What work do we value most?
In 2009, the worst economic year for working people since the Great Depression, the top 25 hedge fund managers walked off with an average of $1 billion each. With the money those 25 people "earned," we could have hired 658,000 entry level teachers. (They make about $38,000 a year, including benefits.) Those educators could have brought along over 13 million young people, assuming a class size of 20. That's some value.
Apparently the 25 hedge managers did something that is even more valued in our society. But how valuable was it, really? To assess that, we need to answer a few basic questions:
1. What do hedge managers do?
They run funds into which very rich people put money to make even more money. Hedge fund managers move the money around in very risky ways to get the most enormous yields possible. (Wealthy investors believe they are entitled to double digit and even triple digit returns.)
Because hedge funds are considered playthings for the rich, who presumably are fully aware of all the risks, they are exempt from most financial regulations. (We'll soon see if the financial reform bill now moving through the Senate changes this in any substantial way.)
The wealthy will have placed an estimated $2 trillion into hedge funds by the end of this year. (That's about $6,500 for every man, woman and child in the U.S.)
2. Where does all that hedge fund money come from?
It's mostly excess cash the super-rich have in hand now that their tax rates have dramatically declined. In the 1970s the marginal rate on those with incomes above $3 million (in today's dollars) was 70 percent. Today, the effective rate on the 400 richest Americans is 16 percent, according to the most recent IRS data.
The wonderful thing about putting your money in a hedge fund (or managing one) is that the income you get from it is not taxed as income (say, officially at the rate of 35 percent). Instead, it is treated as a business investment, something that's good for the economy and that we need to encourage through a low tax -- a "capital gain." The tax rate on capital gains is 15 percent. This is one reason that Warren Buffett can say that he pays a smaller percentage in taxes than his secretary.
3. How do hedge funds make money?
Some hedge fund managers use computerized modeling to decide where to invest or to make investments automatically. Other managers claim they just make good judgment calls. They also make enormous bets using lots of leverage and deploy an arsenal of derivatives.
It's a dicey business, but it's not supposed to put the larger system at risk... until it does. In the late 1990s, the hedge fund known as Long Term Capital Management, run by the brightest bulbs in the financial universe (including a couple of Nobel laureates), found itself with over $100 billion in assets but only $4 billion in capital. When that upside down pyramid began to crumble, the effect was systemic. So systemic that the Federal Reserve, fearing a major meltdown of the financial markets, forced Wall Street banks and investment houses to bail out the fund's investors. Some economists argue that risky gambling by hedge funds did not cause the current crisis. But no one has conducted an impartial investigation into that question.
The $1 billion each those 25 hedge fund managers netted (for themselves) was impressive -- but doing it in the year 2009 was also slap in the face of struggling Americans. That's because hedge funds would have earned little or no money at all in 2009 had the government not bailed out the financial sector with trillions in loans, asset guarantees and other forms of financial assistance. It was, in effect, a generous gift from we the taxpayers. Much of that money was "earned" by betting that the government would not let the financial sector collapse. Smart bet.
In principle hedge funds would do little harm if they were not implicitly backstopped by the taxpayer in this way. Here's how one sage financial expert put it to me recently:
Personally, I do not care whether hedge funds and other pools of unregulated funds gamble in opaque derivatives rated by incompetent ratings agencies. But I do want them to fail when their bets go bad. Nor do I want them to be rescued in the event of a run to liquidity. If they are leveraged and cannot come up with cash, they should fail. It will be painful for their creditors. So be it, the more pain, the better. That is the downside to private property. Greed is good, but must be balanced by the fear of failure. Without failure there is no fear.
On the other hand, I want to have a protected and closely regulated portion of the financial sector for those who do not want to take excessive risks. And any institution that bets with "house money"--that is, that has access to the Fed in the case of a liquidity problem and to the Treasury in the case of insolvency--must be constrained. That is the direction that true reform ought to take.
4. Do hedge funds create real value that is essential for our economy and our society?
Here's a test: Imagine what would happen if they disappeared entirely. People working at the 8,000 or so hedge funds -- a relatively small number of people -- would lose their jobs. But it's unlikely that the national or world economy would suffer at all. The wealthy would simply move their money to other investments. They might even decide to make longer term investments that would be used to produce real goods and services.
But wait, aren't these piles of money a valuable source of funds for investment in the real economy? Don't hedge funds make our markets work more efficiently? By betting against overvalued currencies and bogus balance sheets of toxic-chocked banks, don't hedge funds police the bad guys? Aren't they the essential glue for rebuilding America?
If any of those good things happen, they're an accidental byproduct. The real job of hedge funds is to allow very rich people to make more money as quickly as possible, preferably without tying up the cash for too long. Use hedge fund money for a leveraged buyout that can be flipped quickly for big profits? Sure. Use it to speculate on the value of currency or to make a quick dash in and out of a credit default swap? You betcha.
If we step back and look at the big game, we can see that hedge funds are hard at work skimming profits from the financial sector, which in turn is living off the largess of the American taxpayer. It's all part of the great financialization of the U.S. economy that began in earnest when the financial sector was deregulated in the late 1970s. Over the years, financial sector profits have risen to nearly 40 percent of all corporate profits. And sadly, it's not because financial firms helped our economy grow. It's because they figured out how to run a very profitable casino for the wealthy. And then hedge funds came along and figured out how to skim the skim from those casinos.
5. So how can 25 hedge fund managers be "worth" $658,000 new teachers?
They aren't. And I bet the leading hedge managers themselves would admit it.
But our economic system isn't rewarding real value. While the hedge fund 25 are living large, teachers everywhere are getting the axe. Why the layoffs? Because state and local governments aren't collecting enough taxes -- not since Wall Street investors crashed the economy.
In our New Jersey town, we are laying off 85 teachers. Instead we ought to be hiring 85 more to reduce class size and improve support programs for those students who desperately need them. It's obscene that we're shoveling money to the super-rich even as we force teachers to join the ranks of the unemployed. Already 29 million Americans are without work or forced to work only part-time.
How to tame these runaway paydays? Just institute a financial transaction tax or a windfall profits tax. The fix is technically simple but politically complex. It's going to take a lot of political will -- over a long period of time -- to reorder our most basic economic values.
In the meantime, try explaining to your kids why school programs are being cut while 25 shrewd gamblers are living like Pharaohs.
Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009.