Edward Hadas

Imagine a world without debt

Edward Hadas
Aug 7, 2013 09:32 UTC

I have a dream: a world without debt, and with much more equity. It’s not just that summer holidays are a good time for fantasising. The fifth anniversary of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy is a month away, and regulators have recently forced both Deutsche Bank and Barclays to issue more shares.

Some regulators’ beach thoughts may drift to the magic numbers of bank capital ratios. My approach is less technical and more philosophical. I wonder why the financial system relies so much on debt. Loans and bonds are poorly designed for their primary economic purpose – investment.

This observation may sound shocking. Interest-bearing debt is considered totally normal. Financial theory unquestioningly treats risk-free debt as the standard instrument. Savers usually compare all investments to a similar standard: safe bank accounts which pay a steady interest rate.

But a little reflection on the real economy shows that the typical debt arrangement is an unfortunate holdover from a more primitive age. Loans are unnecessarily distant from economic reality. If we were starting now, we would never rely on such rigid instruments to fund investments.

To start, loans carry a maturity mismatch, because temporary debt funds permanent investments. Depositors can take money out of banks, banks can pull lines of credit and loans are supposed to be repaid or refinanced at maturity. But the factories the credit finances cannot then be unbuilt. The research cannot be undone and the people cannot be untrained.

Detroit, decay and solidarity

Edward Hadas
Jul 31, 2013 14:29 UTC

The bankruptcy of the city of Detroit has many causes, including poor management, industrial history and dysfunctional American sociology. I think there is also an ethical problem: too little cross-border solidarity.

I don’t want to downplay the other failures. A more competent city government would have addressed, rather than added to, the problems. The U.S. car industry proved a disastrously weak economic anchor. And without widespread racism, there would have been fewer ghettoised African-Americans.

Still, the economic and sociological poison has not been spread equally. On the contrary, it is concentrated inside the legal borders of the city of Detroit. The Detroit of common speech and common sense – the big blob on a national map, the urban area served by a single international airport – has suffered much less.

Static in the electricity market

Edward Hadas
Jul 24, 2013 13:41 UTC

Let me start with a confession. I do not fully understand what the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says Barclays did wrong in the U.S. electricity market, and I am not entirely sure about the claimed misdeeds of JPMorgan. But my inability may well have less to do with my inadequacies than with the fundamental futility of trying to use financial markets to set the price of electricity.

Very approximately, FERC says Barclays sold electricity in order to manipulate a price index in ways that created profit on related positions in a related financial market. The UK bank plans to contest the $453 million judgment. According to news reports, JPMorgan is about to agree to pay almost as much to settle charges that it unfairly solicited “make whole” payments, which compensate utilities for setting up but not actually running power plants on a particular day.

I am not competent to judge the banks’ legal and moral culpability, because the details are little short of diabolical. The jargon includes the “volume-weighted average price of the dailies’ trading”, not to mention spot markets, day ahead markets, physical positions, fixed-to-floating contracts and nodes. Still, FERC’s summary of electricity trading in its latest annual review suggests there is problem. Purely financial strategies can easily play an unhealthily large role in a market where, according to the watchdog, financial volumes represented about 100 times the physical volumes.

Fear, greed and bank capital

Edward Hadas
Jul 17, 2013 14:27 UTC

Buildings should be strong enough to withstand storms and earthquakes. Similarly, banks should be able to remain upright after massive waves of losses. Engineers have a pretty good idea of how to make skyscrapers strong. The regulators and lawmakers who set the rules for big banks are still struggling, five years after the government rescue of many American and European banks.

Bankers and their defenders say that the struggle is over. The financial structures have been reinforced: deeper capital foundations, new supports added and weak materials removed. But many critics point out that the banks have not done the one thing necessary – to double or triple the ratio of shareholders’ equity to total assets. That is the only sure way, they say, to guarantee that large losses on loans do not threaten the ability of the institution to remain standing.

I think the critics are largely right. As economists Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig explain in their book, The Bankers’ New Clothes, the bankers’ almost instinctive aversion to equity protects bonuses and shareholders at the expense of the general public. Still, in my view banks have a more fundamental problem than poor capital structures. It is society’s unreasonable expectations of what they can accomplish.

Get used to zombie economics

Edward Hadas
Jul 10, 2013 12:15 UTC

Zombies are neither really alive nor fully dead. Moviegoers know that, but the idea is also useful in demographics and economics. Although economic zombification receives little attention, its effects could be as important as monetary policy, fiscal deficits and structural reforms.

The demographic trends are well known. For the past three or four decades in most developed economies, the number of children born has been too low, often by a wide margin, to keep the population constant. Japan is the leader in this decline. Indeed, the zombification of the Japanese population could well be the most dramatic such shift in history, at least during a period of peace, prosperity and good health.

Of course, Tokyo and Osaka are not actually filled with walking, flesh-eating corpses. But as in a horror film, the nation’s life-force is waning. Over the last decade, the number of Japanese people aged between 20 and 25 years old has declined by 22 percent. Since there is almost no immigration, the demographic future is easy to predict: another 22 percent drop over the next 20 years.

China’s wisdom on GDP growth

Edward Hadas
Jul 3, 2013 12:10 UTC

“We should no longer evaluate the performance of leaders simply by GDP growth. Instead, we should look at welfare improvement, social development and environmental indicators.” That is a fine piece of wisdom from Xi Jinping, China’s president. Leaders of developed economies can learn from it.

Xi was speaking to a domestic audience about the choice of leaders within the ruling Communist Party. The desire for people who are “devoted fighters for the socialism with Chinese characteristics” is distinctly local, but Xi identified a fact which transcends all Chinese characteristics: GDP is a poor measure of economic progress.

Actually, for China, GDP is modestly helpful. In a country still so poor, increases in output correlate well with genuine economic improvements: factories and farms producing more and better goods, enterprises offering more and better services, and so on. Still, Xi is right that China is ready to outgrow this crude indicator. The idea is all the more relevant in richer economies, where GDP growth is a terrible measure of economic progress.

Salaries good, big bonuses bad

Edward Hadas
Jun 26, 2013 14:14 UTC

The pay arrangements for top executives are far too complicated. I have a very simple proposal: abandon almost everything but fixed cash salaries.

It would be a big change. The most recent report from Carol Bowie of Institutional Shareholder Services shows that in 2010 salary amounted to only 17 percent of total compensation for the top people at the biggest publicly held U.S. corporations. The proportion has plunged, from 50 percent in 1993, according to Martin Conyon, a professor of management at Wharton, who used slightly different data. The other four-fifths of the remuneration package is typically composed of bonuses, share grants, share options, pension contributions and perks.

The preference for complicated contingent pay arrangements is based on four mistakes: about psychology, bureaucracy, uncertainty and the stock market.

Rate rigging costs more than money

Edward Hadas
Jun 19, 2013 14:41 UTC

Here are some depressing figures: 133, 20, 4, 3 and 1. They are the most recent key counts in what might be the most alarming of all the financial scandals since the 2008 crisis, the sometimes successful efforts of traders to rig benchmark rates.

The first four numbers come from Singapore; they count up, respectively the traders, institutions, years and rates involved in attempted manipulation in the city-state. The one is for Tom Hayes, the first and so far only trader to face criminal charges for messing with the Libor interest rate. Investigations of possible unfair play in energy-price benchmarks are continuing, but it is already clear that too many traders in too many markets tried too often to profit by manipulating supposedly objective readings of market conditions.

In cash terms, the machinations are hardly a problem. In comparison to the hundreds of billions lost and the score of institutions capsized by reckless speculation made before the 2008 financial crisis, any losses – the Singapore authorities say that rates there stayed honest – were microscopic. While the distortions of one-hundredth of a percent were large enough to enrich a few traders, they were too small to make anyone else noticeably poorer, or to add much to the profits of the banks which employed the crooked traders.

Social media sets us free, or not

Edward Hadas
Jun 12, 2013 14:15 UTC

Modern history can be told as a story of new communications technologies which both undermine authority and reinforce the power of the state. The last week has shown that the Internet and social media are playing these two roles well.

Start with the contrasting historical narratives. In the 15th century, printing undermined the autocratic Catholic Church. A few centuries later, cheaper printing made possible the newspapers and pamphlets which helped destroy monarchies and then spread democracy, nationalism and revolution around the world. Telephones and now the Internet have sped up the process.

But there is also the expanding state. Printing allowed central governments to set up and monitor extensive bureaucracies. Cheaper printing gave governments the means to take control of the education and indoctrination of children. Add in telephones, communicating computers and now the Internet, and liberal governments feel free to set up an extensive bureaucracy which monitors and guides almost any aspect of life.

Bond markets and failed theory

Edward Hadas
Jun 5, 2013 14:00 UTC

In theory, interest rates are one of the jewels of capitalist economies. The theory has been well tested over the past half-century, and it has failed. Interest rates have become a mark of shame. The recent increase in yields on government bonds in much of the world – by a quarter, from 1.65 percent to 2.1 percent since the beginning of May for 10-year U.S. government bonds – is only the latest chapter in a long and depressing story.

The theory starts well, with a plausible behavioural generalisation. A lower interest rate encourages less saving and more consumption today, while a higher rate encourages saving now and boosts consumption in the future. But the theoreticians are not content with that; they want mathematical precision. They get it by adding some extraordinarily unlikely assumptions about knowledge, uncertainty, defaults, growth, and inflation.

The result is almost magical: a single “natural” interest rate which serves as a sort of economic fulcrum. At this ideal rate, saving and consumption are supposed to be balanced correctly, and the financial system is perfectly aligned with the real economy of making and selling.