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.

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.

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.

Russia and the unreliable West

Edward Hadas
Mar 12, 2014 16:13 UTC

The revival of East-West tension over Ukraine looks thoroughly geopolitical. But the context is bad economics. In the last century, Russia was damaged by flawed ideologies which originated in the West. And today it is damaged by Western economic policy.

It is easy for Western Europeans and Americans to look down on the Russian economy. Since the breakup of the USSR, the nation’s real GDP per person has increased at a 3.9 percent annual rate. That is a modest accomplishment for a middle-income country with a great deal of resource income. While Ukraine’s 1.7 percent growth rate is even worse, Armenia, Poland and Romania have all grown faster than Russia.

Now look at it from the other side: what the West has given Russia. There are good things, from markets for energy exports to many types of sophisticated technology. However, these positives are dwarfed by two disastrous ideologies in the past and two selfish and hostile policies in the present.

How hunger and obesity go together

Edward Hadas
Feb 26, 2014 15:32 UTC

Global hunger is shrinking. Yet each winter operators of food banks in rich countries like the United States and Britain speak movingly of the plight of those who must choose between heating and eating. The desperation seen by Feeding America and the British Trussell Trust is real enough, but this is not a massive economic failure. The weakness is predominantly social.

When people do not have enough to eat, there are three possible causes: an inadequate food production system, a bad political choice or poor personal arrangements. Through most of history, the first problem was the most important cause of hunger. However, as the economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, food shortages can no longer be acts of nature.

The reason for Sen’s judgment is that nature has been tamed. More than enough food is already produced globally to feed all the people, and the technology of food transport and storage is sufficiently advanced to get the food to those who need it most. When that does not happen, there must be a human problem. Within a country, a shortage of food comes down to a failure of government to serve the governed. Internationally, it is a failure of the strong countries to help the weak.

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