Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Need for Short-Term Loans Is No Joke

I’m a little behind on my comedy watching, as I get a regular dose just living in Washington DC, but last week comedians John Oliver and Sarah Silverman focused an entire segment on payday lending, which are short-term advances against a future paycheck.  Matt Yglesias at Vox has posted the video, as well as making the important point “people end up at payday lenders because stuff happens.”  Yglesias is correct here: there is an undeniable need for short-term credit products. Even Dodd-Frank recognized this need by creating a government subsidized payday loan product (Section 1205 of Dodd-Frank).

The alternative to payday proposed by Oliver and Silverman?  Do anything else but payday. I’m sympathetic to such. A payday loan should never be your first choice. I hope to never have to use a payday lender. But then, I hope my car never breaks down either. Silverman goes as far as suggesting just steal instead. I’d hope she was joking but it seems so many in Washington have already taken that advice to heart.

Yglesias’s alternative is at least a little more thoughtful than stealing: he suggests allowing the postal service to offer short term loans, because apparently he believes the USPS could offer payday “without taking nearly as big a cut”.  Now “big” is subjective but scholars have examined this question. In research reported in 2012 in Regulation, UC-Davis Professor Victor Stango compared the performance of traditional payday loans to those offered by credit unions. Some of his conclusions: “there is little to suggest that credit unions can offer a payday loan with competitive terms. Existing credit union payday loans often have total borrowing costs that are quite close to those on standard payday loans.” Maybe the USPS has a better cost structure than the typical credit union, but that seems unlikely as the USPS isn’t exactly known for its efficiency.

Professor Stango also reports survey evidence that payday borrowers highly value the convenience of payday lender’s hours and locations. Yglesias doesn’t address this, but last time I went to a Post Office, the hours were about as convenient (or less so) than that of a traditional bank. And of course USPS isn’t exactly known for its consumer friendly approach.  In all, it seems highly unlikely that without a major revamp and cultural change that the USPS could be a serious competitor to payday. Perhaps as important, the USPS would likely be viewed as “too big to fail”, so that allowing USPS to make high risk payday loans could easily result in a taxpayer bailout. Getting USPS into payday makes about as much sense as getting Fannie Mae into subprime mortgages.

Oh wait, we did that.

The EU’s Anti-Austerity Hypocrites

The European Union (EU) is still in the midst of an economic slump. Many members of the political class in Brussels claim that fiscal austerity is to blame. But, this diagnosis is wrong. The EU’s problem is one of monetary, not fiscal, austerity. Money matters. Just look at the accompanying chart. Private credit in the Eurozone has been shrinking since March 2012.

Never mind. The EU fiscal austerity bandwagon keeps rolling on with Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister and current President of the EU, holding the reins. Indeed, Renzi recently went so far as to form an anti-austerity coalition with France and Spain. According to the coalition, its members simply cannot impose further spending cuts. They assert that their budgets have been cut to the bone. This claim is ludicrous. 

<--break->There is nothing to cut in Italy? Get real. Senior civil servants are being paid over 12 times the national average salary. As for France and Spain, their civil servants are “well paid,” too. It’s time for the public to stop listening to the EU’s anti-austerity hypocrites and start looking at the numbers.

The Export-Import Bank and Its Victims: Which Industries Bear the Brunt

The Export-Import Bank of the United States is a government-run export credit agency, which provides access to favorable financing for the foreign customers of some U.S. companies.  For several months, Washington has been embroiled in a debate over whether to reauthorize the Bank’s charter, which will otherwise expire on September 30.  While Republican House leadership remains publicly committed to shutting down the Bank, a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced reauthorization legislation last night, setting the stage for a post-August recess showdown.

Reauthorization buffs contend that Ex-Im fills a void left by private sector lenders unwilling to provide financing for certain transactions and, by doing so, contributes importantly to U.S. export and job growth.  Rather than burdening taxpayers, the Bank generates profits for the U.S. Treasury, helps small businesses succeed abroad, encourages exports of green goods, contributes to development in sub-Saharan Africa, and helps “level the playing field” for U.S. companies competing in export markets with foreign companies benefitting from their own governments’ generous export financing programs.  Accordingly, failure to reauthorize the Bank’s charter would be akin to unilateral disarmament.

But those justifications – two rationalizations, really, and a few token appeals to liberal sensibilities intended to create the illusion of a bipartisan imperative for reauthorization – are unpersuasive or non-responsive to Ex-Im’s critics.  By effectively superseding the risk-based decision-making processes of legions of private-sector, profit-maximizing financial firms with the choices of a handful of bureaucrats using non-market benchmarks and pursuing often opaque, political objectives, Ex-Im risks taxpayer dollars.  That Ex-Im is currently self-sustaining and generating revenues is entirely beside the point and is no more reassuring than a drunk driver rationalizing that he made it home safely last night so there’s no danger in drunk driving tonight.

Latvia, the Country Prof. Krugman Loves to Hate, Wins 1st Prize

I constructed a misery index and ranked 89 countries from most to least miserable based on the available data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. My methodology is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth. The table below is a sub-ranking of all former Soviet Union (FSU) states contained in my misery index.

For these FSU states, the main contributing factors to misery are high levels of unemployment and high interest rates.

The low misery index scores in Estonia and Lithuania don’t surprise me as I helped both countries establish sound money with the installation of currency boards in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Latvia, a country Paul Krugman loves to hate, takes the prize for the least miserable of the former Soviet Union countries in this sub-ranking.

Politicians Befriend Big Business, Undermine Free Market

The recent primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was one of the bigger shocks to American politics in some time. Congressional leaders, known to bring home the bacon for local folks, usually are handily reelected.

But Cantor’s loss will do more than simply reshuffle the biggest offices on Capitol Hill. He gave lip service to fiscal responsibility but was, argued Nick Gillespie of Reason, “atrocious and hypocritical in all the ways that a Republican can be,” constantly voting to grow government.

Indeed, Cantor’s constituency was as much corporate America as it was Virginia voters. Business was counting on him to help reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, known as “Boeing’s Bank” for lavishing extensive benefits on one company; extend terrorism risk insurance, which transfers financial liability for loss from firms to taxpayers; and preserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which nearly wrecked the economy while subsidizing homeowners, builders, and lenders. 

Bulgaria Wins Balkan Prize

Every country aims to lower inflation, unemployment, and lending rates, while increasing gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Through a simple sum of the former three rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth, I constructed a misery index that comprehensively ranks 89 countries based on misery. The table below is a sub-ranking of all Balkan states presented in the full index.

 

All of the Balkan states in my index suffer from high unemployment and relatively high levels of misery.

That said, the least miserable Balkan country is Bulgaria. For all of its problems, including a recent bank run, the country’s currency board system - which I, as President Stoyanov’s adviser, helped design and install in 1997 - provides monetary and fiscal discipline, and produces positive results in a region plagued with problems. 

Why Piketty Was Mistaken for Endorsing the Zucman & Saez Slide Show

I will have more to say about this fairly soon, but this might serve as a preview.

Thomas Piketty is now advising innocent readers of his book to (1) not demand a refund or dump the book used on Amazon, and (2) ignore his own flawed estimates of top 1% U.S. wealth shares and instead utilize a PowerPoint by Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez.  Zucman and Saez use capital income reported on individual tax returns (dividends, interest, rent and capital gains) to infer ownership of capital assets, and not just greater realization of gains or portfolio shifts from tax-exempt bonds to dividend-paying stock.

That might be semi-plausible if businesses and professionals were not free to report income on either corporate or individual tax forms, and if tax rates never changed. But this methodology can’t possibly work after the huge tax rate reductions of 1986 (for partnerships & SubS corps), 1997 (capital gains) and 2003 (dividends and capital gains).  The reason it can’t work was fairly well explained by Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva in the original unsanitized version of a paper they published this February (which I have cited beforebut also critiqued):

There is a clear negative overall correlation between the [reported] top 1% income share and the top marginal tax rate: …  [T]he top 1% income share has increased significantly since 1980 after the top tax rate  has been greatly lowered… . [T]he top 1% income share more than doubled from around 8% in the late 1970s to around 18% in last five years, while the net-of-tax (retention) rate increased from 30% (when the top marginal tax rate was 70%) to 65% (when the top tax rate is 35%).”

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