Separate Accounts

Filed Under (Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Charles Kahn on Mar 8, 2013

That a large percentage of individuals in the US do not paying income tax is a matter of concern, and not just to conservatives.  There is an underlying  sense that the paying of taxes is a duty, an act of solidarity with the collective goals of a democratically constituted nation.  While fairness requires that those best able to do so provide more of the financial support for those collective goals, fairness also requires everyone provide a share, even if that share is small.

In fact, this decline in tax-paying is partly connected with one of the programs often argued to be the most effective at reduction of poverty–the earned income credit.  Under this program, recipients’ credits are often greater than the total taxes they would have paid.

Many of the features of the earned income credit are desirable from the point of view of economic theory. The program entails virtually no overhead costs for its running. Its relatively low marginal rates distort decisions less than many alternatives (such as a minimum wage or food stamps). It can be targeted fairly accurately to those it is intended for (the working poor with children).

From the point of view of the economist, there is no difference between having a program in which an individual receives $5,000 from the government and pays $500 in taxes, or a program which just nets it all out and pays the individual $4,500.  From the point of view of the voters, and possibly from the point of view of the recipient, there is a big difference between the two. 

Beside the moral, even quasi-religious, sense to this–that paying taxes imparts a dignity to the payer (like the “widow’s mite”; also compare the rabinnic teaching that the poor are also required to give charity), there is of course also an astute political sense to this: if government coffers are filled by “others,” there is no limit to what we demand of government; if they are filled by “us” then we weigh the costs versus the benefits.

We probably need a name for the psychological quirk that causes us to regard such two-way passage of moneys as different from a one-way passage of a net amount. I recommend the term “budgeting illusion” — the sense that when sums are arbitrarily divided into different accounts, the separate pots take on a reality of their own.

Budgeting illusion also lies behind some of the difficulties we have in dealing sensibly with social security. Ultimately the money goes into the government in whatever form–payroll tax, income tax, gasoline tax–and the money comes out in national defense, social security, highways.  There is no economic sense in which the dollars collected “for” one purpose are separable from the dollars collected “for” another. For social security recipients the fungibility is fortunate, since, in particular, the present value of most people’s social security contributions is not sufficient to pay for their benefits.  Nonetheless,  most taxpayers feel that the social security payments are “their” money and the benefits are “their” compensation for it.

Even if there is no economic distinction between different dollars, there is a political distinction: Having the social security’s trust fund in a separate pot allows the social security administration some political autonomy.  It enables SSA to pay benefits without resort to the Congress even in years when they are not bringing in enough revenue to cover their costs.  The system was intentionally set up this way, of course, to ensure that changes would be close to politically impossible.  But the problem that arises is just the flip side of the earned income credit problem: in each case our awareness of the magnitudes of the payments are altered when we separate or combine the different pots of funding. 

 

Schoolyard Sanctions

Filed Under (Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Charles Kahn on Feb 26, 2013

So now Congress is trying to get the European Central Bank to tighten up its restrictions on Euros that go indirectly to Iran through its Target payment system. (See for example this article in the Financial Times). The whole thing begins to sound a little like high school drama: The angry junior refuses to talk to her enemy, and also to anyone disloyal enough to talk to her enemy. Soon that’s not good enough; anyone who talks to someone who talks to her enemy is also on the hit list.  In the end, of course, her standards become so high that she ends up talking to no one but herself.

To be fair, the sanctions against Iran have been much more effective than a skeptical economist would have believed:  trade is much reduced–and what does get through is much more expensive, which, from the point of view of the economist was the real point anyway.  But over time, sanctions are of diminishing effectiveness, as the target learns to devise evasions, and as the countermeasures to the evasions begin to disrupt the lives of more and more third parties.

In their DC bubble, congressmen are likely to believe that the regulatory power of the US is absolute: To their way of thinking the European Central Bank should tighten its requirements because it is the right thing to do, but there is always the implicit threat of restrictions to Europeans’ use of the dollar payments system and resources. The only catch with the logic is that the dollar payment system is not the only one in town.  The Euro is already an important alternative, and the Chinese, while still waiting in the wings, are seriously considering the advantages they can reap from opening their payment and currency systems to the world.  Certainly, there is a way to go before the typical commercial transaction can be carried out as safely, cheaply and reliably through renminbi as through dollars, but American restrictions that hit non-combatants in the economic warfare with Iran can bring that day a lot closer.

Tax Subsides for 401(k)’s Work, But Not for the Reasons You May Think

Filed Under (Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Nov 30, 2012

Earlier this week, the New York Times Economix Blog wrote a piece “Study Questions Tax Breaks’ Effect on Retirement Savings.”  The article summarizes the findings of a fantastic research paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).  A quick summary of the paper written by the authors themselves can be found here.  The short version is that the researchers used data from Denmark (where much better date is available) to provide evidence that tax subsidies have little effect on overall savings rates.

Their main finding is that “when individuals in the top income tax bracket received a larger tax subsidy for retirement savings, they started saving more in retirement accounts.  But the same individuals reduced the amount they were saving outside retirement accounts by almost exactly the same amount, leaving total savings essentially unchanged. We estimate each that $1 of government expenditure on the subsidy raised total savings by 1 cent.”

The policy implications of their finding are extremely important given the current debate about fiscal policy in the U.S.  After all, if tax subsidies for saving do not actually increase saving, then perhaps we should re-think the $100 billion per year that we forego in tax revenue by exempting retirement savings from the income tax base?  Such a conclusion would be quite tempting to politicians who are desperately seeking ways of raising revenue without raising tax rates.

But I say “not so fast.”  Although I do not disagree with the empirical findings of the study, I strongly disagree with the assertions being made by some that this finding justifies the elimination of the tax preference for 401(k) and other retirement vehicles.

The study itself is an outstanding intellectual contribution, and one that will likely (and deservedly) end up being published in a leading scholarly journal.  I can personally vouch for the high intelligence and research integrity of the two U.S. authors.  Raj Chetty was named a MacArthur “Genius” earlier this year, and is widely expected to be awarded the prestigious John Bates Clark medal sometime in the next 6-8 years.  John Friedman of Harvard is also an emerging research star in the economics profession.

So, the researchers are top notch, the study is extremely well done, and the conclusion is that tax subsidies do not generate net much net savings.  So, why not simply eliminate the tax preference for 401(k) plans in the U.S. and raise a trillion dollars of revenue over the next decade?

Because of the important role of plan sponsors, that is why.

For better or for worse, the employer plays a central role in the U.S. retirement system.  Although there are several reasons that employers offer retirement plans and other employee benefits (e.g., to differentially attract certain types of workers, to help manage retirement dates, to motivate workers, etc.), there is little question that the large tax subsidy  looms very large in their decision to use retirement plans – as opposed to other types of benefits – to achieve these outcomes.

To qualify for favorable tax treatment, employer provided retirement plans, including the 401(k), must meet a long list of “plan qualification requirements.”  These requirements are what provide Congress and regulators the ability to influence the design of retirement plans.

An important example is the set of “non-discrimination rules” designed to ensure broad-based participation in an employer’s plan.  These rules provide incentives for plan sponsors to find innovative ways of encouraging saving by their employees.  Indeed, it is not much of a stretch to suggest that these rules are the reason we have seen the widespread adoption over the years of employer matching contributions, automatic enrollment, automatic escalation of contributions, and numerous other innovations in the retirement plan space that have been shown to increase saving.

The authors themselves note that “automatic enrollment or default policies that nudge individuals to save more could have larger impacts on national saving at lower fiscal cost.”  I agree that behavioral nudges have had an enormous impact.  But in an employer based retirement plan system, the only way to get employers to offer those nudges is to provide them with a compelling financial reason to do so.  In essence, tax subsidies are the nudge for employers to provide the nudge for employees.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the existing system should be treated as sacrosanct.  It may be that employers would continue to offer 401(k)’s – along with their numerous savings nudges – if the financial incentive were provided in a less expensive way (e.g., by capping deductibility).  That is a debate we ought to have (hopefully informed by evidence of the same high quality as the NBER study).  My point is simply that any policy discussion should recognize the very important role that employers play as trusted sponsors of the plan, and be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Indeed, given that only about half of US workers have opportunities to save through their current employer, we should be looking for ways to encourage more employers to sponsor plans.  If we go after the tax incentives for retirement saving, we must be careful not to inadvertently destroy the plan sponsor infrastructure that is the foundation of retirement security for millions of Americans.

 

Relevant Disclosures:  I am a Research Associate of the NBER (through which the study above was released) and Associate Director of the NBER Retirement Research Center (through which the authors have received some funding for their study).  I am also a trustee for TIAA CREF, a provider of retirement plans to the not-for-profit sector.  I have also received compensation as a consultant or speaker for a wide range of other financial services institutions.  The opinions expressed in this blog (and any errors) are my own.

The Third “Justification” for a Progressive Income Tax

Filed Under (Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Aug 31, 2012

Here is the third in a series of blogs that I started on May 18.  The first was called “Why YOU may LIKE Government ‘Theft’”.  In it, I listed four possible justifications for government to act like Robin Hood, taking from the rich to give to the poor.  The point is to think about whether the top personal marginal tax rate really should be higher or lower than currently, as currently debated these days in the newspapers.

However, perhaps we should also remember what is wrong with government using high marginal tax rates to take from the rich in order to help the poor.  The problem is that a higher personal marginal tax rate distorts individual behavior, particularly labor supply and savings behavior, by discouraging work effort and investment.  Since those are good for the economy, high marginal tax rates are bad for the economy!  In fact, economic theory suggests that the “deadweight loss” from taxation may increase roughly with the square of the tax rate.  In other words, doubling a tax rate (e.g. from 20% to 40%) would quadruple the excess burden of taxes – the extent to which the burden on taxpayers exceeds the revenue collected.

The point is just that we face tradeoffs.  Yes, we have four possible reasons that we as a society may want higher tax rates on the rich in order to provide a social safety net, but we also have significant costs of doing so.  Probably somewhere in the middle might help trade off those costs against the benefits, but it’s really a matter of personal choice when you vote: how much do you value a safety net for those less fortunate that yourself?  And how much do you value a more efficient tax system and economy?

In the first blog on May 18, I listed all four justifications, any one of which may or may not ring true to you.  If one or more justification is unconvincing, then perhaps a different justification is more appealing.  In that blog, I put off the last three justifications and mostly just discussed the first one, namely, the arguments of “moral philosophy” for extra help to the poor.   As a matter of ethics, you might think it morally just or fair to help the poor starving masses.  That blog describes a range of philosophies, all the way from “no help to poor” (Nozick) in a spectrum that ends with “all emphasis on the poor” (Rawls).

In the second blog on July 13, I discussed the second justification.  Aside from that moral theorizing, suppose the poor are not deemed special at all: every individual receives the exact same weight, so we want to maximize the un-weighted sum of all individuals’ “utility”, as suggested by Jeremy Bentham, the “founding figure of modern utilitarianism.”  His philosophy is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”.   Also suppose utility is not proportional to income, but is instead a curved function, with “declining marginal utility”.  If so, then a dollar from a rich person is relatively unimportant to that rich person, while a dollar to a poor person is very important to that poor person.  In that case, equal weights on everybody would still mean that total welfare could increase by taking from the rich to help the poor.

The point of THIS blog is a third justification, quite different in the sense that it does NOT require making anybody worse off (the rich) in order to make someone else better off (the poor).  It is a case where we might all have nearly the same income and same preferences, and yet we might all be better off with a tax system that has higher marginal tax rates on those with more income, and transfers to those with little or no income.  How?  Suppose we’re all roughly equally well off in the long run, or in terms of expectations, but that we all face a random element in our annual income.  Some fraction of us will have a small business that experiences a bad year once in a while, or become unemployed once in a while, or have a bad health event that requires us to stop work once in a while.  To protect ourselves against those kinds of bad outcomes, we might like to buy insurance, but private insurance companies might not be able to offer such insurance because of two important market failures:

  1. Because of “adverse selection”, the insurance company might get only the bad risks to sign up, those who are inherently more likely to become unemployed or to have a bad year.
  2. Because of “moral hazard”, insurance buyers might change their behavior and become unemployed on purpose, or work less and earn less.

With those kinds of market failure, the private market might fail altogether, and nobody is able to buy such insurance.  Yet, having such insurance can make us all better off, by protecting us from actual risk!

Potentially, if done properly, the government can help fix this market failure.  Unemployment insurance is one such attempt.  But the point here is just that a progressive income tax can also act implicitly and partially as just that kind of insurance:

In each “good” year, you are made to pay a “premium” in the form of higher marginal tax rates and tax burden.  Then, anytime you have a “bad” year such as losing your job or facing a difficult market for the product you sell, you get to receive from this implicit insurance plan by facing lower tax rates or even getting payments from the government (unemployment compensation, income tax credits, or even welfare payments).

I don’t mean that the entire U.S. tax system works that way; I only mean that it has some element of that kind of plan, and it might help make some people happier knowing they will be helped when times are tough.  But you can decide the importance of that argument for yourself.

Next week, the final of my four possible justifications for progressive taxation.

Energy and Environmental Policies are All Interrelated

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Aug 3, 2012

Recent debate at the state and national level has focused on whether to enact a climate policy to control greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide.  The fact is, however, that we already have policies that affect such emissions, whether we like it or not.  Such policies can be coordinated and rational, or they can be piecemeal, inconsistent, and counter-productive.  Almost any policy designed to improve energy security, for example, would likely affect oil prices and energy efficiency, just as any policy to encourage alternative fuels would also affect energy security, electricity prices, consumer welfare, and health!  Here is a guide for thinking about how some of these policies work, and which combinations might work better than others.

The most obvious existing policy that affects carbon dioxide emissions is the gasoline tax that applies both at state and federal levels.  If that tax encourages less driving and more fuel-efficient cars, then it also impacts urban smog and global warming as well as protecting us from the whims of oil-rich nations with unstable governments.   In fact, with respect to the price at the pump, a tax on emissions would look a lot like a tax on gasoline, and vice versa.  Averaged over all state and federal taxes, the U.S. gasoline tax is about $0.39 per gallon, far less than around the rest of the world.  Most countries in the OECD have a tax over $2/gallon.

For the most part, the U.S. has chosen to avoid tax approaches to energy and environmental policy and instead uses various mandates, standards, and subsidies.   Cars sold in the U.S. are required to meet emission-per-mile standards for most local and regional pollutants like fine particles, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxides (NOX), and volatile organic compounds (VOC) that contribute to ozone smog.  Those rules make cars more expensive but have successfully cleaned the air in major cities and around the country.  They also have the side effect of reducing greenhouse gases.  Another mandate is the “Corporate Average Fuel Economy” (CAFE) standards that require each auto manufacturing company to meet a minimum for the average miles-per-gallon of their fleet of cars sold each year.  For each big gas-guzzler they sell, the company needs to sell more small fuel-efficient cars to bring the average back down.  To meet this standard, every car company must raise the price of their gas guzzlers (to sell fewer of them) and reduce the price of their small fuel-efficient cars (to sell more of them).  The effect is the same as having a tax on big cars and subsidy on small cars.

These energy and environmental policies are also intricately related to other tax policies, as well as government spending!  For any chosen size of government and overall tax bite, any dollar not collected in gasoline tax is another dollar that must instead be collected from payroll taxes, income taxes, corporate profits tax, or state and local sales tax.  When looked at through that lens, gasoline taxes may not be that bad – or at least not as bad as some of those other taxes we must pay instead. 

Every state and local government is also worried about the pricing of electricity by huge electric companies that might naturally have monopoly power over their customers.  Production efficiency requires a large plant, so a small remote town might be served only by one power company (with no competition from neighbors far away, since too much power is lost during transmission).  So the public utility wants to regulate electricity prices, perhaps with block pricing that helps ensure adequate provision to low-income families.   Yet the pricing of electricity inevitably affects electricity use, which affects coal use, urban smog, and greenhouse gas emissions.  These policies are intricately related.

And these policies are related to government spending, since they affect car and gasoline purchases and therefore required spending on roads and highways as well as train tracks and mass transit in cities.  These environmental and energy policies affect human health, and therefore health spending by government – as necessary to pay for additional illness caused by emissions from cars, power plants, and heat from burning fossil fuel. 

We have no way to avoid these inter-connections.  You are a consumer who wants lower gas taxes and electricity prices, but you also own part of the power company and auto manufacturers through your mutual fund or pension plan.  You pay other taxes on income and purchases, and you breathe the air, so you are affected by emissions and need health care.  We might as well think holistically and act for the good of everybody, because we are everybody!

Tour de LIBOR

Filed Under (Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Morton Lane on Jul 17, 2012

Anyone struggling to understand the LIBOR scandal could do worse than observe the way the Peloton behaves in this year’s Tour de France. All riders in the Peloton receive the same time at the end of the race. It’s like everyone getting the average rate in LIBOR rate benchmark setting. Furthermore it leads to the similar collusive behavior.

Sometimes the collusion is used to good, or at least gentlemanly, effect, such as waiting for Mark Cavendish and others who were victimized by the “tack” attack. At other times it negates the race by turning it into a rest period – a parade.

But presumably the Tour officials instituted the “same time” rule to avoid worse behavioral consequences – a scramble to the finish with attendant increased probability of crash and injury among bunched riders. Possibly it was originally also because of the difficulty of measuring individual times.

Analogous difficulties, rationales and discussions were present when the Chicago Mercantile Exchange introduced the Eurodollar futures contract in 1981. It was the first contract cash-settled to an index, LIBOR, rather than a deliverable deposit. The Exchange conducted its own standardized survey of banks for LIBOR settlement. The seemingly superior alternative, a deliverable instrument, was exposed to have its own problems when the failure of Continental Bank and the delivery of its certificate of deposit caused the failure of the domestic CD futures contract in 1984.

The BBA formalized its LIBOR calculation in 1985 in part because of the success of the Eurodollar contract itself. The exchange switched from CME calculated LIBOR to the BBA LIBOR for settlement purposes after 1997.

No doubt it is time to improve BBA the calculation. It has been gamed and gamers should suffer the consequences – that includes the calculation agent.

However, when there is an illiquid market, or when a market becomes illiquid, there are pluses and minuses to index settlement or transactional delivery. There are almost certainly better ways to provide a benchmark, but it remains the case that there is no perfect way. When changes are made or suggested lets game them in advance to anticipate behaviors. Radical changes may precipitate even worse practices.

No doubt the Tour de France officials feel the same way about the Peloton time calculation.

Simple Logic is Enough

Filed Under (Finance, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on Jun 15, 2012

Despite being in a Department of Finance, my own background and research is in economics and public policy (hence the “Center for Business and Public Policy” in our department).  I don’t claim expertise in finance, per se.   On the other hand, it seems that both sides of the JP Morgan debate are using discussion of the Volcker Rule and their other financial expertise to obscure the basic logic of government bank regulation.  It is a basic logic of incentives, which does not require expertise in finance!

JP Morgan wants to make money; we can hardly blame them for that.  In economics generally, we let companies try to make money, as they have the expertise in their own line of business to determine the risk-reward tradeoff.  If they lose money, then they lose money.  They might even be able to buy various kinds of insurance – that’s between the company and their insurer.  A person or company with insurance might have incentive to undertake riskier activities, since any gains are retained, while losses go to the insurer.  But the insurance company might enter the deal willingly, to charge premiums, especially if it can require the company or person to limit some of their riskier activities.  Your auto insurance has co-insurance and deductibles, to make you pay at least part of a loss and to restore some of your incentive for precaution.  

But when a bank becomes “too big to fail”, the U.S. government is thrown into the role of insurer, without being able to collect premiums, co-insurance, or deductibles.  It is not a “deal” between the bank and their insurer, because the government has no choice.  Because of financial contagion, a single major bank failure could bring down the whole system and cause horrific recession.

Given that the bank’s biggest losses must be covered by their insurer (the U.S. government), the bank has more incentive to undertake even riskier activities: they get any profits, and they don’t suffer the worst losses.   Any private insurer would require the bank to limit their riskiest activities, in order to be willing to sell that insurance.  But the government is the insurer by default, with no private “deal” allowing the government to require limits on the riskiest activities in order to be willing to offer that insurance.

To be sure, the bank still must be careful about some risks, as many different kinds of losses would reduce their profits without requiring government bailout.  The recent JP Morgan case did not create danger of bankruptcy or bailout, because their $2 billion loss on that one operation only offset part of their positive profits!  But any bank that is “too big to fail” has less incentive to avoid the really big losses that could cause bankruptcy, because that would require the government to bail them out.

The government could pass laws and regulations to limit the banks’ riskiest activities, and that is the purpose of the much discussed Volcker Rule.  I will leave the discussion of the details to the experts in finance.  For example, the Volcker Rule may or may not be the best way to regulate banks.  The effects depend a lot on the rule’s design, implementation, and enforcement!  Maybe some other rule or incentive-management would be better.  I will leave those details to the experts.  Instead, the point here is just the simple logic that the government is not a private insurer who would require limitations on risky activity to be willing to sell insurance.  The government must provide insurance, so they must have some kind of regulation to limit banks’ risky activities: higher capitalization requirement, Volcker rule, or other regulations.   

I did in fact talk to some of the finance department’s experts, like Jeff Brown and George Pennacchi.  George notes that “the incentive to take big risks declines as a bank finances itself with more shareholders’ equity (capital), and in JPMorgan’s defense they are one of the most highly capitalized banks, which helped them survive the crisis.”  He adds that “If banks carry government deposit insurance, whether explicit or implicit due to Too-Big-to-Fail, then the government should limit their activities to protect taxpayers from losses.”  Moreover, “it is noteworthy that, prior to the establishment of deposit insurance in 1933, banks had much greater capital (financing via shareholders’ equity) and made much less risky loans. … Indeed, there are several recent “narrow bank” proposals to greatly limit the activities of banks that issue insured deposits.”  He has a review of the topic on his website (forthcoming in the Annual Review of Financial Economics).

The bottom line is that in a private deal between a bank and its insurance company, the bank would have to agree to limit risky activity in exchange for being able to buy this insurance.  With government as insurer, they get the insurance regardless.  So just look at their incentives!  The banks have incentive to make money, and so they have incentive to take more risks since they can keep any profits and not cover the biggest losses.  AND they have incentive to lobby Congress to avoid government regulations.  We switch from a private market “deal” to the world of politics!  If they can get Congress to limit regulation of banks, they can make riskier investments, make more money, and not have to cover the biggest losses.

So just think about those incentives, next time you hear a bank executive use the jargon of financial expertise to make the case against “unfair interference by government regulators into the private market”.

U.S. Public Pension Plans are Different (and Not in a Good Way!)

Filed Under (Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Jun 11, 2012

I have written numerous blogs about the frustration that the financial economics community has with the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) rules that govern the way we account for public pension liabilities in the U.S.  The basic problem is that GASB standards do not account for risk in an appropriate way (in fact, they do not really account for it at all!)  Instead, they allow public plans to under-state the size of their liabilities by acting as if they have a risk-free approach to investing money at approximately 8 percent per year forever.

On occasion, someone will ask me if this is really just an accounting issue, or whether it actually has real effects on real-world behavior.  Although I can give countless anecdotes for why it affects real behavior, it is always better when a highly respected and disinterested party can provide rigorous empirical evidence to support the claim.

Well, now we have such evidence.   Just last month, three financial economists (Andonov, Bauer and Cremers) publicly released a rigorous new research paper entitled “Pension Fund Asset Allocation and Liability Discount Rates: Camouflage and Reckless Risk Taking by U.S. Public Plans?”  In this paper, the authors use an international database to look at the asset allocation decisions and discount rate assumptions of both public pension funds and non-public pension funds in the U.S., Canada and Europe.  What is particularly nice about this paper is that it is able to show what outliers U.S. public plans really are.  Not only do they look quite different from corporate DB plans in the U.S., but they also look different from both public and non-public plans in other countries.

Specifically, the authors state that “U.S. public funds seem distinct in that they can decide their strategic asset allocations and liability discount rates largely without much regulatory interference, due to wide latitudes allowed in the currently applicable Government Accounting Board (GASB) guidelines. In particular, these guidelines link the liability discount rates of U.S. public funds to the (assumed) expected rate of returns of the assets, rather than to the riskiness of the liabilities as suggested by economic theory.”  As I have written before, this is an intellectually vacuous approach to discounting.  What I had not fully realized is how unique this mistake is to U.S. public plans.  The authors go on to state that in Canadian and European funds – both public and private – liability discount rates are “typically … a function of current interest rates,” an approach which (assuming the interest rate is chosen appropriately) is much more in line with basic economic theory.

The most striking finding is the impact that this difference in accounting has on real behavior.  The authors find that “in the past two decades, U.S. public funds uniquely increased their allocation to riskier investment strategies in order to maintain high discount rates and present lower liabilities.”  This really is a case of the tail wagging the dog – by allowing an intellectually flawed approach to discounting to be codified in GASB standards, we have provided incentives for public pension fund managers and their boards to over-invest in risky assets.

There are many losers from GASB-induced deception.  Public workers end up with less-well-funded pensions.  Taxpayers end up bearing financial risk without realizing it.  Investors in public debt are given inaccurate information about the size of the pension liabilities.  Isn’t it time that we fix this?

Why YOU may LIKE Government “Theft”

Filed Under (Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on May 18, 2012

Or, alternatively, “Why I Love Teaching”!  First, teaching lets me grandstand a bit, if that help students really think about the world around us.  Second, it lets me pretend to be an expert in fields other than economics, even fields such as philosophy (see below).  Third, trying to teach about a topic forces me to think hard about that topic myself!  A case in point is the standard lecture on “Justifications for Government Policy to Redistribute Income”, otherwise known as “Robin Hood”, otherwise known as government “theft” from the rich to give to the poor.   

One thing currently happening in the world around us is a heightened political debate about whether the top income tax rate is too low or too high.  See the diagram below.  So this “lecture topic” is not just textbook irrelevance.  It might even help YOU to think about what you read in the newspaper!  Then please decide for yourself.

I see four possible justifications, any one of which may or may not ring true to you.  If one or more justification is unconvincing, however, then perhaps a different justification is more appealing. 

1.)    As described below, some in the field of “moral philosophy” have found ethical justifications for extra help to the poor.

2.)    Even if the poor are not deemed special in that way, and all individuals receive equal weight, it may still be that a dollar from a rich person is relatively unimportant to that rich person, while a dollar to a poor person is very important to that poor person (higher marginal utility).  If so, then equal weights on everybody would still mean that total welfare could increase by taking from the rich in order to help the poor. 

3.)    If incomes are generally uncertain, so that any individual might do well in some years and not in other years, then government might actually make all of us happier by the provision of implicit “insurance” – taking premiums in good times in order to help any person who suffers bad times.

4.)    A reduction in income equality could be a “public good”, like the classic example of a lighthouse that benefits all ships whether they have helped to pay for it or not.  Everybody’s individual incentive is therefore not to pay (to “free ride”).  The private market never exists.  But government can raise welfare for all shippers by taxing all ships and using the funds to build and operate the lighthouse.  Similarly, if many people would LIKE to have more income equality in society, they could “free ride” on others who do give voluntarily to help the underprivileged. If so, then government could fix that market failure by taxing everybody and using the funds to improve income equality.

Having used up several paragraphs already, I will miss the chance to explain all four of these important points adequately in this one blog, and so I’ll save a few for the next blog.  Let’s just start with the first one.

In the field of moral philosophy, some libertarians such as Robert Nozick believe that theft itself is ethically wrong, that each person is morally entitled to the fruits of their own labor.  No person is allowed to steal from a rich neighbor, even to give to the poor, so why would government be allowed to do so?  If theft is morally wrong in itself, then government should not be redistributing from rich to poor, no matter how needy the poor nor how worthy the cause.  On the other hand, by the way, government steals from individuals through taxes in order to build highways and provide for national defense, and so one may wonder why theft is justified for some purposes and not others.  One way out of that problem is to decide that a tax for public purposes is not in fact “theft”.

In contrast, John Rawls argues that the moral choice is to help the poor.  Actually he has two important ideas.  One is that those who are already rich have no moral justification to argue for reducing taxes on the rich, just as those who are poor have no moral justification to argue for raising taxes on the rich.  Such positions are merely self-interested.  Therefore, a useful thought experiment is to put yourself in what Rawls calls the “Original Position”, at the beginning of the World, before places have been assigned in the wide distribution of incomes and well-being.  That is, suppose resources are limited, and that the world will inevitably have a distribution of different human abilities and disabilities.  You don’t yet know your IQ, or whether you will have any particular talents in music, sports, the arts, or management.  Our job in this “original position” is to write a constitution, a set of rules for government and human interaction.

The purpose of this thought experiment is to try to strip away self-interest and think about how rules “ought” to be designed.  And then, Rawls’ second idea is about what any of us would likely decide to do in such a position.  He argues that the only natural choice, indeed the only logical choice, is to be extremely risk averse.  We are not talking about twenty bucks you might lose at the Casino, where risk is fun.  Instead, we are talking about your entire life’s prospects, where risk is not fun.  It must be great to be Brad Pitt, but what if you end up with little talent or ability.  You could end up homeless, or worse.   Given that risk, he argues, one should design the rules such that society would take good care of those who are disadvantaged, unlucky, or disabled.  You might well be the person on the bottom of the totem pole.

His treatise, called “A Theory of Justice” is 600 pages, so I haven’t even read it all!  So I won’t try to explain all the reasoning, but the interesting point is the connection between risk aversion and redistribution.  Rawls himself is extremely risk averse, saying we ought to maximize the welfare of the poorest person with the minimum income – the “maximin” strategy.  That does not mean perfect equality, as he points out that the poorest person’s welfare might be improved by giving the most talented individuals plenty of incentive to work hard and invent new technology that generates plenty of profits, market success, and economic growth.  But cutting the tax rate on the rich is only justified for Rawls if that really does improve the welfare of the poorest.

Well, out of space for today, so I’ll save the other justifications for next time.  But in case you don’t like the justifications of Rawls, those other justifications (#2 through #4) are completely different!

What is “Sustainability”?

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, Finance, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Don Fullerton on May 4, 2012

My own research area is environmental and natural resource economics, which others often call “sustainability”.  That’s actually embarrassing, because I don’t know what it means.  For a renewable resource like timber, it seems pretty easy:  you just plant trees, let them grow, cut them down, and then plant trees again.  For a nonrenewable resource like oil, it’s impossible: once a barrel of oil is consumed, it’s gone forever.  The only way to make oil “sustainable” is not to use it, which does not make any sense, because oil has no value at all if it can’t be used.

So, sustainability is either obvious or impossible.  The concept seems to be of no use whatever.  So I turn to people smarter than me, to get some answers.  By “smarter than me”, in this case, I mean (1.) Nobel-Prize winning economist Robert Solow, and (2.) whoever writes for Wikipedia.

Way back in 1991, Robert Solow wrote “Sustainability: An Economist’s Perspective”, in which he says:  “It is very hard to be against sustainability. In fact, the less you know about it, the better it sounds.”   He says he has seen various definitions, but they all turn out to be vague.  So his essay is an attempt to make it more precise.  “Pretty clearly the notion of sustainability is about … a moral obligation that we are supposed to have for future generations.”   But you can’t be morally obligated to do something that is not feasible!  He notes UNESCO’s definition:  “… every generation should leave water, air, and soil resources as pure and unpolluted as when it came on earth.”   But taken literally, that injunction “would mean to make no use of mineral resources; it would mean to do no permanent construction, … build no roads, build no dams, build no piers.”  That is neither feasible nor desirable!

Instead, he suggests that sustainability might be both feasible and desirable if it is defined as “an obligation to conduct ourselves so that we leave to the future the option or the capacity to be as well off as we are.”   In the final analysis, what that means is that we don’t necessarily have to leave all the oil in the ground, if we leave something else of equal or greater value, some other investment that can be used by future generations to produce and consume as we do, and which they can leave to other generations after them.  It is a holistic concept, both simple and operational.  We only need to add the value of all assets, subtract all liabilities, and make sure that the net wealth we bequeath is not less than we inherited. 

We can use oil, but we should not simultaneously be running huge government budget deficits that reduce the net wealth left to our children and their children.  The measure of “net wealth” should include the value of ecosystems, fresh water supplies, biodiversity, and oil, as well as productive farmland, infrastructure, machinery, and other productive assets.   All those values are extremely difficult to measure, but at least the concept is clear.

Has that message been adopted since 1991?  It certainly does not seem to be part of the thinking of the U.S. Congress and the rest of our political system.   What are they using for guidance?

Wikipedia says  “Sustainability is the capacity to endure. For humans, sustainability is the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of stewardship, the responsible management of resource use.”  Okay, well, that’s still pretty vague, by Solow’s standards.  Let’s see if they make it more specific: “In ecology, sustainability describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time, a necessary precondition for the well-being of humans and other organisms. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems.”

I’m sorry, that kind of specificity does not make it more operational.   They haven’t read Solow.  In fact, the whole entry seems to read like it is intended to maximize the number of times it can link to other Wikipedia entries!

“Moving towards sustainability is also a social challenge that entails, among other factors, international and national law, urban planning and transport, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism. Ways of living more sustainably can take many forms from controlling living conditions (e.g., ecovillages, eco-municipalities and sustainable cities), to reappraising work practices (e.g., using permaculture, green building, sustainable agriculture), or developing new technologies that reduce the consumption of resources.”

Actually, the only phrase in the whole entry that really struck me was “more sustainably.”  Now, I REALLY do not know that THAT means.  Our current trajectory is either sustainable, or it’s not!  If future generations can live forever, how can they live longer than that?  And if not, well, …