Streetwise Professor

September 13, 2011


In this week’s edition of Energy Metro Desk, John Sodergreen wrote: “Normally, Pirrong is a ‘take no prisoners’
sort of economist.”  He was referring to my apparently serene response to the Singleton paper on energy speculation.

Rest assured, all, that I am not mellowing in my old age.  My response to Singleton qua Singleton was serene primarily because the results are capable of many interpretations, many of which are quite compatible to my views.  Further rest assured that I am my scathing self when it comes to the efforts to misinterpret and overinterpret Singleton’s results.  It is being waved about as the smoking gun proving that speculation distorts prices.  This is completely wrong, and reflects either the ignorance or agenda–or more likely, both–of anyone making the claim.

Remember what Puddin’ Head Wilson said: “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there.”  People are getting far too much “wisdom” out of Singleton than there is in it. Singleton’s results are perfectly consistent with a favorable or benign effect of speculation.

But there is nothing more likely to get me to break out the black flag than an epistle from Bart Chilton, and yesterday he did not disappoint.  The NY Times’ Dealbook had this gem from our ol’ buddy Bart:

It’s a familiar cry from Wall Street executives and Congressional Republicans: New regulations will dampen profits and crimp an already-feeble job market.

But some federal regulators, now charged with writing dozens of new rules for Wall Street, beg to differ. Bart Chilton, a Democratic member of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, argues that a regulatory shake-up would actually spawn a wave of hiring on Wall Street and in Washington.

“The possibilities for economic growth and competition here are mind-boggling,” Mr. Chilton said on Friday during a speech at the University of Maryland.

The debate centers on the controversial Dodd-Frank Act, which overhauled financial regulations after Wall Street nearly collapsed during the financial crisis. The law, among other things, transformed the $600 trillion derivatives markets, a lightly regulated industry at the center of the mess.

. . . .

“I have no doubt that these new regulations, instituting new types of clearing, trading and reporting platforms, will foster a landslide of hiring in the financial sector,” Mr. Chilton said.

In particular, Mr. Chilton forecast growing demand for technology experts. “All of this new trading activity, with new regulatory oversight requirements, will mean the development of new technologies, both in the private and public sectors,” he said.

The mind boggles.  Chilton, like all too many regulators and legislators, confuses costs and benefits.  This is the broken window fallacy on crack.  Said regulators and legislators should be required to have Bastiat’s discussion of the seen and the unseen flashed before their eyes repeatedly, Clockwork Orange-like, until the idea sinks in.  Short of that, I am at a loss at how to educate them on this profound–yet simple–concept.

Yes, we can see all the accountants and lawyers beavering away on Sarbanes-Oxley-related work.  But what about all the other–and actually productive–things those people could be doing if Congress in its infinite wisdom and overweening arrogance hadn’t seen fit to create an artificial demand for their services, that distracted them from doing something that is actually socially productive?  What about the companies that are smaller, and the companies that don’t exist, because of the burdens of this and other counterproductive regulation?

Frank-n-Dodd is Sarbanes-Oxley raised to a power far greater than one.  Yes, there will be lawyers and compliance people working in their tens of thousands to ensure adherence to its mind-numbing dictates.  Yes, the idiotic SEF requirement will result in a splurge in spending on technology, and there will be much rejoicing among programmers and IT people.  To the bean counting regulator or legislator this is good.  To the more perceptive, it is a crime.

Riddle me this, Bart: If this technology were actually valuable, why do you and your ilk have to force its creation?  You, in particular have been critical of the dizzying pace of technological development in the trading space.  So you know this is obviously a technologically dynamic industry where there is intense competition to create new products and services and methods of delivering them, not some tradition-bound backwater.  If the kind of technology Frank-n-Dodd is going to bring into existence were actually delivering value to market participants, you can be damned sure that somebody would have figured that out.  Many somebodies, in fact, who would be competing like hell to bring it to market faster and better than anyone else.

And further: please tell me what actually beneficial inventions will not be created, or will be delayed, because their would-be inventors are instead (rationally) responding to some inane government mandate?  You can’t, and I can’t.  But they exist.  Just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there

And please: tell me how you distinguish a cost from a benefit.

Sadly, the inability to tell cost from benefit is rife in the 202 area code.  The disease is probably most acute at EPA, which blessed us with this gem of economic analysis:

In fact, the EPA has even suggested that new regulations can have a positive impact on job growth. “In periods of high unemployment, an increase in labor demand due to regulation may have a stimulative effect that results in a net increase in overall employment,” the agency wrote in February.

This is the kind of moronism we are dealing with, people.  And the rot is spreading.  Including to the CFTC, apparently.

When you read or hear this or that macroeconomic theory about why the recovery–such as it is–has been so weak, and why the economy totters on the brink of another recession, put it in its proper perspective.  Yes, macro factors are important.  But so too is the massive regulatory millstone hanging around our collective necks.  People who think costs are benefits are running amok.  And sad to say, they are just getting warmed up.

We need to fight these people.

* The Degüello was a bugle call dating from the Moorish Wars of the Reconquista in Spain. Literally, it means “throat slashing” and was played to signal “no quarter–take no prisoners.” Santa Ana’s army played it before the final charge at the Alamo.

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  1. Regulation and enforcement in the financial sector is a joke and the participants in the industry know it. I would love to include someone from the world or airline regulation in a roundtable discussion on financial regulation. Until financial regulation becomes about protecting investors and ensuring fair and efficient markets, we will continue to waste billions and inhibit productivity. Rules are designed to placate political interests, enforcement is random and penalties for violations are insufficient to prevent bad actors from perpetrating schemes. I would sincerely love to hear someone from the NTSB talk about how their approach to regulation differs from that of SEC or FINRA.

    Comment by Charles — September 14, 2011 @ 8:29 am

  2. SWP may be interested in this article.

    In indicates that Russia is willing to bet on natural gas prices going up in long-term (and in extension, its dismissal of shale gas as a game-changer).

    Also, additional evidence that SWP was wrong on original terms of Russian pipeline to China being very short-termist and unfavorable to Russia. Not very likely when it is China that is trying so hard to wriggle out of its terms at a time of high oil prices, no?

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — September 14, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

  3. AK, some of the biggest shale gas reserves in the world ARE IN RUSSIA ITSELF. That’s the whole deal. Whether Central Europe’s shale gas and coal bed methane have been wildly overhyped is another question entirely.

    Comment by Mr. X — September 14, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

  4. If Russia didn’t have a hell of a lot of shale gas, they wouldn’t be working on getting the fracking expertise from XTO/Exxon for Rosneft.

    Comment by Mr. X — September 15, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

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