Thursday, November 24, 2011

Netflix Disgorges the Cash

For a great example of what I've been talking about, check out this Dealbreaker post on how Netflix spent the past two years buying back its own stock, and then just this past Monday turned around and announced that it was selling stock again. Matt Levine:
NFLX bought 3.5 million shares of stock at an average price of $117 in 2010-2011, at a total cost of $410 million, and paid for it by issuing 5.2 million shares of stock at an average price of $77 in November 2011, for total proceeds of $400 million – minus $3 million that we pay to Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan to place the deal. So 1.7 million extra shares outstanding for net proceeds of negative $13mm or so. 
The comical thing about this from the point of view of the financial press is the buy-high, sell-low side of it. And of course whoever was on the other side of Netflix's share repurchases this past summer, when the stock was at four times its current value, must be laughing right now. But as Levine says, this is what the system is set up to do:
Most companies are rewarded for squeezing every last penny out of EPS [earnings per share] – in executive bonuses, sure, but also in stock price more broadly. It’s what investors want. ... So with Netflix: when things are good and it’s rolling in cash, it pushes up its price by buying. When things are bad and it needs cash, it pushes down its price by selling. And its incentives are neatly aligned to do so: when things are good, it needs one more penny of EPS; when things are terrible – hell, who cares about dilution when you’re unprofitable anyway? (It’s a good thing!)
Another way of looking at this, tho, is that buying its own shares high and selling them low is exactly how a firm should behave if shareholders really are the residual claimants, operationally and not just in principle. In the textbook this doesn't really come out, since "shareholder as residual claimant" is just a first-order condition imposed on some linear equations. But if you take it seriously as a claim that shareholders own every incremental dollar that the firm earns or raises, and that management is a not just the solution to an Euler equation but a distinct group of people who may have their own views on the interests of the firm, then shareholders should want businesses to behave just like Netflix -- pay out more when more is coming in, and then ask them for some back when more needs to go out. Can't be a residual claimant if you don't claim your residuals.

Now, financing investment is going to be more costly when it involves selling and repurchasing shares, compared to if you'd just kept the savings-investment nexus inside the firm in the first place. And these transactions were also disastrous for the firm's long-term shareholders -- in effect, they transferred $400 million from people who continued holding the stock to those who sold in 2010 and 2011. So in this case, a system designed to maximize shareholder value didn't even deliver that. Shareholders would have done better with management who said, Screw the shareholders, we're going to build the best, biggest online movie rental company we can. If you own our stock just sit back, shut up, and trust that you'll get your payoff eventually.

As the man says, "When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done."

Friday, November 18, 2011

On Other Blogs, Other Wonders

1. Are Banks Necessary?

Ashwin at Macroeconomic Resilience had a very interesting post last month arguing that the fundamental function of banks -- maturity transformation -- is no longer required. Historically, the reason banks existed was to bridge the gap between ultimate lenders' desire for liquid, money-like assets and borrowers' need to fund long-lived capital goods with similarly long-term liabilities. Banks intermediate by borrowing short and lending long; in some sense, that's what defines them. But as Ashwin argues, today, on the one hand, we have pools of longer-term savings for which liquidity is not so important, at least in principle, in the form of insurance and pension funds, which are large enough to meet all of businesses' and households' financing needs; while on the other hand the continued desire for liquid assets can be met by lending directly to the government which -- as long as it controls its own currency -- can't be illiquid and so doesn't have to worry about maturity mismatch. It's a very smart argument; my only quibble is that Ashwin interprets it as an argument for allowing banks to fail, while it looks to me like an argument for not having them in the first place.

Another way of reaching the same conclusion, in line with recent posts here, is that you can avoid much of the need for maturity transformation, and the other costs of intermediation, including the rentiers' vig, if business investment is financed by the business's own saving.  In comments to the Macroeconomic Resilience post, Anders (I don't think the same Anders who comments here) points to some provocative comments by Izabella Kaminska in a Financial Times roundtable:
An FT view from the top conference, with Martin Wolf moderating. He said an interesting thing re. all the cash on the balance sheets of American corporates. That for many US corporates, banks have become completely redundant, they just don’t need them. ... The rise of the corporate treasury, investing wisely on its own behalf. Banks have failed at the one job they were supposed to do well, which was credit intermediation... No wonder banks have sought ever more exotic creative financing options .. their traditional business is dying. They’re not lending, can’t lend. So corporates are inadvertently acting by piling up cash reserves to solve that problem.... [You] see lots of examples of Corporates who don’t trust banks. … it’s amazing to think that we have come this far in the last two years… to a point where people like Larry Fink are suggesting banks are pointless.
This is part of the story of Japan's Lost Decade that Krugman doesn't talk about much, but that Richard Koo puts right at the heart of the story: By the mid 1980s, Japanese corporations could finance almost all of their investment needs internally, but the now-redundant banking system didn't shrink, but found a reason for continued existence in financing real estate speculation. Banks may be pointless, but that doesn't mean they'll go away on their own.

2. Are Copyrights Necessary?

I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion in the blogosphere of this new working paper by Joel Waldfogel on copyright and new music production. (Summary here.) Has Yglesias even mentioned it? It's totally his thing: an empirical study of whether file-sharing has reduced the amount of good music being produced, where "good" is measured by radio airplay, and various critics' best-of lists. Which, whatever, but you've got to measure it somehow, right? And, oh yeah, the answer is No:
We find no evidence that changes since Napster have affected the quantity of new recorded music or artists coming to market. ... While many producers of recorded music have been made worse off by changes in technology, there is no evidence that the volume of high-quality music, or consumers, have suffered.
Information wants to be free.

3. It's an Honor Just to Be Nominated

Hey, look, someone at everyone's favorite site for d-bags with PhDs,, has started a thread on the worst economics blogs. And the first blog suggested is ... this one. "Krugnuts times 11," he says. I think that'll be the new tagline.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Elsewhere on the World Wide Web: Some UMass comrades have revived the internet tradition of the grudge blog with this interesting new blog, with the Stakhanovite goal of refuting (tho thankfully not fisking) every post Greg Mankiw makes. It's an ambitious goal, especially since the average wordcount ratio of an anti post to its underlying Mankiw post is running around 50:1. But they're managing so far. You should read it. And if anyone wants to take a swing at the pinata, I think they may still be looking for new contributors.

So why aren't I contributing? Mainly because time is scarce and I am very lazy, so blogging-wise I'm tapped out just keeping up a trickle of content here. But also, to be honest, because I have some qualms about the anti-ness of the left in economics generally. Anti-Mankiw is a great project, and I have nothing but admiration for the students who walked out of Mankiw's class. But there's a certain assumption here that we on the left have a well-developed alternative economics, which the Mankiws of the world are ignoring or suppressing. If only that were true.

Right now I'm teaching macro, and I’m presenting basically the same material as everyone else. ISLM, AS/AD, and their open economy equivalents. How come? Well, partly because I feel a certain professional duty. Students signed up for a course in intermediate macroeconomics, not in J.W. Mason Thought. (That will be next semester.) But mainly because it’s the path of least resistance. I don’t know any good textbook that presents the fundamentals of macroeconomics from a genuinely Keynesian or radical perspective. And working up a course by myself would be vastly more work, and I don't think I could do it justice. A downward sloping AD curve, let's say, is absurd. There's no real economy on earth in which the main effect of deflation is to stimulate demand via a real balance or "Keynes" effect. It pains me to even put it on the board. But what's the counterhegemonic model of inflation I should be teaching in its place?

It’s not just me. I know a number of people who are unapologetic Marxists in their own work, yet when they teach undergraduate macroeconomics, they use Blanchard or some similarly conventional text. It’s a structural problem. I don’t mean to defend Mankiw, but in some ways I think those of us on the left of the profession are more to blame for the state of undergraduate economics education. We spend too much time on critiques of the mainstream, and not nearly enough developing a systematic alternative. Some people criticize radical economists for just talking to each other, but personally I think we don’t talk to each other nearly enough.

The anti-Mankiw that's needed, it seems to me, isn't a critique, but an alternative; as long as we're arguing with him, he still gets to decide what we're talking about. That's one reason I prefer to spend my time debating people like Krugman, DeLong, John Quiggin, and Nick Rowe, who I respect and learn from even when I don't agree with them. (Another reason is that attention is a precious resource and I prefer giving the bit I get to allocate to people and ideas that deserve it.)

It’s true that the ideological policing in economics is very tight—but mainly at the top end, and even there mostly not at the level of undergraduate teaching. As far as I can tell, most places nobody cares what you do in the classroom; there’s already plenty of space for alternatives at schools that aren't Harvard. But people mostly aren’t using that space. In my experience, even when people want to bring a “radical” perspective to undergraduate econ, that means presenting the mainstream models and then dissecting  them, which preserves the mainstream view as the default or starting point, when it doesn't just leaves students confused. "Radical" economics almost never seems to mean simply teaching economics the way we radicals think it should be taught.

So yes, Occupy Mankiw, by all means. But maybe we should also think more about the classrooms we’re already occupying. Or as a graffito that should be familiar to the male fraction of anti-Mankiw says:

Start your own hit band or stop bitching

EDIT: If anyone reading this wants to suggest good models or resources for what an undergrad economics course ought to look like, I'd be thrilled to hear them.

FURTHER EDIT: Lots of suggestions. I need to walk back a little: There are more good alternatives to Mankiw  & co. than you'd guess reading this post. But the key point is still, we need to move past critique and develop our own positive views. As long we're responding to him, he's setting the terms of the conversation. Read about, say,  Paul Sweezy in the 1940s -- he was so admired not because he had such a cutting critique, but because he so clearly and confidently offered an alternative. (And because he was so charming and good-looking, but that sort of goes with it, I think.) We'll be getting somewhere when, instead of rushing to rebut everything Mankiw says, we can say, "Oh, is that guy still writing? Well, forget about him -- here's the good stuff."

So, the good stuff.

I should have mentioned two excellent macro texts that, while they are too advanced for the students I'm teaching now, really comprehensively describe the state of the art alternative approaches to macro: Michl and Foley's Growth and Distribution and Lance Taylor's Reconstructing Macroeconomics. If, like me, you;re more more interested in short-term dynamics than growth models, you might get a little more out of the Taylor book, but both are very good.

In comments, NKlein suggests Godley and Lavoie's Monetary Economics: An Integrated Approach, which I know other people recommend but I'm afraid I haven't read (tho it's on my Kindle), and mentions that Randy Wray and Bill Mitchell are working on a new textbook. I believe Wray currently teaches undergraduate macro at Kansas City using Keynes' General Theory as the primary textbook, which is not a terrible idea (tho it would probably depend on the students.)

A lot of people like Understanding Capitalism, by Sam Bowles, Richard Edwards and Frank Roosevelt. Sam's microeconomics textbook is also supposed to be good, if, god forbid, you have to teach that. (But the orthodox-heterodox divide doesn't really exist in micro, I don't think.)

Meanwhile, over on anti-Mankiw itself, Garth suggested -- more or less simultaneously with this post -- Steve Cohn's Reintroducing Macroeconomics, and linked to a long list of heterodox texts. I'm only familiar with a few of the books on the list, altho most of the ones I do know are grab-bags of critical essays, which is not quite what I'm looking for. But clearly there's a lot out there.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Capitalist Wants an Exit

Like a gratifyingly large proportion of posts here, Disgorge the Cash! got a bunch of great comments. In one of the last ones, Glenn makes a number of interesting points, some of which I agree with, some which I don't. Among other things, he asks why, if businesses really have good investment projects available, rational investors would demand that they pay out their cashflow instead. Isn't it more logical to suppose that payouts are rising because investment opportunities are scarcer, rather than, as the posts suggests, that firms are investing less because they are being compelled to pay out more?

One standard answer would be information asymmetries. If firms have private information about the quality of their investment opportunities, it may be more efficient to have capital-allocation decisions made within firms rather than by outside lenders. The cost of being unable to shift capital between firms may be less than the cost of the adverse selection that comes with information asymmetries. That's one answer. But here I want to talk about a different one.

Capital in general, and finance in particular, places a very high value on liquidity. But if wealth owners insist on the freedom to reallocate their holdings at a moment's notice, and need the promise of very high returns to let them be bound up in something illiquid, then investment in the aggregate will be inefficiently low. As Keynes famously wrote,
Of all the maxims of orthodox finance none, surely, is more anti-social than the fetish of liquidity, the doctrine that it is a positive virtue on the part of investment institutions to concentrate their resources upon the holding of "liquid" securities. It forgets there is no such thing as liquidity of investment for the community as a whole.
Or as Tom Geoghegan recalls, from the last days of the old regime in the late 1970s,
Once a friend of mine from Harvard Business School came to visit, and I took him to South Works, just to see it.

"Wow," he said. "I've never seen so much capital just lying on the ground. At B School we used to laugh at how conservative these big steel companies are, but then you could come out and see all this capital, just lying on the ground..."
Capitalists, in general, do not like to see their capital just lying on the ground. They prefer it to be abstract, intangible, liquid.

There's no question that the shareholder revolution of the 1980s had a strong distributional component. Rentiers thought that workers were getting to much of "their" money. But if we're looking specifically at the conflict between shareholders and management -- as much a conflict between worldviews as between distinct groups of people -- then I think "the fetish of liquidity" is central.

As Keynes understood, liquidity is what stock markets are for. What they're not for, is raising funds for investment. That wasn't why they were invented (the publicly traded corporation is a relatively recent innovation), and it's not what they've been used for. Apart from a few years in the 1920s and a few more in the late 1990s, stock issues have never been an important source of investment finance for firms.

Let's talk about Groupon. Huge IPO, raised $700 million, the biggest offering in years. So, those people who bought shares, they're getting ownership of the company in return for providing it much needed funds for expansion, right?

Except that "Groupon has been shouting until it’s blue in the face that it doesn’t need the IPO cash, that it’s fine on the cash front, that the IPO is just a way of going public, and is not really about the money-raising at all." Cashflow is more than enough to finance all their foreseeable expansion plans. So why go public at all, then?

Because their existing investors want cash, that's why. Pre-IPO, Groupon was already notorious for using venture capitalist funds to cash out earlier investors.
Groupon is a very innovative company, and this is one of its most important innovations — the idea that the founder can and even should be able to cash out to the tune of millions of dollars very early on in the company’s lifecycle, while it is still raising new VC funds.... Historically, VC rounds have been about providing capital to companies which need it; in Groupon’s case, they’re more about finding a way to cash out early investors
But the venture capitalists need to be cashed out in their turn. After CEO Andrew Mason turned down offers from Yahoo and then Google to purchase the company, his VC bankers became increasingly antsy about being stuck owning a business, even a business selling something intangible as internet coupons, rather than safe pure money. Thus the IPO:
The board — and Groupon's investors — had a message for Mason, though. Someday, he was going to have to either accept an offer like that one he had just turned down, or take this company public.

One investor recounts the conversation: "We said, okay Andrew, you took venture capital, and remember venture capitalists want an exit.  It doesn't have to be tomorrow but you always have to be thoughtful when a company comes to buy your company, because it's not just you, it's your employees, options, investors and alike."
That's what Wall Street is for: to give capitalists their exit.

The problem finance solves is not how to allocate society's scarce savings between competing investment opportunities. In modern conditions, it's the opportunities that are scarce, not the savings. (Savings glut, anyone?) The problem is how to separate the rents that come from control of a strategic social coordination problem from the social ties and obligations that go with it. The true capitalist doesn't want to make steel or restaurant deals or jumbo jets or search engines. He wants to make money. That's been true right from the beginning. It's why we have stock markets in the first place.

Historically the publicly-owned corporation came into being to allow owners (or more typically, their heirs) to delink their fortunes from particular firms or industries, and not as a way of raising capital.

In her definitive history of the wave of mergers that first established publicly-traded corporations (outside of railroads), Naomis Lamoreaux is emphatic that raising funds for investment was not an important motivation for adopting the new ownership form. In contemporary accounts of the merger wave, she says, "Access to capital is not mentioned." And in the hearings by the U.S. Industrial Commission on the mergers,  "None of the manufacturers mentioned access to capital markets as a reason for consolidation." Rather, the motivation for the new ownership form was a desire by the new capitalist elite to separate their wealth and status from the fortunes of any particular firm or industry:
after the founder's death or retirement, ownership dispersed among heirs "who often were interested only in receiving income" from the company rather than running it. Where the founder was able to consolidate family control, as in Ford or Rockefeller,
the shift to public ownership was substantially delayed.

The same point is developed by historians Thomas Navin and Marian Sears:
A pattern of ownership somewhat like that in the cotton textile industry of New England might eventually have come to prevail: ownership might have spread, but to a limited degree; shares might have become available to outsiders, but to a restricted extent. It was the merger movement that accelerated the process and intensified it - to a smaller extent in the earlier period, 1890-1893, to a major degree in the later period, 1898-1902. As a result of the merger movement, far more people parted with their ownership in family businesses than would otherwise have done so; and doubtless far more men of substance (nonindustrialists with investable capital) put their funds into industry than would otherwise have chosen that type of investment. ...

[As to] why individual stockholders saw an advantage in surrendering their ownership in a single enterprise in favor of participation in a combined venture ..., one of the strong motivations apparently was an opportunity to liquidate part of their investment, coupled with the opportunity to remain part owners. At least this was a theme that was played on when stockholders were asked to join in a merger. The argument may have been used that mergers brought an easing of competition and an opportunity for enhanced earnings in the future. But the trump card was immediate liquidity.
The comparison with New England is interesting. Indeed, in the first half of the 19th century a very different kind of capitalism developed there, dynastic not anonymous, based on acknowledging the social ties embodied in a productive enterprise rather, than trying to minimize them. But historically the preference for money has more often won out. This was even more true in the early days of capitalism, in the 17th century. Braudel:
it was in the sphere of circulation, trade and marketing that capitalism was most at home; even if it sometimes made more than fleeting incursions on to the territory of production.
Production, he continues, was "foreign territory" for capitalists, which they only entered reluctantly, always taking the first chance to return to the familiar ground of finance and long-distance trade. Of course this changed dramatically with the Industrial Revolution. But there's an important sense in which it's still, or once again, true.