Opinion

Ben Walsh

from Counterparties:

Weeding out the prison population

Ben Walsh
Jul 28, 2014 22:13 UTC

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The New York Times’ editorial board – America’s barometer of what cautious, moderately liberal elites are supposed to think  – wants America’s war against weed to end. States, they say, should be allowed to make their own marijuana policies. And states already are: nearly three-quarters have reformed their marijuana laws to legalize all use, medical prescriptions, or cut the consequences of possession.

Reforming America’s marijuana laws, along with the rest of its war on drugs, seems like the just thing to do. Vox’s German Lopez writes that based on a study by the American Civil Liberties Union, “blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana possession, with the black arrest rate at 716 per 100,000 and the white arrest rate at 192 per 100,000 in 2010.” Lopez shows that racism is endemic in the enforcement of drug laws, affecting everything from sentence lengths to the neighborhoods targeted by police SWAT teams.

The policing costs alone of enforcing the criminalization of marijuana are almost $8 billion annually. America spends a staggering $80 billion on prisons and jails each year: with just 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s inmates (17 percent of all people in U.S. prisons are there for drug offenses. In federal prisons, the number is a jarring 50 percent.)

From 1978 and 2009, the U.S. prison population grew by 430 percent. It is impossible to understand what Emily Badger calls the “the meteoric, costly and unprecedented rise of incarceration in America” without looking at the nation’s drug policy. “Between 1980 and 2010,” she writes, “the incarceration rate for drug crimes increased tenfold.” (Recently, America’s prison population has fallen fractionally, largely thanks to state reforms.)

The economic impact of this is immense, and cannot be ameliorated by a change to marijuana laws alone. John Tierney wrote last year that “black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma... [are] more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.” Harvard sociologist Bruce Western told Tierney that “prison has become the new poverty trap... creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

from Counterparties:

A guide to Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan

Ben Walsh
Jul 24, 2014 21:42 UTC

Like Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan thinks that we’ve lost the war on poverty. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, released a draft anti-poverty plan today. About 45 million Americans are living in poverty — making less than $23,850 for a family of four — and Ryan’s proposal would “shift the federal government's anti-poverty role largely to one of vetting state programs to distribute aid,” Reuters’ David Lawderreports. Benefits would be distributed by a single agency or charity group, and recipients would be required to set up and follow a contract to receive benefits.

James Pethokoukis pithily scores the approach as “Thomas Aquinas 1, Ayn Rand 0” — more caritas, and less ruthless, laissez faire libertarianism. Josh Barro says the plan is a huge change for Republican policy because it’s not a spending cut. Instead, “as drafted, it would not increase or decrease federal spending on anti-poverty programs.”Reihan Salam describes today’s proposals as “the most ambitious conservative anti-poverty agenda since the mid-1990s,” and argues that Ryan’s main objective is “combatting entrenched poverty” by offering a “a useful distinction between situational poverty, in which individuals fall on hard times” briefly, and “generational poverty.”Research shows more Americans are affected by the former, but Ryan argues policy does not sufficiently address the latter.

Jared Bernstein, a former White House economist, disagrees with Ryan’s assumption that U.S. anti-poverty programs are structurally flawed, arguing that there is nothing “fundamentally wrong with the safety net.” Government programs cut the poverty rate almost in half compared to the pure market outcome, he says. More than that, Bernstein highlights the point made by the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities’Robert Greenstein: the safety net is a great investment in the long-term outcomes of its beneficiaries and should not necessarily be tied to short-term requirements of a contract.

from Data Dive:

Facebook leaves niche competitors behind

Ben Walsh
Jul 23, 2014 20:38 UTC

These are good times for Facebook. The social media site reported second quarter earnings of $0.42 per share and revenue of $2.91 billion on Wednesday afternoon. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expected $0.32 in earnings per share and revenue of $2.8 billion. The company's stock is up just under 1% in after hours trading. Reuters' Stephen Culp charts Facebook's share price relative to the S&P 500 and five of its competitors. The comparison is striking and decidedly in Facebook's favor.

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It was only back in April that tech stocks, Facebook included, were falling and people were scrambling to explain why.  In the intervening months, Facebook has not been alone in reversing that decline. While its more niche competitors like those charted above have performed poorly on an absolute and relative basis, year-to-date, a host of bigger tech companies' stocks beaten the S&P 500's 7.3% return: Google (up 8.9%); Apple (up 20.2%); Microsoft (up 20.8%). The NASDAQ itself is up 22.7%.

Perhaps the reason why Facebook's stock performance varies so dramatically from the Zyngas and Yelps of the world is because those companies aren't Facebook's real competition.  It's being treated by the market like a tech and advertising behemoth it is, not the single desktop product company it was, with performance in line multi-hundred billion dollar market cap companies. The idea that Mark Zuckerberg is building a "holding company for various properties in world domination," as Joseph Cotterill put it, is close to the consensus view. Or, a slightly less ominous conclusion is that the market really does believe that Facebook is becoming a P&G-style brand holding company that sucks ad dollars from phones around the world.

from Counterparties:

Obamacare’s circuitous path

Ben Walsh
Jul 22, 2014 21:49 UTC

U.S. federal courts don’t agree on whether the federal government is allowed to subsidize health insurance costs. The final decision, which seems likely to be made by the Supreme Court, will have massive political, economic and human impact. Not only does healthcare make up 18% of U.S. GDP, but the idea that the federal government can subsidize insurance is a key to the Affordable Care Act and the health insurance of more than 5 million Americans.

Here’s what happened today: first, the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in Halbig v. Burwell that the subsidies Obamacare has been providing for health insurance in 36 states were illegal. According to the decision, states alone, not the federal government, can provide subsidized health insurance. The court’s reasoning is based on imprecise wording in the law and contains an even worse pizza metaphor. Only 16 states, including California, Massachusetts and New York, have set up markets without the federal government's involvement. Then, Fourth Circuit, which covers a large portion of the Southeast U.S., came to the exact opposite conclusion in King v. Burwell, in part using a tangled pizza metaphor. Any changes in policy are on hold pending appeal of the D.C. Circuit’s decision by the government.

The affordability of Obamacare, for citizens and the government, is at stake here: premiums could rise by more than 76% if states do not create their own markets, depending on the size of the subsidy currently provided in each state. Generally, the poorer the state, the more premiums will rise. Not only would that mean some people who have already purchased health insurance could no longer afford it, it could make providing care to those who remain in the pool more expensive, as healthy people begin to drop their coverage. In healthcare wonk-speak, this is called a death spiral, and it is indeed as bad as it sounds: when only the sick have any incentive to buy insurance, only the sick are insured. That’s not a good business model.

from Counterparties:

Bank of Inchoate Sense

Ben Walsh
Jul 18, 2014 21:24 UTC

Brad DeLong is confused. The Berkeley economics professor has read the Bank for International Settlements' (BIS) – often called the central bank for central banks –annual report and he just cannot understand what its positions on the global economy and monetary policy actually are: “It calls for raising interest rates now... It fears activist expansionary fiscal policy even more than it fears monetary ease... It seems hostile to any increase in the demand for risky assets.”

The BIS’s position, DeLong writes, fits with no current understanding of the the crisis, recession, or current economy. It does not buy into the Janet Yellen or Ben Bernanke view that interest rates should be kept low for a long time (we wrote about Yellen’s response here). Nor is it the view taken by Harvard economist Ken Rogoff and Nomura’s chief economist Richard Koo that we just need to wait for the credit mess of the financial crisis to work itself out. Nor is it DeLong’s own view that the government should get things going by borrowing more money.

Paul Krugman thinks the whole thing is actually really simple. “You need to see this in terms of an attitude, not a coherent model,” he says. Like political philosopher Michael Oakeshott said about conservatism: it’s “not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition.” Since 2010, Krugman says, the BIS has been advocating against stimulus because it would limit the necessary harm of the recession. That may sound odd, but Krugman says it’s a retread of Schumpeter’s good old-fashioned theory of creative destruction. When the facts changed – most research doesn’t support the skills mismatch explanation of elevated unemployment – the BIS just looked for new reasons to support the same policies, which left it, Krugman writes, without “any method at all... I see an attitude, looking for justification.”

from Counterparties:

Losing participation points

Ben Walsh
Jul 17, 2014 22:18 UTC

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Today, the White House tried to answer one of the thorniest questions about the U.S.’s post-recession economy: why, despite the recovery, has the percentage of working-age Americans that are either working or looking for work steadily fallen? At the beginning of the recession in December 2007, what economists call the labor force participation rate was 66%. It is currently 62.8%, the lowest it’s been since the 1970’s.

About half the answer, the Council of Economic Advisors says, is that America’s workforce is getting older and “older individuals participate in the labor force at lower rates than younger workers.” Another third of the drop is due to pre-recession trends like declining participation by so-called prime age workers, plus the particularly nasty but inchoate effects of the Great Recession, like a big rise in the ranks of the long-term unemployed (economists think this pushes down the participation rate but are not completely sure why). Another sixth of the decline is due cyclical factors (the normal ups and downs of the economy).

Business Insider’s Myles Udland points out that the White House is chiming in on a highly politicized debate regarding just how strong the labor market is. The Obama administration is saying, the WSJ’s Josh Zumburn writes, that “only one-sixth of the decline is clearly attributable to the weak economy.”

from Counterparties:

Sanctions mean business

Ben Walsh
Jun 4, 2014 21:26 UTC

BNP Paribas may soon find out the cost of allegedly violating US sanctions: about $10 billion. The US Justice Department is reportedly close to levying the biggest fine ever paid by a single bank against the French financial institution for doing business with countries like Sudan and Iran. The size of the punishment would far outstrip Credit Suisse’s $2.5 billion fine for helping Americans evade taxes. Like Credit Suisse, BNP is expected to plead guilty to criminal charges.

DealBook’s Jessica Silver Greenberg and Ben Protess report that several months ago BNP “thought it had a secret weapon to avoid that fate altogether”: a memo drafted in 2004 by outside counsel. Based on the memo, BNP executed transactions for Sudan, but attempted to exclude any US-based employees from the work. After reviewing the memo, however, US prosecutors determined that it did not cover the charges the bank faced: that it has processed transactions on behalf of Iran and Sudan through its US operations.

The French government’s reaction to the negotiations between BNP and US law enforcement has been rather fluid. Just two days ago, French officials were wary of politicizing the fine, at least publicly. Privately, however, the bank had been enlisting the support of French government officials for some time. Yesterday, that tactic seemed to shift into the media, with French foreign minister calling the potential fine “unfair and unilateral”. And today, the French finance minister called the penalty “inequitable”. French president Francois Hollande now plans to talk to President Obama about the “disproportionate” nature of the fine directly at a dinner commemorating D-Day on Friday. That’s not exactly, Bess Levin notes, a low-key way of raising the issue.

from Counterparties:

FIFA’s fouls

Ben Walsh
Jun 2, 2014 21:59 UTC

Soccer’s international governing body had a really bad weekend. Twelve days before FIFA kicks off the world’s largest sporting event in Brazil, the New York Timespublished details of alleged match fixing in the run up to the last World Cup in South Africa. Then the Sunday Times (paywall: see the Guardian) released the latest and most damningly detailed report of corruption in Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

The match-fixing report mixes seemingly amatuer criminal techniques with sophistication and global reach emanating from a Singaporean front company. FIFA’s report investigated a total of 15 games, and the report is remarkably blunt in its conclusion: “Were the listed matches fixed? On the balance of probabilities, yes!” For example, the day of a match between South Africa and Guatemala ahead of the 2010 World Cup, a referee for the game deposited $100,000 in $100 bills in a bank in South Africa. According to the NYT’s Declan Hill and Jere Longman, the referee put in a questionable performance: “Even to the casual fan, his calls were suspicious — he called two penalties for hand balls even though the ball went nowhere near the players’ hands”.

The NYT’s report comes on the back of several high-profile reports of match fixing.Earlier this year, a match fixer claimed his financial backing enabled Nigeria and Honduras to qualify for the last World Cup. In 2013, Europol detailed its suspicions regarding more than 380 club matches. Among those were games in the Champions League, the highest level of European club competition.

from The Great Debate:

What’s a leveraged ETF and what makes it dangerous?

Ben Walsh
May 30, 2014 20:36 UTC

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Larry Fink is sounding the alarm. The chairman and CEO of $4.4 trillion asset manager BlackRock is worried about leveraged ETFs (exchange-traded funds). Fink thinks they could “blow up the industry.” His statement is a little unclear, but the industry he's referring to is probably ETFs themselves, not the global financial system.

Blackrock is itself a huge player in ETFs, but Fink says they'll never get into leveraged version of the financial instruments.

So, what’s the difference between regular and leveraged ETFs?

Regular ETFs are designed to track the price of a specific set of securities, taking the place of traditional mutual funds that focuses on particular investment sectors or classes of stock. ETFs started in stocks, particularly indexes, but now cover all types of assets. In this way they are similar to a mutual or index fund, but can be bought or sold like a stock. Regular ETFs, particularly the ones that track broad indexes like the S&P 500, are pretty vanilla financial products. Sure, an index fund might be slightly better for achieving individual investment objectives, but ETFs generally have much lower fees than actively managed mutual funds.

from Counterparties:

GDFlop

Ben Walsh
May 29, 2014 22:25 UTC

US economic growth has gone negative for the first time in three years. Revisions to the estimate of first quarter GDP, out this morning, put growth for the first three months of the year an annual rate of -1%. The initial estimate, released at the end of April, had the economy growing just barely, at an annual rate of just 0.1%.

Time to panic? Not really. The Wire’s Ben Cosman has the headline that sums up the reaction: “The economy shrank at the start of 2014, but no one seems too worried”. For one thing, this winter was terrible. The reason to keep calm and carry on producing gross product, says the WSJ’s Steve Russolillo, is that the negative revision is mainly about that bad winter weather and slow inventory growth. (Weather alone could have cut GDP by 1.5%, Reuters reports). Neither should hold back the economy in the second quarter.

The bad inventory numbers may actually help: “Lean inventories mean companies will have to order new goods and supplies to meet any increase in demand”, writes the WSJ’s Kathleen Madigan. After this morning’s bad news, Goldman Sachs’ chief economist Jan Hatzius is increasing his second quarter GDP estimate from 3.7% to 3.9%. Other economists are doing the same. “I expect both residential investment and state and local governments to add to growth soon.  And even investment in nonresidential structures should turn positive”, says Bill McBride.

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