Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Iran, Stable but Miserable

Since Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran in August of last year, the economic outlook for Iran has improved. When Rouhani took office, he promised three things: to curb the inflation which had become rampant under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to stabilize Iran’s currency (the Rial), and to start talks to potentially end the sanctions which have battered Iran since 2010. Rouhani has delivered on each of these promises. From this, one might assume that the Iranian economy, and the Iranian people, are headed towards better times.

Unfortunately, the Misery Index paints a different picture. The Misery Index is the sum of the inflation, interest, and unemployment rates, minus the annual percentage change in per capita GDP. It provides a clear picture of the economic conditions facing Iranians.

Piketty Problems: Top 1% Shares of Income and Wealth Are Nothing Like 1917- 28

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers’ review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in The Twenty-First Century, claims that Mr. Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have documented, “absolutely conclusively, that the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top—the top 1 percent, .1 percent, and .01 percent of the population—has risen sharply over the last generation, marking a return to a pattern that prevailed before World War I.”  That statement is false.

Paul Krugman’s review “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age,”  claims that “since 1980 the one percent has seen its income share surge again—and in the United States it’s back to what it was a century ago.”  That statement is false.  

A Pew Research Center report on the same data was titled, “U.S. income inequality, on rise for decades, is now the highest since 1928.”  That too is false.

First of all, the Piketty and Saez estimates do not show top 1 percent income shares nearly as high as those of 1916 or 1928 once we use the same measure of total income for both prewar and postwar data.

Second, contrary to Summers, there is no data from Piketty, Saez or anyone else showing that the top 1 percent’s share of wealth “has risen sharply [if at all] over the last generation” – much less exhibited a “return to a pattern that prevailed before World War I.”

Dealing first with income, it is interesting that the first graph in Piketty’s book is about the top 10 percent – not the top 1 percent.  Saez likewise writes that “the top decile income share in 2012 is equal to 50.4%, the highest ever since 1917 when the series start.”  That is why President Obama said, “The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our [sic] income – it now takes half.”  A two-earner New York City family of six with a pretax income of only $110,000 would be in this top 10 percent, and they are certainly not taking “our” income.  Regardless whether we examine the Top 10 percent or Top 1 percent, however, it is absolutely dishonest to compare the postwar estimates with prewar estimates. 

The Piketty and Saez prewar estimates express top incomes as a share of Personal Income, after subtracting 20% to account for tax avoidance.  Postwar estimates, by contrast, express top incomes as a share of only that fraction of income that happens to be reported on individual income tax returns – rather than being unreported, in tax-free savings or assets, or sheltered as retained corporate earnings.

 Transfer payments are not counted as income in either series (as though federal cash and benefits were worthless); this distinction is inconsequential for the prewar figures but increasingly important lately.  “Total income” as Piketty and Saez define it accounted for just 61.8 percent of personal income in 2012, down from 67 percent in 2000.

Hobble Thy Competitors — In Renaissance Italy

The calendar of saints sets aside this day, May 20, as the feast of St. Bernardine of Siena, famous across Renaissance Italy for his impassioned sermons against what he saw as the luxury, vice and corruption of his times, especially usury (the lending of money at interest). While opposition to usury has faded in the West – we now recognize interest-charging as a foundation stone of capitalism and modern economics generally – Bernardine is still invoked on behalf of such causes as relief from respiratory ailments, help for compulsive gamblers, the welfare of the California city of San Bernardino, and, of interest here, the fields of advertising and public relations. The scope of public relations is often taken to include lobbying, and it’s as a forerunner of modern lobbyists that Bernardine appears in a tale, fanciful or otherwise, told a century ago

A comic incident throwing light upon Bernardine’s attitude toward usurers is reported in an old chronicle. While preaching at Milan, he was often visited by a merchant who urged our saint to inveigh so strenuously against usury as to render it obnoxious in the eyes of all. On making inquiries, however, the latter ascertained his visitor to be himself the greatest usurer of the place, whose action in this matter was prompted by a wish to lessen the number of his competitors by inspiring them with a wholesome horror of the trade.

Our own era, as we know, is one in which moralistic attacks on gambling have been secretly backed by nearby casino proprietors who don’t want the competition, in which “the estate-planning industry [has lobbied] hard against a [reduced federal] estate tax, which would kill its costly tax-avoidance schemes,” and in which various energy producers quietly assist environmental and NIMBY resistance to projects advancing competing sources of energy.  My colleague Chris Edwards has compiled many more examples. You have to wonder whether much has really changed since Bernardine’s time. 

 

Will Congress Allow Hawaii to Expand Racial Discrimination?

I’ve written before about the curious and recurring desire of some Hawaiians to treat other Hawaiians differently based on the quantum of “native Hawaiian” blood they have coursing through their veins. In 2005, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a scathing report saying that Hawaii was “in a league by itself” regarding racial discrimination by government entities. Yet again and again, advocates for race-based government and tax treatment seek to push their divisive policies into the most racially integrated state of the union.

The latest such development comes to us in the form of a seemingly technocratic Senate bill, S.1352, the “Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act,” which was introduced last July and has slowly been making its way through the relevant committees. One particular provision of this dry legislation, when cross-referenced to the underlying law that it reauthorizes, is relevant to the racial shenanigans in the Aloha State. As Hans von Spakovsky describes:

S.1352 has a seemingly innocuous provision, Section 503, which simply re-authorizes the Native Hawaiian Home-Ownership Act through 2018.  You have to dig into the existing federal law to find out that, under 25 U.S.C. §4223(d), Hawaii is exempt from the nondiscrimination requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act when it is distributing federal housing funds made available by the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to “Native Hawaiians” or “a Native Hawaiian family.”

This exemption means the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands can discriminate in favor of “Native Hawaiians” and a “Native Hawaiian family” and against others such as whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. In other words, the federal government is authorizing Hawaii (and providing it with taxpayer funds) to engage in blatant discrimination by providing government benefits for some of its residents and denying federally funded benefits to others based solely on their ancestry and “blood quantum.”

Balcerowicz’s Polish Big Bang versus Ukraine

On May 21, 2014, Leszek Balcerowicz will receive the 2014 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty during a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The prestigious annual award by the Cato Institute carries with it a well-deserved check for $250,000.

For those who might have forgotten the accomplishments of my long-time friend, allow me to suggest that, in Balcerowicz’s case, a picture is literally worth a thousand words.

But, before the picture, a little background.

In 1989, Balcerowicz became Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in Eastern Europe’s first non-communist government since World War II. Balcerowicz held these positions from 1989 through 1991, and again from 1997 through 2000. Subsequently, in 2001, he became the Chairman of the National Bank of Poland, a post he held until January 2007.

A student of the “Five P’s”: prior preparation prevents poor performance; Balcerowicz was ready when he first took office in 1989. Indeed, he pulled his comprehensive economic game plan to liberalize and transform the Polish economy out of his desk drawer and proceeded to implement what became known as the “Big Bang”. As they say, the rest is history.

The results of the “Big Bang” speak for themselves in the accompanying chart. Poland’s economy has more than doubled since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, growing at an average annual rate of 4.42%.

What about neighboring Ukraine? The contrast with Balcerowicz’s Poland couldn’t be starker. As Oleh Havrylyshyn, the former deputy finance minister of Ukraine, spells out in his classic book – Divergent Paths in Post-Communist Transformation: Capitalism for All or Capitalism for the Few – Ukraine rejected the Big Bang, free-market approach to reform. In consequence, it has taken a road to nowhere, remaining in the shadow of a corrupt communist system.

Unlike Poland’s prosperity, Ukraine has witnessed a post-Soviet contraction in its economy. Yes, the Ukrainian economy has been contracting at a real annual rate of almost 1% since the fall of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, it is smaller today in real terms than it was in 1992.

Many think the International Monetary Fund, which just ponied up $17 billion for Ukraine, will turn things around. Don’t hold your breath. Over the years, the IMF has dispensed its medicine and money in Ukraine with negative results.

When it comes to much-needed liberal economic reforms, one has to do something big; something that captures the public’s imagination and garners wide support. Unfortunately, Ukraine lacks a clear economic game plan – one with wide popular support.

Let Export-Import Bank and Corporate Welfare Die

Nothing brings out the well-tailored lobbyists in Washington quite like a threat to corporate welfare.  With the Export-Import Bank’s legal authorization set to run out this year, the Chamber of Commerce recently led a Big Business march on Capitol Hill to protect what is known as Boeing’s Bank. 

Over the last eight decades ExIm has provided over a half trillion dollars in credit, mostly to corporate titans.  Congress should close the Bank.

The agency was created in 1934 to underwrite trade with the Soviet Union.  Unfortunately, ExIm is not free, as claimed.  Recently made self-financing, the agency has returned $1.6 billion to the Treasury since 2008. 

However, economists Jason Delisle and Christopher Papagianis warned that the Bank’s “profits are almost surely an accounting illusion” because “the government’s official accounting rules effectively force budget analysts to understate the cost of loan programs like those managed by the Ex-Im Bank.”  In particular, the price of market risk is not included.  Delisle and Papagianis figured ExIm’s real price to exceed $200 million annually.   

Economist John H. Boyd took another approach, explaining:  “For an economic profit—that is, a real benefit to taxpayers—ExIm bank’s income must exceed its recorded expenses plus its owners’ opportunity cost, a payment to taxpayers for investing their funds in this agency rather than somewhere else.”  He figured the Bank’s real cost at between $521 million and $653 million in 1980.  The corresponding expense today likely is much higher.

The Bank claims to create jobs.  No doubt, ExIm financing makes some deals work.  But others die because ExIm diverts credit from firms without agency backing.

Economists Heywood Fleisig and Catharine Hill figured that channeling resources to exports reduces “domestic investment, consumption, or government expenditure.”  Thus, they explained, while export subsidies will increase employment in export firms, they will do so “at the expense of employment elsewhere.”

ExIm also sells itself as necessary to promote trade.  But exports should not an end in themselves irrespective of cost.  Anyway, the Bank supports only about two percent worth of exports, barely a blip in a $17 trillion economy. 

The Bank contends that it corrects market failures when U.S. exporters can’t get credit. However, international financial markets are sophisticated.

Moreover, it’s impossible to know just how many of the deals currently financed by American taxpayers wouldn’t go through absent the subsidy.  Everyone—borrower, banker, exporter, bureaucrat—has an incentive to claim ExIm played a vital role.

The agency says it supports all businesses, including small ones.  However, candidate Barack Obama was right in 2008 when he described the Bank as “little more than a fund for corporate welfare.” 

The most money always goes to Big Business.  Boeing alone typically accounts for more than 40 percent of the Bank’s credit activities.  Veronique De Rugy of the Mercatus Center figured that the top ten recipients collect 75 percent of ExIm’s benefits.

Finally, ExIm’s warns that if the U.S. government doesn’t provide cheap credit, American companies will lose out to foreign firms subsidized by their governments.  In this way the Bank claims “to help level the playing field.”

However, less than half of ExIm credit is even directed in this way, let alone proven necessary.  Moreover, as I point out in my new Forbes online column:  “The fact that other governments are willing to hurt their peoples by channeling credit away from worthier firms in the marketplace in favor of politically well-connected exporters is no reason for America to do the same.”

A better way to help promote trade would be to strengthen the economy generally.  Lower and rationalize business taxes.  Cut and streamline regulation.  Reduce tariffs, especially on widely used imports, such as steel.  Discourage frivolous litigation.  Stop subsidizing the defense of prosperous, populous trade competitors.

It’s time to kill the agency.  Let exporters pay to generate their own profits.

Reflections on High Frequency Trading

Here are a few thoughts on high frequency trading [HFT] – not a thorough analysis of the problems and solutions, but rather a brief outline to encourage further discussion.

What is HFT?

The modern version of HFT, as described by Malkiel and Leavitt in an April 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “involves the placement of high-speed computers in close proximity to stock-market servers to give some participants the ability to buy and sell stocks faster than the blink of an eye.”  The favored participant purchases early access to information from either a public exchange or a so-called dark pool, which is essentially a private exchange established by investment banks.  With privileged access, the HF trader can learn of a pending order before it is executed, and then earn a small profit by buying or selling ahead of the order.  For example, a sell order exists at $100.00; an HF trader learns of a pending buy order at $100.02, which allows the HF trader to earn $.02 by first buying at $100.00 then selling at $100.02.

What are the pluses and minuses of HFT?

Benefits of HFT can include market efficiency, increased liquidity, and lower transactions costs.  To illustrate: Assume orders have been placed to sell 5,000 shares of XYZ at $15.02 and 5,000 shares at $14.94.  Assume further, a pending buy order for a minimum of 10,000 shares at $15.00.  The HF trader, acting as market-maker, might buy 10,000 shares from the two sellers at an average price of $14.98 and re-sell the shares to the buyer for $15.00.  The result would be a narrowed bid-asked spread, reduced trading costs, increased volume, and enhanced liquidity.

On the other hand, as Malkiel and Leavitt point out, HFT is a form of insider trading known as front-running whereby “optimally positioned traders can see trade orders from other investors before they are executed.  They can execute a purchase just ahead of those orders and run the price up just a bit, pocketing the difference.”  In addition, HFT has been blamed for increased market volatility.