Tag Archives: Wall Street

Paving over pension liabilities, again

Public sector pensions are subject to a variety of accounting and actuarial manipulations. A lot of the reason for the lack of funding discipline, I’ve argued, is in part due to the mal-incentives in the public sector to fully fund employee pensions. Discount rate assumptions, asset smoothing, and altering amortization schedules are three of the most common kinds of maneuvers used to make pension payments easier on the sponsor. Short-sighted politicians don’t always want to pay the full bill when they can use revenues for other things. The problem with these tactics is they can also lead to underfunding, basically kicking the can down the road.

Private sector plans are not immune to government-sanctioned accounting subterfuges. Last week’s Wall Street Journal reported on just one such technique.

President Obama recently signed a $10.8 billion transportation bill that also included a provision to allow companies to continue “pension smoothing” for 10 more months. The result is to lower the companies’ contribution to employee pension plans. It’s also a federal revenue device. Since pension payments are tax-deductible these companies will have slightly higher tax bills this year. Those taxes go to help fund federal transportation per the recently signed legislation.

A little bit less is put into private-sector pension plans and a little bit more is put into the government’s coffers.

The WSJ notes that the top 100 private pension plans could see their $44 billion required pension contribution reduced by 30 percent, adding an estimated $2.3 billion deficit to private pension plans. It’s poor discipline considering the variable condition of a lot of private plans which are backed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

My colleague Jason Fichtner and I drew attention to these subtle accounting dodges triggered by last year’s transportation bill. In “Paving over Pension Liabilities,” we call out discount rate manipulation used by corporations and encouraged by Congress that basically has the same effect: redirecting a portion of the companies’ reduced pension payments to the federal government in order to finance transportation spending. The small reduction in corporate plans’ discount rate translates into an extra $8.8 billion for the federal government over 10 years.

The AFL-CIO isn’t worried about these gimmicks. They argue that pension smoothing makes life easier for the sponsor, and thus makes offering a defined benefit plan, “less daunting.” But such, “politically-opportunistic accounting,” (a term defined by economist Odd Stalebrink) is basically a means of covering up reality, like only paying a portion of your credit card bill or mortgage. Do it long enough and you’ll eventually forget how much those shopping sprees and your house actually cost.

Municipal pension news: Baltimore to offer DC plan

Earlier this month, Baltimore’s city council approved a measure to give the city’s workers a choice between a defined contribution or defined benefit plan plan. According to Pensions and Investments, new hires will contribute 5 percent of their salary to whichever plan they choose, a significant increase from the 1 percent that workers were required to begin contributing to the city’s pension system last year. (Previously, workers had not contributed to their pension). As the article notes, the choice between a DB and a DC plan is a compromise. Mayor Rawlings-Blake preferred to move all newly hired employees to a DC plan, but this was not agreed upon by unions. In total, Baltimore two pension systems have an unfunded liability of $1.4 billion on a GASB-basis.

Baltimore’s proposed reforms are a bit stronger than the plan currently considered by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, which is largely focused on filling in very daunting funding gaps in the city’s multiple plans. The Wall Street Journal reports that the mayor’s plan to raise property taxes by $250 million represents an increase of about $50 a year for the owner of a $250,000 home. And, it’s not enough to cover the gap. The state will demand an additional $600 million in annual payments for the city’s police and fire funds by 2016. In addition, Mayor Emanuel proposes benefit cuts, such as  increased employee contributions and reduced COLAs. But structural reforms aren’t being pushed too strongly, instead, the focus in Chicago appears to be a search for more revenues. Consider a proposal floated by The Chicago Teachers Union. They would like to see a per-transaction tax levied on futures, options, and stock trades processed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and Chicago Board Options Exchange.  Both the CME and Mayor Emanuel oppose the idea recognizing that it will simply drive the financial industry out of town.

 

What is the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity?

FLORENCE— Bernardo Caprotti was a 45-year-old entrepreneur when he agreed to buy a suburban plot of land for a new supermarket.

Building permits recently came through. He’s now 88.

So begins an enlightening story in today’s Wall Street Journal on Italy’s sclerotic economy. The story continues:

Italy has emerged as a Technicolor example of the [EU’s] problems. Its growth has been stuttering for 20 years. Since 2008, its economy has shrunk by 9%, and this year it is struggling to expand by even 1%.

It is tempting to think that a simple solution is new leadership, that Italy just needs to elect more market-oriented politicians to sweep away the layers of red-tape and barriers to entrepreneurship that have ensnared the country’s entrepreneurs.

But the problem is much more intractable because established businesses benefit from the status quo:

The roots of the problem, say many Italians, lie in how vested interests in the private and public sectors gum up the economy, preventing change that replaces old practices with new, more efficient ones, and repeatedly frustrating political attempts to shake up the country.

It adds up to “deep-seated cultural obstacles to growth,” says Tito Boeri, a professor at Milan’s Bocconi University who is one of Italy’s top economists.

Years ago, Milton Friedman put his finger on the problem:

A few months ago, I attended a conference on the intersection between politics and capitalism (what we’ve called government-granted privilege). The eminent economic historian Robert Higgs was there and he said something that has stuck with me (I’m paraphrasing, but he just approved the quote):

I believe crony capitalism—the alliance between business and government—is the biggest problem of our age. And the reason is that it is robust. As alternatives to free-market capitalism, communism and old-fashioned fascism are thankfully dead. And genuine socialism has no real constituency in America. But crony capitalism, unfortunately, has a very active, organized, well-funded, and vocal constituency. It is the greatest threat to our prosperity and our freedom.

 

The unseen costs of the Ex-Im bank

The great 19th Century French economist Frederic Bastiat had good advice when thinking about economics. Actions, habits, and laws, he said,

[produce] not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

The good economist, he said, “takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.”

So it is with the US Ex-Im bank.

The independent federal agency helps foreign firms finance the purchase of American-made products. They do this by selling insurance to these foreign purchasers, by directly loaning them money, and by guaranteeing loans that others like Goldman Sachs make to these firms.

Ex-Im’s activities produce some seen benefits and these are widely touted by the bank and it’s boosters, such as the National Association of Manufacturers. These seen benefits are:

The gains to foreign purchasers

Since most foreign purchasers are sub-prime borrowers (what could go wrong, right?), the bank’s assistance allows them to obtain credit that private lenders would otherwise be unwilling to extend. At least in the short run, this helps these foreign purchasers.

The gains to U.S. manufacturers

Ex-Im’s loans, loan guarantees and insurance all increase demand for some domestic manufacturers’ products. This allows them to sell more stuff and to sell it at higher prices than they otherwise would. The bank boasts that, on average, “87% of transactions benefit small business exporters of U.S.-made goods and services.” Note the use of the words “transactions” and “small.” The bank is slicing the data here in a way that isn’t entirely honest. More on which below.

But as Bastiat would tell us, these seen benefits are less than half the story. There are also a host of less-conspicuous effects, and all of them are bad. These include:

Excessive risk

Rational lenders are unwilling to finance risky bets unless they are compensated with higher rates of return. These higher interest rates, in turn, make risky borrowers think twice about undertaking bad investments. This is a feature of a well-functioning financial system, not a bug.

Like all goods, capital is scarce and this feature helps ensure it isn’t wasted, steering it to the projects where it can do the most good for people. Ex-Im’s activities, on the other hand, steer capital—at artificially low interest rates—to sub-prime borrowers so they can buy big, expensive products. This is bad for the world economy because it misallocates capital. But in the long run it’s bad for many of the borrowers themselves because it encourages them to take on risks they can ill-afford (which is why I hedged above when I said they gain “in the short run”). Another great French economist, Veronique de Rugy, highlighted this fact in a recent post. As she points out, this isn’t just a hypothetical concern:

In the 1990s, the Ex-Im Bank was so excited to “support” the people of the Republic of Nauru by extending financing assistance to Air Nauru to purchase some, you guessed it, Boeings. When Air Nauru defaulted in 2002, the Ex-Im Bank seized Nauru’s only jet straight off of the runway — leaving the country’s athletes stranded on the tarmac after the Micronesian Games.

Higher prices for manufactured products

Next consider the unseen effect on domestic purchasers. Like Air Nauru, domestic airlines such as Delta, United, Southwest, and dozens of others also buy Boeing aircraft. Unlike Air Nauru, these firms don’t receive loan subsidies. This hurts all of them once, and some of them twice.

First, the international carriers among this group like Delta lose market share to Ex-Im-privileged firms like Korean Air and Emirates Air. This explains why Delta has filed a lawsuit against Ex-Im.

Second, all US carriers—even those like Southwest that only serve the US market—end up paying higher prices for planes because Ex-Im privileges increase the demand for, and therefore the price of, airplanes. As Vero notes in this piece, this has many air carriers worried about a jet plane bubble. Simple economics, of course, predicts that some of this cost will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher ticket prices.

Privileges for banks

Presumably, many of the legislators who routinely vote to reauthorize Ex-Im do so because they want to subsidize domestic manufacturers. Unfortunately, the laws of economics dictate that the actual beneficiaries of a subsidy need not be the intended beneficiaries.

In the case of Ex-Im, a large chunk of the benefit is captured by privileged banks instead of by manufacturers. Thanks to Ex-Im’s loan guarantees, banks are able to make loans to foreign buyers while unloading most of the risk. This is yet one more way in which banks, “privatize gains and socialize losses” (to borrow a phrase used by Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz at an Occupy Wall Street rally).

This privilege sits on top of a pile of other privileges. The IMF recently estimated that in most years the biggest of these privileges—the too big to fail subsidy—is larger than bank profits!

Few gain at the expense of the many

Consider, again, the bank’s assertion that 87 percent of its “transactions” benefit “small business” exporters. Why focus on transactions? Wouldn’t it be more transparent to focus on the size of these transactions? When you break it down this way, as Vero does in this piece, you see that 81 percent of the value of Ex-Im assistance goes to “big businesses” as the bank defines them.

And just how do they define big and small business? Answer: not in the same way others like the Small Business Administration do. Ex-Im’s definition of “small” manufacturers and wholesalers is three times larger (by number of employees) than the SBA’s definition and it includes firms with revenues as high as $21.5 million a year.

A host of pathologies

As I emphasize in the Pathology of Privilege, these favors to a select few domestic manufactures and banks come with a host of problems. In short, privilege “misdirects resources, impedes genuine economic progress, breeds corruption, and undermines the legitimacy of both the government and the private sector.”

But Ex-Im and its beneficiaries don’t want you to see that.

What are the best arguments against film subsidies?

The Academy Awards are nearly upon us, and that means long-winded acceptance speeches from actors and directors, filled with thanks for all the people who have helped them along the way. Listen closely to those speeches. Because they should really be thanking you.

That’s because each of the nine films up for Best Picture this year received some sort of government-granted privilege at your expense. “Captain Phillips,” for example, got a $300,000 grant from Virginia taxpayers, while the “Wolf of Wall Street” got to skip out on some $30 million in New York taxes.

And so, in the spirit of the Oscars, I now present my own awards for the best arguments against these privileges.

That’s me, writing at US News’s Economic Intelligence blog. Click here to read on.

It’s Time to Change the Incentives of Regulators

One of the primary reasons that regulation slows down economic growth is that regulation inhibits innovation.  Another example of that is playing out in real-time.  Julian Hattem at The Hill recently blogged about online educators trying to stop the US Department of Education from preventing the expansion of educational opportunities with regulations.  From Hattem’s post:

Funders and educators trying to spur innovations in online education are complaining that federal regulators are making their jobs more difficult.

John Ebersole, president of the online Excelsior College, said on Monday that Congress and President Obama both were making a point of exploring how the Internet can expand educational opportunities, but that regulators at the Department of Education were making it harder.

“I’m afraid that those folks over at the Departnent of Education see their role as being that of police officers,” he said. “They’re all about creating more and more regulations. No matter how few institutions are involved in particular inappropriate behavior, and there have been some, the solution is to impose regulations on everybody.”

Ebersole has it right – the incentive for people at the Department of Education, and at regulatory agencies in general, is to create more regulations.  Economists sometimes model the government as if it were a machine that benevolently chooses to intervene in markets only when it makes sense. But those models ignore that there are real people inside the machine of government, and people respond to incentives.  Regulations are the product that regulatory agencies create, and employees of those agencies are rewarded with things like plaques (I’ve got three sitting on a shelf in my office, from my days as a regulatory economist at the Department of Transportation), bonuses, and promotions for being on teams that successfully create more regulations.  This is unfortunate, because it inevitably creates pressure to regulate regardless of consequences on things like innovation and economic growth.

A system that rewards people for producing large quantities of some product, regardless of that product’s real value or potential long-term consequences, is a recipe for disaster.  In fact, it sounds reminiscent of the situation of home loan originators in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008.  Mortgage origination is the act of making a loan to someone for the purposes of buying a home.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as large commercial and investment banks, would buy mortgages (and the interest that they promised) from home loan originators, the most notorious of which was probably Countrywide Financial (now part of Bank of America).  The originators knew they had a ready buyer for mortgages, including subprime mortgages – that is, mortgages that were relatively riskier and potentially worthless if interest rates rose.  The knowledge that they could quickly turn a profit by originating more loans and selling them to Fannie, Freddie, and some Wall Street firms led many mortgage originators to turn a blind eye to the possibility that many of the loans they made would not be paid back.  That is, the incentives of individuals working in mortgage origination companies led them to produce large quantities of their product, regardless of the product’s real value or potential long-term consequences.  Sound familiar?

Varying Priorities in Municipal Bankruptcy

On Monday Reuters reported that a federal judge has found Stockton, CA to be eligible for bankruptcy protection. This decision came despite protests from Wall Street arguing that the city had options available that would have allowed it to pay its creditors in full, such as raising taxes or cutting benefits for city employees:

Creditors have claimed a lack of good faith by Stockton in its decision to fully pay its obligation to the $254 billion Calpers system but impose losses on bondholders and bond insurers.

The expected move by the California city of 300,000 – along with Jefferson County in Alabama and San Bernardino in California – breaks with a long-standing tradition to fully repay bondholders the principal in most major municipal bankruptcies.

While both the judge and city manager Bob Deis have harshly criticized bondholders who refused to negotiate with the city before bankruptcy proceedings began, other cities have taken a very different approach to their creditors in the bankruptcy process. In 2011, the Rhode Island policymakers adopted a law that puts municipal creditors at the head of the line in municipal bankruptcy proceedings. In the state’s  Central Falls bankruptcy, the requirement to pay bondholders 100 cents on the dollar has meant that the city’s pensioners have taken steep benefit cuts, in some cases losing nearly half of their defined benefit pensions.

After Rhode Island enacted this law, the Wall Street Journal explained:

Despite the financial failure, Central Falls suddenly is attractive to some investors because the law makes them more confident about getting paid.

“If we can find someone selling, we will be a buyer” of Central Falls bonds, says Matt Dalton, chief executive of Belle Haven Investments, a White Plains, N.Y., firm with $800 million in municipal-bond investments under management.

The difference in legal climates for bondholders in Rhode Island and California unsurprisingly fosters different attitudes from creditors.  Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan explains the dangers of cutting off a city’s access to credit by failing to pay bondholders in full:

“I think the unions ought to be scared stiff. This could be a lot worse than just the pensions. What about government bonds? If government bonds can also be restructured, who will buy them?

“The city and the state all issue tax anticipation bonds to meet their payrolls, but if those can be restructured, no one will buy them. Think about what that means for libraries, parks, street paving, police. It will all be on the line.

While cities on both coasts are facing insolvency in their efforts to meet their obligations to their employees and their creditors, they vary in their approaches as to who is first in line for scarce tax dollars.

Maryland Study Finds States Spend Too Much on Wall Street

A report from the Maryland Tax Education Foundation and the Maryland Public Policy Institute finds that state pension funds spend a significant amount of money paying investors to manage their funds. States spent $7.8 billion on Wall Street in 2011. Funds’ recent poor performance casts these expenditures in a particularly bad light for taxpayers, and the Maryland researchers Jeff Hooke and Michael Tasselmyer suggest these funds are not well-spent.

Much less expensive investment strategies are available to investment funds, however, these investment strategies rely on index funds that typically seek to match the market’s performance rather than outpace it. However, as Governing the States and Localities explains:

Pension experts interviewed for this story, though, question the validity of the report, which compares investment firm fees with each plan’s net assets. Even with the higher fees, they say additional returns from investment managers outweigh the added cost in the long run, and tossing more money into equity index funds wouldn’t diversify portfolios.

“The suggestion that all public pensions should be shifted into index accounts is just not well informed,” said Keith Brainard, research director for the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

The need to outperform the market comes from the way that states value their liabilities. Rather than valuing defined benefit pensions at the appropriate risk-free discount rate, states choose to assume higher rates of return, commonly 5 percent above the risk-free rate. When a low-risk investment strategy fails to meet these returns, state fund managers are incentivized to pursue riskier strategies with the hope of making the return needed to make the defined benefit obligations. This is demonstrated in state funds’ participation in recent IPOs.

The Maryland report states:

For many state pension funds, investment results over the last 10 years have failed to hit target returns of 7 to 8 percent annually. This has prompted Maryland’s System and other state systems to make large commitments to “alternative investments,” like leveraged buyout funds and hedge funds, with the hope of obtaining higher returns than conventional public stocks and bonds. In fiscal 2011, 25 percent of the Maryland System’s investment portfolio was in alternative investments, including private equity and real estate.

alternative investments are less liquid, less transparent, and more volatile than conventional public stocks and bonds. It is also questionable whether these investments provide higher returns than a similar risk-adjusted portfolio of public equities. Buyout fund promoters claim higher returns, for example, but many of their leveraged buyouts from the pre-crash period have yet to sell, and the state pension systems rely on the buyout funds’ in-house valuation of such investments to determine pension investment returns. The states exercise limited supervision over the buyout funds, and the examination of buyout fund portfo- lio values by fund auditors is typically inadequate.

With a risk-free discount rate for valuing guaranteed defined benefits, state fund managers would not be faced with the choice of either accepting higher risks or facing a reality of falling short on obligations. In determining what discount rate to choose, state policymakers should remember that the benefit level determines the cost of pension plans. Lowering the assumed rate of return does not change the cost of pensions, but merely means taxpayers will be paying for benefits as they are accrued, whereas a higher discount rate pushes these payments into the future.

 

How Cronyism is Hurting the Economy

LearnLiberty.org has a great new video by Georgetown University professor of philosophy, Jason Brennan. He makes the case that the “simple” solution to cronyism–giving government more power to regulate industries–may actually make matters worse since the rich and well-connected are more likely to game the political system than the relatively weak and unknown.

In the Pathology of Privilege, I note (p. 25-6) that “objective criteria for dispensing privilege are hard to come by. Without objective standards, politicians may end up picking winners and losers on the basis of personal connections and political expediency.”
The data suggest these suspicions are well-founded. For example, the previously cited study by Faccio, Masulis, and McConnell found that politically connected firms were far more likely to be bailed out than similar firms without political connections. A new study by Utah State University professors Benjamin Blau, Tyler Brough, and Diana Thomas offers further confirmation. They studied the lobbying expenditures and political activities of the 237 firms that received TARP funds. Controlling for other factors, they found that more intense lobbying and political activity made firms more likely to receive TARP funding, likely to receive a larger amount of it, and more likely to receive it sooner. To be precise, they found that “for every dollar spent on lobbying during the five years before the TARP bailout, firms received between $485.77 and $585.65 in TARP support.”

The problem of cronyism is compounded by the phenomenon of the “revolving door,” or the tendency for ex-government officials to find jobs in the industries they once oversaw and for industry insiders to find regulatory jobs overseeing their former colleagues. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, among those federal legislators who left office in 2010 and found new employment, nearly 33 percent went to work for lobbying firms and another 20 percent went to work for a major client of a lobbying firm. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich famously did some work for Freddie Mac after he left office in 1999. Between 1999 and 2007, Gingrich’s firm received $1.6 million from the mortgage giant. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, annual federal subsidies to the firm were about $4.6 billion during this time period. The former speaker maintains that he was paid for his expertise and not for his connections. But it is hard to believe that an equally knowledgeable person without his connections could command such a salary.

(see the paper for citations)

Bankruptcy in Birmingham

Jefferson County, AL has filed for bankruptcy protection, joining the ranks of Vallejo, CA; Central Falls, RI; Boise, ID; and Harrisburg, PA. In this case, the debt that the county used to finance a new sewer system is the main driver of insolvency. The county currently owes about $4.15 billion on the sewer system.

The Associated Press reports:

The problems were years in the making.

Its debt ballooned after a federally mandated sewer project was beset with corruption, court rulings that didn’t go its way and rising interest rates when global markets struggled.

Since 2008, Jefferson County tried to save itself the cost and embarrassment of filing for bankruptcy. But after three years, commissioners voted 4-1 to bring the issue to an end.

“Jefferson County has, in effect, been in bankruptcy for three years,” said Commissioner Jimmie Stephens, who made the motion to file for protection in federal bankruptcy court in northern Alabama.

While the last few years have seen a few cases of municipalities filing for Chapter 9, Jefferson County’s case represents by far the largest. Unlike other recent bankruptcies that were a result of both poor financial management and the economic downturn, Jefferson County’s problems were in part a result of corrupt public officials. Twenty-two people have been convicted for illegally refinancing the sewer bonds to benefit local and Wall Street financiers. Residents in Alabama’s largest county will likely face higher sewer rates as a result.

But the biggest problem for residents when municipalities file for bankruptcy protection is the resulting policy uncertainty. Businesses are typically reluctant, with good reason, to move to a bankrupt municipality. The shadow of Chapter 9 means that for years, residents and businesses will be paying higher taxes in exchange for fewer services because of the remaining debt burden. This will put the county and even the state in a poor competitive standing for new jobs.

In 1994, Orange County, CA, filed for Chapter 9 protection on $1.7 billion in debt, and residents there are still paying taxes toward that debt today. In the short term, Jefferson County will face painful and immediate cuts. The Birmingham Business Journal spoke with Commissioner Jimmie Stephens on what the future holds for the county:

“We’re looking at all of these services that are not mandated by the constitution and, from there, we will begin the reductions and take it as far as we need to, keeping in mind the services that the citizens need,” he said.