Archive for the ‘finance’ Category
This article by Eoin Clark makes the case that the total tax evaded under New Labour is – within ten percent or so – the amount by which the national debt – the accumulated fiscal deficit – grew over the period.
Therefore, the argument goes, if there had been no tax evasion, there would now be no additional debt, to which we must of course add a giant CETERIS PARIBUS, and an even larger reminder that they never are. Nevertheless, some part of the principle still applies – if more people paid more taxes, the deficits and the debt would have been smaller.
So what are we to do about it? The answer, “deal with tax evasion”, is far too glib. People evade taxes because the tax system is full of loopholes. You cannot simply close them without triggering many unintended consequences….. and it is a fair bet that every loophole is there because some particular lobby group lobbied for for it. Some of them even you will agree with. There has to be a clear exposition of how to deal with tax evasion.
There needs to be a total rethink on what taxes are for, why we pay them, and how we should collect them. Fair taxes, transparently levied on a concrete, objectively-determined base, to pay for an appropriate set of communal services.
Tax avoidance and evasion are possible because we have a broken tax system: one in which tax advisers prosper. Simplify taxation, so everyone pays everything that they should and tax advisers turn their talents to something productive rather than leeching
Note that I am not saying we should outlaw tax advisers. We should just stop having a tax system in which they can prosper by playing off evasion and avoidance – in which there is no demand for tax advisers. The existent of a tax advice profession is a strong indicator of a tax system that is too complex.
Douglas Carswell MP discusses here the problem presented by a self-serving Civil Service.
Institutional self-preservation is a universal amongst institutions, and so needs to be discounted in any policies emanating from them. Every quangocrat will explain, with good reason, why their particular quango actually does a good job, and if it didn’t exercise its responsibilities the world would probably collapse. And civil servants like to think that they do a better job than politicians of running the country – which on the whole, they do: since a politician can always be reshuffled or voted out of his job (the former being much more likely), policy knowledge stays in the Civil Service. Mostly.
But in some departments, it doesn’t – particularly the Treasury. I picked up some insight into this while giving someone who used to work in the Treasury’s knowledge-management function a lift back to London from a weekend music festival (not quite a man in the pub… ). KM, or knowledge management, is yet another activity focused on the active dehumanisation of work – like “human resources” itself. Most organisations have big repositories of knowledge in the heads of the people who work there – it’s why it makes sense for knowledge-based professions, like the law, to be run as partnerships rather than joint-stock companies. But this makes the organisation vulnerable to people leaving, so the aim of KM is to get the knowledge out of the heads of the professionals into some sort of filing system. This way, you don’t need the long formal and informal apprenticeships and you don’t rely on people who know stuff, because the stuff is in the system not with the people. Anyway, you can see why organisations invest in KM (and why the big law firms have been big investors in it, because all the big law firms’ partners are hoping that soon they will be able to incorporate, float and make gazillions in an IPO), but I can’t help feeling that they would do better to invest in people.
Apparently, though, the Treasury has a serious need for efficient KM, because people are always leaving. The Treasury recruits bright young graduates in the milk-round from the top universities, and fast-tracks them but still on Civil Service pay scales. As soon as they’ve done a year or two, they tout their CVs round the City and are snapped up by the banks for much more money. There are a few senior managers who have served their time and risen to the level of their incompetence, but no marzipan layer of bright, experienced and ambitious people (because they are all earning much more than the Treasury could pay). And it has been known for Treasury ministers to bawl out junior civil servants who produce failed old policies as new solutions – in other words, the Minister knows more about the brief than the civil servant.
Ideally, the Treasury should sort out its recruitment and retention, but how? While the banks can still pay so much money, recruitment is always going to go in their direction. Politically, it would be impossible to pay middle-ranking Treasury civil servants bankers’ bonuses and bankers’ salaries, so it must fall back to KM. But surely, all that internal Treasury knowledge is actually ours? So we should be able to read it, shouldn’t we?
I’ve blogged earlier about Goldman Sachs, Paulson, Abacus and Fabrice Tourre; today, Goldman has done a deal with the SEC to clear the slate.
And a very good deal it was too, for Goldman.
The more you look at what Goldman were doing with the Abacus instrument, the clearer it is that it was fraud. But it was what everyone else in the market was doing. Goldman just did it – and does it – better than anyone else. They are all crooks, and Goldman Sachs is the master-crook.
But the SEC was the referee. It called a foul, and it has awarded an indirect free kick against Goldman. Not even a yellow card. Objectively, what they did was full red-card stuff, but everyone else was at it, and the SEC had been turning a blind eye. If it red carded everyone, the whole game would be off.
At the same time, Obama has got his reforms through Congress. Will they be anything like strong enough? Of course not. The clue is in the length of the legislation. The necessary reforms could be done in one page – perhaps even one line:
“if you do not publish and tell the counterparty everything that you do, should or could know about the deal in question, it is void”.
An interesting late-night rant last night with my lodger, who works for the Financial Services Authority, about transparency. My points, as a transparency extremist, were my usual ones:
- opacity is a factor in all cases of financial fraud / irregularity;
- therefore, as a regulator, the FSA should always be pressing for greater transparency;
- The regulator should never encourage or require secrecy;
- technology allows us to be much more transparent than ever before;
- the regulator should require information to be published as machine-readable realtime datastreams;
His point was that sometimes, a little information is worse than none at all. The example he gave was the FSA risk models (which it uses to asses compliance). Should it publish them? It wants to be transparent, but if it does, the organisations they are trying to regulate will probably (ok, almost certainly) game the system so as to pass their risk models while continuing to behave riskily. Therefore it keeps them secret.
This isn’t satisfactory; besides, there’s a natural justice argument which says that the regulatees have a right to know the rules against which they are being regulated. My answer was that they, the regulator, should be regulating by making publication of key data a condition of regulation. If this was all they did, it would still make the market much safer. Again, he said that customers aren’t interested in how much Tier 1 or whatever capital an organisation has; which is true. But they are interested in knowing that it’s not going to go titsup while it’s holding their money. If the organisations being regulated were required to publish, in real-time, their financial positions, in a machine-readable, standard format, plenty of people would write competing smart algorithms to mine the data. If it’s only published deep in the pdf of the annual report, six months after the year end, no-one will bother. We’d started our discussion talking about the financial aggregators (comparethemarket.com, confused.com etc) . I’m suspicious of these, because their funding model is opaque and commission-based, and they aren’t comprehensive so they don’t do what they say on the tin. You will never find a quote from Direct Line on confused.com, so confused.com won’t necessarily give you the best deal, just as you won’t find a quote from Ryanair on Opodo or Expedia. But a financial aggregator using a different business model (commission is almost always the wrong incentive) could very usefully assess the financial stability of its members if they were to provide it with a feed of the necessary information in electronic form.
It’s simple. Perfect competion demands perfect information; there isn’t perfect information, so the market is not perfectly competitive. But technology frees information, so it should be used to make the market more competitive.
Continuing my ramblings about commission, I refer you, gentle reader, to my earlier posts about Bernard Madoff.
Madoff operated a classic Ponzi scheme, and in my earlier post I postulated that the market as a whole had done the same to its participants, largely as a result of commission.
A classic, or simple, Ponzi scheme, is an investment product producing above-average returns to early adopters by siphoning-off the deposits made by new investors. So long as the scheme continues to attract new depositors, investors get a good return; but it is as fraudulent as a chain letter. It is, of course, exactly the same thing, but less honest. At least with a chain letter you are told how it works, but the inexorable arithmetic is the same in both cases. Madoff made his scheme last for so long by providing only slightly above-average returns, which both made it seem more credible and extended the time-scale of the inexorable arithmetic.
I think that in addition to the simple Ponzi scheme used by Ponzi, Madoff and many others, it is possible to conceive of complex Ponzi schemes. A simple scheme is implemented in a self-contained financial instrument, whereas a complex scheme does the same thing using multiple instruments where the value flows between them; but from the outside, the effect is the same. A complex scheme could then be either contrived or emergent. In a contrived complex Ponzi scheme, the operators of the various instruments deliberately set out to achieve the Ponzi effect and design them to do so. I think that some of the housing/buy-to-let/mortgage frauds may be contrived complex Ponzi schemes; estate agents, solicitors and mortgage brokers are typically implicated in a conspiracy to defraud.
Much more disturbing, however, is the case of the emergent complex Ponzi scheme. In this case, it is the interaction of various financial instruments, each of which is itself entirely legitimate, which leads to a Ponzi effect. One such instrument might be broker’s commission. Indeed, I suspect it is the main villain in my very strong hunch that most of the financial services sector has been operating for much of the last quarter-century as a very large emergent complex Ponzi scheme. Not a deliberate, criminal enterprise, but one nevertheless where the operators have benefitted enormously as punters have lost. I suspect that it is a property of commission-based sales in savings products that a complex emergent Ponzi scheme is inevitable.
Perhaps there is evidence for this, but I think that first I need an adequate algebra to make the case and then to derive relations which can be tested against available metrics.
Time to give those “poor” MPs a rest, and consider another issue which might be germane.
Most insurance-based savings products, such as pensions and endowments, are sold on commission. There is a saying in the insurance industry that insurance is never bought, it is always sold.
In the recession of the early 1980s, and again in the early 1990s, commission-based sales jobs were always on offer. You could earn a lot of money selling life-insurance, but most people I knew were never so desperate as to sacrifice their integrity that far. The jobs were entitled “financial adviser”, but the only skill the “adviser” needed was rote-perfect knowledge of the policy sales pitch. The jobs were sales jobs, pure and simple: If you didn’t sell any policies, you didn’t make any money, and to the punter, commission was the hidden cost of “free” financial advice. “Advisers” were forbidden to disclose the level of their commission; so since solicitors were required by the Law Society fully to account to their clients for any commission they were paid on products bought on their behalf, many life companies refused to sell through solicitors.
Some time before that, the cosy City club of life insurers had an agreement about the maximum levels of commission they would pay their sales people. Today, such an agreement would be unlawful; but back then, it was binding on its members. However, a small City merchant bank, Hambros, set up a life department and didn’t join the life insurer’s club. After all, Hambros were already a member of the Accepting Houses Committee (which had nothing to do with life insurance, but was another cosy City club). Hambros decided to ignore the maximum commission rule, and pay its sales team much higher commission than anyone else. This was a very successful strategy, and Hambro Life quickly became bigger than its parent. Hambro Life eventually became Allied Dunbar. The interesting thing about this is that Hambro Life grew its market share only by paying its sales staff high commission. It had nothing to do with the benefits to policy holders.
All the major life offices paid commission to their sales staff. The main exception was the Equitable Life, whose sales staff were paid salaries. Unfortunately, shorn of the incentive of commission, they were less succesful, so the Equitable resorted to sweetening its sales offering with a promise (a guaranteed annuity rate) that would eventually destroy the organisation.
The lack of transparency in commissions led to many abuses. Various systems of regulation were imposed over the years, with the life offices fiercely resisting commission disclosure for years. Now, however, commission must in most cases be disclosed. There is no such thing as free financial advice, and independent financial advisers started charging fees, offsetting them against the commission they received.
One of the biggest problems emerged with endowment mortgages. Endowment mortgages used to be quite a good idea, for tax reasons. There used to be a 50% tax credit for life insurance premiums, and there was also full tax relief on mortgage interest. So if you took out an interest only loan, the interest is payable in full for the full period of the loan, and the tax relief would be continuing, whereas with a repayment mortgage the interest (and thus the tax relief) reduces over time. Tie in an endowment policy, with its 50% tax relief, to deal with the principal of the loan, and you had a product that, in theory at least, could save the borrower some tax. However, tax credit on life insurance premiums was abolished in the 1980s, and mortgage interest tax relief was curtailed (it, too, is now abolished). This made endowment mortgages much less efficient; but they were entrenched. Estate agents were paid commission for arranging endowment mortgages; lenders regarded the additional security of a life policy as justification for increasing the loan-to-value ratio beyond the 85% with which they had been comfortable in the past, and everyone benefitted, except of course those who bought such policies. It quickly became apparent that they were never going to pay out the full value, and it was clear that most endowment mortgages sold after about 1988 were mis-sold. Many of the brokers who mis-sold them were commission-only agents. My partner and I were one of many victims of this; we received no compensation because we had changed the mortgage to a repayment basis and weren’t going to suffer unduly. Apart from having a life policy that we had bought on the firm assurance (an express promise from the long-vanished broker) that on maturity it would pay out at least the full value of the mortgage, and is worth less than we have paid for it in total. The endowment fiasco was certainly a prime example of commission-based sales causing market failure.
Endowments and pension products are basically the same thing. Commission disclosure seems to me to be a sine qua non for any commission-based sales, but I would say that wouldn’t I, and it’s not really enough. After all, when I bought my duff endowment mortgage, I knew the broker was going to get most of my first year’s endowment contributions, even if I didn’t know exactly how much; I still bought the policy. The problem is that it inevitably distorts “best advice”. There are rules about what financial advice advisers can give, which de-skills them and reduces a complex subject to a series of regulated tick-boxes. It’s going to be hard for a broker or adviser to advise against buying a savings product, even if objectively such advice is the best for the client concerned, when to do so means that he will not be paid. It demands an unrealistic expectation of the adviser’s integrity.
Commission creates a short-term/long-term mismatch, and this is really where it goes wrong. I’m talking here just about long-term regular savings contracts like endowments and money-purchase pensions, but we will see how the problem extends to all commission based sales, including vanilla stockbroking. As a saver, my interests lie in the long-term performance of the product, whereas my adviser’s interests like in the attached commission. Twenty-five years’ time matters for me, not for the broker. So a first step could be to require an alignment of interests. If my broker is to get commission, it should be paid in the form of units in the fund backing the policy he sells me. If he needs money now, he can borrow it at commercial rates against the security of those units, just as I have done for my mortgage.
Of course, I should be doing my tax return.
Instead, I’m thinking about tax in the abstract.
It’s no secret that our tax system is broken. Broken here, in the UK, and just as badly broken in most other countries of the world. The strongest evidence is that in most countries, despite tax systems that are intended to be progressive, the rich pay proportionately less tax than the poor. They manage to do so because tax systems are too complicated, so that at high tax levels (I didn’t say the rich pay less tax than the poor, although, in aggregate, they do, because there are fewer of them, but that they pay proportionately less) it is worth paying a tax professional to reduce one’s tax bill.
The viability of professional tax-reducers is a strong indicator of an over-complex tax system. The more numerous and successful the tax profession in a broadly compliant economy, the more complex the tax system.
So why is tax so complicated? I think the main reason is that we tax the wrong thing. Tax is levied (mainly) on income, which seems – at first sight - eminently fair. But what is income? If you get paid a salary, or dividends from savings, it’s easy to see – it’s the big number on your payslip. But if you run any sort of business, you can deduct your business expenses. What’s allowable? This is the first area of fertile ground for a tax professional.
Now, what about capital gains? So we have to invent a whole new tax to cover capital gains, because capital gains aren’t income. Depending on whether capital gains tax is more or less than income tax, tax professionals can be called in to classify every receipt into its most favourable category.
Instead, in my opinion, we should be taxing cash flow. Cash flow is clear and easy to define and to measure. There’s no need to distinguish cash realised from disposal of an asset from cash in a paycheque. For individuals, the only deduction would be cash invested, either as equity in a corporation, or into bonds. In this radical new world, because it is radical, corporations wouldn’t pay any tax at all: but, instead, would be required to be *totally* transparent. All money leaving the corporation (whether as salaries, dividends, bond interest, or on the sale of stock) would be taxable.
An investment vehicle that consistely produces above-average returns without fraud is as likely as a perpetual-motion machine.
Madoff’s scam, his fraudulent investment vehicle, was a classic pyramid scheme, an illegal chain letter on a massive scale. Chain letters at least are transparent: if you are dumb enough to send money to the person at the top of the list, you know it’s going straight into his pocket.
So, as commorancy says in the comment to my earlier post, how many more frauds are out there? How many more frauds have the regulators missed? I doubt that there are many that are quite so blatant as Madoff’s. His was conspicuously lacking in transparency; he didn’t use external brokers, and his auditors were a two-bit firm from out of town. What’s scandalous about Madoff is that so many well-paid investment managers put their clients’ money into it when all the signs were there that it was a bad one. Nicola Horlick has lost £10m of her clients’ money, and she’s blaming the SEC. It’s true that the SEC seem to have been particularly lax here, but regulators don’t have unlimited resources. Ms Horlick is supposed to be smart: it’s her job to check, and she shouldn’t have to rely on the regulator to do her job for her. She and dozens of other similarly over-paid parasites working for Santander (which has lost £3 bn), HSBC (£1bn) and others were woefully negligent ; and if I were one of her clients, I would be consulting m’learned friends.
But that doesn’t mean to say that there isn’t a bigger problem, to which I have alluded in my earlier post. Lots of people managing other people’s money – ultimately, most of it is our pensions and savings, don’t forget – have been paid a lot of money, because they have led us to believe that they are smart. They believed it themselves, and lots of them are indeed smart. They want to believe that they were smart enough to make above-average returns for us all by making smart decisions in the market, and for a long time they have done so. Here’s how.
Now, Madoff’s above-average returns were made by paying out new investors’ deposits as dividends to existing investors. This is an old, and pervasive trick in the market; and while Madoff’s scheme was fraudulent and illegal, a lot goes on that’s legal. Go into a bank branch; you’ll queue for hours to cash a cheque, but in the lobby will be a couple of people with no queue. They can’t do anything useful for you, but they can sell you an investment product. The bank gets a fat commission from selling the savings plan or pension product. That commission comes out of the first year’s deposits you make towards your pension. It goes to the bank’s bottom line – it’s much more profitable selling investment products than cashing cheques. So profitable, in fact, that the bank can afford to cash cheques free. Now, the fund manager whom you are paying to look after the money in your pension fund looks at the banks’ financial statements and sees that they are profitable. So she decides to put your money into bank stocks. You get some of the returns, which are earned from the commission paid by new depositors.
Spot the basic difference between Madoff’s illegal scam and the legal one which has been the financial services sector since 1986?
No, me neither.
We should stop being so surprised. They have already revealed themselves to be monumentally stupid, but the weekend’s announcements from many major banks that they are heavily exposed to the Madoff investment fund still leaves me open-jawed with astonishment.
How much money were these guys paid? To invest their clients’ money? In something which was so obviously a fraud? What value exactly have they been adding all these years?
In physics, there are many different fundamental laws. If an experiment, or a theory, appears to break any of these laws, it is subjected to intense scrutiny, and so far all such cases have been shown to be wrong. Two of those fundamental laws are the first and second laws of thermodynamics, often expressed respectively as “you can’t get something for nothing”, and “you get damn all for sixpence”. Now these laws also apply in finance. I believe, though I do not think I have the maths to prove, that the same laws apply identically in finance. But never mind the maths: there is another well-known financial law, which is probably another expression of the second law of thermodynamics, and it goes like this -
“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is”.
Guess what. The Madoff fund looked too good to be true, and lots of people for many years have been saying so. Quite a lot of smart people steered clear of it, and told others to steer clear of it, for almost exactly that reason. (The other reason given was that it was conspicuously lacking in transparency. If it had been transparent, its fraudulent nature would have been revealed much earlier).
What Madoff did, cleverly, was to produce returns which were on the almost-believable side of unbelievable. He didn’t promise his clients 50 or 100% returns on Treasury Bills, just 10-12%. On a lucky day, an average trader might make those returns for real – but no real traders get lucky and stay lucky that long. The financial sector likes to believe that there’s less luck and more skill in investment, because if it’s skill, and not luck, it justifies how much they all get paid. They wanted to believe that Madoff really was that smart, because they wanted to believe that they were all smart.
We’ve come to see over the last few weeks and months that mostly, they weren’t that smart, and the Madoff fund just shows how dumb many of them can have been. Britain’s got a pin-up poster girl of finance, a lovely-sounding lady called Nicola Horlick, aka “superwoman” because she has brought up five children while earning millions as a fund manager. She was on the radio yesterday morning confessing that she’d put some of her clients’ money into the Madoff fund and was exposed to the tune of a few million here or there, and – get this – because she thought the returns were believable.
What’s that quote from Lincoln again? About fooling people? He said it in relation to democracy, but it’s just as applicable to finance.