Opinion

Edward Hadas

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.”

That sounds about right, and the grey zone is large. A bribe, for example the sort of payment alleged to have contributed to Qatar’s selection as host nation for the 2022 soccer World Cup, is obviously corrupt. But what about a consulting arrangement that channels a substantial portion of the revenue from an oil well to someone with excellent political connections? In the country with the oil, such payments can be perfectly legal and socially accepted remuneration for services rendered. Outsiders see a corrupt power and business elite.

The Danish group was not considering the huge pay packets of corporate chief executives, but they seem to qualify as at least grey. Like a consulting contract, the money in question is considered a legal and socially accepted remuneration for services rendered. However, outsiders usually see a corrupt power and business elite. The seals of approval from remuneration committees and consultants only make the corruption look more deeply entrenched.

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.

Shhh – don’t talk about higher taxes

Edward Hadas
May 7, 2014 14:53 UTC

By Edward Hadas

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

Many people assume that tax increases are the only realistic response to excessive income inequality. They are wrong. There is a better way.

The International Monetary Fund first came out in favour of greater “redistribution,” a code word for higher taxes, in February. It joins the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which issued a big document decrying the privileged position of the richest residents of rich countries in 2011. The OECD has just called for “policies to restore equal opportunities,” another code for higher taxes.

Apple’s many magic tricks

Edward Hadas
Apr 30, 2014 15:22 UTC

Apple is in the news for borrowing $12 billion this week, even though it has $151 billion of cash on its balance sheet. The financial legerdemain will keep the technology giant’s tax bill down. It also is suitable for a company whose business model has long looked more like a magic act than a traditional corporate drama.

Of course, Apple has, or had, one of the necessary attributes of any successful enterprise: a strong competitive advantage. The California company’s edge comes from a synergistic mix of design expertise, marketing genius and supply chain mastery.

There is also a bit of technological expertise, but that’s where the magic starts. Apple is a tech star which skimps on the industry’s lifeblood, research and development. The 2.7 percent of revenue dedicated to R&D in the first half of the company’s current fiscal year is puny compared to phone rival Samsung Electronics’ 6 percent-plus and double-digit percentages at Google and Microsoft.

Inheritance can be less unequal

Edward Hadas
Apr 23, 2014 14:39 UTC

The children of the poor tend to end up poor. The children of the elite seem pre-ordained to inherit a good part of their parents’ status and income. Is that just?

Things aren’t as bad as they were. In developed economies, social stratification has far less effect on children today than a century ago. The modern gulf is between developed and developing economies. In rich countries most people are middle class and the gap in lifestyle and education between poor and rich has narrowed.

Still, family remains a big part of destiny. That’s especially true in the United States, in spite of its claim to being a land of opportunity. A recent paper by Raj Chetty and other economists found a strong tendency for American children to end up in about the same position as their parents in the hierarchy of income. An international comparison by Jo Blanden of the University of Surrey concluded that the economic weight of inheritance in the United States is currently relatively high among affluent countries.

Don’t bother with share-based pay

Edward Hadas
Apr 16, 2014 12:13 UTC

Coca-Cola’s plan to give generous awards of shares to executives has angered some of its shareholders. They have good reason to complain about the potential transfer of about 15 percent of the company to the top 1 percent of its staff. But Coke is only pushing the already bad idea of share-based pay to a foolish extreme.

The justification for paying workers in their employer’s paper is simple and superficially appealing. Worker-owners might be more motivated to push for higher profit than if they just received salaries, even salaries which have bonuses in the millions tied to company performance.

The argument relies on a narrow view of corporate purpose: the sole goal is to maximise the share price, that is, the present value of future profit. Even if that doubtful assertion is accepted, the connection between an individual worker’s contribution and the movement of the share price is too weak for stock awards to motivate behaviour.

When credit is too much of a good thing

Edward Hadas
Apr 9, 2014 15:00 UTC

What does credit do after it has finished the job it was designed for? The supply of credit ought to stop at funding productive activity. But the reality is different. Surplus credit fuels dangerous asset price inflation and funds profligate governments. As leverage increases, so too does the risk of crisis and recession.

Credit, otherwise known as debt or loans, is not necessarily monstrous. It can be a most helpful economic beast of burden, carrying resources to the places where they can be best used. Loans from households to businesses fund helpful investments, and loans from rich older households to poor younger ones help spread property, especially houses and cars, more equitably. Even loans to governments can be a useful alternative to taxes.

However, credit too easily goes astray and there is no natural force to rein it in. Without firm regulatory guidance, credit seems to expand indefinitely, until the financial system explodes. That has been the pattern since the end of the Second World War.

Wealth buys less lifestyle, more power

Edward Hadas
Apr 2, 2014 14:39 UTC

Many serious people think economic inequality in the United States and other developed economies should be a hot political topic. But the general public hardly cares. There is a bad reason behind lack of public interest.

President Barack Obama said last December that a “dangerous and growing inequality” is “the defining issue of our time,” but the most recent Gallup poll suggests that view is not widely shared. Only 3 percent of Americans chose the “gap between rich and poor” as the country’s “most important problem” and 4 percent went for poverty. Unemployment scored 19 percent.

The American indifference is surprising because the measured increase in inequality there has been relatively large by international standards, to judge from the recent Chartbook of Economic Inequality from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School. But the lack of concern is widespread. Neither help-the-poor nor soak-the-rich politicians have gained much traction in any rich country.

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