Our mental models and the financial crisis

Cover of "The Divine Right of Capital: De...

Cover via Amazon

Marjorie Kelly, in her book The Divine Right of Capital, constructs a bold critique of the role that stockholders play modern corporations.     She compares stockholders to the aristocratic feudal lords of yore, who made rent on “assets” into perpetuity without lifting a finger.  Instead, Kelly argues that both the employees who work to create corporate wealth, and the communities that provide the resources necessary to create that wealth, should earn a larger share of the wealth.  Kelly examines the framework of the corporation as it was first conceived, how the corporations in the United States were initially granted state charters to only serve the public good, and how that public purpose was eroded in our courts.  Examining the state of affairs today, Kelly concludes that all players, including stockholders, CEOs, Wall Street firms, and even you and I, are all complicit, but no one is guilty:

“We fool ourselves if we think we can find the enemy somewhere.  Our anger at the system leaves us like the farmer in The Grapes of Wrath, who when his farm was repossessed couldn’t find anyone to shoot.  There isn’t anyone to shoot.  The problem is our internal maps, and rethinking those can require some vilification of outmoded views.  But we must remember that we’re vilifying the value system of wealth discrimination – not the wealthy themselves.  Respect for the right to attain wealth is integral to the American psyche.”  (Kelly 99)

Kelly is absolutely right here; we all operate based on the internal maps, with their arbitrary assumptions and logic, to try to make a good life for ourselves.  Certainly, when one examines the litany of shenanigans that occurred in the recent financial crisis, it is easy to spot villains like Bernie Madoff; when reading deft accounts of the crisis, like Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, it is easy to ask how our economic game could be rigged as it is, and how we could have been so blind to the massive speculative bubble that would take down the global economy.  However, Lewis’s narrative is perhaps the most relevant to Kelly’s critique here, because the 20 or so people that saw the asset bubble for what it was were outliers, consistently critiqued by the establishment.  Their mental models were slightly off from the mainstream, most memorably Michael Burry, the one-eyed medical school graduate who was obsessed with the stock market from the age 12, and built a successful stock-picking blog that he wrote in the wee hours as a resident into his own hedge fund.    However, the majority of operators in our economy are simply following the rules of the game, to the best of their ability.  The idea of the American dream, which is echoed whenever a mother tells a child, ‘you can do anything you want,’ is a critical part of the American psyche.  Kelly is attempting to shift our mental models, so that we can see that our current paradigm doesn’t quite live up to the ideals of that American Dream; we are not the ‘Land of Opportunity’ we think we are.

Kelley identifies a critical fault in the current paradigm: the idea that shareholders ‘own’ the company, and the companies they own are required to maximize shareholder return above all other concerns.  Employees, who’s knowledge and ideas create the wealth of the 21st century, should under that paradigm be paid as little as possible.  However, Kelly brings a different mental model to bear:

“The principle is simple: efficiency is best served when gains go to those who create the wealth.  Thus, instead of aiming to pay employees as little as possible, corporations should distribute employee rewards based on contribution – while recognizing that in any humane social order, a living wage is the basic minimum.  Likewise, corporations might aim for a decent minimum stockholder gain but drop their focus on maximum gain.  The legitimate goal is reward based on contribution.  Since the contribution of stockholders has shrunk dramatically, their gains should shrink also.  It simply defies market principles to continue giving speculators the wealth that employees create.” (Kelly 108)

In light is the recent Global Financial Meltdown, it is helpful to consider what role those speculators played in the inflating asset bubbles, and the growth of subprime mortgage bonds into the dominant investment vehicle between 2005-7.  But step back for a moment and consider what would have happened if the rising productivity of the last decade were not entirely bequeathed to stockholders, but if employees got their share?  What if communities, instead of giving tax breaks to draw corporations like Boeing to move, instead received their share, and invested it in our crumbling infrastructure and public schools?  In short, both individuals and communities would bear some of the fruit of their own industry.  The system would be more efficient, and given the recent speculative disasters, we certainly wouldn’t be any worse off.


Works Cited


Kelly, Marjorie. The Divine Right of Capital.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003.  Print.


A review of 13 Bankers

When you talk with Conservatives about regulation, they will generally tell you that government regulation is too pervasive and ineffective; additional regulation is out of the question, and existing regulation should be simplified.   Those same conservatives often blame the financial crisis and the Great Recession on government involvement, and claim that if only the markets were free of government interference, rational actors would allow the markets to regulate themselves.  However, deregulation during the last three decades eliminated most of the protections put in place after the Great Depression, and put us in a hole we have yet to dig ourselves out of.

Simon Johnson and James Kwak, creator of The Baseline Scenario blog and authors of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, examine the long history of financial regulation and deregulation in their recent book.  They show that, without question, the Wall Street banks continue to hold inordinate power over our government and the U.S. economy.  They carefully trace the bipartisan financial deregulation that began under Ronald Reagan but continued through each successive administration, leading to the near collapse of the Global economy:

“Never before has so much taxpayer money been dedicated to save an industry from the consequences of its own mistakes.  In the ultimate irony, it went to an industry that had insisted for decades that it had no use for government and would be better off regulating itself – and it was overseen by a group of policymakers who agreed that government should play little role in the financial sector.”

For example, Johnson and Kwak explain the SEC agreement of April 28, 2004 that allowed the five large investment banks (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Sterns) to calculate their own net capital based on internal models, rather than using standard models, allowing them to expand their leverage extensively for the next three years.  In fact, the regulation put in place by FDR after the Great Depression was systemically dismantled, and 13 Bankers shows how that dismantlement created massive financial institutions that were not only Too Big to Fail, but too powerful to control:

“The fact that their failure could entail the loss of millions of jobs gave the banks the power to dictate the terms of their rescue.  If the government insisted on paying market prices for the toxic assets, or insisted on taking majority control, the banks could simply refuse to go along, secure in the knowledge that the government would have to come back to the table.”

13 Bankers examines many common assumptions about the financial crisis; for example, conservatives tend to blame the entire crisis on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Democratic Party.  However, Johnson and Kwak artfully disarm that claim:

“The riskiest mortgages, however – the ones that pushed the housing bubble to dizzying heights – were simply off-limits to Fannie and Freddie.  The [Government Sponsored Enterprses] could not buy many subprime mortgages (or securitize them) because they did not meet the conforming mortgage standards… ultimately regulatory constraints prevented them from plunging too far into subprime lending.  As housing expert Doris Dungey wrote, ‘the immovable objects of the conforming loan limits and the charter limitation of taking only loans with a maximum [loan-to-value] ratio of 80%… plus all their other regulatory strictures, managed fairly well against the irresistible force of innovation.’”

In short, the banks lobbied for years to remove the regulations that limited their size and scope; they developed complex financial instruments that were impossible to understand without a PhD from M.I.T.; they used those instruments to hide risk inside AAA rated securities that ultimately plummeted in value, and to move debt off their books; and finally, they had the nerve to complain about government interference after taxpayers backed up those risky bets.

Last summer, the Financial Reform Law was finally passed by Congress and signed by the President.  On The Baseline Scenario, Simon Johnson quickly identified the missing ingredient in the new regulation: it does nothing to reduce the size of institutions that are Too Big To Fail.  In 13 Bankers, Johnson and Kwak examine some common arguments about large banks, that they supposedly gain economies of scale, and that our large corporations require large, multi-national banks.   In fact, those claims “suffer from a shortage of empirical evidence.”  Johnson and Kwak provide good evidence to the contrary; for example, Johnson & Johnson used 11 different banks in their 2008 debt offering, and 13 different banks in their 2007 debt offering.

13 Bankers clearly identifies the systemic risk that TBTF banks offer, and warns of an even more dangerous crisis to come in the next financial cycle.  One of the main reasons is that TBTF institutions are effectively subsidized by the government, getting money for lower interest rates than smaller competitors; this occurs because investors know the government will always bail out TBTF institutions; this competitive advantage will provide the TBTF institutions a strong incentive to take excess risk.  Ultimately, until TBTF institutions are reduced in size, they will remain dangerous to long-term economic health.  Johnson and Kwak propose that commercial banks be limited to 4% of GDP and investment banks to 2% of GDP.  This would affect only six institutions: Bank of America (currently at 16% of GDP, JP Morgan Chase (14% GDP), Citigroup (13% GDP), Wells Fargo (9% GDP), Goldman Sachs (6% GDP), and Morgan Stanley (5% GDP). The goal would be to allow these banks to fail without taking down the entire economy with them.

13 Bankers will give you a good understanding of how bankers and the government have navigated the regulatory question over America’s history, and what caused the financial crisis.  The book also provides an excellent prescription for tackling the TBTF problem.  The Baseline Scenario is also an excellent resource, updated daily.

Financial reform at last – is it enough?

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Chair of the President's Economic Recovery Advisor Board, and author of the Volcker Rule

Last night, just before the clock turned to midnight, almost two years after the global financial system nearly collapsed, House and Senate committees reached agreement on reconciliation of their respective Financial Reform packages.  The bill should be headed for a successful vote.  What level of protection will we have going forward?

Looking back, the economy nearly collapsed because of too much systemic risk spread across financial institutions that are “too big to fail.”  At the 11th hour, after Bear Sterns nearly collapsed, and Lehman Brothers went into bankruptcy, the surviving financial institutions converted into bank holding companies and received access to the Discount Window at the Federal Reserve, which allowed them to reduce their leverage with basically free money.  In addition to that bailout, much of the toxic assets on the books of these institutions were bought or guaranteed by the Fed.

Would it be enough to require these institutions to hold more capital?  Simon Johnson points out that the targeted requirement of 10-12% is actually what Lehman Brothers had on the book before they collapsed.

One good aspect of this bill is the inclusion of a compromise Volcker Rule.  Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve Chairman who proposed the rule, intended to restrict the ability of banks whose deposits are federally insured from trading for their own benefit. Banks and large Wall Street firms, who view it as a major incursion on their most profitable activity, fiercely oppose the Volcker Rule.  The compromise would allow them to continue some investing and trading activity, no more than 3 percent of a fund’s capital; those investments could also total no more than 3 percent of a bank’s tangible equity.

The proposal by Senator Blanche Lincoln that would have banned banks from any derivatives activities was loosed to a requirement that banks and the companies that own them be required to segregate the activity.  In theory this would prevent depositors money from being traded in derivatives, but isn’t this just shuffling around the balance sheet instead?

The new Consumer Protection Agency is a good move.  If the President puts someone like Elizabeth Warren in charge, we will see standardized, consumer friendly credit card statements, along with many other sensible reforms.  Of course, an exception for Auto Dealers was negotiated at the last minute.  If you go outside any military base you will she signs that say “financing available for E-1 and above.”  What those signs don’t say is that the interest rates for those E-1’s will be 30%, and that those 18-year-old kids just want the shiny new car.  In the same vein, I hope payday lenders will be subject to the new Agency, though I don’t doubt that powerful legislators may have exempted them as well.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, while there are admirable measures in this Reform, and while it is better than the status quo, this bill does nothing to deal with institutions being too big to fail.  The Brown Kaufmann amendment, which was defeated by among other opponents, The White House, would have forced banks to become smaller and limited what they could borrow from the Fed.  We taxpayers will one day have to confront these massive institutions and bail them out again, with the proverbial gun to our head.  It is inevitable.

It is instructive to look at the history of Bear Sterns, as detailed in the excellent book, House of Cards.  When that firm became a stalwart after the Great Depression, the partners were all personally invested in each financial investment decision.  They had skin in the game, and they were much more conservative as a result.  Deregulation in the 1980s and the 1990s allowed firms like Bear Sterns to leverage, more and more, their clients funds, and engage in riskier and riskier behavior.  Without the personal investment, the people in charge of Bear Sterns were no longer worried about the long view, just the next quarter.  Much like politicians who are simply worried about re-election and not about proper governance, these denizens of Wall St. were now only concerned with rising stock price and short term gains.  We lost something along the way, and unfortunately, we are not going to get it back.