Tag: wall street

Wall Street’s Seat at the Federal Reserve?

Tomorrow the Senate Banking Committee will likely hold a vote on President Obama’s recent nominations to the Federal Reserve Board, Harvard professor Jeremy Stein and former investment banker and Treasury official Jerome Powell. I’ve written elsewhere on how these two fail to meet the statutory requirements for board membership, as it relates to geography. But there is another issue that continues to bother me about these nominations.  That is the unwritten assumption that Wall Street gets a seat on the Federal Reserve Board.

As Bloomberg reports Powell “would bring expertise on financial markets to the Fed’s board, filling a void left by Kevin Warsh, a former Morgan Stanley banker.” But this overlooks the fact that the New York Federal Reserve President, currently former Goldman Exec William Dudley, is a permanent member of the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). As an institutional matter, the Fed already has a line from Wall Street via the New York Fed, where’s the need for another?

The Federal Reserve Act requires the president, when making nominations to the Fed, to give “due regard to a fair representation of the financial, agricultural, industrial, and commercial interests.” As far as I can tell there is zero representation on the Board for “agricultural, industrial and commercial interests” and already one former banker (Duke) on the Board. How is that “fair?”  While this “fairness” requirement is not as black and white as the geography issue, I do believe it is one fundamental to the functioning of the Fed. Is this a Fed that represents all sectors and interests in the economy, or is this a Fed that mainly represents Wall Street (and academia, which is never mentioned in the Federal Reserve Act)?

While I do not personally know Mr. Powell, and I have no reason to suspect he is anything other than an honorable and well-intended man, I think we all have reason to believe that the last thing the Fed needs is another New York investment banker.

Making and Taking

In a column on what Jane Jacobs would have thought of the Wall Street protests, Sandy Ikeda quotes a line from her book Systems of Survival:

[W]e have two distinct ways of making a living, no more no less… . First, we’re able to take what we want – simply take, depending of course, on what’s available to be taken. That’s what all other animals do… . But in addition, we human beings are capable of trading – exchanging our services for other goods and services, depending, again, on what’s available, but in this case what’s available for exchange rather than taking. [51-2]

And that reminded me of a cartoon from 2002 that I found last week in moving my office (upstairs to the Cato Institute’s beautiful new seventh floor):


Ikeda goes on to urge the Wall Street protesters to follow Jane Jacobs’s advice:

The “commercial moral syndrome” that underlies free markets and trade counsels: “shun force, come to voluntary agreements, be honest, collaborate easily with strangers and aliens, compete, respect contracts, use initiative and enterprise, be open to inventiveness and novelty, be efficient, promote comfort and convenience, dissent for the sake of the task, invest for productive purposes, be industrious, be thrifty, and be optimistic.”

On the other hand, the “guardian moral syndrome” that underlies government and forced takings counsels: “shun trading, exert prowess, be obedient and disciplined, adhere to tradition, respect hierarchy, adhere to tradition, be loyal, take vengeance, deceive for the sake of the task, make rich use of leisure, be ostentatious, dispense largesse, be exclusive, show fortitude, be fatalistic, and treasure honor.”

Which of these best fits the personality profile of the young, iconoclastic but peaceful, ideologically driven protesters with their iPhones, Twitter, and leaderless organization? Now which of these best fits their enemy?

They really are the two choices that have faced us throughout history. And fortunately, as Deirdre McCloskey and Steven Pinker have pointed out in very different recent books, human life has been enhanced by the fact that people have perceived that making and trading are better than taking.

Thursday Links

Wednesday Links

Death by Antidumping

A Wall Street Journal editorial today shines a long overdue spotlight on an antidumping case that is emblematic of the dissonance within U.S. trade policy. I, too, wrote about this case last year as an example of how the U.S. antidumping regime undermines U.S. manufacturing, penalizes U.S. exporters, and diminishes chances for achieving the administration’s goal of doubling exports in five years.

In 2005, U.S. Magnesium Corporation, the sole producer of magnesium in the United States, succeeded in convincing the U.S. International Trade Commission and U.S. Commerce Department to impose duties on imports of magnesium from competitors in Russia and China. Before toasting this outcome with some clichéd or specious utterance about how the antidumping law ensures fair trade and a level playing field for U.S. producers, it is important to understand that downstream, consuming industries (those U.S. producers that require for their own production the raw materials and intermediate goods subject to the antidumping measures) have no legal standing in these cases. Statute forbids the U.S. International Trade Commission from considering their arguments or projections about the likely consequences of prospective duties. Statute requires that the ITC consider only the conditions of the petitioning industry.  In other words, the analysis is slanted.  The antidumping law codifies these evidentiary asymmetries, which makes it easier for U.S. suppliers to cut-off their U.S. customers’ access to alternative sources of supply. In our increasingly globalized economy, this is a recipe for propping up old industries and discouraging and crippling new ones. It is a recipe for economic decline.

Here’s what I wrote about the impact of the magnesium duties on one formerly promising U.S. growth industry in May 2010:

Consider the case of Spartan Light Metal Products, a small Midwestern producer of aluminum and magnesium engine parts (and other mechanical parts), which presented its story to Obama administration officials, who were dispatched across the country earlier this year to get input from manufacturers about the problems they confronted in export markets.

Beginning in the early-1990s, Spartan shifted its emphasis from aluminum to magnesium die-cast production because magnesium is much lighter and more durable than aluminum, and Spartan’s biggest customers, including Ford, GM, Honda, Mazda, and Toyota were looking to reduce the weight of their vehicles to improve fuel efficiency. Among other products, Spartan produced magnesium intake manifolds for Honda V-6 engines; transmission end and pump covers for GM engines; and oil pans for all of Toyota’s V-8 truck and SUV engines.

Spartan was also exporting various magnesium-cast parts (engine valve covers, cam covers, wheel armatures, console brackets, etc.) to Canada, Mexico, Germany, Spain, France, and Japan. Global demand for magnesium components was on the rise.

But then all of a sudden, in February 2004, an antidumping petition against imports of magnesium from China and Russia was filed by the U.S. industry, which comprised just one producer, U.S. Magnesium Corp. of Utah with about 370 employees. Prices of magnesium alloy rose from slightly more than $1 per pound in February 2004 to about $1.50 per pound one year later, when the U.S. International Trade Commission issued its final determination in the antidumping investigation. By mid-2008, with a dramatic reduction of Chinese and Russian magnesium in the U.S. market, the U.S. price rose to $3.25 per pound (before dropping in 2009 on account of the economic recession).

By January 2010, the U.S. price was $2.30 per pound, while the average price for Spartan’s NAFTA competitors was $1.54. Meanwhile, European magnesium die-casters were paying $1.49 per pound and Chinese competitors were paying $1.36 per pound. According to Spartan’s presentation to Obama administration officials, magnesium accounts for about 40-60% of the total product cost in its industry. Thus, the price differential caused by the antidumping order bestowed a cost advantage of 19 percent on Chinese competitors, 17 percent on European competitors, and 16 percent on NAFTA competitors.

As sure as water runs downhill, several of Spartan’s U.S. competitors went out of business due to their inability to secure magnesium at competitive prices. According to the North American Die Casting Association, the downstream industry lost more than 1,675 manufacturing jobs–more than five-times the number of jobs that even exist in the entire magnesium producing industry!

Spartan’s outlook is bleak, unless it can access magnesium at world market prices. Its customers have turned to imported magnesium die cast parts or have outsourced their own production to locations where they have access to competitively-priced magnesium parts, or they’ve switched to heavier cast materials, sacrificing ergonomics and fuel efficiency in the face of rapidly-approaching, federally-mandated 35.5 mile per gallon fuel efficiency standards.

Thus, antidumping duties on magnesium have almost entirely snuffed out a U.S. growth industry that was succeeding in export markets by selling environmentally-friendlier auto parts—two attributes that really should make this a showcase industry, given the administration’s stated goals.

But on trade policy formulation, it seems that the right hand doesn’t always know what the left hand is doing. Last year, while magnesium imports from China were subject to U.S. antidumping duties, the Obama administration launched a WTO case against China for its restraints on exports of raw materials, including magnesium. That’s right. The U.S. government officially opposes China’s tax on exported magnesium because it imposes extra costs of U.S. consuming industries, but it insists on enforcing its own antidumping duties on magnesium imported from China despite those costs.

As if that is not enough dissonance, consider that the same U.S. Commerce Department that authorized the antidumping duties on magnesium is simultaneously charged with overseeing the National Export Initiative (and its goal of doubling U.S. exports to $3.14 trillion by 2015). The Commerce secretary, Gary Locke, was even featured in Washington Post profile piece Sunday preaching about the national imperative to boost exports. Is Secretary Locke even aware of the incongruities under his roof?

The WSJ editorial concludes with a call to revoke the antidumping duties on magnesium, which is under consideration in a “Sunset Review.” (Regrettably, as presented in this analysis from 2005, revocation pursuant to sunset review is more the excepton than the rule.). I agree with the WSJ’s conclusion, but would implore policymakers to go further and implement sweeping reform of the antidumping law. It is extremely costly to U.S. industry and totally out-of-step with 21st century economic reality. As I wrote last year:

Spartan’s is not an isolated incident. Routinely, the U.S. antidumping law is more punitive toward U.S. manufacturers than it is to the presumed foreign targets. Routinely, U.S. producers of upstream products respond to their customers’ needs for better pricing, not by becoming more efficient or cooperative, but by working to cripple their access to foreign supplies. More and more frequently, that is how and why the antidumping law is used in the United States. Increasingly, it is a weapon used by American producers against their customers—other American producers, many of whom are exporters.

If President Obama really wants to see exports double, he must implore Congress to change the antidumping law to explicitly give standing to downstream industries so that their interests can be considered in trade remedies cases. He must implore Congress to include a public interest provision requiring the U.S. International Trade Commission to assess the costs of any duties on downstream industries and on the broader economy before imposing any such duties.

The imperative of U.S. export growth demands some degree of sanity be restored to our business-crippling trade remedies regime

What Gets You Most Upset about the TARP Bailout, the Lying, the Corruption, or the Economic Damage?

As an economist, I should probably be most agitated about the economic consequences of TARP, such as moral hazard and capital malinvestment. But when I read stories about how political insiders (both in government and on Wall Street) manipulate the system for personal advantage, I get even more upset.

Yes, TARP was economically misguided. But the bailout also was fundamentally corrupt, featuring special favors for the well-heeled. I don’t like it when lower-income people use the political system to take money from upper-income people, but it is downright nauseating and disgusting when upper-income people use the coercive power of government to steal money from lower-income people.

Now, to add insult to injury, we’re being fed an unsavory gruel of deception as the political class tries to cover its tracks. Here’s a story from Bloomberg about the Treasury Department’s refusal to obey the law and comply with a FOIA request. A Bloomberg reporter wanted to know about an insider deal to put taxpayers on the line to guarantee a bunch of Citigroup-held securities, but the government thinks that people don’t have a right to know how their money is being funneled to politically-powerful and well-connected insiders.

The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 to identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. He made the request on the grounds that taxpayers ought to know how their money was being used. More than 20 months later, after saying at least five times that a response was imminent, Treasury officials responded with 560 pages of printed-out e-mails – none of which Pittman requested. They were so heavily redacted that most of what’s left are everyday messages such as “Did you just try to call me?” and “Monday will be a busy day!” None of the documents answers Pittman’s request for “records sufficient to show the names of the relevant securities” or the dates and terms of the guarantees.

Here’s another reprehensible example. The Treasury Department, for all intents and purposes, prevaricated when it recently claimed that the AIG bailout would cost “only” $5 billion. This has triggered some pushback from Capitol Hill GOPers, as reported by the New York Times, but it is highly unlikely that anyone will suffer any consequences for this deception. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds, “laws, honesty, and integrity, like taxes, are for the little people.”

The United States Treasury concealed $40 billion in likely taxpayer losses on the bailout of the American International Group earlier this month, when it abandoned its usual method for valuing investments, according to a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. …“The American people have a right for full and complete disclosure about their investment in A.I.G.,” Mr. Barofsky said, “and the U.S. government has an obligation, when they’re describing potential losses, to give complete information.” …“If a private company filed information with the government that was just as misleading and disingenuous as what Treasury has done here, you’d better believe there would be calls for an investigation from the S.E.C. and others,” said Representative Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He called the Treasury’s October report on A.I.G. “blatant manipulation.” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he thought “administration officials are trying so hard to put a positive spin on program losses that they played fast and loose with the numbers.” He said it reminded him of “misleading” claims that General Motors had paid back its rescue loans with interest ahead of schedule.

P.S. Allow me to preempt some emails from people who will argue that TARP was a necessary evil. Even for those who think the financial system had to be recapitalized, there was no need to bail out specific companies. The government could have taken the approach used during the S&L bailout about 20 years ago, which was to shut down the insolvent institutions. Depositors were bailed out, often by using taxpayer money to bribe a solvent institution to take over the failed savings & loan, but management and shareholders were wiped out, thus  preventing at least one form of moral hazard.

‘Make Wall Street traders and CEOs fear for their lives, or at least for their freedom to travel.’

Recall the unionists’ siege of the Maryland banker’s home the other day? Perhaps it was inspired in part by this screed on the world financial crisis that appeared a little while back on the blog New Deal 2.0, published by the left-leaning Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Other advice in the same piece on how to handle execs from Goldman Sachs and similar investment banks: “Build some Guantanamo-like facility to hold these enemy financial combatants until they can be tried, convicted, and properly punished.” And: “Post the names of all managers and traders on Interpol. Arrest anyone who tries to board a plane, train, or boat; confiscate their passports; revoke their visas and work permits; and put a hold on their bank accounts until culpability can be assessed.”

Tongue in cheek-ism, evidence of a genuine impulse to dispense with the rule of law, or some of both? Well, judge for yourself, bearing in mind what sorts of rhetoric serve in accusing, say, the Tea Party movement of extremism and worse. The “braintrusters” roster of the Roosevelt Institute, incidentally, boasts such respectables as Jonathan Alter, Hendrik Hertzberg, appeals court nominee Goodwin Liu, Joseph Stiglitz and Sean Wilentz.

As part of a symposium the other day, the recently launched blog Think Tanked asked me to help define what a think tank is and what it should do. My advice on the latter was to “let ‘em rip” – the scholars and thinkers, that is – but maybe in the case of the Roosevelt Institute I’d advise making an exception.

Topics:

Pages