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April 24, 2010

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Latest Posts from Economist's View


Amartya Sen: The Economist Manifesto

Posted: 24 Apr 2010 02:07 AM PDT

This is by Amartya Sen (several additional ideas are developed in the full essay, e.g. Smith's belief "that there are good ethical and practical grounds for encouraging motives other than self-interest"):

The economist manifesto, by Amartya Sen, Commentary, New Statesman: The 18th-century philosopher Adam Smith wasn't the free-market fundamentalist he is thought to have been. It's time we realized the relevance of his ideas to today's financial crisis.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith's first book, was published in early 1759. Smith, then a young professor at the University of Glasgow, had some understandable anxiety about the public reception of the book, which was based on his quite progressive lectures. On 12 April, Smith heard from his friend David Hume in London about how the book was doing. If Smith was, Hume told him, prepared for "the worst", then he must now be given "the melancholy news" that unfortunately "the public seem disposed to applaud [your book] extremely". ... After its immediate success, Moral Sentiments went into something of an eclipse from the beginning of the 19th century... The neglect of Moral Sentiments, which lasted through the 19th and 20th centuries, has had ... rather unfortunate effects. ...

... The nature of the present economic crisis illustrates very clearly the need for departures from unmitigated and unrestrained self-seeking in order to have a decent society. Even John McCain ... complained constantly in his campaign speeches of "the greed of Wall Street". Smith had a diagnosis for this: he called such promoters of excessive risk in search of profits "prodigals and projectors" - which, by the way, is quite a good description of many of the entrepreneurs of credit swap insurances and sub-prime mortgages in the recent past.
The term "projector" is used by Smith not in the neutral sense of "one who forms a project", but in the pejorative sense, apparently common from 1616..., meaning, among other things, "a promoter of bubble companies; a speculator; a cheat". Indeed, Jonathan Swift's unflattering portrait of "projectors" in Gulliver's Travels, published in 1726 (50 years before The Wealth of Nations), corresponds closely to what Smith seems to have had in mind. Relying entirely on an unregulated market economy can result in a dire predicament in which, as Smith writes, "a great part of the capital of the country" is "kept out of the hands which were most likely to make a profitable and advantageous use of it, and thrown into those which were most likely to waste and destroy it".
The spirited attempt to see Smith as an advocate of pure capitalism, with complete reliance on the market mechanism guided by pure profit motive, is altogether misconceived. ...
... One of the striking features of Smith's personality is his inclination to be as inclusive as possible, not only locally but also globally. He does acknowledge that we may have special obligations to our neighbors, but the reach of our concern must ultimately transcend that confinement. ... There is something quite remarkable in the ease with which Smith rides over barriers of class, gender, race and nationality to see human beings with a presumed equality of potential, and without any innate difference in talents and abilities.

He emphasized the class-related neglect of human talents through the lack of education and the unimaginative nature of the work that many members of the working classes are forced to do by economic circumstances. Class divisions, Smith argued, reflect this inequality of opportunity, rather than indicating differences of inborn talents and abilities. ...

The global reach of Smith's moral and political reasoning is quite a distinctive feature of his thought, but it is strongly supplemented by his belief that all human beings are born with similar potential and, most importantly for policymaking, that the inequalities in the world reflect socially generated, rather than natural, disparities.

There is a vision here that has a remarkably current ring. The continuing global relevance of Smith's ideas is quite astonishing, and it is a tribute to the power of his mind that this global vision is so forcefully presented by someone who, a quarter of a millennium ago, lived most of his life in considerable seclusion in a tiny coastal Scottish town. Smith's analyses and explorations are of critical importance for any society in the world in which issues of morals, politics and economics receive attention. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a global manifesto of profound significance to the interdependent world in which we live.

A Formula for Gaming the Ratings Agencies

Posted: 24 Apr 2010 01:17 AM PDT

It looks like it wasn't too hard to game the formula the ratings agencies used to evaluate bonds:

Rating Agency Data Aided Wall Street in Mortgage Deals, by Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story, NY Times: One of the mysteries of the financial crisis is how mortgage investments that turned out to be so bad earned credit ratings that made them look so good.
One answer is that Wall Street was given access to the formulas behind those magic ratings — and hired away some of the very people who had devised them.
In essence, banks started with the answers and worked backward, reverse-engineering top-flight ratings for investments that were, in some cases, riskier than ratings suggested...
The rating agencies made public computer models that were used to devise ratings to make the process less secretive. That way, banks and others issuing bonds — companies and states, for instance — wouldn't be surprised by a weak rating that could make it harder to sell the bonds or that would require them to offer a higher interest rate.
But by routinely sharing their models, the agencies in effect gave bankers the tools to tinker with their complicated mortgage deals until the models produced the desired ratings.
"There's a bit of a Catch-22 here, to be fair to the ratings agencies," said Dan Rosen, a member of Fitch's academic advisory board and the chief of R2 Financial Technologies in Toronto. "They have to explain how they do things, but that sometimes allowed people to game it." ...
But for Goldman and other banks, a road map to the right ratings wasn't enough. Analysts from the agencies were hired to help construct the deals. ... For example, a top concern of investors was that mortgage deals be underpinned by a variety of loans. Few wanted investments backed by loans from only one part of the country or handled by one mortgage servicer.
But some bankers would simply list a different servicer, even though the bonds were serviced by the same institution, and thus produce a better rating... Others relabeled parts of collateralized debt obligations in two ways so they would not be recognized by the computer models as being the same...
Banks were also able to get more favorable ratings by adding a small amount of commercial real estate loans to a mix of home loans, thus making the entire pool appear safer.
Sometimes agency employees caught and corrected such entries. Checking them all was difficult, however. "If you dug into it, if you had the time, you would see errors that magically favored the banker," said one former ratings executive... "If they had the time, they would fix it, but we were so overwhelmed."

There are two problems that need to be fixed. The first is the incentive that ratings agencies have to give high ratings, and the second is the gaming of the ratings formula described above

The first problem, the incentive to provide high ratings, arises because the firm paying to have the financial asset evaluated also picks the ratings agency. A reputation as a tough rater is not good for future business, so there is an incentive for the agency to provide the rating the company is looking for. There are a variety of ways to fix this, e.g. a third party selects the particular agency that will do the rating (so that low rating does not affect the probability of being selected in the future), but so far Congress has not proposed the needed reform.

The second problem, the gaming of the ratings formula, is also helped by having a third party select the ratings agency. When the company gets to select the ratings agency itself, it can craft a strategy to precisely take advantage of the formula used by that agency. But if each company has different strengths and weaknesses, and any company could be selected by the third party, it won't be as easy to know which particular game to play. If the wrong agency is chosen, the result could be a lower than expected rating. This doesn't stop all potential gaming, for example a common flaw across all ratings agencies can still be exploited, but it does make it generally harder to game the system.

I don't think ratings agencies were the root cause of the financial crisis, but they did make it much, much worse by allowing so many highly rated but actually toxic assets onto the balance sheets of financial institutions. There is a need to fix the ratings agency problem, but as noted above there has been no action from Congress on this issue. Perhaps the recent attention to the role the ratings agencies played in the crisis will change that, but I'm certainly not counting on it.

links for 2010-04-23

Posted: 23 Apr 2010 11:02 PM PDT

Will Chinese Revaluation Create American Jobs?

Posted: 23 Apr 2010 01:17 PM PDT

An argument that revaluation of the renminbi/renembi won't have much effect on jobs in the US:

Will Chinese revaluation create American jobs?, by Simon J Evenett and Joseph Francois, Vox EU: Many in the US are pushing China to revalue the renminbi. Will that create US jobs? Traditional Keynesian analysis associates higher exports and lower imports with more jobs, but today's world is more complex. Chinese parts and components feed into US firms' global competitiveness. This column says a dearer renembi would boost the competitiveness of US exports to China but reduce US competitiveness everywhere else. A revaluation may be the right policy for other reasons, but its impact on US jobs is far from clear.

Undervaluation of China's exchange rate is central to the debate on the right global policy mix in the aftermath of the economic crisis. Estimates of the undervaluation vary (from zero to 40%, Cheung, Chinn, and Fuji 2010) along with the reasons for focusing on the renembi:

  • The IMF expresses concern about persistent capital account imbalances and asymmetries between surplus and deficit countries, with concern that imbalances contributed to past global financial instability and could so in future. The IMF also calls an exchange rate appreciation "essential" for China's domestic macroeconomic situation (IMF 2010).
  • Senior Brazilian and Indian officials call upon their Chinese counterparts to revalue the renminbi to mitigate competitiveness concerns.
  • In the US, some call for revaluation as a means of redressing the bilateral imbalance with China and quickly creating US jobs.

In this column, we focus on the last issue; that is, whether it is realistic to expect a US jobs bonus to follow a Chinese revaluation. ...

With extensive global supply chains and outsourcing, a modest Chinese revaluation will ... raise costs for US firms and thus harm US competitiveness everywhere except in the Chinese market. This cost-raising effect mutes the current account improvement and, by our estimates, may result in 424,000 jobs losses in the US.

Findings such as these call for a rethink of aggressive foreign trade policy towards China, not just by the US but all those nations that supply and source parts and components to and from China as part of global supply chains.

And, rebuttal:

Estimating the effect of renminbi appreciation on US jobs: A comment on Francois' China result, by William R. Cline, Vox EU: Would appreciation of the renminbi actually destroy US jobs? This column discusses recent estimates that find that making intermediate inputs from China more expensive would hurt US global competitiveness. It argues that the direct effect of an improvement in the US trade balance would create far more jobs than might be lost to more expensive intermediate inputs.

In a recent study, Francois (2010) estimates that if China appreciated the renminbi by 10%, the US trade balance would rise by $100 billion but the number of US jobs would decline by 430,000. He uses a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model to make this calculation. He allows for below-full capacity and sticky wages so that it is possible for a change in the external balance to affect the level of employment. The paradoxical negative sign on employment as a consequence of the currency correction stems from the model specification that emphasizes induced losses of jobs throughout the economy that result as a consequence of the increase in costs of intermediate inputs imported from China and used in the US economy. Francois argues that the gain of employment in exports and import substitutes would be too small to offset the loss of jobs in the general economy; hence the net loss of 430,000 jobs. This column examines whether these results make sense. ...

This exercise suggests that something appears to have gone wrong in the Francois calculations. A reasonable approximation of his two opposing effects suggests that the 10% RMB appreciation would create 320,000 jobs from the US trade balance improvement and eliminate only 32,000 jobs from the induced effect of higher intermediate input costs to US manufacturing. ...

Even if the effect on US jobs is small, we should still care about the effect of China's currency policy on other developing countries. That's where China's currency policy is likely have the greatest effect in terms of shifting the location of manufacturing employment.

The effect of the policy on global imbalances and the potential impact on financial stability is also of concern. However, given the IMF's behavior toward countries that needed help in the past, it's hard to be critical of the desire to establish a reserve fund as insurance against having to turn to the IMF for help. That's why giving countries such as China a larger role in determining IMF policies could help with currency alignment problems. With a credible change in IMF policy, countries could get the help they need when troubles arise at a smaller cost than it takes to build up large reserve balances.

"10 Things You Don’t Know (or were misinformed) about the GS Case"

Posted: 23 Apr 2010 09:18 AM PDT

As usual, Barry Ritholtz is anything but wishy-washy:

10 Things You Don't Know (or were misinformed) About the GS Case, by Barry Ritholtz: I have been watching with a mixture of awe and dismay some of the really bad analysis, sloppy reporting, and just unsupported commentary about the GS case.

I put together this list based on what I know as a lawyer, a market observer, a quant and someone with contacts within the SEC. (Note: This represents my opinions, and no one else's).

Ten Things You Don't Know (or were misinformed by the Media) About the GS Case

1. This is a Weak Case:  Actually, no — its a very strong case. Based upon what is in the SEC complaint, parts of the case are a slam dunk. The claim Paulson & Co. were long $200 million dollars when they were actually short is a material misrepresentation — that's Rule 10b-5, and its a no brainer. The rest is gravy.

2. Robert Khuzami is a bad ass, no-nonsense, thorough, award winning Prosecutor:  This guy is the real deal — he busted terrorist rings, broke up the mob, took down security frauds. He is now the director of SEC enforcement. He is fearless, and was awarded the Attorney General's Exceptional Service Award (1996), for "extraordinary courage and voluntary risk of life in performing an act resulting in direct benefits to the Department of Justice or the nation."

When you prosecute mass murderers who use guns and bombs and threaten your life, and you kick their asses anyway, you ain't afraid of a group of billionaire bankers and their spreadsheets. ... My advice to anyone on Wall Street in his crosshairs: If you are indicted in a case by Khuzami, do yourself a big favor: Settle.

3. Goldman lost $90 million dollars, hence, they are innocent:  This is a civil, not a criminal case. Hence, any mens rea — guilty mind — does not matter. Did they or did they not violate the letter of the law? That is all that matters, regardless of what they were thinking — or their P&L.

4. ACA is a victim in this case: Not exactly, they were an active participant in ratings gaming. Look at the back and forth between Paulson's selection and ACAs management. 55 items in the synthetic CDO were added and removed. Why?

What ACA was doing was gaming the ratings agencies for their investment grade, Triple AAA ratings approval. Their expertise (if you can call it that) was knowing exactly how much junk they could include in the CDO to raise yield, yet still get investment grade from Moody's or S&P. They are hardly an innocent party in this.

5. This was only one incident: The Market sure as hell doesn't think so — it whacked 15% off of Goldman's Market cap. The aggressive SEC posture, the huge reaction from Goldie, and the short term market verdict all suggest there is more coming.

If it were only this one case, and there was nothing else worrisome behind it, GS would have written a check and quietly settled this. Their reaction (some say over-reaction) belies that theory. I suspect this is a tip of the iceberg, with lots more problematic synthetics behind it.

And not just at GS. I suspect the kids over at Deutsche bank, Merrill and Morgan are working furiously to review their various CDOs deals.

6. The Timing of this case is suspect. More coincidental, really. The Wells notice (notification from the SEC they intend to recommend enforcement) was over 8 months ago. The White House is not involved in the timing of the suit itself, it is a lower level staff decision.

7. This is a Complex Case:  Again, no. Parts of it are a little more sophisticated than others, but this is a simple case of fraud/misrepresentation. The most difficult part of this case is likely to turn on what is a "material omission." Paulson's role in selecting mortgages may or may not be material — that is an issue of fact for a jury to determine.  But complex? Not even close.

8. The case looks thin: What we see in the complaint is the bare minimum the prosecutor has to reveal to make their case. What you don't see are all the emails, depositions, interrogations, phone taps, etc. that the prosecutors know about and GS does not. During the litigation discovery process, this material slowly gets turned over (some is held back if there are other pending investigations into GS).

Going back to who the prosecutor in this case is: His legal reputation is he is very thorough, very precise, meticulous litigator. If he decided to recommend bringing a case against the biggest baddest investment house on Wall Street bank, I assure you he has a major arsenal of additional evidence you don't know about. Yet.

Typically, at a certain point the lawyers will tell their client that the evidence is overwhelming and advise settling. That is around 6-12 months after the suit has begun.

9. This case is Political: I keep hearing that phrase, due to the SEC party vote. It is incorrect. What that means is the case is not political, it means it has been politicized as a defense tactic. There is a huge difference between the two.

10. I'm not a lawyer, but . . . Then you should not be ignorantly commenting on securities litigation. Why don't you pour yourself a tall glass of STF up and go sit quietly in the corner.

I have $1,000 against any and all comers that GS does not win — they settle or lose in court. Any takers? My money is already in escrow — waiting for yours to join it. Winnings go to the charity of the winners choice.

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