Did Bank CEO Compensation Cause the Financial Crisis?

Earlier this summer, the House of Representatives approved legislation intended to, as Rep. Frank, put it, “rein in compensation practices that encourage excessive risk-taking at the expense of companies, shareholders, employees, and ultimately the American taxpayer.”

While there are real and legitimate concerns over CEOs using bailout funds to reward themselves and give their employees bonuses, Washington has operated on the premise that excessive risk-taking by bank CEOs, due to mis-aligned incentives, caused, or at least contributed to, the financial crisis.  But does this assertion stand up to close examination, or are we just seeing Congress trying to re-direct the public anger over bailouts away from itself and toward corporations?

As it turns out, a recent research paper by Professors Fahlenbrach (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) and Rene M. Stulz (Ohio State) conclude that “There is no evidence that banks with CEOs whose incentives were better aligned with the interests of their shareholders performed better during the crisis and some evidence that these banks actually performed worse…”

Professors Fahlenbrach and Stulz also find that “banks where CEOs had better incentives in terms of the dollar value of their stake in their bank performed significantly worse than banks where CEOs had poorer incentives.  Stock options had no adverse impact on bank performance during the crisis.”  While clearly many of the bank CEOs made bad bets that cost themselves and their shareholders, the data suggests that CEOs took these bets because they believed they would be profitable for the shareholders.

Of course what might be ex ante profitable for CEOs and bank shareholders might come at the expense of taxpayers.  The solution then is not to further align bank CEOs with the shareholders, since both appear all too happy to gamble at the public expense, but to limit the ability of government to bailout these banks when their bets don’t pay off.

Rose Friedman Passes

Rose Friedman, co-author of several books with her late husband and Nobel laureate economist Milton, passed away this morning. Rose and Milton co-wrote Free to Choose the wonderful book that formed the basis of Milton’s PBS television series, as well co-writing their joint auto-biography “Two Lucky People.”

She was intimately involved in the school choice movement both before and after Milton’s passing, as co-founder of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for School Choice, ably led by Robert Enlow.

Rose and Milton were not just skilled economists who cared about kids, they were a charming couple. At a casual policy event a decade ago, they shared a single armchair to ensure that there would be enough seats for everyone. They weren’t just models of commitment to a worthy cause, they were models for how two smart, forthright people can build a marriage that lasts a lifetime.

Rose and Milton will long be remembered.

Tell Me How This Ends

Yesterday, President Obama defended his new approach to the war in Afghanistan. According to the president, our strategy is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies. In order to accomplish this goal, Obama’s strategy indicates we must create a functioning national state there.

Why?

Beltway orthodoxy tells us it’s because extremists will emerge in ungoverned parts of the world and attack the United States. As my colleagues Justin Logan and Chris Preble point out here, there’s reason to doubt whether state failure or poor governance in itself poses a threat.

But responsible leaders would be upfront about the expected costs of our policy: to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, non-corrupt, stable democracy would require a multi-decade commitment—and even then there’d be no assurance of success.

Why Afghanistan’s form of governance directly implicates America’s security, or why it demands the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to police it are questions rarely asked let alone addressed.

Stimulus and Boondoggles

The New York Times has a story on some of the more controversial ways in which state and local government are using so-called federal “stimulus” dollars.  If anything, it provides some interesting background on the history of the word boondoggle (not surprisingly, it entered the American lexicon during the New Deal).  The gist of the piece is that one person’s boondoggle is another person’s…turtle crossing…skateboard park…or airport for an island in Alaska with 170 people on it.  One New Dealer found this out decades ago:

Robert D. Leighninger Jr., a sociologist who wrote “Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal” (South Carolina University Press, 2007), recounted the story of a Works Progress Administration official in Arizona who went off in search of boondoggles, and discovered that the towns he visited seemed to like their own projects but questioned those of their neighbors.  “I’ve been hunting all over the state for one, but everywhere I go I’m told it’s in the next county,” the official was quoted as saying in a 1936 newspaper article. “So far I haven’t been able to catch up with a real, live one.”

Naturally, that attitude is alive and well today.  I know more than a few folks in central Pennsylvania who thought Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” was a waste of their federal taxpayer dollars but the “Road to Nowhere” in their own backyard was other people’s money well spent.  Of course the folks in central Pennsylvania don’t like being taxed by the federal government to pay for a bridge in Alaska – they don’t benefit, but bear a portion of the cost.  And that’s a fundamental problem with federal subsidization of activities that are – at most – the proper domain of state and local government.

Set aside the fact that the Constitution never intended for the federal government to make such expenditures.  While any of these controversial parochial projects will technically have benefits, sound economic decision-making would seek to optimize those benefits versus the costs.  In the politicized world of the congressional sausage factory, costs scarcely factor into the equation given that the burden is borne by million of taxpayers spread out across the country.  Therefore, I think the few in Congress who crusade against these perceived boondoggles should spend more time trying to educate their colleagues (don’t laugh) and the public on the need to limit the federal government’s ability to spend the money in the first place.

For more on the problems with the federal subsidization of state and local government, please see this Cato Policy Analysis from my colleague Chris Edwards.

The Future of DNA as an Identifier …

… is not in doubt. But as technology advances, it will not be as strong an identifier as it has been up to now. Scientists have demonstrated that they can fabricate it.

I wrote about the qualities of identifiers - fixity, distinctiveness, and permanence - in my book Identity Crisis. The ability to fabricate DNA renders it slightly less distinctive.

Robert D. Novak, 1931-2009

51433922Veteran political columnist Robert D. Novak, 78, died today of a brain tumor at his home in Washington DC.

Odd that the self-described Prince of Darkness was one of the nicest persons I’ve ever known. Unlike many here in Babylon-by-the-Potomac, Bob became less enamored of the Establishment the longer he was here. He believed in liberty and was a great friend of the Cato Institute.

He will be sorely missed.

Do You Like Swedish Models?

No, not these kind. Instead, I’m in Stockholm for a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, and this gathering of classical liberals (i.e., the Adam Smith types that believe in freedom, not the modern liberals that favor collectivism) has featured some discussion of the Scandinavian social welfare state - often referred to as the Swedish Model.

What is particularly interesting is that Sweden is not the left-wing paradise that some imagine. Yes, government is far too big, consuming about 50 percent of economic output. But Sweden also has an extensive system of school choice. Equally remarkable, Sweden has a system of personal retirement accounts. Indeed, if one removed fiscal policy variables from the ratings, Sweden would be more free market than the United States in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But even in the area of fiscal policy, Sweden is making progress. In recent years, policy makers have abolished both the death tax and the wealth tax. And the corporate tax rate has been reduced significantly below the U.S. level.

Sweden often is cited as an example of a nation that proves a big welfare state is not an obstacle to being a rich society. But as I wrote in my study comparing the United States and the Nordic nations:

Many prosperous nations in Western Europe have large welfare states. This leads unsophisticated observers to sometimes assume that high tax rates and high levels of government spending do not hinder growth. Indeed, they sometimes even conclude that bigger government somehow facilitates growth. …This analysis puts the cart before the horse. It is possible for a nation to become rich and then adopt a welfare state. …A poor nation that adopts the welfare state, however, is unlikely to ever become rich. Before the 1960s, Nordic nations had modest levels of taxation and spending. They also enjoyed—and still enjoy—laissez-faire policies and open markets in other areas. These are the policies that enabled Nordic nations to prosper for much of the 20th century. Once their countries became rich, politicians in Nordic nations focused on how to redistribute the wealth that was generated by private-sector activity. This sequence is important. Nordic nations became rich, and then government expanded. This expansion of government has slowed growth, but slow growth for a rich nation is much less of a burden than slow growth in a poor nation.