Park Avenue and How We Got There

“There” is our current situation in which our government has been bought by the rich and corporations, over 80% of the population has not had a pay raise in 40 years and the public sphere, schools, parks, our infrastructure, really anything not behind the gated walls of private wealth, is being starved in the name of free market ideology. The American promise that hard work, pluck and a bit of luck can bring success to anyone, regardless of their rank at birth, is an empty myth. If you are born poor you will die poor. Even if you are middle-class, there is a significant chance that you will sink and at any rate you will always struggle just to keep that middle-class status.

The rich and corporations have waged a 40 year class war. At this point they have won all of the battles and continue to take home the spoils. Continue reading

Book Review – The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Rise and Fall of American Growth-bookcoverThe Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US standard of living since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon1 is a weighty book in every regard. At 762 pages it is a heavy lift – not beach reading or even bed-time either. But I found it almost a page turner. It is very well structured and written. None of the fussiness or obscurantist language one often finds in academic works. The central point of the book is that during the period from 1870 to 1970 the US economy grew at an extraordinary and we will not see a return to that rate for some pretty fundamental reasons. Continue reading

  1. Princeton U. Press. 2016 []

Inside Goldman Sachs with the Federal Reserve

GoldmanSachsThe relationship between our financial services industry, our government, and us, ordinary citizens who have repeatedly suffered the consequences of the avarice and incompetence of this industry, has always been troubled. Booms, busts, crashes, bubbles, depressions, inflation. Since the beginning of the 2008 Great Recession we have hoped that the government would return to applying some real rational restraints on the financial system. To be honest, with both political parties deep in the pocket of the industry, this is probably merely wishful thinking.

The Secret recordings of Carmen Segarra

While you are listening to this report of regulators captured by the industry they are paid to supervise, think of the endless series of Wall St and corporate chieftains who have worked for every President of our life time. So,  don’t miss the current This American Life story about the Federal Reserve: “The Secret Recordings of Carmen Segarra” ((http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/536/the-secret-recordings-of-carmen-segarra))

FedReserveNY

Flash Boys Doesn’t Ask the Important Question

Flash Boys cover by Michael Lewis

photo by Patricia Wall/ NYTs

The new book, Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis has reignited the discussion of how our financial markets are rigged by high frequency trading.1 From my 2012 note: 

To turn back to HFTs, why do we need this kind of transaction? How do they contribute to economic growth? These activities are by definition a zero sum game. They are like every other form of gambling a zero sum game. There are winners and losers, but no incremental gain for the economy. Other than enriching the HFTs at cost to others with smaller computers and fewer PhDs on staff what do we get for allowing these activities? Potentially catastrophic destabilization of financial markets? Where is the upside for society as a whole? Isn’t  a primary purpose of any economy to increase the size of the pie, not just to redistribute existing wealth?

We should demand that our financial markets serve their fundamental purposes – connect investors with those who can deploy those resources to create new products and services and enable the flow of these goods and services. To call holding financial instruments whether stocks, bonds, or other assets for mere seconds investments is to beggar the mind. Government needs to step in to penalize economic activity that looks like gambling and certainly does not “grow the pie”. A sliding scale of transaction costs (aka a tax) could bring this to a screeching halt.2 There are sure to be complexities in how to implement such a strategy. But, if at every step we ask how a financial transaction contributes to economic growth at a systemic level, solutions will appear. Right now we have financial markets that are not only rigged but so complex and non-transparent that we are certainly setting ourselves up for future calamities like that which struck us in 2008.

  1. I have written about these issues earlier:  “High Frequency Trading and Deeper Questions about Capitalism” and “Wall St – not about investing but fixing the game” earlier []
  2. We would have to face the international crisis of how to employ all those PhDs currently engaged in the HFT wars []

Wall St – not about investing but fixing the game

playing cards courtesy of Chance Agrella, photographer

photo courtesy of Chance Agrella, photographer

An article in the NY TImes today reports1 that NY Attorney General Schneiderman is pursuing various information providers, Thomson Reuters in the immediate case, for their practices of selling market sensitive information preferntially. Those paying a premium get information several minutes before its release to the general public. This is more evidence that Wall St (standing in here for the financial sector as a whole) is largely a fixed gambling racket. Not much different than a casino. Continue reading

  1. Regulators Examining Early Sales of Financial Data http://nyti.ms/12hDF3t []

Thomas Friedman’s It’s a 401(k) World – facile, misleading

Thomas L. Friedman NYTimesMay Day 2013 brought a piece in the NY Times by Thomas Friedman, “It’s a 401(k) World” that points out the enormous changes in employment, technology, personal access to information and personal responsibility for larger swaths of life.  Work changed from a steady job as a regular feature of life to a series of part-time or short term engagements with corporations who view labor as a throw away element. 

Reading this op ed leaves one with the notion that these changes have arisen through some immutable forces of nature. Continue reading

The Job Creators – Who Are They? The Rich, Really?

In recent years a standard bit of political rhetoric in the US has included references to “the job creators”. This most usually  flows along the lines of higher taxes on the wealthy will injure the job creators. Or, government regulation is crushing the job creators. The presumption of course is that the wealthy, the 1% in the current rhetoric, create jobs (and those not created by the wealthy are created by small business – this being another, long term part of our political discourse). Thus, government must do nothing that will upset the wealthy.

It must be noted that we have already had a large experiment with the obverse of this “don’t disturb the wealthy” policy. What if we made the wealthy even richer by lowering their tax rates? By simple logical deduction, this would incent them to invest more and create more jobs. Well, the Bush II years proved that this does not happen. Despite the largest tax reductions  on the wealthy in US history, job creation under Bush II was worse than in any presidency back to Hoover.

At some level believing the wealthy to be the job creators seems natural enough. They have lots of money to invest and in their desire for more they will be out investing in new projects that per force must create jobs. Without the aid of real analysis, I have always been a bit suspicious of this idea. Wealthy people have their money managed for them by large financial institutions and financial specialists. Very few of them are directly involved in any business other than the business of worrying about whether their financial advisors are ripping them off or doing stupid things. Why do real work when you can have your advisors leverage the vast scale of your wealth to get special deals on bundled high return financial instruments.

Nick Hanauer TED TalkAlong comes a wealthy guy, Nick Hanauer,1 with a five minute TED Talk debunking this job creator mythology that is more soundly thought out than my ramblings.

BTW – Hanauer’s analysis is straight forward Keynesian economics. We have a demand problem. US corporations have record sums of cash on the balance sheets. Yet they are not investing it. The answer is lack of demand, increased sales to generate the virtuous cycle of profits  followed by jobs. Though both the US and Europe are busy proving again that our economic problems are not going to be solved by austerity, debt reduction policies, other countries, like South Korea,  have proved anew the merits of Keynesian remedies. Unfortunately, we have no one in the elites who have the political will to do what has worked before very reliably. They used to call it “pump priming”. Now our pump is dry, unemployment and underemployment  is perniciously eating away at our society. 

  1. he was an early investor in Amazon []

Economic Inequality – Does It Matter?

It is fairly widely known that income and wealth inequality in the US is as high or higher than at any time except perhaps the Robber Baron period at the end of the 19th century. Lots of articles and books explain how this has come about over the last 30 years. In a recent NYTimes Magazine article, “The Purpose of Spectacular Wealth, According to a Spectacularly Wealthy Guy” by Adam Davidson, we are even offered an affirmative defense of this by a buddy of Mitt Romney from Bain Capital Edward Conrad.

Conrad… “aggressively argues that the enormous and growing income inequality in the United States is not a sign that the system is rigged. On the contrary, Conrad writes, it is a sign that our economy is working. And if we had a little more of it, then everyone, particularly the 99 percent, would be better off.”

But, leaving aside the obvious disconnect between any rational measure of value add by the wealthy and their incomes and holdings, does economic inequality really matter? Is it just that those of us in the not wealthy class, now branded The 99%, are jealous of all the toys of the wealthy? Their four or five houses, countless cars, airplanes, and all the rest?

Are their some measurable consequences to economic inequality? Continue reading

High Frequency Trading and Deeper Questions about Capitalism

A recent PBS Newshour report by Paul Solman on Thursday 3/15/12 in his series “Making Sense of Financial News” gave pause concerning the role of high frequency traders (HFT) on Wall St. (and doubtless on other markets around the world). First, you might ask what are HFTs? These are traders who use computer-based algorithms to select, buy, and sell shares on the markets. The speed of these transactions and the “thinking” that is performed is driving the HFTs to locate in lower Manhattan as close as possible to the main Internet port in the city. The few microseconds saved by not being a half mile away on Wall St. turns out to have great significance to HFTs.

The existence of HFTs first came to public notice when the great “flash crash” took place. On May 6, 2010 at 2:42 pm the Dow Jones industrial average, already down by 300 points that day, suddently lost more than 600 poijts in 5 minutes. 20 minutes later the market had regained the 600 point loss. Investigations pointed to the role of HFTs in these events. Since then there has been a lot of discussion of the stability of financial markets and the potential role of HFTs.

 

The Solman report noted that HFTs represent 2% of all the firms trading on Wall St., but conduct over 75% of the transactions. So, when you here that volume of the Big Board today was 3.56 billion shares (3/26/12) 2.67 billion were traded by HFTS. Solman also noted that the average time a share is held is 22 seconds.

What seems strange is that the question of the function and utility of HFTs is never examined beyond economists trotting out the well worn explanation that they are providing liquidiity to the market. By liquidity they mean the presence of buyers and sellers in the marketplace when someone wants to make a transaction. But is this a serious claim in favor of HFTs? Does this incredible display of computing power really mean anything more than people gambling on a fractional move within a few seconds?

"Capitalism works for me! true/false" by Steve Lambert 2011

Now an aside. In a video presentation1 by Steve Lambert about his work, “Capitalism Works For Me! True/False” he notes that people seem perfectly at ease thinking about global warming and the need to undertake massive changes in the fundamental underpinnings of our world, but when it comes to our economy we engage in endless euphemisms and obfuscations. From his website he says:

“For 50 years it has been unacceptable, politically, in the United States to ask what is basically a straightforward question. We have a particular economic system, it’s called capitalism. We have every right as a society to ask of that system, is it working? Is it working for us? Do the benefits and the costs balance themselves out in a way that says, do we want to keep this system? Or that says, we want to change this system? Or that says, we ought to look at an alternative system. We’ve been afraid to ask that question. We’ve been afraid to have public debates—that’s the legacy of the cold war. We can’t afford anymore to not do that. We have to raise the question.”

To turn back to HFTs, why do we need this kind of transaction? How do they contribute to economic growth? These activities are by definition a zero sum game. They are like every other form of gambling a zero sum game. There are winners and losers, but no incremental gain for the economy. Other than enriching the HFTs at cost to others with smaller computers and fewer PhDs on staff what do we get for allowing these activities? Potentially catastrophic destabilization of financial markets? Where is the upside for society as a whole? Isn’t  a primary purpose of any economy to increase the size of the pie, not just to redistribute existing wealth?

 

  1. I saw this at the the de Cordova Sculpture Garden and Museum in Lincoln MA []

Lands’ End – deceptive advertising

Made In The USA – Sham

LandsEnd Made-in-USA catalog February 2012

This catalog showed up last week. Wow, I thought. Lands’ End is offering a whole bunch of US manufactured clothing. This should be interesting.

After turning the cover, there were two more pages of puff about the wonder’s of “Made in the USA”. A two page spread followed of a sweat shirt and two more pages of gym ware – “Made in the USA”.

Then, for the next 60 pages (excepting one page in them middle of “Made in the USA” wool socks) not another US manufactured item appears. Every page included the word “Imported”. Undoubtedly the good durable clothing I expect from Lands’ End, but NOT “Made in the USA”.