Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

FSOC’s Failing Grade?

All the recent hype over the legitimacy of high frequency trading has overshadowed another significant event in financial regulation: In a speech in Washington, D.C., yesterday Securities and Exchange Commissioner Luis Aguilar offered some fairly strong criticisms of recent actions by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC). The speech was significant because it is the first time that a Democratic commissioner has criticized the actions of one of the Dodd-Frank Act’s most controversial creations. (To date, only the Republican commissioners have criticized the FSOC, and we all know that Republicans don’t much like Dodd-Frank.) Indeed, Aguilar’s statements indicate just how fractured and fragmented the post-Dodd-Frank “systemic risk monitoring” system is.

At issue is the FSOC’s recent foray into the regulation of the mutual fund industry. Aguilar described the FSOC’s actions as “undercut(ting)” the SEC’s traditional authority and described a major report on asset management by the FSOC’s research arm, the Office of Financial Research, as “receiv(ing) near universal criticism.”

He went on to note that “the concerns voiced by commenters and lawmakers raise serious questions about whether the OFR’s report provides (an) adequate basis for the FSOC to designate asset managers as systemically important … and whether OFR is up to the tasks called for by its statutory mandate.”

For those of us who have been following this area for a while, the answer to the latter question is a resounding “no”. The FSOC claims legitimacy because the heads of all the major financial regulatory agencies are represented on its board. Yet it has been clear for a while that the FSOC staff has been mostly off on a frolic of its own.

Aguilar notes that the SEC staff has “no input or influence into” the FSOC or OFR processes and that the FSOC paid scant regard to the expertise or industry knowledge of the traditional regulators. Indeed, the preliminary actions of the FSOC in determining whether to “designate” mutual funds as “systemic” echoes the Council’s actions in the lead-up to its designation of several insurance firms as “Systematically Important Financial Institutions” that are subject to special regulation and government protection. It should be remembered that the only member of the FSOC board to vote against the designation of insurance powerhouse Prudential as a “systemic nonbank financial company” was Roy Woodall, who is also the only board member with any insurance industry experience. And in the case of mutual funds and asset managers, the quality of the information informing the FSOC’s decisions—in the form of the widely ridiculed OFR study—is even weaker. The process Aguilar describes, where regulatory agencies merely rubber stamp decisions made by the FSOC staff, is untenable (in part because the FSOC staff itself has no depth of experience, financial or otherwise).

Aguilar’s comments could be viewed as the beginning of the regulatory turf war that was an inevitable outcome of Dodd-Frank’s overbroad and contradictory mandates to competing regulators. But the numerous and well documented problems with the very concept of the FSOC means that it is time for Congress to pay some attention to Aguilar’s comments and rein in the FSOC’s excessive powers. 

IRS Shouldn’t Force Taxpayers Into Tax-Maximizing Transactions

While tax evasion is a crime, the Supreme Court has long recognized that taxpayers have a legal right to reduce how much they owe, or avoid taxes all together, through careful tax planning. Whether that planning takes the form of an employee’s deferring income into a pension plan, a couple’s filing a joint return, a homeowner’s spreading improvement projects over several years, or a business’s spinning-off subsidiaries, so long as the actions are otherwise lawful, the fact they were motivated by a desire to lessen one’s tax burden doesn’t render them illegitimate.

The major limitation that the Court (and, since 2010, Congress) has placed on tax planning is the “sham transaction” rule (also known as the “economic substance” doctrine), which, in its simplest form, provides that transaction solely intended to lessen a commercial entity’s tax burden, with no other valid business purpose, will be held to have no effect on that entity’s income-tax assessment. The classic sham transaction is a deal where a corporation structures a series of deals between its subsidiaries, producing an income-loss on paper that is then used to lower the parent company’s profits (and thus its tax bill) without reducing the value of the assets held by the commercial entity as a whole.

We might quibble with a rule that effectively nullifies perfectly legal transactions, but a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit greatly expanded even the existing definition of “economic substance,” muddying the line between lawful tax planning and illicit tax evasion. At issue was Wells Fargo’s creation of a new non-banking subsidiary to take over certain unprofitable commercial leases. Because the new venture wasn’t a bank, it wasn’t subject to the same stringent regulations as its parent company. As a result, the holding company (WFC Holdings Corp.) was able to generate tens of millions of dollars in profits.

Will Republicans Make a Principled Stand Against Ex-Im Reauthorization in 2014?

Jobs are good. Exports create jobs. We create exports. Renew our charter.

Such is the essence of the marketing pitch of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, whose officials have begun ramping up their lobbying efforts ahead of a 2014 vote concerning reauthorization of the Bank’s charter, which expires in September.  Last go around, in 2012, Ex-Im ran into some unexpected turbulence when free-market think tanks, government watchdog groups, and limited government Republicans in Congress raised some compelling – but ultimately ignored – objections to reauthorization.

The ostensible purpose of the Ex-Im Bank is to assist in financing the export of U.S. goods and services to international markets. Even if that were a legitimate role of government, the public must keep a watchful eye on how much and to whom loans are made – especially given the current administration’s tendency to bet big on particular industries and specific firms, and in light of its commitment to seeing U.S. exports reach $3.14 trillion in 2014.

From the U.S. Export-Import Bank’s 2013 Annual Report:

The Ex-Im Bank’s mission is to support American jobs by facilitating the export of U.S. goods and services. The Bank provides competitive export financing and ensures a level playing field for U.S. exporters competing for sales in the global marketplace. Ex-Im Bank does not compete with private-sector lenders but provides export financing that fill gaps in trade financing. The Bank assumes credit and country risks that the private sector is unable or unwilling to accept. It also helps to level the playing field for U.S. exporters by matching the financing that other governments provide to their exporters. The Bank’s charter requires that the transactions it authorizes demonstrate reasonable assurance of repayment.

The defensive tone of this mission statement anticipates Ex-Im critics’ objections, but it certainly doesn’t answer them. The objectives of filling gaps in trade financing passed over by the private sector and expecting a reasonable assurance of repayment are mutually exclusive – unless the threshold for “reasonable assurance” is more risk-permissive than the private-sector’s most risk-permissive financing entities.  Therefore, Ex-Im is either putting taxpayer resources at risk or it is competing directly with private-sector lenders for customers in need of finance. And if the latter, then as it seeks to create the proverbial “level playing field” for the U.S. companies whose customers it finances, Ex-Im is un-leveling the playing field for the finance industry, as well as for the U.S. firms in industries that compete globally with these U.S-taxpayer financed foreign companies.

Tax Reform Error #1: Confusing Tax Expenditures with Revenues

House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp has released a complex 182-page “discussion draft” called The Tax Reform Act of 2014. Rather get bogged down in details, I will take this opportunity to review several fundamental errors that repeatedly plagued most past and present efforts to reform the federal income tax, including the Camp proposal.

One of the most pernicious errors among would-be tax reformers is to assume that, as the Tax Policy Center asserts, “tax expenditures are revenue losses” attributable to various “loopholes.” On the contrary, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) clearly states that the estimated dollar value of any “tax expenditure … is not the same as a revenue estimate for the repeal of the tax expenditure provision.” As the JCT explains, “unlike revenue estimates, tax expenditure calculations do not incorporate the effects of the behavioral changes that are anticipated to occur in response to the repeal of a tax expenditure provision…. Taxpayer behavior is assumed to remain unchanged for tax expenditure estimate purposes … to simplify the calculation.”

One glaring difference between revenue estimates and tax expenditure estimates involves taxation of capital gains if those gains are realized by selling assets from a taxable account (unlike IRAs or most home sales). Estimated tax expenditures from not taxing realized capital gains at the top income tax rate of 43.4 percent is listed as a big revenue-losing tax expenditure, even though Treasury, the JCT and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) revenue estimates would rightly predict that the behavioral response to such a high tax would crush asset sales and thus lose revenue. 

Mainly because the artificially estimated “tax expenditure” from a lower capital gains tax is wrongly equated with estimated revenues, the Simpson-Bowles plan hopes to raise an extra $585 billion over ten years. In reality, investors realize fewer gains when the tax rate goes up, so the higher tax on fewer transactions means revenues fall rather than rise.

Will Venezuela Be Next?

Last year, Nicholas Krus and I published a chapter, “World Hyperinflations”, in the Routledge Handbook of Major Events in Economic History. We documented 56 hyperinflations – cases in which monthly inflation rates exceeded 50% per month. Only seven of those hyperinflations have savaged Latin America (see the accompanying table).

At present, the world’s highest inflation resides in Latin America, namely in Venezuela. The Johns Hopkins – Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project, which I direct, estimates that Venezuela’s implied annual inflation rate is 302%. Will Venezuela be the eighth country to join the Latin American Hall of Shame? Maybe. But, it has a long way to go.

The Hanke-Krus Hyperinflation Table
Latin American edition

Country Month With Highest Inflation Rate Highest Monthly Inflation Rate Equivalent Daily Inflation Rate Time Required for Prices to Double
1. Peru Aug. 1990 397% 5.49% 13.1 days
2. Nicaragua Mar. 1991 261% 4.37% 16.4 days
3. Argentina Jul. 1989 197% 3.69% 19.4 days
4. Bolivia Feb. 1985 183% 3.53% 20.3 days
5. Peru Sep. 1988 114% 2.57% 27.7 days
6. Chile Oct. 1973 87.6% 2.12% 33.5 days
7. Brazil Mar. 1990 82.4% 2.02% 35.1 days

Source: Steve H. Hanke and Nicholas Krus (2013), “World Hyperinflations”, in Randall Parker and Robert Whaples (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Major Events in Economic History, London: Routledge Publishing.

Bulgaria’s Currency Board versus Ukraine’s Chaos

When Communism inevitably and finally collapsed, Bulgaria’s economy was a basket case – behind almost all other communist basket cases, including Ukraine’s. Indeed, Bulgaria defaulted on its debt in 1990. By February 1991, Bulgaria had broken out in a bout of hyperinflation, with the inflation rate at 123% per month. And in February 1997, Bulgaria experienced the agonies of hyperinflation again, with the inflation rate reaching 242% per month. 

As he looked into the abyss, President Petar Stoyanov decided against taking the plunge and appointed me as his advisor in January 1997. I immediately prescribed a currency board system to put an end to Bulgaria’s malady, something I had laid out for Bulgaria back in 1991 (Steve H. Hanke and Kurt Schuler, Teeth for the Bulgarian Lev: A Currency Board Solution. Washington, D.C.: International Freedom Foundation, 1991.).

Bulgaria installed a currency board in July 1997. The lev was backed 100% by German marks and traded freely at a fixed rate of 1000 leva to 1 mark. Inflation and interest rates fell like stones. The economy stabilized, and the Bulgarians learned that, even though stability might not be everything, everything is nothing without stability. Discipline at last.

Yes, the main feature of a currency board is the fiscal and financial discipline that it provides. No more running to the central bank for a fiscal bailout. A currency board ties the hands of those meddlesome monetary authorities. And forget the silly theoretical and obscure arguments made by economists who don’t embrace fixed exchange rates. A currency board regime is all about discipline.

As we watch Ukraine melt down once again, we can see what could have been (and what could be) if Ukraine would have only embraced a system of discipline (read: currency board) – like Bulgaria did in 1997. The following table tells the tale:

Bulgaria versus Ukraine

Country

GDP per Capita (USD)

Fiscal Balances %GDP

Current Account Balances %GDP

General Govt. Gross Debt %GDP

Gross Borrowing Needs %GDP

Import Coverage Ratio (FX Reserves / Imports)

W.B. Ease of Doing Business 2014 Rank

Bulgaria

$7,623

-1.9%

1.5%

16.0%

2.6%

6.7

58

Ukraine

$4,011

-8.7%

-8.9%

42.8%

11.0%

1.9

112

Sources: Bulgarian National Bank, National Bank of Ukraine, J.P. Morgan (Emerging Markets Research), International Monetary Fund (IFS), World Bank (Doing Business). 

Prepared by Prof. Steve H. Hanke, The Johns Hopkins University.

Bank Tax Is Wrong “Fix” for Too-Big-To-Fail

Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp is soon to roll out a plan for comprehensive tax reform. He is to be commended for doing so. Our tax code is an absolute mess with incentives for all sorts of bad behavior. Early reports suggest, however, that Congressman Camp will also include a “bank tax” to both raise revenue and address the “Too-Big-To-Fail” (TBTF) status of our nation’s largest banks. While the evidence overwhelmingly suggests to me that TBTF is real, with extremely harmful effects on our financial system, I fear Camp’s approach will actually make the problem worse, increasing the market perception that some entities will be rescued by the federal government.

Bloomberg reports the plan would raise “would raise $86.4 billion for the U.S. government over the next decade…would likely affect JPMorgan Chase & Co, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.” The proposal would do so by assessing a 3.5 basis-point tax on assets exceeding $500 billion.

While standard Pigouvian welfare analysis would recommend a tax to internalize any negatives externalities, TBTF is not like pollution, it isn’t something large banks create. It is something the government creates by coming to their rescue. I don’t see TBTF as a switch, but rather a dial between 100 percent chance of a rescue and zero. By turning the banks into a revenue stream for the federal government, we would likely move that dial closer to 100 percent–and that is in the wrong direction. For the same reason, I have opposed efforts to tax Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the past. The solution is not to bind large financial institutions and the government closer together, as a bank tax would, but to further separate government and the financial sector. Just over a year ago, I laid out a path for doing so in National Review. Were we to truly end bailouts, limiting government is the only way to get that dial close to zero.   

If we want to use the tax code to reduce the harm of financial crises, then we should focus on reducing the preferences for debt over equity, which drive so much of the leverage in our financial system.  I’ve suggest such here in more detail. There are also early reports that Camp’s plan will reduce some of these debt preferences. Let’s hope those remain in the plan.