Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is Financial Industry Injustice Good For America?

Many American's are angry over the perceived injustice of the financial industry which caused the economic crisis, were bailed out by taxpayers, and are now paying out huge bonuses after earning record profits. But is this injustice necessary to improve the well-being of society? No, says Economist Paul Krugman, who argues that financial speculation by firms like Goldman Sachs actually make us worse off.

Is what’s good for Wall Street also good for America?:

Rewarding Bad Actors, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Americans are angry at Wall Street, and rightly so. First the financial industry plunged us into economic crisis, then it was bailed out at taxpayer expense. And now, with the economy still deeply depressed, the industry is paying itself gigantic bonuses. If you aren’t outraged, you haven’t been paying attention. ...

Consider two recent news stories. One involves ... high-speed trading: some institutions, including Goldman Sachs, have been using superfast computers to get the jump on other investors... Profits from high-frequency trading are one reason Goldman is earning record profits and likely to pay record bonuses.

On a seemingly different front,... Andrew J. Hall, who leads an arm of Citigroup that speculates on oil and other commodities ... has made a lot of money recently... Mr. Hall is owed $100 million.

What do these stories have in common?

The politically salient answer ... is that ... both ... firms ... were major recipients of federal aid. Citi has received around $45 billion...; Goldman has repaid the $10 billion it received..., but it has benefited enormously both from federal guarantees and from bailouts of other financial institutions. What are taxpayers supposed to think when these welfare cases cut nine-figure paychecks?

But suppose we grant that both Goldman and Mr. Hall are very good at what they do, and might have earned huge profits even without all that aid. Even so, what they do is bad for America.

Just to be clear: financial speculation can serve a useful purpose. It’s good, for example, that futures markets provide an incentive to stockpile heating oil before the weather gets cold...

But speculation based on information not available to the public at large is a very different matter. As the U.C.L.A. economist Jack Hirshleifer showed back in 1971, such speculation often combines “private profitability” with “social uselessness.”

It’s hard to imagine a better illustration than high-frequency trading. The stock market is supposed to allocate capital to its most productive uses... But it’s hard to see how traders who place their orders one-thirtieth of a second faster than anyone else ... improve that social function.

What about Mr. Hall? The Times report suggests that he makes money mainly by outsmarting other investors, rather than by directing resources to where they’re needed. Again, it’s hard to see the social value...

And there’s a good case that such activities are actually harmful. For example, high-frequency trading [is] ... a kind of tax on investors who lack access to ... superfast computers — which means that the money Goldman spends on those computers has a negative effect on national wealth. As ... Kenneth Arrow put it in 1973, speculation based on private information imposes a “double social loss”: it uses up resources and undermines markets. ...

And soaring incomes in the financial industry have played a large role in sharply rising income inequality.

What should be done? Last week the House passed a bill setting rules for pay packages at a wide range of financial institutions. That would be a step in the right direction. But it really should be accompanied by much broader regulation of financial practices — and, I would argue, by higher tax rates on supersized incomes.

Unfortunately, the House measure is opposed by the Obama administration, which still seems to operate on the principle that what’s good for Wall Street is good for America.

Neither the administration, nor our political system in general, is ready to face up to the fact that we’ve become a society in which the big bucks go to bad actors, a society that lavishly rewards those who make us poorer.

[See also Back to the Good Times on Wall Street: Looking at "nine large financial institutions that received substantial TARP support from the government," "the firms’ post-crisis pay policies appear to be ... even more lucrative to the firms’ employees than pre-crisis policies.]

This post has been republished from Mark Thoma's blog, Economist's View.

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