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. 

No, There Are NOT Three Job Seekers for Every Job Opening

Unemployment benefits could continue up to 73 weeks until this year, thanks to “emergency” federal grants, but only in states with unemployment rates above 9 percent.  That gave the long-term unemployed a perverse incentive to stay in high-unemployment states rather than move to places with more opportunities.   

Before leaving the White House recently, former Presidential adviser Gene Sperling had been pushing Congress to reenact “emergency” benefits for the long-term unemployed.  That was risky political advice for congressional Democrats, ironically, because it would significantly increase the unemployment rate before the November elections.  That may explain why congressional bills only restore extended benefits through May or June.

Sperling argued in January that, “Most of the people are desperately looking for jobs. You know, our economy still has three people looking for every job (opening).”  PolitiFact declared that statement true.  But it is not true. 

The “Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey” (JOLTS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not begin to measure “every job (opening).”  JOLTS asks 16,000 businesses how many new jobs they are actively advertising outside the firm.  That is comparable to the Conference Board’s index of help wanted advertising, which found almost 5.2 million jobs advertised online in February.  

With nearly 10.5 million unemployed, and 5.2 million jobs ads, one might conclude that our economy has two people looking for every job (opening)” rather than three.  But that would also be false, because no estimate of advertised jobs can possibly gauge all available jobs.

Consider this: The latest JOLTS survey says “there were 4.0 million job openings in January,” but “there were 4.5 million hires in January.”  If there were only 4.0 million job openings, how were 4.5 million hired?   Because the estimated measure of “job openings” was ridiculously low. It always is.

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.

FBI Seizes Antiquities First, Asks Questions Later

An extraordinary and disturbing story just out from the Indianapolis Star/USA Today

WALDRON, Ind. — FBI agents Wednesday seized “thousands” of cultural artifacts, including American Indian items, from the private collection of a 91-year-old man who had acquired them over the past eight decades.

An FBI command vehicle and several tents were spotted at the property in rural Waldron, about 35 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

The Rush County man, Don Miller, has not been arrested or charged.

So if the owner hasn’t been arrested or charged, what’s the basis of the raid? 

Robert A. Jones, special agent in charge of the Indianapolis FBI office, would not say at a news conference specifically why the investigation was initiated, but he did say the FBI had information about Miller’s collection and acted on it by deploying its art crime team.

FBI agents are working with art experts and museum curators, and neither they nor Jones would describe a single artifact involved in the investigation, but it is a massive collection. Jones added that cataloging of all of the items found will take longer than “weeks or months.”…

The aim of the investigation is to determine what each artifact is, where it came from and how Miller obtained it, Jones said, to determine whether some of the items might be illegal to possess privately.

Jones acknowledged that Miller might have acquired some of the items before the passage of U.S. laws or treaties prohibited their sale or purchase.

Might be illegal. Or might have been acquired lawfully. They’re not saying! But to satisfy its curiosity the government gets to seize everything and sort through at its leisure over longer than “weeks or months.” 

It doesn’t sound as if the artifacts were in some sort of immediate danger:

In addition to American Indian objects, the collection includes items from China, Russia, Peru, Haiti, Australia and New Guinea, he said. 

The objects were not stored to museum standards, Jones said, but it was apparent Miller had made an effort to maintain them well.

I’ve written previously, elsewhere and in this space, about 

the rise of a new “antiquities law” in which museums and private collectors have come under legal pressures to hand over (“repatriate”) ancient artifacts and archaeological finds to governments, Indian tribes and other officially constituted bodies, even when those artifacts have been in legitimate collector hands for 100 or more years with no hint of force or fraud.

Further regulatory regimes covering exotic and endangered animal and plant material make it dangerous to let the feds anywhere near your high-end guitar or other wooden artifact, and will soon make it unlawful to sell or move across state lines your family’s antique ivory-keyed piano (more here).

P.S. Coverage at broadcaster WISH-TV makes the SWAT-like federal occupation of Don and Sandra Miller’s property (an FBI “command center” and “massive tents” now surround the family’s home) seem even more appalling. Locally famous for his collecting, Miller has been anything but secretive about his holdings, which were featured in a four-part series in a local newspaper. 

Theory: The Supreme Court Could Apply the Terms of the Fourth Amendment in Fourth Amendment Cases

The Supreme Court could apply the terms of the Fourth Amendment in Fourth Amendment cases.

I know. Weird idea, right?

But it’s an idea I’ve pushed in briefs to the Court over the last few years: in U.S. v. Jones (2011), Jardines v. Florida (2012), In re Electronic Privacy Information Center (2013), and most recently in Riley v. California (2014). We’ll file in U.S. v. Wurie next week.

The idea is interesting enough that Mason Clutter of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has paid me the compliment of discussing it in her new law review article, “Dogs, Drones, and Defendants: The Fourth Amendment in the Digital Age.”

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and one of the authors of Cato’s amicus brief in Jardines, regularly makes the argument that “[a] ‘search’ occurs when government agents seek out that which is otherwise concealed from view, the opposite condition from what pertains when something is in ‘plain view.’ People maintain ‘privacy’ by keeping things out of others’ view, exercising control over personal information using physics and law.” The “Harper Theory” of search and seizure encourages judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officers to revert to the “plain meaning[]” of the Fourth Amendment’s use of “search” and “seizure.”

That’s right. The idea of using the words of the Fourth Amendment rather than stacks of confusing doctrine now has a name, and it’s the “Harper theory.” I guess I thought of it, so it’s named after me!

In seriousness, it is a challenge to recognize seizures and searches as such in “high-tech” contexts. Today’s problems with the Fourth Amendment—and the problem of doctrine obfuscating the text—began in 1929, when the Olmstead Court failed to recognize parallels between that era’s high-tech—telephonic communications—and written material sent through the mail.

But it is possible to recognize electronic and digital documents and communications as papers and effects. It is possible to recognize seizures when invasions of property rights occur in whatever form. And it is possible to recognize searches as efforts to discover information that is otherwise concealed from view. All this makes it possible to apply the words of the Fourth Amendment in Fourth Amendment cases.

I’m complimented if that’s called the “Harper theory.” I feel like I got it from Cardozo.

Chairman Ryan’s Budget: A Mixed Bag of Reforms

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released his budget proposal yesterday, his last as committee chairman. This budget differs greatly from the budget request submitted by President Obama last month. Ryan would “cut” federal spending by $5.1 trillion over the next 10 years and calls upon Congress to pass pro-growth tax reform. However, Ryan’s budget is still a mixed bag from a small-government perspective.

Positive Reforms in Ryan’s budget:

  • Medicaid Block Grants: Ryan suggests block granting Medicaid to institute some fiscal sanity to this ever-growing program. This reform would reduce state government incentives to overspend and would allow them greater flexibility to innovate and cut costs. Federal spending would be reduced by $732 billion compared to baseline by this simple reform.
  • SNAP Block Grants: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”) would also be block granted, saving $125 billion over 10 years compared to baseline. SNAP and Medicaid block grant reforms would copy the successful approach of welfare reforms in the 1990s.
  • Medicare Premium Support: Repeating a proposal from his last several budgets, Ryan suggests changing Medicare to a premium-support model. Rather than federal spending going to health care providers, it would be directed toward health care consumers. That would hopefully generate incentives to reduce costs and improve quality. It would also allow seniors to pick the health plan that most closely matches their needs.
  • Repeals ObamaCare Spending: Ryan’s budget repeals ObamaCare’s spending components. This is his largest reduction, which would save taxpayers $2 trillion over the next ten years.

Downsides to Ryan’s budget:

  • Social Security Reform: Ryan’s budget does not tackle Social Security reform, leaving almost one quarter of the federal budget unchanged. He calls on the president and Congress to submit recommendations to reform the program, but does not submit any suggestions of his own.
  • Higher Revenue Baseline: Chairman Ryan calls for pro-growth tax reform within his budget; however, he adopts the Congressional Budget Office’s current revenue baseline. This would keep the extra revenues generated from the numerous tax hikes enacted over the last several years.
  • Delayed Reforms: Perhaps due to political concerns, many of Ryan’s reforms would not start for several years. His SNAP block grant would not begin for five years, and his Medicare premium support model would not start until 2024.
  • Keeps Higher Spending: In December, Ryan and Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray agreed to increase discretionary spending levels for fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2015. This partly gutted the bipartisan Budget Control Act from 2011. Ryan’s budget retains the higher spending levels.

In sum, Ryan’s budget would not solve the government’s overspending problem. But it would be a good first step to reforming the federal behemoth.

Another Campaign Restriction Falls Because First Amendment Strongly Protects Political Speech

Despite the 5-4 split among the justices, McCutcheon is an easy case if you apply well-settled law: Restrictions on the total amount an individual may donate to candidates and party committees—as opposed to how much he can donate to any one candidate—violate the First Amendment because they do not prevent quid pro quo corruption or the appearance thereof. That corruption-prevention rationale is the only government interest that the Supreme Court accepts as a valid one for restricting political-campaign activities. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority (and it is a majority because Justice Thomas concurs in the judgment): “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects. If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

With Justice Thomas, however, I would go beyond that simple point and overrule Buckley v. Valeo (1976) altogether because “[c]ontributions and expenditures are simply ‘two sides of the same First Amendment coin’” and the Court’s “efforts to distinguish the two have produced mere ‘word games’ rather than any cognizable principle of constitutional law” (quoting Chief Justice Burger’s partial dissent in Buckley). Buckley rewrote the speech-restrictive post-Watergate campaign-finance law into something no Congress would’ve passed, also inventing legal standards such that one type of political speech has greater First Amendment protection than another. Nearly 20 years later, the Supreme Court rewrote another congressional attempt (McCain-Feingold) to “reform” the rules by which people run for office, shying away from striking down Buckley and producing a convoluted mish-mash opinion that serves nobody’s interest. Enough! The drip-drip of campaign-finance rulings over the last decade has shown, existing campaign-finance law is as unworkable as it is unconstitutional.

As Cato argued in its amicus brief, in a truly free society, people should be able to give whatever they want to whomever they choose, including candidates for public office. The Supreme Court today correctly struck down the biennial campaign contribution limits and gave those who contribute money to candidates and parties as much freedom as those who spend independently to promote campaigns and causes. But it should have gone further.