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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Joseph Stiglitz on the question of incentives 10.21.09

In this piece, Stiglitz contrasts the career of Norman Borlaug to that of the nameless Wall Street bankers, and wonders whether some noble people are corrupted by the immense money to be made in finance. The question goes beyond this, as must be plain by now. The incentives themselves were corrupting, not only of the people, but they suborned criminal and near criminal unconsciousness of the public's welfare. You don't get rich by doing the right thing on Wall Street. Of course, many have clothed themselves in the invisible hand, a myth to which even Stiglitz gives too much credit.. It is less than a fig leaf. Here is Stiglitz.
Borlaug and the Bankers
Joseph E. Stiglitz
Project Syndicate
October 20, 2009

NEW YORK – The recent death of Norman Borlaug provides an opportune moment to reflect on basic values and on our economic system. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing about the “green revolution,” which saved hundreds of millions from hunger and changed the global economic landscape.

Before Borlaug, the world faced the threat of a Malthusian nightmare: growing populations in the developing world and insufficient food supplies. Consider the trauma a country like India might have suffered if its population of a half-billion had remained barely fed as it doubled. Before the green revolution, Nobel Prize-winning economist Gunnar Myrdal predicted a bleak future for an Asia mired in poverty. Instead, Asia has become an economic powerhouse.

Likewise, Africa’s welcome new determination to fight the war on hunger should serve as a living testament to Borlaug. The fact that the green revolution never came to the world’s poorest continent, where agricultural productivity is just one-third the level in Asia, suggests that there is ample room for improvement.

The green revolution may, of course, prove to be only a temporary respite. Soaring food prices before the global financial crisis provided a warning, as does the slowing rate of growth of agricultural productivity. India’s agriculture sector, for example, has fallen behind the rest of its dynamic economy, living on borrowed time, as levels of ground water, on which much of the country depends, fall precipitously.

But Borlaug’s death at 95 also is a reminder of how skewed our system of values has become. When Borlaug received news of the award, at four in the morning, he was already toiling in the Mexican fields, in his never-ending quest to improve agricultural productivity. He did it not for some huge financial compensation, but out of conviction and a passion for his work.

What a contrast between Borlaug and the Wall Street financial wizards that brought the world to the brink of ruin. They argued that they had to be richly compensated in order to be motivated. Without any other compass, the incentive structures they adopted did motivate them – not to introduce new products to improve ordinary people’ lives or to help them manage the risks they faced, but to put the global economy at risk by engaging in short-sighted and greedy behavior. Their innovations focused on circumventing accounting and financial regulations designed to ensure transparency, efficiency, and stability, and to prevent the exploitation of the less informed.

There is also a deeper point in this contrast: our societies tolerate inequalities because they are viewed to be socially useful; it is the price we pay for having incentives that motivate people to act in ways that promote societal well-being. Neoclassical economic theory, which has dominated in the West for a century, holds that each individual’s compensation reflects his marginal social contribution – what he adds to society. By doing well, it is argued, people do good.

But Borlaug and our bankers refute that theory. If neoclassical theory were correct, Borlaug would have been among the wealthiest men in the world, while our bankers would have been lining up at soup kitchens.

Of course, there is a grain of truth in neoclassical theory; if there weren’t, it probably wouldn’t have survived as long as it has (though bad ideas often survive in economics remarkably well). Nevertheless, the simplistic economics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when neoclassical theories arose, are wholly unsuited to twenty-first-century economies. In large corporations, it is often difficult to ascertain the contribution of any individual. Such corporations are rife with “agency” problems: while decision-makers (CEO’s) are supposed to act on behalf of their shareholders, they have enormous discretion to advance their own interests – and they often do.

Bank officers may have walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars, but everyone else in our society – shareholders, bondholders, taxpayers, homeowners, workers – suffered. Their investors are too often pension funds, which also face an agency problem, because their executives make decisions on behalf of others. In such a world, private and social interests often diverge, as we have seen so dramatically in this crisis.

Does anyone really believe that America’s bank officers suddenly became so much more productive, relative to everyone else in society, that they deserve the huge compensation increases they have received in recent years? Does anyone really believe that America’s CEO’s are that much more productive than those in other countries, where compensation is more modest?

Worse, in America stock options became a preferred form of compensation – often worth more than an executive’s base pay. Stock options reward executives generously even when shares rise because of a price bubble – and even when comparable firms’ shares are performing better. Not surprisingly, stock options create strong incentives for short-sighted and excessively risky behavior, as well as for “creative accounting,” which executives throughout the economy perfected with off-balance-sheet shenanigans.

The skewed incentives distorted our economy and our society. We confused means with ends. Our bloated financial sector grew to the point that in the United States it accounted for more than 40% of corporate profits.

But the worst effects were on our human capital, our most precious resource. Absurdly generous compensation in the financial sector induced some of our best minds to go into banking. Who knows how many Borlaugs there might have been among those enticed by the riches of Wall Street and the City of London? If we lost even one, our world was made immeasurably poorer.

Joseph Stiglitz - Thanks to the Deficit, the Buck Stops Here - 08.29.09

Stiglitz: Thanks to the Deficit, the Buck Stops Here

Joseph Stiglitz repeats a warning that he and others have made in the past that, like it or not, the dollar's days as a reserve currency are numbered. Thus, instead of resisting this change -- as we have -- "it's better for us to participate in the construction of a new system than have it happen without us":
Thanks to the Deficit, the Buck Stops Here, by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Commentary, Washington Post: Beware of deficit fetishism. Last week we learned that the national debt is likely to grow by more than $9 billion. That's not great news -- no one likes a big deficit -- but President Obama inherited an economic mess from the Bush administration, and the cleanup comes with an inevitably high price tag. We're paying it now. ...
There are ... consequences, however, that we're missing in the debate over all this red ink. Our budget deficit, as well as the Federal Reserve's ballooning lending programs and other financial obligations, will accelerate a process already well underway -- a changing role for the U.S. dollar in the global economy.
The domino effect is straightforward: Higher deficits spark market concerns over future inflation; concerns of inflation contribute to a weaker dollar; and both come together to undermine the greenback's role as a reliable store of value around the world. ...
Anxieties about future inflation can lead to a weaker dollar today. So, are these anxieties justifiable? ... The worries are justified, even though Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke ... assures us that he will deftly manage monetary policy... This is a tough balancing act... Anyone looking at the Fed's record in recent years will be skeptical of its forecasting skills and its ability to get the balance right.
In addition, international markets understand that the United States may face strong incentives to reduce the real value of its debts through inflation...
Like it or not, out of the ashes of this debacle a new and more stable global reserve system is likely to emerge, and for the world as a whole, as well as for the United States, this would be a good thing. It would lead to a more stable worldwide financial system and stronger global economic growth. ... Discussions on the design of the new system are already underway. ...
The United States has resisted these changes, but they will come regardless, and it's better for us to participate in the construction of a new system than have it happen without us. The United States has seen great advantages with the dollar as the world's reserve currency..., particularly the ability to borrow at low interest rates seemingly without limit. But we haven't seen the costs as clearly: the inevitable trade deficits, the instability, the weaker global economy. The benefits to us are likely to shrink, and rapidly so, as countries shift their holdings away from the dollar. ...
America should show leadership in helping shape this new structure and managing the transition, rather than burying its head in the sand. We may have preferred to keep the old system, in which the dollar reigned supreme, but that's no longer an option.

Joseph Stiglitz - Stimulate or Die - 08.15.09

 Stimulate or Die
Joseph E. Stiglitz

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NEW YORK – As the green shoots of economic recovery that many people spied this spring have turned brown, questions are being raised as to whether the policy of jump-starting the economy through a massive fiscal stimulus has failed. Has Keynesian economics been proven wrong now that it has been put to the test?

That question, however, would make sense only if Keynesian economics had really been tried. Indeed, what is needed now is another dose of fiscal stimulus. If that does not happen, we can look forward to an even longer period in which the economy operates below capacity, with high unemployment.

The Obama administration seems surprised and disappointed with high and rising joblessness. It should not be. All of this was predictable. The true measure of the success of the stimulus is not the actual level of unemployment, but what unemployment would have been without the stimulus. The Obama administration was always clear that it would create some three million jobs more than what would otherwise be the case. The problem is that the shock to the economy from the financial crisis was so bad that even Obama’s seemingly huge fiscal stimulus has not been enough.

But there is another problem: In the United States, only about a quarter of the almost $800 billion stimulus was designed to be spent this year, and getting it spent even on “shovel ready” projects has been slow going. Meanwhile, US states have been faced with massive revenue shortfalls, exceeding $200 billion. Most face constitutional requirements to run balanced budgets, which means that such states are now either raising taxes or cutting expenditures –a negative stimulus that offsets at least some of the Federal government’s positive stimulus.

At the same time, almost one-third of the stimulus was devoted to tax cuts, which Keynesian economics correctly predicted would be relatively ineffective. Households, burdened with debt while their retirement savings wither and job prospects remain dim, have spent only a fraction of the tax cuts.

In the US and elsewhere, much attention was focused on fixing the banking system. This may be necessary to restore robust growth, but it is not sufficient. Banks will not lend if the economy is in the doldrums, and American households will be particularly reluctant to borrow – at least in the profligate ways they borrowed prior to the crisis. The almighty American consumer was the engine of global growth, but it will most likely continue to sputter even after the banks are repaired. In the interim, some form of government stimulus will be required.

Some worry about America’s increasing national debt. But if a new stimulus is well designed, with much of the money spent on assets, the fiscal position and future growth can actually be made stronger.

It is a mistake to look only at a country’s liabilities, and ignore its assets. Of course, that is an argument against badly designed bank bailouts, like the one in America, which has cost US taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars, much of it never to be recovered. The national debt has increased, with no offsetting asset placed on the government’s balance sheet. But one should not confuse corporate welfare with a Keynesian stimulus.

A few (not many) worry that this bout of government spending will result in inflation. But the more immediate problem remains deflation, given high unemployment and excess capacity. If the economy recovers more robustly than I anticipate, spending can be canceled. Better yet, if much of the next round of stimulus is devoted to automatic stabilizers – such as compensating for the shortfall in state revenues – then if the economy does recover, the spending will not occur. There is little downside risk.

Nevertheless, there is some concern that growing inflationary expectations might result in rising long-term interest rates, offsetting the benefits of the stimulus. Here, monetary authorities must be vigilant, and continue their “non-standard” interventions – managing both short-term and long-term interest rates.

All policies entail risk. Not preparing for a second stimulus now risks a weaker economy – and the money not being there when it is needed. Stimulating an economy takes time, as the Obama administration’s difficulties in spending what it has allocated show; the full effect of these efforts may take a half-year or more to be felt.

A weaker economy means more bankruptcies and home foreclosures and higher unemployment. Even putting aside the human suffering, this means, in turn, more problems for the financial system. And, as we have seen, a weaker financial system means a weaker economy, and possibly the need for more emergency money to save it from another catastrophe. If we try to save money now, we risk spending much more later.

The Obama administration erred in asking for too small a stimulus, especially after making political compromises that caused it to be less effective than it could have been.  It made another mistake in designing a bank bailout that gave too much money with too few restrictions on too favorable terms to those who caused the economic mess in the first place – a policy that has dampened taxpayers’ appetite for more spending.

But that is politics. The economics is clear: the world needs all the advanced industrial countries to commit to another big round of real stimulus spending. This should be one of the central themes of the next G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh.