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…

Should the Rich Pay More Taxes?

It’s a multi-dimensional question.

The left says yes — income inequality has soared in recent years, and the way to address it (supposedly) is to tax the rich and capital gains at a higher rate. The right says no — that the rich already create more jobs and wealth, because they spend more money, and why (supposedly) should they pay more tax when they already pay far higher figures than lower-income workers?

Paul Krugman made the point yesterday that the tax rate on the top earners during the post-war boom was 91%, seeming to infer that a return to such rates would be good for the economy.

Yet if we want to raise more revenue, historically it doesn’t really seem to matter what the top tax rate is:

Federal revenues have hovered close to 20% of GDP whatever the tax rate on the richest few.

This seems to be because of what is known as the Laffer-Khaldun effect: the higher rates go, the more incentive for tax avoidance and tax evasion.

And while income inequality has risen in recent years, the top-earners share of tax revenue has risen in step:

So the richest 1% are already contributing around 40% of the tax revenue, taxed on their 34% share of the national income. And even if the Treasury collected every cent the top 1% earned, America would still be running huge deficits.

Yet the Occupy movement are still angry. A large majority of Americans believe the richest should pay more tax. More and more wealthy Americans — starting with Warren Buffett, and most recently Stephen King are demanding to pay more taxes.

King writes:

At a rally in Florida (to support collective bargaining and to express the socialist view that firing teachers with experience was sort of a bad idea), I pointed out that I was paying taxes of roughly 28 percent on my income. My question was, “How come I’m not paying 50?”

How come? Well, the data shows pretty clearly that it’s unlikely that revenues would increase.

They may have a fair point that capital gains above a certain threshold should probably be taxed at the same rate as income, because it is effectively the same thing. And why should government policy encourage investment above labour by taxing one more leniently?

But more simply, people like King think the status quo  is unjust far beyond the taxation structure. A lot of people are unemployed:

A lot of people are earning less than they were five years ago:

28% of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. Millions of graduates face a mountain of student debt, while stuck in dole queues or in a dead end job like Starbucks.

We live in dark times.

From Reuters:

Nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime and 10 percent think the Mayan calendar could signify it will happen in 2012, according to a new poll.

With all this hurt, there’s a lot of anger in society. Those calling for taxing the richest more are not doing the same cost-benefit analysis I am doing that suggests that raising taxes won’t raise more revenue.

But they’re not unfairly looking for a scapegoat, either. While probably the greatest culprits for the problems of recent times are in government Americans are right to be mad at the rich.


This isn’t about tax. This is about jobs, and growth.

The rich, above and beyond any other group have the ability to ameliorate the economic malaise by spending and creating jobs, creating new products and new wealth. The top 1% control 42% of all financial wealth. But that money isn’t moving very much at all— the velocity of money is at historic lows. It should not be surprising that growth remains depressed and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

And every month that unemployment remains elevated is another month that the job creators are not doing their job. Every month that the malaise festers, the angrier the 99% gets.  It is, I think, in the best interests of the rich to try and create as many jobs and as much wealth as they can.  A divided and angry society, I think, will find it even more difficult to grow and produce.

America needs the richest Americans to pay more tax dollars — but as a side-effect of producing more, and creating growth.

If the private sector doesn’t spend its way out of the current depression, eventually the government will have to, of course. But it can do that with borrowed money, not taxed money.