Opinion

Edward Hadas

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.

Stocks are not risk-free – their future prices are unpredictable. Corporate bonds might default. That leaves bonds issued by the most creditworthy governments. Financial modellers generally start with the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond. Some sophisticated practitioners now use inflation-protected bonds (called TIPS in the United States), but the theory was developed in the 1960s and 1970s, when such instruments did not exist. The theoretical need for a risk-free security was so great that the ravages of inflation were simply ignored.

But even TIPS do not offer a perfectly predictable and safe real return, because they rely on a somewhat arbitrary measure of inflation. Besides, if the U.S. government gets into serious enough trouble, it could decide to restructure its finances – perhaps eroding the real value of fixed debts through inflation or simply imposing a write-off on TIPS. But even if super-safe versions of TIPS could be designed, they wouldn’t solve the most substantial problem of a theory which starts with a risk-free rate. It looks at investments the wrong way.

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.

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.

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