Opinion

Edward Hadas

Not all banks are alike

Edward Hadas
Jul 30, 2014 14:38 UTC

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Competition is fierce for the Bankers’ Bad Behaviour Award. Rate-rigging, client-fleecing, dishonest documentation, reckless trading and exorbitant pay were all widespread before the 2008 financial crisis, and faulty practices have proven remarkably persistent. It sounds like there is something wrong with all banks. The ethical problem, though, is not universal.

Many of today’s lenders do have deep and disconcerting similarities. Their culture has been shaped by a faulty ideology, the cult of the market. They believe that society gains from fierce competition among firms which aim only at maximising returns for shareholders. Leaders of such enterprises only pretend to care about the future for marketing purposes and think they have no ethical responsibilities beyond obeying the letter of the law.

Business people often profess belief in this creed, but in practice they typically rely far more on cooperation than on competition. They work in organisations which are mostly meritocratic bureaucracies that aim to minimise internal strife. Regulations and common standards limit the scope and intensity of fights for business with other organisations.

Banking used to be much like other industries; competition played a relatively minor role. Most banks’ prime goal was the provision of mutual financial aid for a fairly narrow group of people: local businessmen or farmers, church members, labour unions or residents of a neighbourhood or region.

Growth in a rich and crowded world

Edward Hadas
Jul 23, 2014 14:23 UTC

Perky, productive robots, or nothing more than a few new smartphone apps? Cascading innovation, or just a few tweaks? Economists and technologists are debating what the future holds.

Pessimists like Robert Gordon of Northwestern University see decades of slow growth ahead, with little scope for big leaps forward. The optimists, among them Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expect new technological glories. Both sides are more wrong than right.

Everyone is wrong when the wrangling is numerical. Arguments based on GDP and productivity growth are too circular to resolve anything. A main cause of any slowdown in reported productivity numbers is a judgment that innovations are becoming less valuable. So a reported slowdown cannot logically be used to support the argument that technology is advancing more sluggishly.

Google, privacy and the common good

Edward Hadas
Jul 9, 2014 14:41 UTC

The public has a right to know. Individuals have a right to privacy. The common good is served by both these contradictory statements, so someone has to decide how to balance them when they come into conflict. When it comes to internet search, the European Union’s Court of Justice has given the job to search engine providers such as Google. In a way, that’s a good call.

The court decided in May that some internet links deserve to be “forgotten” because certain data can over time become “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”. The search operators were held responsible, in the first instance, for judging whether to grant requests to remove links.

The court’s decision creates a mess, because it provides no practical guidance. Still, it made a clear step forward in the endless debate between “the legitimate interest of internet users” and “the right to protection of personal data” by recognising that search engines have changed the meaning of privacy.

The stupidity of student debt

Edward Hadas
Jul 2, 2014 14:31 UTC

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The fast increase in loans to pay for higher education is a trend that is moving in the wrong direction. The idea that borrowing should play an important role in financing higher education, now standard thinking in the United States and the United Kingdom, is financially dangerous and economically wrongheaded.

Overall, American households are deleveraging. Most notably, U.S. mortgage debt outstanding has fallen to 51 percent from 71 percent of GDP since the end of 2008, according to survey data from the New York Federal Reserve. However, over the same period the ratio of student loans to GDP increased to 5.7 percent from 4.3 percent. The $1 trillion now outstanding is economically significant. In England, the ratio of student loans to GDP is only about half as high as in the United States, but the 80 percent increase over the last five years has been even faster.

Housing, the ultimate momentum trade

Edward Hadas
Jun 25, 2014 14:47 UTC

What will happen next in the housing market? The question comes up all the time in many countries, for an obvious reason: house prices jump around too fast for the good of the economy.

The price hyperactivity does not follow a uniform pattern around the world. Look at the indices of average prices for dwellings by nation, adjusted for inflation, compiled by the Bank for International Settlements. Since 2000, the real average price is up by 63 percent in the UK, by 49 percent in Switzerland and by 12 percent in the United States. The average Dutch price declined by 7 percent. In Germany, though, there has been so little house price action that BIS could only find data back to 2003. Since then, the average German price is down by a tiny 1 percent in real terms.

Basic economic indicators – GDP growth, employment levels and general price levels – can explain almost none of this variation. The patterns in the American and European economies over the last 13 years have been far more similar than the house price trends.

Market failure can be sign of fatigue

Edward Hadas
Jun 11, 2014 14:17 UTC

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Modern economies work to meet consumers’ needs. So if needs are not met, that must be an economic failure, right? Healthcare suggests otherwise. Sometimes, unhelpful ideologies get in the way of economics delivering the goods.

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) – also known as myalgic encephalopathy (ME) – is a case in point. The economic benefit of treating this difficult condition should be material for patients, drugmakers and society. Yet the treatment is poor.

A corporate abdication of corruption

Edward Hadas
Jun 4, 2014 14:39 UTC

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Allegations of corruption did not exactly cost King Juan Carlos the Spanish throne, but they probably played a role in his decision to abdicate. A popular desire for change was fuelled in part by claims of a 5.6 million euro fraud by his son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, who denies any wrongdoing. The resulting dynastic change may be considered a sign that corruption has become less acceptable. That would be a misreading.

Actually, it is hard to decide whether corruption is waxing or waning globally, because the concept is hard to define. A Danish anti-corruption group’s explanation captures the ambiguity: “Corruption is a broad term covering a wide range of misuse of entrusted funds and power for private gain… A corrupt act is often – but not necessarily – illegal. In handling corruption you will often face grey zones and dilemmas.”

The problem with the Piketty problem

Edward Hadas
May 28, 2014 14:06 UTC

If a man is suspected of murder, arson and speeding, any prosecutor who focuses only on the last charge risks ridicule. That imagined situation has some bearing on recent criticism of Thomas Piketty, the best-selling French anti-inequality economist. The accusations are largely restricted to ways in which he has exceeded the limits of his data.

The Financial Times, the most prominent critic, has identified possible compilation mistakes and biased adjustments in Piketty’s statistics on the history of wealth distribution. This is potentially a bit sloppy, but beyond that it’s hard to get too excited. Revising the questionable numbers would not change the basic conclusion that wealth has become more concentrated in most countries over the last three decades.

More importantly, though, all Piketty’s wealth data suffers from a much more fundamental error: It cannot be telling us what he says it does. In his widely praised book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, he concludes that elites are becoming wealthier and more powerful at the expense of the rest of the population. However, wealth information alone, based on the market value of financial holdings and other real assets, can’t validate that claim. Incomes and, importantly, social factors also need to be considered.

Three Ms for economics re-education

Edward Hadas
May 21, 2014 15:10 UTC

Many economics students are unhappy with what they are being taught. A network of 62 groups from around the world has drawn up a petition calling for more “pluralism” in instruction. The malcontents find the dominant neoclassical model too narrow and want to know why so few experts predicted the 2008 financial crisis. They also want less abstract theory and more study of actual economies. The reproaches are just, but the students’ reform agenda is insufficiently radical.

They underestimate the scale of the intellectual scandal. The profession’s ignoble tradition started in the 19th century, when most political economists, as they were then known, failed to notice that industry was leading to massive improvements in the standard of living. Today’s practitioners know much more, but they still struggle to explain the most basic phenomena – prices, wages, money, credit, unemployment and development.

Pluralism, the study of alternative schools of economic thought, would help, but not much. With the partial exception of the still underdeveloped study of institutional economics, the available alternatives to the neoclassical synthesis largely rely on the same erroneous assumptions that humans are rational and that market forces almost exclusively shape economies.

AstraZeneca is no one’s property

Edward Hadas
May 13, 2014 09:12 UTC

Pfizer’s planned offer for AstraZeneca is a poor test case for almost any big question about big corporate acquisitions. The weaknesses of everyone involved in the potential deal only bring out the futility of the whole idea that big companies have owners.

The would-be American acquirer, the British target, the UK government and whole pharmaceutical industry are all tainted. They are guilty, respectively, of a tax fixation, cutting research, empty words and inadequate drug discovery. So there is really no one with the moral authority to say whether this is a good deal.

But the whole debate is marred by the law, which leaves the final decision to only one group, the equity shareholders. The squealing politicians and whinging scientists can be cast as intruders, interfering with the rights of these owners. That is wrong. Shareholders should not decide, because the law is economically wrong. The typical large company does not have owners.

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