Archive for the 'Free Markets' Category

Oct 02 2008

Will limiting exectutive pay send American business leaders packing for Europe? Probably not…

This post is in response to my colleague and fellow WW blogger Steve Latter’s recent post titled “Private market compesation: AIG CEO vs. Kobe Bryant”. It’s always enlightening to read Steve’s excellent posts, which really put things in perspective. With regards to CEO pay, it is a bit ironic that while Americans are all worked up about the high pay of its top executives, no one’s up in arms about the exorbitant salaries received by America’s professional athletes!

However, I wonder if Steve’s claim that limiting professional athletes’ pay would send the country’s top basketball players packing for leagues in other countries is true. A while back I blogged an article that asked the question of whether Lebron James would be offered a contract from a European club. James claimed that in order for him to even consider playing in Europe, he would require an offer of at least $50 million per year, more than double what he makes playing for Cleveland. – Source: LeBron would consider European offer of $50M a year or more

…the Cleveland Cavaliers’ strongest competition for LeBron James’ long-term services could be the deep-pocketed new kid on the block — Europe.

A person close to James said Tuesday that the Cavaliers’ superstar would strongly consider playing overseas if he was offered a salary of “around $50 million a year.”

James’ current contract expires after the 2010-2011 season, but he can opt out after the 2009-2010 season, and while several NBA teams are working to create salary cap space for his impending free agency, none could offer a contract beginning at even $20 million a year.

So, would Kobe be on the next plane to Lithuania if the US government (or the NBA) limited his pay to $5 million? I doubt it. That brings us to the more urgent question: Would America’s top business executives begin shipping their families and all their belongings off to Jakarta or Dhaka, Delhi or Singapore, London or Paris, if the US government attempted to limit the compensation packages of its executives? Maybe, but there are many reasons to work and live in the United States beyond the salaries offered by firms for their top executives. And upon a little research, it turns out that European executives’ pay packages have in fact been under regulation by governments for quite some time, and as a result, the incentive for American executives to jump ship for European firms should US executive compensation come under regulation may not be as strong as Steve implies.

Executive pay in Europe | Pay attention | The Economist

How excessive is bosses’ pay in Europe? It has certainly risen sharply in the past ten years, as European firms have had to compete globally for talent.  Foreign bosses now run seven of the firms in France’s CAC 40 index and five of Germany’s DAX 30. American-style bonuses and long-term incentive plans are now the norm.

European firms now benchmark pay against international peer groups in their own industries, rather than against domestic rivals, according to Piia Pilv, a pay expert at Mercer, a consultancy. But they still pay a fraction of the sums trousered each year by American executives. According to Hay Group, a management consultancy, the median European executive earns just 40% as much as his equivalent in America (see chart).

Most importantly, European companies appear to be more determined than American ones to link pay to performance. “Firms in Europe have tended to put more stringent conditions on long-term incentive awards than in America,” says Richard Bednarek, global director of executive remuneration for Hay Group. In America grants of shares are often not tied to performance, whereas European firms generally attach performance criteria to any grant of shares, typically depending on a comparison with a peer group. Such schemes often do not pay out at all, says Mr Bednarek. Dan Vasella, boss of Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, and a favourite target of pay activists, earned SFr17m ($14m) in 2007, down 33% from 2006, because he missed his targets.

Clearly, the incentive to head to Europe as a result of increased scrutiny of executive compensation in the US is not as great as it would be if there did not already exist a threefold gap between US and European executive pay.

The liberal in me wonders if there is such a thing as “unfair” CEO compensation. The free market advocate in me points to other markets governments have attempted to control prices in, and the clear inefficiency that such regulation creates. Governments limiting executive pay, in theory, should have a similar effects to rent controls, or price ceilings in other markets. The quality and quantity of apartments available under rent controls declines, and price ceilings on other goods often result in shortages, meaning there’s not enough to go around among consumers… the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied.

In the case of CEO pay in America, limiting compensation should, in theory, result in a shortage of highly qualified executives willing to head up American firms. But let’s be honest, even if the government placed highly stringent limits on the compensation of the country’s executives, the average executive in America would still likely be earning more than his counterpart in Europe. And since the average American CEO earns something on the order of 250 times what the average worker in his firm gets paid, increased regulation of CEO pay only help narrow this enormous gap slightly, but the incentive to make it to the top will still be strong among American workers.

Conclusions? It’s a tough issue. I want to have faith in the free market, in the price mechanism, in the efficacy of laissez faire economics. But the moral hazard of “golden parachutes” is a real concern. Should an American CEO be rewarded if he fails in his job? Steve makes the case that this “insurance” policy is necessary to attract the best and brightest to the firms willing to pay them most. Then again, something about the way the free market has created such a huge gap between executive pay and the pay of the average worker, and the threefold gap between America’s CEOs and Europes makes me think, “forget the free market, we need to get this insanity under control.”

2 responses so far

Sep 15 2008

Globalization in a Balinese produce market

The summer before last, I spent three weeks exploring the mountains, beaches, volcanoes and temples of the Indonesian island of Bali. While crossing Bali’s central mountain range, I stopped at a produce market where local fruits, vegetables, coffee and nuts were brought in from the surrounding hills to be sold. As I strolled the market snapping pictures, I caught out of the corner of my eye a flash of a familiar shade of red. Upon closer inspection, I was surprised to find a “Blue Chelan” apple from Washington state (my home state!).

Washington apples in BaliI could not help but be shocked to see a fresh red apple grown on another continent in another hemisphere on the Eastern slopes of the Cascade mountain range of Washington state for sale in a farmer’s market in a remote village 60 km from the nearest port. It got me thinking about globalization, trade, specialization and comparative advantage. So I pose these questions to you, my Econ students:

Discussion Questions:

  1. How did a ripe apple grown 9,000 miles away in the United States end up fresh and shiny in a market 1500 meters up in the mountains of Bali? I mean, literally, HOW did it get there?
  2. Why would Indonesia import apples from so far away when surely it could grow apples domestically and avoid the hassle of transoceanic transport?
  3. Where did Indonesians get the dollars to buy US grown apples?
  4. How does trade between Indonesia and the US affect consumers? Producers? Is trade between these distant countries good or bad? Discuss.

25 responses so far

Aug 29 2008

Free markets and free societies may not go hand in hand

Capitalism and democracy: friends or foes? | Free exchange |

How Capitalism Is Killing Democracy – Foreign Policy (abstract only)

“Why is FREEDOM so important in a market economy? If people in society are not free, can a market economy truly succeed?”.

Friday’s class discussion focused on the different answers to the basic economic questions offered by centrally planned versus market economies. 

The question I left them to ponder over the weekend had to do with an apparent paradox visible in China today: that of a free market economy seemingly thriving in a society where political and social freedoms are severely limited by the communist dictatorship. It has long been claimed that free markets will be followed closely by political freedom, and vis versa. The two are thought to go hand in hand. According to the’s blog, Free Exchange:

The late Milton Friedman emphasized that economic freedom promotes political freedom and is also necessary for the sustainability of political freedom over time. His underlying logic is that competitive capitalism separates economic power from political power. One could point to Chile, Taiwan and South Korea as examples where Friedman’s logic seems to hold.

So if, as Friedman said, free markets lend themselves to free societies, then how has China’s thriving market economy not resulted in a freer society, even after 30 years of economic liberalization? Robert Reich, writing in the Foreign Policy Journal examines the issue in some depth:

Conventional wisdom holds that where either capitalism or democracy flourishes, the other must soon follow. Yet today, their fortunes are beginning to diverge. Capitalism, long sold as the yin to democracy’s yang, is thriving, while democracy is struggling to keep up. China, poised to become the world’s third largest capitalist nation this year after the United States and Japan, has embraced market freedom, but not political freedom. Many economically successful nations ”from Russia to Mexico” are democracies in name only. They are encumbered by the same problems that have hobbled American democracy in recent years, allowing corporations and elites buoyed by runaway economic success to undermine the government’s capacity to respond to citizens’ concerns.

Of course, democracy means much more than the process of free and fair elections. It is a system for accomplishing what can only be achieved by citizens joining together to further the common good. But though free markets have brought unprecedented prosperity to many, they have been accompanied by widening inequalities of income and wealth, heightened job insecurity, and environmental hazards such as global-warming.

What can explain the recent divergence of capitalism and democracy in countries like China, Russia and Mexico? The Free Exchange blog explains:

The cause of this divergence, Mr Reich contends, is that companies seeking an advantage over global competitors have invested increasing amounts of money in government lobbying, public relations and bribery. This process of corporations’ writing their own rules has weakened the ability of average citizens to have their voices heard through the democratic process.

So it appears that as capitalism and free markets have flourished, freedom of the individual has been trumped by freedom of the corporation to lobby and thus influence government into creating favorable environments for investment and growth, often times at the expense of society’s health and the best interests of the public as a whole. We will learn a term for this kind of activity in AP and IB Economics: rent-seeking behavior.

As firms grown larger and industrial and commercial power becomes concentrated in powerful multi-national corporations, the priorities of governments seem to be shifting away from individual freedoms and civil rights and towards the interests of the corporate world, whose money and influence run deep through the veins of the world’s governments.

So perhaps I was wrong. Maybe Milton Friedman was wrong too. Perhaps the 21st Century has bred a new relationship where free market capitalism is wed not to democracy, but to a new kind of corporatocracy, a term used by Noam Chomsky, in which governments bow not to the will of the people they govern, rather to the pressures from corporate entities. Freedom and justice for all (firms, that is). Gives you something to think about, huh

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do free markets lead to free societies?
  2. Is political freedom a prerequisite for a successful market economy?
  3. Has “corporatocracy” surpassed democracy as the dominant influence in the rich, developed countries of the world?
  4. In what ways could economic strength come at the expense of individual freedom?

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60 responses so far

Apr 21 2008

Why learning economics is SO IMPORTANT! The case of Ban Ki Moon…

UN chief warns world must urgently increase food production – Yahoo! News

So you don’t say things that make you sound stupid to people who have studied economics, i.e. AP Econ students. Here’s UN chief Ban Ki Moon speaking at a UN conference in Ghana this week:

“One thing is certain, the world has consumed more (food) than it has produced” over the last three years, he said.

Ban blamed a host of causes for the soaring cost of food, including rising oil prices, the fall of the U.S. dollar and natural disasters.

He said he would put together a special task force to help deal with the problem and called on the international community to help…

“We need a real world and not the world of economic theories,” Ban said. “I will work on this right now with a sense of urgency.”

You know who says things like that? People who don’t understand the basic economic theories. Sadly, the theory Mr. Moon is missing here is one of our science’s most basic and simple to understand: that of supply and demand.

First of all, I’d just like to point out the absurdity of his first statement, that “the world has consumed more than it has produced.” Mr. Moon, I’d like to ask you this: If our world has not produced all the food we’ve consumed, then whose world DID produce it? Can’t we just call up the world where all the extra food we’ve consumed was grown and ask them to send us more?

Next, regarding Mr. Moon’s “task force” that he plans to form to deal with the problem, my question is this: What can a handful of bureaucrats accomplish around a table in New York that the market can’t do on its own? Rising food prices send signals to farmers who grow food; a signal that sends a very clear message: “GROW MORE FOOD!”

I’m sorry, but Mr. Moon and his “task force” can spend all the time and money they want brainstorming ways to get farmers to grow more food, but in the mean time the invisible hand of the market, guided by price signals sent from consumers to producers, will work its magic to allocate more resources towards food production and away from alternative uses of grain crops such as ethanol production, eventually shifting the supply curve of food out, stabilizing food prices.

Mr. Moon’s intentions are honorable, but his means of achieving his goal are misguided in an era of the market mechanism, which underpins most of the world’s agricultural economies today.

25 responses so far

Apr 21 2008

China’s challenge – reestablishing its standing as an economic superpower

Live from Shanghai – OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook

The 21st century has been called “China’s Century”. With the Olympics in Beijing in a couple of months, the torch relay touring the worlds’ major cities has been met with fierce anti-China protests as angry activists have accused China of countless offenses from human rights violations to oppression of democracy movements to environmental destruction. Although it may be “China’s Century”, it sometimes seems that the rest of the world is not too happy about China’s emergence as a global superpower.

Last week, NPR’s Tom Ashbrook, journalist and host of the OnPoint radio program, visited Shanghai and featured daily stories about China in the world today. Below is an excerpt from the first of these stories, which caught my attention because it shared a minor fact that I had never heard before but which I find extremely interesting. Ashbrook’s guest, David Lampton, is a leading scholar on China’s re-emergence as a global superpower. Listen to what he says here:

“Re-claim their share of global GDP?” you might be asking? Here’s the thing… for much of the last 2,000 years, China was THE leading superpower in the world. In fact, up to the 1430’s, China had the largest navy in the world, had established tributary relations with dozens of kingdoms from Southeast Asia to India to Africa, had established and secured trade routes stretching overland to Europe and by sea as far away as East Africa, and some even think Chinese explorers had made it to North America seventy years before Columbus! While Europeans were dying of the plague by the millions and struggling under absolute poverty in a feudal society where the idea of national unity was still a century off, China had grown to be the largest empire the world had ever seen, first under the Yuan Dynasty and then the Ming.

As professor Lambert says, China’s GDP, or its total output of goods and services, accounted for ONE THIRD of the world’s output during much of the common era. This fact shocked me, but made sense once I thought about it. China truly was the greatest example of a global superpower the world had known by the 15th Century. Much of its wealth and power was a result of its efforts to globalize, or to integrate itself with the economies of the foreign nations, empires and kingdoms. Trade with its neighbors, near and far, had helped enrich China, but also built among China’s leaders a rightful sense of superiority over the other peoples of the world.

It was this sense of superiority that would lead to a long period of decline in Chinese dominance of the global economy. In 1432, the Ming emperor ordered the trading vessels of Admiral Zheng He destroyed. 3,000 of the largest ships the world had ever seen were sunk to the bottom of the Yangtze river and the East China Sea. The emperor declared China as “The Middle Kingdom” and ordered that all links with the outside world be severed, as China had no need for trade with others. China, the emperor claimed, was totally “self-sufficient” and could flourish without trade with the “barbarian” outsiders.

What followed was a long period of decline in China’s superpower status. From 1432, through the fall of the Ming in 1644 throughout the subsequent Qing Dynasty, into the 20th Century which saw repeated shifts in power between KMT, the Japanese and finally the CCP, China for the most part resisted attempts by its own and by foreigners to open its doors to the world, welcome trade, and encourage globalization of China’s rapidly dwindling domestic economy. The belief that China was “self-sufficient” endured while China’s share of total economic activity in the world dwindled to nearly nothing.

In the mean time, Europeans “discovered” the New World, philosophized about the gains from trade, integrated their own markets and later the markets of the colonies in Asia, America, and Africa, and grew wealthy as a result of these global exchanges. All the while, China stuck to its path of isolationism and self-sufficiency, as its influence and power slipped ever deeper into obscurity.

This period of isolation essentially lasted until the death of Mao Zedong, who could basically be called China’s last emperor. Since 1978, China has followed a new path, one that has attempted to reverse the mistakes of past dynasties, based on the doctrine of isolation and protection of domestic markets. Since its re-emergence as a global economic superpower, China has rapidly seen its share of global GDP increase from less than 2% in the 1970’s to around 16% today; a rebound achieved only through year after year of rapid economic growth, fueled by exports to the rest of the world. Isolation, it appeared, was not the path to wealth and power. China had discovered a new path, one that has done wonders for it income and standing in today’s circles of global power.

China’s re-emergence was made possible by one simple shift in doctrine and philosophy among its leaders: the belief that trade is good. While today the country still has many obstacles to overcome, such as the environmental challenges posed by growth, achieving a more equal distribution of wealth and income, fostering the growth of a domestic market to lessen its dependence on exports, and the challenges relating to human rights and demands for democratization, it would be wrong to say that China has not benefited from economic globalization in many ways.

A little history lesson is sometimes necessary to better understand where China is coming from and where it is going on its path towards re-emerging as a superpower in the global economy. The West, in the mean time, should pause to consider the rightful place the Chinese people believe is theirs based on their long history of economic power and dominance that for hundreds of years placed China at the pinnacle of power in the world economy.

9 responses so far

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