Streetwise Professor

August 24, 2016

Ooooh! Look at that Superfast Squirrel!

Filed under: Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 9:33 am

Yesterday Elon Musk announced the introduction of a 100kW battery pack that would create the quickest production car, capable of doing 0-60MPH in 2.5 seconds. But even Musk admits that production volume will be low, due to the cost and complexity of the new pack. Further given that it will add $10k to the price of an already very expensive vehicle, it will do nothing to advance Tesla’s ambitions of becoming a mass production company.

But it gives Elon the opportunity to strut and amaze the technofanboyz. Wow! Even more ludicrous!

But whenever Elon makes a big splash announcement, there is a very high probability that the true intent is to mask some other far less favorable news. And that was the case yesterday. While everybody covered the battery story, and gave it prominence, only a few covered a far more important, but unflattering story, and did so in a perfunctory way. Specifically, in an SEC filing Musk announced that he was buying $65 million of Solar City’s $124 million bond offering. But it gets better! His cousins, the CEO and CTO of Solar City, are each plunking down $17.5 million. Meaning that related insiders are buying more than 80 percent of the bond issue.

In other words, the market won’t touch these bonds with a ten foot pole, but Elon and his cousins must step into the breach. Mind you, this is happening after Tesla has offered to bail out–excuse me, buy out–Solar City. One would think that would be a credit risk positive, right? Apparently one cash bleeder buying another cash bleeder isn’t appetizing to potential bond investors, even in this era of yield famine–the Solar City bonds weren’t drawing any buyers at a yield of 6.5 percent.

Yet again, this illustrates that the Solar City deal is all about propping up a floundering enterprise, all in the name of staving off a reputation damaging failure.

I also wonder where are Elon et al getting the $100 million to pay for the bonds. Is Elon pledging more of his Tesla stock to Goldman, etc., to secure loans to buy the bonds?

There are other indications that Tesla’s financing issues are beginning to bite. Musk noted that

While the P100D Ludicrous is obviously an expensive vehicle, we want to emphasize that every sale helps pay for the smaller and much more affordable Tesla Model 3 that is in development. Without customers willing to buy the expensive Model S and X, we would be unable to fund the smaller, more affordable Model 3 development.

Which means that the company is having difficulty funding Model 3 development and production (and the Gigafactory) through the capital markets. The bond markets are pretty much off-limits now. The company just did a big equity sale, and will issue more shares to buy Solar City. Tesla’s financial infrastructure looks shaky indeed. Further, it’s not as if the Models S and X are flying off the lot: Tesla inventories consist predominately of the more expensive 90kW battery versions.

So don’t get dazzled. Don’t get distracted by the superspeedy squirrel. Elon makes such announcements in order to divert attention from bad news. Indeed, when Musk makes a splash, you should start looking out for what he’s trying to hide.

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August 23, 2016

Carl Icahn Rails Against the Evils of RIN City

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:15 pm

Biofuel Renewable Identification Numbers–“RINs”–are back in the news because of a price spike in June and July (which has abated somewhat). This has led refiners to intensify their complaints about the system. The focus of their efforts at present is to shift the compliance obligation from refiners to blenders. Carl Icahn has been quite outspoken on this. Icahn blames everyone, pretty much, including speculators:

“The RIN market is the quintessential example of a ‘rigged’ market where large gas station chains, big oil companies and large speculators are assured to make windfall profits at the expense of small and midsized independent refineries which have been designated the ‘obligated parties’ to deliver RINs,” Icahn wrote.

“As a result, the RIN market has become ‘the mother of all short squeezes,”‘ he added. “It is not too late to fix this problem if the EPA acts quickly.”

Refiners are indeed hurt by renewable fuel mandates, because it reduces the derived demand for the gasoline they produce. The fact that the compliance burden falls on them is largely irrelevant, however. This is analogous to tax-incidence analysis: the total burden of a tax, and the distribution of a tax, doesn’t depend on who formally pays it. In the case of RINs, the total burden of the biofuels mandate and the distribution of that burden through the marketing chain doesn’t depend crucially on whether the compliance obligation falls on refiners, blenders, or your Aunt Sally.

Warning: There will be math!

A few basic equations describing the equilibrium in the gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel and RINs markets will hopefully help structure the analysis*. First consider the case in which the refiners must acquire RINs:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.03 AM

Equation (1) is the equilibrium in the retail gasoline market. The retail price of gasoline, at the quantity of gasoline consumed, must equal the cost of blendstock (“BOB”) plus the price of the ethanol blended with it. The R superscript on the BOB price reflects that this is the price when refiners must buy a RIN. This equation assumes that one gallon of fuel at the pump is 90 percent BOB, and 10 percent ethanol. (I’m essentially assuming away blending costs and transportation costs, and a competitive blending industry.) The price of a RIN does not appear here because either the blender buys ethanol ex-RIN, or buys it with a RIN and then sells that to a refiner.

Equation (2) is the equilibrium in (an assumed competitive) ethanol market. The price an ethanol producer receives is the price of ethanol plus the price of a RIN (because the buyer of ethanol gets a RIN that it can sell, and hence is willing to pay more than the energy value of ethanol to obtain it). In equilibrium, this price equals the the marginal cost of producing ethanol. Crucially, with a binding biofuels mandate, the quantity of ethanol produced is determined by the blendwall, which is 10 percent of the total quantity sold at the pump.

Equation (3) is equilibrium in the biodiesel market. When the blendwall binds, the mandate is met by meeting the shortfall between mandate and the blendwall by purchasing RINs generated from the production of biodiesel. Thus, the RIN price is driven to the difference between the cost of producing the marginal gallon of biodiesel, and the price of biodiesel necessary to induce consumption of sufficient biodiesel to sop up the excess production stimulated by the need to obtain RINs. In essence, the price of biodiesel plus the cost of a RIN generated by production of biodiesel must equal the marginal cost of producing it. The amount of biodiesel needed is given by the difference between the mandate quantity and the quantity of ethanol consumed at the blendwall. The parameter a is the amount of biofuel per unit of fuel consumed required by the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Equation (4) is equilibrium in the market for blendstock–this is the price refiners get. The price of BOB equals the marginal cost of producing it, plus the cost of obtaining RINs necessary to meet the compliance obligation. The marginal cost of production depends on the quantity of gasoline produced for domestic consumption (which is 90 percent of the retail quantity of fuel purchased, given a 10 percent blendwall). The price of a RIN is multiplied by a because that is the number of RINs refiners must buy per gallon of BOB they sell.

Equation (5) just says that the value of ethanol qua ethanol is driven by the relative octane values between it and BOB.

The exogenous variables here are the demand curve for retail gasoline; the marginal cost of producing ethanol; the marginal cost of producing BOB (which depends on the price of crude, among other things); the marginal cost of biodiesel production; the demand for biodiesel; and the mandated quantity of RINs (and also the location of the blendwall). Given these variables, prices of BOB, ethanol, RINs, and biodiesel will adjust to determine retail consumption and exports.

Now consider the case when the blender pays for the RINs:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.25 AM

Equation (6) says that the retail price of fuel is the sum of the value of the BOB and ethanol blended to create it, plus the cost of RINs required to meet the standard. The blender must pay for the RINs, and must be compensated by the price of the fuel. Note that the BOB price has a “B” superscript, which indicates that the BOB price may differ when the blender pays for the RIN from the case where the refiner does.

Without exports, retail consumption, ethanol production, biodiesel production, and BOB production will be the same regardless of where the compliance burden falls. Note that all relevant prices are determined by the equilibrium retail quantity. It is straightforward to show that the same retail quantity will clear the market in both situations, as long as:

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 10.20.35 AM

That is, when the refiner pays for the RIN, the BOB price will be higher than when the blender does by the cost of the RINs required to meet the mandate.

Intuitively, if the burden is placed on refiners, in equilibrium they will charge a higher price for BOB in order to cover the cost of complying with the mandate. If the burden is placed on blenders, refiners can sell the same quantity at a lower BOB price (because they don’t have to cover the cost of RINs), but blenders have to mark up the fuel by the cost of the RINs to cover their cost of acquiring them. here the analogy with tax incidence analysis is complete, because in essence the RFS is a tax on the consumption of fossil fuel, and the amount of the tax is the cost of a RIN.

This means that retail prices, consumption, production of ethanol, biodiesel and BOB, refiner margins and blender margins are the same regardless of who has the compliance obligation.

The blenders are complete ciphers here. If refiners have the compliance burden, blenders effectively buy RINs from ethanol producers and sell them to refiners. If the blenders have the burden, they buy RINs from ethanol producers and sell them to consumers. Either way, they break even. The marketing chain is just a little more complicated, and there are additional transactions in the RINs market, when refiners shoulder the compliance obligation.

Under either scenario, the producer surplus (profit, crudely speaking) of the refiners is driven by their marginal cost curves and the quantity of gasoline they produce. In the absence of exports, these things will remain the same regardless of where the burden is placed. Thus, Icahn’s rant is totally off-point.

So what explains the intense opposition of refiners to bearing the compliance obligation? One reason may be fixed administrative costs. If there is a fixed cost of compliance, that will not affect any of the prices or quantities, but will reduce the profit of the party with the obligation by the full amount of the fixed cost. This is likely a relevant concern, but the refiners don’t make it centerpiece of their argument, probably because shifting the fixed cost around has no efficiency effects, but purely distributive ones, and purely distributive arguments aren’t politically persuasive. (Redistributive motives are major drivers of attempts to change regulations, but naked cost shifting arguments look self-serving, so rent seekers attempt to dress up their efforts in efficiency arguments: this is one reason why political arguments over regulations are typically so dishonest.) So refiners may feel obliged to come up with some alternative story to justify shifting the administrative cost burden to others.

There may also be differences in variable administrative costs. Fixed administrative costs won’t affect prices or output (unless they are so burdensome as to cause exit), but variable administrative costs will. Further, placing the compliance obligation on those with higher variable administrative costs will lead to a deadweight loss: consumers will pay more, and refiners will get less.

Another reason may be the seen-unseen effect. When refiners bear the compliance burden, the cost of buying RINs is a line item in their income statement. They see directly the cost of the biofuels mandate, and from an accounting perspective they bear that cost, even though from an economic perspective the sharing of the burden between consumers, refiners, and blenders doesn’t depend on where the obligation falls. What they don’t see–in accounting statements anyways–is that the price for their product is higher when the obligation is theirs. If the obligation is shifted to blenders, they won’t see their bottom line rise by the amount they currently spend on RINS, because their top line will fall by the same amount.

My guess is that Icahn looks at the income statements, and mistakes accounting for economics.

Regardless of the true motive for refiners’ discontent, the current compliance setup is not a nefarious conspiracy of integrated producers, blenders, and speculators to screw poor independent refiners. With the exception of administrative cost burdens (which speculators could care less about, since it will not fall on them regardless), shifting the compliance burden will not affect the market prices of RINs or the net of RINs price that refiners get for their output.

With respect to speculation, as I wrote some time ago, the main stimulus to speculation is not where the compliance burden falls (because again, this doesn’t affect anything relevant to those speculating on RINs prices). Instead, one main stimulus is uncertainty about EPA policy–which as I’ve written, can lead to some weird and potentially destabilizing feedback effects. The simple model sheds light on other drivers of speculation–the exogenous variables mentioned above. To consider one example, a fall in crude oil prices reduces the marginal cost of BOB production. All else equal, this encourages retail consumption, which increases the need for RINs generated from biodiesel, which increases the RINs price.

The Renewable Fuels Association has also raised a stink about speculation and the volatility of RINs prices in a recent letter to the CFTC and the EPA. The RFA (acronyms are running wild!) claims that the price rise that began in May cannot be explained by fundamentals, and therefore must have been caused by speculation or manipulation. No theory of manipulation is advanced (corner/squeeze? trade-based? fraud?), making the RFA letter another example of the Clayton Definition of Manipulation: “any practice that doesn’t suit the person speaking at the moment.” Regarding speculation, the RFA notes that supplies of RINs have been increasing. However, as has been shown in academic research (some by me, some by people like Brian Wright)  that inventories of a storable commodity (which a RIN is) can rise along with prices in a variety of circumstances, including a rise in volatility, or an increase in anticipated future demand. (As an example of the latter case, consider what happened in the corn market when the RFS was passed. Corn prices shot up, and inventories increased too, as consumption of corn was deferred to the future to meet the increased future demand for ethanol. The only way of shifting consumption was to reduce current consumption, which required higher prices.)

In a market like RINs, where there is considerable policy uncertainty, and also (as I’ve noted in past posts) complicated two-way feedbacks between prices and policy, the first potential cause is plausible. Further, since a good deal of the uncertainty relates to future policy, the second cause likely operates too, and indeed, these two causes can reinforce one another.

Unlike in the 2013 episode, there have been no breathless (and clueless) NYT articles about Morgan or Goldman or other banks making bank on RIN speculation. Even if they have, that’s not proof of anything nefarious, just an indication that they are better at plumbing the mysteries of EPA policy.

In sum, the recent screeching from Carl Icahn and others about the recent ramp-up in RIN prices is economically inane, and/or unsupported by evidence. Icahn is particularly misguided: RINs are a tax, and the burden of the tax depends not at all on who formally pays the tax. The costs of the tax are passed upstream to consumers and downstream to producers, regardless of whether consumers pay the tax, producers pay the tax, or someone in the middle pays the tax. As for speculation in RINs it is the product of government policy. Obviously, there wouldn’t be speculation in RINs if there aren’t RINs in the first place. But on a deeper level, speculation is rooted in a mandate that does not correspond with the realities of the vast stock of existing internal combustion engines; the EPA’s erratic attempt to reconcile those irreconcilable things; the details of the RFS system (e.g., the ability to meet the ethanol mandate using biodiesel credits); and the normal vicissitudes of the energy supply and demand.  Speculation is largely a creation of government regulation, ironically, so to complain to the government about it (the EPA in particular) is somewhat perverse. But that’s the world we live in now.

* I highly recommend the various analyses of the RINs and ethanol markets in the University of Illinois’ Farm Doc Daily. Here’s one of their posts on the subject, but there are others that can be found by searching the website. Kudos to Scott Irwin and his colleagues.

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August 20, 2016

On Net, This Paper Doesn’t Tell Us Much About What We Need to Know About the Effects of Clearing

Filed under: Clearing,Derivatives,Economics,Financial crisis,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 4:26 pm

A recent Office of Financial Research paper by Samim Ghamami and Paul Glasserman asks “Does OTC Derivatives Reform Incentivize Central Clearing?” Their answer is, probably not.

My overarching comment is that the paper is a very precise and detailed answer to maybe not the wrong question, exactly, but very much a subsidiary one. The more pressing questions include: (i) Do we want to favor clearing vs. bilateral? Why? What metric tells us that is the right choice? (The paper takes the answer to this question as given, and given as “yes.”) (ii) How do the different mechanisms affect the allocation of risk, including the allocation of risk outside the K banks that are the sole concern in the paper? (iii) How will the rules affect the scale of derivatives trading (the paper takes positions as given) and the allocation across cleared and bilateral instruments? (iv) Following on (ii) and (iii) will the rules affect risk management by end-users and what is the implication of that for the allocation of risk in the economy?

Item (iv) has received too little attention in the debates over clearing and collateral mandates. To the extent that clearing and collateral mandates make it more expensive for end-users to manage risk, how will the end users respond? Will they adjust capital structures? Investment? The scale of their operations? How will this affect the allocation of risk in the broader economy? How will this affect output and growth?

The paper also largely ignores one of the biggest impediments to central clearing–the leverage ratio.  (This regulation receives on mention in passing.) The requirement that even segregated client margins be treated as assets for the purpose of calculating this ratio (even though the bank does not have a claim on these margins) greatly increases the capital costs associated with clearing, and is leading some banks to exit the clearing business or to charge fees that make it too expensive for some firms to trade cleared derivatives. This brings all the issues in (iv) to the fore, and demonstrates that certain aspects of the massive post-crisis regulatory scheme are not well thought out, and inconsistent.

Of course, the paper also focuses on credit risk, and does not address liquidity risk issues at all. Perhaps this is a push between bilateral vs. cleared in a world where variation margin is required for all derivatives transactions, but still. The main concern about clearing and collateral mandates (including variation margin) is that they can cause huge increases in the demand for liquidity precisely at times when liquidity dries up. Another concern is that collateral supply mechanisms that develop in response to the mandates create new interconnections and new sources of instability in the financial system.

The most disappointing part of the paper is that it focuses on netting economies as the driver of cost differences between bilateral and cleared trading, without recognizing that the effects of netting are distributive. To oversimplify only a little, the implication of the paper is that the choice between cleared and bilateral trading is driven by which alternative redistributes the most risk to those not included in the model.

Viewed from that perspective, things look quite different, don’t they? It doesn’t matter whether the answer to that question is “cleared” or “bilateral”–the result will be that if netting drives the answer, the answer will result in the biggest risk transfer to those not considered in the model (who can include, e.g., unsecured creditors and the taxpayers). This brings home hard the point that these types of analyses (including the predecessor of Ghamami-Glasserman, Zhu-Duffie) are profoundly non-systemic because they don’t identify where in the financial system the risk goes. If anything, they distract attention away from the questions about the systemic risks of clearing and collateral mandates. Recognizing that the choice between cleared and bilateral trading is driven by netting, and that netting redistributes risk, the question should be whether that redistribution is desirable or not. But that question is almost never asked, let alone answered.

One narrower, more technical aspect of the paper bothered me. G-G introduce the concept of a concentration ratio, which they define as the ratio of a firm’s contribution to the default fund to the firm’s value at risk used to determine the sizing of the default fund. They argue that the default fund under a cover two standard (in which the default fund can absorb the loss arising from the simultaneous defaults of the two members with the largest exposures) is undersized if the concentration ratio is less than one.

I can see their point, but its main effect is to show that the cover two standard is not joined up closely with the true determinants of the risk exposure of the default fund. Consider a CCP with N identical members, where N is large: in this case, the concentration ratio is small. Further, assume that member defaults are independent, and occur with probability p. The loss to the default fund conditional on the default of a given member is X. Then, the expected loss of the default fund is pNX, and under cover two, the size of the fund is 2X.  There will be some value of N such that for a larger number of members, the default fund will be inadequate. Since the concentration ratio varies inversely with N, this is consistent with the G-G argument.

But this is a straw man argument, as these assumptions are obviously extreme and unrealistic. The default fund’s exposure is driven by the extreme tail of the joint distribution of member losses. What really matters here is tail dependence, which is devilish hard to measure. Cover two essentially assumes a particular form of tail dependence: if the 1st (2nd) largest exposure defaults, so will the 2nd (1st) largest, but it ignores what happens to the remaining members. The assumption of perfect tail dependence between risks 1 and 2 is conservative: ignoring risks 3 through N is not. Where things come out on balance is impossible to determine. Pace G-G, when N is large ignoring 3-to-N is likely very problematic, but whether this results in an undersized default fund depends on whether this effect is more than offset by the extreme assumption of perfect tail dependence between risks 1 and 2.

Without knowing more about the tail dependence structure, it is impossible to play Goldilocks and say that this default fund is too large,  this default fund is too small, and this one is just right by looking at N (or the concentration ratio) alone. But if we could confidently model the tail dependence, we wouldn’t have to use cover two–and we could also determine individual members’ appropriate contributions more exactly than relying on a pro-rata rule (because we could calculate each member’s marginal contribution to the default fund’s risk).

So cover two is really a confession of our ignorance. A case of sizing the default fund based on what we can measure, rather than what we would like to measure, a la the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost, because the light is better there. Similarly, the concentration ratio is something that can be measured, and does tell us something about whether the default fund is sized correctly, but it doesn’t tell us very much. It is not a sufficient statistic, and may not even be a very revealing one. And how revealing it is may differ substantially between CCPs, because the tail dependence structures of members may vary across them.

In sum, the G-G paper is very careful, and precisely identifies crucial factors that determine the relative private costs of cleared vs. bilateral trading, and how regulations (e.g., capital requirements) affect these costs. But this is only remotely related to the question that we would like to answer, which is what are the social costs of alternative arrangements? The implicit assumption is that the social costs of clearing are lower, and therefore a regulatory structure which favors bilateral trading is problematic. But this assumes facts not in evidence, and ones that are highly questionable. Further, the paper (inadvertently) points out a troubling reality that should have been more widely recognized long ago (as Mark Roe and I have been arguing for years now): the private benefits of cleared vs. bilateral trading are driven by which offers the greatest netting benefit, which also just so happens to generate the biggest risk transfer to those outside the model. This is a truly systemic effect, but is almost always ignored.

In these models that focus on a subset of the financial system, netting is always a feature. In the financial system at large, it can be a bug. Would that the OFR started to investigate that issue.

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August 7, 2016

If Trump Really Has Deep & Enduring Russian Business Connections, He’s a Machiavellian Genius!

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:45 pm

The drumbeat about Trump’s connections to Russia pounds on, and is mainly sound and fury, signifying nothing. The campaign consists mainly of unsubstantiated theories, insinuations, and innuendo. Further, these appear to be tenuous at best and are often wildly implausible.

The gist of the theory is that Trump has said nice things about Putin. Putin has said nice things about Trump. Trump has criticized Nato. Putin obsesses over Nato. The DNC email was hacked, possibly by the Russians, embarrassing Hillary. So why? Trump business connections, naturally!

This theory has been floated by Democratic operatives, by George Will (heretofore not suspected to be a Democratic operative), and the #neverTrump crowd, and echoed repeatedly in the media. In ironically Russian fashion, the campaign has moved to social media, where reliable little pilot fish plumping for media attention and maybe even an apparatchik role in the Clinton administration (yeah, I’m looking at you @CatchaRUSSpy) are spreadin’ the word.

My basic problem with this is the whole idea of secret Trump business dealings that could only be revealed by looking at his tax returns. “Secret Trump business dealings” is an oxymoron. His whole MO is self-promotion and hype. If anything, he overstates his business successes. He is not the man to hide his light under the bushel basket.

Now if you were talking about Soros, no doubt he has massive number of business dealings that have escaped the public eye. But Trump? He’s all about the publicity. What’s more, litigation and leaks from partners or bankers would have almost certainly revealed any major dealings long ago. If Trump has succeeded in keeping some big deal in Russia completely secret for years, he’s the man we need in charge of our national security! He would clearly be far more capable of keeping secrets than Hillary.

As for his not releasing his tax returns, I can think of 1,000 better reasons than concealing past dealings with Russians. This fact is overdetermined, to put it mildly.

Trump has been quite open in the past about his attempts to get into Russia, and how those attempts came to nothing. And let’s be real here. Every major business in the world looked to Russia as a huge opportunity in the 90s, and into the 2000s. For many–most, arguably–it ended in tears. Yes, look askance at businesses that did well there: many almost certainly succeeded because of corrupt deals. I’m thinking Siemens, or HP. (And to be fair, it seems that Siemens bribed everybody everywhere.) But those who tried and failed (a) can’t have continuing relationships that would be advanced or jeopardized, (b) likely didn’t pay bribes, or bribed the wrong parties, and (c) are likely to have a rather jaundiced view of Russia and Russian politics.

Further, when you are talking about Russia, past business dealings have very little connection with current conditions. One of the most pronounced regularities of Russia is that those who are riding high one minute quite often come to very hard falls somewhat later. Yesterday’s insiders are outsiders and sometimes pariahs today. If you have a connection with someone who is now on the outs with Putin, that connection is a liability to be shed, not an asset to be maintained.

Further, as Russia recovered from the 1998 crisis, and was riding high during the oil price boom, previously successful Westerners were considered less and less necessary, and were sidelined and forced out. Westerners became resented as parasites who attempted to exploit Russia’s weakness. Successful foreign investors had a huge target painted on their backs: look at TNK-BP, or Telenor/Vimpelcom. Once they didn’t need your money, they looked for any way to take the money you’d already made.

In the aftermath of the 2008-2009 crisis, Western financial connections became even more suspect as threats to Russian sovereignty.

And for those who have been paying attention Putin has been dramatically narrowing his circle of insiders, and that circle consists increasingly of those from the security services. Indeed, even some of the various security services are being left out in the cold. And worse: for instance, the head of the customs service was recently raided. Right now, the FSB, the GRU, and Putin’s new national guard are inside the circle. Everyone else dreads the knock at the door.

Insofar as biznessmen are concerned, (a) Putin has always had a deep suspicion of them, and (b) those who were seemingly favored in the 90s and 2000s are clearly on the outs now. The favored business people at present are Timchenko and the Rotenbergs. Show me any Trump dealings with them, and we’ll talk.

But this last point raises one of my pet peeves. Those who now pontificate on Russia and Trump’s connections clearly have NOT been paying attention. They betray a superficiality that would be embarrassing in a comic book. Many of the people and things that they mention became irrelevant years ago.

Further, one should be chary about claiming that they know what goes on in Russia, and in Putin’s pea-picking mind. Riddle, mystery, enigma, and all that. But fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And many a fool is making bold claims about a country and a politician they know little about, can know little about, and which until recently they ignored altogether. But now they’re experts.

The very byzantine nature of Russian politics and business over the last 25 years means that very few outsiders have navigated it successfully, even for a time, let alone many years. All I can say is that if Trump was (a) able to survive and thrive in that world, and (b) do it without anybody knowing, he’s a Machiavellian mastermind who would scare Putin to death.

The strained attempts to tie Trump to Putin are also transparently intended to distract attention from the embarrassing content of the DNC leaks–and, methinks, preempt leaks that are likely to come, from the Clinton Foundation, or even from Hillary’s server.  It’s a twofer for Hillary: discredit the message by emphasizing the malign (alleged) messenger, and tie the malign messenger to her opponent.

Beyond the implausibility of the insinuations, I doubt this will affect anyone who is not already a Hillary acolyte. Russian generally and Putin specifically are not bogeymen to most Americans. It’s not 1983. It’s not as if there are many people out there who would say “I liked this Trump fellow, but this Russia business  is just too much.” Those who don’t like Trump have many other reasons to do so; those who do are likely care little about Russia one way or the other; and those on the fence likely rank Russia low on the list of factors that will cause them to jump one way or the other.

So in the end, I find this obsessing about a Putin-Trump bromance to be amusing and embarrassing. I would be shocked that there’s any there there. It runs counter to Trump’s type, and it runs counter to history. The controversy transparently (pants?) suits Hillary’s political needs. Those who are hyping it are clearly partisan, and clearly ignorant. There are plenty of real issues to talk about, involving both Hillary and Trump. Let’s get on with that.

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August 5, 2016

Bipartisan Stupidity: Restoring Glass-Steagall

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,Financial Crisis II,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 6:35 pm

Both parties officially favor a restoration of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era banking regulation that persisted until repealed under the Clinton administration in 1999. When both Parties agree on an issue, they are likely wrong, and that is the case here.

The homage paid to Glass-Steagall is totem worship, not sound economic policy. The reasoning appears to be that the banking system was relatively quiescent when Glass-Steagall was in place, and a financial crisis occurred within a decade after its repeal. Ergo, we can avoid financial crises by restoring G-S. This makes as much sense as blaming the tumult of the 60s on auto companies’ elimination of tail fins.

Glass-Steagall had several parts, some of which are still in existence. The centerpiece of the legislation was deposit insurance, which rural and small town banking interests had been pushing for years. Deposit insurance is still with us, and its effects are mixed, at best.

One of the parts of Glass-Steagall that was abolished was its limitation on bank groups: the 1933 Act made it more difficult to form holding companies of multiple banks as a way of circumventing branch banking restrictions that were predominant at the time. This was perverse because (1) the Act was ostensibly intended to prevent banking crises, and (2) the proliferation of unit banks due to restrictions on branch banking was one of the most important causes of the banking crisis that ushered in the Great Depression.

The contrast between the experiences of Canada and the United States is illuminating in this regard. Both countries were subjected to a huge adverse economic shock, but Canada’s banking system, which was dominated by a handful of banks that operated branches throughout the country, survived, whereas the fragmented US banking system collapsed. In the 1930s, too big to fail was less of a problem than to small to survive. The collapse of literally thousands of banks devastated the US economy, and this banking crisis ushered in the Depression proper. Further, the inability of branched national banks to diversify liquidity risk (as Canada’s banks were able to do) made the system more dependent on the Fed to manage liquidity shocks. That turned out to be a true systemic risk, when the Fed botched the job (as documented by Friedman and Schwartz). When the system is very dependent on one regulatory body, and that body fails, the effect of the failure is systemic.

The vulnerability of small unit banks was again demonstrated in the S&L fiasco of the 1980s (a crisis in which deposit insurance played a part).

So that part of Glass-Steagall should remain dead and buried.

The part of Glass-Steagall that was repealed, and which its worshippers are most intent on restoring, was the separation of securities underwriting from commercial banking and the limiting of banks securities holdings to investment grade instruments.

Senator Glass believed that the combination of commercial and investment banking contributed to the 1930s banking crisis. As is the case with many legislators, his fervent beliefs were untainted by actual evidence. The story told at the time (and featured in the Pecora Hearings) was that commercial banks unloaded their bad loans into securities, which they dumped on an unsuspecting investing public unaware that they were buying toxic waste.

There are only two problems with this story. First, even if true, it would mean that banks were able to get bad assets off their balance sheets, which should have made them more stable! Real money investors, rather than leveraged institutions were wearing the risk, which should have reduced the likelihood of banking crises.

Second, it wasn’t true. Economists (including Kroszner and Rajan) have shown that securities issued by investment banking arms of commercial banks performed as well as those issued by stand-alone investment banks. This is inconsistent with the asymmetric information story.

Now let’s move forward almost 60 years and try to figure whether the 2008 crisis would have played out much differently had investment banking and commercial banking been kept completely separate. Almost certainly not. First, the institutions in the US that nearly brought down the system were stand alone investment banks, namely Lehman, Bear-Sterns, and Merrill Lynch. The first failed. The second two were absorbed into commercial banks, the first by having the Fed take on most of the bad assets, the second in a shotgun wedding that ironically proved to make the acquiring bank–Bank of America–much weaker. Goldman Sachs and Morgan-Stanley were in dire straits, and converted into banks so that they could avail themselves of Fed support denied them as investment banks.

The investment banking arms of major commercial banks like JP Morgan did not imperil their existence. Citi may be something of an exception, but earlier crises (e.g., the Latin American debt crisis) proved that Citi was perfectly capable of courting insolvency even as a pure commercial bank in the pre-Glass-Steagall repeal days.

Second, and relatedly, because they could not take deposits, and therefore had to rely on short term hot money for funding, the stand-alone investment banks were extremely vulnerable to funding runs, whereas deposits are a “stickier,” more stable source of funding. We need to find ways to reduce reliance on hot funding, rather than encourage it.

Third, Glass-Steagall restrictions weren’t even relevant for several of the institutions that wreaked the most havoc–Fannie, Freddie, and AIG.

Fourth, insofar as the issue of limitations on the permissible investments of commercial banks is concerned, it was precisely investment grade–AAA and AAA plus, in fact–that got banks and investment banks into trouble. Capital rules treated such instruments favorably, and voila!, massive quantities of these instruments were engineered to meet the resulting demand. They way they were engineered, however, made them reservoirs of wrong way risk that contributed significantly to the 2008 doom loop.

In sum: the banking structures that Glass-Steagall outlawed didn’t contribute to the banking crisis that was the law’s genesis, and weren’t materially important in causing the 2008 crisis. Therefore, advocating a return to Glass-Steagall as a crisis prevention mechanism is wholly misguided. Glass-Steagall restrictions are largely irrelevant to preventing financial crises, and some of their effects–notably, the creation of an investment banking industry largely reliant on hot, short term money for funding–actually make crises more likely.

This is why I say that Glass-Steagall has a totemic quality. The reverence shown it is based on a fondness for the old gods who were worshipped during a time of relative economic quiet (even though that is the product of folk belief, because it ignores the LatAm, S&L, and Asian crises, among others, that occurred from 1933-1999). We had a crisis in 2008 because we abandoned the old gods, Glass and Steagall! If we only bring them back to the public square, good times will return! It is not based on a sober evaluation of history, economics,  or the facts.

An alternative tack is taken by Luigi Zingales. He advocates a return to Glass-Steagall in part based on political economy considerations, namely, that it will increase competition and reduce the political power of large financial institutions. As I argued in response to him over four years ago, these arguments are unpersuasive. I would add another point, motivated by reading Calamaris and Haber’s Fragile by Design: the political economy of a fragmented financial system can lead to disastrous results too. Indeed, the 1930s banking crisis was caused largely by the ubiquity of small unit banks and the failure of the Fed to provide liquidity in such a system that was uniquely dependent on this support. Those small banks, as Calomaris and Haber show, used their political power to stymie the development of national branched banks that would have improved systemic stability. The S&L crisis was also stoked by the political power of many small thrifts.*

But regardless, both the Republican and Democratic Parties have now embraced the idea. I don’t sense a zeal in Congress to do so, so perhaps the agreement of the Parties’ platforms on this issue will not result in a restoration of Glass-Steagall. Nonetheless, the widespread fondness for the 83 year old Act should give pause to those who look to national politicians to adopt wise economic policies. That fondness is grounded in a variety of religious belief, not reality.

*My reading of Calomaris and Haber leads me to the depressing conclusion that the political economy of banking is almost uniformly dysfunctional, at all times and at all places. In part this is because the state looks upon the banking system to facilitate fiscal objectives. In part it is because politicians have viewed the banking system as an indirect way of supporting favored domestic constituencies when direct transfers to these constituencies are either politically impossible or constitutionally barred. In part it is because bankers exploit this symbiotic relationship to get political favors: subsidies, restrictions on competition, etc. Even the apparent successes of banking legislation and regulation are more the result of unique political conditions rather than economically enlightened legislators. Canada’s banking system, for instance, was not the product of uniquely Canadian economic insight and political rectitude. Instead, it was the result of a political bargain that was driven by uniquely Canadian political factors, most notably the deep divide between English and French Canada. It was a venal and cynical political deal that just happened to have some favorable economic consequences which were not intended and indeed were not necessarily even understood or foreseen by those who drafted the laws.

Viewed in this light, it is not surprising that the housing finance system in the US, which was the primary culprit for the 2008 crisis, has not been altered substantially. It was the product of a particular set of political coalitions that still largely exist.

The history of federal and state banking regulation in the US also should give pause to those who think a minimalist state in a federal system can’t do much harm. Banking regulation in the small government era was hardly ideal.

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July 30, 2016

Dogs Fighting Under the Carpet, Ex-Mullet Man Edition

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:54 am

There is a very revealing struggle going on in Russia right now. It is a pitch-perfect illustration of how Putinism works.

At issue is the Russian government’s privatization initiative, and specifically the privatization of the oil company Bashneft (a Russian firm with a very sordid, checkered past, but I repeat myself). Igor Sechin covets Bashneft, in large part because Rosneft production has been falling (estimates for 2016 are a 2 percent decline), and with sanctions and the company’s inefficiency, here is little hope of reversing the decline. Getting ahold of Bashneft would increase Rosneft’s production and reserves, and Bashneft’s production has grown handsomely of late (almost 11 percent in the last year): Sechin could buy what he can’t create.

But government technocrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, are adamantly opposed to a Rosneft takeover. The opposition stems in part because acquisition of Bashneft by a state-owned firm would make a travesty of privatization, and also thwart the goal of using privatization proceeds to address the government’s fiscal strains, which requires outside money. The opposition also reflects the understanding that enhancing Rosneft’s position in the Russian oil industry is detrimental to the future development of that industry. Rosneft is more parasite that creator.

Dvorkovich therefore flipped out when Russian bank VTB invited Rosneft, as well as other state-owned companies like Gazprom Neft, to participate in the privatization auction. It initially appeared that Putin had sided with Dorkovich, and an anonymous spokesman in the Presidential Administration had confirmed this. This was hailed as a huge defeat for Sechin, and perhaps a harbinger of a change in the balance of power within the Russian government.

But not so fast! An “official” said that the exclusion of Rosneft was “unofficial”. But then this week Putin’s spokesman Peskov, who had confirmed only a week before the “understanding” that Rosneft was out of the running, reversed himself, and said that “formally speaking” Rosneft was not a state owned company, and hence it could participate. You see, Rosneft is owned by a holding company, which is owned by the state. So  even though economically this is a distinction without a difference, legally it provides enough of an opening for Igor to slip through.

So who knows what will happen? Maybe Rosneft will be allowed to participate, under the understanding that it will not win. Or maybe the fix is in. Or maybe Putin is just letting Dvorkovich and (ex-)Mullet Man battle it out ender the carpet for a little while longer before ruling. This would allow him to weigh the arguments–and also to force the contenders to make bids for his support. Putin will rule depending on how he wants to balance the competing political factions, and who can offer the most to Putin or others he wants to favor.

And as in the heyday of Kremlinology, outsiders will attempt to discern deeper lessons from the outcome. Who is on top? How committed is Putin to reforming the Russian economy? How wedded is he to the idea of state champions? Or is he willing to concede that given Russia’s economic straits it is necessary to make accommodation to more Western commercial and legal norms?

The problem with the answers to all of these questions is that even if you are right today, nothing is set in stone. Putin could reverse course later. Maybe next month. Maybe next year. This is an inherent problem with autocratic systems: autocrats can’t make credible commitments. The only precedent is that there are no precedents. Today’s decision matters. . . for today.

So whatever the outcome of this current dog fight, it will tell you about the current state of play and the current balance of power, and not much more, because for an autocrat, tomorrow is another day.

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Say “Sayonara” to Destination Clauses, and “Konnichiwa” to LNG Trading

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:12 am

The LNG market is undergoing a dramatic change: a couple of years ago, I characterized it as “racing to an inflection point.” The gas glut that has resulted from slow demand growth and the activation of major Australian and US production capacity has not just weighed on prices, but has undermined the contractual structures that underpinned the industry from its beginnings in the mid-1960s: oil linked pricing in long term contracts; take-or-pay arrangements; and destination clauses. Oil linkage was akin to the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost: the light was good there, but in recent years in particular oil and gas prices have become de-linked, meaning that the light shines in the wrong place. Take-or-pay clauses make sense as a way of addressing opportunism problems that arise in the presence of long-lived, specific assets, but the development of a more liquid short-term trading market reduces asset specificity. Destination clauses were a way that sellers with market power could support price discrimination (by preventing low-price buyers from reselling to those willing to pay higher prices), but the proliferation of new sellers has undermined that market power.

Furthermore, the glut of gas has undermined seller market and bargaining power, and buyers are looking to renegotiate deals done when market conditions were different. They are enlisting the help of regulators, and in Japan (the largest LNG purchaser), their call is being answered. Japan’s antitrust authorities are investigating whether the destination clauses violate fair trade laws, and the likely outcome is that these clauses will be retroactively eliminated, or that sellers will “voluntarily” remove them to preempt antitrust action.

It’s not as if the economics of these clauses have changed overnight: it’s that the changes in market fundamentals have also affected the political economy that drives antitrust enforcement. As contract and spot prices have diverged, and as the pattern of gas consumption and production has diverged from what existed at the time the contracts were formed, the deadweight costs of the clauses have increased, and these costs have fallen heavily on buyers. In a classic illustration of Peltzman-Becker-Stigler theories of regulation, regulators are responding to these efficiency and distributive changes by intervening to challenge contracts that they didn’t object to when conditions were different.

This development will accelerate the process that I wrote about in 2014. More cargoes will be looking for new homes, because the original buyers overbought, and this reallocation will spur short-term trading. This exogenous shock to short term trading will increase market liquidity and the reliability of short term/spot prices, which will spur more short term trading and hasten the demise of oil linking. The virtuous liquidity cycle was already underway as a result of the gas glut, and the emergence of the US as a supplier, but the elimination of destination clauses in legacy Japanese contracts will provide a huge boost to this cycle.

The LNG market may never look exactly like the oil market, but it is becoming more similar all the time. The intervention of Japanese regulators to strike down another barbarous relic of an earlier age will only expedite that process, and substantially so.

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July 23, 2016

For All You Pigeons: Musk Has Announced Master Plan II

Filed under: Climate Change,Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 11:29 am

Elon Musk just announced his “Master Plan, Part Deux,” AKA boob bait for geeks and posers.

It is just more visionary gasbaggery, and comes at a time when Musk is facing significant head winds: there is a connection here. What headwinds? The proposed Tesla acquisition of SolarCity was not greeted, shall we say, with universal and rapturous applause. To the contrary, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, sometimes extremely so (present company included)–but the proposed tie up gave even some fanboyz cause to pause. Production problems continue; Tesla ended the resale price guarantee on the Model S (which strongly suggests financial strains); and the company has cut the price on the Model X SUV in the face of lackluster sales. But the biggest set back was the death of a Tesla driver while he was using the “Autopilot” feature, and the SEC’s announcement of an investigation of whether Tesla violated disclosure regulations by keeping the accident quiet until after it had completed its $1.6 billion secondary offering.

It is not a coincidence, comrades, that Musk tweeted that he was thinking of announcing his new “Master Plan” a few hours before the SEC made its announcement. Like all good con artists, Musk needed to distract from the impending bad news.

And that’s the reason for Master Plan II overall. All cons eventually produce cognitive dissonance in the pigeons, when reality clashes with the grandiose promises that the con man had made before. The typical way that the con artist responds is to entrance the pigeons with even more grandiose promises of future glory and riches. If that’s not what Elon is doing here, he’s giving a damn good impression of it.

All I can say is that if you are fool enough to fall for this, you deserve to be suckered, and look elsewhere for sympathy. Look here, and expect this.

As for the “Master Plan” itself, it makes plain that Musk fails to understand some fundamental economic principles that have been recognized since Adam Smith: specialization, division of labor, and gains from trade among specialists, most notably. A guy whose company cannot deliver on crucial aspects of Master Plan I, which Musk says “wasn’t all that complicated,” (most notably, production issues in a narrow line of vehicles), now says that his company will produce every type of vehicle. A guy whose promises about self-driving technology are under tremendous scrutiny promises vast fleets of autonomous vehicles. A guy whose company burns cash like crazy and which is now currently under serious financial strain (with indications that its current capital plans are unaffordable) provides no detail on how this grandiose expansion is going to be financed.

Further, Musk provides no reason to believe that even if each of the pieces of his vision for electric automobiles and autonomous vehicles is eventually realized, that it is efficient for a single company to do all of it. The purported production synergies between electricity generation (via solar), storage, and consumption (in the form of electric automobiles) are particularly unpersuasive.

But reality and economics aren’t the point. Keeping the pigeons’ dreams alive and fighting cognitive dissonance are.

Insofar as the SEC investigation goes, although my initial inclination was to say “it’s about time!” But the Autopilot accident silence is the least of Musk’s disclosure sins. He has a habit of making forward looking statements on Twitter and elsewhere that almost never pan out. The company’s accounting is a nightmare. I cannot think of another CEO who could get away with, and has gotten away with, such conduct in the past without attracting intense SEC scrutiny.

But Elon is a government golden boy, isn’t he? My interest in him started because he was–and is–a master rent seeker who is the beneficiary of massive government largesse (without which Tesla and SolarCity would have cratered long ago). In many ways, governments–notably the US government and the State of California–are his biggest pigeons.

And rather than ending, the government gravy train reckons to continue. Last week the White House announced that the government will provide $4.5 billion in loan guarantees for investments in electric vehicle charging stations. (If you can read the first paragraph of that statement without puking, you have a stronger stomach than I.) Now Tesla will not be the only beneficiary of this–it is a subsidy to all companies with electric vehicle plans–but it is one of the largest, and one of the neediest. One of Elon’s faded promises was to create a vast network of charging stations stretching from sea-to-sea. Per usual, the plan was announced with great fanfare, but the delivery has not met the plans. Also per usual, it takes forensic sleuthing worthy of Sherlock Holmes to figure out exactly how many stations have been rolled out and are in the works.

The rapid spread of the evil internal combustion engine was not impeded by a lack of gas stations: even in a much more primitive economy and a much more primitive financial system, gasoline retailing and wholesaling grew in parallel with the production of autos without government subsidy or central planning. Oil companies saw a profitable investment opportunity, and jumped on it.

Further, even if one argues that there are coordination problems and externalities that are impeding the expansion of charging networks (which I seriously doubt, but entertain to show that this does not necessitate subsidies), these can be addressed by private contract without subsidy. For instance, electric car producers can create a joint venture to invest in power stations. To the extent government has a role, it would be to take a rational approach to the antitrust aspects of such a venture.

So yet again, governments help enable Elon’s con. How long can it go on? With the support of government, and credulous investors, quite a while. But cracks are beginning to show, and it is precisely to paper over those cracks that Musk announced his new Master Plan.

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July 19, 2016

Paths to Redemption and the Differential Susceptibility of Religions to Terrorism

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — The Professor @ 6:57 pm

Many human conflicts and struggles are universal, but they manifest themselves very differently in different cultures. One universal struggle is between religion and morals and carnal desire. Religions and cultures differ in how sins can be redeemed, and this strongly shapes how this conflict is resolved.

In evangelical Christianity, one manifestation of this struggle is extreme hypocrisy. As La Rochefoucault said, “hypocrisy is the tribute [or homage] that vice pays to virtue.” Public acknowledgement of sin, pledges of a devotion to Christ as the redeemer of sins, and efforts to bring other sinners to Christ are all paths to redemption. The greatest sinners, and those upon whom sins weigh most heavily (in large part because they have internalized the religion’s moral code), are often the most profuse in their public acknowledgements, most intense in their pledges, and most driven in their evangelizing efforts. This is what produces types epitomized in fiction by Elmer Gantry, and in real life by the likes of Jimmy Swaggert. Bible thumpers in public, drunkards and perverts in private.

For many Muslims, martyrdom in jihad against infidels is a path to redemption of sin. Many strongly believe that dying while killing in the name of Allah is a get out of hell free card.

This comes to mind after reading a story about the mass murderer in Nice, who was apparently violent, a drug abuser, a man with an “out of control sexual life” (including bisexuality–with septuagenarians!), and a violator of Muslim dietary strictures. His sordid and dissolute and unobservant life is being seized upon to claim that since he “did not practice the Muslim religion,” Islam is absolved of any role in his heinous acts, and could not have been his motivation.

To the contrary. The fact that Muslims believe that martyrdom in waging jihad against infidels is a path to redemption means that a widely-held set of Islamic beliefs contributes directly to the murderous acts of  men like Mohamed Bouhlel. It is precisely those whose sins are so great who are most in need of redemption, and who are most likely to turn to suicide terrorism as a means of obtaining it. That’s a path offered to them by their culture and religion.

Such tortured individuals are the most susceptible to the proselytizing efforts of ISIS and its ilk. These are the people who are most vulnerable to online radicalization. These are the people who are the perfect prey for radical recruiters who can readily exploit the intense cognitive dissonance of the extreme sinner who wants to be a good Muslim.

I therefore hypothesize that suicide terrorists and recruits to terrorist groups will be disproportionately “bad Muslims”: criminals, heavy drug users, and sexual deviants (where deviance is defined by Muslim mores). An unsystematic recollection of some notable cases (e.g., the 911 hijackers) provides support to this hypothesis, but it deserves more systematic testing. (There is conflicting information on whether Orlando shooter Omar Mateen is consistent with they hypothesis.)*

Violent, drug abusing, sexual deviants are less of a concern when they are utterly amoral, and uninterested in redemption in the confines of any religion: they harm mainly themselves, a small circle of people around them, and sometimes an unfortunate stranger. They become dangerous when such people believe in a religion that offers redemption through violent action. Then large numbers of random strangers are at risk. Eighty-three corpses in Nice are only the most recent example of that.

Religions differ in the ways that they allow adherents to resolve the conflict between belief and sinfulness, and the way that Islam allowed Mohamed Bouhlel to resolve his conflict poses a grave risk to the societies in which men like him live. Europe generally, and France in particular, are at great risk because they have large populations of young, unattached, and alienated Muslim men with high rates of criminality, drug abuse, and other anti-social behaviors. Combined with ubiquitous online proselytization and a network of (often very ascetic) recruiters (including recruiters in prison), this is a combustible mix. This population isn’t going anywhere, and in fact is growing due to Europe’s immigration choices, economic malaise, and demonstrated incompetence at integrating immigrants. Islam isn’t going anywhere either, and shows no signs of leaving behind martyrdom as a path to redemption. To the contrary, Wahhabism and other fundamentalist strains of Islam are ascendent, due in no small part to massive Saudi spending to spread them.

Connect these dots, and you draw a very disturbing picture. Neither of the two things that combine to create terrorism are readily amenable to change, and if anything appear to be growing in virulence. That portends ill for the future, not just in France, but world-wide.

* There can be another causal mechanism that would create such a correlation. A game theoretic explanation of strictures against suicide in Catholicism where sins can be absolved by confession is that absent eternal damnation for suicide, one could commit mortal sins to one’s heart’s content, confess, commit suicide immediately afterward, and go to heaven. Thus, damnation for suicide is necessary to make afterlife punishments for other sins a credible deterrent when confession absolves sins. If martyrdom while committing a terrorist act absolves one for other sins, the punishments for these other sins are less credible, and they are more likely to be committed, and martyrdom through violence is also more likely.

 

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July 17, 2016

Antitrust to Attack Inequality? Fuggedaboutit: It’s Not Where the Money Is

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Regulation — The Professor @ 12:09 pm

There is a boomlet in economics and legal scholarship suggesting that increased market power has contributed to income inequality, and that this can be addressed through more aggressive antitrust enforcement. I find the diagnosis less than compelling, and the proposed treatment even less so.

A recent report by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors lays out a case that there is more concentration in the US economy, and insinuates that this has led to greater market power. The broad statistic cited in the report is the increase in the share of revenue earned by the top 50 firms in broad industry segments. This is almost comical. Fifty firms? Really? Also, a Herfindahl-Hirschman Index would be more appropriate. Furthermore, the industry sectors are broad  and correspond not at all to relevant markets–which is the appropriate standard (and the one embedded in antitrust law) for evaluating concentration and competition.

The report then mentions a few specific industries, namely hospitals and wireless carriers, in which HHIs have increased. Looking at a few industries is hardly a systematic approach.

Airlines is another industry that is widely cited as experiencing greater concentration, and which prices have increased with concentration. Given the facts that a major driver of concentration has been the bankruptcy or financial distress of major carriers, and that the industry’s distinctive cost characteristics (namely huge operational leverage and network structure) create substantial scale and network economies, it’s not at all clear whether the previous lower prices were long run equilibrium prices. So some of the price increases may result in super competitive prices, but some may just reflect that prices before were unsustainably low.

Looking over the discussion of these issues gives me flashbacks. There is a paleo industrial organization (“PalIO”?) feel to it. It harkens back to the ancient Structure-Conduct-Performance paradigm that was a thing in the 50s-70s. Implicit in the current discussion is the old SCP (LOL–that’s the closest I come to being associated with this view) idea that there is a causal connection between industry structure and market power. More concentrated markets are less competitive, and firms in such more concentrated, less competitive markets are more profitable. Those arguing that greater concentration increases income inequality go from this belief to their conclusion by claiming that the increased market power rents flow disproportionately to higher income/wealth individuals.

The PalIO view was challenged, and largely demolished, in the 70s and 80s, primarily by the Chicago School, which demonstrated alternative non-market power mechanisms that could give rise to correlations (in the cross-section and time series) between concentration and profitability. For instance, firms experiencing favorable “technology” shocks (which could encompass product or process innovations, organizational innovations, or superior management) will expand at the expense of firms not experiencing such shocks, and will be infra marginal and more profitable.

This alternative view forces one to ask why concentration has changed. Implicit in the position of those advocating more aggressive antitrust enforcement is the belief that firms have merged to exploit market power, and that lax antitrust enforcement has facilitated this.

But there are plausibly very different drivers of increased concentration. One is network and information effects, which tend to create economies of scale and result in larger firms and more concentrated markets. Yes, these effects may also give the dominant firms that benefit from the network/information economies market power, and they may charge super competitive prices, but these kinds of industries and firms pose thorny challenges to antitrust. First, since monopolization per se is not an antitrust violation, a Google can become dominant without merger or without collusion, leaving antitrust authorities to nip at the margins (e.g., attacking alleged favoritism in searches). Second, conventional antitrust remedies, such as breaking up dominant firms, may reduce market power, but sacrifice scale efficiencies: this is especially likely to be true in network/information industries.

The CEA report provides some indirect evidence of this. It notes that the distribution of firm profits has become notably more skewed in recent years. If you look at the chart, you will notice that the return on invested capital excluding goodwill for the 90th percentile of firms shot up starting in the late-90s. This is exactly the time the Internet economy took off. This resulted in the rise of some dominant firms with relatively low investments in physical capital. More concentration, more profitability, but driven by a technological shock rather than merger for monopoly.

Another plausible driver of increased concentration in some markets is regulation. Hospitals are often cited as examples of how lax merger policy has led to increased concentration and increased prices. But given the dominant role of the government as a purchaser of hospital services and a regulator of medical markets, whether merger is in part an economizing response to dealing with a dominant customer deserves some attention.

Another industry that has become more concentrated is banking. The implicit and explicit government support for too big to fail enterprises has obviously played a role in this. Furthermore, extensive government regulation of banking, especially post-Crisis, imposes substantial fixed costs on banks. These fixed costs create scale economies that lead to greater scale and concentration. Further, regulation can also serve as an entry barrier.

The fixed-cost-of-regulation (interpreted broadly as the cost of responding to government intervention) is a ubiquitous phenomenon. No discussion of the rise of concentration should be complete without it. But it largely is, despite the fact that it has long been known that rent seeking firms secure regulations for their private benefit, and to the detriment of competition.

The CEA study mentions increased concentration in the railroad industry since the mid-80s. But this is another industry that is subject to substantial network economies, and the rise in concentration from that date in particular reflects an artifact of regulation: before the Staggers Act deregulated rail in 1980, that industry was inefficiently fragmented due to regulation. It was also a financial basket case. Much of the increased concentration reflects an efficiency-enhancing rationalization of an industry that was almost wrecked by regulation. Some segments of the rail market have likely seen increased market power, but most segments are subject to competition from non-rail transport (e.g., trucking, ocean shipping, or even pipelines that permit natural gas to compete with coal).

Another example of how regulation can increase concentration and reduce concentration in relevant markets: EPA regulations of gasoline. The intricate regional and seasonal variations in gasoline blend standards means that there is not a single market for gasoline in the United States: fuel that meets EPA standards for one market at one time of year can’t be supplied to another market at another time because it doesn’t meet the requirements there and then. This creates balkanized refinery markets, which given the large scale economies of refining, tend to be highly concentrated.

Reviewing this makes plain that as in so many things, what we are seeing in the advocacy of more aggressive antitrust is the prescription of treatments based on a woefully incomplete understanding of causes.

There is also an element of political trendiness here. Inequality is a major subject of debate at present, and everyone has their favorite diagnosis and preferred treatment. This has an element of using the focus on inequality to advance other agendas.

Even if one grants the underlying PalIO concentration-monopoly profit premise, however, antitrust is likely to be an extremely ineffectual means of reducing income inequality.

For one thing, there is no good evidence on how market power rents are distributed. The presumption is that they go to CEOs and shareholders. The evidence behind the first presumption is weak, at best, and some evidence cuts the other way. Moreover, it is also the case that some market power rents are not distributed to shareholders, but accrue to other stakeholders within firms, including labor.

Moreover, the numbers just don’t work out. In 2015, after-tax corporate income represented only about 10 percent of US national income. Market power rents represented only a fraction of those corporate profits. Market power rents that could be affected by more rigorous antitrust enforcement represented only a fraction–and likely a small fraction–of total corporate profits. If we are talking about 1 percent of US income the distribution of which could be affected by antitrust enforcement, I would be amazed. I wouldn’t be surprised if its an order of magnitude less than that.

With respect to how much of corporate income could be affected by antitrust policy, it’s worthwhile to consider a point mentioned earlier, and which the CEA raised: the distribution of corporate profits is very skewed. Further, if you look at the data more closely, very little of the big corporate profits could be affected by more rigorous antitrust–in particular, more aggressive approaches to mergers.

In 2015, 28 firms earned 50 percent of the earnings of all S&P500 firms. Apple alone earned 6.7 percent of the collective earnings of the S&P500. Many of the other firms represented in this list (Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Intel) are firms that have grown from network effects or intellectual capital rather than through merger for market power. They became big in sectors where the competitive process favors winner-take-most. It’s also hard to see how antitrust matters for other firms, Walt Disney for instance.

Only three industries have multiple firms on the list. Banking is one, and I’ve already discussed that: yes, it has grown through merger, but regulation and government are major drivers of that. There have also efficiency gains from consolidating an industry that regulation historically made horrifically inefficiently fragmented, though where current scale is relative to efficient scale is a matter of intense debate.

Another is airlines. Again, given the route network-driven scale economies, and the previous financial travails of the industry, it’s not clear how much market power rents the industry is generating, and whether antitrust could reduce those rents without imposing substantial inefficiencies.

Automobiles is on the list. But the automobile industry is now far less concentrated than it used to be in the days of the Big Three, and highly competitive.  Oil is represented on the list by one company: ExxonMobil. Crude and gas production is not highly concentrated, when one looks at the relevant market–which is the world. This is another industry which has seen a decline in dominance by major firms over the years.

Looking over this list, it is difficult to find large dollars that could even potentially be redistributed via antitrust. And given that this list represents a very large fraction of corporate profits, the potential impact of antitrust on income distribution is likely to be trivial.

(As an exercise for interested readers: calculate industry profits by a fairly granular level of disaggregation by NAICS code, and see which ones have become more concentrated as a result of merger in recent years.)

In sum, if you want to ameliorate inequality, I would put antitrust on the bottom of your list. It’s not where the money is because the kind of market power that antitrust could even conceivably address accounts for a  small portion of profits, which in turn account for a modest percentage of national income. Market power changes in many profitable industries have almost certainly been driven by major technological changes, and antitrust could reduce them only by gutting the efficiency gains produced by these changes.

 

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