Tuesday, December 18, 2012

ECB's new role as eurozone bank regulator

Early Thursday morning (December 13) eurozone finance ministers agreed to take a first step toward establishment of a banking union. The agreement will grant supervisory powers to the European Central Bank (ECB) - at least with regard to the 200 or so largest banks headquartered in the eurozone. Large European banks located outside the eurozone (chiefly UK banks) will continue to answer to national authorities. With the accretion of these new powers and responsibilities, the ECB will come to resemble the Federal Reserve which functions as both as a monetary authority and as the chief regulator of large banks operating in the United States.

The political accord reflects a compromise between the competing visions of France and Germany. France had desired a complete transfer of bank supervision to the ECB, effectively extinguishing national regulation. Under this approach all banks located within the eurozone would become 'European' in character. Germany resisted; Germany has been desirous of sheltering its politically powerful regional banks from European control. A reported late-night compromise between France and Germany has resulted in a mixed system - with the eurozone's 200 largest banks falling under the authority of the ECB and the remaining 5,800 or so smaller banks (including virtually all of Germany's regional banks) continuing under the oversight of national regulators.

Still the eurozone finds itself a good distance away from a true banking union. As conventionally understood, a banking union involves three features: common and centralized supervision, a common deposit insurance scheme and a centralized mechanism for taking over insolvent banks. The current decision achieves at best only the first element. Moreover, the EU summit determined to postpone action on the remaining items - deposit insurance and insolvency scheme - for at least six months. These missing features involve politically touchy sharing of financial burdens.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind by Mark Pagel

Mark Pagel addresses the conundrum posed by variegated cultures. Culture -- what we have that monkey's don't (according to a witty formula quoted by Pagel) -- both unites us and divides us. In Wired for Culture, Pagel attempts an evolutionary account for the existence of cultures. His inquiries commence with the mad multiplicity of languages. Language is the prime instrument of cultural transmission and the strongest marker of cultural identity. Yet the intra-group facilitation of communication provided by distinct languages are foreclosed to outsiders. Our languages seal us off from one another.

Human adaptability to the widest range of niches offers only a partial explanation for the multitude of cultures. New Guinea sports more than 800 different languages within a very small territory -- here mutual unintelligibility seems to be the point. Language operates both to permit and prevent understanding; both these characteristics are necessary. The value of a closed system of communication has long been recognized. Tradesmen, criminals and academics use argot to separate themselves and to keep secrets.

Pagel makes an evolutionary case for the multiplicity of languages; language serves as an identifier of group membership. This is culture's darker role: defining group boundaries. Pagel sees language and other cultural institutions functioning to set limits for altruism. Humans are social -- but only to a degree. We are a species that engages in magnificent cooperation -- yet are capable of inflicting harm on a scale not found in any other species.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Collateral Knowledge: Legal Reasoning in the Global Financial Markets by Annelise Riles

I was entranced by the prospect of reading Annelise Riles' Collateral Knowledge, given my eclectic (some would say scattershot) interests. Riles delivers a sophisticated and insightful anthropological treatment of the management of various legal questions facing Japanese banks entering OTC swap transactions. Global finance, ethnography, tasty legal theory: what fun!

And yes, Riles pulls it off. She promises an "ant's-eye view" of these stories, consistent with traditional ethnographic method. While the original intended targets of her observation were Japanese bank regulators, she later realizes the 'back-office' personnel (including the lawyers overseeing the documentation of the transactions) were as central in the process of the law-making.

Riles examines two crucial points of tension in the swap practices of Japanese banks. The first is the utilization (under Japanese law) of the institution of collateral: the posting of property to secure repayment of a debt. The book's title, Collateral Knowledge, plays on this and other meanings of "collateral." All commercial lawyers understand how collateral should work: it should freely pass the pledged assets into the hands of the favored creditor in the event of a debtor's default. And so the mission of a bank lawyer (in this case, one dealing with a Japanese bank) is to assure his principals that these functional expectations are met. This is hardly a simple matter where (in an example given by Riles) the swap is between a Japanese bank and a UK bank, posted to their respective Cayman Island subsidiaries and involving Chinese and Singaporean currencies. The swap raises peculiar difficulties, as neither party knows ex ante whether it will be a net creditor or net debtor of the other -- and so both may need to post, maintain and adjust collateral supporting the transaction. The standard industry forms, drafted by British and American lawyers and routinely used by the Japanese banks, are "literally nonsensical" to the Japanese, according to Riles.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence by William Silber

So what would a Democrat central banker look like -- if there could be one? Resembling Paul Volcker, answers William Silber. That said, it is hard to recognize much in Volcker's policies marking him as a Democrat. Nixon did not trust him -- but that alone scarcely defines a Democrat. Volcker famously endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 election -- but then so did Republican Colin Powell.

Silber adores Volcker -- which weakens Silber's ability to answer (or even ask) tough questions. It is clear that Silber believes Volcker saved the dollar -- and that he is a swell guy to boot. Pity poor Mrs. Volcker who spends an isolated life in a series of ratty apartments while her husband chases glory (in public service, mind you) rather than wealth. Neither Volcker nor Silber seem to realize what a lousy husband he was -- and Mrs. V. was too tactful to point this out.

The Silber account establishes Volcker's self-sacrifice -- and I suppose there's some foundation for it. Volcker spends many years as an underpaid public servant while having far more lucrative opportunities in the private sector. Yet one gets the sense that Volcker is simply more comfortable in the world of the Fed than he would ever have been in a bank. Generals are willingly generals -- there is something (glory? military music?) that draws them to their role. Their renunciation of wealth and a stable home-life only prove their ambition. While we should be grateful for their service, it is not clear that the generals are sacrificing anything. And so perhaps it is with Volcker.

There's good character present -- Volcker likes cheap cigars and hates potted plants. He doesn't really care about his shoes -- and silently worships confident political stars like John Connally. His devotion is peculiarly institutional: not to the United States, but rather to the Fed and its mission, as he perceives it, protecting a sound dollar. Silber's worshipful treatment of Volcker places Volcker's character in the center. The fundamental excellence of who Paul Volcker is (an excellently common man) spills over into his professional life. The strange mixture of talent, insecurity and ambition suits him to his mission.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf by John Coates

What a fun book this is! The Hour Between Dog and Wolf by John Coates mixes pop finance with pop science, sketching some surprising links between them. I will trust Coates to get the science right (he provides citations). His investigation of financial markets is largely anecdotal and so speculative, but all the same it yields tantalizing suggestions.

Coates is a former derivatives trader -- which gives him authority to describe the subjective experiences of winning and losing at a trading desk. He (somehow) becomes hooked on neuroscience research; he describes himself sneaking away from his Wall Street desk to mix with scientists at Rockefeller University. The book seeks to bring these two worlds together. Coates immerses himself in the activation of hormones: testosterone, cortisol and the like. It is these chemical agents that produce the profound effects on the humors of financial traders, and hence overall market behavior.

Coates attacks the mind/body dichotomy: a financial market trader reacts more like an athlete than an analyst in responding to the stimula communication through his screen. Coates employs emerging understandings of mind/body feedbacks to track the play of traders. The traders can react before they 'see', rely on 'gut feelings' and engage in mano-a-mano combats from which they emerge winners or losers. These are quintessentially physical experiences. The markets themselves may then be understood as projections of this human biology.

Trading in financial markets, like war, is a young man's game. It draws on physical resources and reaction times, and a constitutional inability to fully appreciate surrounding dangers. But young soldiers require leaders with a different set of biological characteristics for larger scale success.
Coates develops a human biology account for market cycles. Biofeedback loops reinforce confidence in those traders experiencing winning streaks -- and most traders win in rising markets. The narcotic effect accompanying success then goads these traders to risk again and again, with ever greater stakes. The manic exuberance (a real physical effect produced by past successes) pushes speculators beyond 'rational' limits. Perspective is lost by nearly all at the top of a bubble.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Private Empire: Exxon-Mobil and American Power by Steve Coll

Steve Coll's Private Empire provides oil spill-to-oil spill coverage of the recent history of Exxon-Mobil, and in that course brings us Bush/Cheney adventures, climate change deniers, armed conflicts in lost and forgotten places, and the rise (and fall) of Russian oligarchs. In this complex work, Exxon-Mobil appears misunderstood and misunderstanding.

Coll begins his story with the 1989 crash of the Exxon Valdez, the moment that seared Exxon in the public consciousness as an environmentally reckless brute, pandering to America's oil addiction at the cost of America's soul. Exxon reacts from this crisis in both positive and negative ways. It becomes obsessed with safety -- though the company's pursuit of safety is not to assure accident avoidance as much as it is a premise for increasing demands for precision and attention from its workforce. The safety culture Exxon creates becomes, in a menacing way, grounds for enforcing discipline, regimentation and uniformity-of-voice throughout the enterprise.

The second formative moment Coll relates is the 1993 removal of Exxon's headquarters from New York City (Exxon was the former Standard Oil of New Jersey) to Irving, Texas. Neither bi-coastals nor Texans would be surprised by the resultant shift in company worldview.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

If only Lytton Strachey had written this biography of Steve Jobs. He would have punctured Jobs, ridiculed his dirty feet and preachiness, his unshattered conviction of his own primacy. Not that Jobs wasn't a great figure: he certainly was. But there is something off-putting when a biographer lets his subject declare (and so establish) his own importance. The temptation in reviewing this biography is to assess the subject and not the book. And the subject is certainly compelling. Jobs' accomplishments are familiar, his eccentricities less so. And so there is sordid attraction exercised by his abandonments, his eating disorders, his cruelty.

Isaacson relishes his access to Jobs and produces a work Larry King would envy. Certainly Jobs' foibles are presented -- but simply because a biographer has a license to report "warts and all" does not discharge his critical responsibility. Isaacson does not judge Jobs. At best, he reports -- in various fragments -- the partial judgments of Jobs' many friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Joan Baez is perhaps the most honest of all: she has little to say beyond a typifying story (Jobs is clueless) and leaves the impression that she meant more to Steve than Steve ever meant to her.

No doubt many readers of this book will search for easy recipes for replicating Jobs' phenomenal business achievements. Jobs seems to have had two running theories for Apple's success. The first account celebrates Apple's industrial design. The design story is complex -- and has deep psychological roots. Jobs learns from his father (a modest man he greatly admired) of the importance of finish, even for elements hidden from view. Design does not reflect the creator's integrity; it assures it. But design involves more than form following function -- the book is replete with stories of Jobs' rejecting engineers' design compromises that duly reflect functional concerns. The aesthetic trumps the functional in these stories (Isaacson gives no counterexamples), at times leading to stunning product, and at other times, to disappointment and delusion. In the affair known as "Antennagate," Jobs had insisted that a gorgeous steel rim surround the iPhone 4. Unfortunately, this compromised an essential function: the phone dropped calls at a higher rate. The technical solution adopted by many (and offered by Jobs) was an ugly case which, of course, masked the iPhone 4's design!

Jobs had a wonderful design sense, though he became increasingly closed off to new aesthetic experience. Dylan remained the center of his musical universe (his iTunes list is true to baby-boomer form). He perceives Bach's greatness -- but stops there (though Yo-Yo Ma is a "friend"). Had Jobs been more intrigued by music -- and willing to explore - he may have found artists who better reflected his simplicity instincts.

The second account of Apple's success draws on Jobs' insistence in controlling the user's entire experience. Isaacson describes the consistent Apple practice of developing both software and hardware. Microsoft's Bill Gates plays the role of advocate for the other stance: that software success is best achieved by maintaining an "open" philosophy, licensing to a wide variety of hardware manufacturers. Notwithstanding Apple's triumphs, Gates may have the better view.

The Jobs/Gates relationship fascinates Isaacson -- one is up when the other is down throughout their intertwining careers. Each is suspicious of the other, each hesitates to praise the other's strengths. Yet we're told of Gates' visit to Jobs' home soon before Jobs died: "Is Steve around?" Gates asks Jobs' daughter. In an enterprise version of the Great Man theory, Isaacson reduces the Microsoft/Apple rivalry to a personal contest between the firms' respective CEOs.

If there are prescriptions to be found here, they are the kind that cannot be followed. Make great products. Sure thing. In the end, Jobs is not a customer first guy. Nor is he, in his self-judgment, a product first guy. He is a company first guy, at least when that company is his. Jobs was, as Isaacson tells us, thrown out of Apple -- and when he returns, he works for a long stretch as an unpaid interim CEO because Apple remains throughout 'his'. Jobs' identification with Apple (and Pixar, the other major company he runs) is complete; it absorbs all his passion. No surprise that little part of Jobs was left for family. Steve Jobs declared that Apple would be his legacy -- he hoped to leave behind a great company that would persist in reflecting his values. Yet he was witness to the inevitable drift that befell two great companies -- Hewlett-Packard and Disney -- distancing them from the visions of their respective charismatic leaders.

A magical character dances through this story of Steve Jobs' life: his ever abused, frequently forgotten, yet always forgiving partner and Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak. I like Woz.

Steve Jobs is shortlisted for the 2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and the Modern Chinese Consumer by Tom Doctoroff

In this unabashedly pop business book, Tom Doctoroff, head of the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm in China, tells us What Chinese Want. Yet the implicit question is complex: what do the Chinese want for themselves? For their children? For China? And to answer the question coherently involves considerable psychological framework. Doctoroff is an ad guy -- so the question that lies squarely within his expertise might be: what does the Chinese consumer want to consume? And this question he begins to answer. He is less certain -- and less convincing -- when applying the insights he draws from Chinese consumption habits to the more mysterious nature of Chinese culture, politics and foreign policy.

I suppose we can learn something meaningful about the Chinese from studying their patterns of material consumption -- even using the tools of an advertising executive. In some sense, Doctoroff's inquiry is an exercise in applied cultural anthropology -- though his ends are more instrumental than scientific. So which firms are doing well in China -- and what do their successful adaptations suggest?

Starbucks, Doctoroff tells us, has configured larger stores in China which serve as group meeting places. The Chinese consumer would not pay the equivalent for $4.00 for a cup of coffee for private consumption (this may reveal the inherent cross-elasticity of Starbucks coffee and ubiquitous hot tea). The consumer will do so, however, when observed by others; the Starbucks customer's extravagant expenditure for a latte is justified by a gain in social standing. And so by facilitating the prospect of mutual observation -- by providing large, welcoming meeting spaces -- Starbucks sells coffee in China.

The Starbucks example typifies a more general tendency Doctoroff observes: a uniquely Chinese form of conspicuous consumption. Luxury goods are avidly purchased by Chinese consumers -- from Starbucks coffee to Cartier watches -- if their consumption is observable. But when consumption is hidden -- in the home for example -- the Chinese eschew unneeded expense, preferring cheaper products that are weakly branded and of domestic origin. Doctoroff would likely predict tough going in China for an importer of high thread-count sheets.

So the Chinese are, says Doctoroff, and so they will remain. For one of the keys to Doctoroff's presentation of the Chinese is his sense of their sense of timelessness. The Chinese remain the way they are; new experiences, through consumerism, exposure to technology and increased contact with the outside, will not change them.

Doctoroff has lived in a China for many years. Indeed, he tells us of moving into a picturesque and resolutely Chinese neighborhood in Shanghai -- admirably, he does live in post-colonial isolation. And so, no doubt, there is a significant stock of observation behind his construction of Chinese character. But I remain suspicious of Doctoroff's generalizations. Perhaps this is precisely what an advertising professional is tasked to accomplish -- form generalizations that can serve to inform marketing plans. Yet there is little distance between broad cultural generalizations and misleading stereotypes. I wonder whether this book will embarrass Doctoroff's grandchildren 50 years from now.

Doctoroff teaches us that the Chinese have a notion of 'face' that may not be offended. That they are intrinsically pragmatic. That order is the paramount value. That the Chinese are ambitious in a perversely contained way. That their sense of cyclical history leads them to be fatalistic, yet assured of China's return to glory.

Chinese society is built from the foundation of the family, and not from the individual, Doctoroff observes. As such, it is the social that is essential. Larger and larger social units are built outward from the family -- extending from clan to all China -- with attenuating yet meaningful identification and allegiance. The state, however, is distrusted. The Party's legitimacy depends on a fragile bargain -- its continued exercise of power depends on the maintenance of order and rising material conditions.

Doctoroff argues that the Chinese are afflicted with a weak civil society. This leads to a general insecurity. The Chinese are uncertain about preserving what wealth they may acquire, they fear dependency (beyond the family) and they are haunted by possible breakdown of social order. Doctoroff sources Chinese defensiveness to these anxieties. And he includes, as a characteristic manifestation of Chinese defensiveness, its reactive national alarms to challenges to its sovereign territory. Doctoroff's 'foreign policy' prescriptions are fairly simple. China is not to be feared, as it is not aggressive. But neither is China to be threatened, for it will defend itself.

Doctoroff may be right about all this, but if so, it may be his intuition that correctly guides him and not his deep knowledge of Chinese consumerism.

What Chinese Want is longlisted for the 2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity by Luigi Zingales

In the preface to A Capitalism for the People, Luigi Zingales recounts his departure from an Italian university for the wonderland of American academia. Here merit, neither contacts nor obsequious devotion to one's supervisor, is the key to success and Zingales' triumphs. He becomes an admired professor at the University of Chicago business school, a place he praises for its openness, its devotion to excellence and its rejection of status-based primacy (pity the poor dean, newly arrived from Stanford, who is devastated by the slashing comments of a junior colleague).

But the broader America he sees around him does not match -- in aim or reach -- what Zingales finds at Chicago. Zingales returns to the theme developed in his earlier writing: the United States is burdened with crony capitalism, the same social disease he sought to escape in emigrating from Italy. American business -- and American politics -- is dominated by corrupt elites who prefer protection and status quo to competition and innovation. Zingales introduces a neat distinction -- America remains pro-business, but it is no longer pro-market. And so Zingales seeks to reintroduce and reinvigorate competition in American economic and political life.

Zingales invites us to revive American populism -- and by this he intends the trust-busting populism of Theodore Roosevelt and not the proto-fascism of Huey Long nor the toxic nativism of the KKK. The focus is returning prosperity to the common American, and not further enriching Wall Street, Pharma, agriculture, government contractors, and the greater bulk of big business. Yet his populism is capitalist at heart. If the ties between government and business can be broken, new and vital businesses will thrive. Political life will improve as well, if the distortions and distractions introduced by lobbyists can be pruned back.

Zingales devotes considerable attention to the pernicious effects of lobbyists. He estimates the total spoils available from agricultural subsidies to be $11 billion. He then estimates payments to lobbyists and campaign contributions at $6 billion, and marvels that we do not experience even more K Street activity that we do. A public interest has little chance in such a climate. But enhanced regulation of influence peddling is no solution -- as the very prophylactic measures are themselves certain to be captured. Rather we need to cultivate stronger public morality -- what Zingales calls 'civic capital.' This may be deployed by virtuous lobbyists - or by emergent academic muckrakers.

Zingales clearly loves the academy -- but the American academy does not escape his critique. Here too he sees insidious signs of capture. Among the most compromised are his fellow economists, who are even more likely to pursue unrestrained self-interest. There exists of course easily identified opportunists, who provide congenial research results for their corporate masters. More insidious of course are the subtle and indirect influences exerted on less cynical, though more vulnerable academics. Academics are a large part of the problem -- but are also, for Zingales, a potential solution. A public-regarding academic (of the muckraking sort) could (perhaps) countervail the work of the lobbyists. And of course Zingales offers himself -- and this book -- as an example.

He examines the familiar terrain of the recent financial crisis -- and finds unrestrained 'crony finance' before, during and after. It was the Wall Street/Washington nexus that created the crisis -- through its aggressive embrace of risk, encouragement of irresponsible lending, and unbalanced housing policy. And it is the same nexus that designed the response: bailouts that left that structure intact.

In his quest for a new American populism, Zingales seeks to harness the anger underlying both the Occupy and Tea Party movements, yet better direct it toward meaningful reform. Zingales' stick is the possibility of shaming -- a technique that is occasionally successful in reeling in corporate excesses. His carrot is greater American prosperity -- which is certainly an attractive end to many, but by no means all. Zingales sees little advantage in the pursuit of redistribution. While he explores the new economy of superstars, he seems to accept winner-take-all as the natural order of things. In this, he is perhaps more Tea Party than Occupy, but that may be unfair. He is clearly more nuanced.

He has a host of policy fixes to sell: new models for corporate governance, a new Glass-Steagall for finance, tax reform. While he cloaks these proposals with the central arguments of the book, they seem little more than one policy-maker's clever reform ideas among many. His broader challenge -- to discover a viable roadmap to detach the American economy from rent seeking -- is less easily solved. More than the exuberant idealism of a Chicago professor will be needed.

A Capitalism for the People is longlisted for the 2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why Nations Fail - The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail is a thrilling read. It proposes answers to grand questions: Why are some nations rich? Why are others poor? Why are there such great disparities? Their theory is seductive -- yet it ultimately fails to give much guidance as to what can be done.

The key to prosperity, in the authors' view, can be found in a nation's political and economic institutions. The operative distinction is whether these institutions are extractive or inclusive. The most successful countries will have inclusive political and economic institutions; the most desperate will be afflicted with extractive institutions. Prescriptions seem tantalizingly accessible at first: simply replace extractive institutions with inclusive ones. But this is not so easy, Acemoglu and Robinson caution.

Labeling the 'bad' institutions extractive (as opposed to the more symmetrical 'exclusive') is a nice turn of phrase. Economists use the term extractive to describe economies that exploit endowments of valued natural resources, such as oil, gold or Mr. Kurtz's ivory, that are literally extracted. But the authors intend to characterize the relationship between the elites and the masses; elites 'extract' power and wealth from human resources through oppressive political and economic institutions.

In proposing an institutional account of prosperity, Acemoglu and Robinson reject cultural and geographic explanations. There is nothing peculiar about Northern European Protestantism (despite Weber's assertion) that suits it to the accumulation of wealth -- and folks living in temperate climes are not more industrious (or if they are -- they are not more likely to be successful). Technology is also non-determinative -- as opportunities for technological progress are frequently rejected by extractive states. Inclusive states -- the authors argue -- tend to be more receptive to new technologies, and hence enjoy the welfare gains innovation throws off.

It is a nation's institutions that matter. But despite the focus on institutions, institutions themselves (of the excellent inclusive variety) cannot assure prosperity unless a nation also possesses an adequate degree of 'centralization.' Acemoglu and Robinson do not clearly develop the notion of centralization -- and there seems to be some lingering tension between inclusivity (which diffuses power) and centralization (which focuses it). Centralization does seem to be a prior-in-time characteristic to the development of inclusive institutions in the examples explored in the book -- there exists a centralized nation that precedes the evolution of an inclusive, and so perhaps wealthy, nation.

The authors document the presence of extractive institutions in poor nations and inclusive institutions in rich ones. They describe vicious and virtuous cycles, respectively. These cycles describe both the reinforcement of tendencies between political and economic institutions, as well as a nation's trajectory over time. Of course, there should be more to the theory that this -- or we would find most nations tending toward one or the other pole (depending on the character of their historic institutions), with rare reversals of national fortunes.

In fact, the authors acknowledge, there are mixed cases -- and the most important one is today's China, which displays stunning recent growth that is restricted by extractive political and economic institutions. The authors are sanguine about China's emergence as a superpower; rather they predict that China has or will soon reach inclusivity limits imposed by its elites in order to maintain extractive conditions. In the long run, the authors believe, authoritarian regimes will falter -- and they cite the Soviet Union as the prime example. Of course, China may change institutional course, unleashing a process of creative destruction (and reallocating wealth and power within Chinese society) that might keep China growing. But in the absence of institutional change, they view a Chinese slowdown as an inevitability. We'll see.

In many other examples, where the historical record is more complete, the authors make more persuasive cases. They offer illustrations where former European colonies retain the extractive institutional legacies of their former masters. Far too frequently newly independent states have been captured by indigenous elites that prefer to maintain their holds on power by permitting an opening of civic life that would bring both greater wealth and more dynamic politics.

The authors are quite modest as to claims of their theory's predictive power -- there are many contingencies that could push China (or any other state) toward or away from wealth-inducing inclusive institutions. Yet the authors are quite confident of the power of their theory in accounting for many historic cases of wealthy and impoverished nations. To admit the theory cannot predict is to concede that it fails to fully capture the causes of wealth; at best it can serve to identify necessary elements. But without knowing more of how these elements (inclusive institutions) interplay with other, yet unidentified factors, leaves the reader with some doubts as to how complete a theory this really is.

Why Nations Fail is longlisted for the 2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel

In What Money Can't Buy, Michael Sandel decries the emergence of markets that displace older norms, "commodifying" earlier forms of social organization that better correspond to our (or Sandel's) ethical intuitions. Sandel is bothered by fast track lanes, priority boarding, sales of organs or surrogate mothering services, paying for grades, and what he describes as the "skyboxification" of American society. While there remain some things money cannot buy, many things can be bought today that in prior times were allocated using non-market norms.

Sandel views with alarm the increasing hegemony of markets -- where markets are the go-to policy prescription for every social want. If we wish to boost the performance of inner-city school children, we should pay them for academic achievement -- according to a market-line of thinking. There's a cost, argues Sandel, to the application of market notions to novel domains, as markets operate (through "incentives," a neologism that Sandel mocks) to displace other values, such as inculcating a love of learning, devoting oneself to one's children and savoring a sense of community. Markets intrude on moral domains and limit the scope for moral discourse -- and this loss is under-appreciated.

All true enough -- but in at least some cases non-market values have displaced markets. For much of its history, the draft had market features. One could buy one's way out of Lincoln's draft -- or find a replacement to serve. And during most of the Vietnam era, the wealthy could avoid the draft by remaining in school. The draft, of course, has been suspended for several decades, but it is hard to imagine its return in any form with buy-outs. There may be other examples where the relevant institutional shift is away from markets: it was much easier to buy one's way into an Ivy League school a generation ago than it is now (Sandel concedes that even now it may be possible for some to do so).

Sandel fails to give a consistent account -- across his varied and many examples -- of precisely where and when markets exceed moral limits. He writes of "corruption" or "degradation" as if there were discernible moral content to these notions, but they are but baskets for a variety of values. Now I am as horrified as Sandel is at the thought of a hunter killing a black rhino (or even more cruelly, a defenseless walrus) -- and instituting fees for the privilege and then putting the collected funds to good use fails to appease me. But I admit (as certainly Sandel would) that others might not share my moral objections. That is, his and my valuation of an animal's life might not be broadly shared. In a softer version of his thesis, I suppose Sandel would assert that the permission-conceding effect of resorting to markets forecloses moral discourse -- though I'm not sure that foreclosure always follows.

At times, his instincts seem to reflect a certain squeamishness. I simply am not bothered by the idea that my employer might take out an insurance policy on my life, and hence have cause to root for my demise (so long as it does not act on its interests -- a point Sandel recognizes). I do not see how this leads to a coarsening of our general regard for life.

Sandel does demonstrate (by several examples) the possible errors of market-thinking in domains where strong norms operate. He recalls Richard Titmuss's famous 1970 comparative study of blood collection, The Gift Relationship. In the United Kingdom, blood is given by unpaid donors who act from civic motives. In contrast, the United States largely (though not exclusively) relies on blood banks, where donors are paid. This leads to the commodification of blood donations, with the result that the blood supply in the United States is more expensive, more risky and less secure.

Better is Sandel's "skyboxification" argument, in which newly created markets function to separate us from one another. We have long used status symbols to mark our position in the social hierarchy, and reside in highly (economically) segregated communities. As our society drifts farther and farther away from an egalitarian ideal, we have new opportunities -- such as the skybox -- to enforce class separation at what had been fundamentally a communal event. But that abandonment of the public schools in this country seems to be a far more serious concern -- and threat to our sense of community -- than tolerating the wealthy (and often bored) to isolate themselves from the fans during athletic events. Here, the existence of markets undercuts our democratic opportunities, yet private schools are a given.

There are certainly many domains where markets are kept at bay. You cannot buy an "A" at Loyola Law School -- as least I do not believe you can.

What Money Can't Buy is longlisted for the 2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Paper Promises: Debt, Money and the New World Order by Philip Coggan

As its subtitle suggests, Philip Coggan's book examines the relationship between debt and money and its implications for the 21st century economy. Coggan takes us through familiar territory (the nature of money) and familiar debates (Keynesianism vs. monetaristm), yet offers a novel framing that make this book a valuable read.

Coggan has an unusual view of the fundamental divide in political economy. Rather than seeing class struggle everywhere, Coggan treats the conflict between creditors and debtors as the central fracture motivating politics, though he notes that -- all things being equal -- creditors tend to be wealthier (and fewer in number) than debtors.

In speaking of debt, Coggan slides (perhaps too easily) between private and public debt. The debt that interests Coggan is the burgeoning debt that tends toward default (as opposed to the under-remarked debt that is extinguished by repayment in the ordinary course). This is the persisting debt that in usual times is rolled over upon each maturation. He writes of unsustainable debt -- again, both private and public -- that will of necessity lead to some degree of default. In the case of public debt, the default scenarios include -- importantly -- devaluation, a course open to most states to reset the exchange value of the money in which a debt is expressed and thus unilaterally reduce the value of the debt (as expressed in some other value, such as gold or a harder currency).

For most states, there is a limit to this strategy. Devaluation has consequences. It may throttle domestic expectations, igniting inflation. And devaluation -- in a global society -- has consequences, distributing at least some of the lost value to other countries (by readjusting the terms of trade) as well as to the disappointed creditors. Devaluation will also make future borrowing more difficult.

But -- of late -- there appeared the possibility for at least one country to escape the devaluation trap. The United States has enjoyed an extraordinary privilege, in that its currency seemed to be highly valued notwithstanding its horrific trade deficits. This reflects its historical (though waning) primacy in world economic affairs. What matters now is the role of this particular national money as place for storage of value: China (as do Japan and others) continues to re-funnel its vast export earnings into dollar-denominated obligations of the U.S. Treasury, thus keeping prevailing U.S. interest rates low. Exchange values may reveal more about capital flows than trade balances, Coggan argues.

This perceived signal within the U.S. economy is a green light for expansion. Prior to the 2007 financial crisis, this green light released a frenzy of asset acquisitions, including the real estate bubble. And even now, the continued low interest rates may serve to mask the severity of the U.S. debt crisis. Confronting the debt crisis may be postponed (though not avoided) through the simple expedient of increasing the U.S. money supply.

Money today is simply debt, Coggan reminds us. Money has been detached from its historic anchors (precious metals), as each sovereign seeks to discover the sweet spot between too little and too much money. The likely course is one of oscillation, where the costs of each extreme is regularly felt. Post-crisis austerity, while an upright policy, may lead to a downward spiral, as consumers pull back current expenditure to service debt (their own and, via taxes, those of the state), magnifying economic contraction. And too much debt can drive away the creditors -- the monolithic bond market James Carville fears -- as they come to believe that 'borrowing' is just a ruse to transfer their accumulated stores of wealth to others. Better to hoard (if that remains possible).

Moving debt into the future has been a viable strategy - but it resembles a Ponzi scheme, in that success depends in part of an increasing number of new players, the upcoming generations. Their ability to work off the burdens of their grandparents may depend on the prospects of their grandchildren, and so on. But the intergenerational strategy seems to have limits as well, as advanced economies (such as the United States, Japan and Europe) feature extremely low population replacement rates. In an odd way, pushing the U.S. debt back onto China (through a devaluation of the dollar against the renminbi) has both an international and an intergenerational aspect, given China's continued projected population growth.

Coggan paints a rather bleak future, involving inevitable U.S. decline. More crisis is ahead, as the mountain of public and private debt is either devalued or postponed - or results in outright default.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Abandoning the Euro, Saving the Euro

The Euro crisis tests more than the viability of the current currency arrangements. The sovereign debt crisis affecting Greece and Ireland, Italy and Spain is also testing the limits of wider European democracy. The status quo will likely be abandoned. The open question is whether the Euro crisis will lead to deeper integration among the EU Member States (as an artifact of a Euro rescue) -- or whether a collapse of the Euro will signal a retreat from the past achievements of the European project.

The European Union began as a common market for goods and services. A common European currency space is a more recent development -- the Euro serves as the currency of most (but not all) EU Member States. Adoption of the Euro has reduced trading costs, and has led to more transparent prices.

The Euro crisis is first and foremost a sovereign debt crisis, initially affecting a handful of EU Member States running unsustainable deficits. The sovereign debt crisis is itself an artifact of the establishment of the Euro -- neither Greece nor Spain would have been able to borrow as much in their former currencies (or on such favorable terms) as they were able to using the Euro. Prior to the Euro crisis, the financial markets valued Euro-denominated Member State obligations similarly. As the crisis developed, lenders became far more discriminating, demanding much higher Euro interest rates from weaker Member States (such as Greece and Spain) than from others.

Monday, August 13, 2012

European Limits on Banker Bonuses

The EU's Council has prepared its draft legislative package implementing the Basel III banking reforms -- known as CRD IV. Attention now shifts to the European Parliament for its response, expected this autumn. A complex process of reconciliation will follow. On one point the Parliament has drawn a line in the sand: the eventual CRD IV must contain significant limits on contingent compensation paid to bankers. The Parliament's starting point is a one-to-one ratio cap: bankers' bonuses cannot exceed annual salaries.

Basel III did not impose any limits on bankers' compensation -- although several European members of the Group of 20 had sought bonus restraints during the negotiation. Nor does Basel III restrict the ability of Europe -- or any other Basel party -- from imposing additional requirements on its banks. Europe's imposition of bonus limits in CRD IV may be described as "Basel III Plus" -- an additional term beyond the basic Basel III mandates.

There is a broad perception that the bonus culture of New York and London contributed to the 2007 financial crisis. Bankers seduced by the prospect of large contingent payments caused their firms to undertake inappropriate levels of financial risk. New limits on bonuses, in this telling, are needed to eliminate the distortion in risk appetite generated by prevalent compensation practices. But bonuses have their defenders -- and not just the bankers who receive them. There remain policymakers (albeit more likely those overseeing markets in New York and London) who continue to believe that bonuses are necessary to attract the creative talent that will drive economic growth.

Monday, August 6, 2012

European Politics and the Regulation of Bank/Insurance Firms

On prior occasions, European implementation of the Basel bank regulatory system had proceeded rather mechanically. The Europeans actively participated in the Basel II process, reached agreement with the world's other major banking powers, and then faithfully enacted Basel norms into EU law. This has not been the case with the latest product of Basel: Basel III. While Europe once again exerted its influence during the negotiation, it has been decidedly less determined to give full effect to its Basel III undertakings in EU legislation. And the reason -- it should be no surprise -- is politics.

The linkage between Basel III and the European implementation (known as CRD IV) involves three levels of politics: global, European and national. The uncharacteristic European reluctance to carry out the Basel III mandates to the letter results from the varying distributions of influence at each level of the lawmaking game. A case in point: so-called 'bancassurance' -- financial conglomerates that are part bank, part insurance company. France's Societe Generale and Credit Agricole are two large examples of 'bancassurance'.

The treatment of bancassurance was a sticking point in the Basel III negotiations. The United States and others (including the United Kingdom, an EU member state) identified the problem of 'double counting' equity capital in bancassurance. Basel III requires banks to maintain adequate amounts of high-quality (Tier 1) equity capital. This capital acts as a loss-absorbing buffer, protecting depositors and other bank creditors. In a similar spirit, insurance regulators demand that insurers maintain adequate equity to protect policyholders in the event insurers experience losses.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Euro Collapse or European Banking Union

The implementation of the Basel III banking reforms in Europe has spanned two financial crises. And the European legislation is haunted by two specters: a possible collapse of the Euro; and -- in the alternative -- a blind leap into a European banking union.

The first crisis of course was the 2007 global financial meltdown that led to significant bank failures and costly bank bailouts. The Basel III reforms were designed to prevent a re-occurrence of this kind of banking crisis through various new mandates and disciplines. The Basel III response was negotiated within the Group of 20, where Europe had a substantial presence and an important influence. Based on the past record of enthusiastic adoption of Basel norms by Europe, one might have expected the passage of Europe's CRD IV legislative package to be largely a technical exercise. It has not proven to be one.

This is due in part to the timing. The complex European legislative process -- extending well over a year -- coincided with the outbreak of the second severe crisis, one more specifically centered on Europe. This second -- and ongoing -- crisis is the sovereign debt crisis (or the Euro crisis). Initially involving Greece, the sovereign debt crisis has spread to Italy and Spain, sharply raising borrowing costs of these seriously indebted countries and miring their respective populations into social misery.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Bank Capital Reform in the Shadow of the Euro Crisis

European banking reform continues to develop alongside of - and perhaps in spite of - the ongoing Euro crisis. A significant EU reform package - involving a new directive (Capital Requirements Directive IV, or CRD IV) and a new regulation (Capital Requirements Regulation, or CRR) - is making its way through the EU legislative institutions. These reforms are driven in large part by Europe's undertakings within the global Basel system: Europe has committed to implement much of the most recent Basel package of reforms (known as Basel III) by January 2013.

One of the chief requirements of the Basel III reforms is to increase both the quantity and quality of the 'regulatory capital' banks must hold. This capital is intended to operate as a financial shock absorber in the event of large losses - assuring a bank's continued solvency and sparing shareholders (and - in a worse case - taxpayers) pain. Basel III is a system of minimum standards - countries are expected to comply with Basel III's requirements but are free to impose higher standards. And several countries (Switzerland, for example) have determined to require their banks to maintain even more regulatory capital than what Basel III demands.

The combination of common minimum standards and regulatory flexibility is familiar to the EU Member States: it is a feature of most EU-level regulation, known as "harmonization". But in its most recent drafts of CRD IV and CRR, the EU proposals called for "maximum harmonization," a design where the Basel III minimum standards serve to fix mandatory standards for the implementing EU Member States. Basel III requires that national regulators impose a minimum capital requirement for so-called Tier 1 capital ratio of 6 percent. By its terms, the Basel III framework permits countries to impose higher Tier 1 capital ratio requirements. But to permit each EU Member State to impose its own Tier 1 capital ratio requirement (so long as it exceeds the Basel III minimum) would introduce competitive and operational stresses within the somewhat unified European banking market. These concerns in turn have motivated EU officials to prefer "maximum harmonization" whereby all EU Member States would enact identical Tier 1 capital ratio obligations.