Opinion

Felix Salmon

A smarter way of subsidizing parenthood

Felix Salmon
Apr 3, 2014 22:41 UTC

Ben Walsh has a great roundup of the discussion surrounding Reihan Salam’s proposal that we institute a surtax on the childless. At a societal level, we want population growth — more children — but when it comes to individual households like my own, there are often compelling reasons to have few or no children at all. As countries get richer, their birth rates decline, with nasty demographic consequences.

One fix to this problem is simple: more immigration. Salam has another: giving people a bigger financial incentive to procreate, baked in to the tax code. But take a step back, and no one’s really disagreeing with the fundamental premise underlying such proposals. A country can only thrive if it has the human capital to do so, and it’s one of the most important roles of any government to maximize the value of its country’s aggregate human capital. One way it does that is by encouraging population growth; but the main way it does that is by providing universal education. After all, as technology advances, the skills that a country’s workers boast are ever more important than the simple number of warm bodies in the labor force. If your country falls far behind on education (think Portugal, or even Puerto Rico), then it will surely fall behind economically as well.

So if you don’t want to start fiddling with the tax code to try to penalize the childless, maybe an easier way to achieve much the same goal would be to invest more, at a federal level, in education.

Right now, most education funding happens locally — which encourages the idea that education is more for the benefit of individual children than it is for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Each community is responsible for its own education funding, and parents are prone to paying enormous sums, in the form of higher property prices and higher property taxes, in order to get their kids into better-funded schools where the kids come from wealthier households. Those sums are a substantial cost of having kids —as, of course, is all the money that parents pay towards other forms of education, including private-school fees and college tuition fees. On top of that, the student-loan crisis is essentially an artifact of the way in which US society forces individuals to pay for their own education, even though that education will ultimately benefit society as a whole.

The result is a country where the childless are prone to consider themselves to be subsidizing other people’s children: we (the childless) are paying taxes so your kids can get a good education. This is narrowly true, but it misses the bigger picture — that we (the childless) should want kids, in general, to be well educated, for any number of reasons, most of which boil down to the fact that it makes us better off in both the short term and, especially, the long term.

Rather than raising taxes on the childless, then, why not just spend a lot more money, at the federal level, on education? There’s no shortage of possible investments: everything from pre-K through post-graduate studies could use more cash. Such expenditures would narrowly benefit kids, and their parents, more than the childless — but would ultimately benefit everybody. And by making it easier and cheaper to raise a well-educated child, they might even encourage parents to have more kids.

Most importantly, if the burden of education funding started to move from the local to the federal level, that would help enormously in leveling the educational playing field. If I’m a parent, I care deeply about the schools my kids go to, and much less about all the other schools. If I’m a non-parent, by contrast, I care much more about the aggregate output from the educational system as a whole: my interests are society’s interests.

So let’s move educational funding up the chain a few notches. It will help parents more than non-parents, while doing so in a way which is more than fair to the latter.

COMMENT

By all means, let the Federal Government spend more money on education. The schools are almost perfect. A little more Federal money will be just the ticket.

Posted by Publius | Report as abusive

Janet Yellen didn’t gaffe

Felix Salmon
Mar 21, 2014 22:20 UTC

yellen.png

It’s become received opinion that Janet Yellen made a “rookie gaffe” in her first press conference as Fed chair, thereby “rattling markets”. She didn’t.

According to Peter Coy, Yellen made a “substantial blunder”. John Cassidy says she “got into trouble” when she told Reuters’ Ann Saphir that the Fed would wait “something on the order of around six months” after QE ends before starting to raise rates. Clive Crook was so perturbed by the presser that he is beginning to doubt the wisdom of the Fed having any kind of forward guidance at all. Mohamed El-Erian seems inclined to agree: the markets aren’t mature enough, he says, to internalize new information without over-extrapolating (i.e., freaking out).

But here’s the thing: the market didn’t freak out. The chart above shows the benchmark US interest rate — the yield on the 10-year note. The chart gives you a reasonably good idea of what normal volatility is: last Thursday, for instance, the yield fell by a good 10bp when John Kerry made noises about imposing sanctions on Russia. And overall, the yield has stayed comfortably in a range between 2.6% and 2.8%.

What’s more, the big FOMC-related move in the 10-year bond yield happened immediately at 2pm, when the statement was released. Yellen’s “gaffe” caused barely a wobble.

So why does everybody think that Yellen blundered? The answer is simple: they were looking at the stock market (which doesn’t matter), rather than the bond market (which does). Stocks fell, briefly; not a lot, and not for long, but enough that people noticed.

Which is good! In general, Yellen should be more transparent, not less, which means that she shouldn’t be overly cautious about what she does and doesn’t say in her press conferences. Her instinct to give a straight answer to a straight question is a good one. And if Yellen’s straight talk causes a very, very small uptick in stock-market volatility — well, that might not be such a bad thing, given that stock-market volatility is pretty low at the moment and that stocks should be pretty twitchy at these levels. What’s more, we don’t want to go back to the bad old days of Alan Greenspan, where the Fed was always assumed to have failed if it did anything which caused stock prices to fall. Yellen is going to oversee a series of interest-rate rises, and it’s entirely likely that stocks will pull back when that happens. That’s no reason to criticize her.

In fact, Yellen did more than just improve the transparency of the Fed with her remarks; she also helped prepare the markets for a wider range of possible outcomes. If the Fed does end up tightening six months after QE ends, the markets might be disappointed, but the Fed would be justified in taking a “don’t say we didn’t warn you” stance. That doesn’t mean it will happen, but it does mean that Yellen is helping to prepare the markets for the inevitable uptick in uncertainty.

As I explained back in October, transparency and predictability are incompatible goals; Yellen should go for the former, rather than the latter. The Fed’s future actions are unknown, and unknowable, and Yellen needs to be open about that fact. As central banker Adam Posen told Binyamin Appelbaum, there’s going to be increased fractiousness and unpredictability on the FOMC going forwards — and that’s a good thing, a sign that the economy is getting back to normal. If Yellen is keeping the market on its toes, she’s really just giving the markets an early taste of something they’re going to be seeing a lot more of. Traders, and the media, should — must — learn to embrace that, rather than criticizing it.

COMMENT

The recovery has been hollow and shaky. Congress is much more concerned with its own, disparate grasping than with the fiscal health of the nation. QE was elegant monetary engineering and it worked, but it has to be paid for and the easiest way to do that is future rate hikes. Money will move in from overseas, creating a mini-chain reaction. Travelers overseas with dollars can buy two of everything. The bankers get paid and domestic manufacture suffers. It’s all a package, folks.

Posted by xaxacatla | Report as abusive

Annals of captured regulators, NY Fed edition

Felix Salmon
Mar 20, 2014 23:40 UTC

Peter Eavis has a worrying story today: the chairman of the New York Fed, William Dudley, has effectively, behind the scenes, managed to delay the implementation of an important new piece of bank regulation.

The first thing to remember here is that delaying regulations is an extremely profitable game for the financial industry. If a new regulation will cost a bank $100 million per year, and the bank gets that new regulation delayed by a year, then it’s just made $100 million in excess profit. What’s more, the further away you get from the crisis, the harder it becomes for new rules to grow teeth. So when the banking lobby doesn’t like a certain piece of regulation, its tool of choice is to bog it down and delay it to the point at which no one but the banking lobby cares any more. And then allow it to be implemented with so many loopholes and carve-outs that it’s effectively toothless.

In this game, the banks are on one side, and the regulators — primarily the Federal Reserve — are on the other. So it’s particularly worrying when a regulator ends up causing a delay and thereby helping the banks. And yet that’s exactly what seems to have happened:

Mr. Dudley’s concerns played a decisive role in holding up the final version of the rule, two of the people said. Some regulators, including officials at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, were counting on the leverage regulation being completed by the end of last year. Strong supporters of the rule wanted it issued by then to reduce the chances that pressure from bank lobbyists would dilute it. The rule is now expected to come out in April at the earliest.

The optics here are not helped by the fact that Dudley made his millions at Goldman Sachs, a bank which would be directly affected by the rule in question, which forces big banks to increase the amount of capital that they hold against their assets. Neither are they helped by the fact that Dudley runs the New York Fed, which is generally seen as the arm of the Fed which is closest to, and friendliest with, America’s biggest banks. (Indeed, JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon was a member of the board there for the six eventful years to 2013.)

Mostly, however, the problem is that Dudley’s objection is very silly.

Mr. Dudley raised the possibility that the rule could inhibit the Fed’s ability to conduct monetary policy…

The Fed officials in Washington assessed his concerns but did not think they were serious enough to warrant significant changes to the rule, the three people said.

In theory, Dudley is right. The way that the Fed conducts monetary policy is by instructing the traders at the New York Fed to buy and sell certain financial instruments so that a particular interest rate — the Fed funds rate — is very close to a certain target. Through a complex series of financial interlinkages, setting the Fed funds rate at a certain level then has a knock-on effect, and ultimately helps determine every interest rate in America, from the Treasury yield curve to the amount you pay for your credit card or your mortgage.

Those interlinkages are so complex that they’re impossible to model with any particular accuracy: all the Fed can do, really, is set the Fed funds rate and then see what happens to everything else. And directionally the causality is clear: if the Fed wants rates to rise, then it pushes the Fed funds rate upwards, and if it wants rates to fall, then it brings the Fed funds rate down. That doesn’t always work at the distant end of the yield curve, but it’s still most of what monetary policy can do.

Especially early on in the chain, a lot of the interlinkages take place at the level of big banks. And so it stands to reason that if you change the leverage requirements of big banks, that might change what happens to interest rates when you move the Fed funds rate. Or, on the other hand, it might not. In any case, if and when the Fed starts raising the Fed funds rate, it’ll rapidly become pretty obvious what’s happening to the rest of the interest-rate world, and the FOMC will react accordingly.

In the most extreme case, the FOMC might even change the way it sets interest rates, and start using interest rates other than the Fed funds rate to conduct monetary policy. After all, the Fed can intervene pretty much anywhere in the financial system it likes. Obviously, Dudley, as the head of the New York Fed, would be the person most closely consulted in terms of determining the most effective way for the Fed to intervene and move American interest rates. And in making his recommendations, he would have to take into account everything he knows about the architecture of the financial system, including the leverage ratios being demanded of the biggest banks.

But what doesn’t make sense is the idea that Dudley would try to throw a spanner in the works of an important piece of bank regulation, just because it might make his rate-setting job more difficult. The New York Fed is a highly profitable institution which employs a large number of extremely able traders and economists, all of whom are well versed in navigating the complexities of the interest-rate market. If a change to the leverage rule makes their job a bit more interesting or difficult, well, that’s part and parcel of what it means to work at the New York Fed. It’s no reason at all to delay a rule change and give New York’s banks a gift on a plate.

COMMENT

I think someone’s misunderstood something here. The delay has gone into the drafting of the final rule, after consultation based on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. That doesn’t mean that the date of implementation of the rule itself is necessarily going to change – in the NPR this rule was meant to be slowly phased in and to take effect on 1 January 2018. Given that, I think it’s pretty unlikely that a slight delay to get the rule drafted correctly – or even a full Quantitative Impact Study – is going to change the implementation schedule.

Posted by dsquared | Report as abusive

Janet Yellen’s first FOMC statement, annotated

Felix Salmon
Mar 19, 2014 18:36 UTC

COMMENT

The labor market will not improve until honest education and media information distribution are restored. Their is an army of moron followers out there, and they are not productive members of society. You don’t have to worry that they will threaten the balance of power and demand fairness, but they won’t threaten to get any work done either. Add that most successful minions know that we do not have a merit based society and the few people who still can work are totally deincentivised from accomplishment. It doesn’t take being smart or ambitious, it takes being able to stuff your own thoughts down inside and agreeing to whatever corrupt and moronic thing our political and business leaders decide is the best scam for them.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The bank tax rises from the dead

Felix Salmon
Feb 26, 2014 06:05 UTC

Back in January 2010, Barack Obama — flanked by Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and Peter Orszag — unveiled a new tax on big banks, or a “financial crisis responsibility fee”, as he liked to call it. Of course, this being Washington, the initiative never got off the ground, and was largely forgotten — until now:

The biggest U.S. banks and insurance companies would have to pay a quarterly 3.5 basis-point tax on assets exceeding $500 billion under a plan to be unveiled this week by the top Republican tax writer in Congress.

This doesn’t mean the tax is likely to actually see the light of day, of course — but the fact that it has some kind of Republican support has surely breathed new life into a proposal that most of us thought was long dead. After all, the initial proposal was designed around the idea that the tax would allow the government to be repaid for the cost of the TARP program — a goal which has now pretty much been met.

There are some interesting differences between the Obama tax of 2010 and the Dave Camp plan of 2014. The Obama tax was on liabilities; it specifically excluded deposits (which already have a sort-of tax associated with them, in the form of FDIC insurance); and it would have been levied on all financial institutions with more than $50 billion in assets. It was set at 0.15%, and was designed to raise $90 billion over ten years.

The Camp tax, by contrast, is on assets, which means that deposits sort-of get taxed twice; but that means it can also be set much lower, and the size cap be raised much higher, while still raising the same amount of money. Camp’s tax is a mere 0.035%, and is applied only to assets over half a trillion dollars. It’s designed to raise $86 billion over ten years — although, confusingly, the Bloomberg article also says that “it would raise $27 billion more over a decade than the president’s plan would”.

I like the simplicity of the Camp plan, although I would have preferred to tax liabilities rather than assets. After all, it’s not size that’s the real problem, it’s leverage, and it’s always good to give banks an incentive to raise more capital and less debt.

I like the way that it’s targeted: just ten US institutions would account for 100% of the revenues from the tax. The list in full: JPMorgan; Bank of America; Citigroup; Wells Fargo; Goldman Sachs; Morgan Stanley; GE Capital; MetLife; AIG; and Prudential. None of them need to be as big as they are, and between them they’re more than capable of coming up with $9 billion a year to help make up for the fact that they each pose a huge systemic risk to the US economy.

At heart, this is a Pigovian tax on something (too-big-to-fail financial institutions) we don’t want, and often Pigovian taxes are more effective than regulation when it comes to minimizing such things. What’s more, it’s sharp enough to hurt: JPMorgan, for instance, would have ended up paying about 15% of its 2013 net income in this one tax alone.

For exactly that reason, however, I’m still skeptical that the tax will ever actually arrive. Those ten institutions are extremely powerful, and are more than capable of persuading politicians on both sides of the aisle to vote against a tax which singles them out for pecuniary punishment. The tax was a good idea in 2010, and it’s a good idea today. But it has very little chance of ever becoming a reality.

COMMENT

Isn’t 3.5bp/quarter pretty much the same rate as 15bp/year?

Posted by niveditas | Report as abusive

Felix Salmon smackdown watch, pensions edition

Felix Salmon
Feb 23, 2014 20:10 UTC

Many thanks to John Arnold for responding to my post about how he (and his foundation) should approach pension reform. We agree on many things, it turns out; but there’s one big area where we disagree, which is encapsulated most cleanly in the question of what exactly is going on in San Jose mayor Chuck Reed’s Pension Reform Act. I characterized Reed’s ballot initiative as “allowing governments to default on their pension obligations”, and “an attempt to renege on governments’ existing pension obligations”. Arnold says I’m entirely wrong about that:

Salmon repeatedly claims that my wife, Laura, and I and our foundation, LJAF, “support plans making it easier for governments to default on existing promises.” Nothing could be further from the truth. We strongly believe that pension reform should not aim to cut or eliminate benefits…

The initiative explicitly honors and guarantees the benefits earned for work done to date. The only question here is whether the employer and employees should be able to negotiate retirement compensation for work that is not yet performed. In other words, does an employee who was hired yesterday have the guaranteed right to earn pension benefits under the same formula for all future years of service? Under Reed’s proposal, cities in California could negotiate with employees, through the collective bargaining process, to change retirement compensation for future service just as they would do for salaries or health benefits. That change would have no effect whatsoever on benefits that have already been earned.

So, who’s right? In order to answer that question, it’s helpful to follow one of Arnold’s links, to a paper on teacher pensions which was put written by the Arnold Foundation’s Josh McGee. The paper addresses a serious problem: that “teachers accrue relatively meager benefits through much of their careers, and then abruptly become eligible for much more as they near retirement age”. For instance, here’s what happens for a teacher who enters the New York system at age 25, if you value pension wealth as the present value of your pension payments:

cr_79f2.gif

For the first decade, the teacher accrues essentially zero pension wealth, while the value of the pension rises in value by $101,667 in the two years between age 61 and age 63.

Other school systems have even more dramatic backloading. Here, for instance, are McGee’s charts for Miami and Las Vegas. Look at the darkest line, the one showing “pension wealth” over time. In Miami, that wealth can jump by some $250,000 in just one year; in Vegas, the jump is more than $300,000.

cr_79f11.gif

cr_79f15.gif

So here’s the question. Put yourself in the position of someone who’s been teaching in Las Vegas for 29 years. The way that John Arnold sees things, over that time, you’ve managed to earn pension benefits worth roughly $200,000. If you teach for one more year, then the value of your pension benefits soars to more than $500,000: effectively, between salary and increased pension benefits, you’re being pad about $400,000 for that one year of teaching. Arnold wants school systems to “be able to negotiate retirement compensation for work that is not yet performed” — which is to say, to be able to pay you much less than $400,000 for that 30th year of teaching.

But that’s a very self-serving view of what’s going on in this pension scheme. Las Vegas teachers get their $500,000 package in return for 30 years of teaching, not in return for the 30th year of teaching. There’s a big difference. And it’s a difference that Arnold, for one, understands.

When a 25-year-old teacher joins the Las Vegas system, Arnold believes (and I agree with him) that the government should pay real money into its pension plan, in order to cover the actuarial costs that she’s going to qualify for in retirement. He doesn’t think that the government should drag its feet and wait until she’s 54 before it suddenly pays in an extra $350,000 or so: that’s not how pension plans work. Instead, they work by putting aside a certain amount of money every year, so that everybody in the system can receive, when they retire, the benefits guaranteed by the system. Indeed, when Arnold complains about pension plans being underfunded, what he means is that local governments aren’t putting enough money away to cover the sums which will be owed, in the future, to teachers who today are in their 20s or 30s. Those sums — and those funding shortfalls — are real, and substantial.

Arnold and I agree on what has been going on here: governments have promised juicy pension benefits in the future, in lieu of paying higher salaries in the present. Sometimes, they’ve failed to fully fund those benefits. But the promises are real.

Let’s make up some numbers for the sake of argument, and let’s ignore things like healthcare for the sake of simplification. Take a 25-year-old teacher on a salary of $50,000, where the government needs to make annual payments of another $9,000 per year in order to fully fund her pension. Effectively, what’s happened here is that the government and the unions have agreed on a total package worth $59,000 per year, of which $50,000 is salary and $9,000 is made up of pension promises. How much are those pension promises worth after ten years of service, in today’s dollars? The answer is about $125,000, if you assume the government’s investments grow at a real rate of 4% per year. The government has a liability to the teacher, which might be funded or might be unfunded, of roughly that amount. (In fact, the promise is worth more than $125,000, because of the effect of other teachers dropping out of the workforce before they reach ten years of service.)

If you ask Arnold, on the other hand, he’ll tell you that the teacher’s “benefits earned for work done to date” are basically zero — since if the teacher retired today, she would not be eligible for pretty much anything.

I disagree. I think that if the government has a liability — and Arnold is busy telling anybody who will listen that the government has a substantial liability, in this case — then the teacher has an equal and opposite asset. And it seems to me that the point of the Reed plan is to give the government the ability to take that liability, and — at least in the case of the teacher with ten years’ tenure — write it down to zero. Which would also have the effect of taking the teacher’s asset and writing it down to zero.

When you write down a future liability, you’re defaulting on your future obligations: that’s why I consider the Reed plan to be a means of reneging on existing promises.

Here’s another way of thinking about our hypothetical teacher: when she joins the school system, she’s granted a set of Restricted Pension Units, which vest over the course of 30 years. If she stays in the system until she’s 55, then those RPUs will be worth more than $500,000, in today’s money. But because of the way that money compounds, and because of the likelihood that she won’t stay in the system until she’s 55, the cost to the government of granting those RPUs, in year one, and also in any subsequent year, is only $9,000.

Nevertheless, those RPUs have been granted, and once granted, they belong to the teacher, not to the government. She can leave any time she likes, and leave most of her RPUs unvested. But that’s her choice, not the government’s. Unless the Reed initiative passes, in which case the government can essentially confiscate all of her unvested RPUs, and replace them with something else.

Now I agree with Arnold and McGee that there are better ways of designing pension plans, in a world where it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to stay in the same district for 30 years, and where it is reasonable to expect teachers with ten years’ service to have built up a meaningful retirement benefit, over the course of that decade, if they decide to move. I agree that if we were starting from scratch, we would design a plan which would look more like the grey upwardly-curving line in McGee’s charts, rather than the black back-loaded line.

But I disagree that if you’ve been teaching for ten years, then the pension promises that the government has made to you are, at this point, essentially worthless.

So here’s what I think should happen. First — and I agree with Arnold on this point — the government should make every effort to fully fund its existing and future obligations. Then, once those obligations are being fully funded, the government can start negotiating with the unions about ways in which to start offering choices to new teachers, and possibly even existing ones. If the government’s going to be spending $9,000 per year on your retirement benefits, where would you like that money to go? Would you like to join the existing defined-benefit plan? Or would you like to opt for something more like McGee’s smooth-accrual system?

The point is to ensure that everybody who has been promised something by the government has the right to demand that the government keep those promises. Not all governments keep all of their promises, but breaking promises is a serious thing: it’s called bankruptcy. We shouldn’t let cities and states get away with it by dint of a simple ballot initiative.

Update: John Arnold responds.

COMMENT

@BenWheeler, you have that very confused. The interest rate on munis is only relevant if the local government borrows the money to fund the pensions. If they FAIL to fund the pensions, then they are in essence borrowing from the pension fund at a rate equal to the assumed investment returns (typically 8%+). They are promising to cover a gap that is growing at that rate.

That exceptionally high implied interest rate is the reason why towns are floundering under this burden. What may originally have been a manageable obligation has doubled every 9 years (with continuing underfunding exacerbating the problem further). Carry that out over a few decades and you have a “debt” that is impossible to meet.

What they SHOULD do is float bonds to fund the pensions in full. The borrowing costs, as you observe, are much cheaper. And if the rating agencies complain about that, then perhaps they need to tighten their belt a bit? Hiding the obligations in underfunded pensions doesn’t make them any easier to afford.

Posted by TFF17 | Report as abusive

Pension politics

Felix Salmon
Feb 13, 2014 00:12 UTC

David Sirota has a very important scoop today: the PBS series “Pension Peril” has secretly* been funded by John Arnold, a billionaire powerbroker with an aggressively anti-pensions political agenda. This looks very bad for PBS — but it’s also bad for Arnold, who generally gets glowing press, and who would seem to have no good reason to have insisted on secrecy when writing the $3.5 million check that made the series possible.

The PBS series in question seems to fall uncritically into line with the beliefs of Arnold and other Very Serious People — that pension liabilities are a huge problem, and that the only way to fix them is to reduce the amount that pensioners get paid. But of course it’s not nearly as simple as that.

The John Arnolds of this world tend to assume that three things are always true:

  • Defined-contribution pensions are better than defined-benefit pensions;
  • Funded pensions are better than unfunded pensions;
  • Individual pensions are better than group pensions.

It’s easy to see why people think this way. If there’s no money, then what assurance do you have — really — that you’ll be paid? If you have to share your pension with others, how can you be sure that they won’t end up with more than their fair share? Isn’t it better to just keep all your money for yourself, and make sure to save enough that you can live well in retirement?

This is a pretty libertarian, every-man-for-himself view of retirement: it makes few concessions to the idea that there’s a societal obligation to the elderly, or that groups can achieve more together than they can individually. At heart, it’s a view which benefits people like John Arnold, who pay a lot of taxes, at the expense of the poorest members of society, who might take out more than they put in. And, of course, it’s a view which benefits successful investors, like John Arnold, over schmucks who have no idea how to best invest their paltry 401(k) funds.

In reality, big pooled pension funds are much more efficient — and generate much higher returns — than anything an individual is likely to be able to manage. And in the specific realm of public finance, the case for group-funded defined-benefit schemes is even stronger. That’s because public servants — police officers, elementary school teachers, you name it — tend to have much longer tenure at their jobs than, say, hot-shot fund managers. They are also willing to work for relatively low salaries precisely because they know that their pension benefits are good: that they don’t need to worry about how they’re going to make ends meet in retirement. That peace of mind is hugely valuable, and rarely factors in to the calculations of the pension opponents, who seem to think that worrying about your individual retirement investments is a good thing.

Around the world, indeed, in places like Hungary and Poland, the roll-your-own pension plan model is being, reversed, and governments are reverting to the “trust us” model. The mechanism has been particularly drastic in Poland, where the government recently confiscated some 150bn zlotys (€36bn) of Polish government bonds and government-backed securities, seizing them from private pension-fund managers. The Poles then cancelled those bonds entirely, which had the effect of reducing Poland’s national debt overnight, by a substantial 8 percentage points. Given debt-ceiling rules, that gives the Polish government a lot more room to run deficits than it had before. In return, the Poles who were counting on the retirement income which was going to be generated by those bonds are just going to have to make do with a standard pay-as-you-go system, where they’ll receive a state pension which is paid for out of general tax revenues.

This is not as dreadful as it necessarily looks at first blush. Governments can always find a way to reduce pensioners’ incomes, through taxes or any other means. And now, at least, those incomes will be less tied to the vagaries of market returns. Indeed, Poland isn’t all that far from the United States: although we do put a lot of government bonds into the Social Security trust fund, it’s entirely up to the government how much money pensioners take out of that fund. It can be less than the fund is earning, or more: the decision is political, and doesn’t bear much relation to the income being generated, or even whether the trust fund has any money in it at all.

Still, the Polish move is a pretty bad one. The pension funds still exist, but now they’ve lost most of their fixed-income component, so they’ve become a lot more volatile. The playing around with the national-debt figures is a silly, and dangerous, trick. And without strong domestic pension funds, Poland has now lost an important source of investment flows — the kind of money that helps to keep an economy innovative and productive.

So pension funds are, generally, a good thing. And when you have a pension fund, it’s a good idea to fund it well. But they’re not a panacea, and in general the answer to the problem of underfunded pensions is just to fund them better, rather than to start cutting benefits.

The John Arnolds of this world should remember one thing: it’s just as easy to tax retirement funds as it is to cut defined pension benefits. If America really needs to start taking money from future retirees, then maybe the politicians will start looking at a much juicier target — the massive tax expenditures being spent on things like IRAs and 401(k) plans. Those tax breaks are not fair — they benefit the rich much more than the poor. Maybe the sensible thing to do is to take those tax expenditures, and use them instead to shore up distressed public pension plans. If indeed those plans are in as much peril as John Arnold says they are.

*Update: Leila Walsh, the director of communications at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (which also responded to Sirota’s article), emails:

You stated that the “PBS series ‘Pension Peril’ has secretly been funded by John Arnold.” This statement is entirely inaccurate. Information about the grant is available on the LJAF website. We have nothing to hide and have publicly disclosed the amount, term, and purpose of the grant.

WNET also issued a statement this afternoon that says, “The Arnold Foundation is a supporter of this initiative, which has been clearly disclosed on the three PBS NewsHour Weekend broadcasts (produced by WNET) that have included segments funded through this project.”
COMMENT

“poorest members of society, who might take out more than they put in”

It is dishonest to use a word like “might” in a sentence like this. You “might” be hit by lightening; or you “might” win $100 million in the lottery; or John Arnolds “might” go and sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Matthew 19:21) – ie highly unlikely possibilities compared to the almost certainty that the poorest members of society will take out more than they put in. And then there is this: “the United States: although we do put a lot of government bonds into the Social Security trust fund”.
Here is what Social Security says about the SS trust funds that receive SS taxes:

http://www.ssa.gov/oact/progdata/fundFAQ .html

“How are the trust funds invested?”

“By law, income to the trust funds must be invested, on a daily basis, in securities guaranteed as to both principal and interest by the Federal government. All securities held by the trust funds are “special issues” of the United States Treasury. Such securities are available only to the trust funds.”

“What happens to the taxes that go into the trust funds?”

“Tax income is deposited on a daily basis and is invested in “special-issue” securities. The cash exchanged for the securities goes into the general fund of the Treasury and is indistinguishable from other cash in the general fund.”

In other words, SS Trust money is treated just like ordinary tax revenue except that the government promises to repay these monies plus interest to the SS as needed. These trust funds are government debt obligations and can only be repaid by raising taxes (unlikely) or increasing overall government deficits.

http://www.salon.com/life/life_stories/i ndex.html?story=/mwt/feature/2011/04/02/ late_in_life_excerpt

“the first recipient of Social Security, a bookkeeper named Ida May Fuller, started to collect her checks in 1940. She proceeded to live another thirty-five years, long enough to witness the ascent and disbanding of the Beatles and the landing of the man on the moon. For her total $24.75 contribution, she received $22,888.92 in benefits”

Posted by walstir | Report as abusive

Puerto Rico needs to prepare for its default

Felix Salmon
Feb 5, 2014 23:40 UTC

Ryan McCarthy has a good round-up of Puerto Rico’s debt problems, which have now been exacerbated by S&P downgrading the island’s bonds to junk status. (Moody’s and Fitch are certain to do so as well, in short order.) For a good one-stop overview of most of the big issues, I can recommend Nuveen Asset Management’s note, which includes this chart:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 5.21.10 PM.png

What you’re seeing here is a vicious cycle: as debt problems pile up, economic activity decreases, which causes even bigger debt problems, even lower economic activity, and so on. Puerto Rico is now shrinking at a 6% annual pace, and that number is probably going to get worse before it gets better. The chances of the island’s economy actually growing at any point in the foreseeable future seem remote: indeed, the country has essentially been in one long and nasty continuous recession since 2006.

Puerto Rico has $70 billion in debt outstanding, all of it needing to be repaid with interest — and the simple fact is that there’s no way it’s going to be able to do that, if its economy continues to shrink and its most talented nationals continue to decamp for the mainland, where their prospects are much brighter. Labor mobility from Puerto Rico to the rest of the US, and particularly to Florida, has never been higher, while most of the migration in the other direction comes in the form of retirees, who are not exactly going to kick-start the economy. In fact, in terms of the labor force participation rate, they’re just going to make matters worse, on an island where only 1.2 million of the 3.4 million inhabitants are employed.

In many ways, Puerto Rico is similar to those other tourist destinations, Portugal and Greece — it’s highly indebted; it’s not particularly well educated (only half of Puerto Ricans over 25 have graduated from high school, and only a quarter of high-school graduates go on to get a bachelor’s degree); and it is hobbled by being unable to devalue its currency.

All of this is a clear recipe for default: if Puerto Rico can’t repay that $70 billion in debt, then it won’t. The only alternative is a bailout — but as Martin Sullivan explains, the US government has already extended a back-door tax-code bailout worth some $2 billion per year, and even that is both insufficient and constitutionally dubious. A more explicit bailout is not going to happen — not when Detroit is being left to deal with the ravages of bankruptcy on its own.

The good news is that the increasingly-inevitable default is not hugely harmful in itself. It’s not fully priced in: the funds owning Puerto Rican debt are going to take more losses, if they don’t sell now. And the insurers who have wrapped some $15 billion in Puerto Rican debt are going to have to get used to making a lot of coupon payments for quite a long time. But that’s their job. This is the way debt markets should work: if you lend money at high rates of interest to someone who can’t pay it back, then you have to understand there’s a pretty good probability of default.

The default will be messy, however, since there’s no chapter of the US bankruptcy code which encompasses Puerto Rico. A lot of different court cases will be held in a passel of different jurisdictions, and a lot of lawyers will get rich. In the end, everybody is going to have to take a nasty hit — including the island’s retirees, whose pension fund is woefully underfunded. From a legal perspective, there will be some fascinating arguments about sovereign immunity, and whether (and how) bondholders can attempt to enforce their contractual rights, absent any kind of overarching bankruptcy regime. In the end, restructuring terms could end up simply being dictated by Congress.

Still, the important thing is not the process, it’s the final outcome. If Puerto Rico manages to emerge from default freed of its massive debt burden, it will finally have a chance to start growing again. If it doesn’t, it won’t. The problem is that there’s no easy way of herding the bondholders and bond insurers, all of whom are going to want to maximize their financial recovery, thereby making Puerto Rico’s real recovery that much more difficult.

My advice to the Puerto Rican government, then, is this: start having quiet conversations in Washington about a piece of legislation which would give the island the legal freedom and ability to restructure its debts in a clean, one-and-done manner. Such a law would not be a bailout: it would involve no money flowing from DC to PR. But it would allow Puerto Rico to default on its debt and come out the other side, without the risk of years of legal chaos. While bondholders would squeal, at least they would get certainty. And Puerto Rico would get something much more valuable still — an opportunity to finally drag itself out of its horrible recession.

COMMENT

Also: PR will prioritize its voters’ pensions over Yankee bondholders who don’t vote.

Posted by nixonfan | Report as abusive

Barack Obama vs zombies

Felix Salmon
Oct 16, 2013 15:50 UTC

There’s a strain of triumphalism coursing through the blogosphere today, on the grounds that the bonkers wing of the Republican party is going to have achieved exactly none of its own goals, while inflicting upon itself a massive black eye. The markets are feeling vindicated too: over the past week of DC craziness, the stock market has risen, pretty steadily, a total of about 2.5%. As a trading strategy, “tune out all news from inside the Beltway” seems to have worked very well — it’s a complete vindication of the Nassim Taleb idea that investors shouldn’t read the newspaper. On top of that, the potential debt default was by its nature almost impossible to trade: outside a few obscure instruments like US CDS, it’s very difficult to make money from a trade betting that tails are going to get fatter, for a short while.

But as a feeling of relief courses through Washington and the markets, let’s not get carried away. Yes, as Jonathan Chait says, it’s very good news that the House Republicans’ plan collapsed. But the can hasn’t been kicked very far down the road: we’re going to hit the debt ceiling again in just a few short months. And at that point, one of two things will happen. Either the Republicans, licking their self-inflicted wounds from the current fiasco, will quietly and efficiently pass a bill while getting nothing in return. Or, in the spirit of “if at first you don’t succeed”, they will try, try again.

Joe Weisenthal, like Chait, is hopefully eyeing the first possibility.

And Chait himself goes even further:

We can’t be certain Republicans will never hold the debt ceiling hostage again; but Obama has now held firm twice in a row, and if he hasn’t completely crushed the Republican expectation that they can extract a ransom, he has badly damaged it. Threatening to breach the debt ceiling and failing to win a prize is costly behavior for Congress — you anger business and lose face with your supporters when you capitulate. As soon as Republicans come to believe they can’t win, they’ll stop playing.

The problem is that, pace Weisenthal, you can’t just kill someone’s revolutionary nihilism. The Ted Cruz “filibuster” is a great example: it served no actual legislative purpose, and at the end of his idiotically long speech, Cruz ended up voting yes on the very bill he was trying to kill. That’s zombie politics, and the problem with zombies is that — being dead already — they’re incredibly hard to kill.

The point here is that the zombie army, a/k/a the Tea Party, is a movement, not a person — and it’s an aggressively anti-logical movement, at that. You can’t negotiate with a zombie — and neither can you wheel out some kind of clever syllogism which will convince a group of revolutionary nihilists that it’s a bad idea to get into a fight if you’re reasonably convinced that you’re going to lose it. Spoiler alert: it turns out that Ed Norton was beating up himself, all along. When you’re Really Angry, sometimes losing a big fight against The Man is exactly what you feel like doing.

This is why Michael Casey is right: the US should be downgraded. Zombies have taken over a large chunk of the Capitol, and there’s no particular reason to believe that they’re going away any time soon. We will have more sequesters, and more shutdowns, and more debt-ceiling fights, and eventually, in a statistical inevitability, we will fail to find some kind of way through the mess. Besides, as Casey says, even if we do, somehow, manage to muddle through, that doesn’t change the basic underlying fact: “triple-A credits do not behave like this.”

Remember that the sequester was initially put into place as a way to force the hand of any self-interested, logical group of politicians. They had to either come to an agreement — or face an outcome which was specifically designed to be as unpalatable to as many different interest groups as possible. And yet, despite the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, the politicians squabbled until it fell. The bigger sword, the debt ceiling, has not fallen yet — but I for one have no particular faith in the ability of Congress to always prevent it from doing so.

Yes, the President has won an important battle against the zombies. But while it’s possible to win a zombie battle, it’s never possible to win a zombie war. No matter how many individual zombies you dispatch, there will always be ten more where they came from. The Tea Party doesn’t take legislative defeat as a signal that it’s doing something wrong: it takes it as a signal that nothing has really changed in Washington and that they therefore need to redouble their nihilistic efforts. Take it from me: come February, or March, or whenever we end up having to have this idiotic debt-ceiling fight all over again, the Tea Party will still be there, and will still be as crazy as ever. A bruised zombie, ultimately, is just a scarier zombie.

Update: Many thanks to Dan Drezner, who has helpfully supplied the soundtrack to this post:

COMMENT

Career politicians, not zombies, have taken over all of our government and the news media. What’s your position on Gerrymandering, Felix?

Posted by JohnOfArc | Report as abusive
  •