Sunday, January 25, 2015

Obama's 529 Mistakes

President Obama's proposal to tax earnings distributed from 529 college plans derived from future contributions is one of the worst ideas he's had in tax policy.  He would make withdrawals derived from earnings on new contributions taxable to the student (although withdrawals derived from earnings on funds already contributed would remain tax-free).  Let us count the ways this makes no sense.

Defies Tax Logic.  The redistribution of income through a progressive tax structure is a concept that virtually all Americans agree on, including many who are very wealthy.  However, Obama's 529 proposal creates a much smaller redistribution loop consisting of college students (and perhaps indirectly their families).  Students from more prosperous families will pay taxes that will subsidize students from less well-off families.  Why have a redistribution loop consisting of only the student community?  If that makes sense, why not have wealthier farmers subsidize less wealthy ones?  And why not have higher earning servers and bartenders (e.g., those at high end restaurants and hotels)  subsidizing the employees at Mickey D's.  Since college educations are so important to America's future, subsidies for middle-class and less fortunate students shouldn't come at the expense of other students who, through no choice of their own, were born into more prosperous families.  If redistribution of income is a societal goal, it shouldn't be done in a distorted way like this. 

Bad Social Policy.  Having children and raising them well is beneficial for America as a nation.  A healthy birth rate is crucial to America's future success as a nation.  More prosperous families are better able to afford to have children and raise them well.  The extremely low birth rates in Japan and Europe have seriously impaired the economies--and futures--of those nations.  Disincentives to have and educate children shouldn't be built into the tax code.

Bad Trickle Down.  Obama's 529 proposal effectively raises the cost of college for students from more prosperous families.  It defies economic logic to believe that won't have consequences.  Some students might lose opportunities when this happens.  Let's take this hypothetical example to see how that could work.  Valedictoria, a brilliant high school student from a well-off but not rich family, might barely be able to afford the unconscionably high costs of an Ivy League school if 529 plans remain unchanged.  But she would opt for a less expensive school (the well-regarded University of Home State) with the Obama changes because she doesn't want to or can't take on the additional debt required for the Ivy League (and wants to spare her parents that burden).  She opts for the less expensive school.  Her enrollment there could bump out a student who was marginally able to gain admission to the University of Home State.  The marginal applicant then goes to a less-well regarded school, perhaps losing educational quality and opportunities he might have had at the University of Home State.  Is the nation somehow better off if this happens?

Punishes Self-Sufficiency.  The people who fund 529 plans are the kind of people who, in past generations, would have been viewed as good citizens prudently saving for the future education and improvement of their children.  They hope not to rely on handouts or loans or governments to finance their childrens' educations.  They'd like do it themselves, thank you.  Indeed, self-sufficiency was once regarded as one of the most golden of American virtues.  In a land where there were many opportunities, but also many hazards, the self-sufficient were the bedrock and pillars of a growing nation that wanted to keep growing.  To be self-sufficient, you necessarily have to build your wealth.  Why penalize self-sufficiency by taxing college savings?   We have become a nation obsessed with instant gratification, the faux celebrity status offered by social networking, easy credit for all, and bailouts for almost every need imaginable.  Will discouraging self-sufficiency improve things? 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Did Someone Blow Up the Swiss Currency Peg?

Much to the surprise of numerous market players, the Swiss National Bank yesterday (Jan. 15, 2015) dropped its commitment to peg the Swiss franc at 1.20 to the Euro.  The Swiss franc suddenly rose some 20% in value, a price shift that clobbered anyone betting the peg would hold.  Losses have been sudden and very sharp.  A major foreign exchange broker, FXCM, has received an emergency $300 million bailout loan from Leucadia National.  Another forex broker, Alpari UK, has entered insolvency proceedings.  A new Zealand broker, Excel Markets, has been knocked out of business.

The Swiss National Bank's reasons for abandoning the peg aren't very clear.  But the abrupt demise of the peg is reminiscent of the UK's withdrawal of the British pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, after a large hedge fund shorted over 10 billion pounds on September 16, 1992.  The Bank of England was trying to fight market forces that dictated a lower valuation for the pound, and in the end couldn't win that fight. 

A news story reports that in December 2014, there was a very large capital inflow into the Swiss franc, with some 34 billion francs being bought up.  See  This is about 10 times the monthly average.  One can wonder whether this flood of capital was the result of a calculated move by one or a few big market players.  While there has for some months been a flight to safety resulting from the EU's economic slowdown (and the likely de facto devaluation in the near future of the Euro via ECB quantitative easing), Vladimir Putin's banditry in Ukraine, and the never-ending turmoil in the Middle East, December's inflow is so abruptly large than one cannot exclude the possibility that it was a move made by a few powerful players.  And if it was, they would have profited handsomely from the Swiss franc's recent price rise.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Artificial Intelligence in the Stock Markets

Artificial intelligence has been much in the news recently.  Well-recognized deep thinkers have propounded profound thoughts that predict good and bad outcomes for artificial intelligence as it becomes ever more of a reality.  The takeover of the world by machines is inevitable--with monstrous consequences--or not, depending on who you ask.

There isn't much real-world empirical data relevant to the opposing sides of this argument.  But one big clinical trial is underway:  in the stock markets.  Most of the trading done today in the stock markets consists of computerized trading.  Institutional investors, like mutual funds, pension funds, and so on, comprise most of the rest.  Mom and Pop, trying to invest a few nickels for their retirement, are like pedestrians surrounded by massive semis barreling along at interstate speeds.

Much of the computerized trading is done by dynamic computer programs.  In other words, the computer doesn't buy and sell based on a static algorithm embodied in the program coding.  The program can change itself in response to market conditions and activities.  In essence, depending on what the program detects is happening in the market, it can alter its own coding without the need for a human programmer to keypunch and proofread line after tedious line of code.  The details of how these dynamic programs work are generally shrouded in commercial secrecy.  But we have a situation where computer programs take note of what's going on in their working environments, think about how to change themselves to be more effective (i.e., profitable) in light of changing conditions, and then alter themselves to do better.  That's getting rather close to what people do: try to change and improve themselves in order to advance their careers or make more money in their professional activities.

We have seen in recent years how computerized trading can cause mini-crashes and other short term  turbulence in the stock markets.  Mom and Pop are often finding the waters too rough, and suddenly see the virtue in the paltry returns of passbook savings accounts or certificates of deposit whose yields have been flattened by the nearly supine yield curve.  Even some professional money managers are looking for ways to fly over or around the storm clouds of computerized trading, moving trading to venues that claim to allow only "natural" (non-computerized) investors to participate.

For academic researchers and other prognosticators, the dynamic computerized trading in the stock markets could furnish a useful body of data with which to work.  The rest of us, unwilling guinea pigs in a clinical trial we didn't sign up for, can only look to financial regulators and other government officials to ensure that the results of the experiment don't turn out too badly,