Tag Archives: politics

The Hidden Cost of Credit Ratings

justice

The NY Times’ “The Hidden Cost of Trading Stocks” paints a concise and damning picture of yet another malpractice in financial services.  This has been a recurring theme.   

Another storm may be brewing – this time for the credit ratings industry.  

It is standard practice for issuers to hire ratings agencies to rate their securities.  This practice has lead to incentives to give higher ratings when trying to get business from securities issuers, putting the ratings agencies in the position of representing the issuers when they are given special status to serve and protect investors.  They are not even required to disclose the conflict of interest.  The closest we get to protection is a lawsuit when they explicitly advertise objectivity.

It now looks like 16 states will each get their chance to sue individually.  This may be the beginning of a big and positive change.  If conflicts of interest did influence credit ratings, it would shift capital and damage economic efficiency even when it is not misdirecting pension money into a mortgage bubble.  I wonder if we will see a social media movement to influence reform like we are seeing with network neutrality and “common carrier” status.  I hope so.

 

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Crisis of Confidence

I, through my firm, was a customer of PFG, the latest registered broker dealer to steal from its clients’ accounts – first reports indicate $200 million may have been taken.  This pattern is becoming too frequent. Innocent victims have lost money yet again.  How did it come to this?

Broken Markets

Self-regulation by an oligopoly… I don’t think there is any economist or politician who wanted this outcome, but special interests and lobbying have led to this.  This is how the futures industry works today.

Capitalism is broken without fair rule of law and regulation, and today top firms organize and self-regulate with practices that add cost but lack teeth. This discourages competition from smaller companies, but it also gives the largest companies free reign to raid their clients’ accounts and hide their crimes for years. So far it seems there is little or no accountability when they are discovered.

If market participants cannot expect basic protections, then they will leave, prices will fall, volume will shrink, and markets will whither.  Companies will have less access to capital and be exposed to more risk, and the economy and workers will suffer.  We’re already a long way down this path.

The economic ideal and the allure of free markets is only possible when regulation protects innocent market participants, minimizes fraud and cheating, and does not deter innovation. That means expanded domain of the SIPC, the SEC should have unlimited authority to monitor accounts and communication (opt-in would be fine), and companies should only minimally participate in their own oversight. With this structure, investors would be protected, transparency would reduce fraud, and free markets could flourish with competition and innovation.

Sounds obvious, but don’t hold your breath.

Corporate Corruption

There are a lot of types of corporate corruption, but they all start from an imbalance in power and oversight.  There is one tiny change could have a huge impact on this problem: allow shareholders to nominate people for elections of the Board of Directors of public companies.  It’s a small, seemingly obvious shareholder right, but it would have a big impact.

Management should not have the exclusive right to nominate their bosses. In fact, because the Board of Directors is supposed to represent the owners’ interest, it seems crazy that owners can not nominate. When the owners of a company are empowered to nominate Board members, management comes back under control, compensation comes back to reality, performance is scrutinized better, and the interests of investors are better served.

In private equity and smaller firms of every kind, this is always how it has worked.  Major shareholders often join Boards of private companies and nominate other Board members.  How public companies ever achieved the ability to control the Board nominations without rights for shareholders, I’ll never understand.

Too much

There are so many other ways that markets are broken and corruption is bringing us down.  Is it too much to fix?  Are we destined to watch for the rest of our lives as the emerging markets grow right past us and Americans fight amongst ourselves? Is our political and influence machinery too dogmatic or corrupt to embrace new good ideas together?

I’m not confident.

The Independent Globalist: an instruction manual

I drink your milkshake

You drank my milkshake!

Independent globalists optimize after-tax returns, labor, and supply chains into the tax and regulatory regimes that are most favorable.

It’s an optimization exercise and a chess game.  This seems to be the dominant strategy:

1) After-Tax Returns

The equation: taxes + regulation.   Taxes are simple; they reduce your profits by their rate.  Regulation is more complicated because it costs money to comply, but there are also opportunity costs from business activities that are no longer available.

The game: reduce and eliminate taxes and regulation.  Express the stresses of international competition to pressure national politics using one issue at a time in the countries where you do business.

2) Labor

The equation: salary + benefits, including long term commitments.  Retirement, health care, and other benefits have costs, but also may reduce employee turnover.

The game: reduce and eliminate costs within each role.  Divide operational units and move them to locations with optimal rules and costs.  Use the placement of these units to pressure politics to reduce labor’s collective bargaining rights.

3) Supply Chains

The equation: price.  Commodities and other non-labor costs are priced on global markets, and are mostly fungible.

The game: reduce and eliminate regulations that internalize costs of production for your suppliers.

Investors lost $2.5 Trillion on Monday – Policy?

Investors lost $2.5 Trillion on Monday because stock markets were down.  Who still thinks stimulus is a bad idea?  How can anyone argue that it is a bad investment to spend a few hundred billion in the form of infrastructure or other stimulus when the effects are 1000%+ in the form of rising market valuations across the economy.  Stock prices rise in value within minutes when stimulus is announced.  American Freedom does not eliminate our right to make great investments for our economy.

Policy makers – and the rest of us – should pay more attention to ROI.

Mad at Pakistan?

Americans are mad at Pakistan.  Last night, Jon Stewart showed a clip of Fareed Zakaria asking if Pakistan is complicit in hiding Osama Bin Laden – or just incompetent.

Do you blame Pakistan for bin Laden living there?  Do you think our relationship with their government should be strained by this?   Should we reduce support?  Sanction trade?

No.  That’s wrong.  Here’s why:

Pakistan is not one thing and their government is not monolithic.  There are many power structures in Pakistan.  You shouldn’t blame “the government” for sectarian separatists, terrorists, or others who secretly hide within their borders.  Thinking that way is like blaming a person when their body grows a cancer.

Did we blame the American Government when Timmothy Mcveigh was a terrorist in Oklahoma City?  No.  America was a victim.  And Pakistan is the victim now.  Pakistan has been in a complex civil war with multiple armies of radical extremists for many years.  Some of them are politicians trying to consolidate power with secret affiliations, others attack India trying to incite a broader war, others hide like rats.  Pakistan is suffering from these cancers.

We should be offering tax incentives to increase trade with Pakistan, increase aid, and increase support for democratic stability, secular and academic institutions, and human rights.   Economic sanctions and saber-rattling are counterproductive because they attack the commercial economy.  It would be better to empower the population through the commercial economy – enable them to overtake and stamp out radical separatists and would-be religious fascists.  Help them get on a path to become a productive and educated economy that has the power and will to suppress it’s own cancers.  Use economic levers to achieve better outcomes.

Net Neutrality: No Compromise

To begin talking about Net Neutrality, it helps to clarify what the internet is. It’s simply data sent via TCP/IP (the protocol for sending data through routers). Some people host web sites, others connect to their company e-mail, others do other things – it’s all the internet.

Understanding that the internet is just a connection using TCP/IP, then Net Neutrality is simple, too. Net Neutrality simply means that your ISP may not interfere with the internet. They may not censor your packets (the data that is sent via TCP/IP). This means they can’t censor your news, keep you off of Skype, restrict your sending and receiving, or otherwise interfere with your communications.

Any compromise on this is wrong for two reasons: 1) Your ISP should not have the right to interfere with your free speech, and 2) ISPs should not be able to tax the value creation of the media industry.

ISPs should not be able to interfere with consumer access to media companies, nor tax those companies for access to consumers. ISPs should not be able to interfere with our speech or block our access to the speech of others.

ISPs are in the business of providing internet access, but they don’t own the internet; any attempts to eliminate net neutrality would violate our consumer rights and hurt the economy.

Reconsider the Stimulus

I am fed up with the structure of the stimulus plan.  Bailing out failed banks is foolish when tax credits for mortgage payments would cut the foreclosure rate and fix the toxic debt.  Why ignore this easy and super-efficient tactic?

If I could recommend a specific plan, it would be to provide tax credits for up to $30k/year in mortgage payments for primary residences for the next 2 years. This relatively cheap solution maintains free market capitalism with all the good incentives, and would dramatically reduce the foreclosure rate — particularly for those paying less than $30k/year for their mortgages. The plan could be extended or expanded if necessary, of course.

The result would be a reduction in mortgage defaults, an increase in the value of mortgage backed securities (MBSs), and a recovery of the financial strength of the lending institutions and pensions that hold MBSs. Essentially, this would repair the cause of the credit crisis rather than throwing money away at the symptoms and rewarding failure.

As soon as it is announced, assumptions about foreclosure rates would fall, raising the value of MBSs the same day.