...Archive for July 2007

Gabriel Mihalache — Streets are places too?

If Canada is divisible, then Quebec is divisible. If Quebec is divisible, then Montreal is divisible.

Gabriel Mihalache tries to pull the old reducto ad absurdam on my contention that nations are places, and the implication that quality-of-place considerations might lead to deviations from the traditional case for free trade. He writes:

Why not ask… if localities can benefit from these deals, this industrial policy—to quote another skeptic—then why not apply the same idea to streets, town squares, and beyond? — Maybe we should have a sort of street prefect, with his own budget, ready to subsidize business start-ups on his street?

Why allow for free movement between 1st Avenue and 5th Avenue? Maybe 1st Avenue could benefit from some regulation or from offering subsidies? Why not?

To which I answer enthusiastically, “why not indeed!” Shopping malls are places too. Shopping mall developers often want big-name retailers as “anchor stores”, so they offer national chains great deals on rent, and sometimes sweeten the deal with cash. This might seem economically foolish, at first glance. But the subsidy turns out to be small compared with the increased certainty that the mall will attract customers, and the higher rents boutiques will pay to sit between popular behemoths.

Malls are hardly a unique example. Most commercial real-estate owners will offer discounts to tenants they consider particularly “desirable”, whose presence will in some hard-to-pin way increases the value of the property they have on offer.

People who live who live on nice streets often spend a great deal of money to maintain the exteriors of their homes, the quality of their lawns and gardens, etc. Part of this one can chalk-up to “consumption” — people take pleasure in having a nice spaces. But a lot of this represents a kind of informally coordinated public investment, enforced by social norms. The value of properties is contingent in part on the niceness of the street, and everyone is expected to do their part. Some neighborhoods are developed as mini nanny states, with coercive regulations one must adhere to as a homeowner in order to ensure that residents don’t shirk in maintaining (often uninspiring) “standards”. Neighborhoods organized as condominiums have the power to tax and spend to maintain and enhance the quality of space. Lots of people are pleased to submit to all this. (I don’t necessarily endorse these neighborhoods. The uptight, snooty ones make me go “ew”. But hey, it’s the free market in action!)


Maybe, but exactly like free trade, these deals have winners and losers (who, just as with free trade, won’t get compensated). Also, there’s the issue of the “relevant moral community”. (Do poor Chinese children enter into your welfare judgments?… and the like.)

Basically, this boils down to choosing between two patterns of winners and losers, which is a political choice. You can show, maybe, that with an utilitarian “social welfare” function, the “development deal” is preferable. But that’s a big “maybe”. And it’s still politics, so it’s not a matter of knowing something that the economists don’t.

I won’t argue much with this, except to note that, just as with free trade, enhancements of place may create winners and losers, but large overall gains. Many shopping malls could not survive without subsidized anchors. Boutique owners might be unhappy to subsidize the rent of retailers with much deeper pockets than themselves, and some potential renters might be so pissed off they refuse to rent. Still, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a large overall gain from the subsidy.

A condominium association might decide that common spaces need to be repainted annually, and fees will be increased to cover the expense. Some homeowners undoubtedly will consider the fresher halls to be worth less than the money they pay out. Given heterogenous and uncertain utility functions, one objector’s sheer misery might be enough to outweigh any gains to other tenants. But, under ordinary assumptions, if the vast majority enthusiastically support the change, we usually presume overall gains. The case for overall gains is at least as clear as in the argument for free trade.

Of course, if leadership of the condominium association has been hijacked by unrepresentative busy-bodies, or by a board member whose kid brother is a painter, large overall losses might result. But the possibility of agency problems oughtn’t prevent us from considering potentially welfare-enhancing subsidies. Both action and inaction are potentially flawed choices. In the real world, we do our best to control agency costs, but we still make decisions.

I do want to emphasize that I am playing with ideas here, and not quite endorsing the idea of legitimizing state subsidy as a normal part of international trade. It’s a surprisingly interesting idea, and one can make the case for it in very “orthodox” terms. (If one does so, one finds that what is destructive of overall welfare is to abstain from subsidizing!) But the agency problems are, to say the least, daunting.

Regardless, people like Don Boudreaux who want to argue for traditional free trade based on the example of trade within the United States need to grapple with the historical fact of ubiquitous subsidy. And I’m not just playing when I suggest that any model of trade that looks only at gains and losses to individuals without considering quality of place is simply inadequate as a basis for policy.

Bear Stearns: What happened to the assets?

Interfluidity still has unfinished business with Felix Salmon, but that will have to wait. Usually we take great pleasure in disagreeing with Felix, but today he makes one point that is unassailable: Bear Stearns Needs English Lessons. The firm sent out a letter to its unlucky investors that managed to communicate almost nothing. Shorter Bear Stearns (my paraphrase): “You have lost all, or nearly all, of your money. But do entrust your wealth with us in the future. Ordinarily we don’t stiff our clients quite so badly. Besides, we hired some new guy, so everything is better now.”

If I were an investor, I might wish to console myself with some of the lurid details. In particular, I’d want to know what happened to the assets I used to own. To whom were they sold, under what circumstances, at what price? Were assets liquidated in arms-length transactions, or are fund managers still holding assets but reporting losses based on estimated valuations? How were the claims of creditors settled? Did the funds repay their debts in cash? Did creditors confiscate and liquidate assets, or in some kind of workout, did creditors accept collateral in lieu of repayment?

If creditors did accept repayment-in-kind, under present circumstances that might not be an arms-length transaction. (After all, the asset managers and creditors likely have continuing relationships unrelated to the two funds, and a shared interest in avoiding perceptions of conflict or disorder in the market.) As an investor in one of the funds, I’d want to know how much debt was extinguished for each of the assets surrendered, that is, what sort of valuations were implicit in the workout, and how they were arrived at. If the assets were not in fact auctioned, perhaps creditors paid less in terms of debt forgiven than the assets were in fact worth. Perhaps Bear’s interest in putting an embarrassing incident behind it without causing turmoil in a fragile market led it to drive less-than-a-hard bargain with creditors, who were after all in an exploitably poor bargaining position. Were fund managers gentlemanly among Wall Street colleagues, or fierce on behalf of their investors? I’d want to know.

If there was any repayment-in-kind, I’d also want to know about that if I had a position in one of the banks that were lenders to the funds. Perhaps Bear did drive a hard bargain, and my bank was forced to extinguish too much debt for the privilege of owning iffy securities. Perhaps my bank decided that accepting questionable collateral as full repayment was better than forcing the bankruptcy of the funds, because no matter what, the collateral was all it could hope to get, and calling it “repayment-in-full” avoided the embarrassment and potential loss of confidence associated with having been defaulted upon. In this case, risks and potentially outright losses have been transferred from the troubled fund to my bank, which may force a write-down of bank assets in the future. I would want to know.

Does anybody know these details? Thus far, all the reportage I’ve seen conveys very little more than Bear conveyed in its letter to investors. Which is to say, practically nothing at all.

William Polley on free trade among the 50 states

I’ve been hung up (unfortunately not hung over) for the last few days, and I’ve pent up a list of short comments I can’t wait to get of my chest. Here’s the first one…

William Polley understands that what happens between the 50 United States deviates significantly from an economists ideal of free trade, and that economists who wish to argue for international free trade by virtue of an American success story need to deal with this fact. Polley writes:

…Here in the U.S., the framers of the constitution were smart enough to establish the fledgling country as a customs union and monetary union. This was in order to form a more perfect political union that that Articles of Confederation was unable to deliver.

Unfortunately, this does not stop the states and localities from pursuing other policies (wooing multinational factories, establishing tax-increment financing districts, etc.) that do with a series of knife cuts a bit of what a tariff would do with a hatchet blow.

…Tennessee would not do itself any favors by unilaterally abstaining from offering incentives to companies to locate there. But reducing state level competition of that sort would benefit everyone.

I’m not sure I agree with that last point. States and localities may well gain from the deals they make to encourage development. Overall gains attributed by economists to “undistorted” free trade still involve winners and losers, and it is perfectly rational for localities likely to lose (and unlikely, in the usual dodge, to be “compensated by winners”) to try to change the game. Taking Don Boudreaux‘s original point to heart, I do think the sausage factory of trade among the 50 US states has worked reasonably well. So rather than arguing from a model that the system of subsidy-by-locality should be dismantled, I’m inclined to keep an open mind about whether politicians responsible for quality of place might not know something missed by economists, whose models often lack recognizable notions of place entirely.

Capital markets and just desserts

Last night’s was one of those posts one regrets immediately after hitting “publish”. Somehow, those always attract notice. (Thanks Felix!) But, sometimes when one puts more cards on the table than one intends, it’s a good way to start a conversation. In fact, unintended candor is one of the great blessings of the blogosphere, and we must be thankful for that, even when we are our own victims.

Anyway, let’s continue the conversation. Who deserves to get paid in capital markets? I wrote…

Bears who were right deserve to get paid just as much as bulls who were right, and justice delayed is justice denied for shorts.

Felix Salmon‘s rejoinder:

[T]here’s only one species of investor who “deserves to get paid”, and that’s an investor with a contract which guarantees him money. I think they’re called bondholders. If you buy a security in the hope that its price will rise, or sell a security in the hope that its price will fall, you don’t “deserve to get paid” anything, whether you’re right or whether you’re wrong. Markets are not some kind of primary-school sports day where prizes get awarded to the most deserving. In the words of parents worldwide, “life’s not fair”.

Life is not fair, and Felix is quite right to note that markets don’t exist to mete out some kind of wise and just reward to each and every trader. But at the same time, markets ought not be poker games or casinos, where it is the lucky who are compensated, or those whose talents have to do with games disconnected from real events. Market outcomes are supposed to attach to external referents. It is no tragedy when the winds of randomness overtake any particular trader. But on the whole, for a capital market to be “good”, in a strong normative sense, it ought to compensate predominantly those who make wise judgments about the application of capital to real world enterprises, and to punish those who make poor judgments. Capital markets, actual, historical, and conceivable, are not all alike, and it is quite possible, and quite right, to make normative distinctions between. A capital market is not good because its prices go up. Nor do happy investors and happy fund-seekers define a good markets, in and of themselves. As Martin Wolf recently wrote, “Finance is the brain of the market economy.” What distinguishes a good capital market from a bad capital market is how well it does the economy’s thinking.

Bondholders absolutely do not “deserve” to get paid, any more than stockholders, or holders of derivatives, or any other financial position. A bondholder who lends to profligates to fund consumption, for example, absolutely deserves to lose, coupon and principal. And an investor who finds a firm that needs capital, and who correctly judges the firm’s activities and management as being of the sort that could put capital to good real world use, absolutely deserves to be paid, regardless of whether that payment comes in the form of capital appreciation, dividends, or interest. The purpose of capital markets is to compensate managers of capital for putting scarce resources to good use, and to punish managers who squander what is precious. Markets needn’t and can’t offer perfect justice. But if they fail on the whole to compensate the deserving and punish the wasteful, then we might as well banish them to riverboats.

Many of the best and brightest of this giddily corrupt moment err by forgetting that capital markets are human creations subject to wide variation in design and behavior. They mistake whatever some prominent market does for “the market outcome”, and forget that alternative arrangements in security design, regulatory regime, macrostructure of financial instititions, and microstructure of trading systems are all possible, and might produce very different outcomes, all of which would have equal claim to being “market-determined”. And the fact of a market doesn’t absolve us from making judgments about whether outcomes are good or bad, even though our nonmarket means of evaluating the world are at least as flawed as our markets. Failing to subject markets to reality checks, relying on them entirely for all of our economic thinking without letting other measures of economic sense weigh in at all, invites corruption.

I write not to attack markets, but to defend them. Dani Rodrik has suggested we must save globalization from its cheerleaders. It is equally urgent that we save capital markets from their cheerleaders. I believe that well-designed markets generally are the best way to make most large-scale economic allocation decisions, and that market-like systems could be productively employed in a variety of other contexts as well. But current capital markets are frankly off the rails, in a manner that most people not subject to ideological blinders are perfectly capable of seeing. I could be wrong. I’m not a market, after all, so perhaps I have no standing to opine. But even still, I could be right.

Which gets us back to the bit about short sellers. If I am right about bad things down the road, good capital markets should, on average, compensate me if I trade on my superior-to-market knowledge of future bad outcomes. The repricing brought about by my trading and the trading of many others who see what I see should work to make those bad outcomes less likely and less damaging. The “on average” is important here. I can be right, but foolish in execution or just unlucky, and get wiped out. That’s life. But markets that are systematically biased towards integrating positive information and ignoring negative information (until sudden “Wile E. Coyote” moments), that have institutional biases against short-selling or that delay price declines because some actors have more at stake in market prices than real-world referents, may, on average, fail to compensate shorts. If so, then rational people won’t short, prices far higher than reasonable economic value will be stable for long periods of time, “greater fool” strategies of investment will be profitable, and “adjustments” will come sharp, large, and painful when underlying economic realities can no longer be papered over. Markets compensate next-to-last fools in preference to wise allocators of capital, and leave everyone else with a mess. That, unfortunately, is the world we live in today.

Felix writes:

Steve is living in cloud cuckoo land if he believes in the “real-world meaning of market prices on the basis of direct valuation of the assets being traded”. If that was really the case, then there would never be any price difference between voting shares and non-voting shares, for starters. Capital markets, in this sense, have been failing for as long as they have existed. And a lot of smart, long-term investors have made a lot of money by arbitraging those failures. On the other hand, a lot of smart, long-term investors have also lost a lot of money by attempting to arbitrage those failures. Being smart and right is not enough to make you rich.

Although I plead guilty to living in cloud cuckoo land, I do not actually believe that actors trade only on the basis of real-world valuation. I do, however, believe that to the degree actors trade for “strategic” rather than fundamental reasons, they are corruptors of price signals, creators of noise, and that well-designed market systems will work to punish rather than compensate their behavior. To the degree there are “limits to arbitrage” that systematically pay off game-players and punish those who price the real world accurately, that’s a real problem that should be fixed. Felix is right that being smart and right will never be enough to make one rich in capital markets. Life is uncertain, and luck always matters. But if on average people who are smart and right about underlying realities lose, that’s a problem.


But the surprising thing is precisely that there is some efficient allocation of real resources – not that there is inefficient allocation of real resources. Real resources have always been allocated inefficiently, and they always will be. Just look at the fashion industry.

No human institution is perfect. A glass is always empty or full by some fraction. But, when the glass seems so empty that you think lots of people are going to die of thirst, looking on the bright side is not the appropriate response. Maybe, hopefully, I’m just mistaken. But if one sees capital markets as broken in ways that could cause serious hardship and perhaps outright catastrophe, pointing out the flaws, even ranting a bit, is not entirely uncalled for. Or so I like to think.

On a personal note, my previous post was perhaps too “heartfelt”. The fate of my own portfolio doesn’t matter that much, even to me. I’ll not starve when I’m forced to cover my shorts. I only personalized the tale because, after telling others they should be ashamed of themselves, I felt ethically bound to reveal that my scolds could be taken as self-interested and manipulative.

I’ll end with a bit of Keynes, which resonates with my view of investing, short or long:

I should say that it is from time to time the duty of a serious investor to accept the depreciation of his holding with equanimity and without reproaching himself. Any other policy is anti-social, destructive of confidence, and incompatible with the working of the economic system. An investor is aiming or should be aiming primarily at long period results and should be solely judged by these.

Update History:
  • 14-July-2007, 3:40 p.m. EET: Replaced wordy “bears no relation to” with “disconected from”, “external reality” with real events”.
  • 19-July-2007, 4:52 a.m. EET: Removed the ungrammatical “s” from “a good capital markets”.

A sprawling rant inspired by an urban legend…

The story referenced below (hat tip Felix Salmon) may well be apocryphal. It has the feel of an urban legend, and I think I’ve read variations of the tale before, but without the topical Bear Stearns reference. Watch me take the bait, swallow, turn bright red.

From CDO Pool PMs – Just Chillaxing:

Asked how [a CDO pool portfolio manager] is doing, he says “nothing.” I ask, “What do you mean nothing, I hear all these stories about CDOs and losses (Bear Stearns for example)?” He shrugs and says nothing will happen until the rating agencies do something. Asked about losses, he says they are there but he doesn’t have to mark to market his portfolio until someone discovers it or the rating agencies force his hand. So his plan is to lie low and collect the management fees (and bonus) and pretend as if there are no losses…

He says he has the best job in the world and says there is really no work to do every day. Just wait and hope that the rating agencies don’t downgrade his CDO pool and voila, at the end of the year, he and his partners can split the $10 million spoils (minus the expenses for one Park Avenue office, and a secretary).

If this is real… Just two words. Jail time. If you take your 50bps on unimpaired values of assets that you know or should know are likely to be inflated, jail time is what you should get. And not just a little. That goes double (quadruple and 40?) for hedge fund managers taking fees on phantom value.

Do think about this while you’re “chillaxing” (in DealBreaker‘s colorful slang). Of course, you have your defenses. You rely on standard industry practices. You can claim that writing down assets prematurely would be unnecessarily damaging not only to you, but to your investors, to CDO investors as a whole, your mom’s pension fund, and the Western financial system. Of course your lawyers are confident the charters, prospecti, indentures, whatever are airtight, that valuation procedures are clearly spelled out, and everything is hunkydory if you can just hold back the tide a few more months. But it’s amazing how little the lawyers can do for you once transit workers’ retirements and university endowments go up in smoke and pitchforks. It’s like China, with this guy just executed for making a buck looking the other way on food safety. Probably lots of similar players got away with deadly corruption. Maybe a dispassionate look at the odds of getting caught said this was a rational game to play. But somebody somewhere is gonna get unlucky, gonna get smoked. It might as well be you.

Here’s another word: Shame. Aren’t you at all ashamed to take money from your investors in this way? Would you take a Rolex from a jewelry store window if you could get away with it? Don’t give me that crap about professional investors and big boys who know what they’re getting into. Asset managers (CDO pool, hedge fund, whatever) don’t have an adversarial relationship with their investors. They have a fiduciary relationship. That is, they have an ethical obligation to do what is in investors’ best interest even if it conflicts with their own. I believe that’s a legal obligation, by the way, even if it’s not spelled out in contracts and founding documents. A judge surveying the wreckage might take that into consideration, if you get my drift. Especially when the big boys you “out-traded” were themselves fiduciaries for thousands of ordinary broken dreams.

Now before I go finger-wagging too much — shame, shame — I should emphasize that I have a dog in this fight. Here’s “full disclosure” in the lingo. I belong to a maligned, belittled, battered and bruised species, the unhedged speculative short. I don’t have positions directly related to CDOs or hedge funds or housing — I’m a broad macro pessimist kind of guy. (I am short financials, short semis, short the Dow, short USD, long gold, an FX basket, TIPS.) Should I be ashamed? Am I just talking my book? Trying to provoke an apocalypse for thirty silver coins? Felix claims that “courts are unlikely to have a huge amount of sympathy for short-sellers.” Everybody thinks that we’re the bad guys.

But I’ll tell you what. Short sellers are the good guys in financial markets. We’re the guys who take risks that by most people’s lights are simply irrational. Markets generally do go up and inflation does inflate. Nine times out of ten, a short is just a subsidy to a long. Short sellers are the true idealists. People like me, we’re not traders, we don’t backstop. We hold our positions and payout dividends until our margin runs out, and then we die (metaphorically), simply because we believe that assets are overpriced. We believe that prices are not numbers you trade, but references to real-economic facts. If prices are out of whack, in order for financial markets to work, someone has to try to arbitrage them back, and it might as well be us. We do hope to make a buck. We have our evil dreams of profiting just when everyone else is taking losses, and thereby being well positioned to buy value when it finally comes around again. But objectively, that’s never a good bet. At some level, being a short is a vote for how financial markets ought to behave, rather than how they do behave. In the late 1990s, most unhedged shorts were right, and were slaughtered for the privilege. I fully expect that in the late 00’s, I will have the same experience. But my sense is that the consequences of the capital market mispricings we have been unable to correct this time will be much more painful than the aftermath of the 1990s. We shorts don’t want to see a “financial armageddon“. After all, we’d never collect our paper profits from bankrupt brokerages and clearinghouses. We become shorts because shorts are supposed to be the mechanism by which catastrophic misalignments (and the distorted real-world incentives that accompany them) are prevented. Ordinary investors are pulled by fear and greed. “Buy and hold” shorts run on greed and idealism (and, many would suggest, sheer idiocy). Fear doesn’t matter. We generally start losing money the day we take our positions, and we keep losing money until we can’t. We are irrational, because we believe that markets should be rational. We believe that market prices have consequences, and that exaggerated asset prices do at least as much damage to the real economy as depressed prices.

I’ve been at this for a couple of years. I may be wrong about the fundamentals, in which case I’ll take my losses with a shrug and rebuild my wealth in a healthy economy. I don’t advocate fire sales, and am glad to see loan workouts and liquidity support that allow unwindings of positions to last more than a few days. But I have no patience with those who claim that the best thing to do is not acknowledge financial asset impairments that would persist even over a month-long auction (in contrast to a day long liquidation). Asset values can always change, but at some point you’ve got to concede that the issue isn’t liquidity but uncertainty-adjusted value. Bears who were right deserve to get paid just as much as bulls who were right, and justice delayed is justice denied for shorts. Similarly, investment banks who knowingly overpay for assets in order to prevent larger losses on derivative positions are market-manipulators, and should face consequences for that. As should central banks and sovereign wealth funds, if their trading in markets other than their own debt is driven by anything other than direct return maximization as ordinary price-takers. There is no theory that lets us give real-world meaning to market prices when price-setters are driven by second-order side effects rather than direct valuation of the assets being traded. We have no reason other than blind faith or ideology to believe that anything resembling efficient allocation of real resources would occur in an economy driven by capital markets with bizarre feedback loops. I think we are watching capital market failure happen all around us, and it will work out badly.

Failing to take write-downs and tolerating central bank subsidies will eventually drive all us bears away. But that won’t mean good times as far as the eye can see any more than all the successful 5-year plans of the Soviet Union meant that socialist paradise was at hand. Sometime within the next few years, today’s shorts and chicken littles will be vindicated. But we’ll still be poor, along with the rest of you. And that’s too bad, for all of us.

Free trade in the 50 states?

Tyler Cowen invokes a case frequently made (among Americans) in favor of free trade:

…I am still waiting for someone to defend trade barriers across the 50 states.

It’s important to note that even among the 50 states, textbook “free trade” does not exist. There are no tariffs, but the United States is riddled with internal “export subsidies”. When a state or locality puts together a deal to attract a factory, retain a corporate headquarters, or support a local industry, what is that about? Those tax breaks, underpriced loans, and infrastructure buildouts are explicit subsidies whose purpose is to ensure some economic activity happens “here rather than there”, for reasons that elude sterile Econ 101 models of trade. They are usually granted to firms or industries that produce for markets much larger than the subsidizing locality, and, as with export subsidies, the benefits are shared by far-flung shareholders, managers, and customers, while the direct costs are borne locally by taxpayers. Yet they are still popular. States worry openly and realistically that they may lose industries without competitive incentive packages. The usual justifications for these programs precisely match the arguments for export subsidies — jobs (first and always), fighting poverty and blight, creating “clusters” (“Silicon”-everywhere in the late 1990s), and defending against depredation by other localities. Lots of governors, mayors, state legislators, and city councilman routinely defend these trade barriers across the 50 states.

Using the United States, plural, as a standard-bearer for “free trade” argues for a world with few tariffs, but a whole lot of strategic government subsidy. That might be a good model, actually, but it is not the model free trade ideologues usually have in mind.

Update History:
  • 12-July-2007, 5:15 a.m. EET: Gently reorganized sentence beginning “They are usually granted…” (for style, not substance).