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[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Jerry Ellig was a research professor at The George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center and served as chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission from 2017 to 2018. Tragically, he passed away Jan. 20, 2021. TOTM is honored to publish his contribution to this symposium.]

One significant aspect of Chairman Ajit Pai’s legacy is not a policy change, but an organizational one: establishment of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA) in 2018.

Prior to OEA, most of the FCC’s economists were assigned to the various policy bureaus, such as Wireless, Wireline Competition, Public Safety, Media, and International. Each of these bureaus had its own chief economist, but the rank-and-file economists reported to the managers who ran the bureaus – usually attorneys who also developed policy and wrote regulations. In the words of former FCC Chief Economist Thomas Hazlett, the FCC had “no location anywhere in the organizational structure devoted primarily to economic analysis.”

Establishment of OEA involved four significant changes. First, most of the FCC’s economists (along with data strategists and auction specialists) are now grouped together into an organization separate from the policy bureaus, and they are managed by other economists. Second, the FCC rules establishing the new office tasked OEA with reviewing every rulemaking, reviewing every other item with economic content that comes before the commission for a vote, and preparing a full benefit-cost analysis for any regulation with $100 million or more in annual economic impact. Third, a joint memo from the FCC’s Office of General Counsel and OEA specifies that economists are to be involved in the early stages of all rulemakings. Fourth, the memo also indicates that FCC regulatory analysis should follow the principles articulated in Executive Order 12866 and Office of Management and Budget Circular A-4 (while specifying that the FCC, as an independent agency, is not bound by the executive order).

While this structure for managing economists was new for the FCC, it is hardly uncommon in federal regulatory agencies. Numerous independent agencies that deal with economic regulation house their economists in a separate bureau or office, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Surface Transportation Board, the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, and the Federal Trade Commission. The SEC displays even more parallels with the FCC. A guidance memo adopted in 2012 by the SEC’s Office of General Counsel and Division of Risk, Strategy and Financial Innovation (the name of the division where economists and other analysts were located) specifies that economists are to be involved in the early stages of all rulemakings and articulates best analytical practices based on Executive Order 12866 and Circular A-4.

A separate economics office offers several advantages over the FCC’s prior approach. It gives the economists greater freedom to offer frank advice, enables them to conduct higher-quality analysis more consistent with the norms of their profession, and may ultimately make it easier to uphold FCC rules that are challenged in court.

Independence.  When I served as chief economist at the FCC in 2017-2018, I gathered from conversations that the most common practice in the past was for attorneys who wrote rules to turn to economists for supporting analysis after key decisions had already been made. This was not always the process, but it often occurred. The internal working group of senior FCC career staff who drafted the plan for OEA reached similar conclusions. After the establishment of OEA, an FCC economist I interviewed noted how his role had changed: “My job used to be to support the policy decisions made in the chairman’s office. Now I’m much freer to speak my own mind.”

Ensuring economists’ independence is not a problem unique to the FCC. In a 2017 study, Stuart Shapiro found that most of the high-level economists he interviewed who worked on regulatory impact analyses in federal agencies perceive that economists can be more objective if they are located outside the program office that develops the regulations they are analyzing. As one put it, “It’s very difficult to conduct a BCA [benefit-cost analysis] if our boss wrote what you are analyzing.” Interviews with senior economists and non-economists who work on regulation that I conducted for an Administrative Conference of the United States project in 2019 revealed similar conclusions across federal agencies. Economists located in organizations separate from the program office said that structure gave them greater independence and ability to develop better analytical methodologies. On the other hand, economists located in program offices said they experienced or knew of instances where they were pressured or told to produce an analysis with the results decision-makers wanted.

The FTC provides an informative case study. From 1955-1961, many of the FTC’s economists reported to the attorneys who conducted antitrust cases; in 1961, they were moved into a separate Bureau of Economics. Fritz Mueller, the FTC chief economist responsible for moving the antitrust economists back into the Bureau of Economics, noted that they were originally placed under the antitrust attorneys because the attorneys wanted more control over the economic analysis. A 2015 evaluation by the FTC’s Inspector General concluded that the Bureau of Economics’ existence as a separate organization improves its ability to offer “unbiased and sound economic analysis to support decision-making.”

Higher-quality analysis. An issue closely related to economists’ independence is the quality of the economic analysis. Executive branch regulatory economists interviewed by Richard Williams expressed concern that the economic analysis was more likely to be changed to support decisions when the economists are located in the program office that writes the regulations. More generally, a study that Catherine Konieczny and I conducted while we were at the FCC found that executive branch agencies are more likely to produce higher-quality regulatory impact analyses if the economists responsible for the analysis are in an independent economics office rather than the program office.

Upholding regulations in court. In Michigan v. EPA, the Supreme Court held that it is unreasonable for agencies to refuse to consider regulatory costs if the authorizing statute does not prohibit them from doing so. This precedent will likely increase judicial expectations that agencies will consider economic issues when they issue regulations. The FCC’s OGC-OEA memo cites examples of cases where the quality of the FCC’s economic analysis either helped or harmed the commission’s ability to survive legal challenge under the Administrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard. More systematically, a recent Regulatory Studies Center working paper finds that a higher-quality economic analysis accompanying a regulation reduces the likelihood that courts will strike down the regulation, provided that the agency explains how it used the analysis in decisions.

Two potential disadvantages of a separate economics office are that it may make the economists easier to ignore (what former FCC Chief Economist Tim Brennan calls the “Siberia effect”) and may lead the economists to produce research that is less relevant to the practical policy concerns of the policymaking bureaus. The FCC’s reorganization plan took these disadvantages seriously.

To ensure that the ultimate decision-makers—the commissioners—have access to the economists’ analysis and recommendations, the rules establishing the office give OEA explicit responsibility for reviewing all items with economic content that come before the commission. Each item is accompanied by a cover memo that indicates whether OEA believes there are any significant issues, and whether they have been dealt with adequately. To ensure that economists and policy bureaus work together from the outset of regulatory initiatives, the OGC-OEA memo instructs:

Bureaus and Offices should, to the extent practicable, coordinate with OEA in the early stages of all Commission-level and major Bureau-level proceedings that are likely to draw scrutiny due to their economic impact. Such coordination will help promote productive communication and avoid delays from the need to incorporate additional analysis or other content late in the drafting process. In the earliest stages of the rulemaking process, economists and related staff will work with programmatic staff to help frame key questions, which may include drafting options memos with the lead Bureau or Office.

While presiding over his final commission meeting on Jan. 13, Pai commented, “It’s second nature now for all of us to ask, ‘What do the economists think?’” The real test of this institutional innovation will be whether that practice continues under a new chair in the next administration.

Lynn Stout, writing in the Harvard Business Review’s blog, claims that hedge funds are uniquely “criminogenic” environments.  (Not surprisingly, Frank Pasquale seems reflexively to approve):

My research, shows that people’s circumstances affect whether they are likely to act prosocially. And some hedge funds provided the circumstances for encouraging an antisocial behavior like not obeying the laws against insider trading, according to these investigations.

* * *

Recognizing that some hedge funds present social environments that encourage unethical behavior allows us to identify new and better ways to address the perennial problem of insider trading. For example, because traders listen to instructions from their managers and investors, insider trading would be less of a problem if those managers and investors could be given greater incentive to urge their own traders to comply with the law, perhaps by holding the managers and investors — not just the individual traders — accountable for insider trading. Similarly, because traders mimic the behavior of other traders, devoting the enforcement resources necessary to discover and remove any “bad apples” before they spoil the rest of the barrel is essential; if the current round of investigations leads to convictions, it is likely to have a substantial impact on trader behavior, at least for a while. Finally, insider trading will be easier to deter if we combat the common but mistaken perception that it is a “victimless” crime.

Rather than re-post the whole article, I’ll direct you there to see why she thinks hedge funds are so uniquely anti-social.  Then I urge you to ask yourself whether she has actually demonstrated anything of the sort.  Really what she demonstrates, if anything, is that agency costs exist.  Oh, and people learn from their peers.  Remarkable!  And this is different than . . . the rest of the world, how?  There are Jewish people in the world, a lot of them work on Wall Street, and many of them attend synagogue.  No doubt Jews mimic the behavior of other Jews.  Bernie Madoff was Jewish.  The SEC should be raiding temples all across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut!

The point is that she has no point, and directing her pointless observations toward hedge funds in particular is just silly (and/or politically expedient).  There are bad apples everywhere.  There are agency costs everywhere.  A police state could probably reduce the consequences of these problems (but don’t forget corruption (i.e., bad apples) in the government!).  The question is whether it’s worth it, and that requires a far more subtle analysis than Stout provides here.

And all of this is because insider trading really needs to be eradicated, according to Stout:

Of course, insider trading isn’t really victimless: for every trader who reaps a gain using insider information, some investor on the other side of the trade must lose. But because the losing investor is distant and anonymous, it’s easy to mistakenly feel that insider trading isn’t really doing harm.

Actually, the reason most people feel that insider trading isn’t really doing harm is because it isn’t.

I’ll leave the synopsis of the argument to Steve Bainbridge.  On the adverse selection argument, see Stanislav Dolgopolov.  Sure, there is debate.  Empirics are hard to come by.  But the weight of the evidence and theory, especially accounting for enforcement costs (one study even seems to suggest that making insider trading illegal actually induces more insider trading to occur (and impedes M&A activity)), is decidedly against Stout’s naked assertion.  The follow on claim that, in essence, agency costs justify stepped up dawn raids at hedge funds is even more baseless.

Dear Gene and Ken:

I must say that I was totally flabbergasted when I read your recent blog posting on insider trading.  I know that your usual posts on investments, which I often cite to friends, are well-informed and empirically-supported; your work over the years on these topics is important and influential—and rightly so.  Unfortunately, in this post, you have deviated from your usual high quality.  Anyone current on the topic of insider trading will recognize that you have been careless in your selection of anti-insider-trading arguments and that you omitted from your brief note the major part of the argument about insider trading: whether and how much it contributes to market efficiency.  To say this is a strange omission coming from Fama and French would be an understatement.

Your first error is to assume that the insider trading debate is about informed trading only by “top management”.  I suspect that this error may flow from my original argument for using insider trading to compensate for entrepreneurial services in a publicly held company, a matter you do not mention and which I will not pursue here except to note that “entrepreneurial services” does not equate to top management.  Strangely no one seems to notice that most of the celebrated cases on the subject have not involved corporate personnel at all (a printer, a financial analyst, a lawyer and Martha Stewart).

I was more surprised, however, to see you repeating the oldest myth in the whole field, one that even the SEC gave up on as wrong many years ago and which frankly is no longer a part of the respectable debate on this topic: that a trade by an insider “disadvantages” the party on the other side.  (I will let pass the peculiar mistake of relating this by inference to a duty owed to existing shareholders when insiders are selling—how about insider sales to perfect strangers to the corporation?  Is there an inchoate fiduciary duty?).  I challenge you to show me any way in which the anonymous buyer or seller in an exchange transaction is harmed because that transaction just happens to involve an insider on the other side.  In fact, you cannot.  The specialist might be assumed to be vulnerable to losses from insiders’ being in the market, but careful research has shown that even they are totally unconcerned about the presence of insiders (other than as usurpers of their rents, and disclosure laws from the ’33 Act to Regulation FD have ensured that the specialists’ sphere of operation is well-protected) and that this so-called “moral hazard” argument is simply insignificant in the real world

Then you repeat another of the old myths surrounding the topic of insider trading:  that allowing it will create a further managerial moral hazard since it will give an incentive to top managers (who I presume are supposed to be able to manage this mischief without anyone else knowing about it—weird) to produce bad news rather than good news.  There is not, in the entire enormous literature on the topic, one iota of evidence for this statement, although some law professors, who are generally better at making arguments for a legal brief than they are at doing rigorous economics, may still mouth it. True, there could indeed be a small end-period problem with trading on bad news.  But, even if there is, it must be of little significance compared to the benefits to shareholders and other investors of allowing insider trading.  There are many forces, including reputation and market competition, operating to induce managers to produce good news, and there is no limit on the amount of this the market will continue to reward them for.  But there are no incentives other than this highly theoretical one encouraging managers to produce bad news.  A bit too much of this and the manager is ruined, while the possibility of making a gigantic killing to justify some once-in-a-lifetime malfeasance with inside information is all but non-existent.  This would be a very foolish bet for any corporate manager to make, and not surprisingly there is no evidence that they do so.

As for the idea that they will delay disclosure (a special form of the bad news/moral hazard argument), as Harold Demsetz pointed out over 40 years ago, the insider will have every incentive not to delay but to speed up disclosure so he can get the highest rate of return on his transaction.  Again there is not one bit of evidence suggesting that this delay ever occurs in the real world and some very strong evidence (the best is by Lisa Meulbroek) that insider trading of the illegal variety quickly moves stock price in the appropriate direction.

On this point, I can’t help but ask what is your theory of how stock market pricing came to be so efficient?  Surely it is not a result of the SEC and disclosure laws—a joke if it were not all so expensive (on which see, among other things, my son’s Hydraulic Theory of Disclosure article).  The studies that have looked have found a mixed result, at best, and the best of these (starting with Stigler’s in 1964 and Benston’s in 1973) find that the market was just as efficient before the SEC and the ’33 and ’34 Acts as it was after.  Gilson and Kraakman certainly did not supply a satisfactory answer to this question that they addressed many years ago, even though they were trying desperately to prove that something besides insider trading was making the market so efficient.

Obviously this is a much larger topic than I can address here, but I must admit to being most dismayed by your implication that the goal of instantaneous communication of new information to all market participants is a worthy ideal that in some way might be aided by disclosure regulation or a ban on insider trading.  We know very well who was pushing all along for a ban on insider trading: the market professionals who stood next in line for new information if they could just get those pesky insiders out of the picture.  They certainly were not interested in universal, equal access to information, nor was the SEC who aided and abetted them in this project.  Given this well-known history, do you really mean to stand with those rent seekers?

I have greatly admired your work for many years, as you know, and I hope I may have missed something in your short blog post.  But precisely because I admire your work—and because many others do, too—I felt an obligation to respond to your problematic comments on this point.  I look forward to your thoughts in response.

Yours cordially,

Henry Manne