Capitalism and democracy: the strain is showing

To maintain legitimacy, economic policy must seek to promote the interests of the many not the few

by: Martin Wolf

Is the marriage between liberal democracy and global capitalism an enduring one? Political developments across the west — particularly the candidacy of an authoritarian populist for the presidency of the most important democracy — heighten the importance of this question. One cannot take for granted the success of the political and economic systems that guide the western world and have been a force of attraction for much of the rest for four decades. The question then arises: if not these, what?

A natural connection exists between liberal democracy — the combination of universal suffrage with entrenched civil and personal rights — and capitalism, the right to buy and sell goods, services, capital and one’s own labour freely. They share the belief that people should make their own choices as individuals and as citizens. Democracy and capitalism share the assumption that people are entitled to exercise agency. Humans must be viewed as agents, not just as objects of other people’s power.

Yet it is also easy to identify tensions between democracy and capitalism. Democracy is egalitarian.

Capitalism is inegalitarian, at least in terms of outcomes. If the economy flounders, the majority might choose authoritarianism, as in the 1930s. If economic outcomes become too unequal, the rich might turn democracy into plutocracy.
Historically, the rise of capitalism and the pressure for an ever-broader suffrage went together.

This is why the richest countries are liberal democracies with, more or less, capitalist economies. Widely shared increases in real incomes played a vital part in legitimising capitalism and stabilising democracy. Today, however, capitalism is finding it far more difficult to generate such improvements in prosperity. On the contrary, the evidence is of growing inequality and slowing productivity growth. This poisonous brew makes democracy intolerant and capitalism illegitimate.

Today’s capitalism is global. This, too, can be regarded as natural. Left to themselves, capitalists will not limit their activities to any given jurisdiction. If opportunities are global so, too, will be their activities. So, as a result, are economic organisations, particularly big companies.

Yet, as Professor Dani Rodrik of Harvard University has noted, globalisation constrains national autonomy. He writes that “democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three but never have all three simultaneously and in full”. If countries are free to set national regulations, the freedom to buy and sell across frontiers will be reduced. Alternatively, if barriers are removed and regulations harmonised, the legislative autonomy of states will be limited. Freedom of capital to cross borders is particularly likely to constrain states’ ability to set their own taxes and regulations.

Moreover, a common feature of periods of globalisation is mass migration. Movement across borders creates the most extreme conflict between individual liberty and democratic sovereignty. The former says that people should be allowed to move where they like. The latter says that citizenship is a collective property right, access to which citizens control. Meanwhile, businesses view the ability to hire freely as invaluable. It is not merely unsurprising that migration has become the lightning rod of contemporary democratic politics. Migration is bound to create friction between national democracy and global economic opportunity.

Consider the disappointing recent performance of global capitalism, not least the shock of the financial crisis and its devastating effect on trust in the elites in charge of our political and economic arrangements. Given all this, confidence in an enduring marriage between liberal democracy and global capitalism seems unwarranted.

So what might take its place? One possibility would be the rise of a global plutocracy and so in effect the end of national democracies. As in the Roman empire, the forms of republics might endure but the reality would be gone.

An opposite alternative would be the rise of illiberal democracies or outright plebiscitary dictatorships, in which the elected ruler exercises control over both the state and capitalists.

This is happening in Russia and Turkey. Controlled national capitalism would then replace global capitalism. Something rather like that happened in the 1930s. It is not hard to identify western politicians who would love to go in exactly this direction.

Meanwhile, those of us who wish to preserve both liberal democracy and global capitalism must confront serious questions. One is whether it makes sense to promote further international agreements that tightly constrain national regulatory discretion in the interests of existing corporations. My view increasingly echoes that of Prof Lawrence Summers of Harvard, who has argued that “international agreements [should] be judged not by how much is harmonised or by how many barriers are torn down but whether citizens are empowered”. Trade brings gains but cannot be pursued at all costs.

Above all, if the legitimacy of our democratic political systems is to be maintained, economic policy must be orientated towards promoting the interests of the many not the few; in the first place would be the citizenry, to whom the politicians are accountable. If we fail to do this, the basis of our political order seems likely to founder. That would be good for no one. The marriage of liberal democracy with capitalism needs some nurturing. It must not be taken for granted.

Global Growth – Still Made in China

Stephen S. Roach
. Newsart for Global Growth – Still Made in China

NEW HAVEN – Despite all the hand-wringing over the vaunted China slowdown, the Chinese economy remains the single largest contributor to world GDP growth. For a global economy limping along at stall speed – and most likely unable to withstand a significant shock without toppling into renewed recession – that contribution is all the more important.
A few numbers bear this out. If Chinese GDP growth reaches 6.7% in 2016 – in line with the government’s official target and only slightly above the International Monetary Fund’s latest prediction (6.6%) – China would account for 1.2 percentage points of world GDP growth. With the IMF currently expecting only 3.1% global growth this year, China would contribute nearly 39% of the total.
That share dwarfs the contribution of other major economies. For example, while the United States is widely praised for a solid recovery, its GDP is expected to grow by just 2.2% in 2016 – enough to contribute just 0.3 percentage points to overall world GDP growth, or only about one-fourth of the contribution made by China.
A sclerotic European economy is expected to add a mere 0.2 percentage points to world growth, and Japan not even 0.1 percentage point. China’s contribution to global growth is, in fact, 50% larger than the combined 0.8-percentage-point contribution likely to be made by all of the so-called advanced economies.
Moreover, no developing economy comes close to China’s contribution to global growth. India’s GDP is expected to grow by 7.4% this year, or 0.8 percentage points faster than China.
But the Chinese economy accounts for fully 18% of world output (measured on a purchasing-power-parity basis) – more than double India’s 7.6% share. That means India’s contribution to global GDP growth is likely to be just 0.6 percentage points this year – only half the 1.2-percentage-point boost expected from China.
More broadly, China is expected to account for fully 73% of total growth of the so-called BRICS grouping of large developing economies. The gains in India (7.4%) and South Africa (0.1%) are offset by ongoing recessions in Russia (-1.2%) and Brazil (-3.3%). Excluding China, BRICS GDP growth is expected to be an anemic 3.2% in 2016.
So, no matter how you slice it, China remains the world’s major growth engine. Yes, the Chinese economy has slowed significantly from the 10% average annual growth recorded during the 1980-2011 period. But even after transitioning from the “old normal” to what the Chinese leadership has dubbed the “new normal,” global economic growth remains heavily dependent on China.
There are three key implications of a persistent China-centric global growth dynamic.
First, and most obvious, continued deceleration of Chinese growth would have a much greater impact on an otherwise weak global economy than would be the case if the world were growing at something closer to its longer-term trend of 3.6%. Excluding China, world GDP growth would be about 1.9% in 2016 – well below the 2.5% threshold commonly associated with global recessions.
The second implication, related to the first, is that the widely feared economic “hard landing” for China would have a devastating global impact. Every one-percentage-point decline in Chinese GDP growth knocks close to 0.2 percentage points directly off world GDP; including the spillover effects of foreign trade, the total global growth impact would be around 0.3 percentage points.
Defining a Chinese hard landing as a halving of the current 6.7% growth rate, the combined direct and indirect effects of such an outcome would consequently knock about one percentage point off overall global growth. In such a scenario, there is no way the world could avoid another full-blown recession.
Finally (and more likely in my view), there are the global impacts of a successful rebalancing of the Chinese economy. The world stands to benefit greatly if the components of China’s GDP continue to shift from manufacturing-led exports and investment to services and household consumption.
Under those circumstances, Chinese domestic demand has the potential to become an increasingly important source of export-led growth for China’s major trading partners – provided, of course, that other countries are granted free and open access to rapidly expanding Chinese markets. A successful Chinese rebalancing scenario has the potential to jump-start global demand with a new and important source of aggregate demand – a powerful antidote to an otherwise sluggish world. That possibility should not be ignored, as political pressures bear down on the global trade debate.
All in all, despite all the focus on the US, Europe, or Japan, China continues to hold the trump card in today’s weakened global economy. While a Chinese hard landing would be disastrous, a successful rebalancing would be an unqualified boon. That could well make the prognosis for China the decisive factor for the global economic outlook.
While the latest monthly indicators show China’s economy stabilizing at around the 6.7% growth rate recorded in the first half of 2016, there can be no mistaking the headwinds looming in the second half of the year. In particular, the possibility of a further downshift in private-sector fixed-asset investment could exacerbate ongoing pressures associated with deleveraging, persistently weak external demand, and a faltering property cycle.
But, unlike the major economies of the advanced world, where policy space is severely constrained, Chinese authorities have ample scope for accommodative moves that could shore up economic activity. And, unlike the major economies of the developed world, which constantly struggle with a tradeoff between short-term cyclical pressures and longer-term structural reforms, China is perfectly capable of addressing both sets of challenges simultaneously.
To the extent that the Chinese leadership is able to maintain such a multi-dimensional policy and reform focus, a weak and still vulnerable global economy can only benefit. The world needs a successful China more than ever.

viernes, septiembre 09, 2016



Conspiracy Theories

George Friedman
Editor, This Week in Geopolitics

The term “conspiracy theory” has been part of our culture for a very long time. It is often justifiably followed by the word “nut.” It is also a way to stop discussion, or to embarrass others from believing what is being said. The aversion to conspiracy theories flows from a revulsion at the thought that well-known events are caused by a group of people acting in secret.

If that is true, then the common-sense understanding of why things happen is defective. And if it is defective, then those who are seen as best informed are actually mistaken. They lose their standing, and we are faced with a grim world where important events have dark and unknown causes.

Those who believe in conspiracy theories think that the common explanations are defective. In their view, others fail to understand that the world doesn’t just happen. It is forged by hidden intentions. They believe that those who try to explain the world without recourse to secret agendas are either duped or part of the conspiracy.

Believing in conspiracy theories means that the world is not out of control. Instead, things are made to happen. This implies that something can be done to counter the conspirators’ actions.

There are those who believe that the price of oil fell because of a global decline in economic growth and the emergence of new technologies. In their view, nothing else is needed to explain it. There are others, though, who believe that the decline in the price of oil was deliberately engineered by some nation or powerful financial figures in order to cause harm.

If it is the former, then we are trapped by uncontrollable market forces… but at least we understand what is going on in the world. If it is the latter, then the world is controlled by powerful forces that determine the world’s fate for their own benefit.
Conspiracies: from Mundane to Fantastic

We are surrounded by conspiracies. Conspiracies are a normal part of the fabric of human life. I have worked in universities and governments and with publishers. A lot of what we do, as a matter of course, is conspiratorial.

Conspiracies and conspiracy theories can be thought of in three classes. First, there is the routine. These take place in politics, business, families, and other human organizations. Second, there are significant, discreet events, such as a coup or an assassination. Finally, there is the macro-conspiracy, which is about forces controlling broader areas of life, up to and including history.

It is the last two where the debate—if it can be called that—about conspiracies takes place.

Consider the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both were ascribed to a lone gunman. In evaluating whether a conspiracy was behind either, the measure must be plausibility. My rule is that the idea of the lone gunmen must at least be a plausible hypothesis.
The Classic

Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? It is possible that he got a job at the Texas School Book Depository, heard of the president’s motorcade, and for reasons of his own, fired an old Italian rifle three times in seven seconds, hitting Kennedy twice. He was, after all, a trained Marine. I can imagine him doing it.

There are two problems, however. The first is that Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Ruby is described as a nightclub owner. He actually owned a strip club and was a pimp. It is said that he was emotionally distraught over Kennedy’s death and decided to kill Oswald. Nothing in Ruby’s past indicates a deep sentimental attachment to anyone, least of all a president. It stretches plausibility.

There is a second difficult piece to this. Lee Harvey Oswald defected to the Soviet Union while he was a Marine. He met his wife Marina in the Soviet Union. Her father was killed in World War II, and she lived with her uncle who was a colonel in the MVD, the Interior Ministry’s security forces. She attended Leningrad School of Pharmacology.

Marina married Oswald just a few weeks after meeting him. They were granted exit visas from the Soviet Union and were admitted to the United States… with no court-martial for Oswald and no apparent questions about Marina. This was 1960. Nieces of MVD colonels didn’t marry American defectors and were not issued exit visas with the new hubby. Nor were they just admitted to the United States.

But in the end, Ruby could have been emotionally attached to Kennedy, and Lee and Marina might have had a magic moment, and the rest sort of happened. But since I can’t really explain either story, I can say that the lone gunman theory is plausible, and I buy it pending other data.
Stretching Plausibility

The story of James Earl Ray killing King by himself is much tougher. Ray was a petty criminal in and out of jail, until his fourth conviction when he was sentenced to 20 years in Missouri for stealing $120 dollars. He escaped in 1967, bought a new car in Alabama, and went to Mexico. In March 1968, he underwent plastic surgery to his face in Los Angeles. He moved around the US acquiring weapons and shot King on April 4.

Ray then drove to Canada where he obtained a Canadian passport a few days later. He then went to Britain. He was arrested at Heathrow while leaving the UK, when it was discovered that he had an American passport in addition to the Canadian one. He also had $10,000 in his possession.

Could Ray have been the sole shooter? Absolutely.

Could he have broken out of jail, bought a new car, gotten plastic surgery, and traveled the US and Mexico alone? No.

He had just broken out of jail, had no money, and was a small time punk. Could he have gone to Canada and gotten a passport under a false name in days? Could an escaped convict have gotten a US passport in days? Could he have gotten $10,000?

All of this is completely implausible. He had to have had help. Whose help? That’s tougher. The obvious help would be from white supremacists. I could postulate alternatives but haven’t a shred of evidence.

This brings me to the problem about discreet significant event theories. Theorists move far too quickly into the implausible category. In doing so, they immediately imply that the investigation was a fraud, and the investigators were part of the cover up.

The problem is that it’s implausible in the Oswald story that so many people—from the Dallas Police Department to the Warren Commission to the judge advocates in the Marines to Soviet intelligence—could have been involved. There is no way to involve so many people and keep the story secret. If you have ever told five people something secret, you know that. The Oswald story would involve hundreds of people in several countries. Some conspiracy theories implode on their own implausibility. Vast conspiracy can’t stay secret.

In the case of the King assassination, the utter implausibility of Ray acting alone makes the theorist try to deduce who else was involved. Sometimes it is logical. Sometimes it is an attempt to bring in someone (or some group) the theorist hates. In the case of Ray, I can say two things. First, it goes beyond plausibility that Ray did not have help. Second, the help could have come from an extraordinarily small number of people, even just one.
I have no basis for naming co-conspirators. I can guess, but a guess on a matter of such importance is inappropriate.
The New World Order

There is then the macro-conspiracy theory that asserts the global economy and drug trade is controlled by the Rothschilds and the Queen of England (this is actually one I ran across). These theories run into the law of breadth. The more people who know of a conspiracy, the less likely it will remain a secret. A vast and complex conspiracy simply can’t be kept secret from all those needed to execute it. They will figure it out—and it will therefore become well known. The Hunt brothers once tried to corner the silver market. But the secret came out, because an action so vast couldn’t be kept a secret.

Here’s another problem with macro theories: if these actors are actually as powerful as theorists think, why would they be afraid of letting people know?

Conspiracies so vast, as to control part of the world, are not compatible with fear of exposure. The conspiracy is either enormously powerful or incredibly vulnerable. It is hard to think of a scenario in which long-term conspiracy on a global scale could survive for that long and then collapse on exposure.

This is the weakness of the theory that the American Revolution was a Masonic conspiracy. Those of the founders who were Masons were proud of it. They used Masonic symbols on our currency and so on. A powerful conspiracy doesn’t have to hide things, and therefore, it is no conspiracy.

There is then the final test of power. Someone once told me that there was a conspiracy of stunning proportions that was completely secret. I asked the person why he was still alive. Since he knew of the conspiracy and it was supposed to be a secret and those behind it were quite powerful, I figured he should be dead. But he wasn’t. So, either it wasn’t completely secret, it wasn’t very powerful, or it didn’t exist. (Or he actually was dead… but that leads to another conspiracy.)

I find both sides of the conspiracy issue wanting. First, there is no general case for conspiracies. Each must be judged on its own merits. But there are people inclined to believe that the world is as it appears as well as those who believe there is a secret world. Both are right, but the full truth is that some things are open and others are conspiracies. Distinguishing between the two is important. In general, I find macro theories implausible. There are too many people involved and too little need for secrecy, if indeed they are as powerful as they say.

The discreet, significant event is where the debate is made. The obsession to demonstrate that all assassinations, as an example, were acts by lone gunmen may be true, but there are tough hurdles in some cases. Dismissal of the difficulties derives, I think, from the psychological need to simplify the world.

On the other side, all things that raise an eyebrow are not proof of a hidden conspiracy. The world is filled with oddities to which some people need to give deeper meaning.

The blanket dismissal of secret collaboration occurring among humans is as neurotic as the total belief of vast secret powers controlling our lives. Both are, in their own ways, candidates for tin foil hats, and each school is equally contemptuous of the other. The former tend to have more prestigious degrees than the latter, but both are equally dogmatic and impervious to reason. The world is filled with conspiracies, except for the parts that are not. And some conspiracies matter. And most don’t exist.

Central bankers fear threat of low-growth rut

Without parallel action by lawmakers, economies could still be left vulnerable

As the world’s central banking elite gathered at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Janet Yellen provided the assurances that many of the attendees craved.
Official interest rates may remain stuck at low levels, but the US central bank will not find itself out of weaponry if a new recession unexpectedly strikes, the Federal Reserve chair said in her set piece speech on Friday.
But, beneath the surface at the Kansas Fed’s annual symposium, many economists remained anxious. Their meetings highlighted worries about whether western central banks have sufficient scope to galvanise growth without help from other branches of government — and concerns over expectations piled on officials’ shoulders as some experiment with radical measures such as negative interest rates.
Eight years after the crash, major economies including the US are stuck with sub-target inflation, ultra-low rates, and economic growth that remains pedestrian. Without action from lawmakers in countries including the US, where Congress has a history of bitter budgetary deadlocks, they could be trapped in a low-growth rut that leaves them hugely vulnerable when the next downturn comes.
“Central banks still have arrows in their quiver [although] they may not be as effective as they were before the crisis,” says Randall Kroszner, a former Fed governor who is now a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. However, “many central banks are being asked to do things they simply can’t do. Central banks can try to fight deflation. Central banks can’t simply create growth.”
Loretta Mester, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, said in an interview that she believed the US central bank can rely on previously proven tools such as quantitative easing and forward guidance, on top of rate cuts, to reverse a future downturn. While colleagues including John Williams of the San Francisco Fed have floated the idea of lifting the Fed’s 2 per cent inflation target, she says she is happy with it where it is.
But Ms Mester added: “I think we would have a better economy, a stronger economy, if we were able to have fiscal policy together with monetary policy — especially for these things which are about the long-run potential growth rate of the US economy.”
Deep into her speech in Wyoming Ms Yellen herself mentioned the need for larger so-called automatic stabilisers in US budgetary policy, which would help weigh against future recessions, as well as greater support for state and local governments. Unemployment benefits and taxes can serve as such stabilisers, dampening the impact of swings in the economy as a whole.

But amid rancorous political pressure on the Fed from both sides of the partisan divide and an election looming, Ms Yellen shows no signs of embarking on a full-blooded campaign of budgetary reform.

Instead she and other central bankers focused their debate in Jackson Hole on optimising tools in their own arsenals. In that regard the Fed chair’s speech was as notable for what it failed to mention — negative rates — as for what it did.

Central banks in Europe and Japan are among those experimenting with pushing rates below zero in an effort to bolster their economies and inflation.

But US policymakers question how well negative rates would translate to their complex financial system, heavily reliant as it is on non-bank players including money market mutual funds. Ms Mester says she would oppose taking the federal funds rate into negative territory. Other Fed officials are also sceptical.

“Negative rates are certainly getting mixed reviews around the globe,” said James Bullard, the St Louis Fed president. “I don’t think it is very likely in the US.”
Outside the US there are mixed experiences. The Bank of Japan is still grappling with depressed growth and inflation despite its addition of negative rates to its quantitative easing scheme. Big financial groups including pension funds and insurance companies are wailing about the damage to their returns from the lower-for-longer rates environment
The European Central Bank believes it is seeing beneficial results from its negative rates policy, but Benoît Cœuré, a member of the ECB’s executive board, said in a Jackson Hole speech that unconventional policies can give rise to unwanted outcomes. “We cannot rule out a situation where the side effects are such that the negative consequences prevail,” he warned.

Whether negative rates are useful can depend heavily on an individual financial system. Markus Brunnermeier, a professor at Princeton University, has been looking at the possibility that as rates are cut they can become counter-productive because of the way they interact with the banking system and local regulation.

His advice to central bankers: “Yes you can go negative, but check your banking system before you do it, and don’t do it too long, and do it in the right sequence.”

Peter Henry, the dean of New York University’s Stern School of Business, says central bankers still have the tools to provide a floor under the economy, but cannot provide a springboard for growth in the absence of action by lawmakers in areas such as immigration, trade and fiscal reform. “Negative real rates have not yet spurred a recovery in investment. So one has to ask the question is there something else standing in the way,” the economist says.

Agustín Carstens, the governor of the Bank of Mexico, says other branches of governments have to step forward. “What we are getting out of these discussions is that we are sort of reaching the limits. In many countries monetary policy activism has run its course.”

Why the Math Doesn’t Work for Today’s Market

With interest rates low and stock valuations distorted, how much cash that companies give back to investors is more crucial than ever

By Steven Russolillo

     Traders at the New York Stock Exchange last week Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Stock valuations rise and fall, but when an important factor driving market performance is mathematically unsustainable, it is worth a closer look.

That is especially true now when ultralow interest rates make it easy to rationalize stocks at almost any valuation. At minimum, depressed interest rates allow the market to stay higher for longer than under more normal circumstances.

One factor that could end this game is how much cash companies are giving back to investors.

It is no secret that companies that pay healthy dividends or buy back stock, usually both, are the most popular kids in the class this year.

Aswath Damodaran, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, sees this as the market’s biggest risk. Mr. Damodaran, who is considered an authority on valuation, says S&P 500 companies through the first two quarters of the year collectively returned 112% of their earnings through buybacks and dividends. That is the highest since 2008 and well above the 82% average over the past 15 years, he said in a blog post last week.

Mr. Damodaran, who likes to be provocative, says with rates this low, traditional valuation metrics are distorted. Instead, the inability of companies to keep paying off their investors will cause the next downturn. “This is the weakest link in this market,” Mr. Damodaran said in an interview. “We know cash flows will go down. What we don’t know is what the market is pricing in.”

Meanwhile, S&P 500 companies have logged four consecutive quarters of shrinking profits and tepid sales. That could force companies to buy less of their own stock and would take away a pillar of support for this market.
With earnings growth expected to be tepid in the coming quarters, maintaining dividends and repurchasing stock will only become more difficult. That trend might have already started. By one estimate, the value of stock-buyback announcements in the second quarter slowed to its lowest level in four years.
The S&P 500 hovers near records, up more than 6% this year. In this rarefied air, watch for turbulence.

Central Banks Are Willfully Destroying This Critical Market Function

By Michael E. Lewitt, Global Credit Strategist, Money Morning

With central banks owning $25 trillion of financial assets and sovereign wealth funds owning countless trillions more, it is time to ask whether capitalism as we know it is a thing of the past.

These non-economic actors have different motivations than traditional investors who buy assets in order to earn a profit over a reasonable period of time.

Central banks are buying stocks and bonds in order to monetize government debt and keep afloat the endless Ponzi schemes required to finance massive entitlement promises to their constituents.

Sovereign wealth funds are looking for places to park their cash for extremely long periods of time and often focus on assets with trophy or strategic value.

But the most important thing these two types of buyers have in common is that they don't have to sell, which means that their ownership can inflate the value of what they own for prolonged periods of time.

This destroys the price discovery mechanism that markets are supposed to provide. And without price discovery, markets cease to function properly.

Then the destruction starts in earnest…

Here's Where We See This Effect in Action

Bond markets are ground zero for this phenomenon. Somewhere in the vicinity of $13 trillion dollars of global bonds carry negative interest rates, which produces the absurd and dangerous prospect of lenders paying borrowers for the dubious privilege of lending them money.

While some try to rationalize this monstrous arrangement as a sensible way to provide for the return of their money if not a return on their money, it is nothing more than government confiscation of capital.

It is a catastrophic undertaking destroying savings and eroding the capital bases of banks, insurance companies and pension funds. It speaks to a broken global financial system guided by corrupt and incompetent central bankers and politicians.

Quite a few of them were clustered together this week.

What We Heard from Jackson Hole

Last week, the Federal Reserve met in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for its annual confab and naturally investors were hanging on every word uttered by the former tenured economics professors comprising the committee to destroy the global economy.

There were strong hints from Fed Chair Janet Yellen and Vice Chair Stanley Fischer that rates will soon rise, but we have heard such promises before only to see nothing happen.

Before the meeting, an economically illiterate activist group called "Fed Up" met with the Fed and demanded that interest rate hikes be further delayed lest they harm minority communities.  But the worst thing the Fed could do for anyone is keep interest rates low; instead, it should announce that it will start raising rates by 25 basis points each quarter until the Fed Funds rate reaches 2% and then urge Congress to act on meaningful tax reform and fiscal stimulus that are the only policies that will help minorities and the rest of the economy.

And then this nation should embark on meaningful civic and economic education for all of our children to insure that they understand how economies work – which is not by increasing entitlements and reducing the cost of money to the point where it has no value.

Markets Dipped Like Clockwork After the Meeting

The market didn't much like what it heard from Jackson Hole last week because it lives in fear of another rate hike.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 157 points or nearly 1% to close at 18,395.40 while the S&P 500 declined 15 points or 0.7% to 2169.04. The Nasdaq Composite Index fell 0.4% to 5218.92.

The last time the Fed hiked rates by 25 basis points in December, the market fell sharply before recovering after the Fed backtracked and promised it wouldn't do it again for a very long time.

This pathetic appeasement of the stock market is another sign of just how far the Fed has wandered from its role as lender of last resort.

While August has become a volatile month since the financial crisis, this August has seen the lowest market volatility in 20 years.

That's an upsetting development.

Why Too Little Volatility Is a Bad Thing

Central banks are not only suppressing interest rates and price discovery – they are suppressing volatility, too, which is extremely dangerous.

With the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) trading at new lows, volatility could break out to the upside and seriously hurt those economic investors who actually care about their returns (which excludes, of course, investors like the Japanese Government Pension Fund that reportedly lost $130 billion  in the past year on its financial assets).

One of the things investors should be asking themselves is why they are paying advisers to manage assets that generate zero returns. This is particularly relevant with respect to their bond investments, an area I know a great deal about.

If you are paying someone to manage investment grade, municipal or Treasury bonds, you are throwing money out the window. In addition to the fact that managing such assets requires no special skill, these assets are generating negative real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) returns – and are likely to either keep doing so or generate large losses when interest rates rise.

You would be much better off exiting such investments entirely or moving your assets into a low-cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or mutual funds.

Of course your manager will tell you that you are making a big mistake in doing so, but that advice is as conflicted as Hillary Clinton's relationship with the Clinton Foundation.

You are paying for nothing and getting nothing from these managers.

But that's not to say there's nothing to be learned, at least, from these Wall Street types.

Carl Icahn Just Made a (Bigger) Fool of Bill Ackman

Finally, last week saw a classic beat down of activist investor Bill Ackman by the more experienced and hardened activist Carl Icahn.

After a bogus press report on Friday morning that Icahn was shopping his $1 billion block of stock in Herbalife, Ltd, (NYSE: HLF) and that Mr. Ackman, who is famously (and wrongly) short the stock was a potential buyer, Mr. Ackman quickly ran on television to crow that Mr. Icahn was selling because he knows that the company "is toast."

Several hours later, Icahn announced that he has bought another 2.3 million shares of HLF and then delivered a long statement on social media describing Mr. Ackman as "obsessed' with Hebalife, leading him to exercise poor judgment that has resulted in massive losses on his short position.

Ackman, never one to walk pass a microphone, spent part of the week explaining his even more egregiously poor judgment in riding down Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. (NYSE: VRX) stock from $265 per share to its current $30.80 per share, the biggest factor in his second consecutive year of double-digit losses and his inability to make money for his investors since 2012 despite a spectacular 38% return in 2014.

This type of "hedge fund porn" is bad for the industry but remains instructive for those of us who try to learn from the mistakes of others.

Wells Fargo to Pay $185 Million Fine Over Account Openings

Regulators say ‘widespread illegal practice’ around account openings

By Emily Glazer

Tessa Stevens says she got products she didn’t want when she went to Wells Fargo for a $50,000 line of credit to expand her preschool in Portland, Ore. . Photo: Toni Greaves for The Wall Street Journal

Wells Fargo WFC 0.26 % & Co., the largest U.S. bank by market value, must pay $185 million related to a regulatory enforcement action over “widespread illegal practice” around account openings, sales targets and compensation incentives, according to regulators and prosecutors.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Los Angeles City Attorney announced settlements and resulting consent order with the bank on Thursday.

Wells Fargo must pay another $5 million in customer remediation and hire an independent consultant for a review, according to the bank and regulators. A Wells Fargo analysis found thousands of employees “illegally” signed up customers for more than two million deposit and credit-card accounts that may have not had their knowledge or consent, according to the releases.

”Because of the severity of these violations, Wells Fargo is paying the largest penalty the CFPB has ever imposed,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray.

Wells Fargo said in a release that the agreements were reached “consistent with our commitment to customers and in the interest of putting this matter behind us.” The bank added: “We regret and take responsibility for any instances where customers may have received a product that they did not request.”

Regulators and prosecutors have been investigating whether Wells Fargo pushed employees too hard to meet sales goals while failing to do enough to prevent questionable behavior, The Wall Street Journal has previously reported. In May 2015, the Los Angeles City Attorney filed suit, alleging the bank pressured its employees to commit fraudulent acts, including opening accounts for people that don’t exist.

This happened at bank branches across the country with thousands of employees responsible, the regulators said. The bank fired about 5,300 employees during the CFPB’s examination.

In the bank’s own analysis, employees opened roughly 1.5 million deposit accounts that may not have been authorized by customers, the CFPB said. Employees transferred funds from authorized accounts to temporarily fund the ones they hadn’t been given permission to open; this helped employees to meet sales goals and possibly gain more compensation. Consumers were sometimes hurt because the bank charged them for insufficient funds or overdraft fees since money wasn’t in their original, authorized accounts.

And the bank found in its analysis that about 565,000 credit cards may not have been authorized by consumers, incurring annual fees and other charges.

Wells Fargo employees also requested and issued debit cards without customers’ knowledge or consent, even creating PINs without telling customers. They also created fake email addresses to enroll consumers in online-banking services without their knowledge or consent.

The settlement between the L.A. City Attorney and the bank also establishes a complaint and mediation system for California consumers harmed by the bank’s alleged practices. “Wells Fargo must alert all of its California customers who have consumer or small business checking or savings accounts, credit cards or unsecured lines of credit, that they should consider visiting their local bank or call Wells Fargo to review their accounts, close accounts or discontinue services they do not recognize or want, and resolve remaining problems,” according to the release. Every six months for the next two years, Wells Fargo must provide to the City Attorney audit reports assessing the bank’s compliance with the agreement.

“It is outrageous for a bank to use a customer’s private information without permission to open an unwanted account,” L.A. City Attorney Michael Feuer said on a call with media. “Consumers must be able to trust their banks.”

Wells Fargo, like other banks, has pushed cross-selling of multiple products to its customers to bolster sales and profitability at a time when both have been under pressure from a sluggish economy and superlow interest rates.

Many banks encourage their customers to buy more than one financial product—cross selling—but Wells Fargo has been more upfront about how much it does. Wells Fargo in quarterly reports publishes by division how many products it sells to its customers, on average.

The bank reported in the second quarter that retail customers maintained an average of 6.27 products per household. That was down from 6.32 in the year-earlier period in part because of recent changes in which products count toward the metric.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Mary Eshet said the bank had a third-party consulting firm review consumer and small-business retail-banking deposit accounts and unsecured credit cards opened from 2011 through 2015. It then refunded any fees associated with products customers may not have requested.

Ms. Eshet said the accounts refunded represented a fraction of 1% of accounts reviewed, averaged about $25 per account and totaled about $2.6 million.

Surprisingly Little Evidence for the Usual Wisdom About Teeth

Aaron E. Carroll

Credit Scott Gelber 

I brush my teeth twice a day, but not for as long as my dentist would like. I’d like to say I floss regularly, but that would be stretching the truth. I don’t scrape my tongue, I don’t rinse with mouthwash and I don’t use an interdental brush or Waterpik. However, I have one filling in my mouth, and I got that only when I had braces as an adult 15 years ago.
My wife, on the other hand, cares for her teeth fastidiously. She does all the things you’re supposed to do, and then some. But she has more fillings than I can count. I remember once, years ago, when one of her teeth broke while she was eating scrambled eggs.
Clearly, the stuff we’re doing might not make as much of a difference as we think. A couple of weeks ago, many of you were shocked to learn that the evidence supporting flossing daily was as thin as, well, dental floss. That’s just the beginning.
As my colleague Austin Frakt pointed out recently, for adults without apparent dental problems, there’s little evidence to support the use of yearly dental X-rays. This still doesn’t prevent many dentists from recommending them for everyone.
With respect to flossing, this shouldn’t have been news either. A systematic review in 2011 concluded that, in adults, toothbrushing with flossing versus toothbrushing alone most likely reduced gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums. But there was really weak evidence that it reduced plaque in the short term. There was no evidence that it reduced cavities. That’s pretty much what we learned recently.
The good news is that brushing appears to work. But it’s important to know that it’s brushing with fluoride toothpaste that matters, not the brushing alone. Doing that doesn’t just prevent gingivitis and plaque formation; it also prevents cavities, which is the outcome that we care most about.
My dentist has always recommended a powered toothbrush. The evidence seems to agree that, as many randomized controlled trials confirm, powered toothbrushes reduce both plaque and gingivitis more than regular toothbrushes. An older Cochrane review concluded that the rotating powered toothbrushes were superior than the side to side powered brushes. I use the latter, and this disappointed me. But the difference between the two types, while statistically significant, was really small.
There appear to be no good randomized controlled trials on brushing frequency. The other studies that do exist, while flawed, seem to support twice-a-day brushing.
Surely the twice-a-year teeth cleanings matter? In 2005, Evidence-Based Dentistry highlighted a systematic review on the effects of routine scaling and polishing (you call it teeth cleaning).
Researchers found eight randomized controlled trials that were on point, but they were all judged as having a high risk of bias. The results were all over the map. Their conclusions were that the evidence isn’t of sufficient quality to reach any conclusions as to the benefits or harms of scaling and polishing.
Regardless, I’ve been told by all the dentists I know to have it done every six months.
When filling cavities, some dentists advocate bonded amalgams over non-bonded amalgams. There’s pretty much no evidence to support that practice, though. The one randomized controlled trial didn’t seem to support their use, especially since they cost much more. Previous, nonrandomized controlled trials in children didn’t really show a difference either.
Has anyone ever told you to use an interdental brush to get at the plaque between your teeth? In 2015, Evidence-Based Dentistry summarized a Cochrane Review of seven randomized controlled trials looking at how interdental brushing in addition to tooth brushing compared with toothbrushing alone or toothbrushing with flossing. Almost no long-term benefits have been proven.
What about preventive dental visits themselves? In 2013, Bisakha Sen, Nir Menachemi and colleagues used data from the Alabama Children’s Health Insurance Program to follow more than 36,000 children to see how preventive dental visits affected dental care and spending over time. They found that preventive visits were associated with fewer visits for restorative dental care in the future, implying that there was an improvement in oral health. But they found that, for the most part, more than one annual preventive visit in children was not cost-effective.
Further work found that it may have been the use of sealants, and not preventive visits in general, that had this protective effect. Since sealants could be applied without an actual visit to the dentist, that brings into question whether a more cost-effective means of getting sealant on children’s teeth might be possible — using a lower-cost dental hygienist, perhaps. Fluoride varnish appears to work well, too.
No review of dental health would be complete without at least acknowledging water fluoridation. Much of the evidence is old because it’s getting hard to do studies. It would be somewhat unethical to withhold fluoridation at this point from some people, because the evidence in favor of the practice is so compelling.
In fact, fluoride is so important that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that in areas where the water supply is deficient, providers prescribe oral fluoride supplementation to children. They recommend the use of fluoride varnish as well.
To recap, there’s good evidence that brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste is a good idea, especially with a powered toothbrush. For children, there’s good evidence that the use of fluoride varnish or sealants can be a powerful tool to prevent cavities. The rest? It’s debatable.
I should note that the lack of evidence doesn’t mean that many of these things don’t work. It just means that we don’t have good studies to back their use. In that case, we must weigh the potential harms against the unproven benefits. With flossing, which is cheap and easy, it still might be worth doing. With scaling and polishing, as well as preventive visits, which are expensive and can hurt, it’s more questionable.
We should also recognize that there are a lot of things outside of our control. Some are genetic. The strength of our enamel most likely determines how easily bacteria can break through defenses. Salivary flow and composition help determine how easily we can clear dangerous bugs. Tooth morphology can leave some teeth more susceptible to infection.
Other things have little to do with dentistry. What you eat can affect your dental health. More important may be mother-to-child transmission of bacteria. Children aren’t born with mouthfuls of germs. Studies show that cavity-causing bacteria get passed directly by parents (mostly mothers) to children, probably by sharing silverware or by other mouth-to-mouth transmission. There’s a reason that mothers with lots of cavities sometimes have children who suffer the same.
There are things we can do to prevent cavities and preserve our oral health. We should focus on those things. We should study the things we debate. But we should also be willing to admit that some of the things we do make no difference at all, and perhaps, should be reconsidered.