Broken Bonds and World Economies

The current world is one in which lenders are actually paying large amounts of people to borrow money from them. On first glance this use of negative interest rates sounds like a terrific thing — debt caused by high interest rates remains a crushing force and notable source of human suffering. Upon closer look, however, the reason that lenders are actually paying people to borrow their money for a return is due to economic weakness and some pessimistic expectations that it’ll continue into the future. It is in some sense a major anticipation of a bleak future, and it’s related to what’s known as an inverted yield curve, a term that’s being used much more frequently in the news these days.

An inverted yield curve basically means that a long-term return (yield) on a bond is less than the short-term return. (This turns the supposed logic of the system on its head since we’d naturally expect someone who puts their money away for a longer period of time to be rewarded more.) It has long been a signal that a recession is coming, although the annual revision to the monthly jobs data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has historically tended to be a more reliable indicator of recession or economic weakness, and many news outlets don’t mention that historically an inverted yield curve has preceded a recession by about 22 months.

A recession is what many people rightfully understand as bad or at least not so good economic times, but the more technical definition is at least two consecutive quarters where the economy contracts rather than grows. More sensibly, a recession is a lack of demand (where demand is people’s ability to purchase goods and services), and the sensible governmental officials among us have for decades understood this and how to escape or mitigate recessions. It’s simple enough — if a recession is a lack of demand, demand must be boosted, such as through increasing government spending and/or cutting taxes. This creates more ability for people to make purchases, which has a positive effect on important economic indicators such as employment.

Accompanying the inverted yield curves of today is negative interest rates, something that has gone from — in the words of one commentator — a curiosity to a market mainstay. As even university business professors are admitting, this is a sign of something seriously wrong with the economies of the world. They are basically dysfunctional in some sense and seriously flawed to create such a structure. To keep economies moving along decently, interest rates now often have to be negative to keep enough money flowing in the system (in people’s pockets) and demand at somewhat acceptable levels. High interest rates are of course a problem for the burden they tend to cause the vast majority of people, but negative interest rates are an indication that the economies of the world have very fundamental problems.

The market structures of many world economies has been deliberately structured in ways that benefit the upper class at the expense of everyone else. The propaganda is regularly that inequality was caused by a natural outcome of the market, but that is the opposite of the truth. Policies such as rules on copyrights and patents aren’t the free market at work — they’re government intervention, aka structuring of the market. It is simple enough to prove in example after example how the markets were rigged to redistribute income upward and create unjust outcomes. Patents on goods such as prescription drugs increase their prices significantly, which takes too much money from the pockets of many people and redistributes it to the the upper class people who own stock in pharmaceutical companies. There is an immense barrier to entry for foreign doctors in the U.S. (one has to complete a U.S. residency program to practice medicine there), which pushes the wages of U.S. doctors to twice what doctors make in other countries and adds up to over $500 per family annually (while there is a shortage of doctors). Public pension funds in the U.S. have been structured to provide too many fees to high class managers. The list goes on — there are lots of ways that markets were deliberately structured against the benefit of the majority of the population.

What happens when too much money flows to the top is that the upper class — the now famous 1 percent — tend to spend much less of it as a percentage than the average person would. Saving money is to a significant extent a virtue, but what happens when the 1 percent (who spend less as a percentage of their income than working-class people) don’t spend all that money is that much of the money then sits idly, not purchasing goods or services and therefore not creating jobs. There is less demand in the economy this way, and the 1 percent benefiting from a market rigged in their favor means less money for everyone else to spend, and it of course creates the curious to mainstay phenomena such as negative interest rates.

It’s becoming more well-known all the time that the system isn’t right, and there are those that argue to reform it and those who argue that fundamental change is needed. The lack of real democracy in the economic system is an interesting note for countries such as the United States that supposedly value democracy so much. The economy is valuable to discuss in politics because it is fundamental and covers much of life, and its current indicators are revealing that it needs change that’s truly fundamental.

Advertisements

Restructuring Markets to Give People Better Lives

Markets are always somehow structured by government policy, and it matters significantly whether those markets are structured to benefit the wealthiest at the expense of everyone else.

The standard liberal approach to economic policy is to support government programs that counteract the inequities gen- erated by the market. Unfortunately, this narrow focus on government programs has effectively given the right free rein to restructure the market to redistribute an ever-larger share of income to the rich and very rich. While tax and transfer policies are important, if liberals had not ignored, or in many cases supported, the ways in which the right was restructuring the market, the existing levels of poverty and inequality that the government needs to address would be far lower.

In other words, liberals need to spend at least as much time on the rules that structure the market as they do on government programs that redress the problems it creates. This is because the idea that the extremes of wealth and poverty we see are inherent outcomes of the market is wrong. These extremes are the result of the way in which the market has been structured by the government.

Let’s start off with, perhaps, the most explicit example of this structuring: patent and copyright monopolies, which are entirely a government invention. There is nothing “free market” about Bill Gates’s enormous fortune. It’s because the government will arrest anyone who mass produces computers with Microsoft software without first paying the company licensing fees.

The Microsoft story is not unique. Huge sectors of our economy exist in their current form because of government-granted patent or copyright monopolies, including the pharmaceutical industry, the medical equipment industry, and the entertainment industry. These monopolies are not just long-fixed rules of the game. Government policy has made them both longer and stronger over the last almost four decades.

This government hand is seen clearly in the prescription drug industry, which has caused renewed outrage among the public in recent years. Spending on prescription drugs hovered near 0.4 percent of GDP, with no discernible trend from 1960 to 1980, when the Bayh-Dole Act was passed into law. It passed the Senate by a huge, bipartisan 91-4 margin and was signed into law by President Carter.

Bayh-Dole allowed private companies to obtain patent rights on research sponsored by the government. Prior to Bayh-Dole, the government retained control over research that it funded. The change was especially important for the pharmaceutical industry, because the government funds a large amount of bio-medical research through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies. Since Bayh-Dole became law, spending on prescription drugs has skyrocketed to more than $440 billion in 2018 (2.2 percent of GDP); more than five times the share of GDP it took up in 1980.

We have benefitted from increased private spending on research as a result of Bayh-Dole, but granting these monopolies was only one of many possible mechanisms to provide incentives for new innovations. This is simply not the free market; it is deliberate government policy.

The implications of this point are enormous. Another important example: We continually hear the refrain that workers need more education and skills to succeed in the modern economy, but the extent to which the economy rewards education and skills is also a matter of government policy, not the endogenous course of technology. If we envision a world with no patent and copyright protection, we would not have a slew of Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires nor NIH alumni becoming biotech tycoons.

Of course, it is important that we have incentives for innovation and creative work, but the point is that government policy can make those incentives greater or smaller. If we want more equality, and arguably a more efficient economy, we could make patents and copyrights shorter and weaker and have more direct funding to put research and creative work in the public domain immediately after it is produced. The Human Genome Project is one model, where results are posted nightly. If we did this with research into drug development, new drugs could be sold as generics, costing a tiny fraction of the price of patent-protected medicine.

[…]

Finance is another area where government policy structured the market to support a bloated industry, one that creates large fortunes for a small number of people. The most dramatic incident in this respect was the massive bailout for the industry after the financial crisis. The magic of the market would have sent Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and other financial behemoths into bankruptcy.

Instead, Congress and the Federal Reserve Board raced to supply the necessary loans and guarantees to keep the major banks afloat. (No, we did not risk a second Great Depression without the bailout. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation could have kept the normal flow of payments going. And we learned the secret to escaping a severe depression almost 80 years ago with the start of World War II. It’s called “spending money.”)

Beyond the bailout, government policy has structured finance to support an incredibly inefficient industry that unnecessarily makes some people very rich. Government policy literally rewrote the rules on bankruptcy to support mortgage-backed securities and derivative trading. Also worth noting is the fact that the financial industry would be dramatically downsized if financial transactions were not exempted from the sort of sales tax imposed on most other items in the economy. Again, it is clearly the rules that government puts in place that give so much money to the big winners in finance, not anything intrinsic to the market.

Investor John Bogle’s Legacy

Bogle steered many people away from the exploitation that is all too prevalent in the financial system by encouraging usage of index funds, and his legacy deserves praise for that.

Bogle’s great innovation was to minimize the cost of managing individual accounts. The key Vanguard asset is an index fund. It does minimal trading, it just tracks the market. Bogle argued, supported by much evidence, that the vast majority of investors are not going to beat the market. This means trading costs are simply a transfer to the folks running the account. Since most of us have people we would rather give money to than our stockbroker, we are better off just having an index fund.

And it does make a huge difference. Many of Vanguard’s index funds have costs of less than 0.1 percent annually. By contrast, many actively traded accounts will have fees and service charges in the range of 1–2 percent annually. This adds up over time. If you invested $1,000 that got a 6 percent nominal return, it would grow to $5,580 at Vanguard after 30 years. At a brokerage charging 1.0 percent in annua,l fees it would grow to $4,320. At a brokerage charging 2.0 percent annual fees, it would only grow to $3,240. And the gap is all money in the pockets of the financial industry.

While his low-cost index fund was a great innovation in finance, he did not personally get rich from it. He organized Vanguard as a cooperative. The people who invest with the company effectively own it.

The Failed Investments of Ivy League Schools and the Future of Hedge Funds

If the elite universities had simply invested in index funds that matched the stock market average instead of hedge funds, there would be much more money to grant to disadvantaged youth and to valuable research initiatives. Those universities have all that prestige and influence, and they even have a tax exempt status — and pound for pound they still did worse than a good average investor would have.

The New York Times highlighted the findings of a remarkable study last week. The study, by Markov Processes International, examined the 10-year returns of the endowments of the 8 Ivy League schools. The study found that all 8 endowments had lower returns than a simple mix of 60 percent stock index funds and 40 percent bonds. In some cases, the gap was substantial. Harvard set the mark with its annual returns lagging a simple 60-40 portfolio by more than 3.0 percentage points.

[…]

And, just to be clear, the Markov comparison was overly generous to the universities. Their benchmark comparison of a portfolio of 60 percent stock and 40 percent bonds is in fact far safer than the alternative investments they hold. If they actually equalized risk, the comparison portfolio might be 80 percent or even 90 stock, making the Ivy league endowment returns look even worse.

The Ivy League schools are not the only big institutional investors who are turning to alternative investments. State and local pension funds also play this game in a big way. The beneficiaries are more often private equity partners, but the basic story is the same: people who make themselves very rich by playing financial games. And, as with the hedge fund folks and the Ivies, they do not provide the promised returns.

And, there is considerably more money at stake with public pension funds. The cumulative size of the Ivy League endowments is just under $140 billion. While this is hardly chump change, state and local government pension funds have more than $8 trillion in assets. Most of this money is not in alternative investments, but if just 10 percent were placed with private equity funds and other alternatives, it would come to $800 billion.

There is much to dislike about the behavior of these financial actors. They routinely play games with the tax code and bankruptcy law to increase returns. It is standard practice for private equity funds to leverage their companies as much as possible to take advantage of the deduction for interest on corporate income taxes.[1]

They also strip valuable assets, such as the real estate on which stores and restaurants sit, so that they can book a quick profit while leaving the companies they control more vulnerable to a business downturn. Bankruptcy is a common tool, which they use to get out of not only interest payments on debt (presumably lenders knew the risks they were taking), but also pension and health care obligations to workers, and payments to suppliers.

[…]

In terms of inertia, people can point back to a period where the hedge funds did produce outsized returns, as did the private equity funds. People can think that the last decade or so is just an aberration, and that the good times will return.

While I can’t predict the future, there is a simple story that would imply the opposite. Both hedge funds and private equity funds prospered by finding seriously under-valued assets and then leveraging heavily to maximize their return. When there were few actors in the field, it was possible for some number of funds to make large returns this way. But now that there are many actors, with trillions of dollars to invest, seriously under-valued assets are few and far between.

This means that most hedge funds and private equity funds won’t be able to make outsized returns going forward. The high fees to the fund managers are a direct drain on returns that would otherwise more or less match the market average.

And just to be clear, we are talking about a 10-year period in which hedge funds have failed to match the market average. (It’s a similar story with private equity.) This is a long period, it’s not just a case of these funds having a bad year or two.

UK Firm Managing $1.2 Trillion in Assets to No Longer Invest in Companies With “Bad Record” on Climate Change

It’s a needed step similar to having the banks stopping their funding of oil pipelines. The rationale of the fund manager saying “money talks” is interesting.

Legal and General, which oversees more than $1.2 trillion in assets, said it would punish companies with a bad record on climate change and strip them of their funding.

Helena Morrissey, head of personal investing, said the firm will be “naming and shaming” companies that have failed to act on climate change next week, and pull investments from those companies.

“There comes a time when talk is over, and it’s time to vote with our feet. Money talks as they say,” Morrissey said at a conference in London on Monday.

She emphasised the need for the financial sector to work together, driving change through sustainable investments, and said that these investments can produce both “profit and purpose.”

Many individuals don’t invest in the market because of fear their money will be used for purposes they disagree with, Morrissey said. She suggested sustainable investing as a solution.