Comments on the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation, and Financial Services Industry

October 26, 2018

  1. The following remarks are informed by discussions during a by-invitation-only roundtable on October 19 that was organized by the UNSW Business School research networks on Cyber Security and Data Governance and Behavioural Insights for Business and Policy. It was attended by a judicious mix of 14 legal academics and (behavioural, experimental, and financial) economists as well as representatives of behavioural insights units from government and firms in the banking industry. The roundtable took part under the Chatham House Rule and was meant to facilitate an open discourse about the issues identified in the Royal Commission’s Interim Report, especially its chapter 10 and therein pages 327 – 342 and pages 345 – 7, as well as other chapters (namely 1, 8 and 9).
  2. While my comments draw on those discussions, the following comments reflect my opinion only. Importantly, my opinion below does not necessarily reflect my employer’s view.
  3. Kudos first to Commissioner Hayne and the senior counsels assisting (namely Rowena Orr and Michael Hodge) for a job well-done in uncovering plenty of misconduct when, in the run-up, representatives of the government du jour repeatedly argued, and strenuously so, that there was nothing to see here, that the call for a Royal Commission (RC) was a populist whinge, and that an RC would endanger economic growth by undermining trust in the banks, superannuation providers, and the financial services industry more generally. It seems obvious now that these claims were made despite better knowledge. It seems important to recall this fact, as the implementation of effective solutions – even if evidence-based – is likely to encounter considerable opposition and attempts to water them down. Strategic dishonesty is a thing and it is at the heart of the problems so competently ferreted out by the RC.
  4. Kudos also to ASIC – much maligned these days – since it clearly has provided a considerable portion of the relevant systematic evidence under not always favourable conditions (e.g., the substantial reduction in its resources announced in the 2014 budget; the fact that some of these resources were restored in 2016 cannot distract from the fact that any such disruption is counterproductive).
  5. For an economist who knows the empirical (including the experimental) evidence on the effects of market power, incentives (especially those in social dilemma situations), and on human actors’ frequent failure to be ethical (honest) and in violations of existing norms of conduct, there is nothing surprising in the Interim Report. Likewise, the failure of the regulators to interfere effectively was hardly surprising, although the discussion of effective remedies among economists is likely to be more robust than on the other topics.

5.1. We know for example that market power begets socially suboptimal outcomes (e.g., Huck et al. JEBO 2004, or any textbook on Industrial Organization worth its cost).

5.2. We know, for example, that incentives, especially when in conflict with organizational or societal welfare, lead to undesirable outcomes (e.g., the huge literature on trust games reviewed in Ortmann et al. EE 2000, or more systematically in Johnson & Mislin JoEP 2011)

5.3. We know, for example, that, even for low stakes, there is a considerable amount of people that will always be unethical, with many more people being easily tempted by dishonest behaviour as the stakes increase (e.g., Rosenbaum et al. JoEP 2014; Abeler et al. JPublE 2014; Kajackaite & Gneezy GEB 2017; Capraro JDM 2018; Heck et al. JDM; Abeler et al. ECMTA forthcoming). People’s susceptibility to norm violations has been documented since Adam Smith wrote his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For more recent evidence, see some of the evidence from psychology and related behavioural sciences in Gentilin (2016; for a critique of that evidence see Ortmann CE 2016 and references therein).

5.4. The question of effective remedies is a more complicated one. It touches on numerous mechanism design issues, although even there one can tap into a considerable empirical (and experimental) literature that addresses questions such as the relative efficacy of self-regulation (possibly under the threat of government intervention; see Van Koten & Ortmann 2017), certification, and other institutions such as independent standards boards that administer ethical culture surveys and whiste-blower protection, and provide pools of principal integrity officers, as suggested in Dennis Gentilin’s submission. More on these issues below under 7.

  1. That breaches were so many and so widespread will, especially in light of the significantly larger stakes at stake, not surprise any economist who knows the literature on the negative effects of market power, poorly designed and calibrated incentives, and many human actors’ tendency to be economical with the truth, and in violation of norms (especially if the chance that they are found out is minimal – see Dana et al. ET 2007)). Pages 268 – 270 of the Interim Report get it exactly right: “There being little threat of failure of the enterprise, and there being little competitive pressure, pursuit of profit has trumped consideration of how the profit is made. The banks have gone to the edge of what is permitted, and too often beyond that limit, … because they can; and because they profit from the misconduct that is described in this report.” (p. 269)

7.  So what needs to be done to prevent the conduct from happening again?

7.1. It seems obvious that extant law be applied to lay charges for unconscionable acts such as charging customers fees for advice they did not receive. (While it is laudable that ASIC has secured hundreds of millions in refunds for affected customers, it has come through enforceable undertakings which let the perpetrators of criminal actions off the hook.) Other potentially criminal offences have been committed and they should be pursued under current law wherever possible. Unfortunately, the current state of affairs has considerable reputational spill-over effects and contributes to the wide-spread decline of trust in key institutions.

7.2.  It seems clear that the light-touch approach of ASIC, and APRA, has not served the community well although it is hard to tell from the outside whether tough cops – such as Allan Fels and Graeme Samuel – alone can do the trick (Irvine SMH September 22, 2018).

7.3. It also seems abundantly clear that Commissioner Hayne’s assessment of the sorry state of internal compliance assessment and reporting within CBA and NAB (and possibly other banks) justifies immediate action (p. 10 of Interim Report).

7.4. I do agree with Fels that structural separation of banks from their financial advisory arms is the way to go (Irvine SMH September 22, 2018). The same applies in my view for superannuation providers. The conflicts of interest are just too obvious to ignore and some proposed remedies (such as disclosure of conflicts of interests) seem to have counterproductive effects (e.g., Taguchi & Kamijo 2018, for a recent review of the literature).

7.5. Relatedly, the whole commission business has to be reconsidered. See also the relevant discussion on the broken model of broker remuneration in the Productivity Commission’s June 29 report on Competition in the Australian Financial System (pp. 21- 23) Financial advisors are effectively glorified salespeople and incentivizing them through commissions is a recipe for disaster under the best of circumstances.

7.6.  Relatedly, the variable-remuneration provisions for accountable persons according to BEAR have to be rethought. I endorse fully Recommendation One and Two in Dennis Gentilin’s submission on the RC’s Interim Report.

7.7. I also endorse fully Recommendations Four through Eight of Dennis Gentilin’s submission on the RC’s Interim Report and the rationale they are based on. What exactly the relation of an Independent Standards Board would be to Treasury, APRA, ASIC, and possibly ACCC, is as worthy of a good discussion as is a discussion of appointment procedures to that Board. See also the discussion of “a competition champion” in the Productivity Commission’s June 29 report on Competition in the Australian Financial System (pp. 15 – 19). Preferably the appointment of the Chair of some such Board would be consensus-driven and not partisan. (The sorry partisan transition from the first to the second ACNC Commissioner is not a recommended template.) I believe that Mr. Gentilin’s Recommendation Six – to have the proposed Independent Standards Board oversee the recruitment and appointment of Principal Integrity Officers to designated ADIs — is a brilliant one that will be key in guaranteeing the independence of Principal Integrity Officers. With Mr. Gentilin (specifically Recommendation Eight and its rationale), I believe that the establishment of a Whistleblowing Protection Authority is an indispensable and complementary step if indeed reducing misconduct in the banking, superannuation, and financial services industry is a serious concern and not just public posturing.

7.8. Last but not least, I would urge the Royal Commission – rather than adding more regulation that then is likely not enforced – to explore ways to let reputational feedback systems (e.g., Bolton et al MS 2013; see also systems such as TripAdvisor or Serviceseeking.com.au) work their magic. Considerably more transparency, and data, should be provided to the public to let interested researchers identify anomalies and developments that might be otherwise go unnoticed too long. Take the fascinating Figure 3 in the Productivity Commission’s April 2018 draft report on Superannuation: Assessing Efficiency and Competitiveness. Making that data available in a timely fashion would do wonders for the alignment of incentives. No traditional regulatory action I can think of would have the same effect.

References

Abeler et al. (2014), Representative evidence on lying costs. Journal of Public Economics pp. 96 – 104.

Abeler et al. (forthcoming), Preferences for truth-telling. Econometrica forthcoming.

Bolton et al. (2013), Engineering Trust: Reciprocity in the Production of Reputation Information. Management Science pp. 265 – 85.

Capraro (2018), Gender Differences in lying in sender-receiver games: A meta-analysis. Judgement and Decision Making pp. 345 – 55.

Dana et al. (2007), Exploiting moral wiggle room: experiments demonstrating an illusory preference for fairness. Economic Theory pp. 67 – 80.

Gentilin (2016), The Origins of Ethical Failures. Lessons for Leaders. Routledge.

Heck et al. (2018), Who lies? A large-scale reanalysis linking basic personality traits to unethical decision making. Judgement and Decision Making pp. 356 – 71

Huck et al. (2014), Two Are Few and Four Are Many: Number Effects in Experimental Oligopolies. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization pp. 435 – 46.

Irvine (2018), ‘Stop being bastards’: how the royal commission could reform banks. Sydney Morning Herald 22 September.

Johnson & Mislin (2011), Trust Games: A Meta-analysis. Journal of Economic Psychology pp. 865 – 89.

Kajackaite & Gneezy (2017), Incentives and cheating. Games and Economic Behavior p. 433 – 44.

Ortmann et al. (2000), Trust, Reciprocity, and Social History: A Re-examination. Experimental Economics pp. 81 – 100.

Rosenbaum et al. (2014), Let’s be honest: A review of experimental evidence of honesty and truth-telling. Journal of Economic Psychology 181 – 96.

Taguchi & Kamijo (2018), Intentions behind disclosure to promote trust under short-terminism: An experimental study. Kochi University of Technology working paper.

Van Koten & Ortmann (2017), Self-regulatory organizations under the shadow of governmental oversight: An experimental investigation. In: Deck et al. (2017), Experiments in Organizational Economics, Research in Experimental Economics 19, 85 – 104.

Comments welcome.

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Ethical failures: Where they come from and how to address them

A review of

Gentilin, Dennis. The Origins of Ethical Failures. Lessons for Leaders. A Gower Book. Routledge (2016). ISBN: 978-1-138-69051-6

Ethical failures were in the press big-time in 2017. Prominently, creeps like Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Bill Cosby, Larry Nassar, etc. were accused of sexual transgressions of various sorts (and in some cases admitted them to varying degrees). The sheer number of accusations leaves little doubt that, in their substance, they are correct. One thing that was truly shocking, on top of the specifics of many of the allegations, was that some of these transgressions went on for literally decades, that many people seem to have known about them for years (if not decades), and that the perpetrators did get away with them for an unconscionably long time. It is clear that organizational failures must have played a major role. This was implicitly acknowledged in the name of  The Royal Commision (RC) into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, established under the Gillard government in 2013 and which reported all 17 volumes of its findings on December 15, 2017. The RC also laid out recommendations.

It did not really come as a surprise that once again massive organizational failure, in particular of the Catholic Church, was identified as a major finding. It did not come as a surprise because for years there had been a never-ending stream of trials, not just in Australia, suggesting just that, and providing plenty of evidence that the Catholic Church – in its (continued) belief that it is a law and world unto itself — had engaged for decades in what might generously be called economy with the truth.

Two weeks earlier, after another year of numerous reports of questionable practices, and record profits of the four major banks, the Turnbull government saw itself forced — by its own backbenchers, no less — to announce that it would establish a RC into misconduct in the banking industry. It was a step that Labor and the Greens had urged for more than a year. (The recent draft report of the Productivity Commission has made clear that some such RC is indeed overdue.) The Turnbull government’s acceptance of something that it could not prevent, and its subsequent attempts to undermine the effectiveness of the RC by simultaneously widening its scope and imposing an essentially unrealistic timeline, demonstrates, at the minimum, the kind of myopic opportunism that Australian politics seems drenched in.

Having graduated in 2001, Gentilin became a member of the FX trading desk of the National Australian Bank (NAB), one of the four major banks.  In 2004 that trading desk became involved in a trading scandal that rocked NAB and led, within a couple of weeks, to the resignation of both its chairman and CEO, the reconfiguration of the board of directors, and significant financial and reputational losses. Gentilin was the young trader who blew the whistle. Contrary to many other whistleblowers (who are typically harrassed out of the organizations on which they blew the whistle), he stayed with NAB for more than a decade – as head of the institutional sales team and a member of the corporate strategy team — before he resigned in January 2016 to found Human Systems Advisory, a name meant to be programmatic. The foreword of his book was written by the current chairman of NAB who states: “There are no simple answers in this book. But there are answers. And there are important truths, supported by deep and rigorous analysis. These should be of interest to all corporate leaders, in both executive and non-executive roles.” (p. xvi).   One such truth, says the chairman – apparently quoting Gentilin – is that “leaders must strive to articulate a meaningful social purpose for their organizations that is underpinned by a virtuous set of values.” That’s quite a mouthful, and the impending Royal Commission on the banking system suggests strongly that the major banks (that tried at first to fight off the RC until they realized that fight had been lost) have continuing trouble to understand that particular message, as does the recent draft of the related Productivity Commission report.

Below, I am interested in both the depth and rigor of the analysis and the truths that Gentilin establishes.  I am also interested in the implementability of the measures that he proposes.

In his Introduction, Gentilin states that he draws his evidence from “behavioural business ethics” which he defines as the intersection of business ethics and psychology (p. 5). While he is credited on his website with a degree in psychology, Gentilin makes clear that he wrote this book as a “practitioner” rather than “an academic, a philosopher or an ethicist” (p. 4). He does so in four chapters that explore “The Power of Context”,  “Group Dynamics”,  “Our Flawed Humanity”, and “What We Fail to See”.  A conclusion follows.

Gentilin relies heavily on summaries of articles from psychology that explore human nature and the circumstances under which nice behaviour might turn into, well, not so nice behaviour of different shades. While there is brief perfunctionary nod (p. 3) to the replicability crisis that has afflicted psychology, throughout the book there is little discussion of relevant laboratory design and implementation issues such as incentivisation, experimenter expectancy effects, external validity, and so on (Hertwig & Ortmann 2001; Ortmann 2005). Never mind the fact that much of the evidence on unethical behaviour paraded in this book has been produced with deceptive practices, arguably an unethical practice itself (Ortmann & Hertwig 2002; Hertwig & Ortmann 2008). There is no discussion of statistical issues such (lack of) power computations, p-hacking, publication biases, and what not here either.

Claiming that “explanations of unethical conduct rarely give proper consideration to the system within which people operate … (and) tend to focus on identifying ‘bad apples’ or ‘rogues’” (p. 7), in Chapter 1, Gentilin explores how the environment can impact human (mis)behaviour and, on balance, concludes that “the ‘barrel’ within which the ‘bad apples’ operate must be given as much (if not more) attention as the ‘bad apples’ themselves.” (p. 8). Before he reviews the lessons to be learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment, Gentilin reviews literature on social norms and how they affect behaviour.  The well-known Cialdini et al. littering and Mazar et al. (dis)honesty studies are paraded, as is an interesting lab study by MacNeil & Sherif (1976) in which the authors demonstrate generational transfer of (questionable) practices, and a related field study by Pierce & Snyder (2008). Distinguishing between descriptive (“derived from what is”) and injunctive (“derived from what ought to be”) norms, Gentilin documents cases where unethical descriptive norms tear to smithereens injunctive ones. He relates this to his reading of what led to the FX trading scandal at the NAB: “young people in particular are vulnerable and endorsing immoral social norms … In the FX trading scandal that engulfed the NAB, immoral social norms emerged that promoted excessive risk taking and misstating the true value of the currency options portfolio.” (pp. 18 – 19). This is hardly surprising, and indeed Gentilin mentions the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal and the professional cycling drug-taking as other high-visibility events. He could have also mentioned the lending practices of major US banks before the housing and mortgage crises (e.g., Gjerstad & Smith 2014), the despicable transgressions at Abu Ghraib, or zillions of other real-world examples.  After having reviewed the Stanford Prison experiment in some detail, Gentilin identifies two important take-home lessons from it: first, a specific context “can cause people of sound character to behave in totally uncharacteristic and inappropriate ways.” (p. 24) and, second, the emergence of such contexts is possible only when leaders allow it. Drawing on more experimental evidence (such as Bandura’s children imitating adults’ behaviour experiments), he suggests the obvious parallel for what happened at NAB: “Just as the adults were the role models in Bandura’s experiments, leaders that control the bases of power are the role models in large organizations. For these leaders there will inevitably appear some key moments where, through their actions, choices and decisions, they will send powerful messages that shape the ethical climate for their organizations and types of social norms that emerge.  … how a leader responds in these ‘defining moments’ shapes the ‘character of their companies’.” (p. 30). Only leaders who are veritable role models will be able to prevent formal mechanism being eroded by informal mechanisms that hammer away at them. Again, Gentilin suggests that such failure of leadership is what happened at NAB and at the Barclays Bank during the LIBOR rate-fixing schedule, and for that matter in the phone-hacking scandal that led to the demise of News of the World. Gentilin concludes the chapter with a list of “ten questions for senior leaders within any organization” (pp. 37 – 38). Presumably, these questions are unlikely to be answered in an honest manner where it matters. It is the evidence accumulated in this chapter but also elsewhere (Dana et al. 2007 comes to mind, or Miller & Ross 1976) that suggests that much.

Gentilin starts off Chapter 2 with a Nietzsche quotation that sets the stage: “Madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups.” (p. 45). The basic point made is that group membership can reinforce – cue social media echo chambers – the drifting away from injunctive norms to descriptive ones. Writes he: “In my experience at the NAB, dysfunctional group dynamics in the currency options business played a significant role in promoting the emergence and maintenance of immoral social norms and unethical behaviour [such as flagrant and persistent limit breaches or excessive risk taking, AO]”.  To buttress the case, Gentilin presents Milgram’s 1974 obedience studies, as well as Gina Perry’s recent critique of them (Perry 2012) which, in light of considerable supporting evidence of the original studies (e.g., Haslam et al. 2014), he dismissesin their substance. He then highlights what we learn from Milgram’s inclusion of a variation that drew on the group paradigm.  That motivates a discussion of the conformity experiments through which Asch (1956) tried to identify the conditions under which participants would contradict a majority.  In this context, Gentilin also briefly discusses a between-subjects study by Woodzicka & LeFrance (2001) who had a male interviewer ask female applicants inappropriate questions. The basic result was that 6 out of 10 subjects claimed they would object (hypothetically) but none in the control group refused the answer in a “real-life” scenario.  That seems the kind of pattern that allowed the Weinsteins of this world to get their way for too long. Only in the case of Weinstein and similar assholes (here used in the technical sense of Sutton 2007), the stakes were arguably considerably higher. People’s lack of willingness to stand up and be counted is, unfortunately, so widespread that it is well documented and it is a recurrent theme of great movies such as Hidden Figures.  Gentilin makes clear that, based on his experience at NAB, “facing the fork in the road in a hypothetical scenario is vastly different from facing it in reality.” (p. 67) He also states, “I am personally sceptical of other research into whistleblowing that focuses on ascertaining the types of personality or dispositional characteristics that may predict whether an observer of wrongdoing will take action and report it. …This line of enquiry fails to properly consider the power of the situation.” (p. 67). Gentilin concludes the chapter with another list of “ten questions for senior leaders (and followers) within any organization” (pp. 73). I doubt that these questions will be answered in an honest manner where it matters, for essentially the exact reason that Gentilin has identified in the chapter.

In Chapter 3, Gentilin – notwithstanding his, in my considered opinion, sensible stand on the relative importance of context and dispositional characteristics – dives into “our flawed humanity”. Programmatically, he starts with an epigraph featuring a quotation from Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing has ever been made.” (p. 80).  Gentilin then tries to answer questions such as “Are Humans Self-Interested?”, cursorily sampling evidence from experimental economics, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. Predictably he concludes that this research shows that “human nature (is) far different from the one suggested by the axiom of self-interest” (p. 86), though he qualifies the statement with the caveat that we are not always altruistic and cooperative.  This alleged “paradigm shift” (p. 87) is, unfortunately, the major bone of contention between those marketing Behavioural Economics (and often shamelessly benefitting from it) and those doing Experimental Economics, and I believe that the social-preferences literature that has created it has as much merits as the IN oxytocin, ego depletion, and power poses research now, for all I can see, thoroughly debunked. Better not plan your life, or organization, on such flimsy evidence. From an evidence point of view, and also a theory point of view (e.g., the important insights stemming from repeated game situations), this chapter is the weakest.  Gentilin’s sampling of the evidence strikes me as scattershot and unsystematic. After discussions of issues such as power and its corrupting influence and fear and awareness of our own mortality that feeds into it, Gentilin concludes the chapter with a list of “eleven questions for senior leaders within any organization” (pp. 118)  I fear, these questions, again, are unlikely to be answered in an honest manner where it matters.

In Chapter 4, Gentilin starts with a quotation from Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow: “We can be blind to the obvious, and we can also be blind to our blindness.”  This double-whammy – a variant of the Dunning – Krueger effect — is why questions to senior leaders are unlikely to be answered honestly and self-critically.  After a brief mention of another persistent bone of contention – the System 1 / System 2 delineation  – and our alleged propensity to rely too much on automatic system 1 which makes us, presumably, liable to various biases (in this chapter loss aversion, framing, overconfidence, moral disengagement, euphemistic labelling), Gentilin lays out the slippery-slope argument that in his view was at the heart of the events that led to the NAB trading scandal: “The FX trading incident at the NAB classically illustrated the slippery slope in action. Not only did ethical standards erode over time, but the seriousness of the ethical transgressions accelerated … “ (p. 130). Laboratory evidence is provided to  make that point (e.g., the interesting Gino & Bazerman 2008 study) along with field evidence from the NAB case (pp. 131). An intervention discussed here is to give people more time and essentially get them to break out of their System 1 mode: “There are now numerous studies that illustrate how providing a person with more time whenever they are confronted with an ethical dilemma tends to lead to a more virtuous decision being made.” (pp. 146-7). I have serious doubt about the relevance of, say, the Good-Samaritian study mentioned here for real-world decision making and suspect that a theoretical grounding in organizational economics and repeated game theory would really help to address the challenges that organizations and their leaders face.

Gentilin concludes his book with a plea for more (business ethics) education, a call for the installation of Chief Ethics Officers, and more Lessons for Leaders. He wants business schools to challenge their students intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. That sounds like something straight out of a high-gloss advertisement such schools produce. The reality, however, of Australian business schools (and undoubtedly business schools everywhere) is that they are rarely intellectually demanding. Their inability to challenge their students emotionally and spiritually is shown effectively by their treatment of casuals and staff. What business schools typically do not have are, in particular, truly independent ethics officers, and HR departments, that could hold the feet of currently widely unaccountable senior leadership to the fire. So, while the idea of a Chief Ethics Officer, who has “a genuine ‘seat at the table’” (p. 161), and is independent, able to freely raise matters of concern, and able to freely “speak truth to power” (p. 161), is conceptually on the money, realistically it is very unlikely to be implemented any time soon, as are truly independent HR departments. As to Lessons for Leaders, Gentilin wants them to be virtuous in the sense of having some community-oriented values.  There is a lot of wishful thinking on display here (e.g., that others are willing to take the same risks that he took in 2004) but I think, after everything we learned through the flurry of recent examples mentioned at the beginning of this review, there is not much reason for hope. Even something that should have been uncontroversial, such as the Royal Commission on banking, and the way it came about, demonstrates that common ground is hard to find and cannot be relied on. I fear much harder thinking will be needed to address ethical failures and I fear some strategies will be of the innovative kind provided by the #MeToo campaign that not only has brought down some true monsters but is likely to have changed power and gender relations in the working world irreversibly.

In summary then, Gentilin tackles arguably the most important issue of our times – ethical failures within organizations and for that matter ethical failures more generally. His book is strongest where he illustrates the emergence of his insights with examples from his own NAB 2004 experience. His illustration of various arguments he makes with evidence from behavioural business ethics is wanting. As pointed out above, to his credit Gentilin himself – although unaware of important methodological debates among psychologists as well as between psychologists and economists – grasps intuitively the lack of external validity of some of the evidence that he presents and it is clear that his NAB 2004 experience has been a good guide to identify which laboratory evidence has some external validity, and which does not. I think the book could be considerably improved with a more even-handed and complete assessment of the evidence from psychology and other social sciences (and here in particular economics) as well as an additional focus on incentive-compatible organizational design.  To rely on business ethics education in business schools (whether in Australia or elsewhere) or a sense of community oriented-ness of business leaders is just not going to cut the mustard, as the widely perceived need for the Royal Commission in the banking system demonstrates.

Having recently interacted with NAB, once again, with mortgage related issues, I have no doubt that NAB culture is pervaded with everything but a meaningful social purpose that is underpinned by a virtuous set of values (e.g., the loan officer I dealt with did everything to prevent me from comparison shopping, and essentially gave me misleading information about the rates that I would be getting), and I have little doubt that the same applies to each of the other three major banks. There is a reason why the major banks in Australia have had outsized profits and some of the highest returns on equity in the world. The recent draft of the related Productivity Commission report spells them out.

 

I appreciate Dennis Gentilin’s comments on a draft of this review.

 

How to tax the platform economy?

In the engine room of nation states, ie the tax departments, the coming battle with platform providers is taking shape. Uber, airbnb, facebook, linkedin, ebay, jobseek, and a myriad of specialised platform providers facilitate micro-trades that are largely untaxed by the authorities. In stead, the platform providers themselves take a cut, partially via advertising and partially via a direct fee for their services. They have taken over an activity that has mainly been provided by governments in the past: places to trade. The town square, the stock exchange, public infrastructure, and the unemployment office are relics of a past where governments were market providers that facilitated trades. Now, it is largely private companies with tax-avoidance structures that have taken on this role on the internet. That role is set to expand hugely.

This is a crucial battle that, so far, the tax authorities are losing because they have not yet grasped the magnitude of the shift. They lack the key new power that they must attain: the power to deny the operation of a platform provider in their country.

At the moment, tax authorities around the world, lead by the Scandinavians whose tax needs are high, are going the usual ‘reporting route’. They are trying to get Uber, Airbnb, and all the other ones to report the trades and the value of the trades that they have facilitated. Understandably, these companies are refusing to play ball because they of course are taxing the same trades themselves in a different way. They are competing with national tax authorities and hence their business model depends on tax evasion, so of course they refuse to help their competitors. Their lawyers make millions from refusing to play ball. The horror example for these companies is the 2015 data on Uber that had to be released to the Dutch tax authorities and that was subsequently shared with Denmark which promptly went after the drivers for added tax payments. This reflected the circumstance that the administration of Uber was in the Netherlands at that time, which allowed the Dutch to force Uber to hand over some of their data, a mistake Uber wont make again. The others too will have learned a salutary lesson from that episode.

Frustrated, the tax authorities are turning to pretty hopeless measures, such as new international treaties on the reporting of micro-trades by private entities. In a race to the bottom between countries trying to attract large companies, that is just a hopeless avenue where the authorities will always be many steps behind the tax-advisers of the big trading platforms.

What are the next moves we might then see when the tax authorities get up to speed? I think two developments are likely: full internet observation by national agencies and government-lead internet firms.

Full internet observation follows the model of China, which now has the capacity to track most of the internet activity of most of the population. That allows it to observe the trades facilitated on internet platforms, which in turn can be used for tax purposes. Those observations can be used to directly go after individual traders or can be used to go after the platform providers, simply by making their activities illegal if the platforms do not assist in tax observations. Adopting the China route would spell the end of internet privacy, but it probably works. And tax is such a key part of the nation state that it in the end trumps privacy concerns.

The second possibility is for the government to re-enter the market for platforms and set up its own internet firms for micro-trades and social media. It can simply copy the best examples on the internet for how to set these things up. The transition will come with losses, but authorities can appeal to national pride to get support from their populations and companies cannot compete with that. For micro-trades within a country or tax region (the US and, in the future, the EU) that should work. For international trades, one should expect more difficulties because government-backed firms from different countries might then directly compete with each other, which in turn might lead to competency battles and new dispute resolution mechanisms.

Why Blockchain has no economic future

When Bitcoin went public in 2009 it introduced to the world of finance and economics the technology of blockchain. Even the many who thought Bitcoin would never make it as a major currency were intrigued by the BlockChain technology and a large set of new companies have tried to figure out how to offer new services based on blockchain technology. It is still fair to say that very few economists and social scientists understand blockchain, and governments are even further behind.

I will argue that blockchain has no economic future in the regular economy. I will give you the bottom-line, then describe blockchain, discuss its key supposed advantages, and then take it apart as a viable technology by giving you a much more efficient alternative to the same market demand opportunities.

The bottom line for those not interested in the intricacies of blockchains and public trust

The essence of my argument is that a large country can organise a much more trustworthy information system than a distributed network using blockchain can, and at lower costs, meaning that any large economic role for blockchain is easily displaced by a cheaper and even larger national institution.

So in the 19th century, large private companies circulated their own money, in competition with towns and princedoms. In that competition, national governments won, as they will again now.

The reason that the tech community is investing in blockchain companies is partially because some are in love with the technicalities of blockchain, some hope to attract the same criminal and gullible element that Bitcoin has, some lack awareness of the evolution and reality of political systems, and some see a second-best opportunity not yet taken by others. But even in this brief period of missing-in-action governments, large companies will easily outperform blockchain communities on any mayor market. Except the criminal markets, which is hence the only real future of blockchain communities. Continue reading “Why Blockchain has no economic future”

Why would banks eliminate ATM fees?

Over the past two days, the four major Australian banks have eliminated ATM fees charged to users who are not their customers who use their ATMs. This is great news for people who do not use ATMs of their own banks. They no longer have to pay the fees — that have been transparent since 2009 — that were charged by ATMs — at least those owned by the four major banks. Not surprisingly, the media is fawning over it as are politicians.

But nothing tickles an economist’s spidy sense like this. Wait a second? Banks have decided to charge nothing for a service, that people who are otherwise not their customers for any other products, use? I have to ask: doesn’t this use impose direct costs on the banks? Aren’t those costs likely to be non-trivial? Aren’t those costs likely to rise substantially as consumers do not suffer the pain at the ATM of paying for those costs? The stench no economist nose is picking up is quite pugnant.

The news articles all say that this was the result of government pressure. To be sure, it is just that. There are no laws preventing such things nor has any government wanted to pass them.

And there is a good reason for that. This will have consequences.

For starters, there are going to be fewer ATMs; at least from the big four banks. They no longer have to roll them out to please their own customers, so they won’t. If you all decide a service will be free, it will be supplied by a free service. In addition, independent ATM operators — who charge the highest fees — will also see returns slashed by the new competitive pressure and so they will pull back to. As for smaller banks and credit unions, they get a gift. People will use their ATMs less but since they likely didn’t earn anything other than covering their costs, they might even expand a little. However, in the aggregate, there will be fewer ATMs.

(Actually, the smaller banks really do benefit from all of this. I am not saying that is a bad thing per se but once again, why are the majors giving them this gift?)

I have not been following recent regulatory developments but it strikes me that this may be the first act in trying to get a better deal under the hood. Banks are doing this to get lighter regulation elsewhere. Perhaps to avoid a Royal Commission? This is something that Australians will need to watch out for.

Personally, I have not really bought the notion that Australian banks are colluding on things like interest rates. (I looked). But this time, one bank (the CBA) seemingly unilaterally eliminated fees (for people who weren’t their own customers) and then the other banks followed. The only way the CBA’s customers benefited from this was if the other banks followed. Otherwise, there is no benefit coming back to the CBA. So there is no private benefit, only a group benefits. Usually, those things do not happen without explicit coordination.