Index Funds: Promise or Peril? Part II

This is the second entry in a two-part series on the rise of index funds in U.S. equities markets. This post is for the intrepid reader interested in a thorough survey of the empirical and theoretical literature concerning the implications of institutional investors. In the first entry of this series, I disputed the mechanisms by which index funds are argued to exert an outsized influence on the firms within their portfolios. But in this second entry, I will instead grant this key premise of the anti-trust advocates’ argument: index funds, either individually or as a group, have a significant degree of influence over major decisions made by the firms in their portfolio. But the anti-trusters then go on to argue that index funds will deploy this power to induce these firms’ management to restrict intra-industry competition. While management at any given firm in an industry will be unwilling to unilaterally disarm, the fact that index funds are simultaneously invested in all of the publicly-traded incumbents in an industry allows for a solution to the prisoners’ dilemma dynamic which would otherwise thwart efforts at oligopolistic collusion.

I.

In this post I will grant the premise that index funds, as the plurality shareholders of a given firm, will be able to select for a management team and board of directors willing to pursue their preference for maximizing total industry profits instead of individual firm profits. In this sense, we have a principal-agent model in which the principal (index funds) keeps its agent (the firm’s management) on a tight leash. This power indeed presents the potential for index funds to diminish the value of the individual firm, thereby harming the other shareholders. Yet this same governance dynamic which allows for the possibility of such speculative, thinly substantiated harm to shareholders[1]<, similarly offers a corrective for a much greater and empirically ever-present agency cost which confronts all publicly traded firms: managerial rent-seeking.

Since the publication of Berle and Means’ The Modern Corporation and Private Property in 1932, the Ur-text of corporate governance theory, scholars have elaborated on and formally modeled the profound asymmetry between a corporation’s relatively small and cohesive management team and its dispersed shareholders (Manne 1964; Clark 1986; Easterbrook and Fischel 1991). Shareholders face a collective action problem vis-a-vis the managers who allocate their capital on their behalf: no individual shareholder is sufficiently incentivized to incur costs monitoring the management to ensure these funds are being directed toward their profit-maximizing use, because any gains which accrue from such monitoring must be distributed amongst the shareholders pro-rata, and cannot be internalized by the individual who does the monitoring.

Compounding the asymmetries which inhere in the ownership vs. control relationship are a variety of state and federal laws which increase the collective action costs faced by shareholders when attempting to replace bad management. In two highly influential law review articles, Bernard Black discusses a variety of legal impediments to coordinated shareholder action, ranging from costly SEC disclosure requirements, encumbrances on proxy campaigns, and legislation such as the Williams Act which regulate tender offers[2][3]. A more recent analysis by Gilson and Gordon (2013) indicates that many of these regulatory frictions persist. Whenever transaction costs to takeovers are raised, the market for corporate control becomes less liquid, allowing for a firm’s management to extract greater wealth transfers from a firm’s creditors and shareholders. Alan Schwartz put the effects of such legislation bluntly in his 1986 article Search Theory and the Tender Offer Auction which predated the rise of index funds: “Capital markets cannot overcome the inefficiency the Williams Act creates”.

Between their structural disadvantage as monitors and the institutional deformities introduced by the political process, shareholders face a severe principal-agent problem vis-a-vis management. A massive literature, known as the “Managerial Power Perspective”, has emerged to document the ways in which corporate charters and compensation practices have in practice been disproportionately shaped by CEOs and other senior executives (see Bebchuk and Fried’s 2004 book Pay Without Performance, as well as Bebchuk, Cohen and Ferrell 2009, for an excellent overview). Exorbitant salaries, golden parachutes, and poison pills are some of the many ways in which, according to this perspective, corporate governance in practice deviates in a pro-management direction from the “optimal contract” which would otherwise obtain in a competitive, low-transaction cost landscape of symmetrically informed arms-length deals between management and shareholders. Indeed, many of the same progressive concerns, such as income inequality, which animate the anti-trust proposals of the “common ownership” paradigm are similarly leveled against the menacing figure of the rent-seeking, imperial CEO. 

It is ironic, then, that the rise of index funds is likely to be ameliorative of this very principal-agent problem. The “common ownership” paradigm argues that index funds have perverse incentives insofar as they will induce management to reduce intra-industry competition, thereby harming the firm’s other shareholders. This amounts to an intra-shareholder wealth transfer. However, even according to this perspective, index funds will not be willing to abide the classic example of a wealth transfer from shareholders to management[4]. Such managerial rent-seeking can come in many forms: salary in excess of marginal product of labor, personal consumption of perquisites, “empire building” which entrenches management by raising its replacement cost, and so on ad infinitum. In such instances, index funds will not countenance this non-profit-maximizing behavior, because it is not in pursuit of maximizing total industry profits. Instead, index funds will be incentivized to minimize managerial rent-seeking, the benefit of which will redound to all of the firm’s shareholders. I will now discuss both the theoretical and empirical literature which demonstrates that index funds can, and do, leverage their role as large institutional investors to combat managerial malfeasance, misfeasance, and general misbehavior.    

It’s No Use Crying Over Spelt Milk

We weren’t kidding in the title to this post. There really is something called spelt milk. There is also soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, almond milk, hemp milk, quinoa milk, oat milk (that’s not a typo – oat milk, not goat milk, although there is also goat milk of course), and pea milk (yes, really, pea milk). But now the cow milk producers are crying to the government (multiple branches, in many countries) that these non-dairy milks should not be allowed to use the term “milk.” They claim this is about consumer confusion, but are any consumers confused about where soy milk comes from? Although recent polling suggests that a few people think chocolate milk comes from brown cows (we suspect they were just having fun with the pollsters), it’s hard to believe that people purchasing these alternative milks couldn’t figure out their source. The term “milk” has been used to describe plant-based beverages for centuries, and we shouldn’t let the dairy lobby change that.

In the United States, there are efforts underway to push both the legislative and executive branches to protect dairy producers from their non-dairy competitors by keeping the word “milk” off the competitors’ products. With support from the industry, Senator Tammy Baldwin has introduced legislation that, as she puts it, “would require non-dairy products made from nuts, seeds, plants, and algae to no longer be mislabeled with dairy terms such as milk, yogurt or cheese.” But this legislative action may not even be necessary, because here’s what may be happening soon at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

The head of the FDA said … that the Trump administration will move to crack down on the use of the term “milk” for nondairy products like soy and almond beverages.

The agency will soon issue a guidance document outlining changes to its so-called standards of identity policies for marketing milk, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said at the POLITICO Pro Summit.

 
The move would be a major boon for dairy groups, which have been struggling amid dropping prices and global oversupply. The industry has petitioned FDA to enforce marketing standards for milk, but the agency has not previously addressed the issue.

We are not scientists, but his statement about almonds not lactating sounds right to us. But regardless of whether almonds or other plants lactate, there is a long history of using the term “milk” for plant-based products that do not lactate. Smithsonian Magazine recently put it this way: “Linguistically speaking, using ‘milk’ to refer to the ‘the white juice of certain plants’ (the second definition of milk in the Oxford American Dictionary) has a history that dates back centuries.” We didn’t check all the dictionaries, but here are a couple that illustrate the point. The online edition of Webster’s Dictionary, 1828 defines milk as: 

1. A white fluid or liquor, secreted by certain glands in female animals, and drawn from the breasts for the nourishment of their young.

2. The white juice of certain plants.

3. Emulsion made by bruising seeds.

Along the same lines, the Oxford English Dictionary defines milk as: 

1. An opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young.

‘a healthy mother will produce enough milk for her baby’

1.1 The milk from cows (or goats or sheep) as consumed by humans.

‘a glass of milk’

1.2 The white juice of certain plants.

‘coconut milk’

1.3 A creamy-textured liquid with a particular ingredient or use.

‘cleansing milk’

And the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines milk as:

1. A whitish liquid containing proteins, fats, lactose, and various vitamins and minerals that is produced by the mammary glands of all mature female mammals after they have given birth and serves as nourishment for their young.

2. The milk of cows, goats, or other animals, used as food by humans.

3. Any of various potable liquids resembling milk, such as coconut milk or soymilk.

4. A liquid resembling milk in consistency, such as milkweed sap or milk of magnesia.

All of these definitions include non-dairy liquid substances as examples of what can be considered milk. Thus, identifying these products as “milk”  is nothing new. In fact, in examining the etymology of the word milk, it appears that “milk-like plant juices” date back to the 13th century, with some even showing up in medieval cookbooks.

The issue has also arisen outside the United States. The Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international body that develops food standards, defines milk as “the normal mammary secretion of milking animals obtained from one or more milkings without either addition to it or extraction from it, intended for consumption as liquid milk or for further processing.” However, the Codex standard for the use of dairy terms also stipulates that the restrictive use of the term “milk” for labelling of milk, milk products or composite milk products “shall not apply to the name of a product the exact nature of which is clear from traditional usage or when the name is clearly used to describe a characteristic quality of the non- milk product.” So there appears to be some flexibility in how countries apply this standard, and Codex even notes that “Plain soybean beverage is the milky liquid prepared from soybeans” and that some countries refer to soybean beverages as “soybean milk.”

So what have other countries done in regulating non-dairy milk products? It may be helpful to first take a look at the European Union’s rules, as Europeans famously tend to have fairly strict food labelling standards. Milk is no exception. In fact, this very debate played out in a European Court of Justice case in 2017, Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb eV v TofuTown.com GmbH, where German company TofuTown argued that it clearly identified its products as plant-based, and thus should not be prohibited from calling its products “Soyatoo tofu butter” or “Veggie cheese” for instance. But EU rules prohibit the use of these terms for non-dairy products, so in this case TofuTown’s descriptions of its products were found to be in violation. 

At the same time, the EU rules do allow Member States to make exceptions, noting that the restrictions on marketing a product as a “milk” product “shall not apply to the designation of products the exact nature of which is clear from traditional usage and/or when the designations are clearly used to describe a characteristic quality of the product” (this language mirrors that of Codex). Notably, products such as almond milk and coconut milk are exempt, among many other common designations, such as nut butters. 

Mark Zuckerberg, Communitarian

Like almost every week, Facebook has been in the news. Much has been said about their earlier decisions regarding the speech of Russian agents, much of it negative. Amid that debate, you might overlook Mark Zuckerberg’s latest post about Facebook’s content moderation work. Don’t. Facebook’s moderation decisions impact speech across the globe and Zuckerberg’s post is an intriguing and important statement of the company’s position.

While the post announces changes to Facebook’s appeals process, for now I will focus on the ideas and values informing their policies about online speech.

We make tradeoffs among values all the time, even tradeoffs involving freedom of speech. While free speech is a fundamental value in the United States, it nonetheless may be curtailed to prevent violence, suppress obscenity, and protect a person’s reputation, among other reasons. Over time, these other values have come to matter less relative to free speech. Speech must directly and immediately lead to violence to be restricted; that does not happen much. Courts gave up on defining obscenity and made it difficult for public figures to win libel judgments. As a constitutional matter, we limit free speech in order to realize other values; in practice, speech almost always trumps other concerns.

At least in the public sphere. We could by law or custom demand that everyone, everywhere vindicate freedom of speech. But we don’t. I have the power to exclude speakers who ask irrelevant questions at Cato forums (though I rarely exercise it). Facebook has the same power to remove the speech of individuals or organizations from their platform. As a nation we choose private governance of private property over free speech when these values come into conflict.

That brings us to Mr. Zuckerberg. Facebook protects less speech than the U.S. Supreme Court. What values matter more to Facebook in some instances than free speech? Zuckerberg believes that Facebook should “balance the ideal of giving everyone a voice with the realities of keeping people safe and bringing people together.” Safety comprises, among other things, protection against terrorism and self-harm. “Bringing people together” implies avoiding social polarization by restricting hate speech and misinformation, the latter perhaps condemned less for its falsity and more for its divisiveness. Speech that contravenes these values constitutes “harmful content” that may be removed.

More abstractly, Facebook values community a lot. It protects its members against external and internal threats and seeks to foster unity. This concern for unity (and worries about division) marks a sharp departure from First Amendment doctrine. Limiting speech to preclude violence seems more familiar to students of liberty than restrictions in pursuit of social harmony. After all, divisive and polarizing speech (including “hate speech”) enjoys full protection by the courts. In the classic struggle between the individual and community, Facebook cares more about the latter than say, the average classical liberal, or indeed, the average free speech advocate.

You might think Facebook’s values reflect the challenges of building a lasting global business. Facebook users may prefer safety and unity over free speech. Community preferences and business logic might well go together. No doubt this is part of the story. But it is not the whole story. Facebook has a commitment to community that goes beyond profitability.

Zuckerberg’s post offers a novel discussion of “borderline content” which is defined as “more sensationalist and provocative content [which]… is widespread on cable news today and has been a staple of tabloids for more than a century.” Such content does not violate Facebook’s community standards; it toes the line. Facebook restricts the distribution and virality of such content but does not remove it. Why? “At scale it can undermine the quality of public discourse and lead to polarization. In our case, it can also degrade the quality of our services.” The latter is the concern of a businessman; the former are the values of a citizen who believes his company has a social obligation to foster civic unity at some margin.

These tradeoffs and the underlying philosophy suggest two problems for Facebook. First, the traditional problem of drawing lines. Racial and religious invective divides society and thus may be removed from the platform. Easy choices, you might think. But consider harder questions. Many people found The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein racially offensive. They specifically deplored its treatment of IQ and race. Facebook’s Community Standards specifically preclude negative mentions of either.  Should speech favoring that work be removed?  On the other hand, a couple of years ago prominent law professor Mark Tushnet argued that President Hillary Clinton should have treated conservatives and Republicans as Germany and Japan were treated after 1945 (“…taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.”)  Given that “taking a hard line” toward Germany after 1945 arguably led to the deaths of at least 500,000 people, should speech like Tushnet’s recommendation be banned from Facebook going forward? It will be hard to draw these lines consistently at scale while avoiding the appearance of political bias. 

Second, Facebook’s aspirations may conflict with the expectations of investors. Zuckerberg says Facebook research indicates that people want to engage with borderline content. If Facebook is a business, and businesses give customers what they want, why make it harder for customers to get the permitted content they want? More generally, Facebook managers may be mistaken about “borderline content” and about their audience. The economist Robin Hanson recently noted: ordinary people “are more interested in gossip and tabloid news than high-status news, they care more about loyalty than neutrality, and they care more about gaining status via personal connections than via grand-topic debate sparring. They like wrestling-like bravado and conflict, are less interested in accurate vetting of news sources, like to see frequent personal affirmations of their value and connection to specific others, and fear being seen as lower status if such things do not continue at a sufficient rate.” I admire Zuckerberg’s desire to improve public discourse. How widely shared is that ambition? Does our shared aspiration reflect the social norms of Facebook users? If not, should the CEO’s hopes trump his customers wants?

A final point. Much has been made of liberal bias at Facebook. Zuckerberg himself has noted that the environs of Menlo Park are quite left-leaning. It’s also true that many on the left do emphasize community over the individual as a matter of philosophy. But the community values mentioned in Facebook’s post are not necessarily those of the left. Conservatives have, at various times, argued for government action to protect community values against noxious speech. They have tended to lament divisions and praise the larger social whole (think of their view of patriotism and “our country”). Facebook’s idea of community may be either left, or right, or neither. What it cannot be is consistent with a philosophy that always accords free speech priority over social unity.

The Benefits of Frictionless Trade, as Seen in Saarland

The European Union comes in for a lot of criticism, including around these parts. Not all my colleagues have been so critical. Still, burdensome regulations by an unaccountable bureaucracy would trouble any libertarian. 

But this article in the Washington Post reminded me of the original promise of the Common Market, which grew into the European Union:

The degree to which the European Union’s post-nationalist vision has transformed the continent is evident in the German region of Saarland, an area of 1 million residents hard on the French border. 

The region — marked by lush forests, gentle hills and rich coal deposits that once made Saarland an industrial jackpot — has changed hands eight times over the past 250 years. In the past century alone, it was traded between France and Germany four times.

The first of those came in the aftermath of World War I, when France claimed the territory as compensation for German destruction of France’s own coal industry.

Germany lost the land again after World War II and only got it back in 1957.

As recently as the 1990s, the nearby border was subject to strict controls. But today, it’s largely invisible. French citizens commute to Saarland for work or pop by to buy a dishwasher. Germans cross into France for lunch or to pick up a bottle of wine. French — the language of the longtime enemy and occupier — is part of the fabric of Saarland, and it’s welcome.

“We’re neighbors. We’re friends. We marry each other. One hundred years ago, we killed each other. It’s been a great evolution,” said Reiner Jung, deputy director at the Saar Historical Museum in the region’s capital, Saarbrücken.

Of course, countries could drop their trade barriers without creating a supranational bureaucracy. But too many people misunderstand economics and believe giving up their trade barriers is a cost, so creating a customs union, a common market, or even a European Union may often be the only way to get the substantial benefits of free trade. And frictionless trade is even harder to achieve without multinational negotiations. So there are pros and cons to arrangements such as the European Union, but we shouldn’t underestimate the great benefits of commerce and movement across national borders.

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Will Malay Muslims Accept Equality Before Law?

There is a heated debate in Malaysia these days on whether the country should affirm the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1969, the internal convention calls for eliminating all legal structures that favor one group over another. 

Malaysia is among a handful of countries that have neither signed nor ratified the treaty. One major reason is that many within the country’s ethnoreligious majority, the Muslim Malays, do not want to lose the privileges they have over the non-Muslim minorities such as the Chinese or Hindus. The Islamists also feel alarmed that accepting legal equality will lead to more freedom of religion, freedom of expression, or the intermarriage of Muslims and non-Muslims. 

Free Malaysia Today, a popular newssite with liberal tendencies, asked me what I think. I encouraged Malaysians to accept ICERD, and gave a reference that even the Islamists could not easily reject: The Ottoman Empire, the very seat of the Islamic Caliphate. Here is how Free Malaysia Today reported my take:

Mustafa Akyol, an award-winning author on contemporary Muslim issues, said Muslim groups who oppose the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD, should study the policies of past Islamic powers including the Ottoman caliphate with regards to equality.

“I would recommend that all those in Malaysia who oppose the ICERD on Islamic grounds read the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. It reads:

‘All subjects of the empire are called Ottomans, without distinction whatever faith they profess… [And] All Ottomans are equal in the eyes of the law. They have the same rights, and owe the same duties towards their country, without prejudice to religion.’”

The full story is available here: ”The Caliphate had ICERD, too

It’s Time to Put the Jones Act Under the Microscope

On December 6th, 2018 the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies will host a full-day conference entitled, “The Jones Act: Charting a New Course after a Century of Failure.” The purpose of this event is to shine an analytical spotlight on the Jones Act, a nearly 100-year-old law that restricts the transportation of cargo between two points in the United States to ships that are U.S.-built, crewed, owned, and flagged.

While supporters of the law claim the Jones Act is essential to ensuring a robust U.S. maritime industry capable of providing a ready supply of ships and qualified sailors in times of war and other national emergencies, both the number of ships built in the United States and U.S. sailors to crew them have been in a steady decline for decades. Not only has the Jones Act failed to deliver its promised benefits, it has also imposed a variety of different costs on the U.S. economy. This conference will examine these costs in greater detail, address the validity of the Jones Act’s national security argument, and evaluate options for reform.

As part of the conference, each of our participants will submit a short essay on a particular aspect of the Jones Act. These essays will be made available here as they are submitted by our speakers, and will be reproduced in expanded form after our conference. We encourage you to read, share, and provide feedback on these essays.

This event is part of our broader Project on Jones Act Reform, which seeks to raise awareness about the Jones Act and lay the groundwork for the repeal or reform of this outdated law. We hope you will visit our project page and join the discussion on Jones Act reform.

Reserve your spot to attend our event next month, read the conference essays, and be part of the conversation. We hope to see you there!

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At Cato Unbound: How Best To Reform Child Protective Services?

This month I’m participating in a Cato Unbound symposium on Child Protective Services and family rights. In its lead essay, attorney Diane Redleaf details some of the ways in which CPS agencies can arm-twist parents into so-called interim placements and safety plans that separate families with little or no judicial review.  Participant James G. Dwyer, in a response essay, takes a relatively positive view of the agencies’s work. My essay, by contrast, generally backs up Redleaf’s critique of CPS as a species of government enforcement agency gone wild: far too often, these agencies seize children from parents based on flimsy evidence, second-guess everyday parental behavior and decisions, or act on misguided Drug War zeal. 

Redleaf in her essay then goes on to raise distinctive objections about how the agencies negotiate with parents before a judge has ruled on their cases, which I paraphrase thus: 

…what sorts of policy response should apply to agencies’ practice of proffering to parents ostensibly voluntary interim placements and “safety plans”? What happens when parents regret—the next month, or the next day—having agreed to those conditions? Can they reopen the concessions they made, and how? Does it matter whether the agency has withheld information from them or menaced them with worst-case scenarios?

In my response essay, I argue that the problems with these practices are real but that legal attack on the voluntariness of interim plans is likely to be of at best limited helpfulness because our courts follow a strong presumption of enforcing settlements as written. More promising in the long run, I argue, may be to impose direct obligations on agencies to respect families’ autonomy without attacking the settlement process as such. “Safeguarding every family’s rights will, as one of its benefits, shore up families against unwise surrenders of their rights.”