting overall averages for wages and compensation is somehow illegitimate. People email me comments like “my federal salary is only $50,000, yet you claim that federal workers make $79,000.” All I can say to folks like this is that there must be a federal worker out there making $108,000 who balances you off.

Third, people argue that a better analysis would be to compare similar jobs in the private and public sectors, rather than looking at overall averages. I agree that that would be very useful. Unfortunately, the BEA data is not broken down that way. At the same time, the BEA data provides the most comprehensive accounting for the value of employee benefits of any data source. Benefits are a very important part of federal compensation, and so that’s why I look to the BEA data.

Fourth, many people argue that the federal government has an elite workforce with many highly educated people. Certainly, that’s an important factor to consider. However, that is the reason why I focused on the pay trend over the last eight years. The federal worker compensation advantage rose from 66 percent in 2000 to 100 percent in 2008. Has the composition of the federal workforce really changed that much in just eight years to justify such a big relative gain? I doubt it.

A final consideration is to look at a “market test” of the adequacy of compensation in the public sector–the quit rate. The voluntary quit rate in the federal government is just one-third or less the quit rate in the private sector (Table 16 near the bottom here).

That is strongly suggestive of ”golden handcuffs” in federal employment. While many federal workers probably grumble about their jobs (as many private sector workers do), they know that the overall package of wages, benefits, and extreme job security (Table 18 here) is very hard to match in the competitive private market, and so they stay put.