Can Banking Regulation Prevent Stupidity?

In the wake of J.P. Morgan’s epic speculatory fail a whole lot of commentators are talking about regulation. And yes — this was speculation — if Dimon gets to call these activities “hedging portfolio risk“, then I have the right to go to Vegas, play the Martingale roulette system, and happily call it “hedging portfolio risk” too, because hey — the Martingale system always wins in theory.

From Bloomberg:

The Volcker rule, part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, was inspired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. It’s supposed to stop federally insured banks from making speculative bets for their own profit — leaving taxpayers to bail them out when things go wrong.

As we have said, banks have both explicit and implicit federal guarantees, so the market doesn’t impose the same discipline on them as, say, hedge funds. For this reason, the Volcker rule should be as airtight as possible.

Proponents of regulation point to the period of relative financial stability between the enactment of Glass-Steagall and its repeal. But let’s not confuse Glass-Steagall with what’s on the table today. It’s a totally different ball game.

To be honest, I think the Volcker rule is extremely unlikely to be effective, mostly because megabanks can bullshit their way around the definitional divide between proprietary trading and hedging. If anything, I think the last few days have proven the ineffectiveness, as opposed to the necessity of the Volcker rule. Definitions are fuzzy enough for this to continue. And whatever is put in place will be loopholed through by teams of Ivy League lawyers. What is the difference between hedging and speculation, for example? In my mind it’s very clear — hedging is betting to counterbalance specific and explicit risks, for example buying puts on a held equity. In the mind of Jamie Dimon, hedging is a fuzzy form of speculative betting to guard against more general externalities. I know that I am technically right, and Dimon is technically wrong, but I am also fairly certain that Dimon and his ilk can bend regulators into accepting his definition.

What we really need is a system that enforced the Volcker principle:

As Matt Yglesias notes:

Once bank lawyers finish finding loopholes in the detailed provisions, whatever they prove to be, the rule will probably have little meaningful impact.

The problem with principles-based regulation in this context is that you might fear that banks will use their political influence to get regulators to engage in a lot of forebearance. The problem with rules-based regulation in this context is that it’s really hard to turn a principle into a rule.

And I fear that nothing short of a return to Glass-Steagall — the explicit and categorical separation of investment and retail banking — will even come close to enforcing the Volcker principle.

Going even further, I am not even sure that Glass-Steagall will assure an end to this kind of hyper-risky activities that lead to crashes and bailouts.

The benefits of the Glass-Steagall era (particularly the high-growth 1950s and 1960s) were not solely derived from banking regulation. America was a very different place. There was a gold exchange standard that limited credit creation beyond the economy’s productive capacity (which as a Bank of England study recently found is correlated with financial and banking stability). But beyond that, America was creditor to the world, and an industrial powerhouse. And I’m sure Paul Krugman would hastily point out that tax revenues on the richest were as high as 90% (although it must be noted that this made no difference whatever for tax revenues). And we should not forget that it was that world that give birth to this one.

Anyone who worked in finance in the decade before Glass-Steagall was repealed knows that prior to Gramm-Leach-Bliley the megabanks just took their hyper-leveraged activities offshore (primarily to London where no such regulations existed). The big problem (at least in my mind) with Glass-Steagall is that it didn’t prevent the financial-industrial complex from gaining the power to loophole and lobby Glass-Steagall out of existence, and incorporate a new regime of hyper-leverage, convoluted shadow banking intermediation, and a multi-quadrillion-dollar derivatives web (and more importantly a taxpayer-funded safety net for when it all goes wrong: heads I win, tails you lose).

I fear that the only answer to the dastardly combination of hyper-risk and huge bailouts is to let the junkies eat dirt the next time the system comes crashing down. You can’t keep bailing out hyper-fragile systems and expect them to just fix themselves. The answer to stupidity is not the moral hazard of bailouts, it is the educational lesson of failure. You screw up, you take more care next time. If you’re bailed out, you just don’t care. Corzine affirms it; Iksil affrims it; Adoboli affirms it. And there will be more names. Which chump is next? If you’re trading for a TBTF bank right now — especially if your trading pattern involves making large bets for small profits (picking up nickels in front of steamrollers) — it could be you. 

I fear that the only effective regulation was that advocated way back before Gramm-Leach-Blilely by Warren G and Nate Dogg:

We regulate any stealing off this property. And we’re damn good too. But you can’t be any geek off [Wall] street, gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean, earn your keep.

In other words, the next time the fragilista algos and arbitrageurs come clawing to the taxpayer looking for a bailout, the taxpayer must kick them off the teat.


Some commenters on Zero Hedge have made the point that this is not a matter of stupidity so much as it is one of systemic and purposeful looting. Although I see lots of evidence of real stupidity (as I described yesterday), even if I am wrong, I know that to get access to the bailout stream banks have to blow up and put themselves into a liquidity crisis, and even if they think that is an easy way to free cash it’s still pretty stupid because eventually — if not this time then next time — they will end up in bankruptcy court. It would be like someone with diabetes stopping their medication to get attention…

There is No Such Thing as a Service Economy

It is often said that prostitution is the oldest profession. This is not true, and I know this with a very high degree of certainty. For a prostitute to subsist, there must be  a medium of exchange, and for a medium of exchange to exist — even in terms of barter — there must be a surplus of production (i.e. a person is producing more than they can consume). Thus, there must be pre-existing productivity, for example food that has been hunted, or gathered or grown, tools that have been created, etc.

The truth is that prostitution (or perhaps soldiery) is probably the oldest service profession.

What is a service profession? Well broadly there are two kinds of professions: goods-producing, and services-producing. Goods-producing professions produce things. Services-producing professions do things without producing any definable goods. Prostitution is a very good example. So is legal work, consulting, lobbying, graphic design, sales work, soldiery, musicianship, acting, etc. And yes — while I feel that writing creates a good — it too is widely considered a service.

At present, the Western economies are dominated by services.

From the World Bank:

Joe Sitglitz’s article in Vanity Fair late last year argued that we need to move even further into a service-led economy:

What we need to do instead is embark on a massive investment program—as we did, virtually by accident, 80 years ago—that will increase our productivity for years to come, and will also increase employment now. This public investment, and the resultant restoration in G.D.P., increases the returns to private investment. Public investments could be directed at improving the quality of life and real productivity—unlike the private-sector investments in financial innovations, which turned out to be more akin to financial weapons of mass destruction.

The private sector by itself won’t, and can’t, undertake structural transformation of the magnitude needed—even if the Fed were to keep interest rates at zero for years to come. The only way it will happen is through a government stimulus designed not to preserve the old economy but to focus instead on creating a new one. We have to transition out of manufacturing and into services that people want—into productive activities that increase living standards, not those that increase risk and inequality.

Now I’m not accusing Stiglitz of anything other than a misplaced zeal for fixing the American economy. His suggestion is merely emblematic of a wider misconception.

Service jobs come into existence as there are bigger surpluses of production. In an isolated national economy, the services sector will only grow if the productive sector grows in proportion. But in a global economy, with flows of trade and goods, illusions are possible.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a service economy. Our economy today (other than in places like, say, North Korea) is truly global. All of those service workers — and every cent of “services” GDP — is supported by real-world productivity, much of which takes place outside the West — the productivity of the transport system, the productivity of manufacturers, the productivity of agriculture.

The continued prosperity of the West is dependent on the continued flow of goods and services into the West.

This is an intentionally zany example (but certainly no less zany than Krugman’s babysitting co-op) of how moving to a “service-based” (pun-intended, you’ll see) economy can prove detrimental:

Imagine the centrally-planned society of War-is-Peace-Land, occupying one half of a large island, and led by an absolute King. The kingdom is very successful in warfare, and maintains a great advantage over its sole neighbour. 50% of its working subjects are conscripted into the military, in various roles — soldiery, tactics, smithing, horsemanship, etc. Of the other half of the population 30% work in collective agriculture, 10% work in light industry (e.g. making candles) and 10% are personal servants to the King (or in the case of females part of his large harem). Now, the King does not like the fact that his harem is not as large as it could be; he does not like that there are women and girls toiling the fields when they could be in his harem. Nor does he like that there are men toiling in the fields when they could instead be conscripted into the military.

Fortunately in the neighbouring kingdom of Productivity Land, they have huge surpluses of agriculture and productivity, as only 30% of their population is conscripted into the military, while 40% work in agriculture, and 20% in light industry. As they make such huge surpluses, they are willing to make up for any shortfall in War-is-Peace-Land. As a result of this, more and more workers in War-is-Peace-Land can be moved from agriculture to serving the King, either as a manservant (carrying his Royal chair, beating up anyone who insults him, tending to his elaborate gardens) or as a member of his harem. In return for this, the King sends promissory notes — which are often promptly lent back —  from Productivity Land to pay for their products. Productivity Land uses this money to acquire natural resources from other islands.

Eventually, the King decides that his pleasure gardens need to be greatly expanded, and so he moves the entire non-military workforce out of agriculture, and into manufacture terra cotta and bronze statues, to decorate his pleasure gardens. Of course, War-is-Peace Land has built up a humungous debt over the years, and Productivity Land feels short-changed in sending its productive output across to the other half of the island in exchange for increasingly-devalued pieces of fiat paper that buy increasingly less and less resources. But the King of Productivity Land is very smart. He recognises that winning a military confrontation with War-is-Peace Land will still be difficult, so he agrees to continue this arrangement so as to make War-is-Peace Land even more deeply dependent upon the produce of Productivity Land. 

One day, the King of War-is-Peace Land was out frolicking gaily in his pleasure gardens, smoking his pipe and contemplating a lazy afternoon molesting his harem. Alas, no. A messenger from Productivity Land arrived at the Palace to inform him that Productivity Land was sick of his devalued fiat currency, and so would no longer send agricultural products or other produce. That was it — War-is-Peace Land had no intent to pay back their debt, so they were out in the cold.

Nonsense!” cried the King, and promptly had the messenger arrested, tortured and killed. He rallied his generals, and declared war against Productivity Land. Alas, they did not get very far. It took three days for the army to be rallied together into a fighting force, and by that time War-is-Peace Land was running low on food and fuel. Armies — no matter how well-equipped — cannot march on an empty stomach. The tired and weary soldiers of War-is-Peace Land were more numerous and better equipped, but their hunger and subsequent tiredness got the better of them and they were massacred and beaten back. The King tried to escape, but was captured by Productivity Land’s forces and promptly executed.

Readers can read whatever they like into the above story; it is purely fictitious, and of course massively simplified. But I think it captures the essence of the problem of  outsourcing your productivity to foreign lands who might not always be as friendly as they appear to be today.

The bottom line here is that any proposals regarding transitioning to an economy even more dependent on services assumes that goods and productivity will keep flowing into the West, even though there is no guarantee of such a thing.

Governments in the West would do better to worry about the West’s (lack of) energy and resource independence.

New Hampshire…


And so the Presidential race turns to New Hampshire. The only real question is whether a unifying candidate can emerge from the religious conservative wing of the party. Newt Gingrich? Rick Santorum? Neither?

The Republican party today is broadly split in three: there is the establishment represented by Mitt Romney. There are libertarians and constitutionalists represented by Ron Paul. And there are religious conservatives — a large chunk of the electorate, but without a consistent or fiscally conservative figurehead. And that’s unsurprising. Religious conservatives believe in the government legislating morality and redistributing wealth. Certainly, they believe in a different morality, and a different pattern of redistribution than Obama. But it is still tax-and-spend redistribution. Gingrich’s and Santorum’s records speak very clearly on that. And in the current economic climate, big spending is unpalatable. Each religious or social conservative that has surged to the top tier — Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, Cain, Trump, Palin and Santorum — has crumbled under the spotlight. The Santorum candidacy does not have legs outside of Iowa — he has no money, no organisation, and has a record of voting for various big-spending initatives.

Religious and social conservatives are running out of time, and out of candidates. They may be forced to pin their colours to either Romney or Paul’s mast.

If no religious conservative emerges clearly from New Hampshire or South Carolina it shapes for a very interesting race.

Paul and Romney will maintain their bases. They are in it for the long haul. The winner will be the one who pulls in more of the social conservatives. Romney is confident that this will be him. After all, Paul is not a foreign policy interventionist, and most social and religious conservatives are.

Yet we should not discount economic and fiscal policy. Paul is the staunchest fiscal conservative in the race, and the only candidate with a serious program of cuts. Narrow Romney victories in South Carolina and Florida might not “sew the race up”, so much as drive social conservatives to Ron Paul as the only serious challenger to a Romney candidacy that differs from Obama only in details, not substance.

The other prospect is that social conservatives unite behind one candidate. But who is it to be? Gingrich? Perry? Santorum? None can be described as a consistent fiscal conservative, and that is a problem in this election cycle.

Most likely Romney will win New Hampshire and South Carolina. To many observers that would be game over after just three states. But Romney is an unsettling prospect to many Republicans — too liberal, too Wall Street, too establishment. Ron Paul — the only candidate other than Romney with a firm base —  stands a fine chance of establishing himself as the anti-Romney and winning a lot of delegates.

Taxation Nation

Is it true that Americans are paying too little tax?

The short answer is no.

Current levels of overall taxation are close to the historical norm. So what’s changed?

Well, far less of the money is coming from corporations, and far more from payroll taxes. That means that a lot of the burden has been switched from corporations to their workers. That puts the power to invest into increasingly fewer hands. The middle classes, who pay the overwhelming majority of payroll taxes are left with less to invest. That means, broadly, that more money gets invested in big business and large corporations and less in small enterprise, who are the greatest job creators in America:

From the Economist:

Research funded by the Kauffman Foundation shows that between 1980 and 2005 all net new private-sector jobs in America were created by companies less than five years old. “Big firms destroy jobs to become more productive. Small firms need people to find opportunities to scale. That is why they create jobs,” says Carl Schramm, the foundation’s president.

So while I agree that the top 1% should be taxed more, and the bottom 99% less, what the above graph reveals is that America right now has is a spending problem, and not a tax problem.

Here’s spending as a percentage of GDP:

It is spending that is climbing well-above its historical norm. The difference really adds up:

The next American President and Congress will face a stark choice as they seek a balanced budget — do they raise taxes or cut spending?

Well, it’s an open question. Other nations spend far more than America, but they also tax more. 52% of French GDP, 37% of Japanese GDP, 47% of British GDP, 18% of Thai GDP, 32% of Swiss GDP, 78% of Cuban GDP, 27% of Indian GDP and 17% of Singaporean GDP is government spending.

Most interesting by far  is “communist” China. Only 20% of Chinese GDP is government spending. 

That’s quite a wide range. But to spend more you have to tax more, and that will be unpalatable to many Americans.

America is really at a crossroads. Growth would be a panacea. But with the economy in a Japan-style depression, generating sustained growth will be difficult.

Why the Republican Party Needs Ron Paul

From the Washington Post:

Simply, Ron Paul is just too popular to ignore. Republicans will find it very hard to win with him running as an Independent. If anything, a three-way split might play out even more strongly for Paul, as he can bash both the incumbent and the Republican as emblematic of the establishment — an establishment that more and more is failing America.

Of course, many forces are deeply opposed to Ron Paul, because for better or worse, his small-government anti-Federalist policies are a drastic change from the status quo, and embarrass big-government Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and George W. Bush who claim they want to balance the budget and end up spending a heck of a lot more.

So Paul supporters can expect a deluge of negative claims: claims that he is a racist, claims that his foreign policy is dangerous, claims he wants to return to segregation, claims that he cannot win and is unelectable.

Ultimately, everyone knows that it is the status quo that is more unsustainable than anything else. America is now the most indebted nation in the history of our planet, bogged down in expensive wars and its role as global policeman, and increasingly in denial of her constitution and the principles of her founders. Congress and Obama — as well as extending the reactionary and unconstitutional Patriot Act — have recently signed some of the most reactionary and illiberal legislation ever in the NDAA of 2011, which allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens without due process. Americans voted for Obama hoping for change from the big-spending interventionist corporatism of George W. Bush, and got much more of the same.

Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy, his civil libertarianism, his strict adherence to the constitution, his rejection of banking bailouts and his willingness to cut spending are not what every voter is looking for, but are a tonic to the disastrous policies of the status quo that are sucking down the American economy.

Of course, many Americans fear radical change. That’s why establishment contenders like Cain, Gingrich, Bachmann and Perry have rapidly risen in the polls and fallen, as voters scrabble around hunting for a viable alternative to the status quo. Paul’s gains have been slow, steady and consistent. This has been in spite of an earlier campaign of media ignorance, and now a campaign of media smears, including the charge that he is either or a racist, or has associated himself with racists.

These media attacks will prove ineffective. Voters are turning to Paul because of his policies, and the fact that he represents a radical departure from what to many Americans is a disastrously failed status quo. He could be the Grand Wizard of the KKK, a shapeshifting Reptilian from Alpha Draconis, or a cross-dressing drug addict, and that would not change a thing because Ron Paul will ultimately be judged on the content of his policies, not superficial smears that have nothing whatever to do with policy.

Voters — middle class voters, poor voters, factory workers, the unemployed — like the idea that the President will cut the debt. Voters like the idea that the President will respect a strict interpretation of the constitution, instead of passing authoritarian legislation like the NDAA, SOPA and the Patriot Act. Voters like the idea that the President will end wars, close foreign bases, and defend America, instead of practicing expensive nation building in the middle east and central Asia. Voters like the idea of not pledging future tax dollars to bailing out badly managed and corrupt banks.

While some of his stances are unpopular with some segments of the population, there is no other declared candidate from either of the major parties who offers any of the above. None. Ron Paul’s rise is just a symptom of the establishment not delivering to the people what they want, need and deserve.