Counterparties: Breaking up, with Sheila Bair

By Ben Walsh
May 25, 2012

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Sheila Bair, never too shy to make modest proposals, thinks that JPMorgan Chase should voluntarily split itself up:

[The] bank is worth more in smaller, easier-to-manage pieces. Let’s face it, making a competitive return on equity is going to become even harder for megabanks as their capital requirements go up, their trading and derivatives activities are reined in, and their cost of borrowing rises as bond investors recognize that too-big-too-fail is over.

Or, as David Merkel puts it in a different context: “complexity has a price; avoid it unless well compensated for it”. And, Felix notes, setting the Volcker Rule aside, if a business requires complexity and opacity to generate profit, it should be spun out of too-big-to-fail institutions. That would be a complex task, but things only grow murkier once a firm has failed.

The FDIC continues to clarify its resolution authority and currently thinks the best method to handle the failure of a large, complex financial institution is to place the “parent company into receivership and to pass its assets, principally investments in its subsidiaries, to a newly created bridge holding company”. Stephen Lubben doubts that the hundreds of billions of dollars in private debtor-in-possession financing required for a tidy resolution to work would be available during a financial crisis.

Daniel Tarullo, the Fed’s resident guru on such matters, argues that it’s not simple to preserve short-term funding and market confidence without an injection of government capital. Ben Walsh

On to today’s links:

Armed with special privileges, the Department of Agriculture is an unusually hard-nosed debt collector – WSJ

EU Mess
Bankia, Spain’s fourth-largest lender, expected to ask for an additional $19 billion bailout – Reuters
German bonds are turning Japanese – FT Alphaville

People said Wall Street research was worthless – now we’re worried that it’s too valuable – The American Conservative
Reminder: Spending a month’s salary on an IPO is always a bad idea – Bloomberg
Henry Blodget reports that Morgan Stanley bashed Henry Blodget on a firmwide conference call – Business Insider

None of the directors on JPMorgan’s risk committee have worked at a bank or as financial risk managers – Bloomberg

Pakistan provides 12 weeks more paid maternity leave than the US – Think Progress

Unfortunate Because It’s True
Study confirms that Germans are incapable of enjoying life – Der Spiegel

AOL campus squatter receives seed funding – CNET

Stuff We’re Not Linking To
Comparing Facebook to Bernie Madoff – Barry Ritholtz

More From Felix Salmon
Post Felix
The Piketty pessimist
The most expensive lottery ticket in the world
The problems of HFT, Joe Stiglitz edition
Private equity math, Nuveen edition
Five explanations for Greece’s bond yield
22 comments so far

Ben – so is the comparison to Pakistan meant to say that we’ve made the right choice, seeing that the Pakistani economy is over-regulated and under-performing compared to the U.S. economy? Let’s also not forget high levels of corruption in Pakistan. Summing it all up, Pakistan ranks #105 on the World Bank ease of doing business rankings, while the U.S. is #4, so I don’t think that this comparison proves what you or Think Progress believe it does.

The U.S. also, BTW, has both a higher fertility rate and a higher female workforce participation rate than almost all Western European countries, which suggests that our approach is working well.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

@ realist50 “The U.S. also, BTW, has both a higher fertility rate … is working well.”

Uhh — what? Since when is fertility rate the measure of the success of a country? By that standard, I guess a place like Ethiopia is knocking it out of the park.

This is why civilization is doomed. At the very same time that we’re running out of oil and worrying about global climate change, we have geniuses telling us that every country should strive to have even more children.

Posted by handleym99 | Report as abusive

“The FDIC continues to clarify its resolution authority and currently thinks the best method to handle the failure of a large, complex financial institution is to place the “parent company into receivership and to pass its assets, principally investments in its subsidiaries, to a newly created bridge holding company.”

Might I make a small suggestion here. A perennial problem society has with corporations (and similarly with interactions with other nations) is punishment for transgressions.

Anyone whose read even the most basic behavioral economics stuff knows all about the importance of punishment: eg
- most collaboration only works because defectors are punished and
- people REALLY care about seeing defectors punished, and are unwilling to support social systems where they perceive defectors as constantly going unpunished.

Forward to corporations (and to nations). In both these cases we have an initial problem — how do you punish corporate bodies? How do you punish “Greece” or “JP Morgan”? We’re (for the most part, and sometimes with good reason) reluctant to punish the leaders, but attempts to punish everyone (all inhabitants, all employees or stockholders) are just as problematic.
The sort of situation FDIC is talking is talking about here (dismember the corporation) is so extreme that it it’s only proposed after the organization has failed. It would be nice to have something less extreme for organizations that haven’t failed; and in the absence of something less extreme, IMHO, corporations know that they can get away with a constant stream of scofflaw behavior, especially when it’s of the shareholder-screwing-over form, precisely because the only common remedy is fining the company, and taking money from the company is basically just one more insult to the shareholders.

The most successful solutions I see looking over history are solutions that take away something that matters to the corporate body but not much to most of the individuals that comprise it (employees and shareholders), that is sovereignty.
When IBM, or MS, to take probably the two best examples, engaged in anti-trust behavior, they were ring-fenced with a number of restrictions on what they could do. The appropriate point of these restrictions, IMHO, was not that they improved consumer welfare or undid past malfeasance; it is that they acted as the closest thing to jail time that I can think of at the corporate level — restrictions of freedom to act as one wishes.

What this tells me is that we CAN do a whole lot better, at both the corporate control level and the state co-operation level — but to do so we have to throw away some cherished myths and accept a different slant on matters. We have to
- accept that defectors (whether corporations acting against the public interest, or states acting against the trans-national interest) SHOULD be punished
- accept that in many cases, the appropriate punishment (since we are punishing a corporate body) is to strip away sovereignty
- figure out various ways in which sovereignty can be stripped away, including, among other things, establishing a hierarchy of degrees of punishment for degrees of malfeasance.

IMHO these things should not be controversial (though of course they will be). But they do, let us note, not actually match the way things are done right now. For example, reducing the sovereignty of a company is a very rare occurrence (so much for punishment should be “rapid and certain”), and it’s not phrased or treated as I have described — a punishment of the corporate body rather than an attempt to increase competition — so arguments about it proceed along the lines of “MS is no longer dominant in browsers so they should be allowed to compete with the browser built into the OS, just like Apple does with iOS” rather than the more sensible “MS did something wrong and the appropriate punishment is to lose the ability to control this aspect of their OS for N years”.

We all know just how much whining will occur as soon as the issue of loss of (some) sovereignty (for some period of time) as a punishment is mooted as part of future treaties. The same right wing that never saw a (non-white-collar) crime they didn’t want punished will be outraged at the idea that their nation might ever be punished, while that faction of the left with less intelligence than a garden squirrel will be outraged at the very notion of punishment.

Given this, there’s obviously no immediate hope for Greece, and perhaps not for the Euro.
There may be hope for the creation of a new control regime for corporate bodies (of all sorts) in the US — this is, after all, in many ways a natural extension of the control of such corporate bodies as educational institutions or states that we have seen in the US most frequently in the context of civil rights — take over some aspects of a school and force it to behave a certain way, scrutinize the way voting is handled in a state and refuse to allow it to make changes without permission. If we were to extend this in a formal way to all corporate bodies, I could see in time (though probably not till after I am dead) the same idea gradually being accepted with regards to national sovereignty.

Posted by handleym99 | Report as abusive

@handleym99 – the other countries of similar income per capita to which U.S. maternity leave is compared on ThinkProgress’s chart are several Western European countries, Japan, and Canada.

Most of Western Europe, Japan, and Canada have fertility rates that are well below replacement level, while the U.S. is right around replacement level. Replacement level is about 2.1 per woman. Per the UN, the U.S. is at 2.05, Canada is at 1.53, and Japan is at 1.27. The EU total is 1.59, per Eurostat.

The U.S. female labor force participation rate, per the BLS is 70.2%. Japan’s is 68.5%, and the EU-27 is 63.2%. Canada is higher than the U.S. at 74.3%. (In a country with generous paid maternity leave, companies have every incentive not to hire women who seem likely to have children, since they are more expensive.)

My point is that if a lack of paid maternity leave is a devastating public policy problem, it ought to show up either in women having fewer children or women being forced to leave the workforce permanently because they have children. A comparison suggests that neither is occurring in the U.S. relative to these other countries. No, I don’t think that an Ethiopia level of fertility rate – 5.3 – is a sign of a healthy situation, as no country has become wealthy and maintained that high of a fertility rate. A rate that high is a sign of other problems – high childhood mortality rates, lack of retirement income security, etc. I also don’t think, however, that it’s healthy for a country to de-populate itself over the course a few generations.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

To extrapolate from a trend that has lasted only a few years to the indefinite future is stupid beyond belief. If you imagine that you can predict from Japan and Italy’s birthrate today what their population will be in 200 years, well, what can I say? Numeracy (not to mention common sense) clearly isn’t a skill possessed by everyone.

The main thing Europe and Japan show us is that living in an overcrowded country sucks, and a sensible response to that is to have fewer children. The national consequences of doing so are SOCIAL, and can be handled via social mechanisms — as opposed to the PHYSICAL consequences of indefinite growth which cannot be handled at all (that’s what physical limitations MEAN).

Posted by handleym99 | Report as abusive

Jamie Dimon would sooner voluntarily commit seppuku than voluntarily split his beloved bank up.

Posted by weiwentg | Report as abusive

@realist, until your comments I hadn’t thought about the prospect that the EU (especially the southern tier) is having difficulty paying for its welfare state because of its low birthrate (and have borrowed to compensate), but it seems to make sense. Generally we’ve implicitly placed the blame on its current predicament on slow growth, but I can see how birthrate can contribute to that. Immigration plays a role certainly, but my sense is that EU countries have done a less successful job at integrating immigrants than the US has. Thoughts?

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Curmudgeon, Europe is our future.

In the past, the US has welcomed immigrants. Now that growth is slowing, we respond with broader welfare programs, anti-immigrant hostility, and massive government borrowing.

Europe has a ten year lead on the US in some ways (though we can borrow-and-spend with the best of them), but we are working hard to catch up!

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

@Curmudgeon – I think that the rather scary prospect is that we’ve only seen the early states of the trend that you describe since birthrates started dropping during the ’60′s and ’70′s.

I ran across a report from 2006 – which should be reasonably accurate since a sizable portion of demographic trends are a function of the aging of people who have already been born – indicating that the EU ratio of over ’65′s to working age population will be 1:2 by 2050, versus 1:4 in 2006. The U.S. ration is also getting worse, but nothing that bad. Per your point, this hasn’t yet happened to countries that already have high high debt to GDP, and a demographic headwind to growth (since GDP growth is obviously a function of number of workers and GDP generated per worker).

From a math standpoint, immigration strikes me as a better fix than a huge increase in the birthrate – which may be outside the scope of what government can cause in any place. From a fiscal standpoint in developed countries, seems like people are net costs to the government prior to the age of 20 to 25 (not tax-paying employees but rather consumers of educational services), net payers from about 25 to 65 (working years), and then net costs after 65 (government retirement benefits and more health costs, relatively few people working and paying taxes). Individuals can obviously be exceptions to this model, but I’m talking in terms of totals across a country’s population. So even if the birthrate suddenly increases, it’s 20+ years before a country sees a benefit to GDP growth (and hence government revenue growth), and in those intervening years there’s actually more government costs.

Focusing on just the aging population side of the equation, government retirement programs across the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan were set up based on 2 underlying premises – a certain life expectancy and a view that each succeeding generation would be larger, in order to pay the costs. In all countries, including Social Security and Medicare in the U.S., the first part of the equation has changed as people live longer. In Western Europe and Japan, the problem is compounded because the 2nd part of the equation has also changed.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

@realist50, children play a key role in driving consumption. Child care, education, larger homes, larger cars… Various calculators estimate it differently, and some of the costs are borne by the government, but they are definitely expensive! That said, a similar number of adults would drive consumption even more (and also contribute to the labor force).

The problems with “solving” our fiscal concerns through immigration include:
(1) Low-skilled immigrants may be a net burden on the economy, partly because they push low-skilled resident workers onto unemployment.
(2) Loss of national identity. Some European countries are very concerned with this.
(3) Our governmental fiscal problems are largely structural. Patching the problem through immigration is essentially a Ponzi scheme. Instead you need to find ways to adjust the structural balance so that (on average) people contribute more than they consume.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

An aging population and declining birth rate certainly make it difficult for economies to grow, but they are not the main causes for the weak economies in Europe and the U.S.. The lack of an unfair advantage is what’s hurting both economies now.

After WWII, the world had to rebuild, and the only industrialized nation that wasn’t severely damaged was the U.S., so we became the factory to the rest of the world. Our capacity to build things was our unfair advantage, Our industrial might was used to rebuild Europe’s factories, and in time, they recovered to their pre-war capabilities. They didn’t have the standard of living of the U.S., because we had advantages over them, but they still lived better than the rest of the world. That they still live better than Asian countries that are now building things they used to is because they have had (up to now) more borrowing power. Those days might be over, though.

After we lost the capacity advantage, we still had an edge in technology, as our universities and space and military R&D programs led to many great new advances that made the world buy things from the U.S.. The beginning of the end of that advantage, though, was when U.S. industrial giants decided to outsource manufacturing to countries with lower costs of labor. They didn’t realize or care that the well-paid labor base they had established also created a giant consumer market. As manufacturing jobs were exported, so was the technology, and the location of the evolutionary improvements in technology began to shift to where the products were being manufactured. American companies were either so arrogant or ignorant to think that none of the people working in foreign factories to build things for them could ever leave those jobs and compete with them. Well, as Ronald Reagan once said, they thought wrong.

The attitude towards labor – that it’s a “resource” and not a partner, let executives and shareholders believe that they could keep an increasingly larger share of the profits of their businesses by exporting jobs, even though the loss of those jobs would weaken the buying power of American consumers – their direct or indirect customers. Trade deficits increased, and the only way to finance trade deficits is to borrow money or sell assets, both of which reduce the standard of living.

Unless there is a cataclysmic event (like a devastating war), it can take decades for people to realize the standard of living has declined. While it is happening, governments can mask some of the decline with social programs, usually going deeper into debt. This is what has been happening in the U.S. for at least three decades now, and people still think the solution is to cut taxes and spending. That doesn’t address the real source of the problem – we don’t have a system that distributes profits widely enough to keep the economy running at a level that doesn’t require government involvement. Since profits are not distributed so that most people can enjoy the standard of living they were led to believe was their birthright, the government has stepped in to address the shortcomings. That is not sustainable.

An aging population definitely presents economic challenges, as there are less people working to support more people than ever. But technology is supposed to make that possible. It takes less hours to produce the same amount of work than it did 10 or 20 years ago. However, business executives believe that their sole responsibility is to maximize their short term profits, and that somebody else has to worry about everybody making enough money to keep buying things. There is no somebody else; if American businesses don’t believe that it’s important for their employees to earn enough to live on without government assistance, then the whole system falls apart. Far too many corporate executives want workers to work for as little as possible, and want the government to spend as little as possible on supplementing citizens’ standard of living, but that will not yield growth. It will give us the opposite, a third world nation of a few haves and mostly have nots.

We had a huge advantage, and we lost it to complacency (or the refusal to re-invest profits). We got an other big advantage, but we exported it. The main advantage we have now is that we print dollars. It won’t last forever, but it can last long enough for us to get our act together. Austerity is not the answer, unless you are like MrFox, and think we need a violent revolution to re-boot the world. Endless government spending without addressing our structural issues will lead to collapse. We have to start seeing profits as a powerful tool, and not something we collect and look at on a computer.

Sorry for the length of this tangent, but it’s easy enough to skip.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

@KenG – Why the apology for length, KG? Not like there’s anything happening on the page this long weekend, and your post was spot-on.

Are you quite sure about this part? –

“The main advantage we have now is that we print dollars. It won’t last forever, but it can last long enough for us to get our act together.”

I suppose it “can”, but “will it” last longer than our capacity to pretend we don’t have to face certain realities? I wonder; you seem to as well, right here –

“Endless government spending without addressing our structural issues will lead to collapse.”

If Krugman and his comrades could burn you at the stake they would, heretic. Every pol likes their “print, spend, kick-the-can” answer more than they like German-style genuine reform; so do voters. Face it – we’re much more Greek than we are kraut when it comes to self-discipline. For my allies and myself, that’s our ace-in-the-hole – ‘blame somebody besides yourself’ is a message that’s easy to sell.

I don’t particularly like violence, Ken, though I do recognize that in some situations it can be both necessary and just, and have said so. Those people who hollowed-out our middle class got rich in the process, bought control of both parties and all the institutions of government – rather like Z’berg has control of FB – and use it to protect and preserve their Wall Street dominance over all the rest of us. They have the assets to buy our way out of the problem they created. I, and others, propose to take those assets from them and use them for that purpose, by whatever means necessary. If they were smart, they’d come and get us before we get them. It’s a long game, Ken.

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

While we’re visiting tangents, any comments on the following? n/sunday/lets-be-less-productive.html

The problem here is structural. The gains from productivity have flowed to the capitalists, not to labor. If you subsequently cut hours (as happened with many in the last recession), then you seriously reduce the standard of living. There aren’t many households that can comfortably absorb a 25% reduction of income!

How, then, do you claw these gains back from the capitalists? Labor here is ALREADY questionably competitive with labor overseas. Knock productivity back and most production jobs will be exported. We can’t build an economy exclusively on the “care” sector.

Ultimately the answer may be some combination of a lower standard of living (that is coming whether we like it or not), a revamped taxation system that emphasizes consumption rather than wages (thus not putting American labor at such a large disadvantage), and a rising standard of living overseas (thus repairing the gap in a positive fashion).

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

MrFox, will the dollar printing advantage last long enough for us to get our act together? I don’t think so. I’m just saying the debt problems that other economies are not really dealing with, and China’s desire to grow as fast as it can, provide a window for us to make changes that will end our dependency on that ability. I don’t think the politicians will make those changes before the window closes, though, as allegiance to their ideologies and campaign benefactors won’t let them. But that’s why I’m here, to discuss things that politicians CAN do.

As for Zuckerberg, he is performing a valuable service. After Facebook fails to live up to the valuation it has received (even after its post-IPO decline, it’s still tremendously over-priced), people will be far less willing to give that kind of control to a single person. And also less believing of the Hollywood story that a guy with one good idea is a genius with a technological Midas touch.

Violence may feel necessary and just, but it rarely solves problems. However, I think it is unavoidable if the wealth extractors continue to siphon off as much money from the economy as they have been, and they get their wish of austerity in the U.S. The middle class has been opiated with fast, cheap food, all kinds of mind-numbing “entertainment” and technological distractions, and kept, for the most part, from being homeless in spite of negative 5- and 6-digit net worths, and hasn’t really recognized what has been going on. But the people who siphon an unsustainable share of the economy and demand elimination of the safety net (because they feel they don’t have enough) are delusional if they think the masses will just lie down and die for them. Americans may be sheep when it comes to falling for deceptive marketing campaigns, but I just don’t see them being willing to starve to death on the streets. The OWS protests was the warning shot, although I don’t know if it was heard.

TFF, I think the opinion piece you linked conflates productivity with the distribution of the work load. Productivity is not output per worker, but output per dollar. Spreading the work over more people is not reducing the productivity (o.k., marginally, but that’s only because of health insurance costs that are replicated; as we have discussed in the past, a national plan on health insurance would eliminate it from being an obstacle to reducing the work week).

This takes us back to the point that I challenged, that aging and shrinking populations are doomed. Gains in productivity should allow less workers to support more retirees, or more people to have jobs, which ever the economy requires. They’re not, though, for as you point out, the gains from productivity are flowing to capital. How do you take the gains back from the capitalists? I’m glad you asked.

We can change the tax system (here I go again). Heavily tax income that is not re-used. Don’t tax income that is re-invested (but don’t cut taxes and hope people will invest, raise tax rates and give them credits if they invest). Income that is re-invested creates jobs. Don’t tax profits that are distributed, until the shareholders decide to hold on to them. Then if they choose to invest those profits, they will create jobs. The goal is to keep money constantly changing hands, and never sitting stagnant doing nothing. Moving pieces of paper to trade ownership or derivatives of existing assets is not investing, and adds no value to the economy.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

@TFF, @KenG –

All of your proposals are well and good, I suppose – IDK, and I don’t actually care, either. You’re both interested in working within the existing structures of government and the economy. I’m not – IMO, your way is both a blind alley that necessarily has to be explored, and a sincere but misguided approach that fails to recognize the real substance of the matter. For, it begins from the false presumption that the fundamental changes that are necessary can in fact be delivered by the present systems of governance. Others are convinced that they cannot be, as those systems are hopelessly corrupted. There’s no resolution to our differing views except to attempt your way and allow that attempt to demonstrate the futility of working within the system. So get on with it.

When or if circumstances deteriorate so far that it becomes apparent to a sufficiently large share of the population that something more drastic than your approach is required, our side will be offered its turn.

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

@MrRFox, typically things need to be REALLY bad before people prefer revolution. You may be at that point already, but you don’t have many compadres. Not yet, at least.

Still waiting for an alternative view to emerge that is truly populist – neither socialist nor capitalist. Thus far not seeing much.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

First things first, TFF.

The “alternative view” is a highly contentious matter; it can only come later, after the status quo has been deposed. Proceeding to that end is the only thing on my agenda. And you are right – the situation will have to be dire to generate that outcome.

When that’s been accomplished then you and others can propose your various cure-alls to the general population, and they can decide it via a process that isn’t thoroughly a status quo stacked-deck. I don’t have a dog in that fight.

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

MrFox, I’m with TFF, I don’t think things are bad enough. Yet. And I don’t expect the austerity that might trigger open rebellion to be implemented here (or even in Europe). I expect that governments will run deficits throughout the western world, as kind of an unspoken but virtual tax on the wealthy. They will also be a tax on the middle, but the spending will enable enough of a safety net to prevent chaos.

I do think the fundamental changes that are necessary CAN be delivered within the present systems of governance. It’s a sales game, the masses have to be convinced that the people they have been sending to office do not care about them, and those who want change have to do a better job at reaching those masses than they have been. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m too old to live through the decades of martial law and civil war to give up on it, anyway. Besides, I prefer more elegant solutions than just brute force.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

@KenG – I like this part -

“… I’m too old to live through the decades of martial law and civil war to give up on it, anyway. Besides, I prefer more elegant solutions than just brute force.”

Me too, on both measures. It won’t come down to that, but will involve nothing more than a facing-down of the 1% by the 99. We have them out-manned and out-gunned, and they know it. The elephant just has to wake up to the reality that he is more powerful than the mahout who torments him.

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

“…but will involve nothing more than a facing-down of the 1% by the 99″.

It’s amazing it hasn’t happened yet, but it might soon. All it will take is for the Tea Party to stop hating and mistrusting people who aren’t like them, and stand with the OWS crowd on just a handful of issues, instead of automatically opposing them.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

Good point, KenG. I considered the Tea Party when I read MrRFox’s post, but they’ve been co-opted by ideologues and business interests. The membership of the Tea Party has more in common with OWS than it does with the leadership (and funding) of the Tea Party. If they were to realize their shared goals, then we would see change.

It is the nature of a two-party system that positions tend to be polarized along party lines. This is actually a stabilizing force, since any proposal comes with immediate opposition.

Radical change requires that an idea infect both parties simultaneously. We might not be far from that?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Hey TFF, not far, but we need the trigger to wake them up. Haven’t figured out what that is, but I think it will happen. I almost want them to force a shutdown over the debt limit, as the pain it will cause might wake them up. But it’s too expensive of a price to pay, so I’ll wait for them to wake up.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive
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