Tuesday, December 30, 2014

President Obama's White House Photos, 2014

President Obama's White House Photos, 2014


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Though Luke Somers died, jihadists know they are targets if they kidnap Americans

A Noble Rescue Attempt. WSJ Editorial

Though Luke Somers died, jihadists know they are targets if they kidnap Americans.


WSJ, Dec. 7, 2014 5:36 p.m. ET

Condolences to the family of Luke Somers, the kidnapped American journalist who was murdered Saturday during a rescue attempt by U.S. special forces in Yemen. His death is a moment for sadness and anger, but also for pride in the rescue team and praise for the Obama Administration for ordering the attempt.

According to the Journal’s account based on military and Administration sources, some 40 special forces flew to a remote part of Yemen, marching five miles to escape detection, but lost the element of surprise about 100 yards from the jihadist hideout. One of the terrorists was observed by drone surveillance to enter a building where it is believed he shot Somers and a South African hostage, Pierre Korkie. The special forces carried the wounded men out by helicopter, but one died on route and the other aboard a Navy ship.

There is no blame for failing to save Somers, whose al Qaeda captors had released a video on Thursday vowing to kill him in 72 hours if the U.S. did not meet unspecified demands. The jihadists were no doubt on high alert after special forces conducted a rescue attempt in late November at a hillside cave. The commandos rescued eight people, mostly Yemenis, but Somers had been moved.

It’s a tribute to the skill of U.S. special forces that these high-risk missions against a dangerous enemy don’t fail more often. But given good intelligence and a reasonable chance to save Somers, the fault would have been not to try for fear of failure or political blame.

The reality is that most American and British citizens captured by jihadists are now likely to be murdered as a terrorist statement. This isn’t always true for citizens of other countries that pay ransom. But the U.S. and U.K. rightly refuse on grounds that the payments give incentive for more kidnappings while enriching the terrorists.

Jihadists don’t distinguish between civilians and soldiers, or among journalists, clergy, doctors or aid workers. They are waging what they think is a struggle to the death against other religious faiths and the West. Their goal is to kill for political control and their brand of Islam.

The murders are likely to increase as the U.S. fight against Islamic State intensifies. The jihadists know from experience that they can’t win a direct military confrontation, so their goal is to weaken the resolve of democracies at home. Imposing casualties on innocent Americans abroad and attacking the homeland are part of their military strategy.

They don’t seem to realize that such brutality often backfires, reinforcing U.S. public resolve, as even Osama bin Laden understood judging by his intercepted communications. But Americans need to realize that there are no safe havens in this long war. Everyone is a potential target.

So we are entering an era when the U.S. will have to undertake more such rescues of Americans kidnapped overseas. The results will be mixed, but even failed attempts will send a message to jihadists that capturing Americans will make them targets—and that there is no place in the world they can’t be found and killed.

It’s a tragedy that fanatical Islamists have made the world so dangerous, but Americans should be proud of a country that has men and women willing to risk their own lives to leave no American behind.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Jonathan Gruber’s ‘Stupid’ Budget Tricks

Jonathan Gruber’s ‘Stupid’ Budget Tricks. WSJ Editorial
His ObamaCare candor shows how Congress routinely cons taxpayers.Wall Street Journal, Nov. 14, 2014 6:51 p.m. ET

As a rule, Americans don’t like to be called “stupid,” as Jonathan Gruber is discovering. Whatever his academic contempt for voters, the ObamaCare architect and Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his candor about the corruption of the federal budget process.

In his now-infamous talk at the University of Pennsylvania last year, Professor Gruber argued that the Affordable Care Act “would not have passed” had Democrats been honest about the income-redistribution policies embedded in its insurance regulations. But the more instructive moment is his admission that “this bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies.”

Mr. Gruber means the Congressional Budget Office, the institution responsible for putting “scores” or official price tags on legislation. He’s right that to pass ObamaCare Democrats perpetrated the rawest, most cynical abuse of the CBO since its creation in 1974.

In another clip from Mr. Gruber’s seemingly infinite video library, he discusses how he and Democrats wrote the law to game the CBO’s fiscal conventions and achieve goals that would otherwise be “politically impossible.” In still another, he explains that these ruses are “a sad statement about budget politics in the U.S., but there you have it.”

Yes you do. Such admissions aren’t revelations, since the truth has long been obvious to anyone curious enough to look. We and other critics wrote about ObamaCare’s budget gimmicks during the debate, and Rep. Paul Ryan exposed them at the 2010 “health summit.” President Obama changed the subject.

But rarely are liberal intellectuals as full frontal as Mr. Gruber about the accounting fraud ingrained in ObamaCare. Also notable are his do-what-you-gotta-do apologetics: “I’d rather have this law than not,” he says.

Recall five years ago. The White House wanted to pretend that the open-ended new entitlement would spend less than $1 trillion over 10 years and reduce the deficit too. Congress requires the budget gnomes to score bills as written, no matter how unrealistic the assumption or fake the promise. Democrats with the help of Mr. Gruber carefully designed the bill to exploit this built-in gullibility.

So they used a decade of taxes to fund merely six years of insurance subsidies. They made-believe that Medicare payments to hospitals will some day fall below Medicaid rates. A since-repealed program for long-term care front-loaded taxes but back-loaded spending, meant to gradually go broke by design. Remember the spectacle of Democrats waiting for the white smoke to come up from CBO and deliver the holy scripture verdict?

On the tape, Mr. Gruber also identifies a special liberal manipulation: CBO’s policy reversal to not count the individual mandate to buy insurance as an explicit component of the federal budget. In 1994, then CBO chief Robert Reischauer reasonably determined that if the government forces people to buy a product by law, then those transactions no longer belong to the private economy but to the U.S. balance sheet. The CBO’s face-melting cost estimate helped to kill HillaryCare.

The CBO director responsible for this switcheroo that moved much of ObamaCare’s real spending off the books was Peter Orszag, who went on to become Mr. Obama’s budget director. Mr. Orszag nonetheless assailed CBO during the debate for not giving him enough credit for the law’s phantom “savings.”

Then again, Mr. Gruber told a Holy Cross audience in 2010 that although ObamaCare “is 90% health insurance coverage and 10% about cost control, all you ever hear people talk about is cost control. How it’s going to lower the cost of health care, that’s all they talk about. Why? Because that’s what people want to hear about because a majority of Americans care about health-care costs.”


Both political parties for some reason treat the CBO with the same reverence the ancient Greeks reserved for the Delphic oracle, but Mr. Gruber’s honesty is another warning that the budget rules are rigged to expand government and hide the true cost of entitlements. CBO scores aren’t unambiguous facts but are guesses about the future, biased by the Keynesian assumptions and models its political masters in Congress instruct it to use.

Republicans who now run Congress can help taxpayers by appointing a new CBO director, as is their right as the majority. Current head Doug Elmendorf is a respected economist, and he often has a dry wit as he reminds Congressfolk that if they feed him garbage, he must give them garbage back. But if the GOP won’t abolish the institution, then they can find a replacement who is as candid as Mr. Gruber about the flaws and limitations of the CBO status quo. The Tax Foundation’s Steve Entin would be an inspired pick.

Democrats are now pretending they’ve never heard of Mr. Gruber, though they used to appeal to his authority when he still had some. His commentaries are no less valuable because he is now a political liability for Democrats.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

More War for Oil? President Obama dispatches troops to Iraq—and has to listen to the old canards all over again

More War for Oil? By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
President Obama dispatches troops to Iraq—and has to listen to the old canards all over again.Wall Street Journal, Aug 12, 2014 7:00 p.m. ET

The "no blood for oil" crowd has piped up with surprising speed and noisiness in the short hours since President Obama recommitted U.S. forces to the fight in Iraq.

Steve Coll, a writer for the New Yorker, suggests in a piece posted on the magazine's website that "Kurdish oil greed," whose partner Mr. Obama now becomes, has been a primary factor in making Iraq a failed state. That's apparently because of the Kurds' unwillingness to reach a revenue-sharing deal with Baghdad. For good measure, he refers readers to a Rachel Maddow video, featuring Steve Coll, that argues that the U.S. invaded Iraq to gets its oil in the first place.

John B. Judis, a veteran editor of the New Republic, in contrast is relatively sane under the headline "The U.S. Airstrikes in Northern Iraq Are All About Oil." While nodding toward Mr. Obama's stated humanitarian justifications, he insists oil "lies near the center of American motives for intervention."
There are a few problems with this argument. Oil exists in the hinterland of Erbil, all right, the capital of a stable, prosperous and relatively free Kurdistan that President Obama now is trying to protect from the Islamic murderers of ISIS.

But oil also exists in northwestern Iraq—in fact, vast amounts of oil around Mosul, whose fall did not trigger Obama intervention. Oil is in Libya, where the U.S. quickly took a hike after the fall of Gadhafi. Oil is in Canada, where Mr. Obama, who just fatally risked his legacy with his core admirers by dispatching forces to the Mideast, can't bring himself to choose between his labor and greenie constituents by deciding to approve or veto the Keystone pipeline.

Oil apparently explains nothing except when it explains everything.
Another problem is that Americans are both consumers and producers of oil. So does the U.S. want high or low prices? A bigger producer in recent years, America presumably has seen its interest shifting steadily in the direction of higher prices. Yet acting to protect Kurdish production would have the opposite effect.

But then Mr. Coll especially is ritualizing, not thinking—and what he's ritualizing is a certain leftist hymn about the origins of the 2003 Iraq war. Never mind that if the U.S. had wanted Iraq's oil, it would have been vastly cheaper to buy it— Saddam was certainly eager to sell. Never mind that the Bush administration, after overthrowing Saddam, stood idly by while Baghdad awarded the biggest contracts to India, China and Angola.

It was not a Bushie but Madeleine Albright, in her maiden speech as Bill Clinton's secretary of state, who first laid out the case for regime change in Iraq.

In the same 1997 speech, she explained, "Last August, Iraqi forces took advantage of intra-Kurdish tensions and attacked the city of Irbil, in northern Iraq. President Clinton responded by expanding the no-fly zone to the southern suburbs of Baghdad. . . . Contrary to some expectations, the attack on Irbil has not restored Saddam Hussein's authority in the north. We are firmly engaged alongside Turkey and the United Kingdom in helping the inhabitants of the region find stability and work towards a unified and pluralistic Iraq."

Madame Secretary did not mention oil any more than President Obama did last week. Of course, the catechism holds that, when politicians aren't freely voicing their obsession with oil as Bush and Cheney supposedly did while cooking up the Iraq War, politicians are concealing their obsession with oil. In fact, oil was not yet produced in significant quantities in Erbil at the time. It was the peace and stability that Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush provided, and that President Obama is trying to restore, that allowed the flowering of Iraqi Kurdistan, including its oil industry.

By now, America has invested 23 years in shielding northern Iraq from the suppurating chaos that seems to flow endlessly from Baghdad and its Sunni-dominated Western suburbs. It's one of our few conspicuous successes in Iraq. Politics, in the best and worst senses of the word, drives every political decision. Despite his palpable lack of enthusiasm, President Obama knows surrender in northern Iraq would be an intolerable disgrace for his administration and U.S. policy. So he sends in the troops.

We come to an irony. The liberal habit of assuming everyone else's motives are corrupt is, of course, an oldie-moldie, if a tad free-floating in this case. But the critics in question don't actually oppose Mr. Obama's intervention, the latest in our costly and thankless efforts in Iraq. They don't exactly endorse it either. The New Yorker's Mr. Coll especially seems out to avoid committing himself while striking a knowing, superior tone about the alleged centrality of oil, which is perhaps the most ignoble reason to pick up a pen on this subject right now.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Citigroup ATM - Jack Lew and Tim Geithner escape mention in the bank settlement.

The Citigroup ATM, WSJ Editorial
Jack Lew and Tim Geithner escape mention in the bank settlement.The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2014 7:37 p.m. ET

The Department of Justice isn't known for a sense of humor. But on Monday it announced a civil settlement with Citigroup over failed mortgage investments that covers almost exactly the period when current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew oversaw divisions at Citi that presided over failed mortgage investments. Now, that's funny.

Though Justice, five states and the FDIC are prying $7 billion from the bank for allegedly misleading investors, there's no mention in the settlement of clawing back even a nickel of Mr. Lew's compensation. We also see no sanction for former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who allowed Citi to build colossal mortgage risks outside its balance sheet while overseeing the bank as president of the New York Federal Reserve.

The settlement says Citi's alleged misdeeds began in 2006, the year Mr. Lew joined the bank, and the agreement covers conduct "prior to January 1, 2009." That was shortly before Mr. Lew left to work for President Obama and two weeks before Mr. Lew received $944,518 from Citi in "salary, payout for vested restricted stock," and "discretionary cash compensation for work performed in 2008," according to a 2010 federal disclosure report. That was also the year Citi began receiving taxpayer bailouts of $45 billion in cash, plus hundreds of billions more in taxpayer guarantees.

While Attorney General Eric Holder is forgiving toward his Obama cabinet colleagues, he seems to believe that some housing transactions can never be forgiven. The $7 billion settlement includes the same collateralized debt obligation for which the bank already agreed to pay $285 million in a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Justice settlement also includes a long list of potential charges not covered by the agreement, so prosecutors can continue to raid the Citi ATM.

Citi offers in return what looks like a blanket agreement not to sue the government over any aspect of the case, and waives its right to defend itself "based in whole or in part on a contention that, under the Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, or under the Excessive Fines Clause in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, this Agreement bars a remedy sought in such criminal prosecution or administrative action." We hold no brief for Citi, which has been rescued three times by the feds. But what kind of government demands the right to exact repeated punishments for the same offense?

The bank's real punishment should have been failure, as former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair and we argued at the time. Instead, the regulators kept Citi alive with taxpayer money far beyond what it provided most other banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Keeping it alive means they can now use Citi as a political target when it's convenient to claim they're tough on banks.

And speaking of that $7 billion, good luck finding a justification for it in the settlement agreement. The number seems to have been pulled out of thin air since it's unrelated to Citi's mortgage-securities market share or any other metric we can see beyond having media impact.

If this sounds cynical, readers should consult the Justice Department's own leaks to the press about how the Citi deal went down. Last month the feds were prepared to bring charges against the bank, but the necessities of public relations intervened.

According to the Journal, "News had leaked that afternoon, June 17, that the U.S. had captured Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a key suspect in the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi in 2012. Justice Department officials didn't want the announcement of the suit against Citigroup—and its accompanying litany of alleged misdeeds related to mortgage-backed securities—to be overshadowed by questions about the Benghazi suspect and U.S. policy on detainees. Citigroup, which didn't want to raise its offer again and had been preparing to be sued, never again heard the threat of a suit."

This week's settlement includes $4 billion for the Treasury, roughly $500 million for the states and FDIC, and $2.5 billion for mortgage borrowers. That last category has become a fixture of recent government mortgage settlements, even though the premise of this case involves harm done to bond investors, not mortgage borrowers.

But the Obama Administration's references to the needs of Benghazi PR remind us that it could be worse. At least Mr. Holder isn't blaming the Geithner and Lew failures on a video.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Our Financial Crisis Amnesia - Remember the S&L crisis? Nobody else does either. And we'll soon forget about 2008 too

Our Financial Crisis Amnesia. By Alex J. Pollock
Remember the S&L crisis? Nobody else does either. And we'll soon forget about 2008 too.WSJ, July 9, 2014 6:50 p.m. ET

It is now five years since the end of the most recent U.S. financial crisis of 2007-09. Stocks have made record highs, junk bonds and leveraged loans have boomed, house prices have risen, and already there are cries for lower credit standards on mortgages to "increase access."

Meanwhile, in vivid contrast to the Swiss central bank, which marks its investments to market, the Federal Reserve has designed its own regulatory accounting so that it will never have to recognize any losses on its $4 trillion portfolio of long-term bonds and mortgage securities.

Who remembers that such "special" accounting is exactly what the Federal Home Loan Bank Board designed in the 1980s to hide losses in savings and loans? Who remembers that there even was a Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which for its manifold financial sins was abolished in 1989?

It is 25 years since 1989. Who remembers how severe the multiple financial crises of the 1980s were?

The government of Mexico defaulted on its loans in 1982 and set off a global debt crisis. The Federal Reserve's double-digit interest rates had rendered insolvent the aggregate savings and loan industry, until then the principal supplier of mortgage credit. The oil bubble collapsed with enormous losses.

Between 1982 and 1992, a disastrous 2,270 U.S. depository institutions failed. That is an average of more than 200 failures a year or four a week over a decade. From speaking to a great many audiences about financial crises, I can testify that virtually no one knows this.

In the wake of the housing bust, I was occasionally asked, "Will we learn the lessons of this crisis?" "We will indeed," I would reply, "and we will remember them for at least four or five years." In 2007 as the first wave of panic was under way, I heard a senior international economist opine in deep, solemn tones, "What we have learned from this crisis is the importance of liquidity risk." "Yes," I said, "that's what we learn from every crisis."

The political reactions to the 1980s included the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989, the FDIC Improvement Act of 1991, and the very ironically titled GSE Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992. Anybody remember the theories behind those acts?

After depositors in savings and loan associations were bailed out to the tune of $150 billion (the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation having gone belly up), then-Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady pronounced that the great legislative point was "never again." Never, that is, until the Mexican debt crisis of 1994, the Asian debt crisis of 1997, and the Long-Term Capital Management crisis of 1998, all very exciting at the time.

And who remembers the Great Recession (so called by a prominent economist of the time) in 1973-75, the huge real-estate bust and New York City's insolvency crisis? That was the decade before the 1980s.

Viewing financial crises over several centuries, the great economic historian Charles Kindleberger concluded that they occur on average about once a decade. Similarly, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker wittily observed that "about every 10 years, we have the biggest crisis in 50 years."

What is it about a decade or so? It seems that is long enough for memories to fade in the human group mind, as they are overlaid with happier recent experiences and replaced with optimistic new theories.

Speaking in 2013, Paul Tucker, the former deputy governor for financial stability of the Bank of England—a man who has thought long and hard about the macro risks of financial systems—stated, "It will be a while before confidence in the system is restored." But how long is "a while"? I'd say less than a decade.

Mr. Tucker went on to proclaim, "Never again should confidence be so blind." Ah yes, "never again." If Mr. Tucker's statement is meant as moral suasion, it's all right. But if meant as a prediction, don't bet on it.

Former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, for all his daydream of the government as financial Platonic guardian, knows this. As he writes in "Stress Test," his recent memoir: "Experts always have clever reasons why the boom they are enjoying will avoid the disastrous patterns of the past—until it doesn't." He predicts: "There will be a next crisis, despite all we did."

Right. But when? On the historical average, 2009 + 10 = 2019. Five more years is plenty of time for forgetting.

Mr. Pollock is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and was president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago 1991-2004.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

China moves to free-market pricing for pharmaceuticals, after price controls led to quality problems & shortages

China Scraps Price Caps on Low-Cost Drugs. By Laurie Burkitt
Move Comes After Some Manufacturers Cut Corners on Production
Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2014 1:15 a.m.


China will scrap caps on retail prices for low-cost medicine and is moving toward free-market pricing for pharmaceuticals, after price controls led to drug quality problems and shortages in the country.

The move could be a welcome one for global pharmaceutical companies, which have been under scrutiny in China since last year for their sales and marketing practices.

The world's most populous country is the third-largest pharmaceutical market, behind the U.S. and Japan, according to data from consulting firm McKinsey & Co., but Beijing has used price caps and other measures to keep medical care affordable.

Price caps will be lifted for 280 medicines made by Western drug companies and 250 Chinese patent drugs, the National Development and Reform Commission, China's economic planning body, said Thursday. The move will affect prices on drugs such as antibiotics, painkillers and vitamins, it said.

The statement said local governments will have until July 1 to unveil details of the plan. In China, local authorities have broad oversight over how drugs are distributed to local hospitals.

Aiming to keep prices low, some manufacturers cut corners on production, exposing consumers to safety risks, said Helen Chen, a Shanghai-based partner and director of L.E.K. Consulting. Many also closed production, creating shortages of low-cost drugs such as thyroid medication.

"It means the [commission] recognizes that forcing prices down and focusing purely on price does sacrifice drug safety, quality and availability," said Ms. Chen.

Several drug makers, including GlaxoSmithKline PLC, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. Spokeswomen for Sanofi and Pfizer Inc. said that because implementation of the new policy is unclear, it is too early to understand how it will affect their business in China.

The industry was dealt a blow last summer when Chinese authorities accused Glaxo of bribing doctors, hospitals and local officials to increase sales of their drugs. The U.K. company has said some of its employees may have violated Chinese law.

The central government, which began overhauling the country's health-care system in 2009, has until now largely favored pricing caps and has encouraged provincial governments to cut health-care costs and prices. Regulators phased out five years ago premium pricing for a list of "essential drugs" to be available in hospitals.

Chinese leaders want health care to be more accessible and affordable, but there have been unintended consequences in attempting to ensure the lowest prices on drugs. For instance, many pharmaceutical companies registered to sell the thyroid medication Tapazole have halted production in recent years after pricing restrictions squeezed out profits, experts say, creating a shortage. Chinese patients with hyperthyroidism struggled to find the drug and many suffered with increased anxiety, muscle weakness and sleep disorder, according to local media reports.

In 2012, some drug-capsule manufacturers were found to be using industrial gelatin to cut production costs. The industrial gelatin contained the chemical chromium, which can be carcinogenic with frequent exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Manufacturers have attempted to save costs, and doing that has meant using lower-quality ingredients," said Ms. Chen.

The pricing reversal won't necessarily alleviate pricing pressure for these drugs, experts say. To get drugs into hospitals, companies must compete in a tendering process at the provincial level, said Justin Wang, also a partner at L.E.K. "It's still unclear how the provinces will react to this new national list," Mr. Wang said.

If provinces don't change their current system, price will remain a key competitive factor for drug makers, said Franck Le Deu, a partner at McKinsey's China division.

"The bottom line is that there may be more safety and more pricing transparency, but the focus intensifies on creating more innovative drugs," Mr. Le Deu said.

  —Liyan Qi contributed to this article.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Daniel Schuman's Thomas Piketty Revives Marx for the 21st Century

Thomas Piketty reviu Marx per al segle XXI. By Daniel Shuchman
Wall Street Journal, Apr 21, 2014

Translated by Un Liberal Recalcitrant from Thomas Piketty Revives Marx for the 21st Century, below.

Thomas Piketty li agrada el capitalisme, ja que assigna eficientment els recursos. Però ell no li agrada com es distribueix la renda. No, pensa que pràcticament és una il·legitimitat moral qualsevol acumulació de riquesa, i és una qüestió de justícia que aquesta desigualtat pot radicar en la nostra economia. La manera de fer això és eliminar les rendes altes i reduir la riquesa existent a través d'impostos.

"El capital al segle XXI" és una densa exploració de Thomas Piketty en la història dels salaris i de la riquesa en els últims tres segles. Presenta un desgavell de dades sobre la distribució dels ingressos en molts països, provant de demostrar que la desigualtat ha augmentat dràsticament en les últimes dècades i que aviat tornarà a ser pitjor. Independentment de si un està convençut per les dades del Sr Piketty  -i hi ha raons per a l'escepticisme, donat el cas de les pròpies advertències de l'autor i pel fet que moltes estadístiques es basen en mostres molt limitades dels registres de l'impost sobre béns de dubtosa extrapolació- en última instància aquest és un fet de poca importància. Conseqüentment aquest llibre no és tant un treball d'anàlisi econòmica com el d’una norma ideològica estranya.

Professor de l'Escola d'Economia de París, el Sr Piketty creu que només la productivitat dels treballadors de baixos ingressos pot ser mesurada de forma objectiva. Ell postula que quan un treball és replicable, com el d’un "treballador de la línia de muntatge o el d’un cambrer de menjar ràpid",  es pot mesurar de forma relativament fàcil el valor aportat per cada treballador. Per tant, aquests treballadors tenen dret al que guanyen. Ell troba que la productivitat de les persones amb alts ingressos ´rd més difícil de mesurar i creu que els seus salaris es troben en el final de la "gran mesura arbitrària".  Són el reflex d'una "construcció ideològica" més del mèrit.

Segons Piketty, els sous altíssims per "supermanagers" corporatius ha estat la major font d'augment de la desigualtat, i aquests executius només poden haver arribat a la seva recompensa gràcies a la sort o falles en el govern corporatiu. Es requereix només una mirada ocasional a aquest diari per confirmar això. No obstant, l'autor creu que cap CEO podria mai justificar el seu salari en funció del rendiment. Ell no diu que qualsevol professional –atletes, metges, professors d'economia, que venen llibres electrònics per 21,99$ de marge amb cost zero per còpia- tingui dret a majors ingressos perquè no vol "gaudir de la construcció d'una jerarquia moral de la riquesa".

Ell admet que els empresaris són "absolutament indispensables" per al desenvolupament econòmic, però el seu èxit, també, està generalment contaminat. Mentre que alguns tenen èxit gràcies al "treball per part del veritable emprenedor," altres tenen senzillament sort o aconsegueixen l’èxit a través del "robatori descarat". Fins i tot seria el cas de les fortunes fetes del treball empresarial que evolucionen ràpidament cap a una "concentració excessiva i duradora del capital". Això és una injustícia d'auto-reforç, perquè "la propietat a vegades comença amb el robatori, i el retorn arbitrari sobre el capital pot perpetuar fàcilment el delicte inicial. "De fet tot el llibre incorpora com a una hostilitat gairebé medieval la idea de que el capital financer tingui un retorn o benefici.

El Sr Piketty creu que com més rica es torna una societat, més gent va a la recerca de la millor posició social relativa, condicionant més desigualtat. Rememora les atemporals autoritats econòmiques com Jane Austen i Honoré de Balzac en la cartografia del nostre futur. Al llarg del llibre es divaga amb les maquinacions inadequades, perseguint de personatges de novel·les com "Sentit i sensibilitat", i obsessivament, amb el calculador "Papà Goriot": Són els fruits del treball dur superiors a les intencions per casar-se i aconseguir una fortuna? Si no és així, "per què treballar, i per què comportar-se moralment bé?"

Mentre que els executius corporatius dels Estats Units són la seva “bèstia especial”, el Sr Piketty també està profundament preocupat per les desenes de milions de persones treballadores -un grup que ell anomena despectivament "petits rendistes"- que els seus ingressos els col·loca molt lluny de l’u per cent, però que encara tenen estalvis, comptes de jubilació i altres actius. Considera que aquest gran grup demogràfic es farà més gran i que el seu creixement de riquesa es transmetrà mitjançant les herències, essent això "una forma bastant preocupant de desigualtat". Es lamenta del difícil que és "corregir" tot això perquè es tracta d'un ampli segment de la població, no una petita elit, més fàcilment “satanitzable” .

Llavors, què cal fer ? El Sr Piketty insta a constituir una taxa impositiva del 80 % en els ingressos a partir del 500.000$ o 1 milió. "Això no és per recaptar diners per a l'educació o per augmentar les prestacions d'atur.  Contràriament, no ho espera d’un impost d'aquest tipus perquè el seu propòsit és, simplement, "posar fi a aquest tipus d'ingressos”. També serà necessari imposar una taxa -del 50/60%- sobre els ingressos més baixos, com els de 200.000$. Afegeix també ha ha d'haver un impost a la riquesa anual de fins el 10 % sobre les fortunes més grans i una càrrega fiscal, d'una sola vegada, de fins el 20% sobre els nivells de riquesa més baixos. Ell, alegrement, ens assegura que res d'això reduiria el creixement econòmic, la productivitat, l'emprenedoria o la innovació.

No és que el creixement i la millora no estigui en la ment del senyor Piketty,  sin´ó que es tracta com un assumpte econòmic i com un mitjà per a una major justícia distributiva. S'assumeix que l'economia és estàtica i de suma zero; si l'ingrés d'un grup de població augmenta, un altre necessàriament ha d’empobrir-se. Ell veu la igualtat de resultats com la finalitat última i exclusivament per al seu propi bé. Objectius -tals alternatives com la maximització de la riquesa general de la societat o l'augment de la llibertat econòmica o la recerca de la major igualtat possible d'oportunitats o fins i tot, com en la filosofia de John Rawls, el que garanteix que el benestar dels més desfavorits es maximitza -són ni mínimament esmentats.

No hi ha dubte que la pobresa, la desocupació i la desigualtat d'oportunitats són els principals reptes per a les societats capitalistes, i els diversos graus de la sort, el treball dur, la mandra i el mèrit són inherents a la humanitat. El Sr Piketty no és el primer visionari utòpic. Cita, per exemple, "l’experiment soviètic" que va permetre a l'home llançar "les seves cadenes juntament amb el jou de la riquesa acumulada." En el seu relat, només va portar el desastre humà perquè les societats necessiten mercats i propietat privada per tenir una economia que funcioni. Ell diu que les seves solucions ofereixen una "resposta menys violenta i més eficient per l'etern problema del capital privat i del seu benefici. En lloc d'Austen i Balzac, el professor hauria de llegir "Rebel·lió a la Granja” i "Darkness at Noon".

Shuchman és un gestor de fons de Nova York que escriu sovint sobre el dret i l'economia.

Thomas Piketty Revives Marx for the 21st Century. By Daniel Schuman
An 80% tax rate on incomes above $500,000 is not meant to bring in money for education or benefits, but 'to put an end to such incomes.'
Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2014 7:18 p.m. ET

Thomas Piketty likes capitalism because it efficiently allocates resources. But he does not like how it allocates income. There is, he thinks, a moral illegitimacy to virtually any accumulation of wealth, and it is a matter of justice that such inequality be eradicated in our economy. The way to do this is to eliminate high incomes and to reduce existing wealth through taxation.

"Capital in the Twenty-First Century" is Mr. Piketty's dense exploration of the history of wages and wealth over the past three centuries. He presents a blizzard of data about income distribution in many countries, claiming to show that inequality has widened dramatically in recent decades and will soon get dangerously worse. Whether or not one is convinced by Mr. Piketty's data—and there are reasons for skepticism, given the author's own caveats and the fact that many early statistics are based on extremely limited samples of estate tax records and dubious extrapolation—is ultimately of little consequence. For this book is less a work of economic analysis than a bizarre ideological screed.

A professor at the Paris School of Economics, Mr. Piketty believes that only the productivity of low-wage workers can be measured objectively. He posits that when a job is replicable, like an "assembly line worker or fast-food server," it is relatively easy to measure the value contributed by each worker. These workers are therefore entitled to what they earn. He finds the productivity of high-income earners harder to measure and believes their wages are in the end "largely arbitrary." They reflect an "ideological construct" more than merit.

Soaring pay for corporate "supermanagers" has been the largest source of increased inequality, according to Mr. Piketty, and these executives can only have attained their rewards through luck or flaws in corporate governance. It requires only an occasional glance at this newspaper to confirm that this can be the case. But the author believes that no CEO could ever justify his or her pay based on performance. He doesn't say whether any occupation—athletes? physicians? economics professors who sell zero-marginal-cost e-books for $21.99 a copy?—is entitled to higher earnings because he does not wish to "indulge in constructing a moral hierarchy of wealth."

He does admit that entrepreneurs are "absolutely indispensable" for economic development, but their success, too, is usually tainted. While some succeed thanks to "true entrepreneurial labor," some are simply lucky or succeed through "outright theft." Even the fortunes made from entrepreneurial labor, moreover, quickly evolve into an "excessive and lasting concentration of capital." This is a self-reinforcing injustice because "property sometimes begins with theft, and the arbitrary return on capital can easily perpetuate the initial crime." Indeed laced throughout the book is an almost medieval hostility to the notion that financial capital earns a return.

Mr. Piketty believes that the wealthier a society becomes, the more people will claw for the best relative social station and the more inequality will ensue. He turns to those timeless economic authorities Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac in mapping our future. Throughout the book, he importunately digresses with the dowry-chasing machinations of characters in novels like "Sense and Sensibility" and " Père Goriot. " He is obsessed with the following calculus: Are the fruits of working hard greater than those attainable by marrying into a top fortune? If not, "why work? And why behave morally at all?"

While America's corporate executives are his special bête noire, Mr. Piketty is also deeply troubled by the tens of millions of working people—a group he disparagingly calls "petits rentiers"—whose income puts them nowhere near the "one percent" but who still have savings, retirement accounts and other assets. That this very large demographic group will get larger, grow wealthier and pass on assets via inheritance is "a fairly disturbing form of inequality." He laments that it is difficult to "correct" because it involves a broad segment of the population, not a small elite that is easily demonized.

So what is to be done? Mr. Piketty urges an 80% tax rate on incomes starting at "$500,000 or $1 million." This is not to raise money for education or to increase unemployment benefits. Quite the contrary, he does not expect such a tax to bring in much revenue, because its purpose is simply "to put an end to such incomes." It will also be necessary to impose a 50%-60% tax rate on incomes as low as $200,000 to develop "the meager US social state." There must be an annual wealth tax as high as 10% on the largest fortunes and a one-time assessment as high as 20% on much lower levels of existing wealth. He breezily assures us that none of this would reduce economic growth, productivity, entrepreneurship or innovation.

Not that enhancing growth is much on Mr. Piketty's mind, either as an economic matter or as a means to greater distributive justice. He assumes that the economy is static and zero-sum; if the income of one population group increases, another one must necessarily have been impoverished. He views equality of outcome as the ultimate end and solely for its own sake. Alternative objectives—such as maximizing the overall wealth of society or increasing economic liberty or seeking the greatest possible equality of opportunity or even, as in the philosophy of John Rawls, ensuring that the welfare of the least well-off is maximized—are scarcely mentioned.

There is no doubt that poverty, unemployment and unequal opportunity are major challenges for capitalist societies, and varying degrees of luck, hard work, sloth and merit are inherent in human affairs. Mr. Piketty is not the first utopian visionary. He cites, for instance, the "Soviet experiment" that allowed man to throw "off his chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth." In his telling, it only led to human disaster because societies need markets and private property to have a functioning economy. He says that his solutions provide a "less violent and more efficient response to the eternal problem of private capital and its return." Instead of Austen and Balzac, the professor ought to read "Animal Farm" and "Darkness at Noon."

Mr. Shuchman is a New York fund manager who often writes on law and economics.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Views from FYR of Macedonia: Russia, the West, America

Views from FYR of Macedonia: Russia, the West, America

After sharing with some people an article on new software for US military cargo helicopters to take more autonomous decisions*, a Macedonian in the group wrote (Spanish):
Si, tenemos suerte y los rusos nos defienden. Si no estamos j[xxx]dos con los americanos y sus maquinas de muerte

Translation: Yes we are lucky that the Russians defend us. If not, we would be [doomed] by the Americans and their Machines of Death.

The article: Navy Drones With a Mind of Their Own. WSJ, Apr 5, 2014. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303532704579481510076347466


Friday, March 21, 2014

The Responsible Way to Rein in Super-Fast Trading - by Gary Cohn

The Responsible Way to Rein in Super-Fast Trading. By Gary Cohn
At Goldman Sachs, we would back these measures to limit the risk and instability that technology gains brought.
WSJ, March 20, 2014 8:05 p.m. ET

Equity-market structure in the U.S. has made important advances over the past 20 years, promoting greater transparency and liquidity. Three powerful forces have been at work: technology, regulation and competition. The result has been narrower spreads, faster execution and lower overall explicit costs to trading stocks.

With the overwhelming majority of transactions now done over multiple electronic markets each with its own rule books, the equity-market structure is increasingly fragmented and complex. The risks associated with this fragmentation and complexity are amplified by the dramatic increase in the speed of execution and trading communications.

In the U.S., there are 13 public exchanges and nearly 50 alternative trading systems. Regulation NMS (National Market System), adopted in 2007, requires that market participants route their orders to the exchange that displays the best public price at any given time. This has increased both the number of linkages in the market and the speed at which transactions are done. The Securities and Exchange Commission has correctly called for an "assessment of whether market structure rules have kept pace with, among other things, changes in trading technology and practices."

In the past year alone, multiple technology failures have occurred in the equities markets, with a severe impact on the markets' ability to operate. Even though industry groups have met after the market disruptions to discuss responses, there has not been enough progress. Execution venues are decentralized and unable to agree on common rules. While an industry-based solution is preferable, some issues cannot be addressed by market forces alone and require a regulatory response. Innovation is critical to a healthy and competitive market structure, but not at the cost of introducing substantial risk.

Regulators and industry participants, including asset managers, broker-dealers, exchanges and trading firms, have all put forth ideas and reforms. We agree with a number of their concerns and propose the following four principles:

• First, the equity market needs a stronger safety net of controls to reduce the magnitude and frequency of disruptions. A fragmented trading landscape, increasingly sophisticated routing algorithms, constant software updates and an explosion in electronic-order instructions have made markets more susceptible to technology failures and their consequences.

We propose that all exchanges adopt a stringent set of uniform, SEC-mandated execution controls to reduce errors. In addition to limit-up, limit-down rules that prevent trades from occurring outside a specified price band, pre-trade price and volume limits should be implemented to block problematic orders from entering the market. Mechanisms should also be introduced to halt a firm's, market maker's or other entity's trading when an established threshold is breached, thus minimizing the uncontrolled accumulation of trades.

• Second: Create incentives to reduce excessive market instability. The economic model of the exchanges, as shaped by regulation, is oriented around market volume. Volume generates price discovery and liquidity, which are clearly beneficial. But the industry must recognize how certain activities related to volume can place stress on a market infrastructure ill-equipped to deal with it.

Electronic-order instructions connect the objectives of buyers and sellers to actions on exchanges. These transaction messages direct the placement, cancellation and correction of orders, and in recent years they have skyrocketed. In the 2010 "flash crash," a spike in the volume of these messages exacerbated volatility, overwhelming the market's infrastructure.

According to industry analysis, since 2005 the flow of these order instructions sent through U.S. stock exchanges has increased more than 1000%, yet trade volume has increased by only 50%. One consequence of the enormous growth in order-message traffic is that increasingly the quote that an investor sees isn't the price he or she can transact, as orders often get canceled at lightning-quick speeds.

Currently there is no cost to market participants who generate excessive order-message traffic. One idea would be to consider if regulatory fees applied on the basis of extreme message traffic—rather than executions alone—are appropriate and would enhance the underlying strength and resiliency of the system. Regulators in Canada and Australia have adopted this approach.

• Third: Public market data should be disseminated to all market participants simultaneously. Exchanges currently disseminate prices and transaction data to the SEC-sanctioned distributor for all investors, but exchanges may also send this information directly to private subscribers. While the data leave the exchange simultaneously, the public data are delayed because they go through the intermediary's processing infrastructure. The public aggregator should release information to all market participants at the same time.

Removing the possibility of differentiated channels for market data also reduces incentives that favor investment in the speed of one channel over the stability and resiliency of another. Instability creates and compounds market disruptions. Stable and accurate market data is one of the most important elements of market safety; it is the backbone of the market that must weather the most extreme periods.

• Fourth: Give clearing members more tools to limit risk. A central clearing house with strong operational and financial integrity can reduce credit risk, increase liquidity and enhance transparency through enforced margin requirements and verified and recorded trades. But because clearing members extend credit, the associated risks must be recognized. Tools like pre-trade credit checks and being able to monitor positions and credit on an intraday basis are essential. Clearing firms use various tools like margin and capital adequacy to manage their risk, but exchanges should also provide uniform mechanisms for clearers to set credit limits and to revoke a client's ability to trade immediately upon request, when necessary.

U.S. markets today are the deepest, most liquid in the world and serve an indispensable role in allocating capital. That means the companies that have the greatest potential to innovate and grow will get the capital they need to create jobs, build new industries and ensure a vibrant economy. Investors have benefited significantly from technology and innovation, but the speed and complexity at which our markets operate aren't being matched with the operational and control environment to support them.

Mr. Cohn is president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Shedding Some Light on Shadow Banking - Don't let a vaguely sinister label for this useful financing prompt harmful regulations

Shedding Some Light on Shadow Banking. By Tony James
Don't let a vaguely sinister label for this useful financing prompt harmful regulations.
WSJ, Mar 04, 2014

The term "shadow banking" is one of those Orwellian terms that can undermine critical thought. It has a negative, vaguely sinister connotation about a source of financing that is an essential and desirable part of the financial system. As discussion about the regulation of nonbank entities begins in earnest, it's time to clear the air about what these institutions are and how they operate.

Shadow banking—or more accurately, market-based financing—is simply the provision of capital by loans or investments to some companies by other companies that are not banks. Examples include insurance companies, credit investment funds, hedge funds, private-equity funds, and broker dealers. These institutions do not operate in the dark. Market-based finance in the U.S. amounts to trillions of dollars and is significantly larger than the country's entire banking system.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has correctly noted the role of shadow banking in "diversifying the sources of financing of our economies in a sustainable way." For example, traditional bank financing is not always available for many small- and medium-size companies. Market-based financing has fueled the creation of companies (and thousands of jobs) in many industries. It has rescued companies on the edge of bankruptcy and saved the jobs associated with them. And market-based financing has built warehouses, manufacturing plants and hotels, such as the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences in downtown New York City, when traditional banks could not, or would not, provide capital.

Large banks concentrate risk in relatively few hands, which can pose a risk to the economic system. That is not the case for market-based financing. Risks are safely dispersed across many sophisticated investors who can readily absorb any potential losses. Unlike traditional banks, market-based funds do not borrow from the Federal Reserve, nor do they rely on government-guaranteed deposits. Substantially all their capital comes from well-advised institutional investors who know what they are getting into, and understand the associated risks. Bank depositors (and taxpayers) on the other hand, do not typically know what a bank's investments are or how risky they may be.

Typically, market-based funds also lack the elements that are sources of systemic instability, including high leverage and interdependence. Each investment within a fund is independent and not cross-collateralized or supporting a common debt structure. Losses in any one fund are without recourse to any other fund or to the manager of the capital.

In addition, investors in many market-based funds, including credit investment funds, hedge funds and private-equity funds often cannot instantly withdraw their capital, unlike depositors in banks. Large, sudden withdrawals can lead to runs on the bank or force "fire sales" of assets. With stable, in-place capital, these funds can provide a critical source of liquidity to trading markets in times of turmoil.

Of course, some regulation may be appropriate for nonbank entities that present bank-like risks to financial stability or that lend to consumers. But let's not forget that it was the regulated entities that were the source of almost all the systemic risk in the financial crisis.

Regulations are far from a panacea and would need to be carefully constructed to ensure that the enormous economic benefits of market-based financing are not lost through inappropriate and stifling regulatory policies established for large, deposit-taking banks.

While banks in the U.S. are better capitalized and much safer today than before the financial crisis, market-based financing—shadow banking, if you prefer—still brings enormous economic advantages to a wide range of businesses and employees, and fills a real gap in the market.

In Europe, where banks are less well capitalized, the need for market-based financing is even more critical. As the G-20's Financial Stability Board noted in its policy framework last August, market-based financing creates "competition in financial markets that may lead to innovation, efficient credit allocation and cost reduction."

It is critical that any misunderstanding of the shadow banking system does not result in regulations that undermine the many thousands of companies and jobs that need market-based financing to survive and grow.

Mr. James is president and chief operating officer of Blackstone, a global investment and advisory firm.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Diversify Europe's Financial Grid. By Alberto Gallo

Diversify Europe's Financial Grid. By Alberto Gallo
Euro-zone lenders hold assets worth more than €30 trillion, three times the output of the euro area.
WSJ, Feb 20, 2014

European banks remain vulnerable to another financial crisis. Capital buffers are too small, creditor bail-ins too low and emergency resolution mechanisms still inadequate to insulate governments from losses that could arise from a system-wide failure. In short, we need a new formula for financial stability.

A banking crisis today would still cost European sovereigns between 2% and 10% of GDP. The final bill would depend on many factors, the size of the initial loss being only one. Others include how much is mitigated by the banks' own capital reserves, by pre-existing government backstops and by any money that can be recouped by bailing-in bondholders.

The size of a country's banking system is also critical. By that measure, Europe's banks remain too big to fail.

Euro-zone lenders have shrunk their balance sheets by a total of €4.4 trillion since the second quarter of 2012, but still hold assets worth more than €30 trillion, according to the European Central Bank. That's three times the output of the euro area and far outstrips the U.S., where bank assets are less than GDP.

And if European banks are too big, they're also still undercapitalized. Capital is adequate relative to risk-weighted assets, against which "capital ratios" are measured, but falls short as a proportion of the banks' total asset base and of potential losses.

To make their capital ratios look better, many banks have reduced their risk-weighted assets over the past few years, often by "optimizing" their internal risk models. More than one-third of European banks now have less than 30% risk-weighted assets over total (RWA), some as low as 20%. This means a bank's "10% capital ratio" is effectively equal to €2 of capital for every €100 of assets (20% RWA times 10% equals €2). That's too low, especially for systemic banks whose balance sheets are as large as a country's GDP.

Regulators recognize the issue and are trying to introduce an absolute floor on capital: the Basel committee's 3% leverage ratio prescribes a minimum €3 of capital over assets. But even this would not have helped troubled banks such as Dexia or Anglo Irish, which lost the equivalent of 4% and 20% of their assets during the 2008-09 crisis, respectively.

We estimate that to stand on their own feet, banks need a leverage ratio of about 5.8% of capital over assets. This is consistent with the approach of Swiss and U.S. regulators, who recommend a 6% leverage ratio. It means euro-zone banks would need to raise an additional €492 billion of capital—more than six times the €80 billion that the European Banking Authority says they raised in 2013.

Another solution would be to increase bail-in requirements or state backstops. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble recently proposed speeding up the formation of Europe's Single Resolution Fund, a bank-financed pool of money planned to help wrap up or restructure failing banks. But the proposed €55 billion that would be available in the fund pales in comparison to the potential losses generated by bank failures, even if a bail-in were to be implemented first. We estimate the fund could help one large or two mid-sized institutions withstand failure, at best.

These backstops are also very difficult to put into action—the decision to restructure or resolve a bank has to pass through national committees, the European Commission, the Single-Resolution Mechanism (whose fine-print is still being drafted), and various other boards. Not a weekend job.

Regulators need a more comprehensive approach to making banks safe. It must encompass the total size of capital reserves, the size and structure of banking systems, and rules that can efficiently bail-in bondholders. Regulators are moving in the right direction, but they have not gone far enough.

Ultimately, I believe that Europe will be free from the threat of failing banks only once it has a smaller banking system and a more diversified supply of credit.

Think of credit like an energy grid: In Europe, 80% to 90% of the energy comes from banks—the coal or nuclear plants of the system. If something goes wrong with them, the costs will be high, the collateral effects toxic, and the damage could take years to clean up.

We need more "renewable energy" in the form of non-bank sources of credit. That means bonds, securitizations, and lending from insurance companies and asset managers. Only then will Europe be free from its banks.

Mr. Gallo is the head of macro-credit research at the Royal Bank of Scotland. The views expressed are his own.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How Dodd-Frank Doubles Down on 'Too Big to Fail'

How Dodd-Frank Doubles Down on 'Too Big to Fail'
Two major flaws mean that the act doesn't address problems that led to the financial crisis of 2008.
By Charles W. Calomiris And Allan H. Meltzer WSJ, Feb. 12, 2014 6:44 p.m. ET

The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, mandated hundreds of major regulations to control bank risk-taking, with the aim of preventing a repeat of the taxpayer bailouts of "too big to fail" financial institutions. These regulations are on top of many rules adopted after the 2008 financial crisis to make banks more secure. Yet at a Senate hearing in January, Elizabeth Warren asked a bipartisan panel of four economists (including Allan Meltzer ) whether the Dodd-Frank Act would end the problem of too-big-to-fail banks. Every one answered no.

Dodd-Frank's approach to regulating bank risk has two major flaws. First, its standards and rules require regulatory enforcement instead of giving bankers strong incentives to maintain safety and soundness of their own institutions. Second, the regulatory framework attempts to prevent any individual bank from failing, instead of preventing the collapse of the payments and credit systems.

The principal danger to the banking system arises when fear and uncertainty about the value of bank assets induces the widespread refusal by banks to accept each other's short-term debts. Such refusals can lead to a collapse of the interbank payments system, a dramatic contraction of bank credit, and a general loss in confidence by consumers and businesses—all of which can have dire economic consequences. The proper goal is thus to make the banking system sufficiently resilient so that no single failure can result in a general collapse.

Part of the current confusion over regulatory means and ends reflects a mistaken understanding of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. The collapse of interbank credit in September 2008 was not the automatic consequence of Lehman's failure.
Rather, it resulted from a widespread market perception that many large banks were at significant risk of failing. This perception didn't develop overnight. It had evolved steadily and visibly over more than two years, while regulators and politicians did nothing.

Citibank's equity-to-assets ratio, measured in market value—the best single comprehensive measure of a bank's financial strength—fell steadily from about 13% in April 2006 to about 3% by September 2008. And that low value reflected an even lower perception of fundamental asset worth, because the 3% market value included the value of an expected bailout. Lehman's collapse was simply the match in the tinder box. If other banks had been sufficiently safe and sound at the time of Lehman's demise, then the financial system would not have been brought to its knees by a single failure.

To ensure systemwide resiliency, most of Dodd-Frank's regulations should be replaced by measures requiring large, systemically important banks to increase their capacity to deal with losses. The first step would be to substantially raise the minimum ratio of the book value of their equity relative to the book value of their assets.

The Brown-Vitter bill now before Congress (the Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act) would raise that minimum ratio to 15%, roughly a threefold increase from current levels. Although reasonable people can disagree about the optimal minimum ratio—one could argue that a 10% ratio would be adequate in the presence of additional safeguards—15% is not an arbitrary number.

At the onset of the Great Depression, large New York City banks all maintained more than 15% of their assets in equity, and none of them succumbed to the worst banking system shocks in U.S. history from 1929 to 1932. The losses suffered by major banks in the recent crisis would not have wiped out their equity if it had been equal to 15% of their assets.

Bankers and their supervisors often find it mutually convenient to understate expected loan losses and thereby overstate equity values. The problem is magnified when equity requirements are expressed relative to "risk-weighted assets," allowing regulators to permit banks' models to underestimate their risks.

This is not a hypothetical issue. In December 2008, when Citi was effectively insolvent, and the market's valuation of its equity correctly reflected that fact, the bank's accounts showed a risk-based capital ratio of 11.8% and a risk-based Tier 1 capital ratio (meant to include only high-quality, equity-like capital) of about 7%. Moreover, factors such as a drop in bank fee income can affect the actual value of a bank's equity, regardless of the riskiness of its loans.

For these reasons, large banks' book equity requirements need to be buttressed by other measures. One is a minimum requirement that banks maintain cash reserves (New York City banks during the Depression maintained cash reserves in excess of 25%). Cash held at the central bank provides protection against default risk similar to equity capital, but it has the advantage of being observable and incapable of being fudged by esoteric risk-modeling.

Several researchers have suggested a variety of ways to supplement simple equity and cash requirements with creative contractual devices that would give bankers strong incentives to make sure that they maintain adequate capital. In the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance (2013), Charles Calomiris and Richard Herring propose debt that converts to equity whenever the market value ratio of a bank's equity is below 9% for more than 90 days. Since the conversion would significantly dilute the value of the stock held by pre-existing shareholders, a bank CEO will have a big incentive to avoid it.

There is plenty of room to debate the details, but the essential reform is to place responsibility for absorbing a bank's losses on banks and their owners. Dodd-Frank institutionalizes too-big-to-fail protection by explicitly permitting bailouts via a "resolution authority" provision at the discretion of government authorities, financed by taxes on surviving banks—and by taxpayers should these bank taxes be insufficient. That provision should be repealed and replaced by clear rules that can't be gamed by bank managers.
Mr. Calomiris is the co-author (with Stephen Haber ) of "Fragile By Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit" (Princeton, 2014). Mr. Meltzer is the author of "Why Capitalism?" (Oxford, 2012). They co-direct (with Kenneth Scott ) the new program on Regulation and the Rule of Law at the Hoover Institution.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Number of new antibacterial-drug approvals in the US

Source: Drug Makers Tiptoe Back Into Antibiotic R&D. By Hester Plumridge
As Superbugs Spread, Regulators Begin to Remove Roadblocks for New Treatments
WSJ, Jan 23, 2014