The Inefficiency of Long Hours

Writing for The New Yorker, James Surowiecki explores the downside of working long hours:

The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality. Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level. As [David] Solomon put it, past a certain point overworked people become “less efficient and less effective.” And the effects are cumulative. The bankers [Alexandra] Michel studied started to break down in their fourth year on the job. They suffered from depression, anxiety, and immune-system problems, and performance reviews showed that their creativity and judgment declined.

"Is Everything We Know About Password-Stealing Wrong?"

The next time your bank or credit-card company frantically calls and texts and e-mails you (all at the same time) to say it has noticed "suspicious activity" on your account -- like buying gas in a ZIP code a bit poorer than your own -- and says it has suspended your account "for your protection," tell them to read this paper, by Dinei Florencio and Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research. A key passage:

We show that, in spite of appearances, password-stealing is a bad business proposition. ... It is worth, at the outset, dispelling a widely-held misapprehension about password-stealing. Thieves certainly steal passwords, and money is certainly a large part of their motivation, but when they successfully extract money from financial accounts individual consumers do not pay. In the US, Regulation E of the Federal Reserve limits consumer liability, in the event of fraud, to $50 (this is separate from the $50 limit for credit-card fraud, Regulation CC) and covers "any electronic transfer that is initiated through an electronic terminal, telephone, computer or magnetic tape." In the US banks, brokerages, and credit unions are governed by this regulation and most go beyond it and o ffer a zero liability policy to consumers.

(HT: Peter Baehr)

Are Corporate Fines High Enough to Make a Difference?

The last three months have seen several large corporate fines levied in response to various high-profile financial scandals, but an article in The Economist asks if fines are still not high enough to actually deter crime:

The economics of crime prevention starts with a depressing assumption: executives simply weigh up all their options, including the illegal ones. Given a risk-free opportunity to mis-sell a product, or form a cartel, they will grab it. Most businesspeople are not this calculating, of course, but the assumption of harsh rationality is a useful way to work out how to deter rule-breakers.

Extremely high and extremely low fines both carry costs, so The Economist suggests a middle ground: fines that offset the benefits of the crime itself.

Financial Literacy Solutions, Information-Design Edition

In our latest podcast, “What Do Hand-Washing and Financial Illiteracy Have in Common?” we talked about America's financial literacy problem, a topic we’ve written about before. In the podcast, two Council of Economic Advisers chairmen discuss the role of financial illiteracy in the recession. And economist Annamaria Lusardi and legal scholar Lauren Willis offer their solutions to the problem.

Two designers, Tristan Cook and Thomas Nelson of Humans in Design, also have a pitch.

One Man's Story of a Very Unwilling Bank

A reader we'll call H., who's in the rental-property business, writes in with a bizarre story about his bank. Assuming it is at least 60% true from both sides (his side and the bank's), what are we to make of this?

My partner and I were looking to obtain a small business loan. Our banker told us that loans are very hard to obtain because banks are being very stringent. Not like we were going to shut down without a loan, but we figured it could help us grow the business. So, in an effort to build credit (and a good relationship) for our business with a major U.S. bank, my partner and I proposed to our banker that we would give him $50,000 cash to hold onto and in return, have the bank loan us $50k for 5 years. Basically we were securing the loan with cash as collateral. This way, we could prove to the bank that we are a responsible business and were hoping that after this first loan, the bank will be willing to lend to us in the future with more favorable terms.

What if We Paid Bank Regulators for Performance?

Well then they probably wouldn't make much money would they? Zing! No but seriously. A new paper by two law professors, Frederick Tung of Boston University and M. Todd Henderson of Chicago, proposes just that. Here's the abstract (with a link to the full paper):

The authors are essentially proposing giving regulators stakes in the banks they oversee, by tying their bonuses to the changing value of the banks' securities, theoretically giving them a motive to intervene when things look dicey. If the incentives are well designed, the authors argue, regulators would capture the benefits that accrue from making banks more valuable, and suffer the negative consequences when banks fail.

Did Rating Agencies Give Preference to Big Banks?

At the heart of the financial crisis was the market for mortgage-backed securities (MBS). These are the "toxic assets" that larded up bank balance sheets and all but froze the credit markets in the fall of 2008. Turns out a lot of those assets are still sitting there. Though they've mostly been downgraded to junk status, many of them began life as gold-plated investment products thanks to the AAA ratings they received from the rating agencies Moody's, S&P, and Fitch. These firms that allowed so much junk to be passed off as gold were essentially the enablers of the financial crisis.

The relationship between the rating agencies and banks is a perfect case study of flawed incentives. With banks paying them to rate their investment products, and so much money pouring in at the height of the mortgage-boom (driving record profits for the highly competitive rating agencies), Moody's, S&P, and Fitch had a strong incentive to play along.

A new study adds more fodder to the argument that these agencies were unduly influenced by the institutions whose products they were grading. It basically posits that the more MBS an institution issued, the better rating their stuff received.

Mistrust and the Great Recession

Four years ago, 75% of Americans said that they had confidence in financial institutions or banks. Following the financial crisis, that number has fallen dramatically, to 45%. This well-earned public mistrust may be yet one more factor retarding the recovery of the financial sector, and possibly the broader economy. Survey data also show that trust […]

Volcker on the "Volcker Rule"

Volcker thinks "[w]e could have done better" on the reform bill.

Chianti as Collateral

Italian banks may soon accept fine wines and dry-cured hams as collateral on loans.