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Guest Post SuperReview Part III of VI: The Occupy Handbook Part I and a little Part II: Where We Are Now

March 21, 2013 7 comments

Whattup.

Moving on from Lewis’ cute Bloomberg column reprint, we come to the next essay in the series:

The Widening Gyre: Inequality, Polarization, and the Crisis by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells

Indefatigable pair Paul Krugman and Robin Wells (KW hereafter) contribute one of the several original essays in the book, but the content ought to be familiar if you read the New York Times, know something about economics or practice finance. Paul Krugman is prolific, and it isn’t hard to be prolific when you have to rewrite essentially the same column every week; question, are there other columnists who have been so consistently right yet have failed to propose anything that the polity would adopt? Political failure notwithstanding, Krugman leaves gems in every paragraph for the reader new to all this. The title “The Widening Gyre” comes from an apocalyptic William Yeats Butler poem. In this case, Krugman and Wells tackle the problem of why the government responded so poorly to the crisis. In their words:

By 2007, America was about as unequal as it had been on the eve of the Great Depression – and sure enough, just after hitting this milestone, we lunged into the worst slump since the Depression. This probably wasn’t a coincidence, although economists are still working on trying to understand the linkages between inequality and vulnerability to economic crisis.

Here, however, we want to focus on a different question: why has the response to crisis been so inadequate? Before financial crisis struck, we think it’s fair to say that most economists imagined that even if such a crisis were to happen, there would be a quick and effective policy response [editor's note: see Kautsky et al 2016 for a partial explanation]. In 2003 Robert Lucas, the Nobel laureate and then president of the American Economic Association, urged the profession to turn its attention away from recessions to issues of longer-term growth. Why? Because he declared, the “central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades.”

Famous last words from Professor Lucas. Nevertheless, the curious failure to apply what was once the conventional wisdom on a useful scale intrigues me for two reasons. First, most political scientists suggest that democracy, versus authoritarian system X, leads to better outcomes for two reasons.

1. Distributional – you get a nicer distribution of wealth (possibly more productivity for complicated macro reasons); economics suggests that since people are mostly envious and poor people have rapidly increasing utility in wealth, democracy’s tendency to share the wealth better maximizes some stupid social welfare criterion (typically, Kaldor-Hicks efficiency).

2. Information – democracy is a better information aggregation system than dictatorship and an expanded polity makes better decisions beyond allocation of produced resources. The polity must be capable of learning and intelligent OR vote randomly if uninformed for this to work. While this is the original rigorous justification for democracy (first formalized in the 1800s by French rationalists), almost no one who studies these issues today believes one-person one-vote democracy better aggregates information than all other systems at a national level. “Well Leon,” some knave comments, “we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a Republic with a president…so shouldn’t a small group of representatives better be able to make social-welfare maximizing decisions?” Short answer: strong no, and US Constitutionalism has some particularly nasty features when it comes to political decision-making.

Second, KW suggest that the presence of extreme wealth inequalities act like a democracy disabling virus at the national level. According to KW extreme wealth inequalities perpetuate themselves in a way that undermines both “nice” features of a democracy when it comes to making regulatory and budget decisions.* Thus, to get better economic decision-making from our elected officials, a good intermediate step would be to make our tax system more progressive or expand Medicare or Social Security or…Well, we have a lot of good options here. Of course, for mathematically minded thinkers, this begs the following question: if we could enact so-called progressive economic policies to cure our political crisis, why haven’t we done so already? What can/must change for us to do so in the future? While I believe that the answer to this question is provided by another essay in the book, let’s take a closer look at KW’s explanation at how wealth inequality throws sand into the gears of our polity. They propose four and the following number scheme is mine:

1. The most likely explanation of the relationship between inequality and polarization is that the increased income and wealth of a small minority has, in effect bought the allegiance of a major political party…Needless to say, this is not an environment conducive to political action.

2. It seems likely that this persistence [of financial deregulation] despite repeated disasters had a lot do with rising inequality, with the causation running in both directions. On the one side the explosive growth of the financial sector was a major source of soaring incomes at the very top of the income distribution. On the other side, the fact that the very rich were the prime beneficiaries of deregulation meant that as this group gained power- simply because of its rising wealth- the push for deregulation intensified. These impacts of inequality on ideology did not in 2008…[they] left us incapacitated in the face of crisis.

3. Conservatives have always seen seen [Keynesian economics] as the thin edge of the wedge: concede that the government can play a useful role in fighting slumps, and the next thing you know we’ll be living under socialism.

4. [Krugman paraphrasing Kalecki] Every widening of state activity is looked upon by business with suspicion, but the creation of employment by government spending has a special aspect which makes the opposition particularly intense. Under a laissez-faire system the level of employment to a great extend on the so-called state of confidence….This gives capitalists a powerful indirect control over government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be avoided because it would cause an economic crisis.

All of these are true to an extent. Two are related to the features of a particular policy position that conservatives don’t like (countercyclical spending) and their cost will dissipate if the economy improves. Isn’t it the case that most proponents and beneficiaries of financial liberalization are Democrats? (Wall Street mostly supported Obama in 08 and barely supported Romney in 12 despite Romney giving the house away). In any case, while KW aren’t big on solutions they certainly have a strong grasp of the problem.

Take a Stand: Sit In by Phillip Dray

As the railroad strike of 1877 had led eventually to expanded workers’ rights, so the Greensboro sit-in of February 1, 1960, helped pave the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both movements remind us that not all successful protests are explicit in their message and purpose; they rely instead on the participants’ intuitive sense of justice. [28]

I’m not the only author to have taken note of this passage as particularly important, but I am the only author who found the passage significant and did not start ranting about so-called “natural law.” Chronicling the (hitherto unknown-to-me) history of the Great Upheaval, Dray does a great job relating some important moments in left protest history to the OWS history. This is actually an extremely important essay and I haven’t given it the time it deserves. If you read three essays in this book, include this in your list.

Inequality and Intemperate Policy by Raghuram Rajan (no URL, you’ll have to buy the book)

Rajan’s basic ideas are the following: inequality has gotten out of control:

Deepening income inequality has been brought to the forefront of discussion in the United States. The discussion tends to center on the Croesus-like income of John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who made a killing in 2008 betting on a financial collapse and netted over $3 billion, about seventy-five-thousand times the average household income. Yet a more worrying, everyday phenomenon that confronts most Americans is the disparity in income growth rates between a manager at the local supermarket and the factory worker or office assistant. Since the 1970s, the wages of the former, typically workers at the ninetieth percentile of the wage distribution in the United States, have grown much faster than the wages of the latter, the typical median worker.

But American political ideologies typically rule out the most direct responses to inequality (i.e. redistribution). The result is a series of stop-gap measures that do long-run damage to the economy (as defined by sustainable and rising income levels and full employment), but temporarily boost the consumption level of lower classes:

It is not surprising then, that a policy response to rising inequality in the United States in the 1990s and 200s – whether carefully planned or chosen as the path of least resistance – was to encourage lending to households, especially but not exclusively low-income ones, with the government push given to housing credit just the most egregious example. The benefit – higher consumption – was immediate, whereas paying the inevitable bill could be postponed into the future. Indeed, consumption inequality did not grow nearly as much as income inequality before the crisis. The difference was bridged by debt. Cynical as it may seem, easy credit has been used as a palliative success administrations that been unable to address the deeper anxieties of the middle class directly. As I argue in my book Fault Lines, “Let them eat credit” could well summarize the mantra of the political establishment in the go-go years before the crisis.

Why should you believe Raghuram Rajan? Because he’s one of the few guys who called the first crisis and tried to warn the Fed.

A solid essay providing a more direct link between income inequality and bad policy than KW do.

The 5 Percent by Michael Hiltzik

The 5 percent’s [consisting of the seven million Americans who, in 1934, were sixty-five and older] protests coalesced as the Townsend movement, launched by a sinewy midwestern farmer’s son and farm laborer turned California physician. Francis Townsend was a World War I veteran who had served in the Army Medical Corps. He had an ambitious, and impractical plan for a federal pension program. Although during its heyday in the 1930s the movement failed to win enactment of its [editor's note: insane] program, it did play a critical role in contemporary politics. Before Townsend, America understood the destitution of its older generations only in abstract terms; Townsend’s movement made it tangible. “It is no small achievment to have opened the eyes of even a few million Americans to these facts,” Bruce Bliven, editor of the New Republic observed. “If the Townsend Plan were to die tomorrow and be completely forgotten as miniature golf, mah-jongg, or flinch [editor's note: everything old is new again], it would still have left some sedimented flood marks on the national consciousness.” Indeed, the Townsend movement became the catalyst for the New Deal’s signal achievement, the old-age program of Social Security. The history of its rise offers a lesson for the Occupy movement in how to convert grassroots enthusiasm into a potent political force – and a warning about the limitations of even a nationwide movement.

Does the author live up to the promises of this paragraph? Is the whole essay worth reading? Does FDR give in to the people’s demands and pass Social Security?!

Yes to all. Read it.

Hidden in Plain Sight by Gillian Tett (no URL, you’ll have to buy the book)

This is a great essay. I’m going to outsource the review and analysis to:

http://beyoubesure.com/2012/10/13/generation-lost-lazy-afraid/

because it basically sums up my thoughts. You all, go read it.

What Good is Wall Street? by John Cassidy

If you know nothing about Wall Street, then the essay is worth reading, otherwise skip it. There are two common ways to write a bad article in financial journalism. First, you can try to explain tiny index price movements via news articles from that day/week/month. “Shares in the S&P moved up on good news in Taiwan today,” that kind of nonsense. While the news and price movements might be worth knowing for their own sake, these articles are usually worthless because no journalist really knows who traded and why (theorists might point out even if the journalists did know who traded to generate the movement and why, it’s not clear these articles would add value – theorists are correct).

The other way, the Cassidy! way is to ask some subgroup of American finance what they think about other subgroups in finance. High frequency traders think iBankers are dumb and overpaid, but HFT on the other hand, provides an extremely valuable service – keeping ETFs cheap, providing liquidity and keeping shares the right level. iBankers think prop-traders add no value, but that without iBanking M&A services, American manufacturing/farmers/whatever would cease functioning. Low speed prop-traders think that HFT just extracts cash from dumb money, but prop-traders are reddest blooded American capitalists, taking the right risks and bringing knowledge into the markets. Insurance hates hedge funds, hedge funds hate the bulge bracket, the bulge bracket hates the ratings agencies, who hate insurance and on and on.

You can spit out dozens of articles about these catty and tedious rivalries (invariably claiming that financial sector X, rivals for institutional cash with Y, “adds no value”) and learn nothing about finance. Cassidy writes the article taking the iBankers side and surprises no one (this was originally published as an article in The New Yorker).

Your House as an ATM by Bethany McLean

Ms. McLean holds immense talent. It was always pretty obvious that the bottom twenty-percent, i.e. the vast majority of subprime loan recipients, who are generally poor at planning, were using mortgages to get quick cash rather than buy houses. Regulators and high finance, after resisting for a good twenty years, gave in for reasons explained in Rajan’s essay.

Against Political Capture by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (sorry I couldn’t find a URL, for this original essay you’ll have to buy the book).

A legit essay by a future Nobelist in Econ. Read it.

A Nation of Business Junkies by Arjun Appadurai

Anthro-hack Appadurai writes:

I first came to this country in 1967. I have been either a crypto-anthropologist or professional anthropologist for most of the intervening years. Still, because I came here with an interest in India and took the path of least resistance in choosing to retain India as my principal ethnographic referent, I have always been reluctant to offer opinions about life in these United States.

His instincts were correct. The essay reads like an old man complaining about how bad the weather is these days. Skip it.

Causes of Financial Crises Past and Present: The Role of This-Time-Is-Different Syndrome by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff

Editor Byrne has amazing powers of persuasion or, a lot of authors have had some essays in the desk-drawer they were waiting for an opportunity to publish. In any case, Rogoff and Reinhart (RR hereafter) have summed up a couple hundred studies and two of their books in a single executive summary and given it to whoever buys The Occupy Handbook. Value. RR are Republicans and the essay appears to be written in good faith (unlike some people *cough* Tyler Cowen and Veronique de Rugy *cough*). RR do a great job discovering and presenting stylized facts about financial crises past and present. What to expect next? A couple national defaults and maybe a hyperinflation or two.

Government As Tough Love by Robert Shiller as interviewed by Brandon Adams (buy the book)!

Shiller has always been ahead of the curve. In 1981, he wrote a cornerstone paper in behavioral finance at a time when the field was in its embryonic stages. In the early 1990s, he noticed insufficient attention was paid to real estate values, despite their overwhelming importance to personal wealth levels; this led him to create, along with Karl E. Case, the Case-Shiller index – now the Case-Shiller Home Prices Indices. In March 2000**, Shiller published Irrational Exuberance, arguing that U.S. stocks were substantially overvalued and due for a tumble. [Editor’s note: what Brandon Adams fails to mention, but what’s surely relevant is that Shiller also called the subprime bubble and re-released Irrational Exuberance in 2005 to sound the alarms a full three years before The Subprime Solution]. In 2008, he published The Subprime Solution, which detailed the origins of the housing crisis and suggested innovative policy responses for dealing with the fallout. These days, one of his primary interests is neuroeconomics, a field that relates economic decision-making to brain function as measured by fMRIs.

Shiller is basically a champ and you should listen to him.

Shiller was disappointed but not surprised when governments bailed out banks in extreme fashion while leaving the contracts between banks and homeowners unchanged. He said, of Hank Paulson, “As Treasury secretary, he presented himself in a very sober and collected way…he did some bailouts that benefited Goldman Sachs, among others. And I can imagine that they were well-meaning, but I don’t know that they were totally well-meaning, because the sense of self-interest is hard to clean out of your mind.”

Shiller understates everything.

Verdict: Read it.

And so, we close our discussion of part I. Moving on to part II:

In Ms. Byrne’s own words:

Part 2, “Where We Are Now,” which covers the present, both in the United States and abroad, opens with a piece by the anthropologist David Graeber. The world of Madison Avenue is far from the beliefs of Graeber, an anarchist, but it’s Graeber who arguably (he says he didn’t do it alone) came up with the phrase “We Are the 99 percent.” As Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out in October 2011, during month two of the Occupy encampments that Graeber helped initiate and three moths after the publication of his Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “David Graeber likes to say that he had three goals for the year: promote his book, learn to drive, and launch a worldwide revolution. The first is going well, the second has proven challenging and the third is looking up.” Graeber’s counterpart in Chile can loosely be said to be Camila Vallejo, the college undergraduate, pictured on page 219, who, at twenty-three, brought the country to a standstill. The novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman writes about her and about his own self-imposed exile from Chile, and his piece is followed by an entirely different, more quantitative treatment of the subject. This part of the book also covers the indignados in Spain, who before Occupy began, “occupied” the public squares of Madrid and other cities – using, as the basis for their claim on the parks could be legally be slept in, a thirteenth-century right granted to shepherds who moved, and still move, their flocks annually.

In other words, we’re in occupy is the hero we deserve, but not the hero we need territory here.

*Addendum 1: Some have suggested that it’s not the wealth inequality that ought to be reduced, but the democratic elements of our system. California’s terrible decision-making resulting from its experiments with direct democracy notwithstanding, I would like to stay in the realm of the sane.

**Addendum 2: Yes, Shiller managed to get the book published the week before the crash. Talk about market timing.

Guest Post SuperReview Part II of VI: The Occupy Handbook Part I: How We Got Here

March 20, 2013 8 comments

Whatsup.

This is a review of Part I of The Occupy Handbook. Part I consists of twelve pieces ranging in quality from excellent to awful. But enough from me, in Janet Byrne’s own words:

Part 1, “How We Got Here,” takes a look at events that may be considered precursors of OWS: the stories of a brakeman in 1877 who went up against the railroads; of the four men from an all-black college in North Carolina who staged the first lunch counter sit-in of the 1960s; of the out-of-work doctor whose nationwide, bizarrely personal Townsend Club movement led to the passage of Social Security. We go back to the 1930s and the New Deal and, in Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff‘s “nutshell” version of their book This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, even further.

Ms. Byrne did a bang-up job getting one Nobel Prize Winner in economics (Paul Krugman), two future Economics Nobel Prize winners (Robert Shiller, Daron Acemoglu) and two maybes (sorry Raghuram Rajan and Kenneth Rogoff) to contribute excellent essays to this section alone. Powerhouse financial journalists Gillian Tett, Michael Hilztik, John Cassidy, Bethany McLean and the prolific Michael Lewis all drop important and poignant pieces into this section. Arrogant yet angry anthropologist Arjun Appadurai writes one of the worst essays I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading and the ubiquitous Brandon Adams make his first of many mediocre appearances interviewing Robert Shiller. Clocking in at 135 pages, this is the shortest section of the book yet varies the most in quality. You can skip Professor Appadurai and Cassidy’s essays, but the rest are worth reading.

Advice from the 1 Percent: Lever Up, Drop Out by Michael Lewis

Framed as a strategy memo circulated among one-percenters, Lewis’ satirical piece written after the clearing of Zucotti Park begins with a bang.

The rabble has been driven from the public parks. Our adversaries, now defined by the freaks and criminals among them, have demonstrated only that they have no idea what they are doing. They have failed to identify a single achievable goal.

Indeed, the absurd fixation on holding Zuccotti Park and refusal to issue demands because doing so “would validate the system” crippled Occupy Wall Street (OWS). So far OWS has had a single, but massive success: it shifted the conversation back to the United States’ out of control wealth inequality managed to do so in time for the election, sealing the deal on Romney. In this manner, OWS functioned as a holding action by the 99% in the interests of the 99%.

We have identified two looming threats: the first is the shifting relationship between ambitious young people and money. There’s a reason the Lower 99 currently lack leadership: anyone with the ability to organize large numbers of unsuccessful people has been diverted into Wall Street jobs, mainly in the analyst programs at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. Those jobs no longer exist, at least not in the quantities sufficient to distract an entire generation from examining the meaning of their lives. Our Wall Street friends, wounded and weakened, can no longer pick up the tab for sucking the idealism out of America’s youth.We on the committee are resigned to all elite universities becoming breeding grounds for insurrection, with the possible exception of Princeton.

Michael Lewis speaks from experience; he is a Princeton alum and a 1 percenter himself. More than that however, he is also a Wall Street alum from Salomon Brothers during the 1980s snafu and wrote about it in the original guide to Wall Street, Liar’s Poker. Perhaps because of his atypicality (and dash of solipsism), he does not have a strong handle on human(s) nature(s). By the time of his next column in Bloomberg, protests had broken out at Princeton.

Ultimately ineffectual, but still better than…

Lewis was right in the end, but more than anyone sympathetic to the movement might like. OccupyPrinceton now consists of only two bloggers, one of which has graduated and deleted all his work from an already quiet site and another who is a senior this year. OccupyHarvard contains a single poorly written essay on the front page. Although OccupyNewHaven outlasted the original Occupation, Occupy Yale no longer exists. Occupy Dartmouth hasn’t been active for over a year, although it has a rather pathetic Twitter feed here. Occupy Cornell, Brown, Caltech, MIT and Columbia don’t exist, but some have active facebook pages. Occupy Michigan State, Rutgers and NYU appear to have had active branches as recently as eight months ago, but have gone silent since. Functionally, Occupy Berkeley and its equivalents at UCBerkeley predate the Occupy movement and continue but Occupy Stanford hasn’t been active for over a year. Anecdotally, I recall my friends expressing some skepticism that any cells of the Occupy movement still existed.

As for Lewis’ other points, I’m extremely skeptical about “examined lives” being undermined by Wall Street. As someone who started in math and slowly worked his way into finance, I can safely say that I’ve been excited by many of the computing, economic, and theoretical problems quants face in their day-to-day work and I’m typical. I, and everyone who has lived long-enough, knows a handful of geniuses who have thought long and hard about the kinds of lives they want to lead and realized that A. there is no point to life unless you make one and B. making money is as good a point as any. I know one individual, after working as a professional chemist prior to college,who decided to in his words, “fuck it and be an iBanker.” He’s an associate at DB. At elite schools, my friend’s decision is the rule rather than the exception, roughly half of Harvard will take jobs in finance and consulting (for finance) this year. Another friend, an exception, quit a promising career in operations research to travel the world as a pick-up artist. Could one really say that either the operations researcher or the chemist failed to examine their lives or that with further examinations they would have come up with something more “meaningful”?

One of the social hacks to give lie to Lewis-style idealism-emerging-from-an attempt-to-examine-ones-life is to ask freshpeople at Ivy League schools what they’d like to do when they graduate and observe their choices four years later. The optimal solution for a sociopath just admitted to a top school might be to claim they’d like to do something in the peace corp, science or volunteering for the social status. Then go on to work in academia, finance, law or tech or marriage and household formation with someone who works in the former. This path is functionally similar to what many “average” elite college students will do, sociopathic or not. Lewis appears to be sincere in his misunderstanding of human(s) nature(s). In another book he reveals that he was surprised at the reaction to Liar’s Poker – most students who had read the book “treated it as a how-to manual” and cynically asked him for tips on how to land analyst jobs in the bulge bracket. It’s true that there might be some things money can’t buy, but an immensely pleasurablemeaningful life do not seem to be one of them. Today for the vast majority of humans in the Western world, expectations of sufficient levels of cold hard cash are necessary conditions for happiness.

In short and contra Lewis, little has changed. As of this moment, Occupy has proven so harmless to existing institutions that during her opening address Princeton University’s president Shirley Tilghman called on the freshmen in the class of 2016 to “Occupy” Princeton. No freshpeople have taken up her injunction. (Most?) parts of Occupy’s failure to make a lasting impact on college campuses appear to be structural; Occupy might not have succeeded even with better strategy. As the Ivy League became more and more meritocratic and better at discovering talent, many of the brilliant minds that would have fallen into the 99% and become its most effective advocates have been extracted and reached their so-called career potential, typically defined by income or status level. More meritocratic systems undermine instability by making the most talented individuals part of the class-to-be-overthrown, rather than the over throwers of that system. In an even somewhat meritocratic system, minor injustices can be tolerated: Asians and poor rural whites are classes where there is obvious evidence of discrimination relative to “merit and the decision to apply” in elite gatekeeper college admissions (and thus, life outcomes generally) and neither group expresses revolutionary sentiment on a system-threatening scale, even as the latter group’s life expectancy has begun to decline from its already low levels. In the contemporary United States it appears that even as people’s expectations of material security evaporate, the mere possibility of wealth bolsters and helps to secure inequities in existing institutions.

Lewis continues:

Hence our committee’s conclusion: we must be able to quit American society altogether, and they must know it.The modern Greeks offer the example in the world today that is, the committee has determined, best in class. Ordinary Greeks seldom harass their rich, for the simple reason that they have no idea where to find them. To a member of the Greek Lower 99 a Greek Upper One is as good as invisible.

He pays no taxes, lives no place and bears no relationship to his fellow citizens. As the public expects nothing of him, he always meets, and sometimes even exceeds, their expectations. As a result, the chief concern of the ordinary Greek about the rich Greek is that he will cease to pay the occasional visit.

Michael Lewis is a wise man.

I can recall a conversation with one of my Professors; an expert on Democratic Kampuchea (American: Khmer Rouge), she explained that for a long time the identity of the oligarchy ruling the country was kept secret from its citizens. She identified this obvious subversion of republican principles (how can you have control over your future when you don’t even know who runs your region?) as a weakness of the regime. Au contraire, I suggested, once you realize your masters are not gods, but merely humans with human characteristics, that they: eat, sleep, think, dream, have sex, recreate, poop and die – all their mystique, their claims to superior knowledge divine or earthly are instantly undermined. De facto segregation has made upper classes in the nation more secure by allowing them to hide their day-to-day opulence from people who have lost their homes, job and medical care because of that opulence. Neuroscience will eventually reveal that being mysterious makes you appear more sexy, socially dominant, and powerful, thus making your claims to power and dominance more secure (Kautsky et. al. 2018).*

If the majority of Americans manage to recognize that our two tiered legal system has created a class whose actual claim to the US immense wealth stems from, for the most part, a toxic combination of Congressional pork, regulatory and enforcement agency capture and inheritance rather than merit, there will be hell to pay. Meanwhile, resentment continues to grow. Even on the extreme right one can now regularly read things like:

Now, I think I’d be downright happy to vote for the first politician to run on a policy of sending killer drones after every single banker who has received a post-2007 bonus from a bank that received bailout money. And I’m a freaking libertarian; imagine how those who support bombing Iraqi children because they hate us for our freedoms are going to react once they finally begin to grasp how badly they’ve been screwed over by the bankers. The irony is that a banker-assassination policy would be entirely constitutional according to the current administration; it is very easy to prove that the bankers are much more serious enemies of the state than al Qaeda. They’ve certainly done considerably more damage.

Wise financiers know when it’s time to cash in their chips and disappear. Rarely, they can even pull it off with class.

The rest of part I reviewed tomorrow. Hang in there people.

Addendum 1: If your comment amounts to something like “the Nobel Prize in Economics is actually called the The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” and thus “not a real Nobel Prize” you are correct, yet I will still delete your comment and ban your IP.

*Addendum 2: More on this will come when we talk about the Saez-Delong discussion in part III.

Guest Post SuperReview Part I of VI: The Occupy Handbook

March 19, 2013 5 comments

Whassup.

It has become a truism that as the amount of news and information generated per moment continues to grow, so too does the value of aggregation, curation and editing. A point less commonly made is that these aggregators are often limited by time in the sense, whatever the topic, the value of news for the median reader decays extremely rapidly. Some extremists even claim that it’s useless to read the newspaper, so rapidly do things change.  The forty eight hours news cycle, in addition to destroying context, has made it impossible for both reporters and viewers to learn from history. See “Is News Memoryless?” (Kautsky et. al. 2014).

A more promising approach to news aggregation (for those who read the news with purpose) is to organize pieces by subject and publish those articles in a book.  Paul Krugman did this for himself in The Great Unraveling, bundling selected columns from 1999 to 2003 into a single book, with chapters organized by subject and proceeding chronologically. While the rise and rise of Krumgan’s real-time blogging virtually guarantees he’ll never make such an effort again, a more recent try came from uber-journalist Michael Lewis in Panic!: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity.  Financial journalists’ myopic perspective at any given point in time make financial column compilations of years past particularly fun(ny) to read.

Nothing is staler than yesterday’s Wall Street journal (financial news spoils quickly) and reading WSJ or Barron’s pieces from 10 to 20 years ago is just painful.

The title PANIC: The story of modern financial insanity led me to believe the book was about the current crises. The book does say, in very, very fine print “Edited by” Michael Lewis.

-Fritz Krieger, Amazon Reviewer and chief scientist at ISIS

Unfortunately, some philistines became angry in 2008 when they insta-purchased a book called Panic! by Michael Lewis and to their horror, discovered that it contained information about prior financial crises, the nerve of the author to bring us historical perspective, even worse…some of that perspective relating to nations other than the ole’ US of A.

As the more alert readers have noted, almost nothing in the book concerns the 2008 Credit Meltdown, but instead this is merely a collection of news clippings and old magazine articles about past financial crises. You might as well visit a chiropodist’s office and offer them a couple of bucks for their old magazines.

Granted, the articles are by some of today’s finest and most celebrated journalists (although some of the news clippings are unsigned), but do you really want to read more about the 1987 crash or the 1997 collapse of the Thai Baht?

Perhaps you do, but whoever threw this book together wasn’t very particular about the articles chosen. Page 193 reprints an article from “Barron’s” of March, 2000 in which Jack Willoughby presents a long list of Internet companies that he considered likely to run out of cash by 2001. “Some can raise more funds through stock and bond offerings,” he warns. “Others will be forced to go out of business. It’s Darwinian capitalism at work.” True, many of the companies he listed did go belly-up, but on his list of the doomed are
[..]Amazon.com

- Someone named Keith Otis Edwards

Perhaps because I was abroad for both the initial disaster and the entire Occupation of Zucotti Park, both events have held my attention.  So it is with a mixture of hope and apprehension that I picked up Princeton alum Janet Byrne’s The Occupy Handbook from the public library. The Occupy Handbook is a collection of essays written from 2010 to 2011 by an assortment of first and second-rate authors that attempt to: show what Wall Street does and what it did that led to the most recent crash, explain why our policy apparatus was paralyzed in response to the crash, describe how OWS arose and how it compared with concurrent international movements and prior social movements in the US, and perhaps most importantly, provide policy solutions for the 99% in finance and economics. Janet Byrne begins with a heartfelt introduction:

One fall morning I stood outside the Princeton Club, on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. Occupy Wall Street, which I had visited several times as a sympathetic outsider, has passed its one month anniversary, and I thought the movement might be usefully analyzed by economists and financial writers whose pieces I would commission and assemble into a book that was analytical and- this was what really interested me – prescriptive. I’d been invited to breakfast to talk about the idea with a Princeton Club member and had arrived early out of nervousness.

It seemed a strange place to be discussing the book. I tried the idea out on a young bellhop…

And so it continues. The book is divided into three parts. Part I, broadly speaking, tries to give some economic background on the crash and the ensuing political instability that the crash engendered, up to the first occupation of Zuccotti Park. Part II, broadly speaking, describes the events in Zuccotti Park and around the world as they were in those critical months of fall 2011. Part III, broadly speaking, prescribes solutions to current depression. I say broadly speaking because, as you will see, several essays appear to be in the wrong part and in the worst cases, in the wrong book.

High frequency trading: how it happened, what’s wrong with it, and what we should do

High frequency trading (HFT) is in the news. Politicians and regulators are thinking of doing something to slow stuff down. The problem is, it’s really complicated to understand it in depth and to add rules in a nuanced way. Instead we have to do something pretty simple and stupid if we want to do anything.

How it happened

In some ways HFT is the inevitable consequence of market forces – one has an advantage when one makes a good decision more quickly, so there was always going to be some pressure to speed up trading, to get that technological edge on the competition.

But there was something more at work here too. The NYSE exchange used to be a non-profit mutual, co-owned by every broker who worked there. When it transformed to a profit-seeking enterprise, and when other exchanges popped up in competition with it was the beginning of the age of HFT.

All of a sudden, to make an extra buck, it made sense to allow someone to be closer and have better access, for a hefty fee. And there was competition among the various exchanges for that excellent access. Eventually this market for exchange access culminated in the concept of co-location, whereby trading firms were allowed to put their trading algorithms on servers in the same room as the servers that executed the trades. This avoids those pesky speed-of-light issues when sitting across the street from the executing servers.

Not surprisingly, this has allowed the execution of trades to get into the mind-splittingly small timeframe of double-digit microseconds. That’s microseconds, where from wikipedia: “One microsecond is to one second as one second is to 11.54 days.”

What’s wrong with it

Turns out, when things get this fast, sometimes mistakes happen. Sometimes errors occur. I’m writing in the third-person passive voice because we are no longer talking directly about human involvement, or even, typically, a single algorithm, but rather the combination of a sea of algorithms which together can do unexpected things.

People know about the so-called “flash crash” and more recently Knight Capital’s trading debacle where an algorithm at opening bell went crazy with orders. But people on the inside, if you point out these events, might counter that “normal people didn’t lose money” at these events. The weirdness was mostly fixed after the fact, and anyway pension funds, which is where most normal people’s money lives, don’t ever trade in the thin opening bell market.

But there’s another, less well known example from September 30th, 2008, when the House rejected the bailout, shorting stocks were illegal, and the Dow dropped 778 points. The prices as such common big-ticket stocks such as Google plummeted and, in this case, pension funds lost big money. It’s true that some transactions were later nulled, but not all of them.

This happened because the market makers of the time had largely pulled their models out of the market after shorting became illegal – there was no “do this algorithm except make sure you’re never short” button on the algorithm, so once the rule was called, the traders could only turn it all of completely. As a result, the liquidity wasn’t there and the pension funds, thinking they were being smart to do their big trades at close, instead got completely walloped.

Keep this in mind, before you go blaming the politicians on this one because the immediate cause was the short-sighted short-selling ban: the HFT firms regularly pull out of the market in times of stress, or when they’re updating their algorithms, or just whenever they want. In other words, it’s liquidity when you need it least.

Moreover, just because two out of three times were relatively benign for the 99%, we should not conclude that there’s nothing potentially disastrous going on. The flash crash and Knight Capital have had impact, namely they serve as events which erode our trust in the system as a whole. The 2008 episode on top of that proved that yes, we can be the victims of the out-of-control machines fighting against each other.

Quite aside from the instability of the system, and how regular people get screwed by insiders (because after all, that’s not a new story at all, it’s just a new technology for an old story), let’s talk about resources. How much money and resources are being put into the HFT arena and how could those resources otherwise be used?

Putting aside the actual energy consumed by the industry, which is certainly non-trivial, let’s focus for a moment on money. It has been estimated that overall, HFT firms post about $80 billion in profits yearly, and that they make on the order of 10% profit on their technology investments. That would mean that there’s in the order of $800 billion being invested in HFT each year. Even if we highball the return at 25%, we still have more than $300 billion invested in this stuff.

And to what end?

Is that how much it’s really worth the small investor to have decreased bid-ask spreads when they go long Apple because they think the new iPhone will sell? What else could we be doing with $800 billion dollars? A couple of years of this could sell off all of the student debt in this country.

What should be done

Germany has recently announced a half-second minimum for posting an share order. This is eons in current time frames, and would drastically change how trading is done. They also want HFT algorithms to be registered with them. You know, so people can keep tabs on the algorithms and understand what they’re doing and how they might interact with each other.

Um, what? As a former quant, let me just say: this will not work. Not a chance in hell. If I want to obfuscate the actual goals of a model I’ve written, that’s easier than actually explaining it. Moreover, the half-second rule may sound good but it just means it’s a harder system to game, not that it won’t be gameable.

Other ideas have been brought forth as to how to slow down trading, but in the end it’s really hard to do: if you put in delays, there’s always going to be an algorithm employed which decides whose trade actually happens first, and so there will always be some advantage to speed, or to gaming the algorithm. It would be interesting but academically challenging to come up with a simple enough rule that would actually discourage people from engaging in technological warfare.

The only sure-fire way to make people think harder about trading so quickly and so often is a simple tax on transactions, often referred to as a Tobin Tax. This would make people have sufficient amount of faith in their trade to pay the tax on top of the expected value of the trade.

And we can’t just implement such a tax on one market, like they do for equities in London. It has to be on all exhange-traded markets, and moreover all reasonable markets should be exchange-traded.

Oh, and while I’m smoking crack, let me also say that when exchanges are found to have given certain of their customers better access to prices, the punishments for such illegal insider information should be more than $5 million dollars.

Categories: #OWS, finance, hedge funds, rant

Looterism

My friend Nik recently sent me a PandoDaily article written by Francisco Dao entitled Looterism: The Cancerous Ethos That Is Gutting America.

He defines looterism as the “deification of pure greed” and says:

The danger of looterism, of focusing only on maximizing self interest above the importance of creating value, is that it incentivizes the extraction of wealth without regard to the creation or replenishment of the value building mechanism.

I like the term, I think I’ll use it. And it made me think of this recent Bloomberg article about private equity and hedge funds getting into the public schools space. From the article:

Indeed, investors of all stripes are beginning to sense big profit potential in public education.

The K-12 market is tantalizingly huge: The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors.

Traditionally, public education has been a tough market for private firms to break into — fraught with politics, tangled in bureaucracy and fragmented into tens of thousands of individual schools and school districts from coast to coast.

Now investors are signaling optimism that a golden moment has arrived. They’re pouring private equity and venture capital into scores of companies that aim to profit by taking over broad swaths of public education.

The conference last week at the University Club, billed as a how-to on “private equity investing in for-profit education companies,” drew a full house of about 100.

[I think I know why that golden moment arrived, by the way. The obsession with test scores, a direct result of No Child Left Behind, is both pseudo-quantitative (by which I mean it is quantitative but is only measuring certain critical things and entirely misses other critical things) and has broken the backs of unions. Hedge funds and PE firms love quantitative things, and they don’t really care if they numbers are meaningful if they can meaningfully profit.]

Their immediate goal is out-sourcing: they want to create the Blackwater (now Academi) of education, but with cute names like Schoology and DreamBox.

Lest you worry that their focus will be on the wrong things, they point out that if you make kids drill math through DreamBox “heavily” for 16 weeks, they score 2.3 points higher in a standardized test, although they didn’t say if that was out of 800 or 20. Never mind that “heavily” also isn’t defined, but it seems safe to say from context that it’s at least 2 hours a day. So if you do that for 16 weeks, those 2.3 points better be pretty meaningful.

So either the private equity guys and hedge funders have the whole child in mind here, or it’s maybe looterism. I’m thinking looterism.

Today is Volcker Day

This is a guest post by George Bailey, who is part of Occupy the SEC. I just want insert here a congratulations to Occupy the SEC for submitting their public comments letter yesterday, and to point out that the organization SIFMA below is the same SIFMA I mentioned here and here (those guys are everywhere, defending the interests of the banks).

Today is “Volcker Day” and Paul Volcker was on a tear.

Mr Volcker added in a formal submission to regulators Monday that “proprietary trading is not an essential commercial bank service that justifies taxpayer support,” and that banks should stop “stonewalling.”

He went on:

“There should not be a presumption that evermore market liquidity brings a public benefit,” Volcker, 84, wrote in a letter submitted yesterday to regulators in defense of the rule curtailing banks’ bets on asset prices with their own money. “At some point, great liquidity, or the perception of it, may itself encourage more speculative trading (see here and here for the full story).

But then Jamie Dimon came along and bitch slapped Tall Paul. Ouch.

“Paul Volcker by his own admission has said he doesn’t understand capital markets,” Dimon told Francis in the Fox Business interview. “He has proven that to me.”

SIFMA, on behalf of the industry, took over to explain in detail just what it is that Mr. Volcker doesn’t understand in their comment letter.  They reiterate their dire warning about the devastating effects on  ‘corporate liquidity’’ from the Volcker Rule.  Yet surprisingly, no non-financial corporate bond issuers filed any comments to acknowledge or object to this danger.

In fact, there are no comment letters from any non-financial companies.  They did haul out the widely lampooned Oliver Wyman study to bolster their comment that ‘corporate’ America would suffer horribly if Volcker is enacted.  But that just serves to remind us again that the corporate bond liquidity that will be affected is the liquidity in dodgy financial company ‘corporate’ bonds, like CDOs and other drek.  They conclude the only solution is a rewrite . They request the rule makers go back and start all over again.

The SIFMA comment letter runs to 175 pages. I haven’t read all the other financial company letters, but the ones I’ve skimmed conform to SIFMAs position.

The Occupy the SEC comment letter logs in at 325 pages and oddly enough draws the exact opposite conclusions to each of SIFMAs objections. It’s an interesting contrast. For some reason (some familiarity with the subject matter and public interest primarily) the group seems to have understood and articulated Volcker’s (and the electorate’s) intent pretty effectively.

Of the comment letters received about 90% are from financial institutions, and another 5% are from foreign governments objecting to the priority the US regulators have gifted to  US traders in US Government Bonds.  The remaining 5% are from ordinary folks, like Mr. Volcker, Occupy the SEC and other public interest groups.

Its interesting that 95% of the comments reflect the views of the 1%, and the views of the 99% are embodied in the comments of the remaining 5% of commenters. I’m confident  the regulators will  recognize that, for all its complexity, the rules are comprehensible and can be refined to serve the public’s demand for control over a runaway financial system.

Economist versus quant

There’s an uneasy relationship between economists and quants. Part of this stems from the fact that each discounts what the other is really good at.

Namely, quants are good at modeling, whereas economists generally are not (I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, so my apologies to those economists who are excellent modelers); they either oversimplify to the point of uselessness, or they add terms to their models until everything works but by then the models could predict anything. Their worst data scientist flaw, however, is the confidence they have, and that they project, in their overfit models. Please see this post for examples of that overconfidence.

On the other hand, economists are good at big-picture thinking, and are really really good at politics and influence, whereas most quants are incapable of those things, partly because quants are hyper aware of what they don’t know (which makes them good modelers), and partly because they are huge nerds (apologies to those quants who have perspective and can schmooze).

Economists run the Fed, they suggest policy to politicians, and generally speaking nobody else has a plan so they get heard. The sideline show of the two different schools of mainstream economics constantly at war with each other doesn’t lend credence to their profession (in fact I consider it a false dichotomy altogether) but again, who else has the balls and the influence to make a political suggestion? Not quants. They basically wait for the system to be set up and then figure out how to profit.

I’m not suggesting that they team up so that economists can teach quants how to influence people more. That would be really scary. However, it would be nice to team up so that the underlying economic model is either reasonably adjusted to the data, or discarded, and where the confidence of the model’s predictions is better known.

To that end, Cosma Shalizi is already hard at work.

Generally speaking, economic models are ripe for an overhaul. Let’s get open source modeling set up, there’s no time to lose. For example, in the name of opening up the Fed, I’d love to see their unemployment prediction model be released to the public, along with the data used to train it, and along with a metric of success that we can use to compare it to other unemployment models.

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