...Archive for February 2013

Hidden profits, hidden rents

Evan Soltas has a very good post on the explosive growth of the financial industry since the end of World War II. As a share of GDP, in terms of profits, and in terms of payroll, postwar America has been truly been a golden age for bankers, brokers, and fund managers.

In fact, it’s even better than it looks!

Soltas begins with a graph:

The graph above shows that the financial industry now makes roughly half of all nonfarm corporate profits in the U.S., a share which has risen five-fold since the end of World War II.

“Profit” is always something of a sticky subject. We talk about it all the time, like we have any idea what it means. Usually we don’t. There is, for example, the distinction between “accounting profit” and “economic profit”. Accounting profit is what a firm, under generally accepted accounting principles, can claim to be the earnings that accrue to shareholders. Economic profit is revenue that exceeds the true cost, defined as the value of the next-best opportunity, of all inputs. According to theory, in a competitive market, economic profits should be relentlessly pushed toward zero while accounting profits should stay positive but very near the broad market return on capital placed at comparable risk.

In general, only accounting profit is measured while only economic profit is interesting. When we think of economic profit, we need not restrict ourselves to shareholders, who represent just one class of claimants on an enterprise. Suppose there is an industry whose firms about break even in accounting terms, but whose unionized workers, even those without hard-to-find skills, capture salaries much larger than they likely would outside of the industry. Is the industry “profitable”?

In an economic sense, it is very profitable. It generates sales that far exceed the opportunity cost of its inputs. But for institutional reasons, those profits are captured by workers rather than accruing to equityholders, and so are missed by accounting measures. It’s pretty clear that, in its heyday, the US auto industry was like this. The industry generated a great deal more “value” than was captured by its shareholders. The internal negotiations between firm stakeholders over the distribution of economic profit has no bearing on the existence of that profit.

The financial industry is not heavily unionized, but the lack of a union doesn’t mean the struggle over the distribution of economic profit goes away, with shareholders automatically winning. In many industries, economic profit is far higher than accounting profit, with the difference captured by various sorts of insiders. And there is no industry in which the distribution of economic profit to employees is more institutionalized than in finance, where at large banks roughly half of firm revenue get distributed to employees, largely in the form of bonuses. Now, one can argue that the form in which compensation contracts are negotiated says little about whether the level of that compensation exceeds the opportunity cost of the work to recipients. Perhaps bank employees earn higher salaries on average than they could elsewhere as compensation for the bearing much of the risk of firm performance by accepting low base salaries and uncertain bonuses. But.

Economic profit creates an incentive for new entrants. Indeed, given how difficult it often is to measure the true cost of inputs, the best way to observe economic profit is to look for people banging at the door. And people do seem to be banging on the door in finance. Famously large fractions of Ivy league graduates — who can do anything, for whom “the world is their oyster” — end up taking finance jobs, despite very often having no specialized training in the field. I hope it will be uncontroversial to suggest that finance jobs are coveted. Those low base salaries delivered with a variable upside are, it turns out, not so low when compared with salaries in other industries. It is true that much of the “economic profit” earned by bank employees is delivered as a claim on a high-mean-value probability distribution rather than as a certain paycheck. But the opportunity cost of the input is mostly covered by the base. [1]

To the degree that financial firms’ economic profit is unusually captured by employees rather than shareholders, accounting-based estimates of finance’s profit share, like the one that Soltas presents above, will badly underestimate the share of economic profit captured by finance industry stakeholders as a whole. [2]

That an industry captures a lot of economic profit need not be a bad thing. After all, economic profit represents “value added”, the degree to which outputs are worth much more to people than inputs. However, we often divide economic profit into two components, the usually-transient good kind that results from innovations which leave firms a step ahead of their competition, and bad “rents” that result from capturing subsidies and/or restricting competition. To be fair, most successful firms get some of their economic profit both ways. But you’d need a great deal of faith in empirically invisible new value to explain the persistent and growing profit captured by finance, if its source isn’t predominantly rents. And, indeed, Soltas enumerates some of those:

Let’s run though the explicit subsidies: the mortgage-interest deduction and other homebuyer credits, student loan aid, federal guarantees on debt, the preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividends, interest on reserves at the Fed, and the FDIC guarantee. The financial industry also benefits from substantial implicit regulatory subsidies such as “too-big-too-fail.”

That’s a very good list. I’d add one more: the Federal Reserve’s policy of stabilizing the purchasing power of currency. Though stock markets and fancy derivatives get lots of press, most of the abnormal profits in finance are, I think, earned in debt markets. Financial firms borrow money and lend money. They underwrite debt issued by others and structure that borrow and lend. Financial rents seem related to scale and concentration. Debt-based financial intermediation is amenable to economies of scale in ways that equity-based funding is not. Rating agencies can get away with classifying debt products like beef, USDA Triple-A, and trillions of investment dollars flow accordingly. Investors are more idiosyncratic and more cautious with equities. “Too big to fail” is primarily a quality of credit markets — no one thinks that any bank is too big to suffer a stock-price decline. When financial firms extract rents via explicit government support, it is usually in order to ensure that bank creditors are made whole.

But debt finance exists in competition with equity finance. If I’m right that debt finance is a more fertile source of industry rents than equity, then ways that the state tilts the scale towards debt funding are part of the problem. Along with Felix Salmon, James Surowiecki, and many others, I’ve argued against the bias towards debt embedded in the tax system. But stabilizing prices also increases the relative attractiveness of debt. Absent price-level stabilization, the business cycle risk borne by diversified equity investors is somewhat counterbalanced by reduced risk from inflation, as price increases pass through to earnings and dividends over the medium term. If recessions tended to be inflationary, as they would for example under an NGDP target, this pass-through would amount to a very desirable countercyclical feature. Debt, on the other hand, would lose value in real terms during inflationary recessions. (For lower quality debt this loss would be partially offset by reduced risk of default.) The current practice of targeting inflation makes default-risk-free debt a nearly no-lose proposition regardless of macroeconomic performance, while accentuating the exposure of equities to business cycle risk.

There are lots of good reasons to reduce our dependence on the institution of debt in favor of more equity-like arrangements. Evolving towards a smaller financial industry less capable of capturing rents is another reason. Using the power of the state to stabilize the inflation rate is a bad idea, also for lots of reasons, including that the practice encourages debt finance and powerful banks.

[1] Even to the degree that supernormal paychecks are compensation for risk-bearing, part of the compensation should be recategorized as a return on shadow equity, rather than as a cost of labor input. One can decompose a bankers’ variable compensation into a cash payment plus funds that might have been paid but are instead invested on the employee’s behalf into the firm or a subdivision thereof. Much of bankers’ bonuses, the part that is compensation for bearing firm risk rather than paying for labor, should be viewed as a return on shadow equity that doesn’t show up in the formal equity accounts. When banks recruit employees to finance the firm with deferred compensation and then pay a performance-based return on that advance, it is quite similar to issuing new shares or outcome-contingent securities. The return eventually paid on those securities in excess of the original amount deferred ought to be considered distributed profit rather than labor compensation.

To highlight the murkiness of the dividing line between compensation and profit, consider two employees. One employee is paid at the beginning of the year in the form of firm stock, which will not “vest” (be made available) until the end of the year. The other is paid 20% less, but gets conventional cash payments and will receive an end-of-year bonus based on firm performance. Suppose the firm’s stock rises by 10% over the year, and our cash-paid employee receives a bonus worth 40% of her base salary. If you do the math, you’ll find that the cost to the firm of the two employees is almost the same. Both employees bore similar (although not identical) risk. Yet on the books, the first employee’s compensation will be smaller than that of the second employee, with the difference reflected in the earnings of the firm. Rewriting the first employees explicitly equity-based contract into a reduced-compensation-plus-bonus contract changes little of substance, but reduces the firm’s accounting profit (and tax basis!). Since compensation-plus-bonus is common in financial firms, reported profits are low relative to an world in which the variable basis for the compensation was recorded as equity. Yet recording the compensation as equity more accurately captures the division between compensation for labor and the compensation for risk-bearing that defines accounting profit.

Note that this analysis is unchanged if the motivation for the variable payment is to encourage performance, and is based on outcomes close to the employee, rather than firm-level performance. The employee is then compensated in equity in smaller, riskier subdivisions of the firm (and might require a higher salary “in stock” to compensate), but that does not alter the opportunity cost of her own employment or the fact that proceeds from good outcomes represent economic profit.

[2] Finance is unusual but not unique — see also health care, education, and government, together the “information asymmetry industry“.


So, of course you should go read Steven Brill’s excellent article on health care price gouging. Or maybe you shouldn’t. It’s very long. Not everybody has to be a fucking policy intellectual, or even au courant in the “public affairs” covered by Time. You don’t have to read much (or, God forbid, write) about policy to be a good person and a good citizen.

But citizenship does carry burdens. Like this:

By the time Steven D. died at his home in Northern California the following November, he had lived for an additional 11 months. And Alice had collected bills totaling $902,452. The family’s first bill — for $348,000 — which arrived when Steven got home from the Seton Medical Center in Daly City, Calif., was full of all the usual chargemaster profit grabs: $18 each for 88 diabetes-test strips that Amazon sells in boxes of 50 for $27.85; $24 each for 19 niacin pills that are sold in drugstores for about a nickel apiece. There were also four boxes of sterile gauze pads for $77 each. None of that was considered part of what was provided in return for Seton’s facility charge for the intensive-care unit for two days at $13,225 a day, 12 days in the critical unit at $7,315 a day and one day in a standard room (all of which totaled $120,116 over 15 days). There was also $20,886 for CT scans and $24,251 for lab work.

Does Alice have neighbors? Does she have friends? Where were they, what did they — and by that I mean we in some earnest and patronizing way — do about this?

The burden of citizenship is to share in, and hold people to account for, the injustices experienced by our neighbors. Alice was fucking ripped off to the tune of any semblance of economic and financial security she might ever have had at the very moment that her husband was dying of cancer. This is beyond awful. This is mortal sin in any religion worth the name. This is pure evil.

Our problem is not a matter of shitty policy arrangements. We have plenty of those. Whatever. Policy is a third-order pile of bullshit. Our problem is that it is a sick excuse for a society when this sort of ass-rape is relegated by custom and practice into the sphere of the “private”, the sort of bureaucratic struggle one quietly hires professionals to deal with and hides as much as possible from friends and coworkers. Ass-rape of the more literal sort is also a private affair, in the first order. We insist upon it being public, because a society whose customs tolerated the maintenance of its first-order privacy would be a miserable, detestable place in which the powerful quietly ass-raped the powerless and were never held to account. The difference between literal ass-rape and what happened to Alice and Steven D. is not that ass-rape is criminal while health-care price-gouging, although regrettable, is not. To say that is to confuse cause for effect. Literal ass-rape is criminal because we-the-people as a broad-based mass are disgusted by it and insist upon it being a public and criminal matter rather than a quiet tragedy and struggle. When we hear about a Joe Paterno who overlooks this requirement, we literally hound the motherfucker to death. Perhaps unfairly, in any particular case — pitchforks are simultaneously sharp and blunt instruments! The sheer fear of which is why the powerful create laws. But where laws aren’t there, the pitchforks must always be. A society that expects laws to substitute for, rather than channel, public outrage, is a society not long for this world in any form worthy of the name. Outrage and shame are primary.

As soon as you delve into the policy wonkery in cases like this, you are submitting to a conspiracy by the powerful against the many. The greater the sphere of disagreeable things that are “complicated”, the more it is possible to construct intricate and inscrutable bureaucracies to “arbitrate”. There will be think-tanks and policy papers, funded by people who are well-meaning (in a narrow, idiotically un-self-aware way) but very rich and powerful. The conclusions of which will be earnest and carefully researched but confined to a window not very upsetting to the very rich and powerful. Undoing the ability of plutocrat hospital “CEOs”, or bankers or lobbyists or whatever, to continue the sort of ass-rape to which their lifestyles have grown accustomed will not be on the table. A good society depends on an active public, first and foremost. A society that has allowed the predations of the powerful to become purely private matters mediated via “markets”, courts, academies, and bureaucracies, that has delegated “activism” to a mostly protected professional class, is nothing more than a herd hoping that today it is somebody else who will be slaughtered.

Is that who we are?

Update History:

  • 22-Feb-2012, 8:50 p.m. PST: “economical economic“; “while although regrettable”; “its it being”; “that laws will to substitute”
  • 22-Sep-2020, 7:10 p.m. PST: Fix stale link to Brill article

Persnickety followups on inequality and demand

Teaser: The following graphs are from “Inequality and Household Finance During the Consumer Age“, by Barry Cynamon and Steven Fazzari. “Demand rates” are expressed as fractions of “spendable income”. There’s more on this paper at the end of the post.

I am always outclassed by my correspondents and commenters. The previous post on inequality and demand was no exception. I want to follow up on a few scattered bits of that conversation. I apologize as always for all the great writing, in comment threads and in e-mails, that I fail to respond to.

First, I want to make a methodological point. Several commenters (e.g. beowulf, JKH, Mark Sadowski) point to discrepencies between measures of income and saving used by various empirical studies and those used in national accounting statements (e.g. NIPA). In particular, there is the question of whether unspent capital gains (realized or unrealized) should count as saving. NIPA accounts quite properly do not treat capital gains as income.

But what is proper in one context is not proper in another. NIPA accounts attempt to characterize the production, consumption, and investment of real resources in the consolidated aggregate economy. A capital gain represents a revaluation of an existing resource, not a new resource, and so properly should not be treated as income.

However, when we are studying distribution, what we are after is the relative capacity of different groups to command use of production. We must divide the economy into subgroups of some sort, and analyze interrelated dynamics of those subgroups’ accounts. Capital gains don’t represent changes in aggregate production, but they do shift the relative ability of different groups to appropriate that output when they wish to. When studying the aggregate economy, capital gains should be ignored or netted-out. But when studying distribution — “who owns what” — capital gains, as well as the dissaving or borrowing that funds those gains, are a critical part of the story. Research on how the distribution of household income affects consumption absolutely should include capital gains. There are details we can argue over. Unencumbered, realized capital gains should qualify almost certainly as income. Gains from favorable appraisal of an illiquid asset probably should not. Unrealized gains from liquid or hypothecable assets (stocks, real estate) are shades of gray. There is nothing usual about shades of gray. All spheres of accounting require estimation and judgment calls. Business accountants learn very quickly that simple ideas like “revenue” and “earnings” are impossible to pin down in a universally satisfactory way.

Similar issues arise in interpreting the excellent work of J.W. Mason and Arjun Jayadev on household debt dynamics, to which Mark Sadowski points in the comments. Mason and Jayadev decompose the evolution of the United States’ household sector’s debt-to-income ratio, breaking down changes into combinations of new borrowing and interest obligations (which increase debt-to-income) plus inflation and income growth (which decrease debt-to-income). It’s a wonderful, fascinating paper. If you’ve not done so already, I strongly recommend that you give it a read. It’s accessible; much of the tale is told in graphs. (A summary is available at Rortybomb, but you want to study especially Figure 7 of the original paper.)

One of Mason and Jayadev’s most interesting discoveries is that the period since the 1980s has been an “Era of Adverse Debt Dynamics”, a time during which household debt-to-income increased because of reductions in inflation, low income growth and a high effective interest rate on outstanding debt. [1] For most of the period from 1980 to 2000, the aggregate US household sector was not taking on new debt. Household sector debt-to-income deteriorated despite net paydown of imputed principal, because of adverse debt dynamics.

So, can a theory that claims borrowing by lower-income households supported demand over the same period possibly be right? Yes, it can. At any given time, some groups of people are repaying debt and others are taking it on. If, say, high income boomers are paying off their mortgages faster than low-income renters are borrowing to consume, new borrowing in aggregate will be negative even while new borrowing by poorer groups supports demand. (Remember how back at the turn of the millennium we were marveling over the “democratization of credit“?)

As always, when studying distributional questions, aggregate data is of limited use. That’s not to say that there is no information in aggregate data. It’s definitely more comfortable to tell the borrowed demand story about the 2000s, when, Mason and Jayadev show us, aggregated households were dramatically expanding their borrowing. But what we really want is research that disentagles the behavior of wealthy and nonwealthy households.

A working paper by Barry Cynamon and Steven Fazzari does just that. It tells a story quite similar to my take in the previous post, but backs that up with disaggregated data. The three graphs at the top of this post summarize the evidence, but of course you should read the whole thing. There is stuff to quibble over. But the paper is an excellent start.

I’ll end all this with an excerpt from the Cynamon and Fazzari paper that I think is very right. It addresses the question of why individuals would undermine their own solvency in ways that sustain aggregate spending:

It is difficult for standard models, most notably the life cycle model, to account for the long decline in the saving rate starting in the early 1980s. A multitude of economists propose explanations including wealth effects, permanent income hypothesis (high expected income) effect, and demographics, but along with many researchers we find those explanations unsatisfying. We argue that the decline in the saving rate can best be understood by recognizing the important role of uncertainty in household decision making and the powerful influence of the reference groups that to which those household decision makers turn for guidance. We propose that households develop an identity over time that helps them make consumption decisions by informing them about the consumption bundle that is normal.9 We define the consumption norm as the standard of consumption an individual considers normal based on his or her identity (Cynamon and Fazzari, 2008, 2012a). The household decision makers weigh two questions most heavily in making consumption and financial decisions. First, they ask “Is this something a person like me would own (durable good), consume (nondurable good), or hold (asset)?” Second, they ask “If I attempt to purchase this good or asset right now, do I have the means necessary to complete the transaction?” Increasing access to credit impacts consumption decisions by increasing the rate of positive responses to the second question directly, and also by increasing the rate of positive responses to the first question indirectly as greater access to credit among households in one’s reference group raises the consumption norm of the group. Rising income inequality also tends to exert upward pressure on consumption norms as each person is more likely to see aspects of costlier lifestyles displayed by others with more money.

People will put up with almost anything to live the sort of life their coworkers and friends, parents and children, consider “normal”. Over the last 40 years, for very many Americans, normal has grown increasingly unaffordable. And that created fantastic opportunities in finance.

[1] Mark Sadowski suggests that the stubbornly high effective interest rates reported by Mason and Jayadev are inconsistent with a claim that the secular decline in interest rates was used to goose demand. But that’s not quite right — it amounts to a confusion of average and marginal rates. At any given moment, most household sector debt was contracted some time ago. The effective interest rate faced by the household sector is an average of rates on all debt outstanding, and so lags headline “spot” interest rates. But incentives to borrow are shaped by interest rates currently available rather than rates on debt already contracted. Falling interest rates can increase individual households’ willingness to borrow much more quickly than they alter the aggregated sector’s effective rate.

In my first encounter with the Mason and Jayadev paper, I thought I saw in the stubbornly high effective rates evidence of a rotation from more-creditworthy to less creditworthy borrowers. (See comments here.) I’ve looked into that a bit more, and the evidence is not compelling: the stubbornly slow decline in household sector interest rates pretty closely mirrors the slow decline in the effective interest rate of the credit-risk-free Federal government. There’s a hint of spread expansion in the late 1990s, but nothing to persuade a skeptic.