The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition

photo by SounderBruce

The New York Law Journal published commentary of mine, The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition. It opens,

Last week Amazon finally announced that New York and Northern Virginia would be the sites of its planned major expansion. While many are caught up in the excitement of Amazon bringing 25,000 high-paid jobs to both metropolitan areas, it is worth thinking through the costs that beauty contests like this one impose on state and local governments. Amazon extracted billions of dollars in concessions from the winners and could have extracted even more from some of the other cities courting them.

It is economically rational for companies to create such Hunger Games-type competitions among communities. These competitions reduce their costs and improve their bottom lines. But is it economically rational for the cities? As long as governments are acting independently, yes, it is rational for them to race to the bottom to secure a win. So long as they are a bit better off by snagging the prize than they would have been otherwise, they come out ahead. But the metrics that politicians use are unlikely to be limited to a hard-nosed accounting of costs and increased tax revenues. Positive buzz may be enough to satisfy them.

Consider Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s deal with Foxconn. Just over a year ago, he was touting the $3 billion state subsidy for FoxConn’s manufacturing plant. This was the year leading up to his hard fought election fight, a fight he ultimately lost. His public statements focused on Foxconn’s promise to create 13,000 jobs. While that was a lot of jobs, it was a hell of a lot of subsidy—more than $230,000 per job, more than six times the largest amount Wisconsin had ever paid to subsidize a promised job. Walker got his campaign issue, FoxConn got its $3 billion and Wisconsin residents got … had. The $3 billion dollar subsidy has grown to over $4 billion at the same time that Foxconn is slowing down its investment in Wisconsin. So now taxpayers are subsidizing each job by well over $300,000 each. Nonpartisan analysts have determined that it will take decades, at the earliest, for Wisconsin to recoup its “investment.”

Likewise, hundreds of millions of dollars are thrown at stadiums and arenas even though economists have clearly demonstrated that those investments do not generate a positive financial return for the governments that provide these subsidies. Fancy consultants set forth all of the supposed benefits: job creation, direct spending by all of the people drawn to the facility, indirect spending by those who service the direct spenders. This last metric is meant to capture the increase in restaurant staff, Uber drivers and others who will cater to the new employees, residents and visitors to the facility. But as has been shown time and time again, these metrics are vastly overstated and willingly accepted at face value by politicians eager to generate some good headlines. They also ignore the opportunity cost of the direct subsidies—monies spent on attracting a company is money that can’t be spent on anything else. While we don’t know what it would have been spent on, it is likely to have been public schools, mass transit, roads or affordable housing in many communities.


Blockchain and Securitization

image by  David Stankiewicz

Deloitte prepared a report on behalf of the Structured Finance Industry Group and the Chamber of Digital Commerce, Applying Blockchain in Securitization: Opportunities for Reinvention. It opens,

The global financial system is betting on blockchain to revolutionize many aspects of its business, and we (the Structured Finance Industry Group and the Chamber of Digital Commerce) believe that securitization is one of the areas in the capital markets that could most benefit from this transformation. Janet Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, recently called blockchain “a very important new technology” that “could make a big difference to the way in which transactions are cleared and settled in the global economy.” Financial services institutions have already invested over a billion dollars in the technology, with most big banks likely to have initiated blockchain projects by the end of 2017. There are already hundreds of use cases, ranging from international payments to securities processing, while technology firms including Amazon, Google, and IBM are offering a host of blockchain services aimed at the financial industry.

Why are all of these companies investing in blockchain? This new technology has the potential to dramatically disrupt the role of intermediaries—including that of banks—in financial transactions. Traditional activities performed by intermediaries might be changed or even replaced. Blockchain can also bring significant advances in efficiency, security, and transparency to many of the financial sector’s activities.

*     *     *

The Structured Finance Industry Group and the Chamber of Digital Commerce commissioned Deloitte & Touche LLP (Deloitte) to explore how blockchain might reinvent securitization—and how the securitization industry should consider preparing for this rapidly approaching future. This industry is exploring this nascent technology’s potential benefits and costs. Firm answers on blockchain’s likely use cases are not yet available, but discussions with securitization and blockchain experts have led to some key observations and insights about implications and possible paths forward. (1, footnotes omitted)

The report’s bottom line is that “[b]lockchain and smart contracts could catapult the securitization industry into a new digital age.” (2) It finds that

The technology’s potential to streamline processes, lower costs, increase the speed of transactions, enhance transparency, and fortify security could impact all participants in the securitization lifecycle—from originators, sponsors/issuers, and servicers to rating agencies, trustees, investors, and even regulators. (2)

The report provides a nice overview of blockchain basics for those who find distributed ledger technology to be mysterious. The real value of the report, however, is that it provides concrete guidance on how blockchain can be integrated in the securitization process. There is a chart on page 24 and an explanation of it on the following page that shows this in detail. This level of detail makes it much easier to visualize how blockchain can and most likely will change the nature of the business in years to come.

Running Circles around the CFPB

Lauren Willis has posted The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Quest for Consumer Comprehension to SSRN.  It addresses an important subject — the cat and mouse game of the regulator and the regulated. The abstract reads,

To ensure that consumers understand financial products’ “costs, benefits, and risks,” the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been redesigning mandated disclosures, primarily through iterative lab testing. But no matter how well these disclosures perform in experiments, firms will run circles around the disclosures when studies end and marketing begins. To meet the challenge of the dynamic twenty-first-century consumer financial marketplace, the bureau should require firms to demonstrate that a good proportion of their customers understand key pertinent facts about the financial products they buy. Comprehension rules would induce firms to inform consumers and simplify products, tasks that firms are better equipped than the bureau to perform. (74)

The Bureau has worked hard to tackle financial education in a meaningful way, but Willis is right that this is a Herculean task given the profit incentive that financial institutions have to run circles around consumers and the Bureau itself. Willis explains

the feebleness of mandated disclosures, the inherent flaws in the alternatives the CFPB has been pursuing, the advantages firms have over regulators in ensuring their customers’ comprehension, and the CFPB’s legal authority to require customer confusion audits and enforce comprehension rules. I then elaborate on a few examples of how this form of regulation might operate in practice, including these four key elements:

1. Measuring the quality of a valued outcome (comprehension) rather than of an input that is often pointless (mandated or preapproved disclosure);

2. Assessing actual customer comprehension in the field as conditions change over time, rather than imagining what the “reasonable consumer” would understand or testing consumers in the lab or in single-shot field experiments;

3. Requiring firms to affirmatively and routinely demonstrate customer understanding, rather than relying on the bureau’s limited resources to examine firm performance ad hoc when problems arise ; and

4. Giving firms the flexibility and responsibility to effectively inform their customers about key relevant costs, benefits and risks through whatever means the firms see fit, whether that be education or product simplification, rather than asking regulators to dictate how disclosures and products should be designed. (76) (footnotes omitted)

Hopefully the Bureau will take a serious look at Willis’ critique.  It is important, of course, to get consumer financial literacy right in order to benefit consumers directly. But it is also important for the Bureau to get it right in order to protect its reputation as an effective regulator that brings real value to the consumer finance sector.

Reducing The Cost of Affordable Housing Development: Lessons for NYC?

Enterprise and the Urban Land Institute have issued a report, Bending the Cost Curve on Affordable Rental Development: Understanding the Drivers of Cost, that identifies affordable housing development’s “most commonly cited cost drivers, provides a brief overview of their impact and applicability, and includes high-level recommendations to promote a more efficient delivery system.” (4). As the report notes,

Affordable housing delivery is shaped by a number of procedures, regulations, and policies instituted at all levels of the system—each with associated costs. Development costs may be dictated by site constraints, design elements, local land use and zoning restrictions, building codes, delays in the development process, efforts to reduce long-term operating costs, and the affordable housing finance system. Most affordable developments rely on multiple funding streams, both equity and debt, each of which carries its own set of requirements and compliance costs. While there may be some alignment of affordable housing land use regulations, financing tools, or programs, far too often developers must seek a complex series of approvals or obtain waivers to bring a project to fruition. This process alone can introduce costs through delays to the development timeline as well as introduce additional uncertainty and risk, which, in addition to regulatory barriers, can also increase costs. (3)

While the report offers no shocking insights into affordable housing’s cost drivers, it does provide a good overview. It also brings to mind research that NYU’s Furman Center did some years ago about the drivers of the high cost of housing construction in New York City.

Given that Mayor-Elect de Blasio has put affordable housing at the center of his campaign, his team should focus on reducing these costs as part of his overall affordable housing strategy. Mayors Bloomberg and Giuliani were not able to make any significant progress on this issue, even though doing so would be quite consistent with their approach to governance. Perhaps that makes it even more of a compelling goal for the de Blasio Administration.