Posts tagged ‘Wall Street’

Libertarian / OWS Nexus

I continue to be fascinated by the frequent intersection of classical liberals / libertarians and Occupy Wall Street, at least in the diagnosis of what ails us.  This post by Russ Roberts I linked previously is a great example.   Both groups get energized by criticisms of the corporate state and crony government.

Where they diverge, of course, is in solution-making.  The OWS folks see the root cause in the behavior and incentives of private corporations which corrupt government actors with their money, and thus advocate solutions which increase state power over these private entities.  In contrast, libertarians like myself see the problem as too much state power to create winners and losers in the market and shift wealth from one group to another.  Given this power, the financial incentives to harness it in ones favor are overwhelming and will never go away, so the only way to tackle it is to reduce the power to play favorites.

Cargo Cult Social Engineering

Once upon a time, government officials decided it would help them keep their jobs if they could claim they had expanded the middle class.  Unfortunately, none of them really understood economics or even the historical factors that led to the emergence of the middle class in the first place.  But they did know two things:  Middle class people tended to own their own homes, and they sent their kids to college.

So in true cargo cult fashion, they decided to increase the middle class by promoting these markers of being middle class.  They threw the Federal government strongly behind promoting home ownership and college education.  A large part of this effort entailed offering easy debt financing for housing and education.  Because the whole point was to add poorer people to the middle class, their was a strong push to strip away traditional underwriting criteria for these loans (e.g. down payments, credit history, actual income to pay debt, etc.)

We know what happened in the housing market.  The government promoted home ownership with easy loans, and made these loans a favorite investment by giving them a preferential treatment in the capital requirements for banks.  And then the bubble burst, with the government taking the blame for the bubble.  Just kidding, the government blamed private lenders for their lax underwriting standards, conviniently forgetting that every President since Reagan had encouraged such laxity (they called it something else, like "giving access to the poor", but it means the same thing).

A similar bubble is just about to burst in the college loan market, and this time it will be much harder for the government to blame private lenders, since the government effectively nationalized the market several years ago and for years has been the source of at least 90% of all college loans.  In the Wall Street Journal today, it was reported that student loans are now the largest component of consumer debt, and growing

Further, a Fed report yesterday said that student loan diliquencies have jumped substantially of late

The scary part was found by Zero Hedge in the footnotes of the report, which admit that this number is understated by as much as half, meaning the true delinquency rate of student debt may be north of 20%.

The Journal article linked above explains why this is:

Nearly all student loans—93% of them last year—are made directly by the government, which asks little or nothing about borrowers' ability to repay, or about what sort of education they intend to pursue.

President Barack Obama championed easy-to-get loans during the campaign, calling higher education "an economic imperative in the 21st century." A spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the goal is "to make student loans available to as many people as possible," and requiring minimum credit scores would block many Americans

Any of this sound familiar?  I seldom learn much from anecdotes in new stories since it is too easy to craft a stirring anecdote on either side of just about any issue.  But I was amazed at the story of the woman who was issued $184,500 in student debt to send her son to college when her entire income is a $1600 a month disability check.

Romney and Republican Messaging Fail

I got a lot of email that Republicans aren't libertarians and to stop complaining that they are not.  OK.  But let's look at their campaign messaging in the context of their own values.

Republicans had a golden opportunity to use the results of a natural experiment over the last four years between red and blue states.  Obama constantly harped on the fact that 3.5 million new jobs had been created on his watch.  Rather than play dueling statistics or end points in this analysis, the Republicans should have taken advantage of existing red/blue data:

Yes.  And the vast majority of these jobs were created in states like Texas which have been successful precisely because they have labor and tax policies which you, Mr. Obama, oppose.  And they have been created in industries like Oil and Gas production that you, Mr. Obama, have done your best to hinder.  All the jobs you claim to have helped to create were actually facilitated by a philosophy of government you oppose, by regulatory policy you would overturn if you could, and in industries you would prefer did not exist.   States like Texas -- with organic growth driven by private capital -- stand in stark contrast to your investments of our taxpayer money in bankrupt companies like Solyndra.   If you had had your way, Mr. Obama, few of these jobs would have been created.  Yes, this country saw some job creation, but it occurred despite your efforts, not because of them.

Instead of this clear kind of message, we get a bunch of wonky stuff about tax deductions vs. tax rate changes.  Heck, even if you told me I had to run my campaign on the single plank of eliminating tax deductions, I could have done a better job.  I saw this part of the debate that Romney supposedly won.  His explanation was lame.  What about this instead:

This country over the past several decades has increasingly become plagued by cronyism.  Whether it be Wall Street bankers or public employees unions or casket sellers in Louisiana, everyone wants to try to convert influence with the government into taxpayer money for themselves.  We have to end this.  And a good place to start is with the tax code.  Every special deduction and tax credit in the tax code is a giveaway to some special interest.  At best it is a misguided attempt, like the money we wasted in Solyndra, of politicians to try to pick winners and losers, to say that one kind of spending is somehow better than another.  At worst, these deductions are a crony giveaway.  Sure, it's  eliminating these deductions will help reduce the deficit.  But even more importantly, eliminating them would be an opening shot in the war to take cronyism and corporatism out of Washington.

Sleep With The Dogs, Wake Up With Fleas

JP Morgan finds itself under the government microscope for having heartlessly... cooperated with the government four years ago

The U.S. Department of Justice and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman teamed up last week to sue J.P. Morgan in a headline-grabbing case alleging the fraudulent sale of mortgage-backed securities.

One notable detail: J.P. Morgan didn't sell the securities. The seller was Bear Stearns—yes, the same Bear Stearns that the government persuaded Morgan to buy in 2008. And, yes, the same government that is now participating in the lawsuit against Morgan to answer for stuff Bear did before the government got Morgan to buy it....

As for the federal government's role, it's helpful to recall some recent history: In the mid-2000s, Bear Stearns became—outside of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—perhaps the most reckless financial firm in the housing market. Bear was the smallest of the major Wall Street investment banks. But instead of allowing market punishment for Bear and its creditors when it was headed to bankruptcy, the feds decided the country could not survive a Bear failure. So they orchestrated a sale to J.P. Morgan and provided $29 billion in taxpayer financing to make it happen.

The principal author of the Bear deal was Timothy Geithner, who was then the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and is now the Secretary of the Treasury. Until this week, we didn't think the Bear intervention could look any worse.

Somewhere there was a legal department fail here - I can't ever, ever imagine buying a company with Bear's reputation that was sinking into bankruptcy without doing either via an asset sale or letting the mess wash through Chapter 7 so there could be an old bank / new bank split.  But Bank of America made exactly the same mistake at roughly the same time with Countrywide, so it must have appeared at the time that the government largess here (or the government pressure) was too much to ignore.

You Can't Use Voluntary Action to Try to Stop Government Coersion

Or so says California's Gavin Newsom, in a great Reuters quote found by Zero Hedge:

California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom says he wants the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate "threats" against local communities considering using eminent domain to seize and restructure poorly performing mortgages to benefit cash-strapped homeowners.

Newsom sent a letter on Monday to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking federal prosecutors to investigate any attempts by Wall Street investors and government agencies to "boycott" California communities that are considering such moves.

"I am most disturbed by threats leveled by the mortgage industry and some in the federal government who have coercively urged local governments to reject consideration" of eminent domain," he wrote in a letter, a copy of which was provided to Reuters.

Newsom, a Democrat who was previously mayor of San Francisco, warned the influential Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association in July to "cease making threats to the local officials of San Bernardino County" over the proposed plan to seize underwater mortgages from private investors.

Some towns in San Bernardino County, which is located east of Los Angeles, have set up a joint authority that is looking into the idea of using eminent domain to forcibly purchase distressed mortgages. Rather than evict homeowners through foreclosure, the public-private entity would offer residents new mortgages with reduced debts.

Newsom said in the letter on Monday that while he is not endorsing the use of eminent domain at this time, he wants communities in California to be able to "explore every option" for solving their mortgage burdens "without fear of illegal reprisal by the mortgage industry or federal government agencies."

This quote is so rich with irony that it is just delicious.   Certainly ceasing to do business in a community that threatens to steal all your property strikes me as a perfectly reasonable, sane response.   Calling such a response an actionable threat requiring Federal investigation just demonstrates how little respect California officials, in particular, have for private activity and individual rights.

The third paragraph might be worth an essay all by itself, classifying a voluntary private boycott as illegally coercive while treating use of eminent domain, intended for things like road building, to seize private mortgages as so sensible that it should be sheltered from any public criticism.

Quick Observations about the NFIB

The Wall Street Journal editorial page had a piece on the "smearing" of small business.  Apparently, in the political battle over Obamacare, the NFIB has become the new target of the left.

I have not seen these attacks on the NFIB, but after the bizarre joint attacks on ALEC, I certainly believe they exist.  The WSJ summarizes these attacks this way:

According to the smear campaign against the National Federation of Independent Business, or NFIB, small businesses are thrilled with the Affordable Care Act and the trade group betrayed the 300,000 companies it represents. Among the dozens of media outlets publishing anti-NFIB op-eds disguised as reporting, Reuters recently asked in a headline, "Who truly speaks for small businesses?" The question mark was superfluous.

The chairmen of the House Progressive Caucus, Democrats Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, chimed in with a letter accusing the NFIB of acting against "the best interest of small business owners" and "the popular opinion of the American small business community." They suggest Karl Rove is behind the suit, as he is everything else.

As a member of the NFIB  (I joined several years ago specifically due to their work on health care) I believe the NFIB addresses issues that really concern our company better than any other group I have found.  Certainly they are far better than the Chamber of Commerce, which tends to be a group of large companies more interested in crony handouts than free competition.  Members get polled constantly to see what issues we care about and to see what positions we would like the NFIB to take.

This latter process makes the NFIB among the most virtuous of the organizations to which I have belonged.  Certainly the Sierra Club, way back when I was a member, never polled me on whether I preferred them to focus their efforts, say, on political activism or true conservation efforts.

I am exhausted by journalists and politicians on the Left who have barely even worked in a profit-making venture, much less run one, who speak with great authority on what small business owners should or should not want.  Our company is in the business of making long-term operations bids.  For the last three years, we have had to bid two numbers for our expenses, one with Obamacare and (a much lower one) without.  Never in 25 years of our history has any external factor, government-drive or not, made this much contingent difference to our bids.  So it is simply insulting to be told that it should not make any difference to me, or that its effects will be universally cost-reducing.

Further, it is really, really hard for a small business to parse the impact of Obamacare because it is #$&*#$ hard to figure out just what its provisions are.  McDonalds can afford to hire a team of experts to figure it out, and to start gaming it by using its political clout to seek special exemptions and treatment from the Obama Administration.  We cannot.  The NFIB is the only organization, public or private, in the country that has actually helped us understand the law's requirements.  For several years running, they have sent an expert, at their expense, to our industry gatherings to help educate companies on the law.

Why Is No One From MF Global in Jail?

Whether crimes were involved in the failures of Enron, Lehman, & Bear Stearns is still being debated.  All three essentially died in the same way (borrowing short and investing long, with a liquidity crisis emerging when questions about the quality of their long-term investments caused them not to be able to roll over their short term debt).  Just making bad business decisions isn't illegal (or shouldn't be), but there are questions at all three whether management lied to (essentially defrauded) investors by hiding emerging problems and risks.

All that being said, MF Global strikes me as an order of magnitude worse.  They had roughly the same problem - they were unable to make what can be thought of as margin calls on leveraged investments that were going bad.  However, before they went bankrupt, it is pretty clear that they stole over a billion dollars of their customers' money.  Now, in criticizing Wall Street, people are pretty sloppy in over-using the word "stole."  But in this case it applies.  Everyone agrees that customer brokerage accounts are sacrosanct.  No matter what other fraud was or was not committed in these other cases, nothing remotely similar occurred in these other bankruptcies.

A few folks are talking civil actions against MF Global, but why isn't anyone up for criminal charges?  Someone, probably Corzine, committed a crime far worse than anything Jeff Skilling or Ken Lay were even accused of, much less convicted.   This happens time and again in the financial system.  People whine that we don't have enough regulations, but the most fundamental laws we have in place already are not enforced.

Shoe on the Other Foot

Just six months ago, governments were criticizing ratings agencies for letting threats by debt security issuers cow them into keeping ratings for bad debt higher than they should be (emphasis added)

Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, Wall Street’s two largest credit rating agencies, were roundly criticized in the Levin-Coburn Senate reportfor betraying investors’ trust and triggering the massive mortgage-backed securities sell-offs that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

Credit rating agencies are supposed to provide independent, third-party credit assessments to help investors understand the risks in buying particular securities, debts and other investment offerings. For example, securities that have earned the highest ‘AAA’ rating from Standard & Poor’s (S&P) should have an “extremely strong capacity to meet financial commitments” or have “a less than 1% probability of incurring defaults.” Investors would use the ratings to help evaluate the securities they’re seeking to buy.

However, the standard practice on Wall Street is fraught with conflicts of interest. In reality, the credit rating agencies have long relied on fees paid by the Wall Street firms seeking ratings for their mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), or other investment offerings. The Levin-Coburn report found the credit agencies “were vulnerable to threats that the firms would take their business elsewhere if they did not get the ratings they wanted. The ratings agencies weakened their standards as each competed to provide the most favorable rating to win business and greater market share. The result was a race to the bottom.” Between 2004 and 2007, the “issuer pay” business model fostered conflicts of interest that have proven disastrous for investors.

I have no problem with this analysis.  But it's ironic in contrast to the very same governments' reactions to their own downgrades over the last 6 months.  In fact, the general government reaction from Washington to Paris has to be to ... wait for it ... threaten the agencies in order to keep their ratings up.  And these threats go farther than just loss of business - when the government issues threats, they are existential.  It's hard to see how the US or French government's behavior vis a vis downgrades has been any different than that of banks or bond issuers that have faced downgrades.

In general, the tone of government officials has been "what gives them the right to do this to us?"  The answer to that question is ... the government.  These self-same governments were generally responsible for mandating that certain investors could only buy certain securities if they are rated.  And not just rated by anyone, but rated by a handful of companies that have been given a quasi-monopoly by the government on this rating business.

I AM Doing Good

I accidentally watched a few minutes of a morning show today, something I try really hard to avoid.  Matt whats-his-name was interviewing Richard Branson, and they were talking about the importance of corporations "doing good".  Once startups get going, Branson said, they need to start doing good for people, meaning I guess that they buy carbon offsets or something.

Guess what?  If my startup is succesful, I am already doing good.  I can't make a dime unless I create value for people net of what they pay me.  Every customer walks away from our interaction better off, or they would not have voluntarily elected to trade with me (and if they are not better off, I will never see them again and I will find lots of nasty stuff chasing future customers away on the Internet.)  I am tired of this notion that a succesful business person's value can only be judged by what he or she does with their money and time outside of business.  I understand the frustration with a few Wall Street and GE-type executives who are living like fat ticks on their connections with government, but most of us only are succesful if we do something useful.

This, from Carpe Diem, is along the same lines.  He looks at an editorial from the DC paper about the entry of Walmart, which says among other things

Despite the peacocking by Gray and others after the agreement was signed, the District is receiving mostly crumbs. Walmart has committed to providing $21 million in charitable donations over the next seven years, an average of $3 million a year. That's a pittance."

Walmart does not have to do squat for the community beyond its core business, because selling  a broad range of goods conviniently and at really low prices is enough. Or if it is not enough, they will not make money.  The promise of $21 million to some boondoggle controlled by a  few politician's friends is just a distraction, I wish they had not done it, but I understand that this is essentially a bribe to the officials of the DC banana republic to let them do business.

Postscript:  I have no problem with doing charitable work outside of work.  Both my company and I do, by choice, though unlike Richard Branson I don't need to have a crew of paid PR agents making sure everyone knows it.

Emergent Disorder

This is a fascinating tale, from Occupy Wall Street, demonstrating how a group with assumptions including

  1. Its OK for one group to exercise power over another group
  2. Its OK to redistribute money on some basis other than earning it through voluntary commerce
can quickly devolve into emergent disorder.
There is no great brotherhood once you adopt the assumption that people may use coercion to achieve their goals - there is only victory by those most capable in the raw exercise of power.

Crony Capitalism

Perhaps I do not give Sarah Palin enough credit, because this is a really good passage, from one of her recent speeches (emphasis added by Mickey Kaus)

We sent a new class of leaders to D.C., but immediately the permanent political class tried to co-opt them – because the reality is we are governed by a permanent political class, until we change that. They talk endlessly about cutting government spending, and yet they keep spending more. They talk about massive unsustainable debt, and yet they keep incurring more. They spend, they print, they borrow, they spend more, and then they stick us with the bill. Then they pat their own backs, and they claim that they faced and “solved” the debt crisis that they got us in, but when we were humiliated in front of the world with our country’s first credit downgrade, they promptly went on vacation.

No, they don’t feel the same urgency that we do. But why should they? For them business is good; business is very good.  Seven of the ten wealthiest counties are suburbs of Washington, D.C. Polls there actually – and usually I say polls, eh, they’re for strippers and cross country skiers – but polls in those parts show that some people there believe that the economy has actually improved. See, there may not be a recession in Georgetown, but there is in the rest of America.

Yeah, the permanent political class – they’re doing just fine. Ever notice how so many of them arrive in Washington, D.C. of modest means and then miraculously throughout the years they end up becoming very, very wealthy? Well, it’s because they derive power and their wealth from their access to our money – to taxpayer dollars.  They use it to bail out their friends on Wall Street and their corporate cronies, and to reward campaign contributors, and to buy votes via earmarks. There is so much waste. And there is a name for this: It’s called corporate crony capitalism. This is not the capitalism of free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and of risk. No, this is the capitalism of connections and government bailouts and handouts, of waste and influence peddling and corporate welfare. This is the crony capitalism that destroyed Europe’s economies. It’s the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest – to the little guys. It’s a slap in the face to our small business owners – the true entrepreneurs, the job creators accounting for 70% of the jobs in America, it’s you who own these small businesses, you’re the economic engine, but you don’t grease the wheels of government power.

So, do you want to know why the permanent political class doesn’t really want to cut any spending? Do you want to know why nothing ever really gets done? It’s because there’s nothing in it for them. They’ve got a lot of mouths to feed – a lot of corporate lobbyists and a lot of special interests that are counting on them to keep the good times and the money rolling along.

Google and Government

This is a pretty interesting interview with Eric Schmidt of Google.  I am running out the door and don't have time to excerpt it, but in short, Schmidt is quite critical of the ability of government to intelligently regulate technology.

His solution is telling.  There is nothing here about reducing the power and scope of government, despite his clear and concise description of its consistent structural failures.  His solution:  more power for my guys.  That way, when Washington plays its game of sacrificing the less connected in favor of the well connected, we will do OK.

I am working on this concept for my next Forbes column vis a vis the Occupy Wall Street movement.  The OWS folks seem incoherent to us, because, in short, they complain about people having unfair power over them and then their solution is ... to give other people more power.   I have reconciled this in my mind with a cold war analogy.  Everyone accepts the arms race as a fact, and so the only way to survive is to have more nukes than the other guy.  The only way to deal with power, is to get more power for my side.

Frankly, its time for disarmament.  As a retailer, I get irritated with credit card processors, but I understood when Congress was considering regulation of interchange fees that giving the Feds the power to set credit card terms, rather than the banks, was not going to make things any easier, just shift the costs from more to less favored constituencies (and consumers are always the least favored constituency).

More later as I sort this out in my head.

Financial vs. Operating Investors

Kevin Drum argues that Conservatives have vastly over-estimated the effects of capital gains tax changes on investment.

I can't agree with parts of the article that seem to argue that all taxes have limited effects on behavior (this is easily disproved, just look at what the tax code does for preferences of issuing debt vs. equity, or even look at the mortgage market).  But I have always suspected that the political focus on the capital gains tax represents another piece of evidence that financial players (Wall Street, banks) dominate much of economic regulation.

All things being equal, a low capital gains tax is fine.  If I sell some stock, its nice to pay a lower tax on the profits, particularly since at some level those profits have already been taxed once at the corporate level.  Financial players who buy and sell securities live and die by the capital gains tax, and I suppose for businesses there is some advantage in that it perhaps reduces the cost of debt and equity.

But as a business person with my own company, that capital gains tax is largely irrelevant to my investment decisions.   That is because all my investments are made to generate cash flow, and thus the regular tax rate is the ordinary income tax rate.  Perhaps one time in my life, if ever, the capital gains tax will be hugely relevant when I sell my business, but that is at some time in the future so nebulous that it does not affect my behavior.   Other than the double taxation argument, I have never understood why those who take their investment gains in asset value appreciation rather than in income should get different tax treatments.

Celebrating the Most Recent 5-Year Plan

This sort of thing drives me crazy:

Before 2009, the U.S. was supplying less than 2% of a tiny global market in advanced batteries. When the stimulus-funded factories are all complete, they’ll have the capacity to supply 40% of a rapidly growing global market, about 500,000 batteries a year. The stimulus will also boost our supply of electric-vehicle charging stations by more than 3,000%. And the Obama administration has provided loans to help Tesla, Fisker and Nissan build electric-car factories in the U.S., all part of Obama’s pledge to put 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015. That is what change looks like, even if the President doesn’t beat his chest and call for mass beheadings on Wall Street while it happens

A few random thoughts

  1. Doesn't this sound like an old Soviet press release about the highlights of their last 5-year plan?
  2. This is a kind of weird economic nationalism that drove a lot of the bad behaviors in the 19th century.  Who cares what percentage of world battery output our country controls?  Don't we just care that there is an adequate supply at good cost from somewhere?  This sounds like chest-thumping for the American Raj.
  3. Left unquestioned is why we should care or be excited.  Consider it this way -- a guy with no business experience is making major investments of our money in companies that were not able to get private investment.  Did you really elect Obama to be venture-capitalist-in-chief?  And if that were truly the President's job descriptions, how many tens of millions of people would you consider more qualified for the job than Obama?  Would you let Obama manage your retirement portfolio for you?
  4. No government investment is at all interesting to me unless I am told what private use of the money was foregone.   All such public investments use money that is taken from private actors and would have been used for some private function.  How many jobs, and what market outcomes, would have occurred if the money had remained in private hands?
  5. Let's see how many Democrats are claiming these successes in a few years when these ventures start going bankrupt.  I expect a lot of this stuff to mysteriously disappear from poloitician's web sites in a few years.
  6. This is the corporate state in spades.  The government creates an industry, and in the future will create protectionist laws for it, and customer subsidies, and bail it out when necessary.  In return, all of its employees and managers know they owe their jobs to the party that sponsored the industry, rather than to any competitive prowess.

James Taggart is Alive and Well

In my Forbes column this week, I publish an essay I wrote for an Americans for Prosperity event commemorating Milton Friedman's birthday.  A brief excerpt:

Having once been successful through excellence, leading businesses typically get lazy and senescent, and become vulnerable to more innovative, lower-cost or more nimble new competitors.  Sears lost its electronics sales to Circuit City, which in turn succumbed to Best Buy, which is now struggling to compete with Wal-Mart, who is being challenged by Amazon.com.

Unfortunately, businesses that were once successful can feel a sense of entitlement, believing that this new competition is somehow unfair, or that consumers are somehow misguided in taking their business elsewhere.  When they have money or political connections, these businesses may run to Congress and beg for special protections against competition, or even new subsidies, mandates, stimulus projects, and bailouts.

Where is the threat to capitalism and individual liberty coming from today?  Is it from some aggrieved proletariat, or is the threat from bailed out Wall Street firms, and AIG, and GM, and Chrysler, and ethanol manufacturers, and electric car makers, and windmill builders?

 

Outrageous -- Hedge Funds Using Obama Administration to Gut Their Short-Selling Targets

Living in Phoenix I know a number of people who work for Apollo (University of Phoenix).  They have obviously been appalled by the Obama war on for-profit colleges and the egregiously-flawed report that came out last year.  Several have told me they have complained for a while that certain hedge funds were pushing this initiative in order to make money off of short positions on their stock.  I thought this was a bit paranoid, but now the accusation is coming from third parties, even those on the Left:

A proposed regulation from the Education Department threatens to devastate for-profit career or trade schools, but one thing is even more controversial than the regulation -- how it was crafted.

Education Department officials were encouraged and advised about the content of the regulation by a man who stood to make millions if it were issued.

"Wall Street investors were manipulating the regulatory process and Department of Education officials were letting them," charged Melanie Sloan of a liberal-leaning ethics watchdog called Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington....

Among others, Sloan is referring to Steven Eisman, a hedge fund manager and a figure in the book "The Big Short," who testified in the Senate against for-profit career or trade schools, attacking them as "fundamentally unsound."

At the same time, he was betting that the stocks of those companies would fall, a practice known as short selling. "Making sure that they were going to be defamed and that their value was going to be depressed," said Harry Alford, head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, who worries about the schools because they serve many minority students.

Simultaneously, through emails and conference calls, Eisman was advising Education Department officials -- and one White House adviser -- in detail on how best to write the new regulation, which he estimated would reduce the schools' earnings by as much as 75 percent.

The proposed regulation from the administration is aimed at what are known as career or vocational schools. The rule would cut federal aid to programs where student debt levels are deemed to be too high and where students are struggling to repay their loans.

In other news, everyone seems A-OK with kids in not-for-profit universities running up $200,000 debts to get such lucrative, workplace-ready degrees as women's studies, comp. lit. and poetry.

Inevitable Result of Price Controls, Health Care Edition

Well, it turns out that the laws of supply and demand do indeed apply in the health care field.  Obamacare and before it Romneycare combine government subsidies of demand with cost controls mainly consisting of price caps on suppliers.  The results are exactly what any college student could predict after even one week of microeconomics 101:  shortages.

First, from the WSJ

A new survey released yesterday by the Massachusetts Medical Society reveals that fewer than half of the state's primary care practices are accepting new patients, down from 70% in 2007, before former Governor Mitt Romney's health-care plan came online. The average wait time for a routine checkup with an internist is 48 days. It takes 43 days to secure an appointment with a gastroenterologist for chronic heartburn, up from 36 last year, and 41 days to see an OB/GYN, up from 34 last year....

Massachusetts health regulators also estimate that emergency room visits jumped 9% between 2004 and 2008, in part due to the lack of routine access to providers. The Romney-Obama theory was that if everyone is insured by the government, costs would fall by squeezing out uncompensated care. Yet emergency medicine accounts for only 2% of all national health spending.

The emergency room data is fascinating, as crowded emergency rooms supposedly overwhelmed by the uninsured was such an important image in the campaign to pass Obamacare.  More on this from Q&O:

Hospital emergency rooms, the theory goes, get overcrowded because people without health insurance have no place else to go.

But that’s not the view of the doctors who staff those emergency departments.
The real problem, according to a new survey from the American College of Emergency Physicians,isn’t caused by people who don’t have insurance — it’s caused by people who do, but still can’t find a doctor to treat them.

A full 97 percent of ER doctors who responded to the ACEP survey said they treated patients "daily" who have Medicaid (the federal-state health plan for the low-income), but who can’t find a doctors who will accept their insurance…."The results are significant," said ACEP President Sandra Schneider in prepared comments. "They confirm what we are witnessing in Massachusetts — that visits to emergency rooms are going to increase across the country, despite the advent of health care reform, and that health insurance coverage does not guarantee access to medical care."

As I have been saying for a long time, the Obama health care nuts do not have any secret, magical idea or plan for cutting health care costs.  In fact, as I have written here and here, we should expect Federalization to exacerbate the bad information and incentives that make health care more expensive.  The only idea they have, in fact, is the only one that anyone ever has in government for this kind of thing -- price controls

Over the weekend, The Washington Postpublished a Q&A-style explainer on the Independent Payment Advisory Board—the panel of federal health care technocrats charged with keeping down spending growth on Medicare.

The details are complicated, but the gist is simple: If spending on Medicare is projected to grow beyond certain yearly targets, then it’s IPAB to the rescue: The 15-member panel appointed by the president has to come up with a package of cuts that will hold Medicare’s growth in check. If Congress want to override that package, it only has two options: Vote to pass a different but equally large package of cuts or kill the package entirely with a three-fifths supermajority in the Senate.

The Post lays out the basic framework above. But what it doesn’t explain in any detail is exactly how those cuts will be achieved. And that, of course, is where the difficulty begins: Here’s how The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board explained it last month: “Since the board is not allowed by law to restrict treatments, ask seniors to pay more, or raise taxes or the retirement age, it can mean only one thing: arbitrarily paying less for the services seniors receive, via fiat pricing.” Medicare already centrally sets the prices it pays for the services of doctors and hospitals. Given the board's limitations, the most likely cuts we’ll see from IPAB, then, will be arbitrary, quality-blind reductions in these payments (though hospitals will be exempt from cuts for the first couple years).

We know what happens next: Providers stop taking on new Medicare patients, or drop out of the system entirely. In Medicaid, which pays far lower rates than Medicare (which pays somewhat lower rates than private insurance), this is already common: As one emergency physician recently told The New York Times, “Having a Medicaid card in no way assures access to care.” If IPAB cuts Medicare provider payments down to the bone, it could end up transforming Medicare into a seniors’-version of Medicaid.

I Have Had This Argument About a Zillion Times

From Arnold Kling

I think that (non-classical) liberals and libertarians see the problem of "special interests" differently. Liberals view special interests as exogenous to the policy process. You have to overcome special interests to create good policy. Libertarians see special interests as endogenous. Policy is what creates them.

Yep, I have had this argument about a million times with liberals.  Liberals will argue that government power is neutral to positive, and that it is private action corrupting government, and this corruption can be avoided if private action is aggressively policed (including campaign spending limits, etc).  Example:  If Wall Street money could be taken out of politics then financial regulation would work.

I argue that money in politics are a result of the stakes that we have put on the table -- the more power we give to government to reallocate wealth, the more money will be spent to have such decisions made in one's favor.  In the age old question of whether a bribe is more the fault of the politician that demanded it or the private party that offered it, I would answer that the fault is with the system that gives the politician enough power to make such a bribe pay.  And increasing the government's power to limit private involvement in politics (e.g. via campaign spending limits) only makes the government power problem worse.

Credentialism: A Problem that Cuts Both Ways

From the Chronicle of Higher Education via TaxProf Blog

If you want to get a job at the very best law firm, investment bank, or consultancy, here’s what you do:

1. Go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or (maybe) Stanford. If you’re a business student, attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania will work, too, but don’t show up with a diploma from Dartmouth or MIT. No one cares about those places. ... That’s the upshot of an enlightening/depressing study about the ridiculously narrow-minded people who make hiring decisions at the aforementioned elite companies. ... These firms pour resources into recruiting students from “target schools” (i.e., Harvard, Yale, Princeton) and then more or less ignore everybody else. Here’s a manager from a top investment bank describing what happens to the resume of someone who went to, say, Rutgers: “I’m just being really honest, it pretty much goes into a black hole.”

Being, I suppose, an insider to this process (Princeton - Harvard Business School - McKinsey & Company) I'd like to make a few comments

  • First and foremost, this problem cuts both ways.  I can imagine outsiders are frustrated with the lack of access.  But as an insider I can tell you  (cue Admiral Akbar) It's a Trap!  You go to Princeton, think, wow, I did well at Princeton, it would be a waste not to do something with that.   You are a competitive sole, so getting into a top grad school is an honor to be pursued just like good grades.   So you go to Harvard Business School (it could have been Harvard Law) and do well.  And what is the mark of achievement there? -- getting a job at a top consultancy or top investment bank.  So you take the McKinsey job, have your first kid, and what do you find out?  Wow, I hate this job!  In fact, the only thing I would have hated more is if I had taken that Wall Street job.   Eventually you find happiness running your own company, only to discover your Ivy League degrees are a liability since they intimidate your employees from sharing their ideas and most of the other guys you know successfully running businesses went to Kansas State or Rutgers.
  • My only data point inside this hiring process is from McKinsey about 15-20 years ago, so it may be out of date.    But at that time, the above statement would be BS.  Certainly hiring was heavily tilted to the top Ivies and a few top business schools.  But we had people with undergrad degrees from all over - in fact most of our office in Texas had undergrad degrees from the Texas state schools  (at lot from BYU too -- McKinsey loved the Mormons).  At the time, McKinsey was hiring hundreds of people out of business school around the world each year.  No way this could have come from only a few schools.
  • My hypothesis is that this may be more a regional than an industry bias, limited to Boston/New York/East Coast.  Since many top law firms and consultancies and investment banks are in NYC, they reflect this local bias.  But I would bet these same firms and industries hire differently outside of the East Coast.
  • There is some rationality in this approach - it is not all mindless snobbism.   Take Princeton.  It screens something like 25,000 already exceptional applicants down to just 1500, and then further carefully monitors their performance through intensive contact over a four year period.  This is WAY more work and resources than a private firm could ever apply to the hiring process.  In effect, by limiting their hiring to just a few top schools, they are outsourcing a lot of their performance evaluation work to those schools.

Well, You Had To Expect This Was Coming

Via the Washington Post:

President Obama urged reluctant lawmakers Saturday to quickly approve nearly $50 billion in emergency aid to state and local governments, saying the money is needed to avoid "massive layoffs of teachers, police and firefighters" and to support the still-fragile economic recovery.

In a letter to congressional leaders, Obama defended last year's huge economic stimulus package, saying it helped break the economy's free fall, but argued that more spending is urgent and unavoidable. "We must take these emergency measures," he wrote in an appeal aimed primarily at members of his own party.

Of course, in retrospect we have learned that the first stimulus was mostly about saving government jobs as well, rather than creating any private stimulus.   Government workers are among the Democrats most reliable political supporters, and the SEIU, among other organizations, have had close ties to Obama for years.  State and local governments are finally facing some accountability for spending and being forced to roll back spending increases of the last few years that have far outpaced inflation and population growth, so of course Obama wants to short-circuit this accountability process.

Think about this -- every one of these bailed out governments have certainly had local legislative deliberations and likely votes on bonds and tax increases over the last year.  If their problems still persist, its because the local taxpayers don't want to pony up any more money for their local government and the local legislators refuse to cut spending sufficiently.  So if Smallsville, California won't pony up more money for their government and won't balance their budget, why should I be on the financial hook to bail them out?

Andrew Coulson looks at one of these groups, teachers, and wonders what all the fuss is about -- its about time we laid some public school employees off after years of rapidly declining productivity:

I have been looking for a good excuse to clear my reader cache of a whole series of articles on government salaries and pensions, and this seems a really good time.

Much like the bailout of billionaires on Wall Street, the government worker bailout is targeting a group already doing much better than their peers in private industry.  (via Carpe Diem)

Related, via Carpe Diem:

"Who are America's fastest-growing class of millionaires? They are police officers, firefighters, teachers and federal bureaucrats who, unless things change drastically, will be paid something near their full salaries every year--until death--after retiring in their mid-50s. That is equivalent to a retirement sum worth millions of dollars.

Chris Edwards has a related essay, focusing on federal government pay.

Matt Welch looks at two DC-area counties and shows how their relative financial health is closely related to their hiring and pay policies.

Green Rent Seeking Update

More here on the failure of European green energy subsidies.

At a speech a while ago, I told this to an investing group a while back:  Do the math.  You can't build a growth company on public subsidies.  It may be possible to grow at first when the subsidized activity (e.g. solar) is a tiny percentage of the market.  But once it starts to grow, the projected subsidies are astronomical.  The German solar subsidy is something like 50 cents per KwH -- to give one a sense of scale, the typical electricity price from fossil fuels there or here is something like 8-10 cents per KwH.  Subsidizing just 20% of US electricity production at this kind of rate would cost $50 billion a year.  Subsidizing all production would cost a quarter of a trillion dollars a year.

Take a company dependent on subsidies, figure out what their implied size is in 10 years based on current stock multiples, and then calculate what the public subsidy at current rates would have to be to support that size and a reasonable market share (because competitors are following the same model).  Investors who do this will quickly figure out that the subsidies needed to support their favored company are unsustainable.  Phoenix-based FirstSolar, a sometimes-darling of Wall Street, has had  a rocky year.  Its stock price has had several steep falls, each one just after rumors that Germany would cut its solar subsidy rate (actually its feed-in tariff, but the same idea).

My advice to the group was that if you were investing in green energy, either your company had a three year plan to reduce costs to be able to compete profitably in a subsidy-free environment, or else you are investing in pets.com.

Update: If you have Nancy Pelosi's husband on your board, you can probably extend your window to five years.

Outright Fraud

I was suspicious of GM's announcement that they were paying off government loans quickly, an action that was attached to a clear PR message that can be boiled down to "taxpayers did the right thing giving us billions."  I was suspicious because I had thought most of the money GM got was an equity infusion as well as certain guarantees, such as of the UAW mention and retirement medical plans.  As such, I suspected that a small debt repayment was trivial and just a token PR move.

I was wrong.  Well, actually, everything I wrote above is correct.  But I was wrong in that I underestimated how fraudulent this announcement was.

The issue came up yesterday at a hearing with the special watchdog on the Wall Street Bailout, Neil Barofsky, who was asked several times about the GM repayment by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), who was looking for answers on how much money the feds might make from the controversial Wall Street Bailout.

"It's good news in that they're reducing their debt," Barofsky said of the accelerated GM payments, "but they're doing it by taking other available TARP money."

In other words, GM is taking money from the Wall Street Bailout "“ the TARP money "“ and using that to pay off their loans ahead of schedule.

"It sounds like it's kind of like taking money out of one pocket and putting in the other," said Carper, who got a nod of agreement from Barofsky.

"The way that payment is going to be made is by drawing down on an equity facility of other TARP money."

Translated "“ they are using bailout funds from the feds to pay off their loans.

Un-freaking-believable.   And as an aside, I know that we traditionally have a 5-year waiting period, but can we go ahead and add TARP now to the hall of fame of worst legislation?

Update: It turns out it is even worse.  More Here.

Perils of Populism

One of the perils of being a populist, as John McCain is finding out, is that the public is allowed to change its mind, but politicians who attempt to follow them end up looking bad.

the four-term senator says he was misled by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. McCain said the pair assured him that the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program would focus on what was seen as the cause of the financial crisis, the housing meltdown.

"Obviously, that didn't happen," McCain said in a meeting Thursday with The [Arizona] Republic's Editorial Board, recounting his decision-making during the critical initial days of the fiscal crisis. "They decided to stabilize the Wall Street institutions, bail out (insurance giant) AIG, bail out Chrysler, bail out General Motors.... What they figured was that if they stabilized Wall Street - I guess it was trickle-down economics - that therefore Main Street would be fine."

I am not sure this is much of a defense.  Even without McCain's access to such financial luminaries, I and many others predicted at the time the $700 billion slush fund would be used as, well, as slush fund to bail out the politically well-connected.  I must admit I didn't see the GM/UAW bailout coming, but its not wildly surprising in retrospect.

Unfortunately for all of us, McCain's competition in the next election, JD Hayworth, is even less appealing.

Update on the Health Care Trojan Horse for Fascism

I have warned for quite a while that government health care is a Trojan horse for all kinds of intrusive micro-regulations of our decisions and behaviors.  Here's an update: (via Maggies Farm)

"As the government assumes a larger share of health care costs, it is increasingly able to use that as a justification to intrude into personal decisions or private enterprises, whether it's a matter of smoking policy, trans-fats, or salt," we wrote last month. Now the Wall Street Journal is out with an editorial praising Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity, reasoning, "the reality is that U.S. obesity imposes huge costs on taxpayers. In 2006, the per capita increase in spending attributable to obesity was 36% for Medicare and 47% for Medicaid, according to a paper last year in Health Affairs. Many fat kids grow up to be fat adults, and you've got to start somewhere."

Almost any behavior or decisions, from eating to driving to sports participation, has implications on one's potential future health care costs.  So by this logic, almost anything can be regulated.  For example, I would argue that sex has a much higher health care cost impact than eating, not just in STD's but in the cost of pregnancies and pediatrics.   Or as another example, our family spent far more in health care costs on treating our kids' accidents while playing sports than in dealing with any obesity costs.  Should we be requiring kids to stay indoors playing on the computer where they will be safe from potentially expensive accidents?

The Most Negative Leading Economic Indicator

Will we look back on 2009 as the tipping point where productive resources began to spiral faster and faster into the government black hole?  A few stories that have caught my eye the last few weeks:

Federal salaries exploding, from USA Today via Q&O

The number of federal workers earning six-figure salaries has exploded during the recession, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal salary data.

Federal employees making salaries of $100,000 or more jumped from 14% to 19% of civil servants during the recession's first 18 months "” and that's before overtime pay and bonuses are counted....

The trend to six-figure salaries is occurring throughout the federal government, in agencies big and small, high-tech and low-tech. The primary cause: substantial pay raises and new salary rules.

The highest-paid federal employees are doing best of all on salary increases. Defense Department civilian employees earning $150,000 or more increased from 1,868 in December 2007 to 10,100 in June 2009, the most recent figure available.

When the recession started, the Transportation Department had only one person earning a salary of $170,000 or more. Eighteen months later, 1,690 employees had salaries above $170,000.

Government Employment Rising, via Glenn Reynolds

Government services rising as a percent of the economy (from the Heritage Foundation via the same Glenn Reynolds link above)

Capital to private firms is increasingly allocated by the state -- the new Corporate State.  First, Representative Paul Ryan in Forbes:

Thirty years later, this crony capitalism is back with a vengeance, accelerated by an aggressive program by President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership. It is wreaking havoc on economic recovery and fueling continued resentment among the American people.

The actions taken at the height of the financial panic last fall, with credit markets frozen, succeeded in preventing a systemic--and catastrophic--collapse. Since bringing us back from the precipice however, the Troubled Asset Relief Program [TARP] has morphed into crony capitalism at its worst. Abandoning its original purpose providing targeted assistance to unlock credit markets, TARP has evolved into an ad hoc, opaque slush fund for large institutions that are able to influence the Treasury Department's investment decisions behind-the-scenes. No longer concerned with preserving overall financial market stability, Treasury's walking around money continues to be deployed to reward the market's Goliaths while letting its Davids suffer.

Further, via Reuters:

U.S. banks that spent more money on lobbying were more likely to get government bailout money, according to a study released on Monday.

Banks whose executives served on Federal Reserve boards were more likely to receive government bailout funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, according to the study from Ran Duchin and Denis Sosyura, professors at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

Banks with headquarters in the district of a U.S. House of Representatives member who serves on a committee or subcommittee relating to TARP also received more funds.

Political influence was most helpful for poorly performing banks, the study found.

"Political connections play an important role in a firm's access to capital," Sosyura, a University of Michigan assistant professor of finance, said in a statement.

The Government has gained new power to allocate capital in the future. This was perhaps one of the most under-reported stories of the last few months (mea culpa as well).

To close out 2009, I decided to do something I bet no member of Congress has done -- actually read from cover to cover one of the pieces of sweeping legislation bouncing around Capitol Hill....

The reading was especially painful since this reform sausage is stuffed with more gristle than meat. At least, that is, if you are a taxpayer hoping the bailout train is coming to a halt.

If you're a banker, the bill is tastier. While banks opposed the legislation, they should cheer for its passage by the full Congress in the New Year: There are huge giveaways insuring the government will again rescue banks and Wall Street if the need arises....

Here are some of the nuggets I gleaned from days spent reading Frank's handiwork:

-- For all its heft, the bill doesn't once mention the words "too-big-to-fail," the main issue confronting the financial system. Admitting you have a problem, as any 12- stepper knows, is the crucial first step toward recovery.

-- Instead, it supports the biggest banks. It authorizes Federal Reserve banks to provide as much as $4 trillion in emergency funding the next time Wall Street crashes. So much for "no-more-bailouts" talk. That is more than twice what the Fed pumped into markets this time around. The size of the fund makes the bribes in the Senate's health-care bill look minuscule....

But don't worry, trust Congress to get at the heart of the financial meltdown

The bill calls for more than a dozen agencies to create a position called "Director of Minority and Women Inclusion." People in these new posts will be presidential appointees.