The Washington Wizards Drink Our Milkshake

Tyler Cowen in The American Interest:

[...] All that said, income inequality does matter—for both politics and the economy. To see how, we must distinguish between inequality itself and what causes it. But first let’s review the trends in more detail.

The numbers are clear: Income inequality has been rising in the United States, especially at the very top. The data show a big difference between two quite separate issues, namely income growth at the very top of the distribution and greater inequality throughout the distribution. The first trend is much more pronounced than the second, although the two are often confused.

When it comes to the first trend, the share of pre-tax income earned by the richest 1 percent of earners has increased from about 8 percent in 1974 to more than 18 percent in 2007. Furthermore, the richest 0.01 percent (the 15,000 or so richest families) had a share of less than 1 percent in 1974 but more than 6 percent of national income in 2007. As noted, those figures are from pre-tax income, so don’t look to the George W. Bush tax cuts to explain the pattern. Furthermore, these gains have been sustained and have evolved over many years, rather than coming in one or two small bursts between 1974 and today.1

These numbers have been challenged on the grounds that, since various tax reforms have kicked in, individuals now receive their incomes in different and harder to measure ways, namely through corporate forms, stock options and fringe benefits. Caution is in order, but the overall trend seems robust. Similar broad patterns are indicated by different sources, such as studies of executive compensation. Anecdotal observation suggests extreme and unprecedented returns earned by investment bankers, fired CEOs, J.K. Rowling and Tiger Woods.

At the same time, wage growth for the median earner has slowed since 1973. But that slower wage growth has afflicted large numbers of Americans, and it is conceptually distinct from the higher relative share of top income earners. For instance, if you take the 1979–2005 period, the average incomes of the bottom fifth of households increased only 6 percent while the incomes of the middle quintile rose by 21 percent. That’s a widening of the spread of incomes, but it’s not so drastic compared to the explosive gains at the very top.

The broader change in income distribution, the one occurring beneath the very top earners, can be deconstructed in a manner that makes nearly all of it look harmless. For instance, there is usually greater inequality of income among both older people and the more highly educated, if only because there is more time and more room for fortunes to vary. Since America is becoming both older and more highly educated, our measured income inequality will increase pretty much by demographic fiat. Economist Thomas Lemieux at the University of British Columbia estimates that these demographic effects explain three-quarters of the observed rise in income inequality for men, and even more for women.2

Attacking the problem from a different angle, other economists are challenging whether there is much growth in inequality at all below the super-rich. For instance, real incomes are measured using a common price index, yet poorer people are more likely to shop at discount outlets like Wal-Mart, which have seen big price drops over the past twenty years.3 Once we take this behavior into account, it is unclear whether the real income gaps between the poor and middle class have been widening much at all. Robert J. Gordon, an economist from Northwestern University who is hardly known as a right-wing apologist, wrote in a recent paper that “there was no increase of inequality after 1993 in the bottom 99 percent of the population”, and that whatever overall change there was “can be entirely explained by the behavior of income in the top 1 percent.”4

And so we come again to the gains of the top earners, clearly the big story told by the data. It’s worth noting that over this same period of time, inequality of work hours increased too. The top earners worked a lot more and most other Americans worked somewhat less. That’s another reason why high earners don’t occasion more resentment: Many people understand how hard they have to work to get there. It also seems that most of the income gains of the top earners were related to performance pay—bonuses, in other words—and not wildly out-of-whack yearly salaries.5

It is also the case that any society with a lot of “threshold earners” is likely to experience growing income inequality. A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often. That person simply wants to “get by” in terms of absolute earning power in order to experience other gains in the form of leisure—whether spending time with friends and family, walking in the woods and so on. Luck aside, that person’s income will never rise much above the threshold.

It’s not obvious what causes the percentage of threshold earners to rise or fall, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the more single-occupancy households there are, the more threshold earners there will be, since a major incentive for earning money is to use it to take care of other people with whom one lives. For a variety of reasons, single-occupancy households in the United States are at an all-time high. There are also a growing number of late odyssey years graduate students who try to cover their own expenses but otherwise devote their time to study. If the percentage of threshold earners rises for whatever reasons, however, the aggregate gap between them and the more financially ambitious will widen. There is nothing morally or practically wrong with an increase in inequality from a source such as that.

[...]

If we are looking for objectionable problems in the top 1 percent of income earners, much of it boils down to finance and activities related to financial markets. And to be sure, the high incomes in finance should give us all pause.

The first factor driving high returns is sometimes called by practitioners “going short on volatility.” Sometimes it is called “negative skewness.” In plain English, this means that some investors opt for a strategy of betting against big, unexpected moves in market prices. Most of the time investors will do well by this strategy, since big, unexpected moves are outliers by definition. Traders will earn above-average returns in good times. In bad times they won’t suffer fully when catastrophic returns come in, as sooner or later is bound to happen, because the downside of these bets is partly socialized onto the Treasury, the Federal Reserve and, of course, the taxpayers and the unemployed.

To understand how this strategy works, consider an example from sports betting. The NBA’s Washington Wizards are a perennially hapless team that rarely gets beyond the first round of the playoffs, if they make the playoffs at all. This year the odds of the Wizards winning the NBA title will likely clock in at longer than a hundred to one. I could, as a gambling strategy, bet against the Wizards and other low-quality teams each year. Most years I would earn a decent profit, and it would feel like I was earning money for virtually nothing. The Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics or some other quality team would win the title again and I would collect some surplus from my bets. For many years I would earn excess returns relative to the market as a whole.

Yet such bets are not wise over the long run. Every now and then a surprise team does win the title and in those years I would lose a huge amount of money. Even the Washington Wizards (under their previous name, the Capital Bullets) won the title in 1977–78 despite compiling a so-so 44–38 record during the regular season, by marching through the playoffs in spectacular fashion. So if you bet against unlikely events, most of the time you will look smart and have the money to validate the appearance. Periodically, however, you will look very bad. Does that kind of pattern sound familiar? It happens in finance, too. Betting against a big decline in home prices is analogous to betting against the Wizards. Every now and then such a bet will blow up in your face, though in most years that trading activity will generate above-average profits and big bonuses for the traders and CEOs.

To this mix we can add the fact that many money managers are investing other people’s money. If you plan to stay with an investment bank for ten years or less, most of the people playing this investing strategy will make out very well most of the time. Everyone’s time horizon is a bit limited and you will bring in some nice years of extra returns and reap nice bonuses. And let’s say the whole thing does blow up in your face? What’s the worst that can happen? Your bosses fire you, but you will still have millions in the bank and that MBA from Harvard or Wharton. For the people actually investing the money, there’s barely any downside risk other than having to quit the party early. Furthermore, if everyone else made more or less the same mistake (very surprising major events, such as a busted housing market, affect virtually everybody), you’re hardly disgraced. You might even get rehired at another investment bank, or maybe a hedge fund, within months or even weeks.

Moreover, smart shareholders will acquiesce to or even encourage these gambles. They gain on the upside, while the downside, past the point of bankruptcy, is borne by the firm’s creditors. And will the bondholders object? Well, they might have a difficult time monitoring the internal trading operations of financial institutions. Of course, the firm’s trading book cannot be open to competitors, and that means it cannot be open to bondholders (or even most shareholders) either. So what, exactly, will they have in hand to object to?

Perhaps more important, government bailouts minimize the damage to creditors on the downside. Neither the Treasury nor the Fed allowed creditors to take any losses from the collapse of the major banks during the financial crisis. The U.S. government guaranteed these loans, either explicitly or implicitly.

Guaranteeing the debt also encourages equity holders to take more risk. While current bailouts have not in general maintained equity values, and while share prices have often fallen to near zero following the bust of a major bank, the bailouts still give the bank a lifeline. Instead of the bank being destroyed, sometimes those equity prices do climb back out of the hole. This is true of the major surviving banks in the United States, and even AIG is paying back its bailout. For better or worse, we’re handing out free options on recovery, and that encourages banks to take more risk in the first place.

In short, there is an unholy dynamic of short-term trading and investing, backed up by bailouts and risk reduction from the government and the Federal Reserve. This is not good. “Going short on volatility” is a dangerous strategy from a social point of view. For one thing, in so-called normal times, the finance sector attracts a big chunk of the smartest, most hard-working and most talented individuals. That represents a huge human capital opportunity cost to society and the economy at large. But more immediate and more important, it means that banks take far too many risks and go way out on a limb, often in correlated fashion. When their bets turn sour, as they did in 2007–09, everyone else pays the price.

Ross Douthat:

But it’s interesting to read it in tandem with Cowen’s earlier piece critiquing the “break up the banks” argument advanced by Simon Johnson and James Kwak, and embraced by the progressive left (along with a few libertarians and conservatives). There, Cowen argued that shrinking the banks would treat the symptoms of the bailout culture, rather than the disease:

There’s a different way to think about the bailouts, namely that the U.S. government stands at the center of a giant nexus of money raising, most of all to finance the U.S. government budget deficit and keep the whole show up and running. The perception at least is that our country requires the dollar as a reserve currency, requires New York City as a major banking center with major banks, and requires fully credible governmental guarantees behind every Treasury auction and requires liquid financial markets more generally. Furthermore the international trade presence of the United States (supposedly) requires the federal government to strongly ally with major commercial interests, just as our government sides with Hollywood in trade and intellectual property disputes. To abandon banks is to send a broader message that we are in commercial and political decline and disarray, and that is hardly an acceptable way to proceed, at least not according to the standards of the real Washington consensus.

… This analysis bears on one of the main policy recommendations of Johnson and Kwak, namely to break up the big banks so they cannot soil Washington with such powerful lobbying and privileges. I believe this recommendation will not achieve its stated ends and that Washington would find another way to assemble privileged financial institutions — no matter what their exact form — within its ruling coalition. Breaking up the large banks would be striking at symptoms rather than at root causes, namely the ongoing growth of political power and the reliance of that power upon an ongoing inflow of capital.

If you do wish to break or limit the power of the major banks, running a balanced budget is probably the most important step we could take. It would mean that our government no longer needs to worry so much about financing its activities.

This, too, seems plausible to me. But what if you wove both a balanced budget and the Johnson-Kwak bank break-up into the same agenda (as, arguably, Tom Coburn tried to do this year), simultaneously downsizing the national debt and downsizing the too-big-to-fail banks that effectively fund it? I understand that this is not the most politically realistic conceit, since it would require some sort of progressive-conservative alliance in the service of policies that (as Cowen notes) most voters reject in favor of the more appealing combination of “high government spending and relatively low taxes.” But it seems like the approach that’s implied by his arguments. And I wonder if it’s better to advance politically unrealistic solutions, in the hopes of making them more realistic, than to give up and accept a system that’s all-too-likely, in Cowen’s words, to “again bring our economy to its knees” as “the price of modern society.”

Will Wilkinson at DiA at The Economist:

I’ve long had the sense that folks in finance are getting spectacularly rich by somehow gaming the system, but the nature of the system is too inscrutable for me to formulate a sufficiently informed hypothesis on my own. But it’s not so inscrutable to Mr Cowen. He offers what sounds to me a quite plausible story about the way the financial-regulatory-political system has been, and continues to be exploited and destabilized. “It’s as if the major banks have tapped a hole in the social till and they are drinking from it with a straw,” Mr Cowen writes. His account of the way strategies of “going short on volatility” both increase inequality and threaten the stability of our entire market system is too detailed to summarise here, but merits close attention. I strongly sense that some story like this one largely explains the top 1%’s dramatic separation from the rest of the income distribution. Here’s Mr Cowen’s bottom line:

For the time being, we need to accept the possibility that the financial sector has learned how to game the American (and UK-based) system of state capitalism. It’s no longer obvious that the system is stable at a macro level, and extreme income inequality at the top has been one result of that imbalance. Income inequality is a symptom, however, rather than a cause of the real problem. The root cause of income inequality, viewed in the most general terms, is extreme human ingenuity, albeit of a perverse kind. That is why it is so hard to control.

Surely there is some kind of structural injustice here. But it’s just terrifically hard to say where precisely it lurks and what ought to be done about it. We can easily treat symptomatic inequality through progressive redistribution, but this won’t cure our deeper institutional malady. The deeper problem is that Wall Street can and continues to drink our milkshake—that there is a draining hole in the social till that has already caused our economy to collapse once—not that the banker’s portions of milkshake are growing faster than ours.

Ryan Avent at DiA at The Economist

Ezra Klein

Mike Konczal at Rortybomb:

Tyler Cowen has written an article for the American Interest titled The Inequality That Matters. It’s about inequality, the financial sector and the possibility of reform. I really enjoyed the essay and recommend you check it out; I’m going to write a few critical comments.

1. The essay doesn’t tackle what I think is, in one sense, the most important question – how much did a broken financial system inflate the housing bubble, especially in the United States?  It’s one thing if the financial sector drinks our milkshake a bit;  it’s another if they are creating bubbles to profit on the way up and on the way down, either by choice or by accident.

The Magnetar Trade (given musical treatment above) is instructive here, where you can take informational asymmetries in the private securitization market combined with opaque pricing of CDS to pump hot money into housing that you profit on if it collapses. The analogy used, a correct one, is to the movie The Producers, but this is at the scale of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Research by Adam Levitin and Susan Wachter in their paper Explaining the Housing Bubble finds that mortgage debt prices were dropping in 2004-2006 as volume was rising, which is consistent with a shift of the supply curve outward.   But this supply was through private mortgage-backed securities which were both difficult to price on fundamentals and difficult to cross-compare to other instruments;  the private-financial market for these MBS are thus created as complex, heterogeneity and without regulatory standards.  So it’s not just that finance sits at the center of some profitable things;  it reorganizes the space to its own advantage, and the disadvantage of all other players.

2. The essay talks about how the financial sector goes “short on volatility”, which is a bet that things won’t go crazy in the short term, or a bet that takes on tail risk.  As Kevin Drum mentions someone is on the other side of that bet.  And what do we call a product that pays out in times of high volatility, in times when an event out of the ordinary happens?  One thing to call it is “insurance.”

Speaking at a conceptual level, I think it is fair to say that we regulate the #$@% out of people who hang the sign “insurance” on their door, and do not for those, like AIG did, that provide insurance without hanging the sign. As a result actual insurance agents who hang the sign are kind of how we idealize the boring bankers of times gone past.

There’s good reason we regulate insurance – it needs to pay out exactly at the moment when it is the least likely to get paid. I wrote a post for the Atlantic Business section that asked how should you think of zombie insurance? How would you price a contract that paid $100 if the world turned into The Walking Dead, where cities were overrun with armies of zombies?

The short answer is that you wouldn’t pay anything, since when you need to collect it the person on the other end is probably a zombie. This “who can credibly commit to backstopping bad events” goes towards a notion of the role the government can play in financial markets.

Kevin Drum:

Tyler Cowen has a big piece about income inequality in The American Interest that’s well worth reading. However, it’s not really about the growth of inequality. It’s about Wall Street. In particular, it’s about this question: why do financial professionals make so damn much money?

The answer, of course, is that they work in an industry that’s become ungodly profitable. But how? Tyler attributes it to the practice of “going short on volatility.” That is, modern finance professionals mostly gamble that what happened in the past will keep happening in the future, and disasters will never happen. In most years this makes them a lot of money (because, in fact, disasters rarely happen).

But this is mysterious. After all, not everyone is going short on volatility. In fact, by definition, only half of the punters on Wall Street are doing it. The other half are taking the other side of the bet. Tyler explains this with an analogy to a bet that the Washington Wizards, one of the worst teams in basketball, won’t win the NBA championship. If you make that bet year after year, you’ll keep making money year after year.

This is a useful analogy precisely because it wouldn’t work. After all, to make that bet, you have to find someone willing to take the other side and bet that disaster will strike and the Wizards will win. But they know just how unlikely that is, so they’re going to require very long odds. On a hundred dollar bet, they’ll want $100 if they win but will only be willing to pay off one dollar if you win. That won’t make you rich.

So how can you make money doing this? Answer: find someone who doesn’t know much about basketball and pays off two dollars on this bet instead of one. Additionally, you need to borrow money so you can make lots of bets. So instead of placing a $100 bet and making a dollar, you borrow a million dollars, make lots of bets on lots of teams, and make $20,000. It’s the road to riches.

The questions this raises should be obvious. First, why would anyone be dumb enough to offer you such mistaken odds? Second, shouldn’t the interest on the loan wipe out the profit from such a tiny betting margin? Third, why would anyone loan you this money in the first place, knowing that you have no chance of paying it back if disaster strikes, one of your teams wins, and you lose your entire stake?

As near as I can tell, the answer to #1 is that Wall Street traders are bad at pricing tail risk. The answer to #2 is that Wall Street hedge funds, using techniques pioneered in the mid-90s by Long Term Capital Management, have figured out ways to borrow large sums of money at virtually no cost. And the answer to #3 is that Wall Street lenders are also bad at pricing tail risk.

Or are they? Tyler argues that, in fact, both sides are betting that as long as everyone is doing this, the occasional disasters will be so epically disastrous that central banks will bail them out. They have no choice, after all, if the alternative is the destruction of the global economic system. So the tail risk is smaller than you think. Borrowers will make money in good years and default in bad years. Lenders, meanwhile, will also make money in good years, secure in the knowledge that on the rare occasions when everything goes pear shaped and borrowers can’t pay back their loans, the government will make them whole. As Tyler reminds us, “Neither the Treasury nor the Fed allowed creditors to take any losses from the collapse of the major banks during the financial crisis.”

But I don’t find this persuasive as a behavioral explanation. The problem is that there’s simply no evidence I’m aware of that Wall Street executives ever thought about this or priced it into their models. Sure, they may have been reckless or stupid. However, they weren’t setting prices for financial instruments based on the idea that, yes, they were taking a genuine risk of going bust, but they could price that away because they’d get bailed out by Uncle Sugar when it happened. Rather, they really, truly, believed that they weren’t exposed to very much risk. As near as I can tell, this was true on both the buy side and the sell side.

Tim F. answers Kevin:

To answer Kevin, finance is incredibly profitable because the finance sector has a greater information asymmetry between buyers and the sellers than almost any other sector on Earth. Even today most customers more or less take it on faith that the people selling them financial instruments are dealing on good faith. They do it because from FDR until the 70’s or so that was true. Financial instruments were less complicated and oversight was much stronger. That is to say that it was harder to cheat and more cheaters got caught. They also do it because they have to; if you don’t want to take your bank’s word for it then you can either keep a lawyer on retainer, or else live in a cave on public land. Too bad for us that assumption is no longer remotely true. Computers became a commodity and investors started making more bets on other people’s bets. That is to say, cheating got a lot easier because most people could no longer understand what their banks were up to. At the same time deregulation made it that much harder to catch cheaters and also opened vast new opportunities for semi-legal schemes as well as the nakedly illegal kind.

The lack of any real risk premium (after all, we’re all hostages if they fail) certainly pads the bottom line, but the meat and potatoes for Goldman and BofA is the vast gulf between how well they understand what they’re doing versus how well their customers understand it. They don’t even need to understand their own business that well. The sizable fortune that they made and kept over mortgage derivatives just emphasizes how important it is to know more than your customers, who largely had no idea about the flyblown shit that Goldman and company shoveled into each AAA-rated MBS.

These days Goldman has a supercomputer that sits on the main trading network and jumps everyone else’s bid by milliseconds. Nobody seems to care. If that isn’t a straw comfortably stuck in the social till then I don’t know what is.

Matthew Yglesias

James Joyner

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