University of Pennsylvania

Carey School of Law, Wharton School of Business

Working Papers

Social Security and Trends in Inequality (with Sylvain Catherine and Max Miller)

Recent influential work finds large increases in inequality in the U.S. based on measures of wealth concentration that notably exclude the value of social insurance programs. This paper revisits this conclusion by incorporating Social Security retirement benefits into measures of wealth inequality. We find that top wealth shares have not increased in the last three decades when Social Security is properly accounted for. This finding is robust to assumptions about how taxes and benefits may change in response to system financing concerns. When discounted at the risk-free rate, real Social Security wealth increased substantially from $4.8 trillion in 1989 to $41.3 trillion in 2016. When we adjust the discount rate for long-run macroeconomic risk, this increase remains sizable, growing from over $3.9 trillion in 1989 to $33.9 trillion in 2016. Consequently, by 2016, Social Security wealth represents 57% of the wealth of the bottom 90% of the wealth distribution.

Presentations: Red Rock Finance Conference (Best Paper Award), NBER SI Research on Income and Wealth, NYU Household Finance Conference*, CEPR Household Finance Conference, Chicago Household Finance Conference, Virtual Finance Conference, Virtual Public Finance Seminar, NBER Public Economics

Media: The Economist, ProMarket, Economics 21

What Private Equity Does Differently: Evidence from Life Insurance (with Divya Kirti)

How do private equity firms impact their portfolio companies? We study this question using comprehensive data on their investments in the life insurance industry, which grew ten-fold from $23 billion to $250 billion between 2009 and 2014. Private equity-backed insurers exhibit superior returns. But there is no evidence that this is a consequence of general partners' skill. Rather, private equity firms increase the asset risk of their subsidiaries without commensurate capital charges and decrease tax liabilities. Results based on high-frequency event studies and matching techniques support a causal interpretation. Indeed, private equity firms deliver these changes to their subsidiaries within days of taking over. This improves insurers' performance, but also introduces risks that rating agencies appear to ignore.

Presentations: NYU/Penn Law & Finance Conference, IMF Annual Conference*, European Financial Association*

Price Regulation in Two-Sided Markets: Empirical Evidence from Debit Cards (with Vladimir Mukharlyamov)

This paper studies the impact of price regulation in two-sided markets, where intermediaries must get both sides of the market on board. Since platforms such as debit card networks can only succeed by simultaneously convincing consumers to use cards and merchants to accept them, they often subsidize one side of the market to generate supracompetitive profits from the other side (Rochet and Tirole 2003). Using a novel dataset on card processing fees, we show a regulation restricting banks’ ability to charge high processing fees (the Durbin Amendment of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act) transferred value from the previously subsidized side of the market—consumers—to merchants. Our evidence adds empirical support to the concern that market failures in two-sided markets are hard to identify, and even harder to correct.

Presentations: AFA, NBER SI Household Finance, Booth Conference on Financial Regulation*, NYU Stern Women in Finance, Philadelphia Federal Reserve Consumer Finance Conference, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Society for Empirical Legal Studies (Theodore Eisenberg Prize), Brookings Institute

The Cost of Doing Business: Financial Crime and Punishment Post-Crisis (with Dorothy Lund)

In this paper, we take important first steps in determining how corporate crime, and financial institution crime in particular, is responding to the DOJ’s enforcement regime and its shifting priorities. Specifically, we proxy for financial crime using three novel sources: the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), consumer complaints made to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and whistleblower complaints made to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Each source reveals a steep increase in complaints or reports indicative of financial institution misconduct. We also examine levels of public company recidivism, which are also on the rise. And we document a potential cause: recidivist companies are much larger than non-recidivist companies, but they receive smaller fines than non-recidivist companies (measured as a percentage of assets and revenue). In theory, high fines can supply adequate deterrence by themselves, but our results indicate that it might not be politically feasible to levy a sufficiently high fine to deter future incidents of corporate crime. Put differently, for large companies, criminal penalties may be just another cost of doing business—and quite a reasonable cost at that.

Presentations: Corporate Law Academic Series, Yale Law & Economics Seminar*

Media: Corporate Crime Reporter, Columbia Blue Sky Blog

Deregulatory Deceptions (with Cary Coglianese, Stuart Shapiro)

President Donald Trump and his supporters like to point to the positive economic trends the United States experienced prior to the COVID pandemic. They argue that these positive conditions stemmed from the President’s policies, especially his emphasis on deregulation. But what has the Trump Administration really accomplished when it comes to regulation? The answer is much less than the Administration has claimed—and much less than probably most members of the public would surmise. We compare the claims the Administration has made about its deregulatory accomplishments with what the evidence can sustain. Drawing on an original compilation of data on federal regulation from over the last four years, we find three new completed actions appear in agencies’ regulatory agendas for every one that is labeled deregulatory. When we look at just economically significant actions, even on assumptions favorable to the Administration, we find only one deregulatory action for every one action labeled as regulatory. Overall, we find that every claim we examine about the Trump Administration’s deregulatory efforts is either wrong or exaggerated. The reality is that the Trump Administration has done less deregulating than regulating, and its deregulatory actions have not achieved any demonstrable boost to the economy.

Media: The Regulatory Review, Bloomberg

Research Papers

Relaxing Household Liquidity Constraints through Social Security (with Sylvain Catherine and Max Miller), Journal of Public Economics (forthcoming)

More than a quarter of working-age households in the United States do not have sufficient savings to cover their expenditures after a month of unemployment. We explore proposals to alleviate financial distress arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. We show that giving workers early access to just 1% of their future Social Security benefits allows most households to maintain their current consumption for at least two months. Unlike other approaches (like early access to retirement accounts, stimulus relief checks, and expanded unemployment insurance), access to Social Security serves the needs of workers made vulnerable by the crisis, but does not increase the overall liabilities of the federal government or have distortionary effects on the labor market.

Shrinking the Tax Gap: A Comprehensive Approach (with Lawrence H. Summers and Charles Rossotti), Tax Notes

In this short article, we come together to provide some detail about the steps a new administration should take to attack the tax gap. Many useful actions can be taken through near-term executive actions. More fundamental changes are likely to require legislation. These reforms will not only generate major amounts of long-term revenue from taxes already on the books but, equally important, they will create a system that is fairer to the majority of compliant taxpayers and provide a far sounder foundation for our federal tax system, which accounts for close to a fifth of the entire U.S. GDP. Combining the insights of our past work, we reach the conclusion that investing less than $100 billion in the IRS over a decade will generate $1.2 trillion to $1.4 trillion in additional tax revenue, primarily from high-income individuals, who are disproportionately responsible for underpayment of owed tax liabilities.

Understanding the Revenue Potential of Tax Compliance Investment (with Lawrence H. Summers), Tax Notes

In a July 2020 report, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that modest investments in the IRS would generate somewhere between $60 and $100 billion in additional revenue over a decade. This is qualitatively correct. But quantitatively, the revenue potential is much more significant than the CBO report suggests. We highlight five reasons for the CBO’s underestimation: 1) the scale of the investment in the IRS contemplated is modest and far short of sufficient even to return the IRS budget to 2011 levels; 2) the CBO contemplates a limited range of interventions, excluding entirely progress on information reporting and technological advancements; 3) the estimates assume rapidly diminishing returns to marginal increases in investment; 4) the estimates leave out the effect of increased enforcement on taxpayer decision-making; and 5) the use of the 10-year window means that the long-run benefits of increased enforcement are excluded. We discuss these issues, present an alternative calculation, and conclude that a commitment to restoring tax compliance efforts to historical levels could generate over $1 trillion in the next decade.

Dynamic Regulation, Southern Calif. Law Review (forthcoming)

There is widespread consensus that the Great Recession did not have to be as Great: Had regulators acted earlier, its consequences would have been less severe. Two explanations are typically offered for early inaction. The first is that crises occur unexpectedly, so there is little time to respond aggressively. The second is that even regulators who suspected a downturn was imminent lacked the legal authority to intervene. This Article disputes these myths. First, empirical evidence demonstrates that there was over a year between the first tremors in financial markets and the crash. Second, legal analysis illustrates that regulators had at their disposal significant authority to bolster banks. In fact, they used this authority with respect to small banks, but not large, systemically important firms.

There is an alternative explanation for the tepid initial response to the crisis. Regulators’ default is inaction until regulatory measures of bank health signal distress. These measures are slow to update—in many cases, the day before banks failed, their regulatory capital measures suggested no cause for concern. In the absence of significant change, regulators will inevitably be fire-fighting future financial crises ex-post; rather than successfully policing financial markets ex-ante. The next crisis can be prevented. But to do so will require an overhaul of the financial regulatory regime. This Article proposes a way forward. It advocates for automating aggressive action when financial markets indicate that distress is likely. Such reform will finally make costly bank failures a relic of the past.

Presentations: Duke Law & Economics Seminar, Michigan Law & Economics Seminar, Georgetown Law & Economics Seminar

What’s in Your Wallet (and What Should the Law Do About it?), Chicago Law Review

In traditional markets, firms can charge prices that are significantly elevated relative to their costs only if there is a market failure. However, this is not true in a two-sided market (like Amazon, Uber, and Mastercard), where firms often subsidize one side of the market and generate revenue from the other. This means consideration of one side of the market in isolation is problematic. The Court embraced this view in Ohio v. American Express, requiring that anticompetitive harm on one side of a two-sided market be weighed against benefits on the other side.

Legal scholars denounce this decision, which, practically, will make it much more difficult to wield antitrust as a tool to rein in two-sided markets. This inability is concerning as two-sided markets are growing in importance. Furthermore, the pricing structures used by platforms can be regressive, with those least well-off subsidizing their affluent and financially-sophisticated counterparts.

In this Article, I argue that consumer protection, rather than antitrust, is best suited to tame two-sided markets. Consumer protection authority allows for intervention on the grounds that platform users create unavoidable externalities for all consumers. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) has broad power to curtail “unfair, abusive, and deceptive practices.” This authority can be used to restrict practices that decrease consumer welfare, like the anti-steering rules at issue in Ohio v. American Express.

Presentations: Chicago Antitrust Symposium

Tax Reform for Progressivity: A Pragmatic Approach (with Lawrence H. Summers and Joe Kupferberg) , The Hamilton Project

In the coming decades, federal spending will need to grow just to enable the government to continue to provide the services it does today. One important weakness in the tax system that funds this spending is insufficient tax compliance: In 2020 the IRS will fail to collect more than $630 billion, or nearly 15 percent of tax liabilities. Illegal tax evasion generates unfair differences in tax payments across otherwise similar individuals and firms.

The tax code also presents many legal opportunities for tax avoidance. Taxpayers differ in their ability to benefit from these opportunities, generating further inequities. Tax avoidance can also lead taxpayers to engage in socially unproductive activities (e.g., avoiding realization of capital gains in order to benefit from stepped-up basis).

Presentations: Brookings Institution (video), National Tax Association, Penn-Wharton Budget Model

Making Consumer Finance Work, Columbia Law Review

The financial crisis exposed major fault lines in banking and financial markets more broadly. Policymakers responded with far- reaching regulation that created a new agency—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—and changed the structure and function of these markets.

Consumer advocates cheered reforms as welfare enhancing, while the financial sector declared that consumers would be harmed by interventions. With a decade of data now available, this Article examines the successes and failures of the consumer finance reform agenda. Specifically, it marshals data from every zip code and bank in the United States to test the efficacy of three of the most significant postcrisis reforms: in the debit, credit, and overdraft markets.

The results are surprising. Despite cosmetic similarities, these reforms had very different outcomes. Two (changes in the credit and overdraft markets) increase consumer welfare, while the other (in the debit market) decreases it. These findings run counter to prior work by prominent legal scholars and encourage reevaluation of our (mis)conceptions about the efficacy of regulation.

The evidence leads to several insights for regulatory design. First, banks regularly levy hidden fees on consumers, obscuring the true cost of financial products. Regulators should restrict such practices. Second, consumer finance markets are regressive: Low-income customers often pay higher prices than their higher-income counterparts. Regulators should address this inequity. Finally, banks tend to discourage regulation by promising their costs will be passed through to consumers. Regulators should not be overly swayed by their dire warnings.

Presentations: University of Pennsylvania Law, University of Virginia Law, Northwestern Law & Economics Seminar, Texas Law & Economics Seminar, Stanford Behavioral Law Workshop, Berkeley Law and Economics Seminar

Shrinking the Tax Gap: Approaches and Revenue Potential (with Lawrence H. Summers), Tax Notes

Between 2020 and 2029, the IRS will fail to collect nearly $7.5 trillion of taxes it is due. It is not possible to calculate with precision how much of this “tax gap” could be collected. This paper offers a naïve approach. The analysis suggests that with feasible changes in policy, the IRS could aspire to shrink the tax gap by around 15 percent in the next decade—generating over $1 trillion in additional revenue by performing more audits (especially of high-income earners), increasing information reporting requirements, and investing in information technology. These investments will increase efficiency and are likely to be very progressive.

Related: VoxEU April 2020

Understanding Bank Risk through Market Measures (with Lawrence H. Summers), Brookings Papers on Economic Activity

Since the financial crisis, there have been major changes in the regulation of large banks directed at reducing their risk. Measures of regulatory capital have substantially increased; leverage ratios have been reduced; and stress-testing has sought to further assure safety by raising levels of capital and reducing risk-taking. Standard financial theories predict that such changes would lead to substantial declines in financial market measures of risk. For major banks in the United States and around the world and for midsized banks in the United States, we test this proposition using information on stock price volatility, option-based estimates of future volatility, beta, credit default swaps, price–earnings ratios, and preferred stock yields. To our surprise, we find that financial market information does not bear out the predictions of financial theory. Measures of volatility and risk premiums today are no lower and perhaps somewhat higher than they were prior to the financial crisis. We examine a number of possible explanations for our findings. While financial markets underestimated risk prior to the crisis and regulatory measures of capital are flawed, we believe that the most important explanation for our findings is the dramatic decline in the franchise value of major banks. We highlight that the ratio of the market value of common equity to assets on both a risk-adjusted and risk-unadjusted basis has declined significantly from the precrisis period to the current period for most major banks. As a consequence, banks are more vulnerable to adverse shocks. We argue for taking a dynamic view of capital that recognizes future profits as a source of capital, and urge approaches to financial regulation supervision that will reliably force rapid capital replenishment in difficult times—something that did not take place in the United States in 2008 and is not taking place in Europe today.