Do family benefits provide a welfare pedestal?

The concept of a welfare pedestal has been popularized by Noel Pearson. As a lawyer and passionate advocate for the interests of aboriginal people who live on the Cape York Peninsula of North Queensland, some readers might expect that he would spend his time arguing for more government hand-outs to remedy social problems in aboriginal communities. However, Pearson recognizes that the welfare programs are actually a major cause of the social problems in those communities and his main focus is on finding ways to stop hand-outs from harming his clients. He is not against government help for his clients, he just wants to ensure that it does them more good than harm.

The insight behind the welfare pedestal is that welfare payments can provide perverse incentives by encouraging some people to remain on welfare rather than to seek paid employment. Over the last decade or so, concern about an emerging problem of inter-generational welfare dependency (in non-indigenous communities as well as indigenous communities) has led to some tightening up in the provisions attached to unemployment benefits. It is too soon to claim that the problems associated with unemployment benefits and pretend work schemes have all been resolved, but the problems are now widely recognized and some appropriate remedial action is being taken.

The example of a government program contributing to the welfare pedestal that Pearson gives in his recent lecture, ‘Pathways to Prosperity for Indigenous People’, is family benefits. He suggests:
‘Life on the welfare pedestal in a country that distributes money through a generous family tax benefit system is quite a rational choice’ (The Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture, New Zealand Business Roundtable, 2010).

I had not previously thought of the family tax benefit in that way. I have tended to view the family tax benefit as a kind of negative income tax, providing net benefits for families with low and modest incomes. I was previously aware of adverse incentives resulting from fairly high effective marginal tax rates for people on fairly modest family incomes above the point where the means test begins to cut in (about $45,000). According to the way economists usually look at these things, however, a family with four children obtaining $19,600 per annum from family benefits has no disincentive to obtaining additional income from work of more than $25,000.

In another paper Pearson acknowledges that the absence of punitive marginal tax rates is probably not an important consideration when people in Cape York Peninsula make their decisions about how many hours of the week they allocate to work or leisure. He writes:

‘Indigenous parents are having large families at an earlier age. Their welfare payments add up to a significant yearly wage. This income is received without them ever having to make any active decisions about education or work. When they have started receiving family payments, they face this choice: have an income which they are prepared to exist on for minimal work obligations or work longer hours for a limited increase in income and significantly less leisure time.
The behaviour of people in our communities indicates that many of our people do not intend to increase their income by increasing their labour supply. In some remote communities, it has been difficult to find applicants for the real jobs that do exist, despite the fact that the vast majority of people are unemployed’.

Pearson argues that ‘conditions and incentives to make active and beneficial life choices should apply to family payments’ even though he acknowledges that problems arise because such payments ‘are not indigenous-specific schemes’.

That poses a question: If people make the choice to live on generally available family benefits rather than to earn higher incomes, why should we view this as a problem? I see no problem in individuals choosing to live on low incomes. We should respect the choices that some individuals make to live a life of poverty (and of chastity too, if that is their choice). I can’t see why anyone should have a problem with individuals making whatever income/leisure choice that they desire.

I can see a problem, however, in governments providing family benefits to people who do not have adequate regard for the well-being of their children. I think we (taxpayers/voters) should insist that family assistance should only be provided to parents when they meet conditions such as ensuring that their children attend school regularly. Perhaps it would not be too difficult for a prime minister who has a special interest in educational opportunity to find a simple way for such a condition to be applied to family tax benefits across all sections of the community.

Daily Ranking: Bricks, mortar and jobs

Well, one could note the regional unemployment rate dropped below 8%.  Almost sounds like bad news.

To dig into the numbers beyond the headline…  according to a report from the Associated General Contractors of America the total gain in the absolute # of construction jobs here over the last year, +1,800 between December 2009 and December 2010, was the 4th largest gain among all metro areas. Gain, as in increase. Only Columbus, Dallas and Phoenix had more.  Curious, since I am bit unclear what construction is ramping up of late.

But when have we ever lead the nation in construction employment trends?

Fraud on GLD holders?

Further to my post yesterday, FOFOA left this comment on his blog discussing two risks he sees with GLD:

1. That the gold in GLD has multiple claims on it. Quote: “GLD’s gold bars originated as reserves in the mainstream bullion banking system. That is, they are essentially reserves on loan to the ETF from the bullion bank’s fractional reserves. And the lending of anything always creates a synthetic supply” and “that lent its reserves to paper GLD investors in the first place”

2. That shorting of GLD results in multiple claims on the gold: Quote: “The other side is the lending of this “synthetic gold supply” that creates an additional synthetic supply of synthetic gold. When someone shorts GLD they borrow the shares from someone else. And that same share can potentially be borrowed again and again.”

My short response is I disagree with 1 in respect of “lending” but agree with 2. Now for the long response.

The idea in point 1 that GLD has encumbered gold in it was raised in Catherine Fitts’ “Precious Metals Puzzle Palace” and also Hinde Capital’s “Precious Metals ETF Alchemy GLD – the new CDO in disguise?”

I discussed this issue in this post. If Authorised Participants borrowed physical (or used physical backing their unallocated liabilities to their clients, which is the same thing) and delivered that to GLD, there is no claim or encumbrance by the original lender to the Authorised Participant on those bars held by GLD.

To claim otherwise is to question the entire basis of Allocated gold that the market (and “giants”) operate and rely on, as no giant with a couple of tons of gold can just bury it in their backyard. It would also question the integrity of GATA consultant James Turk’s GoldMoney as well.

The second part of FOFOA’s comment is that any delivery to GLD by a bullion bank of physical gold that was supporting/backing the bullion bank’s fractional unallocated liabilities is a “synthetic supply” that effectively suppresses price by “divert[ing] growing investment demand away from the tightening physical market.”

I would note that for this statement to be true the bullion bank(s) in question must be naked short. Not all Authorised Participants for GLD would have access to the physical to do this, nor would they all be willing to take on such a financial exposure. Question to FOFOA: how many tonnes of GLD do you think are short?

A final point (and FOFOA probably won’t like this conclusion). I would claim that those at risk from this activity are not holders of GLD, but bullion bank unallocated clients because the legal title to the metal in GLD is held by the Trust, not the Authorised Participants or bullion bank unallocated clients.

Now this is a simple legal fact. It does not mean that in any meltdown when fractional claims come home to roost, holders of GLD will survive while bullion bank clients will not. It may happen that the custodians do “take” the gold behind GLD and give it to their unallocated clients first and use the get out clauses in GLD to say they “lost it” or some such other fraud if they are unable to subsequently replace it. Some believe that this is likely behaviour, others that no matter how ruthless bullion banks may be, that they would not engage in such outright fraud. I’ll leave that to you, the reader, to have an opinion on.

FOFOA seems to be sure of this because he thinks that the bullion banks somehow have a special right to the gold in GLD, see this comment:

A place to park your unallocated deposits and sell them for dollars that can then chase an ROI, knowing that the gold will still be there for you to buy back any time it is needed, because you are an Authorized Participant with special rights to the gold.

I do not see how Authorized Participants have any special rights. Once they deliver gold and get GLD shares and then sell them for cash which they then “chase an ROI”, they give up an rights to the GLD share or gold. Yes an Authorized Participant has special ability to redeem GLD shares for gold, but they have to tender the GLD share first, which in the situation above, they can only obtain by buying GLD shares off investors, thus pushing the price up.

If you, the reader, think that it is likely that bullion banks would steal Allocated gold, I would then argue that if a bullion bank was to consider engaging in such fraud, it would not do so with GLD’s Allocated metal because that is an exchange listed product with regulatory, audit and client visibility (through the bar list). Using Allocated metal held by other clients with the bullion bank would be a far lower risk as that is an over-the-counter market arrangement, subject to far less oversight as it is in the “dark”. Again, GLD represents the least risky paper gold – the last to fall, so to speak.

Remember that gold ETFs are only 2,000t out of 30,000t of privately held gold, a fair bit of which is Allocated with bullion banks and other custodians. I think it is a more believable thesis that any short covering, fraud etc is more likely to occur in the over-the-counter “dark” market first, leaving the visible ETFs to maintain the façade that everything is OK.

The point of my discussion above is not to suggest GLD is a safe investment. It is just to introduce a little more nuance beyond a simplistic “GLD is bad because bullion banks involved.”

In respect of point 2 about the shorting of GLD, I would like to see some numbers on that. I am not sure it is as pervasive as implied. This article on ETF shorting in general and ETF settlement fails give a sense of the extent of the issue, but unfortunately GLD is not mentioned.

One final comment by FOFOA:

From my perspective, GLD had the opposite effect on the price of gold (and may have been intended for just that purpose) as it diverted growing investment demand away from the tightening physical market.

All I will say to this is that is was not intended by the WGC for that purpose and there was obsession about creating a product that resulted in “physical offtake”. Whether the vehicle that resulted was the best design is another matter. There seems to be this view that the WGC is part of the “bullion bank conspiracy”. I suggest one look at the membership of the WGC and some of the companies and their involvement in other activities supportive of gold. WGC wanting the gold price to drop doesn’t stack up in my view.

Economic Events on February 1, 2011

The figures for motor vehicle sales in January will be released today.  The consensus estimate is that 9.5 million domestic autos were sold last month, which would be an increase of 100,000 from the previous month.

At 7:45 AM EST, the weekly ICSC-Goldman Store Sales report will be released, giving an update on the health of the consumer through this analysis of retail sales.

At 8:55 AM EST, the weekly Redbook report will be released, giving us more information about consumer spending.

At 10:00 AM EST, the Construction Spending report for December will be released, and the consensus is that there will an increase of 0.2% in spending compared to the previous month.

Also at 10:00 AM EST, the ISM manufacturing index for January will be released.  The consensus estimate is that it increased 0.5 points last month to a value of 57.5, and will continue to signal economic growth as it remains above the mid-point of 50.

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