WHO PAYS FOR THE DAMAGES: more on Putin’s War on Ukraine


Historians of World War II have provided many lessons about the brutality of both aggressors and defenders. Americans tend to think that wartime brutality was a characteristic only of our opponents.  Sadly, notions of a “just war” to defend a country have turned into ugly sprees of killing even by our own troops.  War is a tragedy for both sides.

Our commanders of land and naval artillery forces as well as bombing missions that targeted large cities had to face the ugliness that their efforts created.  Not infrequently, many commanders resigned or had to be hospitalized because they were overcome with the destruction to lives and property of the “innocents.”  Their mental states often collapsed as a result.  It is not a relief for those on such missions to be told that we are not a particularly cruel people, but because war ultimately becomes a confrontation of“them” or “us”.

Rick Atkinson’s three volume recount of the U.S. effort in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Western Europe, contains many vivid examples of how our troops were first sickened by the killing of innocents while they tried hard to maintain the dignity of life even for their opponents.  In fact, their own commanders often commented that their troops had to learn to “hate” in order to be successful soldiers against such a fierce opponent as the Nazi army.  War is not a parlor game.  The Bell tolls for thee!

Still, if modern historians are reasonably accurate, nothing the U.S. forces did in Europe compares with the ruthlessness of the Red Army as it advanced from the defeat of the last German offensive at Stalingrad.  There are many reports of Red Army savagery against the German citizens as the Russians crossed into Germany, and, in particular, during its last drive toward Berlin.  Of course, it can be argued that the German invasion of Poland and Russia was even more ruthless and cruel to the innocents of these countries.  The Nazi death camps were an unparalleled human travesty whose memory can never be erased.   Did that Nazi savagery justify the behavior of the Red Army?  It is impossible to answer such a question.

How then, are we to deal with the discovery in recent days of executed Ukrainians, apparently killed by their Russian military captors, sometimes with shots to the head while the victims were bound?  How should we deal with the looting of the homes of Ukrainians by retreating Russian soldiers? Who will punish the Russians for their current savagery or the Russian military for not disciplining their invading troops? Are such cruelties performed on orders from superior officers?  Were they in response to the Russian defeats suffered in engagements with active Ukrainian units trying to liberate areas first conquered by the invading army of Russia? Were the perpetrators young, untrained draftees who responded to the deaths of their own comrades by killing innocent civilians?

Drawing a line between cruel military tactics and a policy of trying to limit the casualties of an invading army—even when that army is an aggressor—is a permanent fault line for military strategists.   We have history to guide us.  There is a long line of historic cruelties that stretches back even to Fifth Century Greece.

Many college students read with horror Thucydides’ graphic account of the Athenian attack on Melos, a small island that seemed sympathetic to Sparta.  Athens’ conduct seems to be such a counterweight to the formidable, democratic ideals of Athens that are also carefully studied.   The Melian debate portrays the sad fate of a small nation attempting to stay “neutral,” in the Athenian war with Sparta.  Melos is sacrificed because the Athenians fear that the Melians could pose a threat if the island were recaptured by the Spartans!   Thucydides tells us that all the Melian men were executed and the women and children sold into slavery!  This was a tragedy of war with a moral dilemma that has been repeated many times since.

Now, we come to reports of Russian soldiers executing Ukrainian civilians and the glaring, visual evidence of Russian artillery and missiles used relentlessly against the villages, cities and people of Ukraine.  The destruction of private homes and public facilities means much rebuilding will remain even if the war ends the killing for now.  How should we react to such brutality?  Who should pay for this destruction and by what means should repayment be made?


This is foreground for thinking through a necessary reset of American foreign policy toward Russia.  We cannot go back to our prior policy stance that was inconsistent and flawed.  Yes, Russia is a nuclear power and the possibility that a Thug like Putin emulates the Nazi Thug Hitler can never be totally dismissed.  Hitler died understanding that Germany was losing.  According to some historians, he expressed a wish that it be destroyed in a funeral pyre because the Germans had let him down!  Yet, realizing that Putin is a Thug and that Russian tactics are vicious in the extreme to innocents caught in their line of fire, should never be an excuse to admit Russian motives are justifiable.  We should not accept the Putinesque vision of a re-constitution of the old empire of the USSR.  We made that mistake in 2014 and Putin read our “book!”   We promised Ukraine that they would be protected if they gave up their nuclear weaponry.   We didn’t keep that promise in 2014 when the Russians annexed parts of Ukraine bordering on the Black Sea (Crimea) and which it still holds.  Had we acted then, it is likely we would not be seeing Ukrainians murdered and catastrophic property damage inflicted.  Being “soft,” or “accepting” of Russian phobic fears of NATO was the wrong answer then.  It is not the right answer now.

Thug regimes are much alike.  They rule by fear and specialized, directed violence against those who protest.  Russia only respects fearful outcomes as a State.  We should enact a foreign policy toward Russia that shows strength and continuity.  Russia must fear us in order to respect the peace.  A Russia without fear of U.S. actions is not a stable element of world order.

We should reflect carefully on how Russia treats its own dissidents—those brave Russians who protest their leaders’ violence and totalitarian governance.  The Putin government beats them, jails them, and sentences them in Kangaroo Courts to the Putin Gulag.  They resort to murdering  leaders of dissent in Russia, as well as Russians who flee to the West.   Russia, ruled as it is, can never be our ally in trying to bring calm to the Middle East.  We need to immediately cease that delusion as well in our negotiations with Iran.  Our efforts to restrain Iran are often based upon Russia as an interlocutor.  We fool ourselves with such policies.

One of the great ironies of the Russian invasion are the reported attempts by Finland and Sweden to consider joining NATO.  Finland had a tragic military experience with Russia in 1940.  The Finns at first successfully resisted the attack by the USSR, again over false claims that Finland would not be neutral toward Russia.  Then the Russians inflicted massive casualties to people and property and took over parts of Finland.  The similarity to the Ukrainian attack is telling.  And, for the Swedes to consider giving up their long-held neutrality bespeaks a real fear that their only credible defense against Russia is to join NATO and acquire strong allies.  Finally, the behavior of Germany, which has reversed nearly 20 years of Merkel’s toadying to Russian markets and Russian Oil and Gas, is striking.  A pleasant surprise  indeed.  It needs to be amplified.

The U.S. needs a complete Reset of its foreign policies toward Putin-controlled Russia.   We can and must counter their military buildup; their active military stance in Syria; and, we must try to reverse their conquest of former Ukrainian territory along the Black Sea.  Finally, we must not be misled by their threats of nuclear war.  We must be fully armed and fully ready and we should make the Russians highly aware of our capabilities.  The Cold War was won by consistent diligence, supported by both of our political parties.  Only Resolve will succeed against totalitarian Thugs.

Russian policies toward the West are now quite clear.   This Administration must do an immediate reset of its Foreign Policy.  There will be benefits to such a reset—particularly in Asia.  We should follow through with a meaningful reset toward China.  No longer, can it be “business as usual” in either Putin Russia or Ji Pin’s China.  Our policy has to be a deliberate, dedicated stance of supporting our allies, explicitly, and not kowtowing to a “one China policy” that merely placates a totalitarian regime.

A reset also requires the U.S. to formulate a permanent policy with regard to Russian exports to the West.  This should apply to all oil and gas imported by the West, but import restrictions to all Russian products must also be implemented.  Germany is in an awkward position as is Italy, but we are in a definitive Cold War II with Russia as it is now ruled.   We should levy heavy taxation on all Russian petroleum and gas imported into the West, and those tax receipts should be used to rebuild the terrifying damage in Ukraine, to people who have lost family and have lost their homes and businesses.  Such policies need not be restricted to Russian Oil and Gas.  Sadly, this means that part of the tax revenue so raised will come from Western pockets as it lowers returns from exports to Russia.

A government policy that is clear will motivate citizens to look to the origin of their energy supplies as well as to other Russian exports.  Restrictions should stop only when Russia moves away from its current policies. In the meanwhile, there will be meaningful  losses of revenue to the Oligarchs and to Putin from depressed prices of  oil and gas as well as other Russian exports.   We should never agree to pay for such imports in Russian rubles.  Forget that approach by the Russians.  Just say “No!”  If you don’t like payment in Euros or Dollars, find another market!

In similar fashion, the West should provide no insurance to Western firms that wish to invest in Russia.   Firms doing that should receive no protection from Western, tax payer supported governments.  If shareholders don’t punish an American entity for such risk-taking, that is the business of that entity, but the West should offer no Government sponsored protection from the Russian authorities or their thug mob of Oligarchs.  A similar ban on Russian investment in the U.S. should be considered.    Why encourage asset diversification that benefits Oligarchs that support Putin?  We need to make tough sanctions and then keep them indefinitely until Russia truly changes.   The need for a total Reset is now!

The entire West, and particularly the United States, has to realize that Putin’s Russia is a serious enemy.   It is an armed nuclear state that claims it is willing to launch aggression against its neighbors on highly profaned grounds.  We cannot do better unless we take their threats seriously and respond in kind, now and until Russia throws out its own Thugs.

Russia is likely to experience a revolt only when a dedicated minority realize the pain that Putin causes.  That means that the principal beneficiaries of Putin Thuggery have to experience severe pain by losing export markets and being refused status in the West.   We should gear that reset in policy to run as long as Russia remains a totalitarian state.   It may take several generations, but it is the right policy for now and the foreseeable future.

Milton Friedman; Freedom’s Greatest Advocate

(presentation to the Liberta Society; Buenos Aires 7/29/2021)

Image courtesy: clubdelalibertad.com

While Liberalism, in its classic 19th Century sense, is suffering a decline as the State extends its dominion over free markets around the world, the crucial linkage between Freedom and Free Markets for Liberty remains. Its greatest spokesman during the the 20th Century was Professor Milton Friedman. Even in Argentina where Government controls have eroded the potential for economic growth and a rising standard of living, the kernel of Friedman’s ideas remains, hopefully to re-emerge and energize the Argentine economy and the freedom of its people.

In preparing these notes, I have the good fortune to be spending a leisurely vacation in Greece (now in Thessaloniki, but I wrote this in Athens), the home of the first “democratic society” of which we have some considerable records. Ironically, the world is recovering from a hideous, international “plague” (Covid 19) which has limited our freedoms in so many ways, while enabling Governments to intervene in our ability to freely associate, to innovate, to travel, to teach, to express our ideas, to engage in free commerce as well as many other activities, all in the name of “protecting” us! Secondly, we might note that Athens was doubly set back at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war by a “Plague,” (not yet quite clearly identified) which crippled her response to the Spartan attacks and ultimately claimed the life of it most noted political leader, Pericles. I point that out because in my subsequent remarks about Professor Milton Freedom, the question of political leadership is not fully treated as it must be if we are to fully understand the pathways he outlined for us over his long career.

I had the good fortune of being a student at Chicago during Professor Friedman’s prime years in the early 1960’s when many of his ideas were often ridiculed both by other professional economists and by Government officials who had rather Statist views on the role of Government, descending from the then prevalence of Keynesian ideas left over from the last great experiments in Government (The Great Depression and the end of WWII.)

The first edition of Milton Friedman’s luminary work, Capitalism and Freedom, came out in 1962 in the midst of my graduate years at Chicago…and we know that it was not well received at the time. In fact, most of us who were totally overwhelmed by Friedman’s scope of interests in economics and politics, and his well noted analytical capabilities, found much of Capitalism and Freedom as “old news” already featured in some ways by his lectures in Price Theory—which we all took—and his efforts to change the focus of monetary policy. (Via his monumental book with Anna Schwartz, The Monetary History of the United States was published in 1963).

Another irony struck me as I reviewed the Forward (by Binyamin Appelbaum) to Capitalism and Freedom in his statement that capitalism “had fallen into some disfavor,” at the time. (1962). Capitalism and Freedom came out during the great fascination by many students at the time with the alleged success of Soviet Communism (e.g.Sputnik) and some mystic appreciation of what appeared to be the political success in China of the CCPC under Mao Tze tung. The brutalities and exterminations of millions that had occurred during the earlier years of these regimes were not widely documented until Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago appeared in the West in the late 1970’s.

I mention this chronology precisely because we are witnessing a second episode of Capitalism’s “disfavor” in the United States, and also in many other countries. Witness the changes in Latin America in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. And, in the USA, where Capitalism has raised our standard of living to its highest level in history–and reduced poverty by immense amounts wherever it has been given a chance to flourish. If you watch the US Media or read the majority of its newspapers, you wouldn’t know that. It would appear that “Capitalism and Freedom” has failed and failed badly! When we see the epithet of “Racism” cast about so freely by young people, often from middle class backgrounds, you have to wonder just what kind of education has disabled their knowledge of U.S. history; their awareness of brutal coercion in many non-capitalist societies; and, their understanding of the actual data of economic progress over the last 60 years since Milton Friedman published “Capitalism and Freedom.”

Milton Friedman has often been cited as the outstanding economist of the 20th Century. As far as his technical contributions, there is no dispute that his efforts in the 1940s-50s-60s-70s illuminated much of macroeconomics and still continue to bear fruit. His policy analyses of housing, of the virtues of Charter Schools as a market based educational alternative, of the flexibility offered to macro policies through elimination of exchange controls and his long advocacy of abolishing restrictions to international trade are part of the lexicon of freer markets and freer economies.

Normally, a man who covered such a range of social policy should be satisfied with such a menu of accomplishment, but I think the Milton Friedman that we knew in the 1990’s and 2000’s was not completely finished with both his analysis of current conditions nor his vivid assertions that free markets were essential to political freedom. Let me amplify those thoughts a bit.

When we look around the world—particularly at the nominally “democratic states,”— that is those states that are not governed by some form of totalitarian regime, we do observe a growing division between people who believe they are “free” and those who believe they are “controlled” by some amorphous and ill-defined cabal of special interests. We see this in the “Black Lives Matter” movement; in the looting and burning of certain sections of American Cities often by protestors willing to turn their demonstrations into violence. We see it from supporters of our previous President who attacked the Congress in a physically violent protest in which several died. We see it in protests in Europe and Eastern Europe on both the so-called “left” and on the “right.” It almost appears as if we are watching history repeat itself.

Marx claimed that history repeats, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Should we think of what is going on today in nominally democratic states a farce? Perhaps, the second time is a tragedy as well? Or, is there some inherent connection between the seeming success of capitalism in the nominally democratic states and the discontent of our younger generation who frequently storm against “Capitalism,” the very system that has given them such enlarged economic opportunities and that has stood at the base of their political freedom.

In my view, there is a common theme that resonates in our current age of discontent. It is what I would call the “Doctrine of Fairness.” Apparently, the fact that free markets generate immense outpourings of innovation and that markets reward such innovations so well in an age of globalization, are principle ingredients to the Discontent of many. Invidious comparisons are drawn by many individuals between their own personal economic status and the highly publicized outcomes of the very wealthy. The latter, for a multitude of reasons, have gone far beyond the rewards of simple labor income. Indeed, much of their wealth and the income from that wealth is financial, stemming from their ownership of intellectual and physical capital. The wealthy cannot spend but a fraction of what their human and physical capital produces and their lifestyles are far different from the “average” family. Of course, as we know, in economies whose markets are much less than free, the “rich” do proportionately even better than do the “rich” in much less restricted markets, but that fact is scarcely addressed in public media. One has only to look at the kleptocracies around the world for a demonstration of that kind of inequality.

Furthermore, it appears to the Media and to the “common man” that the political clout by the wealthy with bureaucrats and senior politicians is far greater than those whose income derives solely from Labor. The implication of that observation, whether it is true or not, we can put on the back burner for now, is that “special interests” get served far faster and more thoroughly than the “mass” of the people. That observation takes me back to Ancient Greece, and the troubled history of the first great democracy, Athens.

Any fair reading of Athenian politics in the 5th Century BC shows that while it is true that there were always “leading” families and individuals who had closer access to important political and governing figures, Athenian politics was in fact heavily influenced, even dominated by the mass of Athenians who had significant political rights rather than significant property. One can even argue that it was the “Mass” that forced the bad choices of Leaders and Strategies (Sicily for example) that led to the ultimate defeat of Athens. Athens never recovered from its failed campaign in Sicily against Syracuse.

Applebaum in his notes brings out the fact that in his later years the intimate connection that Friedman had initially drawn between the necessity for Free Markets to undergird Freedom itself became perhaps less clear to him. Yet, the clear distinction between a totalitarian state and the freedom of those who are so ruled by such a state and a freely elected democratic state remains. But within democratic states, there are infinite variations in content and in style over property rights and free markets. Some democratic states are freer than others. Fairness of outcomes differs between countries. In some states, overwhelmed by the numbers who are clearly POOR, restricting the freedom of others and changing the distribution of output in a significant way becomes a more appealing choice than allowing extremely capable and industrious people to rise into the class of great wealth. The political outcome is to restrict by taxation or by Government spending programs the growth of the economy as a whole. Furthermore, and this is an area that Milton Friedman did not much opine about publicly, the outcome in different states is heavily influenced by the quality and the understanding of the leaders chosen by the voters.

Inevitably, the poorest voters—who by numbers are the largest class of voters—are persuaded they can have “Guns and Butter,” to use the old antonyms. As a result, politicians compete to spend Other People’s Money in order to gain or retain political office. They change tax laws and conditions of competition attempting to legislate “Fairness of Outcome.” Many of these measures limit the growth in output and often do not even readjust the outcomes to be more “FAIR.” However, appearances count more than substance. Voters are influenced by Presentation, not by actual data.

Abraham Lincoln said, “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time,” but a closely competitive political society doesn’t need the vote of all of the people. It just has to move the margin a bit. Binary voting outcomes are unlike market outcomes. Markets move output by the amount of dollars spent on the output—proportional representation so to speak. Voting outcomes are binary. One votes for A or B but political trades among the political winners can create a working majority of interest. What may count more in a binary choice system is moving the percentages slightly because then the “winner” can restructure the game. The Winner can become a virtual totalitarian. The bottom line of this kind of analysis is the old wisdom contained in the writers of the The Federalist Papers concerning the danger of a Tyranny of the Majority. It always exists in a democracy. Once a majority controls the Government, it can change the rules for political competition.

In my judgment Milton Friedman was the greatest spokesman for Freedom in my lifetime. He lived a very long and extremely productive intellectual life that had many spinoffs. He never gave up his defense of Freedom and the importance of Free Markets in enhancing and protecting that Freedom. However, the implementation of Freedom also requires good leadership ===leadership that is willing to see through the mist of “Fairness”. Politicians and bureaucrats focus on Now; good leadership looks for good outcomes in the Future. We have a deep need for another Milton Friedman to show us how that linkage can be achieved and how to choose leaders that will stay on the right path to that future.

Let me conclude with a few takeaways. In short, Liberals have a big load to lift!

Capitalism and Freedom is an elegant and persuasive argument for Freedom as opposed to growing Government Control… but if we look around the world, LIBERALISM IS NOW LOSING

Whether we look at nominally democratic governments or those governments that are explicitly totalitarian, THE STATE IS WINNING

As empirical economists trained by Milton Friedman, we should be asking why are we losing?

My own conclusion, not necessarily documented by clever and much needed research, is that people seem to accept several major premises:

  1. The functions of Government have grown exponentially over time: Explicit control over individual behavior is vastly preferred to the imperceptible functioning of markets.
  2. Human behavior seems to be heavily influenced by Risk Aversion. People are more prone to the allure that Government can fix the lottery characteristics of human outcomes —in spite of the vast empirical evidence of Government failure to contrive Equality of outcome! Governments can help Equality of Opportunity — they may not be able to create Equality of Outcome.
  3. A survey of Friedman’s critiques of Government intervention leads to some severe disappointments: public housing, social security, professional licensure, minimum wages, the end of the corporate income tax and assignment of undistributed earnings to shareholders as taxable income, the end of the inheritance tax and establishment of a flat income tax, ending tariffs and quotas, farm subsidies, and clearly, monetary authority rules vs bureaucratic authority.

a. volunteer army— not mentioned in CAPITALISM AND FREEDOM
b. some progress on Charter Schools with small progress on use of public resources for charter schools
c. the negative income tax


Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom (p. ix). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Link: http://clubdelalibertad.com/cycle-of-tributes-tribute-to-milton-friedman/

DISORGANIZED CRIMES goes international…

Accounting fraud at WIRECARD.

Every so often a seemingly deliberate accounting fraud deceives investors and accountants and winds up stimulating regulatory zeal.   The financials debacles of 2001-2 and 2008-9 led to Sarbanes-Oxley and Gramm-Dodd. We should expect that if the Corona-virus causes immense financial dislocations, we will see financial fraud and regulatory actions grow apace. Before the curtain on new episodes of Congressional Propriety goes up, we should begin to ask whether regulators have succeeded in the past and what costs are imposed? The recent disclosure of a large financial fraud in a large German public company (Wirecard) is a signal for the fraud parade is beginning. We don’t really have the essential facts to analyze this case but the similarity to our previous work elicits a few comments

1) Most accounting frauds of major public companies are detected by some market participants long before regulators are ever alerted.   Regulators don’t like short sellers so they are often late to the crime and by then the major damage to the “longs” has been done.  Next come the lawyers, but that is a story about insurance law and rewards to successful class action litigators.  There are several lessons here worth remembering. One might be if E&Y, Wirecard’s auditor noticed anything from Wirecard’s price volatility much earlier? If so, why didn’t they act much earlier. The usual answer is that they don’t wish to lose a client. More on this below

  1. such frauds usually begin with companies already on a losing path.  The resulting frauds are designed to conceal true operating losses.  Enron and WorldCom are class one exhibits

  2. frauds of this kind usually involve auditors who have long standing ties to the fraud company. (ah, yes… should we be asking for term limits for auditors once again?). We can count on the advocacy of those most affected (accounting firms) and political friends to be assured that meaningful term limits are not likely

  3. another question to ask is “Where were the Directors?” But even without the facts in this case, we know that Directors are more often there to bless and shield their managements. They are not likely to probe too deeply in searching potential corporate financial behavior for mismanagement or fraud cases. Company managements get very uncomfortable with a overly-zealous Director

2) Is regulation imperfect as an answer to deter financial fraud?  Again, case details are important, but generic punishments without individual liabilities for Directors, Auditors and Corporate General Counsels make ongoing investigation difficult and unrewarding to outside agencies tasked to protect investors.  Conclusion:  the corporate establishment that includes auditors, directors, general counsels, credit raters, underwriters, and even some bankers is all to willing to sacrifice by investing in more errors and omissions insurance and reliance on the long lag between crime and punishment in exchange for avoiding personal liability. (“You can’t blame me for dishonest clients!”)

It is another example of the famous line in the movie A Few Good Men, when Defense Counsel (Cruise) demands the truth, Colonel Jessup (Nicholson) answers, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH.” We call this Jessup’s Law. It needs to be a part of every class in Corporate Governance!

In short, Frauds like Crime are inevitable because for some individuals, the probable rewards of fraud exceed the expected value of their personal losses.

Of course, we could do better, but the costs of fraud protection via regulations rise as well.   We could do better, perhaps, but we infer that Society believes the optimal quantity of financial fraud is not zero. The costs of prevention are not zero, while the praise for corporate honesty from Philosophers, Pastors and Op-ed Writers is insufficient to enforce a more rigorous anti-fraud environment.

Bloomberg’s report on Wirecard can be found at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-26/wirecard-auditors-say-elaborate-fraud-led-to-missing-billions

The Credit Raters Oligopoly

Sometimes, the obvious solution to Agency Problems turns out to be impossible. Disorganized Crimes discussed to an obvious agency issue in the meltdown of the 2007-8 Credit Crisis. Who paid for credit ratings seemed to be an obvious conflict of interest problem for issuers of complex mortgage securities. Credit rating agencies competed for business of credit issuers, and the rating issuers didn’t want to lose issuer business by looking more deeply into the real credit quality of complex mortgage structures, and, more particularly, what could happen if the housing market went into sharp decline. Institutional buyers of mortgage securities needed particular ratings of these structured issues that would qualify them as consistent to their respective investment mandates. They were label and yield driven.
Everything was fine…until the wheels came off the mortgage bus!

Obviously, conflicts of interest made quality credit reporting highly suspect, deeply troubled by agency considerations. Solution: Have buyers pay for ratings!

Maybe? Maybe Not!

Along comes a new credit ratings agency with that kind of business model. The new Credit Rating agency business model seemed to be an obvious way to break up the credit ratings oligopoly? That’s what Jules Kroll thought, and his successful prior career in providing security to large firms seemed to make him a highly qualified entrant to the Credit Rating market.

Guess what? Credit portfolio managers like free lunches. Pay for ratings that known credit raters provide freely to the credit issuers? Didn’t happen! Kroll found it difficult to attract customers.

After struggling for a few years, poor market responses convinced him that to get customers he had to play on the traditional rating agency ball field. Let the issuers pay. Back to square one.
What’s the real lesson from this market test? Markets don’t price extreme events very well! Credit crises don’t happen frequently and 2007-8 had some singular peculiarities. They are not an everyday event ,and in addition, there was a new regulatory regime in place after Dodd-Frank and the Fed got involved with financial intermediary balance sheets. Users of credit ratings didn’t place a high enough value on receiving credit ratings likely to be less influenced by the obvious Agency issue of having the issuer pay the Rater for its services. The obvious conflict of interest got very little attention, and few customers of credit ratings were willing to pay for them. Mr. Market spoke loudly!

A similar situation might be the relative lack of shareholder interest in comparative compensation data that Public Firms must now release when Executive Compensation plans are being established. That raises interesting issues on assessing the costs and benefits of regulations designed by regulators with the “public interest” in mind.
At the end of the day, the failure of a buyer-paid credit rating agency tells about how markets tend to diminish “highly less probable events.”

Sometimes the “obvious” isn’t really so obvious!

TRUMP’S POLICIES: campaign promises and the realities of governance

please find our post at www.ecomentary.com and use any browser EXCEPT GOOGLE CHROME You can use the following URL http://ecomentary.com/trumps-policies-campaign-promises-and-the-realities-of-governance/

As we have reported before, Google Chrome tagged the www.disorganizedcrimes.net web site even though there is NO MALWARE.Unfortunately, Google Chrome runs by its own rules and no matter what is submitted to them they post the “potential Phishing site” even if one tells them otherwise and makes sure the site is clean.Power Corrupts Absolutely


Happy Thanksgiving

TRUMP’S POLICIES: campaign promises and the realities of governance

The surprising electoral victory by Donald Trump (and his loss in the popular vote) has the media intensely speculating on the likely domestic and international polices of the incoming Administration. The pre-campaign rhetoric is being searched for relevant inferences on the new Administration ‘s likely policy agenda of economics and international policies. That is likely to be misleading precisely because Trump ‘s election campaign was so different from traditional Presidential campaigns. What it took to win might be quite different than what it will take to govern. Even the early appointments do not yet give us a definitive picture to the actual governance menu that Trump presents.

The gap between campaign promises and likely policies should serve as a warning that predicting the actual policy menu of this President is likely to be fraught with more than the usual uncertainties. Without sufficiently definitive statements from the President elect, since his victory, preconceived hopes and inherited prejudices rule, particularly in the media. After Henry Kissinger’s meeting with Trump, his comments to the press referred to the difference between election promises and substantive policy. He was puzzled as well.

Still, markets are forward looking and responses have been seemingly positive at least regarding economic policies thought to be likely. Yet, market reactions often fasten on previously noted criticisms of people and industries without any definitive explication of what actual Presidential preferences will be. Trump ‘s criticism of some major Silicon Valley giants has been cited as a reason in the decline in their shares, but at this point no one really knows how policy will be shaped by his relatively weak connections to the Hi-Tech industry. The transition between the old and new Administration is likely to contain unexpected surprises.[1]

Presidential transitions have traditions and both the President and the President Elect at their first meeting seemed to recognize that both can gain from a smooth transition that excludes painful pre-election charges and focuses instead on what will be good for Americans of every stripe. The “progressive and/or liberal” media has been less forgiving of the transition process, as have some of the badly bruised Democratic politicians. Democrats are still in disbelief that voters turned against what they thought were their needed “progressive” ideas, particularly since major polls predicted victory. Rather than looking at their own their own agenda and bias, the “kept” media and the progressive zealots are trying to assign blame to external events, such as the querulous behavior of the FBI, to explain the Democratic Party defeat. The claim that FBI Chief Comey caused Clinton ‘s loss seems like “sour grapes,” but it will provide impedance to a smooth transition and opposition to the Trump policy agenda in its first 100 Days. Perhaps even more importantly, that continuing disbelief and heavy criticism of the President Elect will serve to prevent the Democrats from a useful inward meditation over what American voters want as opposed to what Democrats told them they ought to want.

We had long thought the Republican Party would need a thoroughgoing internal revolution beginning with what they believed their Party stood for, but as it has turned out, their victory has closed off that review, at least for now. Instead, it is the Democratic Party that has been badly split open. The split between the parties, however, surely will widen once the actual Trump agenda becomes public accompanied along with the appointments in the new Administration. As the new Administration formalizes its policies, it is quite likely that bitter factional disputes will still emerge from under the Republican tent.

At this stage, then, appraising the likely Trump legislative and administrative agenda is chancy and predictions may fail when the rubber finally meets the road. Nonetheless, we try below to put together what we think the top policy advisors and the President Elect will choose as their main lines of policy. We divide our analysis between International Economics and Politics and Domestic Affairs, even though they are clearly interdependent.

Geopolitics and Geo-economics

As Commander-in-Chief, the President will be faced with immediate decisions because while our troop involvement is in the anti-ISIS campaign is small, significant military and economic resources are deployed and there is no immediate “discharge of the war.” Trump is on record saying, “I will destroy ISIS” but the practical content of that intended destruction has not been made clear.

Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements have also included objecting to the Iran “deal,” supporting Israel, demanding NATO members increase their support, a possible change in our stance toward Russia, immigration reform (including the Wall), protecting the homeland, China (both currency “manipulations” and Chinese exports) and ending the traditional “free trade” orientation of American international economic policy. That forms a very big agenda and clashes with traditional Republican preferences in many areas.

The list requires attention to both foreign and domestic affairs and would tax even the most well prepared President Elect. Unfortunately, after such a strenuous political campaign, the new Administration has to have policies for these areas immediately without perhaps sufficient internal deliberation as to the form such policy changes are to take.

It doesn ‘t seem that Trump undertook major policy reviews during the campaign and with less than two months before inauguration, the new Administration is going to be extremely busy developing the details of its policy agenda. Moreover, because the Trump utterances during the campaign challenge traditional Republican ideas, Trump will have to spend a major effort to argue his policy case to the American and foreign publics. At the same time, we should expect significant interruptions to policy formulation from events outside the US that operate on their own time clock.

Iran and Russia: Trump repeatedly denounced the Iran deal. He claimed US negotiators got snookered. A simplistic approach that worked in the campaign requires significant articulation when it comes to implementing changes. Still, it seems that Trump will be unlikely to leave this running wound alone. He will need to do something not only to be consistent with his campaign statements, but also because Iran is so heavily involved with the various American allies in the Mideast. The news will still carry reports of deaths and casualties to our troops abroad, so the wars there can scarcely be avoided. In addition, European allies of the United States endorsed the agreement and already are promoting business deals in Iran. Can Trump construct a strategy that is at least consistent with his pre-election critiques while maintaining the support of European allies that previously supported the ending the Iran embargo Possibly, by linking a change in the Iranian agreement with a new look ‘ at Russia. If he chooses to deal with both Iran and Russia (Putin) at the same time, he may find he has some leverage. This would be a bi-modal policy menu. Let’s begin with Russia.

Clearly, the embargo has hurt the Russian economy. Without access to international capital markets, much investment to improve the Russian economy has been neglected. This surely affects Putin directly, but in a larger sense, reviving economic growth in Russia benefits not only Putin, by solidifying his position with his own people, but also such investment could improve Russian life while creating better tax resources for the Russian government.

Suppose Trump offered Putin an end to the embargo and entry into western capital markets in exchange for Russia ending its Iranian love affair Would Putin be willing to substantially cut back support for Iran and perhaps withdraw Russian military support for Assad How much benefit does Russia gain from shipping military hardware to Iran and spending precious resources keeping the Russian military occupied in Syria The devil will be in the details of any Russian pull back in Iran. Trump could offer US relief on Crimea and the Ukraine if Putin agreed to move out of Syria and stop supplying weaponry to Iran. Trump would also have to find a way to separate US interests in the Baltic States from his apparent disinterest in the Ukraine and Crimea. Separating Iran and Russia could offer additional benefits for Trump. A weakening of the military supply pipeline to Iran might make it easier for the US to exert tighter control on Iranian support for terrorism around the world (particularly for Hezbollah) and tamp down terrorist threats to Israel. That might create further openings for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In addition, negotiating an accommodation with Putin would bring German domestic politics into play because a substantial portion of inbound Russian investment has traditionally come from Germany. With the possible exit of the UK from the EU, German business might well be supportive of a Putin-Trump negotiated end of the Russian embargo. The political left in the EU that wanted expansion to the East is not a Merkel ally anyway, and she will need to button down her center and right wing support for the upcoming elections this spring. Merkel undoubtedly was not pleased by the Trump rhetoric on Muslims, but her own political survival will be her immediate focus. If Trump can move the Russians out of Syria, the enormous pressure of potential Muslim immigration into Europe could be relieved, making Germany’s neighbors in the EU much happier with their prospects.

The Obama administration was addicted to a kind of naive idealism that sacrificed the domestic interests of many of its allies. That came back to haunt Democrats in American voting booths, even when not well revealed by faulty polling. One could not expect Clinton to have gone back on the Iranian deal that she so heavily endorsed, but Trump ‘s victory has left him with an opening to satisfy both foreign and domestic critics of his election rhetoric. A successful deal with Putin would mark finished to the Democratic Party contention that Trump was “unqualified” to be President.

China: Trump’s focus on “exported American jobs,” and his complaints about Chinese currency manipulation have also seemed simplistic. The progressive media denounced his views on China because they claimed a trade war would ensue, but one can also read this situation quite differently. Given the collapsing bubble in China, does it make sense for the Chinese to take a hard line against Trump if he tries to tamp down Chinese exports to the US, particularly steel and aluminum China has an immense capital flight problem that exacerbates its currency depreciation. Suppose China is induced by Trump negotiators to put on its own export quotas (a feat that the Clinton administration accomplished when faced with rapid Japanese auto exports in the 1990’s) Trump could claim some victories for his “Art of the Deal,” technique. How many jobs such export controls would produce is perhaps less meaningful then the demonstration of loyalty to the blue-collar Democrats that crossed over and sustained his election. Similar export quotas applied to a few other “visible” industries would give Trump some credibility with his new domestic allies. Would China be willing to do that

An export quota also offers the Chinese Communist Party some leverage on its own cronies. China has an extensive crony reward system, so it could help XI Jin-ping to discipline some members of the industrial elite and their allies in the CCP. After all, it is the rich who have the money that seeks exit from China. Export controls offer a new stick with which to beat the Chinese moneyed classes. China is not a “Free Trader,” so they would have no ideological reservations of exerting more controls at their own border. They can ration the implied rents that come from enforcing such export controls. Export controls reward the “old” versus the “new,” and it is the old industrialists that they need to keep in tow. If China would put non-cooperation with North Korea on the negotiating table, they might get some additional leverage in future negotiations with the new US Administration. By now, even the Chinese realize that controlling North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions is becoming more dangerous for China itself.

Critics will assert historic Chinese pride that resists “bowing down” to an American President and would likely doom such an outcome from the beginning. Perhaps, but Great Powers can still negotiate without appearing to be subservient. It is always a balancing of interests. There is leverage here for both political leaders. Giving kudos to Trump, the Chinese could also earn some credit at the table on other issues important to China in the geopolitical arena. Trump is not an ideologist. He will look for short-term gains wherever he can find them. The “Art” in such a “Deal” will appeal to Trump.

Trump on Brexit: The new administration can hardly object to the UK’s wish to regain its domestic sovereignty and thereby control its own borders. Trump is preaching from the same pulpit to a similar American choir. He wants to be less tied down by foreign entanglements, and be less responsive to European demands on climate and immigration. The UK will still be the US’s closest ally and supporting the UK will put pressure on NATO members in the EU to carry more of the defense burden that Trump has criticized. It may also make EU members more willing to be supportive of a program to crush ISIS. Trump inherits a lot of possibilities that his predecessor has left him, and he can continue to draw the line more solidly between his new administration and the policies of his defeated opponents

Immigration, the Wall and North American economic relations: Now elected, Trump can gain domestic political support by showing he is going to carry out his “Wall” proposal even if in a less drastic way than implied during the campaign. The Wall doesn’t have to be a huge infrastructure project that will be difficult to finance and to engineer. He can build a bit of brick and mortar and use chain-linked fence and then move to a much more sophisticated monitoring program, carrying a “Big Stick to get some help from Mexico. What he really needs is improved joint-enforcement. Mexico can reduce extensive brick and mortar by actually helping to police trips to the border by Mexican and other Latino migrants. Once it becomes known that Mexico itself is policing the new “Wall,” we might expect a much smaller volume of immigration. More adequate surveillance can come from better technology on both sides of the border instead of brick and mortar. If Trump builds a little (probably essential to calm his supporters to build a “Great Wall” structure) while massively engaging in digital deterrence, it will slow down illegal crossings and win support of US technologists. He can even make hay politically by showing he is “rounding up some of the usual suspects” without appearing to be a “racist.” Furthermore, capturing and deporting those immigrants who have committed crimes or those who don’t have the proper documents, need not trigger huge outcries from civil libertarians, if done thoughtfully and humanely. He will, however, have to face the “family breakup” issue. Legal support for such a program doesn’t need new Congressional agreement. The law is already there, but it does need thoughtful and sensitive enforcement. His ideological critics will shriek, but this could be managed with conscience and constant monitoring of the program. It will need support of the bureaucrats, as will other domestic programs (see below). With the right kind of leadership, it is definitely possible. His first requirement is to show he is stopping the flow.

International Climate Policies: The politically motivated assertion by the Obama Administration that climate issues were already scientifically determined and only right wing ideological objections remained to be quashed was both misleading and actually counter-productive. Trump has a chance to lead with a fresh stance. There are many thoughtful scientists who don’t think the climate issue is merely politics. The inability of long-term climate models to predict shorter-term climate behavior has led to some serious questioning of whether or not we already have the proper model. Nonetheless, Trump can steer around the current impasse by coming to a nuanced position that says in the absence of certainty, policies should go part of the way. Then, the argument shifts to how much, at what cost, and which nations will jointly underwrite the cost of less carbon in the atmosphere. Broached this way, some of the political toxicity is taken out of the argument while a focus on the efficacy and the cost of such measures comes to the fore. That can be welcomed by both climate change doomsayers and climate skeptics. It also points the way to deal with the international aspects of large-scale coal burning in developing countries such as India and China. Shifting the debate from the extremes has to be a plus for all participants, although we should recognize it will not still the voices of those who have made “saving the planet” a religious undertaking. The Art of the Deal cannot please everyone. The lesson is not to try to please everyone, but move ahead on a defensible basis. A similar approach can be implemented with regard to issues such as overfishing and forest burning.

The extreme climate crowd shouts doom and gloom. A thoughtful approach that moves coherently and economically might never quell the alarm of the “doomsayers,” but it does not have to face the criticism that “nothing is being done.” A simple program of carbon taxation will take out much of the bite from the climate crowd.

Domestic Economics

Trump is in a good position to move ahead on tax policies as long as he is caring of traditional Republican budgetary concerns. Again the Art of the Deal means essential focus on the details of cutting taxes but not throwing the US onto a sharply growing budge deficit path.

The economy has grown far too slowly over the period since 2009. While the deficit has shrunk as a percentage of GDP, that percentage could fall even faster with faster growth GDP growth. The Democratic taunt of “trickle down economics” can be defanged. Tutoring Trump ‘s enlarged voting public on the importance of increasing economic growth can weaken those fears. Even Larry Summers spoke to this issue during the campaign, chiding his Democratic colleagues that they needed to be growth-oriented. Getting to 3 or 3.5% growth will take a lot of strain out of the tough decisions over Medicare and Social Security. Growth of business investment spending has been poor during the past eight years and if a higher growth rate is to be achieved, business spending must grow sharply. Cutting corporate taxes should help, but quelling erratic and inconsistent Government regulatory interference will create a more certain environment for CEO’s and CFO’s to invest. A multi-year tax plan will give business the chance to properly isolate better from poorer projects and give business confidence that increased earnings will turn out to be increased earnings net of tax. Proper incentives are the first step in winning this game. In addition, the Trump Administration can hold the carrot of a much reduced “repatriation” tax (say cut to 7 or 10%) that will quell much of the concern of domestic business over higher interest rates in the future and generate needed tax revenues. Again, it is a question of details, not direction. The progressives will cry “trickle down,” but if the Administration moves strongly in the first year, some results might well appear before the next bi-election in 2018 and perhaps cement Republican control in the Senate even further.

Trump appointees will have to concern themselves with two potential pitfalls: thousands of bureaucrats who are in charge of implementation and the inertial momentum bureaucrats supply and second, the “balanced budget” Republicans that are rightfully (no pun intended) concerned with allowing the deficit to grow after a major tax reform is put in place.

The corporate and personal income tax rules must be drastically changed. Simplicity, lower rates, and less cumbersome collection procedures would improve growth and incentivize expanded business investment and personal savings. This is supply side economics coming to the fore. It couldn’t happen at a better time. If US imports are restricted by either foreign- operated export controls or higher tariffs, US exports will not grow as fast or may actually decline. That means the economy will need more stimulus from domestic consumption and investment. A more predictable tax environment will enhance both. Trump rightfully criticized the lack of transparency and the crony capitalism of the prior administration. He has a chance to show he can that he can lead but also demonstrate credible results through a simplified tax code that leaves less to crony manipulation and more to predictable tax receipts. Provided that budget savings can be found, a simplified tax code that doesn’t lead to excessive deficits will provide great economic thrust in the coming years.

Most economists would prefer a simple consumption tax that rewards savers, but that might be one bridge too far in the initial year of the Trump administration. Progress on tax code simplification will open that door to even a more simplified tax system if ensuing growth causes Trump to be re-elected. The charge that growth leads to very unequal income and wealth outcomes can be answered by stripping special provisions such as incentives to convert income gains to capital gains due to large differences between tax rates on income and capital gains. An income tax rate of say 20% and a capital gains tax rate of 20% have much to recommend it. It avoids the shifting issue and the distortions that ensue from that differential. The new Trump tax techies should be running the numbers now on what might occur from a huge simplification of tax rates on income and capital plus eliminating much or all of the penalties on repatriating overseas business income.

Finally, we come to perhaps the most political parts of the tax code, estate taxation. From his earlier statements, one might predict that Trump will seek a substantial reduction in the estate tax rate, if not eliminate it entirely. The estate tax doesn’t raise sufficient revenues to create concerns for the deficit monitors, but it is a highly charged from the standpoint of growing wealth disparities. (Estate and Corporate taxes at the Federal level represents some 9% and 11% of Federal Tax Revenues). In addition, wealthy taxpayers are the source of significant charitable contributions, often motivated, at least partially, by the fact that the donor has a partner—The US Internal Revenue Service—in making gifts. A top marginal federal tax rate of nearly 40% implies that the cost to the giver is only 60 cents for every dollar gifted. Will the wealthy be less giving if marginal income tax rates drop sharply along with substantial reductions in estate taxes

Economic forecasting, much as we might think it is scientific, is likely to stumble when predicting in an environment of rapidly changing economic growth and complex changes of both income and wealth taxation changes at the same time. One can hazard a guess that rising wealth that can be passed to heirs at relatively low or zero tax rates might well create even more charitable giving on the grounds that a larger relatively untaxed estate would provide even more reasons for the wealthy to increase their charitable activities.

While this is an interesting theoretical problem for tax experts, the real debate will not be about efficiency and growth. It will be about perceived wealth and income inequality politicized by incorrectly characterized by the inequality issue. What we saw in the Sanders and Clinton campaigns was a huge display of rhetoric, not much based on solid economics. For example, the 99%-1% juxtaposition turns out to be quite faulty. Where inequality has really shown up is not in the 1%, but in the .001 (a tenth of one percent) segment of the income distribution. The progressive argument against the wealthy is more noise than substance. That debate, however, will pale against the claims and cries of the Progressives who have long built their case on massive wealth redistribution. What is needed is a factual debunking of the argument, but the data are there to do just that. Trump will have to tread artfully through this political economy jungle to hew a thoughtful program of tax reform.

Health Care: If it was not clear during the campaign that the simple statements about abolishing Obamacare were at best wishful thinking, it has since been made quite obvious, even admitted by the President Elect in his “60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl on November 13th. The new administration can ‘t just abolish the Affordable Health Care Act. Too many people would be left without any healthcare program. That means that the obiter dictum will be change, not abolition.

Here, the terrain gets tricky as the new Administration must navigate between the extent of coverage and the coverage costs. The new Administration will start from the fact that rising costs to those now covered are making potential converts on both sides of the aisle. The existing structure of coverage and the shattered private insurance market that has been created by the rise in costs has created a sharp break in expectations. Even those arguing for a more extensive health care system now realize that rather than “bending the cost curve downward,’ (the mantra of those policy wonks that supported the AHC act), has been an illusion. Moving 20 million people onto the health care rolls plus the rising costs of an aging population simply overwhelmed any cost saving that might have arisen by covering everyone. Much sooner rather than later, health care costs have risen so sharply that even the most progressive of the health care advocates realize the present plan is unsustainable. This means that the debate must shift and that will test the political acumen of the New Boys in Town. A Trump health care plan will come, but the tug of war between budget sanity and the political necessity that government provided health care is here to stay. That will define the playing field. Some tough choices will have to be made between how much expense the changed health care system will allow for the aged. Extending massive health care to those in their last few years of life is not a pleasant theme even for dedicated Progressives. At the end of the day, there is neither a free lunch nor free health care. If cost controls are not put on the expense of the ‘last years of life,’ there can be no permanent cost control. Conservatives rejected the death panel approach to governing the extent of care that should be paid by Government, but some answer to this vexing question will have to emerge if health care costs are to be controlled. This issue remains in the background, but since 60% or more of the health care budget comes from those in the last two to three years of life, it is an issue that cannot be avoided. For the country, it may be better that the past opposition to AHC must re-frame the issue and its solution.

The last hurdles will be pre-existing conditions and coverage of young adult family members living at home. The President Elect has already conceded on these two points so the struggle will be over the precise content of the reformed features, not the essential element of Government coverage. The Progressives on the Democratic Party side will attempt to skew the argument to show that the new Trump administration is “taking benefits away.” That is politics within the Beltway. At the end of the day, the Republican majorities in both Houses confirm the fact that changes that satisfy the budget watchers will be the only ones that pass both houses of Congress.

A similar kind of argument will take place over changes in Social Security, even though the time line of Social Security Insolvency is longer. It is possible that with so much to do on other domestic issues a well as a considerable agenda on the foreign policy side, that the new Administration might not get anything done substantively in its first two years. The domestic priorities will be tax reform and health care. Reforming Social Security may slip even if it too is a ticking time bomb.

Financial institutions Reform: Despite the throaty moral outrage of Senators Sanders and Warren, the 24,000 odd pages of the Dodd Frank (DF) bill need real scrutiny. It is questionable whether DF has really solved the To Big To Fail problem. It is has clearly made large banks less willing to take risk and the Volcker rule has cut earnings of these denizens of the finance world. It has done so however through an enormous posse of regulators now housed in the banks themselves while moving much lending to the shadow banking market that is not heavily regulated. This confirms the well-known effect that regulation changes where the problem is pushed without solving the issue. Dodd Frank directed attention away from the GSE ‘s who were considerable contributors to the collapse of 2008/2009. Worse, the Obama Administration restructured property rights of the owners of GSE debt which was raised by the GSE ‘s before they were conservatorized. That issue is still in the courts, but the current Administration has adroitly hidden the causal role played by the GSE ‘s in the mortgage market collapse of 2007-2008. Almost surely, had Fannie and Freddie not underwritten the subprime market, the housing bubble could never have grown to the size it did in 2007. Neither of these entities were paragons of accounting virtue prior to the collapse, but they were intimately involved with the Congress and were difficult to stifle. Neither Sanders nor Warren discuss the cronyism and corruption of the GSE ‘s despite prior criminal cases successfully prosecuted against them. This is only one of the main areas that need to be cleaned up for the US to have a viable and sensibly regulated financial sector.

During the current Administration, the largest financial institutions paid literally billions of dollars in fines that nearly always were set by agreement rather than definitive court proceedings. That is an unhealthy process for Government and it is part and parcel of the cartelization of the finance business that has taken place during the Obama administration. Similarly, competition in other areas of the economy, such as media and communications, airlines and internet sales, to name just a few industries, is now characterized by a few large firms with plenty of clout within the Beltway. Whether the Trump administration is willing to take on the anti-competitive pressures that have built over the last eight years is questionable despite Tumpis express concerns over AT&T ‘s proposed acquisition of Time Warner and his concerns about Amazon ‘s principal shareholder, Jeff Bezos. While nothing explicit has been said about these areas of the economy, they clearly need attention. Cartelized capitalism is neither good for growth nor for freedom.

The Judiciary and the Fed

It is easy to see that Republicans dodged a generational bullet in the Supreme Court by holding the Senate and winning the Presidency. A much more liberal (statist) Supreme Court would have certainly arisen with a Clinton victory. While the Democrats may now play the old Republican filibuster card on Supreme Court nominees, the new Republican Senate majority can, if it so chooses, change the voting rules by using its majority. Despite Senate Majority Leader reluctance to end the filibuster, it might be the only alternative in order to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. The famous line in the movie Independence Day, says it all: payback is a bitch! That said, this is not a major strategic issue. It is simply tactical maneuvering.

The Federal Reserve: Another area for payback stems from the eight-year period of low interest rates engineered by the Fed. Oversight is coming, notwithstanding the attempts by the Fed to escape a legislative lasso. Among many economists, former Chairman Bernanke’s immediate efforts in 2008/2009 to resurrect our credit markets, are applauded, but that support does not extend to the long period of QE and a near decade of low, often zero interest rates. Savers have been punished and the reach for yield suggests significant distortions in the allocation of savings and credit.

The fact that the Fed has been able to do this largely without significant Congressional oversight doesn’t mean it will be able to do this again in the future. The Congress will in fact pass legislation to interrupt the Fed’s total independence. Chairman Yellen ‘s reign extends only until February 2018, and she will not be reappointed. While there is no current suggestion she will resign before her term expires that could occur if the Congress gets extremely testy with the present Chair. The new administration will be appointing two new members of the Fed’s Board of Governors and it is likely that the new appointees will pair with some of the current members who oppose Yellen’s policies. This will create an unusual situation in an institution that thrives on consensus decision-making. It could create momentum for Yellen to end her Chairmanship prior to the end of her designated term, because a badly split FOMC would create great incredulity in financial markets. How the Fed is finally treated by the new administration will also be related to how this administration deals with the much-hated Dodd Frank bill. Dodd Frank reform will become a circus dominated by cronies and lobbyists. There is considerable support to end the autonomous and separately funded, Consumer Protection Bureau. It is hard to see that agency not getting its wings severely clipped. The Congress wants to and will assert its powers of governance over the Bureau, if it does not kill it entirely. Surely, Congress will end its unlimited funding via the Fed.

The Clinton-Trump contest offered voters a juxtaposition of two rather distinct economic policy formulations. Clinton ‘s focused on further regulation of economic agents. Her menu would have replaced market choices with regulatory expansion and increasing taxes to pay for more Government programs notorious for their inefficiency. Inevitably, that would have meant even more cronyism and corruption. Whether it would have produced more equality of outcome is doubtful because the wealthy have more access to modifying offensive regulation than the poor.

The Political Revolution What did voters choose

The ideology behind the Clinton policy menu implied that Democratic policy mandarins would have been happier if the economic pie were more equitably distributed perhaps even if that resulted in a smaller pie. Aside from the morality of such a choice, it is a highly questionable political theory because the wealthy invariably have more escape remedies than the poor. The proof may lie in the simultaneity of massive regulatory expansion and the evident decline in the US economic growth rate over the past decade. Is the alleged reduction in equality of income and wealth that we now observe merely an accident or a principal outcome of increased regulation and interference over many decades One suspects that there is a latent connection here.

The Trump menu also has two prongs: one is to diminish our integration with the rest of the world economy. One implication of such policies is rising prices of imports and import substitutes and a reduction of labor supplies formerly produced by immigrants without proper papers. That has to raise costs to consumers which is welfare reducing. Reducing the international specialization of labor could produce more domestic jobs, although that is not clear. Current exports could be reduced or grow more slowly either through higher costs or retaliatory measures from overseas customers. In that case, domestic jobs growth could slow or even decline. Indirect effects are often not properly foreseen when a major policy orientation takes place.

The second prong encompasses proposed tax rate reductions on personal income, corporate income and inherited wealth. Taken in isolation tax cuts should stimulate economic growth. Unfortunately, while growth could improve, tax reduction is likely to have negative consequences for the US budget deficit. That means that the outcome is not likely to be predictable until one specifies the rest of the economic policy menu. One needs to know what will be cut from the budget as a consequence of decreased tax revenues. Put another way, there are supply side effects and likely aggregate demand effects at work at the same time. Without specifying the mix, it is difficult to be confident when predicting the impact on growth from each of the two parts of the Trump menu.

In many ways, neither the Clinton nor the Trump campaign promises represented optimal strategies for the US from a strictly economic point of view. That was not their intent. Both candidates focused intensely on bringing different slices of the voting population to their cause, and neither spoke to the larger dimensions of stimulating economic growth sufficiently. By way of contrast, forgetting which classes of voters benefit most, what would a more ideal policy menu look like

The dominant economic problem in America is the evident decline in our growth rate. Choice expands when economic growth improves; both at the household and firm level but also at the policy level as well. When the economy moves from a 2% to a 4% growth trajectory, the traditional guns ‘ ‘ versus butter division gets much less constraining. However costly our current health care policy is, a bigger economic pie and larger government revenues make the collapse of the health care system much less imminent. Similarly, fixing Social Security gets a longer time horizon. Moreover, financing substantial infrastructure improvement becomes more plausible.

What about jobs, even for those whose skill content has not kept pace with modern technology It is inevitable with higher growth that the demand for labor all kinds of labor—will improve. Higher growth does not mean that the wages of the less skilled will become relatively more attractive, although tightening labor markets undoubtedly will push up wages across the board. Will tax reduction move the economy toward a higher growth path Nearly all economists would agree this is the most likely outcome although the distribution of income and wealth might not become more equal.

The only negative aspect of more growth comes from the old Starve the Beast argument: namely, there will be much less pressure to reduce the scope of Government activity when the Government coffers are fatter.

The second part of the story relates to the increased constriction of our possible economic growth possibilities due to increased regulation. It is not just a question of reducing taxes. It is surely a question of simplifying our tax codes and reducing the punishment on the supply side of the economy from the existing, overly complicated and activity-reducing tax mix at the margin. Corporate taxes are shifting American industries abroad. High personal tax rates create huge incentives for tax avoidance through complex tax schemes. High corporate tax rates lead to more tax competition between countries. If we wish to increase growth, we have to reduce the disincentives to growing.

The same incentive theme appears throughout any sensible economic policy agenda. Our regulatory state offers disincentives for both investment and saving at the corporate and personal level. We can see this most clearly by the sharp drop over the past two decades in new business formation as well as the reduced levels of business investment in current GDP measures. It has simply become too complicated and too expensive for many entrepreneurs to create new firms. New firms are the source of job growth. Older firms buy expansion through external acquisition, often reducing jobs as a consequence. This is where the growth story is most telling and where the job story is so depressing. Less new firm growth means fewer new jobs. It also means that large corporate enterprise finds more opportunities from external acquisition rather than internal growth. That leads to more cartelization of the economy and expands the crony capitalism that has become such a political hot button.

Going forward, the Trump administration will be constrained by the promises made during the campaign. That is an unfortunate consequence of a democratic republic. It is simpler on the campaign podium then it will be when policy choices have to be made within the new Administration. Simplicity of campaign slogans disappear when real governance must begin.

Elections have consequences: let the games begin

As Obama famously said at the beginning of his first term: “elections have consequences. I won.” This one will be no different, and the ire of individual Congressmen, now empowered by Trump’s unexpectedly long coat tails, will play out, as they become judge and jury on pet Obama-inspired programs. The ancient Chinese proverb, May you live in interesting times, should be remembered for how it was first uttered: it was the curse of a defrocked Chinese Mandarin, exiled after being fired from his Government post in the capital.

The games formally begin on January 20, 2017 but the jockeying for priorities and for the people who will lead the new Administration has begun in earnest. Political leaders in countries outside of the US don’t quite know what to expect from this new Administration. This is true in the U.S. as well. We really don ‘t know the who and the what of the Trump program at this stage. The power of the Presidency is unlike almost any other democratic republic, and this President has gotten his win by articulating complaints more than by making many promises to his rather widened constituency. Some of these promises worked to attract voters, but cannot largely satisfied as stated.

Some astute historians and political writers have likened Trump’s win to Andrew Jackson’s win in 1828. Jackson was also angry and outspoken, but was a hero to many. He was a very active President, known for inviting in the “Folk” to the White House, mud on their boots notwithstanding. He offended the powers of then Washington political denizens and he flouted his authority by tossing insults their way at every occasion. He saw his victory as one of the “people over the political elites.” Sounds like Trump, doesn ‘t it with the Tweet replacing the Shout Jackson was very ‘down home’ and when he didn’t like something, he said so. Trump has insulted many and was particularly scathing to his opponent. American Presidents wind up with cronies no matter how they vituperate against the existing Beltway crowd. Jackson had his, and we can be sure, this President will have his own as well. Trump liked to claim he would drain the Swamp within the Beltway. It is doubtful he has a big enough pump. American history has rhymed, once again, even if it has not repeated.

[1] Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post was criticized by Trump. AMZN trade above 844 on October 5 but fell to 719 on November 14 (the week following the election). It has since risen to 785 on November 22.

Indexing Stock Options or Granting Stock: which is a better method of compensating executives?

Rewarding a CEO (or for that matter, any senior corporate official) by using an indexed stock option only goes part of the way in properly compensating management and they fail to adjust for the risk that managers take but do not disclose.[1] In nearly every case over the past several decades of corporate misgovernance, shareholders and sometimes Boards, only learn after a corporate disaster that huge, undisclosed risks were taken along the way. Options, indexed or not, offer leverage to managers but provide no downside penalties for bets that turn out badly for the shareholders. One-way optionality is a serious problem for corporate governance.

It is not wrong for corporations to take risks, nor is it wrong that benefits from risk taking are shared with management. What does matter, however, is that equity holders be well informed about the kind of risks to which their investment is exposed well before they purchase their shares. For that, shareholders depend not only upon what managers tell them in quarterly and annual reports, but also upon competent and well informed Boards who monitor the managers. Our current system of corporate governance doesn’t accomplish that as we have clearly outlined in our book, Disorganized Crimes that captures many of these issues since the 1990’s Boom through the financial disasters of 2007/2008.

It is highly unusual for Boards to reward significant performance without judging corporate performance against the company’s corporate peers. Sadly, however, Boards often don’t know or understand the risks that their managers take and are less likely to know about risks taken by competitors. Indexing stock options doesn’t do anything to disclose those risks. Options are still a one-way bet with no downside for managerial misbehavior, incompetence or excessive risk taking.  What’s the alternative

Granting stock, rather than a stock option, is a better alternative. It would at least put managers in the same risk position as their less than well-informed shareholders. It would also make managers far more aware that they are gambling their own money as well as that of their shareholders when they place the company into a high-risk situation.   ‘Heads I win, tails you lose,’ is a bad compensation metric, even if it is indexed against the performance of the industry.

It’s about time to deal with the real problem, not the taxation aspects of different compensation forms. If it ever turns out that income tax rates on currently earned income versus capital gains income get equalized, the real issues of managerial compensation would appear far more distinctly.   Compensation based upon transparent risk reporting and corporate accountability is what shareholders really need.

Let’s focus on the real problem to be solved, not the tax system that makes option compensation seem so attractive. Options distort the reality of undisclosed managerial risk taking. It’s time we pay attention to the

[1]This is a reply to the OpEd of Robert C. Pozen that appeared in the WSJ on November 14, 2016. See “A Nobel Idea to Pay CEOs What They’re Actually Worth: Indexing stock options would reward only skilled executives who beat their industry average.” http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-nobel-idea-to-pay-ceos-what-theyre-actually-worth-1479168732

Options, equity grants and corporate governance

The following post was sent to the WSJ as a reply to Robert C. Pozen’s Op Ed (WSJ 11/14/2016) ostensibly as praise for the recent Nobel prize awarded Professor Bengt Holmstrom.   As the Journal didn’t reply (surprise), we post it here to our smaller but more well informed audience!

Paying a CEO (or for that matter, any senior corporate official) using an indexed stock option only goes part of the way to properly reward management for its efforts. It fails, however, to adjust for the risk that managers take but do not disclose to achieve the results which their efforts sometimes achieve. In nearly every case of corporate misgovernance over the past several decades, shareholders and sometimes Boards, learn that huge risks were taken along the way only after a corporate disaster. Options, indexed or not, offer leverage to risk taking managers with no downside penalties for bets that turn out badly for the shareholders. Indexed options don’t solve that problem and such misaligned incentives are indeed a significant cause of corporate misgovernance.

It is not wrong for corporations to take risks. They should and do so every day as a matter of normal corporate strategy. What does matter, however, is that equity holders be well informed about the kind of risks to which their investment is exposed even before they purchase their shares and the sometimes disguised incentives for risk taking given to management.   Shareholders depend not only upon what managers tell them in quarterly and annual reports, but also upon competent and well informed Boards to monitor what managers do on a day to day basis. Our current system of corporate governance doesn’t accomplish that as we have clearly outlined in our book, Disorganized Crimes and which captures many of these issues from the 1990’s Boom through the financial disasters of 2007/2008.

It is highly unusual for Boards not to reward significant performance and frequently Boards do judge the particular company against its peers in distributing such rewards. But, Boards are often unaware or understand the risks that their managers have taken. They hear good news quickly and easily. Bad news arrives slowly, often only after financial disaster strikes the shareholder. Indexing stock options doesn’t disclose those risks when the company’s share price is rising. Equity options are still a one-way bet with no downside for managerial misbehavior or incompetence. Granting stock, rather than an option, however, would at least put managers in the same position as their less than well informed shareholders.  Granting the stock itself would make managers far more aware that they are gambling their own money as well as that of their shareholders when they take the company into a high risk situation. Heads I win, tails you lose is not a good compensation metric, even when the option is  indexed against the performance of the industry. It’s about time to deal with the real problem, not the taxation aspects of different compensation forms.

If income tax rates on currently earned income versus capital gains income get equalized, something implicit in the incoming Administration tax proposals, the real issues of managerial compensation would appear more distinctly. Compensation based upon transparent risk reporting and corporate accountability is what shareholders really need. It’s time to focus on the real problem to be solved, not the tax system that distorts the common reality of undisclosed managerial risk taking and the no lose equity option that promotes that behavior.

Saying No: What does it mean?

As the election nears, those who rallied away from the Democratic Party and cheered the negativism of the Trump campaign will again be disappointed. Just saying “no,” turns out to be not enough.   The Brexit “no” offers a poignant but sad reminder that just saying no to economic and political disenfranchisement is not enough for meaningful change.   It will be the same after the Trump defeat and the shearing of Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House.

As the WSJ pointed out this morning, (James Freeman: “Doesn’t Clinton Embarrass Democrats”) a “no” vote can topple a government (viz. Brexit ), but creating a solid program that creates inclusiveness and reform of Big Government is not the same thing. British voters turned against the prevailing support of EU by Tories who had supported Britain’s EU membership albeit wishing to allow for “local options.” Working class naysayers identified the Brussels Bureaucrats as the source of the evident loss of their political and economic status.   Yet, no program of inclusion or reform of British government has appeared.   Surprise Hardly!   “No” doesn’t constitute viable reform. The pertinent question going forward in the UK will be, “Where will those disappointed in the consequences of their revolt now head”   A similar question will arise after the Clinton election. Where will the disappointed Trumpeans go History suggests extremism could be the next step.

At a deeper level, Freeman asks several profound questions about the ascendance of “Crooked Hillary.” The recent Wikileaks disclosures pretty much close the case on Clintonian corruption and cronyism while our free press hardly comments. When your children ask, “How can I become a millionaire, tell them “become a successful politician.” All too often, Big Government functions on cronyism and corruption, and few politicians ever pay the price for crossing the line. The acceptance by our “free” public information system that legislators and administrators can be bought and paid for is the ultimate cynicism in a democratic state.

Freeman raises a painful reminder of the relevance of our modern press in current politics: why do both print and media journalists scourge Trump on his nativism but leaves the Clinton trespass into conflict of interest politics untouched Surely the facts are not in dispute The Clinton mob’s emails aren’t even denied anymore, merely ignored. That amounts to a blatant indictment of modern-day muckrakers that affirms corruption and modern American government is joined at the hip. Dog bites man is not newsworthy. Corruption is an everyday affair.

When an American business firm is charged with polluting the environment or raising the prices of pharmaceuticals (enhanced by Government paying the bill), the press corps is relentless in excoriating the overstep while it appears perfectly legitimate to use a public office to seek donations for the Clinton Foundation and those who derive economic benefit from running it. The corruption of the press is the ultimate undermining of a democratic republic.

The importance of a vital and free press to our Founders is embedded in the ordering of the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment anointed a vital free press as the key monitor on the behavior of our public officeholders. Our current press is virtually silent on the Clinton excursions. Can we have limited Government and probative public service without an objective press that digs out critical information and brings it to the public’s attention

We have forgotten the ultimate line of the Gettysburg Address: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” R.I.P. is the ultimate “No,” isn’t it

America?s Leadership Deficit and the Art of Political Pandering

If you were hoping that Americas Leadership Deficit would end this November, you are going to be sadly disappointed. If the Republican debates didnt destroy your hopes for meaningful change, it is highly unlikely you will find your enthusiasm lifted by watching the Democratic debates.

Last night, I decided to tune turn off a reasonably competitive basketball game to glance at the latest Clinton-Sanders soap opera. I could stand only about 15 minutes. The debate was moderated by PBS anchors no doubt to emphasize that this year the US can (and likely will) elect its first female President. Will that remedy our leadership deficit la mme chose.

When I tuned in, the two candidates were resorting to their typical sophisms that characterize American political discourse. Theyshowed no specific remedies other than throwing more government resources at the problems, and advocating higher taxes on the “rich,” to pay for it. The rhetoric of treating American social failures was predictable. The solution set ofeachcandidate was truly null and void.

Sanders excoriated the truly lamentable statistics on the number of Americans now in prison—which he claimed without any substantiating evidence— now exceeds the totals imprisoned in China with a population five times greater. (Hard to know his source of information on the Chinese penal system). Forgetting the hyperbole, it is true that at the end of 2014, over 1.5 million people were held in American prisons. It is sad, never mind the Chinese comparison.

The candidates focused on the composition of the male prison population that includes some37% black males, 33% Hispanic males and 22% white males. No gender equality found here! Moreover, and this was the real point of the debate—drawing in minority voters—the most obvious remedy was overlooked, and their attention centered almost exclusively on cleaning up American police force methods and police profiling. They ignored the fact that more than 50% of those incarcerated got into prison via convictions for drug offenses. The obvious solution—repealing our current drug laws—was never mentioned. Instead, our criminal justice system was condemned for carrying out the laws that legislators such as these two have passed or allowed to remain on the books.

Neither candidate —at least during the few minutes I could stand to watch—took up George Shultzs recent Op Ed piece in the WSJ (“We reduced smoking, why not drug use” 2/9/2016) that focused on the abject failure of our War on Drugs. Doing that should have been obvious, but these two candidates werent really interested in effective solutions. They were interested in pandering tovoters. Since non-whites aresome 70% of the prison population, it was obvious that discrimination against non-white drug offenders was rampant. With low skills, poor education, deficient family structures, are we surprised that the lucrative earning power of dealing drugs by unemployed and unskilled males is compelling Neither candidate questioned whether the real problem in America was punishing people for their sumptuary preferences and the large economic rents these productsgenerate to those willing to risk catering to that demand. Instead, what was recommended was teaching policemen to be unprejudiced in their law enforcement efforts and making the racial composition of the police forces mirror the racial composition of the neighborhoods they policed.

We dont have to exonerate police who have frequently used racially focused tactics, including unofficial racial profiling, when they arrest suspects. Even with explicit withdrawal of racial profiling, policemen know the stats and their arrest behavior is understandable. The problem is not profiling: the problem is our drug laws are out of step with the population and our War on Drugs tends to arrest the foot soldiers of drug distribution. Regarding the nature of the social ills that our society suffers, tastes have changed. Marijuana is not viewed as a scourge. Many states allow its production and use and some its distribution, taxing the drug that they cannot control with police and prisons.

What cries out inany rational assessment of Americas drug demand is that we need to reduce the gains from dealing drugs. That means ending criminal prosecutions for these offenses and making our police instruments of civilian safety, not alocal drug gendarms. As for usage of harder drugs, Schultz cited the clear and well-documented drop in smoking that stemmed from well-documented research coupling smoking to serious diseases. What counts is to reduce the demand for dangerous substances, and not creating a black market in drugs that draws in the uneducated and low-skilled populations who distribute such products. Ironic and sad it is that two legislators, now Presidential seekers, dont focus on the obvious changes in our Federal criminal statutes that would reduce the scope of the problem. Neither do they put forward a solid program for instructing our people about the consequences of (hard) drug use. Americans growing use of drugs is not dealt with. Instead, Americas police, who try to enforce a much-outdated set of laws, are the whipping boys to advance these candidates electoral interests.

Perhaps the most cynical attack was from Sanders. He advocates more education in prison; re-training of prisoners; early release and continuing government transfer payments to low-income individuals. Any one who looks at the rather unfavorable statistics of retraining or improving education has got to feel that simply throwing more Federal money at the problems of low income, low skill people, is not going to be more effective than it has been to date. That is political escapism, at best, political pandering at worst. What it is not is real political leadership. That deficit is not going away soon!

In modern society, those that are poorly educated, poorly socialized and vastly unemployed gravitate unsurprisingly to benefitting fromthe rent streams that our faulty laws produce. What is needed is to reduce those rewards. That would berelatively easy, if not a sexy political pander job. Is that not obvious

Why dont the candidates deal directly with the problem and advocate realistic changes in our drug laws The answer is that would require real political leadership. The candidates, if they are expert in anything, are masters of pandering to the voters and offering more bread and circuses. Sadly, Americas leadership deficit is not about to end.


Accountable to whom: there is no accounting for haste

The Department of Justice stresses the word accountability in its Statement of Facts in its settlement with JPM, but Professor Henning is quite right in pointing out the limits of the accountability doctrine. (The True Accountability in the JPMorgan Settlement,) in his NY Times op ed of November 20. We have no quarrel with his debunking of this overused term. Still, many issues remain to be explored concerning the apparent resolution of this case. There is little to be said for either JPMs prior conduct or the Punishment Program in which the DoJ is now engaged. There is even less to be praised regarding the monitors of such a large publicly held giant such as JPM. Continue reading