Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Still working on it...

I have been struggling to a) grasp the implications of the asset and income inequality in the US, b) decide if it really is a bad thing and if so how bad and c) find some mitigation for it, if needed.  This same effort is being duplicated by much better brains than mine and one who sheds a great deal of light is Tyler Cowen:
There’s a second reason why the financial sector abets income inequality: the “moving first” issue. Let’s say that some news hits the market and that traders interpret this news at different speeds. One trader figures out what the news means in a second, while the other traders require five seconds. Still other traders require an entire day or maybe even a month to figure things out. The early traders earn the extra money. They buy the proper assets early, at the lower prices, and reap most of the gains when the other, later traders pile on. Similarly, if you buy into a successful tech company in the early stages, you are “moving first” in a very effective manner, and you will capture most of the gains if that company hits it big.
The moving-first phenomenon sums to a “winner-take-all” market. Only some relatively small number of traders, sometimes just one trader, can be first. Those who are first will make far more than those who are fourth or fifth. This difference will persist, even if those who are fourth come pretty close to competing with those who are first. In this context, first is first and it doesn’t matter much whether those who come in fourth pile on a month, a minute or a fraction of a second later. Those who bought (or sold, as the case may be) first have captured and locked in most of the available gains. Since gains are concentrated among the early winners, and the closeness of the runner-ups doesn’t so much matter for income distribution, asset-market trading thus encourages the ongoing concentration of wealth. Many investors make lots of mistakes and lose their money, but each year brings a new bunch of projects that can turn the early investors and traders into very wealthy individuals.
These two features of the problem—“going short on volatility” and “getting there first”—are related. Let’s say that Goldman Sachs regularly secures a lot of the best and quickest trades, whether because of its quality analysis, inside connections or high-frequency trading apparatus (it has all three). It builds up a treasure chest of profits and continues to hire very sharp traders and to receive valuable information. Those profits allow it to make “short on volatility” bets faster than anyone else, because if it messes up, it still has a large enough buffer to pad losses. This increases the odds that Goldman will repeatedly pull in spectacular profits.
Still, every now and then Goldman will go bust, or would go bust if not for government bailouts. But the odds are in any given year that it won’t because of the advantages it and other big banks have. It’s as if the major banks have tapped a hole in the social till and they are drinking from it with a straw. In any given year, this practice may seem tolerable—didn’t the bank earn the money fair and square by a series of fairly normal looking trades? Yet over time this situation will corrode productivity, because what the banks do bears almost no resemblance to a process of getting capital into the hands of those who can make most efficient use of it. And it leads to periodic financial explosions. That, in short, is the real problem of income inequality we face today. It’s what causes the inequality at the very top of the earning pyramid that has dangerous implications for the economy as a whole. [More]
The whole essay is a must-read for farmers, but the section I excerpted is rapidly forming the backbone of my outlook. "First movers" will reap disproportionate rewards and grain farming is heading for even greater levels of inequality partly as a result.

In fact, I expect "winner-take-all" to characterize my corner of the economy just like it does finance.  I'll outline my reasoning later after this weeks travel.

But the close of Cowen's essay was pretty dispiriting.

A third view is perhaps most likely. We probably don’t have any solution to the hazards created by our financial sector, not because plutocrats are preventing our political system from adopting appropriate remedies, but because we don’t know what those remedies are. Yet neither is another crisis immediately upon us. The underlying dynamic favors excess risk-taking, but banks at the current moment fear the scrutiny of regulators and the public and so are playing it fairly safe. They are sitting on money rather than lending it out. The biggest risk today is how few parties will take risks, and, in part, the caution of banks is driving our current protracted economic slowdown. According to this view, the long run will bring another financial crisis once moods pick up and external scrutiny weakens, but that day of reckoning is still some ways off.
Is the overall picture a shame? Yes. Is it distorting resource distribution and productivity in the meantime? Yes. Will it again bring our economy to its knees? Probably. Maybe that’s simply the price of modern society. Income inequality will likely continue to rise and we will search in vain for the appropriate political remedies for our underlying problems.  
And I can't find any arguments against it.  Other opinions here and here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On the blog and in the news; http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/46a16c0c-1841-11e0-88c9-00144feab49a.html#axzz1A76qvSui

Banks are historically tied to the trust and integrity of the dollar. Today it seems as though they are the new venture capitalists.