James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Wall Street pay continues to be the Great Distraction

Oct 27, 2009 17:05 UTC

Again, all this focus on Wall Street pay distracts from more important issues.  Gary Becker summarizes:

I have not seen convincing evidence that either the level or structure of the pay of top financial executives were important causes of this worldwide financial crash. These executives bought large quantities of mortgage-backed securities and other securitized assets because they expected this to increase the average return on their assets without taking on much additional risk through the better risk management offered by derivatives, credit default swaps, and other newer types of securities. They turned out to be badly wrong, but so too were the many financial economists who had no sizable financial stake in these assets, but supported this approach to risk management.

The experience of other financial crashes also does not indicate that either the level or form of compensation of top financial executives were major factors in precipitating these crashes. Thousands of banks failed during the Great Depression, as did hundreds of American savings and loans institutions during the 1980s, without heads of these institutions in either case getting particularly high pay, or pay that was mainly in the form of bonuses and stock options. My impression is that this same conclusion applies to the Mexican bank crisis of the mid 1990s, and the Asian financial crisis at the end of the 1990s.

The generous bonuses and stock options received by financial executives may often have been unwarranted, but they are being used as a scapegoat for other more crucial factors. Financial institutions underrated the systemic risks of the more exotic assets, and apparently so too did the Fed and other regulators of financial institutions. In addition, large financial institutions may have recognized that they were “too big to fail”, and that they would be rescued by taxpayer monies if they were on the verge of bankruptcy because they took on excessively risky assets.


I think you’re both missing the point. This whole business of Wall Street pay levels and bonuses &c. has been a convenient shield for Mr. Obama and his radical advisors to move into territory previously off-limits. See David Rosenberg’s analysis of the current situation in the subsequent article. Mr. Obama has moved into corporate management (GM, Chrysler, AIG); has demonized insurance companies preparatory to taking over (read: socializing) the healthcare industry; and attempted to delegitimize FOX news and anyone else who would dare differ with his agenda. (Think Jimmy Carter and his criticism = racism remarks) Keeping the ignorant masses occupied watching some hapless Wall Street executives get crucified might have seemed a winning strategy for Mr. Obama’s radical advisors. American voters may be getting wise to this game.

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Riding a downbound train

Oct 27, 2009 16:41 UTC

This has to be a classic piece of analysis by David Rosenberg:

Without either deep spending cuts or tax increases (a dirty three-letter word in the U.S.A. — remember Bush Sr.’s “read my lips” back in the early 90s that cost him the election?) the only way out of this fiscal mess caused perhaps by the prior Administration and now accentuated by the current Administration will be by monetizing the debt. …  In the final analysis, we all should know how this is going to play out. It is going to be somebody else that foots the bill for all this government incursion, and that is very likely the creditors who hold U.S. government paper. Not that the U.S. would ever default; that will never happen. However, there is very likely going to be a stage where this mountain of public sector debt gets monetized, and while gold is inherently difficult to value, what is going to drive the price higher, in the future, to new record highs will be the supply of bullion relative to the supply of dollars. ( …  Let’s face it, the degree of retrenchment that would be needed to bring the deficit-to-GDP ratio down to the 3-4% level that would allow the debt/GDP ratio to stabilize, would simply be too much for the U.S. electorate to put up with.

Nor does think much of the state of the stock market:

In other words, this is not the onset of a sustainable secular bull market as we had coming off the fundamental lows of prior bear phases, such as August 1982, when:

• Dividend yields were 6%, not sub-2%.
• Price-to-earnings multiples were 8x, not 26x.
• The market traded at book value, not over two times book.
• Inflation and bond yields were in double digits and headed down in the future, not near-zero and only headed higher.
• The stock market competed with 18% cash rates, not zero, and as such had a much higher hurdle to clear.
• Sentiment was universally bearish; hardly the case today.
• Global trade flows were in the process of accelerating as barriers were taken down; today, we are seeing trade flows recede as frictions, disputes and tariffs become the order of the day.
• A Reagan-led movement was afoot to reduce the role of government with attendant productivity gains in the future; as opposed to the infiltration by the public sector into the capital markets, union sector, economy and of course, the realm of CEO compensation

Healthcare Reform: The Day After

Oct 27, 2009 16:34 UTC

Paul Krugman takes a look at the impact of  healthcare reform:

Like the bill that will probably emerge from Congress, the Massachusetts reform mainly relies on a combination of regulation and subsidies to chivy a mostly private system into providing near-universal coverage. It is, to be frank, a bit of a Rube Goldberg device — a complicated way of achieving something that could have been done much more simply with a Medicare-type program. Yet it has gone a long way toward achieving the goal of health insurance for all, although it’s not quite there: according to state estimates, only 2.6 percent of residents remain uninsured.

There are, of course, major problems remaining in Massachusetts. In particular, while employers are required to provide a minimum standard of coverage, in a number of cases this standard seems to be too low, with lower-income workers still unable to afford necessary care. And the Massachusetts plan hasn’t yet done anything significant to contain costs.

Me: What? What was that last part? Oh, right. ObamaCare probably won’t do much to stop the explosive rise in healthcare costs. Indeed, the Massachusetts plan didn’t really try to reign in healthcare costs, putting the carrot in front of the stick. So now the system is running out of money, forcing service cuts. Some might even call that rationing. ObamaCare creates the illusion of cost control, but likely will be more carrot than stick in practice.


CBO reports that the House health reform bill will reduce the budget deficit by $100 billion over the next ten years. That sounds like cost containment to me.

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