September 27, 2006
The left is using statistics on income inequality to anchor their arguments on the appalling state of our political system. A few of the many arguments go something like this: 1) Their is no inclusive political dialog; "the [insert group] are left out" and it is getting worse. Proof: Increasing income inequality. 2) Our elites are "more untethered" than every before. Proof: Increasing income inequality. 3) The current political "regime" in power is pro-elite and cares little about the poor. Proof: Increasing income inequality. And so on.
Do the statistics support the many versions of the argument? There are four complications. First, there is no good data on what we really want to measure, pure wealth. What we want is a calculation of total wealth and statistics on how total wealth is distributed. We don't have it. Income data is a poor substitute for pure wealth data. We use it because we have data on income from tax records. Income data includes salary, dividends, and gains from the sale of assets but does not include the value of held assets. (It may understate the position of those in the top bracket.) It also does not include illegal income (drugs or cash payments to undocumented workers) or shadow market income (trading assets and services). (It may understate the position of those in all brackets to varying degrees.) Most agree, however, that, given the data problems, the amount of wealth has 1) grown and 2) the distribution of the gains has not been even. A disproportionate amount of the gains is enjoyed by the those in the top brackets. Second, there is a debate on causes on the "uneven distribution." This is the blame game. Some theories include blaming a loss of jobs due to outsourcing (shown to be false), immigration, decline of unions, inadequate public policies for the working poor, the greed of executives and so on. Data mining explodes some of these. For example, middle class income has increased not decreased in the 90s, outsourcing has cost us only a small number of jobs, worker income as a percentage of the GDP is about the same as it has always been, and those who seem to have gained the least are not union workers but upper middle class white collar types who were never unionized. More important is data showing that the income gains are concentrated among those with high level skills (smart folks) and in only five counties (that feature the high tech types). Those who gained may have "earned it" and we should not worry so much. This argument leads to position three: there is statistical evidence that there is significant opportunity to move among the brackets. The membership in any one bracket is fluid to some extent. There is less social "lock in" that there has been in the past and, for that matter, in any large society in world history that is not based on warfare (taking stuff my force). There is .... opportunity. This leads to position four: The analogy that explains the wealth increase distribution is the modern hedge fund. One fellow, the manager, puts in a little and takes 20% of the gains while the passive investors put up 95% and take 80% of the gains. If the hedge works and everyone benefits, their in an increase in wealth inequality -- the manager makes huge amounts and the investors make plenty as well. The investors do not worry about the new unequal distribution of the new gains; their gains are sufficient to make them happy. Worrying about an equal distribution would kill the incentives that create the gains in the first place; the managers take huge risks and sweat bullets to get the fund to work. In other words, the economic system that makes everyone marginally better off over time may depend on rewarding some folks (who run the engine that drags the train) with disproportionte returns. If the analogy is correct we need to look at the position of those in the lower brackets. Are they better off even if they are in the lower bracket? This kind of analysis makes academics very uncomfortable and many will not do it. The analysis looks mercenary and cruel. If someone in the lowest bracket has a beat up but functional old car are they better off than those in the 80s who generally did not have any cars? Moreover, the purchasing power of the lower bracket is affected by ... well ... WalMart. Quality food and serviceable clothes may be cheaper (whether purchased or donated). This kind of analysis opens one to snipping by the left ("you are rich and don't know or understand"; "poor should have [health care, or...] and don't how can you say they are better off".... and so on) and there is no good answer. Those in the lower bracket will have less than we are comfortable with. At issue is, without the incentive struture that we have, would they have even less?
In any event, this debate is important. The income inequality claim fuels current political claims for dramatic social changes. The left believes the phenomena is a debate stopper. My point is that the argument on the data needs to be joined.
J&J Sues Boston Scientific Over Guidant Deal
Johnson & Johnson lost a bidding war for Guidant to Boston Scientific. Boston Scientific brought in Abbott Labs to buy parts of Guidant so that BS could close the deal. J&J argues that Abbott Labs would not have paid for the parts had not Guidant given Abbott confidential information that the J&J agreement with Guidant prohibited. This litigation over the application of a "no-shop" clause is unique and M&A lawyers countrywide will be watching the outcome. We are used to litigation over "no-shop" clauses as claims of breaches of duty by the target firm to its own shareholders (one of whom is a losing bidder who will not bid because such a clause is in place) but not by losing bidders who have the benefit of the clause and lose anyway.
September 24, 2006
The Enron Loophole
Gretchen Morgenson has called for the elimination of the Enron loophole in the CFTC regulation of hedge fund traders. Under the loophole, the energy traders in the over-the-counter markets do not have to file "large trader reports" with the CFTC, only traders in the exchanges (such as the NY Merc) do. The problems at Amaranth Advisors are apparently an argument for closing the loophole. Consider the argument: There is no claim that had Amaranth Advisors made the required filings that the CFTC or anyone else for that matter would have stopped their trading practices. Indeed, there is only minimal understanding as to what the "large trader reports" require and who gets them and what they do with them. Surely we are past an "every failure demands new laws" mentality.