Saturday, August 31, 2013

College Grads and Jobs

There is a growing discussion about whether or not college graduates are generally prepared for the workforce.  This is a very interesting (and revealing) discussion.

This is not so much about GPA as it is about more fundamental problems -- attitude tops the list.  Far too many college graduates think that they have 'paid their dues' by attending college and collecting a degree.  Many seem to think that joining the work force is akin to joining a fraternity or sorority.  They seem disappointed that employers' have high work expectations and are in no hurry to provide massive benefits and a club-med work environment to a rookie employee.

What every employer wants is someone committed to work hard, to learn new skills, and to already possess basic writing and mathematics skills.  The vast majority of college graduates, measured against these expectations of business do not measure up. 

That's the sad truth about higher education.  We don't insist that our graduates have adequate writing and math skills to perform at a high level in the work force.  Those graduates who do have these skills, likely had them before they entered college.  They certainly don't gain or nurture these skills in college.

As for attitude, there is no more-forgiving environment than the modern university.  Students can argue a C grade into an A grade, if they understand how things work.  It is a simple task to manage one's GPA to end up with a 4.0 without serious study.  Meanwhile, skipping classes, scrimping on assignments, cheating, massive drug and alcohol abuse are all tolerated with little or no punishment.  Moving from the university environment to a work environment is a real culture shock for most college graduates in the modern era.

More and more the modern college and university is a great four year social experience that probably makes it more, not less, difficult to adjust to the realities of a market-based economy.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Nasdaq freeze

An anonymous correspondent explained last week's Nasdaq freeze thus.
The truth about what happened Aug 22 to the Nasdaq is that new limit-up/limit-down rules took effect in derivatives (exchange-traded products) listed at Arca at the same time that new options began trading marketwide that day. Since the market is full of complex, multi-leg trades, bad data propagated, affecting Goldman’s options-trading algorithms Tuesday, spawning hundreds of derivatives trading halts by VIX expirations Wednesday, and producing bad data in the consolidated tape by Thur, halting Nasdaq trading. So the real culprit was the SEC. But it’s bad form to say publicly that the regulator is responsible for jeopardizing the market.
I can't vouch for the story, or even for understanding it all. But I'm interested in several emerging stories that some trading pathologies are in part unintended consequences of SEC regulation. It's also not the first time I hear of financial market participants afraid to speak out and earn the disfavor of their regulator.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Macro-prudential policy

Source: Wall Street Journal
Not a fan. A Wall Street Journal Op-Ed. Link to WSJLink to pdf on my website. Director's cut follows:

Interest rates make the headlines, but the Federal Reserve's most important role is going to be the gargantuan systemic financial regulator. The really big question is whether and how the Fed will pursue a "macroprudential" policy. This is the emerging notion that central banks should intensively monitor the whole financial system and actively intervene in a broad range of markets toward a wide range of goals including financial and economic stability.

For example, the Fed is urged to spot developing "bubbles," "speculative excesses" and "overheated" markets, and then stop them—as Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin explained in a speech last month, by "restraining financial institutions from excessively extending credit." How? "Some of the significant regulatory tools for addressing asset bubbles—both those in widespread use and those on the frontier of regulatory thought—are capital regulation, liquidity regulation, regulation of margins and haircuts in securities funding transactions, and restrictions on credit underwriting."

This is not traditional regulation—stable, predictable rules that financial institutions live by to reduce the chance and severity of financial crises. It is active, discretionary micromanagement of the whole financial system. A firm's managers may follow all the rules but still be told how to conduct their business, whenever the Fed thinks the firm's customers are contributing to booms or busts the Fed disapproves of.

Macroprudential policy explicitly mixes the Fed's macroeconomic and financial stability roles. Interest-rate policy will be used to manipulate a broad array of asset prices, and financial regulation will be used to stimulate or cool the economy.

Foreign central banks are at it already, and a growing consensus among international policy types has left the Fed's relatively muted discussions behind. The sweeping agenda laid out in "Macroprudential Policy: An Organizing Framework," a March 2011 International Monetary Fund paper, is a case in point.

"The monitoring of systemic risks by macroprudential policy should be comprehensive," the IMF paper explains. "It should cover all potential sources of such risk no matter where they reside." Chillingly, policy "should be able to encompass all important providers of credit, liquidity, and maturity transformation regardless of their legal form, as well as individual systemically important institutions and financial market infrastructures."

What could possibly go wrong?

It's easy enough to point out that central banks don't have a great track record of diagnosing what they later considered "bubbles" and "systemic" risks. The Fed didn't act on the tech bubble of the 1990s or the real-estate bubble of the last decade. European bank regulators didn't notice that sovereign debts might pose a problem. Also, during the housing boom, regulators pressured banks to lend in depressed areas and to less creditworthy customers. That didn't pan out so well.

More deeply, the hard-won lessons of monetary policy apply with even greater force to the "macroprudential" project.

First lesson: Humility. Fine-tuning a poorly understood system goes quickly awry. The science of "bubble" management is, so far, imaginary.

Consider the idea that low interest rates spark asset-price "bubbles." Standard economics denies this connection; the level of interest rates and risk premiums are separate phenomena. Historically, risk premiums have been high in recessions, when interest rates have been low.

One needs to imagine a litany of "frictions," induced by institutional imperfections or current regulations, to connect the two. Fed Governor Jeremy Stein gave a thoughtful speech in February about how such frictions might work, but admitting our lack of real knowledge deeper than academic cocktail-party speculation.

Based on this much understanding, is the Fed ready to manage bubbles by varying interest rates? Mr. Stein thinks so, arguing that "in an environment of significant uncertainty . . . standards of evidence should be calibrated accordingly," i.e., down. The Fed, he says, "should not wait for "decisive proof of market overheating." He wants "greater overlap in the goals of monetary policy and regulation." The history of fine-tuning disagrees. And once the Fed understands market imperfections, perhaps it should work to remove them, not exploit them for price manipulation.

Second lesson: Follow rules. Monetary policy works a lot better when it is transparent, predictable and keeps to well-established traditions and limitations, than if the Fed shoots from the hip following the passions of the day. The economy does not react mechanically to policy but feeds on expectations and moral hazards. The Fed sneezed that bond buying might not last forever and markets swooned. As it comes to examine every market and targets every single asset price, the Fed can induce wild instability as markets guess the next anti-bubble decree.

Third lesson: Limited power is the price of political independence. Once the Fed manipulates prices and credit flows throughout the financial system, it will be whipsawed by interest groups and their representatives.

How will home builders react if the Fed decides their investments are bubbly and restricts their credit? How will bankers who followed all the rules feel when the Fed decrees their actions a "systemic" threat? How will financial entrepreneurs in the shadow banking system, peer-to-peer lending innovators, etc., feel when the Fed quashes their efforts to compete with banks?

Will not all of these people call their lobbyists, congressmen and administration contacts, and demand change? Will not people who profit from Fed interventions do the same? Willy-nilly financial dirigisme will inevitably lead to politicization, cronyism, a sclerotic, uncompetitive financial system and political oversight. Meanwhile, increasing moral hazard and a greater conflagration are sure to follow when the Fed misdiagnoses the next crisis.

The U.S. experienced a financial crisis just a few years ago. Doesn't the country need the Fed to stop another one? Yes, but not this way. Instead, we need a robust financial system that can tolerate "bubbles" without causing "systemic" crises. Sharply limiting run-prone, short-term debt is a much easier project than defining, diagnosing and stopping "bubbles." [For more, see this previous post] That project is a hopeless quest, dripping with the unanticipated consequences of all grandiose planning schemes.

In the current debate over who will be the next Fed chair, we should not look for a soothsayer who will clairvoyantly spot trouble brewing, and then direct the tiniest details of financial flows. Rather, we need a human who can foresee the future no better than you and I, who will build a robust financial system as a regulator with predictable and limited powers.

Bonus extras. A few of many delicious paragraphs cut for space.

Do not count on the Fed to voluntarily limit its bubble-popping, crisis management, or regulator discretion. Vast new powers come at an institutionally convenient moment. It’s increasingly obvious how powerless conventional monetary policy is. Four and a half percent of the population stopped working between 2008 and 2010, and the ratio has not budged since. GDP fell seven and a half percent below “potential,” in 2009 and is still six points below. Two trillion didn’t dent the thing, and surely another two wouldn’t make a difference either. How delicious, in the name of “systemic stability,” to just step in and tell the darn banks what to do, and be important again!

Ben Bernanke on macroprudential policy:
For example, a traditional microprudential examination might find that an individual financial institution is relying heavily on short-term wholesale funding, which may or may not induce a supervisory response. The implications of that finding for the stability of the broader system, however, cannot be determined without knowing what is happening outside that particular firm. Are other, similar financial firms also highly reliant on short-term funding? If so, are the sources of short-term funding heavily concentrated? Is the market for short-term funding likely to be stable in a period of high uncertainty, or is it vulnerable to runs? If short-term funding were suddenly to become unavailable, how would the borrowing firms react--for example, would they be forced into a fire sale of assets, which itself could be destabilizing, or would they cease to provide funding or critical services for other financial actors? Finally, what implications would these developments have for the broader economy? ...
As if in our lifetimes anyone will have precise answers to questions like these. In case you didn't get the warning,
... And the remedies that might emerge from such an analysis could well be more far-reaching and more structural in nature than simply requiring a few firms to modify their funding patterns.
A big thank you to my editor at WSJ, Howard Dickman, who did more than the usual pruning of prose and asking tough questions.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Taylor Jackson Hole Blog

John Taylor is blogging from Jackson Hole

Day 1: Skepticism of unconventional policy  Academics say quantitative easing does't do much. I happen to agree

Forward guidance Is "forward guidance" clarification of a rule, i.e. here is what we think we'll feel like doing in the future, or a precommitment? To the Bank of England and ECB, the former.

This looks like an interesting series to watch.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

An individual in a crowd: Gustave Le Bon quote

Friday, August 23, 2013


I will be running a MOOC (massively online) class this fall. Follow the link for information. The class will roughly parallel my PhD asset pricing class. We'll run through most of the "Asset Pricing" textbook. The videos are all shot, now I'm putting together quizzes... which accounts for some of my recent blog silence.

So, if you're interested in the theory of academic asset pricing, or you've wanted to work through the book, here's your chance. It's designed for PhD students, aspiring PhD students, advanced MBAs, financial engineers, people who are working in industry who might like to study PhD level finance but don't have the time, and so on. It's not easy, we start with a stochastic calculus review!  But I'm emphasizing the intuition, what the models mean, why we use them, and so on, over the mathematics.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Nasdaq Flap

The Nasdaq halted trading today and was down for a couple of hours.  Listening to the financial media (CNBC, Larry Kudlow, etc.), you would have thought a great crime had occurred.  99 percent of the investing public had no idea and could care less, me included.

What serious investor could possibly be harmed by a two hour shutdown of the Nasdaq?  Are these pundits serious?  If there was ever an 'inside baseball' issue, this is it.  Only manic traders and hedge funds could possibly care one way or another about the Nasdaq shutdown.

No portfolio of any serious investor could possibly be damaged by a temporary shutdown of a stock exchange.  This is a ridiculous tempest in a teapot.

Obama and Higher Education

Just what we need, the Obama tenacles reaching into higher education.  In typical style, Obama points to a problem -- the high cost of higher education -- and proposes a solution that has nothing to do with the problem and actually will likely make the problem far, far worse than it is now.  This has been the pattern with the economic rescue plan, with the 'affordable' health care act, with wind and solar initiatives, and on and on.  Every problem that Obama has inherited has become a much bigger problem under his leadership.

What is wrong with higher education?  Mainly the government, as in most other things.  Federal funding for research grants and student loans has made higher ed less interested in scholarly pursuits and more interested in the pursuit of federal largesse.  Students are borrowing huge amounts of money to maintain a college lifestyle that for prior generations was simply unavailable.  Who could spend that kind of money on beer and fitness centers in the good old days?

Education itself doesn't cost much to provide; less today than a generation ago thanks to the advent of the digital age.  But 'higher education' is no longer in reach for middle income Americans unless they are willing to bankrupt themselves and their children to enrich university bureacrats and aging academics (and they are aging thanks to tenure).  There is a growing gap between 'education' and 'higher education.'  More and more these two concepts are separate and distinct -- perhaps, incompatible.

Obama is going to measure the inputs to higher education to figure out what the outputs are -- a completely absurd approach to measuring the effectiveness of an education program.  Why not measure the difference between a student's life chances when entering the institution with the life chances when leaving the institution.  The 'elite' colleges would not fair very well using a measure like that.  But, if only inputs are measured -- the Obama plan -- then the elite colleges will do very well indeed (that's why they are called 'elite'), but the community colleges, who fare much better using my measure will not do well under the Obama plan.

Once more, under Obama, the rich get richer and the poor and middle class will be left holding the bag.

Media Misleads Once Again

Reuters has a story today about the jobless claims number that is completely absurd.  According to Reuters, "...then new claims... rose...but...gave a positive signal for hiring during the month."  This conclusion is based upon absolutely nothing. 

What the data, in fact, shows is that jobless claims rose last week and rose more than the market expected -- not good news at all.  Worse, the numbers are barely (five percent on average) lower than the numbers in the early part of the year.  Given that revisions are typically well above five percent, a drop of five percent is statistically irrelevant.

The real truth is that the economy is not producing enough jobs and the few that are produced are mostly part-time, low wage jobs.  Not surprising, given the Obama economic program, which guarantees economic stagnation as far as the eye can see.

The media has made a habit of consistently distorting the truth about the American economy in their cheerleading effort to defend failed policy.

Read David Stockman

A new book by David Stockman, "The Great Deformation," challenges the current orthodoxy of financial market regulation.

This book is a great read.  Don't expect a calm and collected analysis.  This book is definitely not calm and collected.  Stockman takes on all comers and his style is blatantly polemical.  He aims his brickbats at the right and the left as he excoriates the rise of indebtedness, public and private, since the 1960s.

Don't think conservatives get a free ride in this book.  They don't.  Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman are targets of Stockman.  Indeed, Stockman sees Reagan and Friedman as major culprits in the incredible growth of America's financial liabilities.  Some of this is, no doubt, sour grapes for his well-publicized split with the Reagan Administration in the 1980s when Stockman was Director of the Bureau of the Budget.  He resigned that post in a feud with the Reagan folks over their unwillingness to support spending reductions to accompany the famous Reagan tax cuts.

But, the heart and soul of Stockman's book is his interpretation of the 2008 financial crisis.  Here, Stockman makes a real contribution to what has been an embarassingly simple-minded consensus view of government policy.   Stockman argues that the federal government, including the Fed, should not have intervened to save AIG, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.  According to Stockman, saving these firms was the main purpose of the hastily-assembled $ 780 billion bailout backage, known as TARP.

Stockman argues that the financial system and the American economy was not threatened by the collapse of AIG, MS, and GS, as was argued at the time.  He shows, by analyzing the balance sheets of these firms, that the American economy could have easily survived the collapse of these firms.  Few, today, agree with that, but Stockman makes his case convincingly.

In essence, Stockman is challenging the "too big to fail" crowd that dominates government policy today and that dominated government policy in the Bush Administration in 2008.  By challenging a hackneyed consensus devoid of analytical underpinning, Stockman has done a great service, writing this book.  He's right.  Read his book.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Time to Buy Emerging Markets?

Emerging market stocks have been hammered this year as the US and Europe have enjoyed one of the best stock markets in history.  Why?  What happened to the argument that slow (GDP) growth in the developed world and much higher (GDP) growth in the emerging economies argued in favor of a heavy commitment of investment funds to emerging market?

As it turns out, emerging market economic growth has, indeed, been much, much higher than economic growth in the Western nations.  So, why did their stock markets put in such a pitiful performance thus far this year?  A similar pattern occurred in US history when foreign investors, mostly British and Russian investors, lost bucketloads of money betting on growth in the US economy in the 19th century.  This is not the first time that dramatic GDP growth failed to help investors in public stocks.

Many of the most vibrant companies in the countries that fall into the 'emerging market' category are not public companies.  They are privately owned companies that aren't included in any of the emerging market portfolios that you and I can own.  Instead, roughly 40 percent of the capitalization of 'emerging market' ETFs are typically government-owned or heavily regulated companies, such as the local telephone company or local utility company.  Are these good investment bets in a third world political environment?

If emerging markets boom, you are much more likely to make money owning Coca Cola stock than the stock in the local telephone company in Egypt or Venezuela.  The inherent logic behind huge investments in emerging markets never made any sense in the first place.

That said, it may now be time to buy the emerging markets, since everyone seems to be abandoning them in a rush.  India's stock market lost four percent of its value in a single day at the end of last week. 

It may be time to take another look at emerging markets, now that their staunchest supporters seem to be running for the exits.  But, one should be cautious.  Emerging markets involve stocks that have fundamentally different characteristics and corporate governance rules than Western investors may be accustomed to.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

European Recovery -- Seriously?

The news services are abuzz this morning with the "news" that Europe has finally turned the corner with an economic rebound in the 2nd quarter of this year.  Underneath the headline is the dismal number of an annualized 0.3 percent estimated growth rate for the 2nd quarter.  Whoop-to-doo!  This is a recovery.  This number is not significantly different from a negative number, given the pattern of revisions.  Meanwhile, unemployment in Europe remains above 12 percent and sovereign debt is soaring on to new highs.

There are further stories that Greece is on the road to recovery.  What are their current statistics?  GDP only dropped an annualized four percent in the first half of this year.  Wow!  That's really something to write home about.  Combined with almost 28 percent unemployment overall and nearly 70 percent unemployment among youth, it sure sounds like Greece is just humming along.

Wonder what the statistics would show if Europe was doing poorly?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Some Good News for the US

Steve Moore's column today in the Wall Street Journal is worth a read.  The sequester, according to Moore, has worked.  Total federal spending has been slowed, even reversed, in the past two years, according to Moore.  This is, indeed, good news.  Let's hope it continues.

Moore notes that all it takes to continue to hold federal spending in line is to not undo the budget deal that led to the sequester in the first place.  It will be interesting to see if politicians can stick with the plan by doing nothing.

Update on Greece

Now, after five years of European Union policies, how do things look in Greece.  The headline today on Yahoo looks encouraging: "Greece Beats January-July Budget Target."  In fact, Greece did not do any such thing.  More bailout funds from the EU, though, made it look that way. 

Here is what the EU has done for Greece:  GDP today is 20 percent lower than it was in 2008, when the EU bailouts began.  Unemployment is at a record pace, pushing toward 30 percent.  These numbers are not very different from where the US was in 1933 at the lowest point of the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, civil order is breaking down in Greece.  Crime is rife and the only things growing are the nation's indebtedness and the black market.   Political discourse is moving to the extremes as the center breaks down.

Finally the debt to GDP ratio is rapidly climbing to 200 percent.  The EU has made a small problem into a large problem and has obligated the entire European continent to back a bailout that has absolutely no hope of success.  Politicians hard at work again!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Changing Face of the American Workplace

The US economy was once the envy of the world.  From 1865 to 1965, the US economy grew faster than any large economy in the world.  The great American middle class came into prominence during this period and American income and wealth had no rivals anywhere in the world.  For most of these years, there was no Federal Reserve or central bank in the United States, though central banks had a long history in every other large country in the world.  For most of these years, there was little business regulation and no income tax.  The Federal Reserve and the Federal income tax came into existence in 1913, coming on the heels of the best 60 years of economic growth in the history of the US.

Not that everything was rosy.  Financial panics and the great depression occurred during this 100 year span.  Unemployment rose and fell.  Markets rose and fell.  The dynamics of American growth were chaotic, though powerful.  But, with all of the chaos and panic, the American pie grew at an unprecedented rate, matched, in world history, only by modern China.  The standard of living of the average American grew at the fastest pace ever.  Unemployment levels above 6 percent were considered a sign of a 'recession.'  The current 7.6 percent unemployment rate would have been seen as an extreme economic slowdown  (not an economic recovery).

Since 1965, the American economy has grown at a dramatically slower pace.  The American middle class has consistently struggled, except for the 20 year period that followed the inauguration of Ronald Reagan.   The financial position of the average American is today untenable, if proper account is taken of the federal, state and local government debt.  America is headed for financial disaster and the American middle class is sitting in the passenger seat.

In the driver's seat is the new political class.  The fastest growing demographic in America is the American government or quasi-government employee.  On the defensive is the American private economy.  Besieged by so much regulation that most companies are not even aware of most of the regulatory burden that they face, small business is no longer the engine of American economic progress -- government is where the real growth is taking place.  Government employment has been the largest source of employment growth in the US economy since 1965.

Unfortunately, government doesn't produce anything but problems for the private sector.  Most government employees (including public school teachers, university professors, and bureaucrats of all stripes) view the private sector with suspicion.  They see private businesses as quasi-criminal enterprises bent on polluting the environment and exploiting their employees.  This culture dominates the media characterizations, not only in the daily news, but in television series and movies.

So what does all of this mean for the workplace in modern America?  Private businesses realize that they are the target of the political classes and they make adjustments.  They know that if they hire full time employees, their regulatory burden goes up.  They know if they hire 50 employees or more, they fall into certain categories that must face significantly higher costs of complying with the modern legal environment that has been imposed upon them.

So, what happens?  Small business reacts by hiring as few full time employees as possible.  Part time workers are easier to fire and are not subject to Obamacare and other regulatory burdens.  Many companies keep their companies deliberately smaller to avoid certain employment trigger levels that put companies under a much more severe regulatory regime.  Employees that are 'protected' under current laws -- minorities, women, persons over the age of 55 -- involve far greater expense to a private business than other employees.  So, fewer of them are hired.  Protecting an employee with legislation simply means making that employee more expensive to the employer.   Employers aren't stupid (a common assumption of the political class that supports these 'protections).'

So, today, the workplace is a very rigid bureaucratic environment.  The blizzard of paperwork that employees face is nothing compared to the blizzard of paperwork that companies face.  There is more concern with what might be said at the water cooler than what the work output might be.  Private email communications are now perused for politically incorrect comments.  Free speech doesn't apply to the workplace.  In financial service companies, mistakes or errors are seen as criminal (the 'whale' episode at JP Morgan is a modern instance).  Gone are the old processes of free people making free decisions in free markets.  Now you have to worry about whether Barney Frank or Elizabeth Warren is looking over your shoulder.

All of this means that America is in a period of relative economic decline.  The middle class will remain an endangered species as the political class bent on the destruction of the middle class continues to claim that all they care about is the middle class.  Gradually, less and less of America is based upon free market economics and more and more is driven by un-elected elites, who have spent most of their lives either in politics or academia.  The workplace is now a bureaucratic environment with rigid rules and little or no room for initiative and energy.  The dull and the routine is more and more a description of the modern American workplace.

The workplace is also becoming more and more a land of part-timers.  Businesses in America, like their European counterparts, are increasingly reluctant to hire people that, by law, they cannot fire.  Workers now have protections and guarantees that mean, even if workers received no wages at all, they are still very, very costly to business.  Increasingly, wages are a smaller and smaller fraction of the costs to an employer of hiring an employee.  The result is a much reduced take home pay and more and more of worker income is siphoned off to worthy causes, favored by elite bureacrats in the Elizabeth Warren mold -- bureacrats with virtually no life experiences similar to that of ordinary American workers.

A hundred years ago, a young employee could take a job at a reduced wage or no wage at all as a way of entering the work force and learning a trade.  Minimum wage laws, promoted by big unions, are designed to block such work force entrants and preserve a monopoly for existing workers.  These laws are effective and help destroy a large part of the Horatio Alger culture that once was.  The elite that make these rules don't face such problems since they, by and large, go to elite colleges and universities and find that entry into the work force doesn't involve wage and salaries anywhere near the minimum wage.

It is no accident that college students are in the forefront of the call for a "living wage."  A living wage virtually guarantees that the college students will not face future competition from folks whose start in life is not as pampered as their own.  The poor simply can't get through the front door, since their skill set rarely justifies a "living wage."  Meanwhile, those who support the "living wage' think of themselves as bastions of morality, while crushing the hopes of folks who would simply like to have an opportunity to move up in the world through their own work efforts.

Great wealth creates idle time for the wealthy.  It is no accident that the wealthiest US politicians are also those who most vociferously support the agenda of ever bigger government.  Why not?  It will never effect them.  As fewer and fewer Americans derive their living from the free market, the free market has fewer and fewer defenders.  The wealthy and the new bureacrats are the power brokers in modern America.  Their contempt for the American middle class and for free enterprise is on display every day in our media and in their political program.  It has changed the face of America and the American workplace.  Meanwhile, folks like Obama ponder why part-time workers are replacing full time workers in America.  He blames that on greedy businesses.  But, the reality is that Obama policies are one of the key reasons that full time workers are becoming an endangered species.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Litterman on carbon finance

I just read a very nice article by Bob Litterman in CATO's "Regulation" on the finance of carbon taxes. It includes a review of some of the recent academic calculations.

(Related, Ronald Bailey at takes on the Administration's latest cost of carbon estimates, and reviews Robert Pindyk's recent NBER working paper "What do the models tell us?" also covered by Bob.)

Like just about every economist, Bob favors a carbon tax or tradeable emissions right over the vast network of regulatory controls on which we are now embarked. I might add that getting rid of the large subsidies for carbon emissions implicit in many country's policies would help before we start taxing.

But let's get to business, how big should the carbon tax be?

It's a hard question. The economic costs of warming are hard to assess. Moreover, they come in a century or more, when presumably our descendants are much wealthier than we are, and hopefully have technologies we have not imagined. Or civilization will have collapsed so they have a lot more pressing problems. How do we trade off costs now and uncertain benefits in a century?  What discount rate should we use?

Bob has good points on this question that I hadn't thought of, and are good applications of finance thinking (as you'd expect from Bob) which is sort of my excuse for covering it here.

Carbon beta

First, climate costs are likely to have a strong negative beta, and thus climate investments have a large positive beta.

Here's the thinking. The rate of economic growth over the next century is a major uncertainty. Will the historically unprecedented growth of the post WWII era continue, say 2% real per capita? Or does our current scleroscis settle us into 1% growth? Or are the end-of-growth prognosticators right? When you compound over a century, these add up to truly major uncertainties over how wealthy our descendants will in fact be.

But they also add up to truly major uncertainties over how much carbon we will emit in the meantime. If growth stops, carbon emissions stop too. Yes, it's not one for one (a perfect correlation). Technology choice matters; everything from windmills to deregulated nuclear power to driverless cars and trucks makes a difference. But there is a strong positive correlation.

So, if carbon is a bigger problem, our descendants are more likely to have lots of money, technology, and resources to deal with it. If they are poorer, then carbon is likely to be a lesser problem. In finance language, projects with a strong positive beta require a much higher expected return, and a high equity-like discount rate. This consideration drives us to tax less now.


But, Bob goes on, how do you price catastrophe risk? Though the central tendency of the present value of economic costs of carbon emissions are surprisingly low -- even moving all of Florida up to the Georgia border is only money after all, and you have a century to do it -- there is a chance that things are much worse.

We're all thinking about "black swans" and "tail risk" these days. Shouldn't we pay a bit more carbon tax now, though the best guess is that it's not a worthwhile investment, as insurance against such tail risks?

The problem is,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Robert Pindyck... argues that too many non-GHG-related low-probability, high-damage scenarios exist. He writes, “Readers can use their imaginations to come up with their own examples, but a few that come to my mind include a nuclear or biological terrorist attack (far worse than 9/11), a highly contagious ‘mega-virus’ that spreads uncontrollably, or an environmental catastrophe unrelated to GHG emissions and climate change.” He concludes that society cannot afford to respond strongly to all those threats.
Indeed. (Fun for commenters: come up with more. Asteroid impact. Banking system collapse. Massive crop failure from virus or bacteria. Antibiotic resistsance....) If we treat all threats this way, we spend 10 times GDP.

It's a interesting case of framing bias. If you worry only about climate, it seems sensible to pay a pretty stiff price to avoid a small uncertain catastrophe. But if you worry about small uncertain catastrophes, you spend all you have and more, and it's not clear that climate is the highest on the list.

This thought fits nicely into the modern research on "ambiguity" and "robust control" (for example see Lars Hansen and Tom Sargent's webpages for a portal). This line of thought often argues that you should pay a lot of attention to unlikely catastrophes, especially when it's hard to quantify their risks. And Pindyck's point (as I see it) gets to the central problem with that line of thought: you have to draw an arbitrary circle about which unlikely events you pay a lot of attention to, and which ones you pay no attention to.

If you worry about anvils falling from the sky, maybe you miss the piano falling from the sky. And if you worry about anvils, pianos, dynamite, and so on,  you just don't get out of bed in the morning.

It's also related to the tendency people have, in Kahneman and Tversky's famous analysis, to overweight some small probability events -- nuclear reactors, airplane crashes, terrorism -- and to ignore others -- coal dust, cab crashes on the way to the airport.

The same observation: One of my skepticisims of the current almost exclusive focus on carbon and global warming in the environmental community is that we may miss the real environmental problems. Most of the world breathes awful air and drinks awful water. Climate change is not even on their list of environmental problems. And the environmental effects of social or economic collapse or another war might dwarf warming.

All in all, I'm not convinced our political system is ready to do a very good job of prioritizing outsize expenditures on small ambiguous-probability events.

Alternative investments

Once we reduce things to money, which is what economists do, a bunch of unconventional and unsettling analysis opens up. (This isn't in Bob's piece, mea culpa only.) The economic case for cutting carbon emissions now is that by paying a bit now, we will make our descendants better off in 100 years.

Once stated this way, carbon taxes are just an investment. But is investing in carbon reduction the most profitable way to transfer wealth to our descendants?  Instead of spending say $1 trillion in carbon abatement costs, why don't we invest $1 trillion in stocks? If the 100 year rate of return on stocks is higher than the 100 year rate of return on carbon abatement -- likely -- they come out better off. With a gazillion dollars or so, they can rebuild Manhattan on higher ground. They can afford whatever carbon capture or geoengineering technology crops up to clean up our messes.

Put that way, though, the first question might be why we are leaving our descendants with $18 trillion of Federal debt, and a bill for $70 trillion or so of unfunded liabilities. Once we reduce the question to investment now to benefit the economic well-being of our descendants, it's not at all clear that investing in carbon reductions is the best place to put our money.

The greatest thing we can invest in for the economic well being of our 100 year descendants is strong, decades-long  economic growth. Needless to say, the overall economic policy mix and especially the environmental policy mix is not pointing in that direction. A lot of environmental policy actively discourages growth.


Bob points out one good case against this analysis. It is possible that carbon abatement is a very special investment with very special state-contingent rate of return.
There is a very small chance that climate effects may not just reduce subsequent growth, but may cause it to plummet catastrophically. Such scenarios require positive feedbacks; for example, warmer temperatures cause the release of methane from the currently permanently frozen tundra, triggering catastrophic warming impacts beyond the ability of future generations to adapt. How should society today rationally price the possibility of such unknown, very-low-probability outcomes in the future?
In my investment context, reducing carbon emissions now has a very special property that alternative ways of investing money don't have -- it turns off this low probability but huge negative-return scenario.

That's a good point -- but it means the entire case for a strong carbon tax now relies on how likely such extreme nonlinearity is.

Economics after all? 

I suspect this sort of analysis will be profoundly unsettling -- how about infuriating -- to people who worry about carbon and other greenhouse gases. It's not just about money, I suspect they might say, it's not about giving our descendants wealth; it's about giving them a healthy planet. The economist might say, so what's that worth to you? Some finite number, no? Sure, we inundate Florida, but our descendants are $100 trillion richer, so they can afford to rebuild Florida on higher ground. Problem solved with $90 trillion extra in the bank. Somehow I doubt Greenpeace will go back to saving whales even if that argument were decisively proved.

As much of a died-in-the wool economist as I am, I have to admit some sympathy. (Or maybe "ambiguity?") Consider species extinction. Our short time on Earth coincides with a greater mass extinction than the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs. And the extinction rate is not abating.

Now, I can't point to an economic cost, and people who hold up development projects to save some small species have a hard time doing the same. The best arguments I have read (admittedly not an expert) is of the sort that there might be some snake in the rain forest has a medically useful venom. More generally, "biodiversity is good." These is again, the  small probability of huge but unquantifiable benefit option-value argument.

Really, is that the best we can do when staring at the K-T boundary, and realizing that future alien geologists will see a more dramatic layer, with far more interesting chemistry, where we lived? The feeling nags that it can't be a good thing for us to move on from the dinosaurs to see if we can beat the Permian-Triassic extinction in the spectacular-geology department. (Global warming is a is a tiny component of extinction -- we got megafauna with spears.) I welcome suggestions on how to voice this view in economic terms.

Perhaps systematically worrying about small and unquantifiable probability events isn't such a bad thing. But paying attention to vague unquantifiable worries leads to a lot of stupidity, like banning genetically modified crops.

Back to carbon taxes

With all that in mind, where do I stand on carbon taxes? Usually, when something is this muddy, it means we're asking the wrong question, and I think that's the case here.

I think we're way too focused on the amount of the tax and way too unfocused on its operation.

I think we should be talking about a carbon tax in place of  all the rest of our rather calamitous energy policy. Subsidies for windmills, for rich people to buy Tesla cars, HOV lanes, fuel economy standards, subsidies for photovoltaic roofs, tax credit for energy efficient appliances, certified buildings, ethanol, high speed trains, low speed trains, and on and on. Throw out the whole department of energy, the EPA's ability to regulate climate emissions, and every other nagging energy regulation, and give us a carbon tax instead (and real-time tolling to eliminate congestion). Set the level of the carbon tax at the cost of all this other junk, and achieve better results at a fraction of the cost.

The first-order issue is the monstrous inefficiency and increasing corruption of our energy regulation. Get the clean carbon-tax system in place, then we can talk about the level of the tax. In that world, a tax rate twice or even three times too high will have much fewer distortions than what we have now, and will produce both better growth and a cleaner environment.

Alas, as with the consumption tax and any other perfectly obvious policy, we can't seem to trust that the deal will be kept.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Rajan to run the central bank of India

My colleague Raghu Rajan has just been appointed governor of the central bank of India. See Financial Times and Reuters. Congratulations Raghu!

Let me add two little notes to the songs of praise for this decision.

Traditionally, academic central bank governors come from the world of monetary policy, people who think about interest rates and inflation and all that. Raghu comes from the academic world that studies finance and banking. Look at his vita and you'll see great article after great article thinking about how banks work.

Just in time. Central banks are now all scrambling to understand banking and financial markets, regulating the financial system, avoiding crises, and so on. This is their central new task. (Or you might say, a return to their age-old task after a short interlude.) You can't ask for a person on the planet who has thought more clearly and productively about these issues.

His popular book “Saving capitalism from the capitalists” with Luigi Zingales is also revealing. Yes, he sees how over regulation and corruption are at the heart of India’s problems (and many of our own). But he also sees the strong political forces that keep the dysfunctional system in place. If anyone can understand and resist the political pressures that central bank governors face, it will be Raghu. And he won’t be tempted to think that any monetary magic or financial dirigisme from a central bank can fix all of India's problems.

He is also about the most polite person I know, while never shying away from standing for what's right. That means he will be far more effective than typical bull-in-a-china-shop academics like myself would ever be in steering a ponderous bureacracy.

Good luck, Raghu. I think you'll need it.

Reuters already expreses the view that it's too bad he's out of the running for the US Fed job.

The Republic of Paperwork

Mark Steyn, while writing on other matters, came up with this gem:
40 percent of Americans perform minimal-skilled service jobs about to be rendered obsolete by technology, and almost as many pass their productive years shuffling paperwork from one corner of the land to another in various “professional services” jobs that exist to in order to facilitate compliance with the unceasing demands of the microregulatory state. The daily Obamacare fixes — which are nothing to do with “health” “care” but only with navigating an impenetrable bureaucracy — are the perfect embodiment of the Republic of Paperwork.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Are We There Yet?

The following is from yahoo Finance:
A study from Spectrem Group asked wealthy and affluent investors "what do you wish you had done differently in the crisis."
For the top earners-those making $750,000 or more-the No. 1 answer was "saved more." Ranked second was "done more research about finances on my own" and then "not taken on as much debt."
Their regrets have turned into real action-with possible impacts on the broader economy. Since the financial crisis, the wealthy have become the nation's top cash hoarders, filling up deposit accounts and money markets at a rapid clip.

Well, at least somewhere someone is being prudent.
That was something I have been shouting about from the rooftop for last many months.

George C. asked the following question:
Hi BB,
I have been reading a lot about cycles and they seem to be less and less reliable these days. What is the margin of error ? For example you mentioned a cycle top of July 25. We just pounded out a new high on August first. so what its the "zone" of this cycle top ? I also do not understand why shorting is not a good idea if one truly believes in the cycle, assuming there is some margin of error that could trigger a stop on short position. Otherwise we have to rely on broken support levels, moving average  crossovers etc.....
In this market I am losing faith in information. For the past several months I have read many credible articles and blogs, including yours that speak of extreme sentiment, record high margin debt. low levels of mutual fund cash etc...yet there is not even a moderate correction. I know things take time but I am wondering if FED printing can push this for many more years. Simply amazing !
Love your work and patience, just venting. I am afraid to go long for sure but have been for quite some time. 

And my answer was:

Hi George,
As you might have seen, I work from the side of being ultra cautious.
So I will take trade when everything that I watch line up.
When the trend is up and cycle is up, it is safe to go long. But when the trend is up but cycles have topped, I would stay away from taking any bets. Does not mean we should short. Because, we also need price confirmation.
As for now, the cycles have topped, but we have no sell signal. Therefore no going short. Going long is out of question. This is the time when greed overtakes retail and Mom&Pop gets in equity.
My up-side target for SPX is in the range of 1720-30 and we are not there yet. Last May, we went short but the indices kept going higher till everyone threw up their hands.
We are coming to that inflection point. No other market in the world is following the US market. So the US markets cannot just keep going on for ever. You might be interested to read the following:
So just hang on. Keep lots of cash on hand. Opportunities are coming soon. Gold & Silver will bottom in a month after another sell off. We will short bonds big time by Fall. Short equities big time.
Technical analysis alone will not get us anywhere in these markets. But patience will.

Hope that helps.

In my years of writing finance blog, I have actually come across only a handful of investors who are willing to wait and not be greedy. I had one subscriber, whom I shall call "The Troll". That guy would pay money for subscription and then do just the opposite of what I would say. I would scratch my head in bewilderment. For e.g. during the last correction, we closed our short position and went long XIV. After few days, the correction resumed and XIV was hit hard. I asked everyone to hang on tight with their XIV. But this A**hole sent mocking email, saying how smart he was and how he did not follow my advice and did the opposite by going long UVXY. Well, after a month, XIV is over 25% up!

And he is not alone. I see folks always trying to score on every turn, going in and out of positions almost every day. And I shake my head in disbelief.
Have patience folks. Don't listen too much to those talking heads in TV. They get paid to say stuff and sell snake oil. Only you can save your money. Wall St. wants to get their hands on your savings. They can do so when you are greedy.

I do not have to prove anything to anybody. I have made calls on record over the years and I think barring few and some in the early years, when I was still perfecting my system, most have come correct. I have a full time job which keeps me busy. I do the Newsletter and Blog as a hobby and I can do without A**holes. My record on gold and silver is close to 100% and I pray I am able to maintain that. But I am not trying to beat up my drum. All I am trying to say is that, whatever is your method, whomsoever you follow, you must have patience and not chase every shiny thing that catches your eye.

Stay Focused and stay nimble.

Good luck trading / investing everyone.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Another "European" Jobs Number

162,000 new jobs in July.  Not only is that an absurdly low number for an economy as large as the US, the job numbers for both May and June were revised downward as well.  No one is much interested in hiring anyone.  That's the main message of this report.

A subtext is reflected in the unemployment rate, which fell to 7.4 %.  How, if a pitifully low number of jobs are created each month, is the unemployment rate falling?  When people give up looking, they aren't counted anymore and more than 6 million have given up looking. Unemployment could get down to 1 percent if almost everyone just gave up and went on public assistance.  Is this the Obama plan?

The White House is succeeding in getting the economy that they have wanted -- the European economy -- no growth, no opportunity for the young and ever rising debt levels that have no conceivable way of being repaid.  This is the liberal dream.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


WSJ Op-Ed on immigration, with extra comments.  Original here.

Think Government Is Intrusive Now? Wait Until E-Verify Kicks In

Source: Wall Street Journal
Massive border security and E-Verify are central provisions of the Senate immigration bill, and they are supported by many in the House. Both provisions signal how wrong-headed much of the immigration-reform effort has become.

E-Verify is the real monster. If this part of the bill passes, all employers will be forced to use the government-run, Web-based system that checks potential employees' immigration status. That means, every American will have to obtain the federal government's prior approval in order to earn a living.

E-Verify might seem harmless now, but missions always creep and bureaucracies expand. Suppose that someone convicted of viewing child pornography is found teaching. There's a media hoopla. The government has this pre-employment check system. Surely we should link E-Verify to the criminal records of pedophiles? And why not all criminal records? We don't want alcoholic airline pilots, disbarred doctors, fraudster bankers and so on sneaking through.

Next, E-Verify will be attractive as a way to enforce hundreds of other employment laws and regulations. In the age of big data, the government can easily E-Verify age, union membership, education, employment history, and whether you've paid income taxes and signed up for health insurance.

The members of licensed occupations will love such low-cost enforcement of their cartels: We can't let unlicensed manicurists prey on unsuspecting customers, can we? E-Verify them! And while the government screens employee applications, they can also check on employers' compliance with all sorts of regulations by looking at the job applications they submit for verification.

E-Verify proponents imagine some world in which a super-accurate government database tracks each person's legal status, and automatically enforces straightforward rules. Maybe on Mars. In our world, immigration and employment law is a complex mess, and our government's website-building capacity (see under: "health-insurance exchanges") can't possibly handle millions of people who are trying to evade the law. Permission to work inevitably will rely at least in part on the judgment calls of an army of bureaucrats.

Political abuse is just as inevitable. Consider Catherine Engelbrecht, reportedly harassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, all for starting a tea-party group. But the E-Verify bureaucrats would never cause her trouble in getting a job or hiring someone, right?

Soon, attending a meeting of a group that is a bit too enthusiastic about the Constitution or gun rights—or being arrested at an Occupy Wall Street rally—could well set off a "check this person" when he applies for a job. If the government can stop you from working, how can you be free to speak out in opposition?

It's the need for prior permission rather than ex-post prosecution that makes E-Verify so dangerous. A simple delay in processing or resolving an "error" in your data is just as effective as outright denial, cheap to do, and easy to cover up.

Every tyranny silences opponents by controlling their ability to earn a living. How is it that so many supposedly freedom-loving, small-government Republicans want to arm our nation's politicized bureaucracy—fresh from the scandals at the IRS and elsewhere—with the power to do just that? Why are we so afraid of immigrants that we would jeopardize this most basic guarantee of our political liberties?

Many opponents of immigration worry that immigrants will overuse expensive social services. The fear is misplaced. The Congressional Budget Office estimates more than $100 billion of net fiscal benefit from the limited expansion of immigration that's allowed by the Senate bill. And this fear does not make any sense of the system's preferences for current citizens' family members—who are less likely to work and more likely to consume services—over workers and entrepreneurs.

Perhaps some Republicans worry that immigrants will vote Democratic. But then limiting entrepreneurs and workers makes even less sense. These Republicans should have confidence that their ideas on freedom will attract ambitious, hard-working migrants.

Others say they want to protect the wages of American workers. Like all protectionism, that is demonstrably ineffective. Migrants come for jobs Americans won't or can't do, and businesses build factories abroad if workers can't come here.

The Senate bill promises higher caps for "guest workers." Ponder what "guest worker" really means. Come to America, pick our vegetables, clean our bathrooms and tend our gardens at the invitation of a powerful employer. Pay taxes. And when your visa runs out, go back where you came from—there is no place for you here. This is how Middle East sheikdoms treat Filipino maids and Palestinian construction workers. Is this America?

In the current vision of immigration reform, millions will still be trying to sneak in, and millions more will remain here working illegally. E-Verify and the border security wall prove it. If people could work legally, there would be no need for a system that endangers everyone's liberty to "verify" them. And there would be no need to build a $45-billion monument to imperial decline— our bid to outdo the walls of Hadrian, China and Berlin—to stop them. [Only the ruins won't be pretty enough to attract Chinese tourists a few centuries from now.]

Here is the crucial question for genuine immigration reform: How do we respond when someone says, I have heard of your freedom. I am tired of the corrupt police in my country, the bought-off courts, the oppression of rulers, the tyranny of the religious or ethnic majority. I want to join the one country on earth defined by an idea, not by conquest, religion or ethnic identity. No, I don't have a special skill or a strong back useful to your politically connected employers. I want to come, drive a cab, open a convenience store in a poor neighborhood, work long hours, pay taxes, send my children to school and, eventually, vote.

The answer in the Senate bill and emerging House debate remains: Stay home. America is closed. [The question is, why?]


A few more comments.

Boiled down to one sentence, where this all started. Grumpy reads the news. Reaction: "You guys want every American to have to ask the permission of the Federal Government in order to get a job??? Have you lost your minds? How many founding fathers are rolling over in their graves?"

Space is at a premium in an oped so a lot of fun stuff got cut including the few [] above.

I know there is a serious empirical literature on how much immigrants do or don't affect wages here, and whose wages. Also, I said jobs that Americans "can't or won't do," and any economist should always ask "at what wages."  I had one sentence, so give me a break. (Though, from what I've read, the wages it would take to get Americans to work at a poultry processing plant or pick fruits and vegetables would imply pretty astronomical price increases - or wholesale movements of those industries abroad.)

But... If it raises the welfare of Texans to keep out workers from old Mexico, why does it not make sense for them to keep out workers from New Mexico? National borders have no meaning in economics.

And even if it did work, it would merely be a pure transfer, a zero-sum game. If we want to subsidize wages of some Americans, do we really to tax the wages of poor Mexicans to do it?  Is this America's place in the world, to engineer transfers form poor Mexican migrants to our workers? The tax also shows up on the prices Americans pay, often the same Americans whose wages we're trying to subsidize. A most basic principle of economics is: don't engineer wealth transfers by distorting prices. If you can understand that for ethanol, you can understand that for labor.

The one-sentence shot about moving factories abroad is serious. The studies showing some benefit from keeping out foreign workers typically document short-run effects.  We've been keeping out foreigners for two generations now, and it doesn't seem to have helped the wages of workers who compete with foreigners a lot! People also choose which occupations to enter.

I didn't have room to talk about the 11 million already here. One decent thing in the Senate bill is to recognize that we can't go on like this with 11 million people relegated to second-class status. However, making them wait another 13 years before they can become citizens... Didn't we once have a revolution about "taxation without representation?"

The "guest" worker visas only allow them to work in "qualified" industries and for limited amounts of time. That means e-verify is already set up to check that you're allowed to work in specific industries, and for specific time periods, not the simple in or out you might imagine.

"Soon, attending a meeting of a group that is a bit too enthusiastic about the Constitution or gun rights—or being arrested at an Occupy Wall Street rally—could well set off a "check this person" when he applies for a job" Besides the grammar getting a bit mangled in the edits, we lost sight of just how plausible this is. Of course "terrorists" shouldn't be allowed to work in the US, right? How many congresspeople would vote against a bill adding "potential terrorists and national security threats" to the e-verify system?  But of course bureacracies' idea of "terrorist" and yours and mine might be a bit different. Mark Steyn (a favorite of mine) is illuminating here
The other day, The Boston Globe ran a story on how the city's police and other agencies had spent months planning a big training exercise for last weekend involving terrorists planting bombs hidden in backpacks left downtown. Unfortunately, the Marathon bombers preempted them, and turned the coppers' hypothetical scenario into bloody reality. What a freaky coincidence, eh? But it's the differences between the simulation and the actual event that are revealing. In humdrum reality, the Boston bombers were Chechen Muslim brothers with ties to incendiary imams and jihadist groups in Dagestan. In the far more exciting Boston Police fantasy, the bombers were a group of right-wing militia men called "Free America Citizens," a name so suspicious (involving as it does the words "free," "America," and "citizens") that it can only have been leaked to them by the IRS. What fun the law enforcement community in Massachusetts had embroidering their hypothetical scenario: The "Free America Citizens" terrorists even had their own little logo – a skull's head with an Uncle Sam hat. Ooh, scary! The Boston PD graphics department certainly knocked themselves out on that.
Do you really want people like this deciding who can work -- and in what industries -- in America? The e-verify system is already connected to homeland security!

The opposite is just as worrisome. The big data miners at the NSA and homeland security will surely be interested to monitor every time a "suspected terrorist" applies for a job, no?

I had a lot more examples of past political persecution in this country.  Historically the left has been persecuted by the government a lot more than the right. The FBI harassed civil rights leaders. Remember the red scare, and the blacklist. Good thing we didn't have e-verify back then.

Henry Miller (also Hoover) had a lovely NRO post on Thursday with detailed accounts of politicized discretion at work in Federal Agencies. Read this and think about how e-verify will work.

The worry that Federal control of employment will  misused is not a new thought. See chapter 1 of Milton Friedman "Capitalism and freedom."

An economic e-verify consequence I didn't have space for: expansion of the underground economy. There will still be millions of people here trying to work illegally. If not, what's the point of e-verify? Many of the 11 million here who won't qualify for the rather strict program to stay, and the slightly looser caps will still leave many shut out.

OK, so there's this much more effective e-verify, you need a job, and your employer needs a worker. What do you do? Answer: go fully illegal. The current system, in which illegal (or maybe I should use the new word "unauthorized." I like that one!) workers can get fake social security numbers and continue semi-legally, paying taxes, paying social security and medicare (on which they will never collect), and enjoying some legal protection, goes down the toilet. Now it's cash under the table.

And once employers get used to cash under the table, why stop with the immigrants? Benefits, health care, taxes, red tape, unions, NLRB, OSHA, it's all getting to be such a pain. Why not pay the Americans cash under the table too?

It's one more step to a two-tier economy, like much of southern Europe. There are a few "good" full time legal jobs with benefits, pensions, etc. And a vast amount of black-market work. Especially for young people, recent migrants (authorized or unauthorized), minorities, and so on.  Even a true-blue libertarian wants work to operate with protections afforded by the legal system -- enforceable contracts and all that. And anyone with a vague soft spot for labor laws including safety, health, worker rights and so on, ought to worry about the consequences of expanding completely illegal labor.

Just because you pass laws against things doesn't mean they stop.

Oh those looser caps. A bureaucracy has to certify that economic conditions are strong enough before more people get let in. The lobbying on that one will be fun to see. Maybe they can import some retired Fed governors. My forecast: labor markets will be strong enough to admit immigrants when there is no American voter who wants a better job, i.e. when hell freezes over.

For a half century, we decried that the Soviet Union controlled who could work where, and ruining the lives of dissenters. We decried that they posted soldiers at the border with guns to stop people from leaving. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Do we really want to set up the system that allows the former. And does it really matter which side of the border has the soldiers with guns? Certainly to the people trying to pass, it matters not one bit.

Thanks without blame to Tom Church at Hoover for a lot of help on facts.

If you're still reading, here's an earlier post with more


Richard Sobel has a nice piece making an important point that I totally missed. E-verify will have to mean a national, biometric identity card. Now, you submit a social security number. What stops people from submitting false names and social security numbers? Hmm need to make sure they are who they say they are...

I also didn't think to point out another danger. Now the Federal government and its Big Data base know every time you apply for a job. Hmm, why is that guy Cochrane applying for a job again? Checking how often you apply for a job will naturally be an important way to check against false social security numbers.

Et tu, Brute?

Politico's Byron Tau has a hilarious story:
Pot legalization activists are running into an unexpected and ironic opponent in their efforts to make cannabis legal: Big Marijuana...

Medical marijuana is a billion-dollar industry ... and like any entrenched business, it’s fighting to keep what it has and shut out competitors. Dispensary owners, trade associations and groups representing the industry are deeply concerned — and in some cases actively fighting — ballot initiatives and legislation that could wreck their business model. ...

...their businesses — still illegal under federal law — benefit from exclusive monopolies on the right to sell legal pot... those same federal laws that prohibit growing, selling and using keep pot prices high.

This spring, the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine joined the usual coalition of anti-pot forces that includes active law-enforcement groups, social conservatives and public health advocates to oppose a state bill that would legalize possession of small quantities of the drug. 

Big Companies More Valuable Than Small Companies

So what explains the surging stock market, when the fundaments of the economy remain weak?  Again, micro-factors favor large companies with access to government.  This is true for banks as well as for non-financials.  Smaller companies are getting hammered by higher tax rates, more mandates, and looming ObamaCare.  Large businesses, with some exceptions like coal, can deal with all the bureaucratic regulatory stuff because they have so much scale.  Not true for smaller businesses.

So what you're seeing is a change in the playing field.  The big guys are doing relatively well and small business is in the doldrums.  That is keeping with the Obama playbook of the grand corporate-government teamwork.  Obama can relate to big giant companies, because they are so much like the government and, in some ways, indistinguishable.  But small business is an annoyance in the Obama scheme.

The problem is: small business produces the new jobs for the economy; big business is a stagnant employer in the aggregate.  So folks looking for a job are out of luck.  The Obama economy is great if you're big and rich, but not so great if you're an out of work American or a small business enterprise.