Edward Hadas

Madoff/subprime – spot the difference

Edward Hadas
Jan 15, 2014 15:36 UTC

Bernard Madoff still has some magic. The public finds anything connected to the fraudster’s case fascinating, from a prison interview to JPMorgan’s agreement last week to pay $2.3 billion for Madoff-related sins. And why not? Madoff was a grandmaster of the confidence trick. But there is more to it than that. His way of doing business was alarmingly close to the perfectly legal practices which brought down the financial system in 2008.

To see that, compare Madoff to a hypothetical pre-crisis hedge fund manager – one with a special interest in U.S. subprime residential mortgage securities. The common tale starts with a commitment to provide higher returns than the economy can safely offer to financial investors. Both Madoff and the hedgie took in funds without making any specific promises, but their investors’ expectations were lofty.

Madoff, of course, knew that he could not live up to those expectations. That makes him smarter than the hedgie, who was either foolish, if he thought American house prices would keep rising for many years; or arrogant, if he was confident that he could sell out before the losses hit.

Both Madoff and the hedgie relied on the inability of most investors to accept deep in their hearts that market skills very rarely produce portfolios that massively outperform the overall market and the economy for a long time. It is not surprising that almost no one at JPMorgan was bothered by the consistent 10.5 percent annual returns. A similar complacency about investment returns cost investors far more in subprime losses. Financial engineers got away with claims that subprime housing could be turned into financial assets that combined high rewards with low risks.

When trying to attract funds, Madoff and the fictional hedgie made similarly exaggerated claims about their strategic expertise. Madoff just lied. The hedgie had to put together the data in a way that helped them tell clients what they wanted to hear. But gullible investors are all too often looking for a story that calmer souls would consider too good to be true. They are willing to trust doubtful claims, whether Madoff’s new wrinkle in options strategy or the hedgie’s new paradigm of housing finance.

How not to do healthcare

Edward Hadas
Dec 11, 2013 16:26 UTC

Almost every healthcare system in the world is a lesson in how not to do it. The pricing-based model fails miserably in the United States. The rationing model works almost as badly in the UK. Both fail in the core task of ensuring that the right healthcare goes to the right people.

Price systems should provide clear information to consumers and producers, helping both make sounder decisions. They can help make hard decision about what care is worth giving, but only if the prices accurately reflect the costs. But that doesn’t happen in American healthcare.

Every service and each drug has many prices, depending on who is providing and who is paying. Almost none of the prices bear any clear relation to costs. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the price of a dose of codeine ranges from $1 to $20 in San Francisco. Hospitals routinely send much higher bills to uninsured patients than to people with insurance. The uninsured have less ability to pay, but they have no clout pre-treatment and less clout than insurance companies in the inevitable post-bill negotiations.

Bitcoin is a step back not forward

Edward Hadas
Nov 27, 2013 16:00 UTC

The developers of bitcoin are trying to show that money can be successfully privatised. They will fail, because money that is not issued by governments is always doomed to failure. Money is inevitably a tool of the state.

Bitcoin relies on thoroughly contemporary technology. It consists of computer-generated tokens, with sophisticated algorithms guaranteeing the anonymity, transparency and integrity of transactions. However, the monetary philosophy behind this web-based phenomenon can be traced back to one of the oldest theories of money.

Economists have long declared that currencies are essentially a tool to increase the efficiency of barter, which they consider the foundation of all organised economic activity. On this view, money is a convenient instrument used by individuals to get things done. It is not inherently part of the apparatus of government.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Apple, hypocrisy and stakeholder tax

Edward Hadas
May 22, 2013 14:00 UTC

Apple is the latest multinational to feel the heat on cross-border tax management. The news that the tech giant used Irish law to lower U.S. tax payments should not have been surprising. After all, “Do no evil” Google had no second thoughts about recording what were essentially British sales as Irish, for the sake of a lower tax rate. It’s hardly likely that Apple, which has cultivated a certain anti-establishment air, would have hesitated.

Indeed, until a few months ago, I don’t think there was a corporate treasurer anywhere who would have taken justice into account when deciding on tax strategy. At most, there might be worries about bad publicity, but the well-established corporate practice of tax dodging had generated little attention.

And who would complain? Lower taxes on profit bring benefits to most people connected with companies; the money that doesn’t go to the government goes to workers, customers and shareholders. Besides, most experts who understand the arcane rules of international taxation are paid to use them to keep payments down.