Posts filed under ‘Financial Markets’

Top Posts of 2013

| Peter Klein |

It’s been another fine year at O&M. 2013 witnessed 129 new posts, 197,531 page views, and 114,921 unique visitors. Here are the most popular posts published in 2013. Read them again for entertainment and enlightenment!

  1. Rise of the Three-Essays Dissertation
  2. Ronald Coase (1910-2013)
  3. Sequestration and the Death of Mainstream Journalism
  4. Post AoM: Are Management Types Too Spoiled?
  5. Nobel Miscellany
  6. The Myth of the Flattening Hierarchy
  7. Climate Science and the Scientific Method
  8. Bulletin: Brian Arthur Has Just Invented Austrian Economics
  9. Solution to the Economic Crisis? More Keynes and Marx
  10. Armen Alchian (1914-2013)
  11. My Response to Shane (2012)
  12. Your Favorite Books, in One Sentence
  13. Does Boeing Have an Outsourcing Problem?
  14. Doug Allen on Alchian
  15. New Paper on Austrian Capital Theory
  16. Hard and Soft Obscurantism
  17. Mokyr on Cultural Entrepreneurship
  18. Microfoundations Conference in Copenhagen, June 13-15, 2014
  19. On Academic Writing
  20. Steven Klepper
  21. Entrepreneurship and Knowledge
  22. Easy Money and Asset Bubbles
  23. Blind Review Blindly Reviewing Itself
  24. Reflections on the Explanation of Heterogeneous Firm Capability
  25. Do Markets “React” to Economic News?

Thanks to all of you for your patronage, commentary, and support!

31 December 2013 at 7:55 am 1 comment

Pirrong Responds

| Peter Klein |

Here’s Craig’s initial (and hopefully not final!) response to David Kocieniewski’s “farrago of dishonesty, insinuations, innuendo, and ad hominem.” As expected, Craig pulls no punches. Kocieniewski’s failure to point out that most of Craig’s professional work argues against the interests of his alleged paymasters “betrays his utter unprofessionalism and bias, and is particularly emblematic of the shockingly shoddy excuse for journalism that his piece represents.” The insinuation that Craig’s paid work deals with speculation, when none of it does, is “misleading, deceptive, and plainly libelous.” The Times piece is riddled with factual and chronological errors, deliberately inserted to score political points: “dishonest to its very core because of its egregiously biased omission of some essential material facts and deceptive presentation of others.” I can’t say I’m surprised; this is mainstream journalism, after all.

Craig also provides this roundup of posts defending him and Scott Irwin, including ours.

30 December 2013 at 11:30 pm Leave a comment

NYT Smears Craig Pirrong, Scott Irwin

| Peter Klein |

The NYT runs a hatchet-job on the brilliant financial economist (and former O&M guest blogger) Craig Pirrong. Apparently Craig not only does academic research on commodity markets and participates in public policy debates about commodity-market regulation but also — gasp! — is a paid consultant for commodity-trading firms. Without detailing any specific impropriety, the Times implies that Craig is little more than a shill for big evil corporations, or something. “Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward,” screams the Times headline.

Thousands of economists are paid consultants for the Federal Reserve System, World Bank, IMF, USDA, and virtually every government agency around the world, but you will never hear the Times suggest that their research or public advocacy could in the slightest way be compromised by these ties. As Larry White and E. C. Pasour have pointed out, the academic work funded by government agencies nearly always — surprise! — comes out in defense of those agencies, their missions, and their generous contributions to the public good. Did the prospect of heading the world’s most powerful economic planing agency influence Janet Yellen’s public testimony, her research, or her leadership at the San Francisco Fed? Can you imagine a Times headline, “Academics Who Defend Fed Reap Reward”?

Scott Irwin, a distinguished agricultural economist at the University of Illinois is also targeted. Again, the message is clear. If you oppose the Times’s editorial position on regulation (or any other issue), you are compromised by financial or other ties. If you support the Times’s position, you are a scholar or public figure of great integrity.

Update: See also Felix Salmon’s excellent summary of the “non-scandal.”

28 December 2013 at 4:15 pm 9 comments

Business Groups in the US

| Peter Klein |

Diversification continues to be a central issue for strategic management, industrial organization, and corporate finance. There are huge research and practitioner literatures on why firms diversify, how diversification affects financial, operating, and innovative performance, what underlies inter-industry relatedness, how diversification ties into other aspects of firm strategy and organization, whether diversification is driven by regulation or other policy choices, and so on. There are many surveys of these literatures (Lasse and I contributed this one).

Some of the most interesting research deals with the institutional environment. For example, many US corporations were widely diversified in the 1960s and 1970s when the brokerage industry was small and protected by tough legal restrictions on entry, antitrust policy frowned on vertical and horizontal growth (maybe), and a volatile macroeconomic environment encouraged internalization of inter-firm transactions (also maybe). After the brokerage industry was deregulated in 1975, the antitrust environment became more relaxed, and the market for corporate control heated up, many conglomerates were restructured into more efficient, specialized firms. To quote myself:

The investment community in the 1960s has been described as a small, close-knit group wherein competition was minimal and peer influence strong (Bernstein, 1992). As Bhide (1990, p. 76) puts it, “internal capital markets … may well have possessed a significant edge because the external markets were not highly developed. In those days, one’s success on Wall Street reportedly depended far more on personal connections than analytical prowess.” When capital markets became more competitive in the 1970s, the relative importance of internal capital markets fell. “This competitive process has resulted in a significant increase in the ability of our external capital markets to monitor corporate performance and allocate resources” (Bhide, 1990, p. 77). As the cost of external finance has fallen, firms have tended to rely less on internal finance, and thus the value added from internal-capital-market allocation has fallen. . . .

Similarly, corporate refocusing can be explained as a consequence of the rise of takeover by tender offer rather than proxy contest, the emergence of new financial techniques and instruments like leveraged buyouts and high-yield bonds, and the appearance of takeover and breakup specialists like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which themselves performed many functions of the conglomerate headquarters (Williamson, 1992). A related literature looks at the relative importance of internal capital markets in developing economies, where external capital markets are limited (Khanna and Palepu 1999, 2000).

The key reference is to Amar Bhide’s 1990 article “Reversing Corporate Diversification,” which deserves to be better known. But note also the pointer to Khanna and Palepu’s important work on diversified business groups in emerging markets, which has also led to a vibrant empirical literature. The idea there is that weak institutions lead to poorly performing capital and labor markets, leading firms to internalize functions that would otherwise be performed between firms. More generally, firm strategy and organization varies systematically with the institutional environment, both over time and across countries and regions.

Surprisingly, diversified business groups were also common in the US, in the early 20th century, which brings me (finally) to the point of this post. A new NBER paper by Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, and Yishay Yafeh studies these groups and reaches some interesting and provocative conclusions. Check it out:

Business Groups in the United States: A Revised History of Corporate Ownership, Pyramids and Regulation, 1930-1950

Eugene Kandel, Konstantin Kosenko, Randall Morck, Yishay Yafeh
NBER Working Paper No. 19691, December 2013

The extent to which business groups ever existed in the United States and, if they did exist, the reasons for their disappearance are poorly understood. In this paper we use hitherto unexplored historical sources to construct a comprehensive data set to address this issue. We find that (1) business groups, often organized as pyramids, existed at least as early as the turn of the twentieth century and became a common corporate form in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly in public utilities (e.g., electricity, gas and transportation) but also in manufacturing; (2) In contrast with modern business groups in emerging markets that are typically diversified and tightly controlled, many US groups were focused in a single sector and controlled by apex firms with dispersed ownership; (3) The disappearance of US business groups was largely complete only in 1950, about 15 years after the major anti-group policy measures of the mid-1930s; (4) Chronologically, the demise of business groups preceded the emergence of conglomerates in the United States by about two decades and the sharp increase in stock market valuation by about a decade, so that a causal link between these events is hard to establish, although there may well be a connection between them. We conclude that the prevalence of business groups is not inconsistent with high levels of investor protection; that US corporate ownership as we know it today evolved gradually over several decades; and that policy makers should not expect policies that restrict business groups to have an immediate effect on corporate ownership.

12 December 2013 at 11:40 am Leave a comment

Easy Money and Asset Bubbles

| Peter Klein |

Central to the “Austrian” understanding of business cycles is the idea that monetary expansion — in Wicksellian terms, money printing that pushes interest rates below their “natural” levels — leads to overinvestment in long-term, capital-intensive projects and long-lived, durable assets (and underinvestment in other types of projects, hence the more general term “malinvestment”). As one example, Austrians interpret asset price bubbles — such as the US housing price bubble of the 1990s and 2000s, the tech bubble of the 1990s, the farmland bubble that may now be going on — as the result, at least partly, of loose monetary policy coming from the central bank. In contrast, some financial economists, such as Laureate Fama, deny that bubbles exist (or can even be defined), while others, such as Laureate Shiller, see bubbles as endemic but unrelated to government policy, resulting simply from irrationality on the part of market participants.

Michael Bordo and John Landon-Lane have released two new working papers on monetary policy and asset price bubbles, “Does Expansionary Monetary Policy Cause Asset Price Booms; Some Historical and Empirical Evidence,” and “What Explains House Price Booms?: History and Empirical Evidence.” (Both are gated by NBER, unfortunately, but there may be ungated copies floating around.) These are technical, time-series econometrics papers, but in both cases, the conclusions are straightforward: easy money is a main cause of asset price bubbles. Other factors are also important, particularly regarding the recent US housing bubble (I suspect that housing regulation shows up in their residual terms), but the link between monetary policy and bubbles is very clear. To be sure, Bordo and Landon-Lane don’t define easy money in exactly the Austrian-Wicksellian way, which references natural rates (the rates that reflect the time preferences of borrowers and savers), but as interest rates below (or money growth rates above) the targets set by policymakers. Still, the general recognition that bubbles are not random, or endogenous to financial markets, but connected to specific government policies designed to stimulate the economy, is a very important result that will hopefully influence current economic policy debates.

28 October 2013 at 9:40 am 1 comment

Nobel Miscellany

| Peter Klein |

1. I didn’t win.

2. The award is for asset pricing — Gene Fama’s work that underlies the efficient markets hypothesis, Robert Shiller’s contributions to behavioral finance, and Lars Hansen’s development of the Generalized Method of Moments (GMM) regression technique, which is often used in studies of asset prices. (I feel bad for Kenneth French, who could also have won with Fama.)

3. Many people had anticipated a possible Fama-Shiller award, recognizing two people working in the same field but using very different approaches and reaching radically different conclusions, much like the Hayek-Myrdal award of 1974. (Hansen was on the short list for an econometrics award, but not usually bundled with Fama and Shiller.)

4. Fama holds that markets are “rational” and bubbles can’t exist. Shiller holds that markets are irrational and that bubbles are common, resulting from “animal spirits.” As usual, the Austrians take the balanced, reasonable, middle ground, holding that asset bubbles do exist, not because of irrational exuberance, but because of central-bank manipulation of the money supply and interest rates. Down with extremists!

5. Fama’s work on agency theory, while less well known than the efficient markets hypothesis, should be of particular interest to O&M readers. His “Agency Problems and the Theory of the Firm” (1980) argued that competition among managers (current and potential) can help mitigate discretionary behavior, and his “Separation of Ownership and Control” (1983, with Mike Jensen) pointed out that contracts can sometimes substitute for equity ownership in reducing agency costs.

6. I’m not a huge fan of Shiller, but I appreciate his position here:

“Economists seem to miss things that are important” because they’re so busy. “Specialization coupled with strong competitive pressures within academia leads to a situation in which academics often feel that they just do not have time to ponder broad issues and learn even basic simple facts outside their specialty,” the Shiller paper says. “Their general knowledge may be embarrassingly limited, and so they may retreat into their own specialty and produce research which contributes in small ways to the development of the field, but fails to pay attention to the larger picture.”

Update: Here’s a detailed explanation of Fama’s contributions from his Chicago colleague John Cochrane.

14 October 2013 at 2:46 pm 4 comments

Do Markets “React” to Economic News?

| Peter Klein |

imagesOne doesn’t have to be a strict methodological individualist to appreciate that collectives don’t think, act, and choose. Yet one of the standard tropes of financial journalism is the idea that the stock market, like your broker or your Aunt Sally, “reacts” to this or that bit of economic news. “Stocks Soar on Summers Withdrawal,” screams this morning’s Reuters headline. This reporter has some serious powers of discernment: trading Friday “was subdued ahead of the Federal Reserve’s expected reduction of stimulus measures next week.” “In reaction to the withdrawal of Mr. Summers, the dollar slipped to a near four-week low against a basket of currencies.” And: “Further whetting risk appetite were signs of progress in Syria following a Russian-brokered deal aimed at averting United States military action.”

Of course, this is all pure invention on the part of the reporter. Nobody knows for certain why a stock-price average goes up or down. Think about it. The prices of individual stocks reflect expectations of future dividends and future price movements, and they go up and down as new information is revealed about the firm and its competitors. We can never know for certain what makes people buy and sell particular shares but, in the case of an individual firm, we can reasonably infer that shareholders as a group are reacting to new information about the firm. The firm announces quarterly earnings below analysts’ expectations, the share price tends to fall. A competitor announces bankruptcy, the share price tends to rise. Event studies are a popular technique for quantifying investor reactions to news and events related to particular firms.

But the stock market as a whole doesn’t work this way. Stock prices go up and down, and indexes like the S&P 500 and DJIA go up and down according to the performance of their member stocks. Sometimes the average rises, sometimes it falls. Duh. The idea that movements in the index necessarily embody the reaction of the market as a whole to some piece of aggregate economic news reflects a failure to grasp the concept of an average. Of course, it’s always possible that investors’ beliefs about the prospects for particular stocks reflect shared concerns about the economy as a whole. If the government announces an increase in the corporate income tax rate, the prices of many stocks will likely fall. But this applies only to the most obvious cases. Did lots of investors care about Larry Summers’s withdrawal from the Fed race, enough to make them start buying stocks? Who knows? Clearly financial journalists — who are paid to write about such things — care a lot about the next Fed chair. But we have absolutely no idea how much investors care, and no way at all to attribute this morning’s rise in US equity prices to the Summers announcement or any other piece of economic news.

So please, can we stop taking such pronouncements seriously? The stock market is a social institution, an aggregate of individual trades and traders. Let’s stop anthropomorphizing it.

16 September 2013 at 11:50 am 11 comments

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Nicolai J. Foss and Peter G. Klein, Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgment: A New Approach to the Firm (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
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