Opinion

Edward Hadas

America says it has got poorer. That’s rich

Edward Hadas
Sep 25, 2013 14:45 UTC

The U.S. Census Bureau says the median American household’s income was 1.3 percent lower in 2012 than in 1989 after adjusting for inflation. That suggests stagnant American consumption for the last 24 years. That assertion is not as ridiculous as North Korean propaganda about the United States – “their houses blow down very easily and they have to live in tents” – but it’s still misleading.

To start, the country is currently enjoying the fruits of major technological advances in electronics. In 1989, there were almost no mobile phones. Today, more than 90 percent of American adults have one, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project – and more than half of those phones count as “smart”. The same project estimates that about 70 percent of U.S. adults are daily internet users, compared to zero in 1989.

Considering the increased consumption of electronic goods, a typical American household could only be poorer now than then if there were matching declines in the consumption of other goods and services. But none of the statistics I could find shows this. On the contrary.

Housing? The government calculates that the average living space per person in the U.S. increased by 15 percent between 1985 and 2005. The newer and bigger dwellings are still standing, so the subsequent housing market bust could not have eliminated the gain, and the increase is far too large to be accounted for entirely by the spread of so-called McMansions for the richest sliver of the population.

Travel? No way. Both car and airline miles travelled per person are up about 12 percent since 1989. Also, overall quality has improved, despite decaying highways. Planes are quieter; cars are both more powerful (80 percent more horsepower on average) and more fuel efficient (11 percent higher miles per gallon).

Has quantitative easing worked?

Edward Hadas
Sep 4, 2013 15:05 UTC

It is nearly five years since the U.S. Federal Reserve slid into quantitative easing, the deployment of artificially created money into the bond market. QE and a prolonged period of near-zero interest rates have been the highlights of post-crisis monetary policy. That era is far from over, but it has lasted long enough for a preliminary judgment of monetary policy – especially as the Fed says it is now preparing to “taper” its bond purchases. My verdict: QE could have been worse, and it should have been better.

We know that policymakers might have done a worse job, because that is what they did in 1929, the last time a cross-border credit boom ended in a cross-border credit bust. Today’s central bankers have done better than their professional ancestors. In the 1930s, central bankers in many countries presided over debilitating deflation, and failed to prevent banking crises. This time, prices have neither collapsed nor exploded, and Lehman Brothers was the only big financial institution to topple.

While monetary policy helped stabilise economic and financial conditions, government bank rescues, large fiscal deficits and the automatic benefits of welfare states all played more important roles. The central banks’ support of weak institutions, and, in the euro zone, of weak governments was more important than their monetary policy.

The overvaluing of overwork

Edward Hadas
Aug 29, 2013 16:12 UTC

Moritz Erhardt has become a tragic symbol. The 21-year-old summer intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch was found dead on Aug. 15 at his rented London apartment. There is no official report of what happened, but coworkers blogged that Erhardt died after working three consecutive 20-hour days. Whether or not that is true, the tragedy has prompted a worthwhile debate about the work culture in banking and other high-pressure professions.

Erhardt’s schedule was not extraordinary for the ambitious young people who are trying to advance on the fast track at investment banks, law firms, consultancies and other practitioners of long working hours. The normal career starts with a period of white-collar slavery: 80 or more hours a week of drudgery in air-conditioned offices, with occasional breaks for take-away meals. The tasks eventually become more interesting, but the years of mega-hours drag on. Later, workers often have lives of privileged desperation: lots of money, luxuriant houses and holidays, and a trail of damage.

Deaths from overwork are rare. But exhaustion, family breakdowns and substance abuse are common in high-stress jobs with ultra-long days. The extent of the gradual degradation of character – intelligent and interesting people reduced to narrow-minded careerists – is a matter of ongoing debate.

A dangerous lie about debt

Edward Hadas
Aug 21, 2013 09:41 UTC

I have spent much of the last five years searching for financial villains. The 2008 crisis and the extremely slow subsequent economic recovery have exposed a deeply flawed system, and some people, groups or ideas must be responsible.

There are many obvious culprits: greedy bankers, undercapitalised banks, lax monetary policymakers, reckless governments, weak international institutions and imprudent lenders and borrowers. They’re all guilty, but some of the worst offenders are intellectual – the dangerous ideas that encouraged overconfidence during the credit bubble and ineffective policy in the aftermath. Financial theory is a big problem. In particular, I accuse the risk-free rate of return of being the devil’s work.

Some aspects of the theory have already received a great deal of criticism, but the complaints are mostly quite technical. Beta, or market return, is too often dressed up as alpha, the extra return attributed to an investor’s skill (or luck) picking particular investments. And the distribution of daily returns is actually not mathematically normal, as much of the theory assumes. But I think the problem starts right at the beginning, with the assumption that there is a readily available, perfectly safe investment. The theory basically compares the range of likely returns on every other investment to the certain gain from the risk-free alternative. Additional returns are expected to compensate for additional risk.

UK’s economic woes are basically social

Edward Hadas
Aug 14, 2013 09:23 UTC

Four decades ago, everyone knew that the UK had a social problem. Class divisions stunted the development of a substantial, well-educated middle class, leaving the economy in a strangely Victorian state – divided between a gruff working class, which was prone to strikes and obstruction; and the incompetent elite, which seemed unable to adjust to the end of Empire.

Times have certainly changed. Britain is now prosperous and predominantly middle class. Union strangleholds have given way to flexible labour markets. The country is a magnet for global talent, drawn by a cosmopolitan culture, not to mention the use of the leading global language. High value-added international services are its speciality.

But something is still wrong. A country with so many advantages should be doing better. Think Switzerland – another country of social peace, high skills and a post-industrial economy. The Swiss run a hefty trade surplus. The country has a very low unemployment rate, low inflation and a fiscal surplus. The nation’s biggest monetary challenge is to keep the currency from rising.

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.

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.

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