Category Archive for: Financial System [Return to Main]

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Trader as Scapegoat

Rajiv Sethi in the NY Times:

The Trader as Scapegoat: A British trader, Navinder Singh Sarao, is facing extradition to the United States. Federal prosecutors accuse him of having significantly contributed to the “flash crash” of May 6, 2010, in which major American stock markets plunged dramatically in a matter of minutes. Prosecutors also say that he manipulated prices on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for years by “spoofing,” or placing orders that he intended to cancel before they were filled.
In fact, this is a common activity in equities markets today. The prosecution of Mr. Sarao is arbitrary, and his contribution to the flash crash was negligible.
Regulators should direct their attention instead to far more damaging practices — for example, high-speed strategies that exploit the fragmented nature of our trading systems to make profits purely on timing and speed. ...

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'Spoofing in an Algorithmic Ecosystem'

Rajiv Sethi comments on the charge that Navinder Singh Sarao manipulated prices through "spoofing":

Spoofing in an Algorithmic Ecosystem: A London trader recently charged with price manipulation appears to have been using a strategy designed to trigger high-frequency trading algorithms. Whether he used an algorithm himself is beside the point: he made money because the market is dominated by computer programs responding rapidly to incoming market data, and he understood the basic logic of their structure.

Specifically, Navinder Singh Sarao is accused of having posted large sell orders that created the impression of substantial fundamental supply in the S&P E-mini futures contract:

The authorities said he used a variety of trading techniques designed to push prices sharply in one direction and then profit from other investors following the pattern or exiting the market.

The DoJ said by allegedly placing multiple, simultaneous, large-volume sell orders at different price points — a technique known as “layering”— Mr Sarao created the appearance of substantial supply in the market.
Layering is a type of spoofing, a strategy of entering bids or offers with the intent to cancel them before completion.

Who are these "other investors" that followed the pattern or exited the market? Surely not the fundamental buyers and sellers placing orders based on an analysis of information about the companies of which the index is composed. Such investors would not generally be sensitive to the kind of order book details that Sarao was trying to manipulate (though they may buy or sell using algorithms sensitive to trading volume in order to limit market impact). Furthermore, as Andrei Kirilenko and his co-authors found in a transaction level analysis, fundamental buyers and sellers account for a very small portion of daily volume in this contract.

As far as I can tell, the strategies that Sarao was trying to trigger were high-frequency trading programs that combine passive market making with aggressive order anticipation based on privileged access and rapid responses to incoming market data. Such strategies correspond to just one percent of accounts on this exchange, but are responsible for almost half of all trading volume and appear on one or both sides of almost three-quarters of traded contracts.

The most sophisticated algorithms would have detected Sarao's spoofing and may even have tried to profit from it, but less nimble ones would have fallen prey. In this manner he was able to syphon off a modest portion of HFT profits, amounting to about four million dollars over four years.

What is strange about this case is the fact that spoofing of this kind is, to quote one market observer, as common as oxygen. It is frequently used and defended against within the high frequency trading community. So why was Sarao singled out for prosecution? I suspect that it was because his was a relatively small account, using a simple and fairly transparent strategy. Larger firms that combine multiple strategies with continually evolving algorithms will not display so clear a signature. 

It's important to distinguish Sarao's strategy from the ecology within which it was able to thrive. A key feature of this ecology is the widespread use of information extracting strategies, the proliferation of which makes direct investments in the acquisition and analysis of fundamental information less profitable, and makes extreme events such as the flash crash practically inevitable.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

'An Overwhelming Argument for Draconian Bank Regulation'

Paul Krugman on John Taylor's claim that deviations from his Taylor Rule caused the financial crisis:

...if it’s really that easy for monetary errors to endanger financial stability — if a deviation from perfection so small that it leaves no mark on the inflation rate is nonetheless enough to produce the second-worst financial crisis in history — this is an overwhelming argument for draconian bank regulation. Modest monetary mistakes will happen, so if you believe that these mistakes caused the global financial crisis you must surely believe that we need to do whatever it takes to make the system less fragile. Strange to say, however, I don’t seem to be hearing that from Taylor or anyone else in that camp.

Monday, April 20, 2015

'Credit Supply and the Housing Boom'

This is from the Liberty Street Economics Blog at the NY Fed:

Credit Supply and the Housing Boom, by Alejandro Justiniano, Giorgio Primiceri, and Andrea Tambalotti: There is no consensus among economists as to what drove the rise of U.S. house prices and household debt in the period leading up to the recent financial crisis. In this post, we argue that the fundamental factor behind that boom was an increase in the supply of mortgage credit, which was brought about by securitization and shadow banking, along with a surge in capital inflows from abroad. This argument is based on the interpretation of four macroeconomic developments between 2000 and 2006 provided by a general equilibrium model of housing and credit.
The financial crisis precipitated the worst recession since the Great Depression. The spectacular rise in house prices and household debt during the first half of the 2000s, which is illustrated in the first two charts, was a crucial factor behind these events. Yet, economists disagree on the fundamental causes of this credit and housing boom.

Real House Prices

Household Mortgages-to-GDP Ratio

A common narrative attributes the surge in debtand house prices to a loosening of collateral requirements for mortgages, associated with higher initial loan-to-value (LTV) ratios, multiple mortgages on the same property, and expansive home equity lines of credit.
The fact that collateral requirements became looser, at least for certain borrowers, is fairly uncontroversial. But can higher LTVs account for the unprecedented increase in house prices and debt, while remaining consistent with other macroeconomic developments during the same period?
Two facts suggest that the answer to this question is no. First, if the relaxation of collateral constraints had been widespread, it should have resulted in a surge of mortgage debt relative to the value of real estate. In the data, however, household debt and real estate values rose in tandem, leaving their ratio roughly unchanged over the first half of the 2000s, as shown in the chart below. In fact, this ratio only spiked when home prices tumbled, starting in 2006.

Household Mortgages-to-Real Estate Ratio

Second, more relaxed collateral requirements make it possible for the borrowers to demand more credit. Therefore, interest rates should rise to convince the lenders to satisfy this additional demand. In the data, however, real mortgage interest rates fell during the 2000s, as shown below in the fourth chart.

Real Mortgage Interest Rates

The fall in mortgage interest rates depicted in the fourth chart points to a shift in credit supply as an alternative explanation of the credit and housing boom of the early 2000s. We develop this hypothesis within a simple general equilibrium model in Justiniano, Primiceri, and Tambalotti (2015).
In the model, borrowing is limited by a collateral constraint linked to real estate values. Changes to this constraint, such as when the maximum LTV increases, shift the demand for credit. On the lending side, there is a limit to the amount of funds that savers can direct toward mortgage finance, which is equivalent to a leverage restriction on financial intermediaries. Changes to this constraint shift the supply of credit.
Lending constraints capture a host of technological and institutional factors that restrain the flow of savings into the mortgage market. Starting in the late 1990s, the explosion of securitization together with changes in the regulatory environment lowered many of these barriers, increasing the supply of mortgage credit.
The pooling and tranching of mortgages into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) played a central role in loosening lending constraints through several channels. First, tranching creates highly rated assets out of pools of risky mortgages. These assets can then be purchased by those institutional investors that are restricted by regulation to hold only fixed-income securities with high ratings. As a result, the boom in securitization channeled into mortgages a large pool of savings that had previously been directed toward other safe assets, such as government bonds. Second, investing in these senior MBS tranches freed up intermediary capital, owing to their lower regulatory charges. This form of “regulatory arbitrage” allowed banks to increase leverage without raising new capital, expanding their ability to supply credit to mortgage markets. Third, securitization allowed banks to convert illiquid loans into liquid funds, reducing their funding costs and hence increasing their capacity to lend.
International factors also played an important role in increasing the supply of funds available to American home buyers, as global saving flowed into U.S. safe assets, including agency MBS, before the financial crisis (Bernanke, Bertaut, Pounder, DeMarco, and Kamin 2011).
The fifth chart plots the effects of a relaxation of lending constraints in our model. When savers and financial institutions are less restricted in their lending, the supply of credit increases and interest rates fall. Since access to credit requires collateral, the increased availability of funds at lower interest rates makes the existing collateral—houses—scarcer and hence more valuable. As a result of higher real estate values, borrowers can increase their debt, even though their debt-to-collateral ratio remains unchanged. These responses of debt, house prices, aggregate leverage, and mortgage rates match well the empirical facts illustrated in the previous four charts. We conclude from this experiment that a shift in credit supply, associated with looser lending constraints, was the fundamental driver of the credit and housing boom that preceded the Great Recession.

Response to a Change in the Lending-Limit

This interpretation of the sources of the credit and housing boom is consistent with the microeconometric evidence presented in the influential work of Mian and Sufi (2009, 2010). They show that an expansion in credit supply was the fundamental driver of the surge in household debt and that borrowing against the increased value of real estate accounts for a significant fraction of this build-up in debt.
 Our model, by providing a theoretical perspective on the important factors behind the financial crisis, should prove useful as a framework to study policies that might prevent a repeat of this experience.

Disclaimer
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

'No More Cheating: Restoring the Rule of Law in Financial Markets'

Simon Johnson:

No More Cheating: Restoring the Rule of Law in Financial Markets, by Simon Johnson: ... In a speech on Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., MA) laid out a vision for better financial markets. This is not a left-wing or pro-big government agenda. Senator Warren’s proposals are, first and foremost, pro-market. She wants – and we should all want – financial firms and markets that work for customers, that encourage innovation, and that do not build up massive risks which can threaten the financial system and bring down the economy.

Senator Warren puts forward two main sets of proposals. The first is to more strongly discourage the deception of customers. This is hard to argue against. Some parts of the financial sector are well-run, providing essential services at reasonable prices and with sound ethics throughout. Other parts of finance have drifted, frankly, into deceiving people – on fees, on risks, on terms and conditions – as a primary source of profits. We don’t allow this kind of cheating in the non-financial sector and we shouldn’t allow it in finance either.

The unfortunate and indisputable truth is that our rule-making and law-enforcement agencies completely fell asleep prior to 2008 with regard to protecting borrowers and even depositors against predation. Even worse, since the financial crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department, and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors proved hard or near impossible to awake from this slumber.

We need simple, clear rules that ensure transparency and full disclosure in all financial transactions – and we need to enforce those rules. This is what was done with regard to securities markets after the debacle of the early 1930s. ...

The second proposal is to end the greatest cheat of all – the implicit subsidies received by the largest financial institutions, structured so as to encourage excessive and irresponsible risk-taking. These consequences of these subsidies have already caused massive macroeconomic damage – this is why our crisis in 2008-09 was so severe and the recovery so slow. Yet we have made painfully little progress towards really ending the problems associated with some very large financial firms – and their debts – being viewed by markets and policymakers as being too big to fail. ...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Summers (Video): New Lending For A New Economy

Monday, April 13, 2015

'The Mythic Quest for Early Warnings'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

The mythic quest for early warnings: Economists and policymakers are on a quest. They are looking for the elixir that will protect their economies from financial crises. Their strategy is to find an indicator that provides an early warning of collapse, and then respond with preventative measures.
We think the approach of waiting for warnings is seriously flawed. The necessary information may never be in our grasp. And even if it were, our ability to respond rapidly and effectively is far from clear. Rather than treating the symptoms of illness after they start to develop, we believe the better strategy is early immunization: the more resilient the financial system, the less reliance we will have on faulty or nonexistent warnings.
To back up a bit, there are now an abundance of indices designed to measure financial system stress. ... [reviews work on scores of indicators] These findings are compelling. They tell us that forecasting systemic stress is extremely difficult and that ordinary financial market indicators efficiently summarize what information there is. ...
We do not mean to strike too harsh a tone. Having accurate measures of where we stand is extremely useful. ...
Will researchers eventually develop measures that tell us not just where we stand, but where we are going? Is the quest for early warning indicators destined to succeed? It’s possible that with more detailed data on what is going on in both financial institutions and financial markets that we will be able to anticipate big risks on the horizon. We hope so, but shouldn’t plan on it: there are important grounds for skepticism. ...
Where does this leave us?  Our answer is that we have yet another reason to be skeptical of time-varying, discretionary regulatory policy. In an earlier post, we noted that the combination of high information requirements, long transmission lags and significant political resistance made it unlikely time-varying capital requirements will be effective in reducing financial vulnerabilities. Our conclusion then, which we reiterate now, is that the solution is to build a financial system that is safe and resilient all of the time, since we really never know what is coming. That means a regulatory system based on economic function, not legal form, with sufficient capital buffers to guard against all but the very worst possibilities.
In the end, a financial system that relies on an early warning indicator of imminent financial collapse seems destined to fail.

I don't think we should stop trying to find indicators that would be useful to regulators (and neither do they), just because we haven't found them yet doesn't mean no such indicators exist -- they may. But I fully agree that regulation should be based upon the state of the art, and presently we haven't found reliable indicators of forthcoming problems in financial markets.

Friday, March 20, 2015

'We’re Frighteningly in the Dark About Student Debt'

Susan Dynarski:

We’re Frighteningly in the Dark About Student Debt, NY Times: ...The ... United States government ... has a portfolio of roughly $1 trillion in student loans, many of which appear to be troubled. The Education Department, which oversees the portfolio, is ... neither analyzing the portfolio adequately nor allowing other agencies to do so.
These loans are no trivial matter... Student loans are now the second-largest source of consumer debt in the United States, surpassed only by home mortgages. In a major reversal, they now constitute a larger portion of household debt than credit cards or car loans. ...
The frightening reality, however, is that we are remarkably ignorant about student debt..., we can’t quantify the risks that student debt places on individual households and the economy as a whole. ...
Over at the Federal Reserve and consumer bureau, as well as outside the government, highly trained analysts are eager for data. A sensible solution would be for the Education Department to put it in their hands and let them get to work.
An additional longer-term solution is to move the loan program out of the Education Department entirely — either into an existing agency that has the statistical expertise or a new student-loan authority. ...

An even better solution would be to stop saddling students with so much debt.

Monday, March 09, 2015

'Finance Is Great, But It Can Be A Real Drag, Too'

If the financial sector gets too big or grows too fast, it's bad for growth:

Finance is great, but it can be a real drag, too: When we were college students in the mid-1970s, some of our friends wanted to change the world and our understanding of it. They worked on things like galactic structures, superconductors, computer algorithms, subcellular mechanisms, and genetic coding. Their work aimed at providing cheap energy, improving information technology, curing cancer, and generally making our lives and our appreciation of the world around us better.
By the 1990s, attitudes had changed. Many top students, including newly-minted Ph.D.s, moved from natural science and engineering to finance. Their goal was to get high-paying jobs.
Would we be better off today if some of these financial wizards had focused instead on inventing more efficient solar cells or finding ways to forestall dementia?  The older we get, the more we think so (especially when it comes to dementia). And, believe it or not, there is now notable, cross-country evidence buttressing this view.
For the past few years, one of us (Steve) has been studying the relationship between economic growth and finance. The results are striking. They come in two categories. First, the financial system can get too big – to the point where it drags productivity growth down. And second, the financial system can grow too fast, diminishing its contribution to economic growth and welfare.
Just to get this on the record: we really like finance. Without efficient financial services, there would be no prosperous economies today. Intermediaries and financial markets both mobilize and channel savings to those who can use capital most productively; they also allocate risk to those persons who are most able to bear it. Despite its recently tarnished reputation, financial innovation greatly improves people’s lives (see here). As a result, when finance is properly harnessed, it makes economies more productive, enhancing employment and growth, and makes the world a better place.
So, we badly need efficient finance. But how much do we really need? And, should we be concerned if financial sector growth sharply outpaces the growth in the rest of the economy? ...

After answering these questions, explaining the results, and discussing how finance can lower growth, they conclude:

... Many observers (especially the largest financial intermediaries themselves) are critical of the increased regulation of the financial sector following the crisis of 2007-2009, arguing that it will slow economic growth. We, too, can think of some misdirected regulatory efforts that may diminish long-run efficiency without reducing systemic risk (see, for example, our take on raising the maximum loan-to-value ratio for mortgages to 97%).
But, we strongly support the authorities’ efforts to raise capital requirements in order to make the financial system safer. If anything, the research on finance and economic growth strengthens that view, suggesting that there will be little, if any, cost in terms of economic growth even if further increases in capital requirements were to lead to some shrinkage of the size of the financial sector in the advanced economies.

Friday, March 06, 2015

'Connections in the Modern World: Network-Based Insights'

Research on networks could be very helpful in determining when financial systems are under the type of stress that could lead to a major collapse:

Connections in the modern world: Network-based insights, by Matthew O. Jackson, Brian Rogers, and Yves Zenou, Vox EU: There have been 24 outbreaks of the Ebola virus since it first appeared in 1976. Most were limited to dozens of cases, or at most hundreds – but the 2014 outbreak reached tens of thousands (Global Alert and Response, World Health Organization 2014). Although this latest outbreak now appears to be contained, the world may have dodged a dangerous bullet. If the disease had gotten a toehold in one of the many large urban slums throughout the world, the toll could have been dramatically larger. The same year saw an outbreak of measles in the US unlike any in decades, as a combination of complacency and fears of side effects led to lapses in vaccinations that allowed for susceptibility to contagion. Indeed, even small percentages of unvaccinated people – especially children – can lead small seeds of a very virulent disease to snowball into widespread infection. 

The combination of world population growth and an increasingly interconnected society is producing new dynamics. Of course, deadly pandemics are not new. The Black Death (bubonic plague) wiped out tens of millions of people between the 14th and 19th centuries. Modern medicine and especially vaccinations have helped the world mitigate and even prevent many such catastrophes. But a changing world brings new challenges. Social distances between individuals currently average less than five degrees (Ugander et al. 2011) so that it is typically possible to go from one person via a friend to another friend, and another – and within five steps or so reach much of the rest of the world.

Historical data suggest that this closeness is indeed a modern phenomenon. For instance, using data from the spread of the bubonic plague, Marvel et al. (2013) estimate that in the Middle Ages average social distances between people were many times higher than they are today. The plague spread relatively slowly from one area to the next, taking four years to travel across Europe at a pace of less than a thousand kilometers per year, as people interacted mostly in limited local patterns. In contrast, modern travel means that a healthcare worker exposed to Ebola in a village in Sierra Leone can easily be in London or New York before showing symptoms. A child who catches measles in Anaheim, California can board a plane and bring it home thousands of miles away. Increased mobility combined with tightly clustered interactions (e.g. children in schools), mean that small pockets of vaccination lapses can generate heavy outbreaks. Limiting the terrible costs that can be imposed by contagious diseases including Ebola, measles, HIV, and many others, remains an important priority. What are the most effective ways to employ preventative measures, treatment for the ill, and barriers to contagion – including travel bans and the like? Properly addressing such questions requires understanding the complex networks of interactions that govern transmission, and a systematic framework for trading off the costs and benefits of policies. 

Disease is but one example of diffusion through connections. As we have seen recently, despite the advantages of modern financial systems they are susceptible to systemic failures – a downturn in one country can lead to cascading downturns in others. In the EU the largest 50 or so banking institutions are now highly connected, with interbank exposures exceeding one trillion euros, more than their total Tier 1 capital (Alves et al. 2013). While disease and financial contagion share certain similarities, they differ in fundamental respects. Financial contagion is less well studied and the challenge of how to ‘vaccinate’ an institution without slowing the economy is significant. How can we identify which institutions are really ‘too connected to fail’? Which financial institutions require regulation and how should regulatory policy be guided? Should financial integration be encouraged or discouraged? Again, answering these questions necessitates a network-based approach.

Continue reading "'Connections in the Modern World: Network-Based Insights'" »

Thursday, March 05, 2015

'Washington Strips New York Fed’s Power'

I wasn't aware of this, apparently for good reason:

Washington Strips New York Fed’s Power, by Jon Hilsenrath, WSJ: The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, once the most feared banking regulator on Wall Street, has lost power... The Fed’s center of regulatory authority is now a little-known committee run by Fed governor Daniel Tarullo , which is calling the shots in oversight of banking titans such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc .
The new structure was enshrined in a previously undisclosed paper written in 2010 known as the Triangle Document. ... The power shift, initiated after the financial crisis and slowly put in place over the past five years, is more than a bureaucratic change. ...
During internal debates on a range of issues ... New York Fed examiners have been challenged by Washington. At times they have been shut out of policy meetings and even openly disparaged by Mr. Tarullo for failing to stem problems at banks...
The Fed undertook the reorganization with little disclosure about what was taking place...
Officials in Washington say centralizing regulatory authority in D.C. gives the Fed a broader view of risks across the whole system and a more evenhanded oversight approach. ...

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

'No Guarantees, No Trade!'

Friederike Niepmann and Tim Schmidt-Eisenlohr of the NY Fed's Liberty Street Economics blog:

 No Guarantees, No Trade!: World trade fell 20 percent relative to world GDP in 2008 and 2009. Since then, there has been much debate about the role of trade finance in the Great Trade Collapse. Distress in the financial sector can have a strong impact on international trade because exporters require additional working capital and rely on specific financial products, in particular letters of credit, to cope with risks when selling abroad. In this post, which is based on a recent Staff Report, we shed new light on the link between finance and trade, showing that changes in banks’ supply of letters of credit have economically significant effects on firms’ export behavior. Our research suggests that trade finance helps explain the drop in exports in 2008–2009, especially to smaller and poorer markets. ...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

'Betting the House: Monetary Policy, Mortgage Booms and Housing Prices'

How risky is it when interest rates are held too low for too long?:

Betting the house: Monetary policy, mortgage booms and housing prices, by Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor: Although the nexus between low interest rates and the recent house price bubble remains largely unproven, observers now worry that current loose monetary conditions will stir up froth in housing markets, thus setting the stage for another painful financial crash. Central banks are struggling between the desire to awaken economic activity from its post-crisis torpor and fear of kindling the next housing bubble. The Riksbank was recently caught on the horns of this dilemma, as Svensson (2012) describes. Our new research provides the much-needed empirical backdrop to inform the debate about these trade-offs.
The recent financial crisis has led to a re-examination of the role of housing finance in the macroeconomy. It has become a top research priority to dissect the sources of house price fluctuations and their effect on household spending, mortgage borrowing, the health of financial intermediaries, and ultimately on real economic outcomes. A rapidly growing literature investigates the link between monetary policy and house prices as well as the implications of house price fluctuations for monetary policy (Del Negro and Otrok 2007, Goodhart and Hofmann 2008, Jarocinski and Smets 2008, Allen and Rogoff 2011, Glaeser, Gottlieb et al. 2010, Williams 2011, Kuttner 2012, Mian and Sufi 2014).
Despite all these references, there is relatively little empirical research about the effects of monetary policy on asset prices, especially house prices. How do monetary conditions affect mortgage borrowing and housing markets? Do low interest rates cause households to lever up on mortgages and bid up house prices, thus increasing the risk of financial crisis? And what, if anything, should central banks do about it?
Monetary conditions and house prices: 140 years of evidence
In our new paper (Jordà et al. 2014), we analyse the link between monetary conditions, mortgage credit growth, and house prices using data spanning 140 years of modern economic history across 14 advanced economies. Such a long and broad historical analysis has become possible for the first time by bringing together two novel datasets, each of which is the result of an extensive multi-year data collection effort. The first dataset covers disaggregated bank credit data, including real estate lending to households and non-financial businesses, for 17 countries (Jordà et al. 2014). The second dataset, compiled for a study by Knoll et al. (2014), presents newly unearthed data covering long-run house prices for 14 out of the 17 economies in the first dataset, from 1870 to 2012. This is the first time both datasets have been combined. ...

After lots of data and analysis, they conclude:

... We have established that loose/tight monetary conditions make credit cheaper/dearer and houses more expensive/affordable. But what about the dark side of low interest rates – do they also increase the risk of a financial crash?
The answer to this question is clearly affirmative, as we show in the last part of our paper using crisis prediction models. Over the past 140 years of modern macroeconomic history, mortgage booms and house price bubbles have been associated with a higher likelihood of a financial crisis. This association is even stronger in the post-WW2 era, which was marked by the democratization of leverage through the expansion of housing finance relative to GDP and a rapidly growing share of real estate loans as a share of banks’ balance sheets.
Conclusion
Our findings have important implications for the post-crisis debate about central bank policy. We provide a quantitative measure of the financial stability risks that stem from extended periods of ultra-low interest rates. We also provide a quantitative measure of the effects of monetary policy on mortgage lending and house prices. These historical insights suggest that the potentially destabilizing by-products of easy money must be taken seriously and considered against the benefits of stimulating flagging economic activity. Policy, as always, must strike a fine balance between conflicting objectives.
An important implication of our study is that macroeconomic stabilization policy has implications for financial stability, and vice versa. Resolving this dichotomy requires central banks to make greater use of macroprudential tools alongside conventional interest rate policy. One tool is insufficient to do two jobs. That is the lesson from modern macroeconomic history. ...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

'Applying Keynes's Insights about Liquidity Preference to the Yield Curve'

Via email, a new paper from Josh R. Stillwagon, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Trinity College, appearing in  the Journal of International Financial Markets, Institutions & Money. The paper "applies some of Keynes's insights about liquidity preference to understanding term structure premia. The following is an excerpt paraphrased from the conclusion":

"This work uses survey data on traders' interest rate forecasts to test the expectations hypothesis of the term structure and finds clear evidence of a time-varying risk premium in four markets... Further, it identifies two significant factors which impact the magnitude of the risk premium. The first is overall consumer sentiment analogous to Keynes's "animal spirits"... The second factor is the level of and/or changes in the interest rate, consistent with the imperfect knowledge economics gap model [applied now to term premia]; the intuition being that the increasing skew to potential bond price movements from a fall in the interest rate [leaving more to fear than to hope as Keynes put it] causes investors to demand a greater premium. This was primarily observed in the medium-run relations of the I(2) CVAR, indicating that these effects are transitory suggesting, as Keynes argued, that what matters is not merely how far the interest rate is from zero but rather how far it is from recent levels."
This link is free for 50 days: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1QYk23j1YpaN3o

Thursday, February 12, 2015

How Safe is the Financial System?

Part of an interview with Tim Geithner:

... The really important distinction to make in terms of both diagnosing the risks of a crisis and of thinking about how to respond is to try to determine when your system is vulnerable to a truly systemic disruption and when it is not. If there is a lot of dry tinder, you are more vulnerable and even a modest shock can risk tipping you over into a more systemic panic. You want to make your system resilient to such shocks. So, the most important thing is to ask yourself: where today do we face the kinds of vulnerabilities, the kinds of conditions – the dry tinder – that might make us more vulnerable to a more cataclysmic kind of shock that would be very damaging to the economy?
For systems to face that kind of threat you really need to have had a long boom in credit financed either through the banking system or through the financial system in ways that create a classic vulnerability to a run. That is, you need to have a set of long-dated assets that are illiquid, are vulnerable to a loss, and are funded short. We don’t face that sort of vulnerability in the financial system today. In many ways, the crisis is still too recent. The memory is too fresh for us to have had that long build up in borrowing through the banking system that makes you susceptible to systemic panic. Since the crisis, credit growth has been very modest while financial reforms have produced a system that is much better capitalized.
The one exception I would make to that general view is that Europe is vulnerable for different reasons to a kind of classic run or panic. They don’t have the institutions that would allow them to defend themselves credibly against such an event. For them to build that kind of arsenal (like what we eventually built in 2008-2009 to break a panic) they would have to do a whole range of things – creating institutions that aren’t in place today.
Beyond that, there is a familiar set of risks out there. But they are not risks on a scale like those that made the world vulnerable to a panic in 2008-2009. ...

We should probably remember that he has an incentive to say that the things he helped to do during the financial crisis have made the system safer today.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

'Nominate A Qualified Undersecretary Of Domestic Finance Now'

This is from Simon Johnson (I didn't follow the debate over the qualifications of Antonio Weiss, the administration's nominee for Undersecretary for Domestic Finance, as closely as I should have, so I don't have much to say about that part of what is said below. But I very much agree with the need to find someone who will stand up for financial reform):

Nominate A Qualified Undersecretary Of Domestic Finance Now: The Obama administration urgently needs to nominate a qualified individual as Undersecretary for Domestic Finance at the Treasury Department. ...
The ... White House pushed hard for the confirmation of a Wall Street executive, Antonio Weiss, as Undersecretary for Domestic Finance. (In mid-January, in the face of continuing legitimate questions about his qualifications, Mr. Weiss withdrew himself from consideration. ...) ...
The House Republicans show every sign of doing what they can to help Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and others remove all effective restrictions on megabanks’ ability to take on large amounts of risk. The big banks want to return to the days of executives getting the upside when things go well and the taxpayer left holding the bag whenever disaster strikes.
The Treasury Department urgently needs to focus intellectual and administrative attention on the substance of defending Dodd-Frank, including shoring up support with Democrats, resisting the political onslaught led by House Republicans, and reaching out to senators of both parties who are willing to help. A key piece of becoming properly organized – intellectually and in terms of liaison with Congress – involves appointing a credible, qualified Undersecretary for Domestic Finance who hits the ground running and really knows what he or she is talking about. ...
Mr. Weiss’s principal problem was simple: he ... did not have the relevant general domain expertise and also lacked a sufficiently convincing grasp of the economic and political details surrounding financial regulation.
The search now should be quite straightforward. Find someone with relevant experience and a good track record – including statements and actions that are on the public record and that demonstrate willingness to challenge the megabanks’ worldview. ...
Nominating a credible Undersecretary for Domestic Finance quickly is an essential step towards helping the Treasury Department most effectively serve the American people – and towards preventing the collapse of financial reform.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Interview of Donald Kohn

From an interview of Donald Kohn by Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

Interview: Donald Kohn: ... Where should we be looking now for financial stability risks given this experience?
Vice Chairman Kohn: The response of the authorities to the crisis has concentrated on banks, especially large banks, and other systemically important financial institutions, including insurance companies, investment banks, etc. I think those financial institutions that have been the target of the authorities’ attention are in much better shape, and I don’t think they constitute a risk to financial stability today. So I don’t think that what nearly brought the system down before, a Lehman Brothers kind of collapse, is currently a risk.
There could be mispriced bonds. People have pointed to junk bonds and dollar-denominated emerging market bonds and asked whether the risk in those bonds has been accurately valued by the market.  With regard to the consequences of a price adjustment, I would contrast the dot-com boom and bust with the housing boom and bust. The difference was the participation of intermediaries. Most price adjustments are fine. There could be quite a bit of volatility in the market as prices adjust. But I don’t see it having the same kind of risk characteristics that the subprime market had in the United States. ... I would look at ... the markets and the pricing of risks, including liquidity risks...
Also, I would look at what remains of the shadow banks. In the tri-party RP [repurchase] markets, the money markets funds and other cases, there have been some fixes. But I do think we need to be careful that – as we put more restrictions on banks and other systemically important institutions – if their activity migrates to other places, it doesn’t do so in a way that has systemic risk associated with it. I don’t see that today, but I think it’s something we have to be careful about in the future.

Tri-party repo (where we saw a run on the shadow banking system during the crisis, a vulnerability that still exists) is what worries me the most.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Don't Blame Poor People for the Housing Crisis

Tyler Cowen:

Were poor people to blame for the housing crisis?, by Tyler Cowen:
When we break out the volume of mortgage origination from 2002 to 2006 by income deciles across the US population, we see that the distribution of mortgage debt is concentrated in middle and high income borrowers, not the poor. Middle and high income borrowers also contributed most significantly to the increase in defaults after 2007.
...That is from the new NBER working paper by Adelino, Schoar, and Severino.  In other words, poor people (or various ethnic groups, in some accounts) were not primarily at fault for the wave of mortgage defaults precipitating the financial crisis.  The biggest problems came in zip codes where home prices were having large run-ups. ...

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

'Republican Assault on Dodd-Frank Act Intensifies'

Is anyone surprised?:

Republican assault on Dodd-Frank act intensifies, by Barney Jopson, FT: Republicans are intensifying an assault on the Dodd-Frank financial reform act in the second week of a new Congress...
Under attack in the House on Wednesday was part of the so-called Volcker rule, a provision of the reforms that limits bank risk taking.
Lawmakers voted 271-154 to delay from 2017 to 2019 a ban on banks holding securitised debt that has been packaged into collateralised loan obligations, with 29 Democrats supporting the postponement along with Republicans. ...

Because the Masters of the Universe need years and years to adjust to this change (Dodd-Frank was passed nearly *five* years ago). Or maybe they are simply hoping to delay and delay until they can get repeal? The president has said he will veto this if it also gets through the Senate, but they will likely try to attach it to other legislation to make a veto much harder.

I don't think the repeal of Glass-Steagall caused the financial crisis. But that doesn't mean the Volcker rule has no value, only costs. Repeal of Glass-Steagall sets up a vulnerability that could cause a crisis in the future, so it's worth fixing via the Volcker rule.

Monday, January 12, 2015

'Conflicts of Interest in Finance'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

Conflicts of Interest in Finance: ...Financial corruption ... is ... widespread... The corruption exposed in recent years is breathtaking in its scale, scope, and resistance to remedy. We have seen traders collude to manipulate LIBOR ... and the foreign exchange (FX) market... We have seen firms facilitate tax evasion and money laundering. We have seen financial behemoths taking concentrated risks that undermine their capital and their funding, threatening the financial system as a whole until they are bailed out by public support. And we have witnessed what are arguably the largest Ponzi schemes in history (see our earlier post).
The policy response also has been wide-ranging. Congress enacted the most far-reaching financial reform since the 1930s. Regulators leaned on financial firms to diminish risk-taking incentives in their compensation schemes. Prosecutors, regulators and private litigants obtained ever-larger pecuniary settlements – the total since 2009 is now approaching $200 billion.
Previously frustrated by the “too big to jail” taboo (following the 2002 collapse of Arthur Andersen), in 2014 prosecutors again moved beyond simply seeking monetary settlement without admission of guilt and charged a bank with criminal behavior. They are also pursuing individual traders in the LIBOR and FX scandals in the criminal courts. Finally, leading regulators are openly warning the largest U.S. institutions that a failure to improve their ethical culture could lead policymakers to seek a dramatic downsizing of their firms to ensure financial stability.
So far, the most obvious response from the financial sector has been on the employment side: firms have hired or will hire thousands of compliance officers and risk managers to police the behavior of their employees (see here, here, and – if you have Wall Street Journal access – here).
We will be delighted if these reforms work to reduce corruption dramatically, but we remain skeptical. ... What to do? The only major alternatives we see are either to break up large institutions into smaller ones with restricted scope, to hold individuals more accountable, or some mix of both. ... Our preferred approach emphasizes a version of the second remedy: hold managers collectively more accountable for the actions of their firm. ...
One can hope that with their financial solvency really at stake, managers would become more aggressive in policing behavior inside of their organizations. Either that, or they will simply refuse to engage in activities where conflicts are most likely to arise. So much the better.
Unfortunately, there exists no panacea for containing conflicts of interest. ...

[I cut quite a bit from the original.]

Thursday, January 01, 2015

'Why Haven’t We Drawn the Obvious and Transparent Lessons from the Past Seven Years?'

Brad DeLong:

Back before World War I ... there was a deflation caucus–a great mass of wealth committed to investments in long-term nominal bonds and in real estate rented out in long term leases at fixed nominal rates. This deflation caucus had a very strong material interest in the hardest of hard monies and, by virtue of its wealth, a dominant political voice.
Since every nominal asset comes with a nominal liability, arithmetic tells us that, as far as economic material interest is concerned, the soft money-caucus has as much at stake at the margin as does the hard-money caucus. But back before World War I a great deal of the soft-money caucus did not have the vote. Combine the restriction of the formal franchise with wealth’s dominance of the informal franchise and it is not surprising that–except in times of total war or revolution–hard money ruled in the North Atlantic core of the global economy from the days of Sir Isaac Newton to World War I. In between World Wars I and II ,as the material power of the hard money caucus ebbed, it made sense that its ideological power would wane only with a lag.
Since World War II, however, there has been no material hard-money caucus: all of the rich have broadly diversified portfolios. And everyone has the franchise. Since World War II, the stakes in the zero-sum hard-money soft-money debate are now very low. Since World War II, we all have a common interest in full employment and shared prosperity–we are all the 100%.
So whence come the many policy disasters since 2007? How are we to explain what has happened? We have managed to throw away between 5%-10% of the potential wealth of the North Atlantic, and we appear to have thrown it away permanently. How? Why? And why can’t we fix it?
And, of course, why haven’t we drawn the obvious and transparent lessons from the past seven years of what we need to do in order to keep this from happening again? Let me turn the microphone over to Paul Krugman...

Monday, December 29, 2014

Financial Innovation and Risk Management

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz

Financial Innovation and Risk Management: “We allow our standards of living to be determined essentially by a game of chance.” -- Robert Shiller, Macro Markets, 1993.
In 2013, Robert Shiller shared the Nobel Prize for Economics with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen for their research on asset pricing. While Shiller is known as a critic of the efficient markets hypothesis and as a proponent of behavioral finance, less appreciated is his work on advancing financial technology to help societies manage fundamental economic risks.
At a time when the recent crisis has given financial innovation a bad name, Shiller’s contrarian message is that well-designed financial instruments and markets are an enormous boon to social welfare. We agree.
Historical examples supporting Shiller’s view abound. ...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

'More Piling On Cochrane'

Barkley Rosser:

More Piling On Cochrane: Why He Cannot Go Back To Being Taken Seriously Even About Asset Pricing: Oh, I cannot resist.  Since his effort to  dump on Keynesians in the WSJ, lots of people have been piling on John Cochrane, showing that nearly all his claims are not only laughingly bogus, but seriously unsupported even in his own column, such as failing even to mention a single supposedly Keynesian economist who forecast a return to recession as a result of budget sequestration, a centerpiece of his embarrassing column.  A sampling can be found Mark Thoma's links for today at economistsview, sort of a Christmas Eve special.
In any case, what caught my attention and is pushing me into  the piling on as well is a remark Brad DeLong made in his post at the link entitled "Cochrane ought to simply say..."  He suggests that Cochrane has made such a big fool of himself out of all this that he should just go back to working on asset pricing.  I am going to argue that even in that arena, he has made a bit of a fool of himself and should also be ignored to some extent, even though he has a long and respectable publication record in the area.
So, what is his problem? ...

Monday, December 22, 2014

Do Safer Banks Mean Less Economic Growth?

At MoneyWatch:

Do safer banks mean less economic growth?: One reason the financial crisis was so severe was that banks were highly leveraged. That is, they relied heavily on borrowed funds to acquire risky financial assets. This left them highly vulnerable when those assets' prices collapsed and the banks were unable to raise the funds they needed to pay off their loans.
In response, regulators have increased the capital requirements for banks. This limits the amount of leverage they can use and provides a safety buffer against losses. But banks protest that these more stringent capital requirements interfere with their ability to provide the financing the economy needs to function optimally, and hence this will slow economic growth.
However, recent research calls this into question. ...

Friday, December 19, 2014

Regulation of the Financial Industry

Is the financial industry is winning the war over regulation?:

Volcker lambasts Wall Street lobbying, FT: Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, has lambasted the "eternal lobbying" of Wall Street after regulators granted the industry more time to comply with a rule designed to prevent them from owning hedge funds.
In a withering statement ... Mr Volcker said: “It is striking, that the world's leading investment bankers, noted for their cleverness and agility in advising clients on how to restructure companies and even industries however complicated, apparently can't manage the orderly reorganization of their own activities in more than five years.”
“Or, do I understand that lobbying is eternal, and by 2017 or beyond, the expectation can be fostered that the law itself can be changed?”
The Fed and its fellow regulators this week gave the banks until 2017 to comply... Banks had been supposed to comply by next year. The law containing the Volcker rule was passed in 2010. ...

Paul Krugman: Putin’s Bubble Bursts

The Russian economy is in trouble:

Putin’s Bubble Bursts, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: If you’re the type who finds macho posturing impressive, Vladimir Putin is your kind of guy. Sure enough, many American conservatives seem to have an embarrassing crush on the swaggering strongman. “That is what you call a leader,” enthused Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine without debate or deliberation.
But Mr. Putin never had the resources to back his swagger. Russia has an economy roughly the same size as Brazil’s. And, as we’re now seeing, it’s highly vulnerable to financial crisis...
For those who haven’t been keeping track: The ruble has been sliding gradually since August, when Mr. Putin openly committed Russian troops to the conflict in Ukraine. A few weeks ago, however, the slide turned into a plunge. Extreme measures ... have done no more than stabilize the ruble far below its previous level. And all indications are that the Russian economy is heading for a nasty recession.
The proximate cause of Russia’s difficulties is, of course, the global plunge in oil prices... And this was bound to inflict serious damage on an economy that ... doesn’t have much besides oil that the rest of the world wants; the sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine conflict have added to the damage. ...
Putin’s Russia is an extreme version of crony capitalism, indeed, a kleptocracy in which loyalists get to skim off vast sums for their personal use. It all looked sustainable as long as oil prices stayed high. But now the bubble has burst, and the very corruption that sustained the Putin regime has left Russia in dire straits.
How does it end? The standard response ... is an International Monetary Fund program that includes emergency loans and forbearance from creditors in return for reform. Obviously that’s not going to happen here, and Russia will try to muddle through on its own, among other things with rules to prevent capital from fleeing the country — a classic case of locking the barn door after the oligarch is gone.
It’s quite a comedown for Mr. Putin. And his swaggering strongman act helped set the stage for the disaster. A more open, accountable regime — one that wouldn’t have impressed Mr. Giuliani so much — would have been less corrupt, would probably have run up less debt, and would have been better placed to ride out falling oil prices. Macho posturing, it turns out, makes for bad economies.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Wall Street Salivating Over Further Destruction of Financial Reform'

Surprise! Or not (more concerned with this than whether the Fed changed a few words in its Press Release following the FOMC meeting):

Wall Street Salivating Over Further Destruction of Financial Reform, by Kevin Drum: Conventional pundit wisdom suggests that Wall Street may have overreached last week. Yes, they won their battle to repeal the swaps pushout requirement in Dodd-Frank, but in so doing they unleashed Elizabeth Warren and brought far more attention to their shenanigans than they bargained for. They may have won a battle, but ... they're unlikely to keep future efforts to weaken financial reform behind the scenes, where they might have a chance to pass with nobody the wiser.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was all just political theater and Wall Street lobbyists know better than to take it seriously. Ed Kilgore points to this article in The Hill today:

Banks and financial institutions are planning an aggressive push to dismantle parts of the Wall Street reform law when Republicans take control of Congress in January. ...

Will Democrats in the Senate manage to stick together and filibuster these efforts to weaken Dodd-Frank? ... I'd like to think that Elizabeth Warren has made unity more likely, but then again, I have an uneasy feeling that Wall Street lobbyists might have a better read on things than she does. Dodd-Frank has already been weakened substantially in the rulemaking process, and this could easily represent a further death by a thousand cuts. ...

Higher capital requirements: The jury is in

A follow up to this:

Higher capital requirements: The jury is in, by Stephen Cecchetti, Vox EU: Summary Regulators forced up capital requirements after the Global Crisis – triggering fears in the banking industry of dire effects. This column – by former BIS Chief Economist Steve Cecchetti – introduces a new CEPR Policy Insight that argues that the capital increases had little impact on anything but bank profitability. Lending spreads and interest margins are nearly unchanged, while credit growth remains robust everywhere but in Europe. Perhaps the requirements should be raised further. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

'Higher Capital Requirements Didn't Slow the Economy'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

Higher capital requirements didn't slow the economy: During the debate over the 2010 Basel III regulatory reform, one of the biggest concerns was that higher capital requirements would damage economic growth. Pessimists argued that forcing banks to increase their capitalization would lower long-run growth permanently and that the transitional adjustment would impose an extra drag on the recovery from the Great Recession. Unsurprisingly, the private sector saw catastrophe, while the official sector was more positive.
The Institute of International Finance’s (IIF) 2010 report is the most sensational example of the former and the Macroeconomic Assessment Group (MAG) one of the most staid cases of the latter. The IIF concluded that banks would need to increase capital levels dramatically and that this would drive lending rates up, loan volumes down and result in an annual 0.6-percentage-point hit to GDP growth in the United States, the euro area and Japan. By contrast, the MAG reported that the implied increase in capital would drive lending rates up only modestly, loan volumes down a bit, and result in a decline in growth of only 0.05 percentage point per year for five years – one-twelfth the IIF’s estimate.
Four years on we can start to take stock, and our reading of the evidence is that the optimistic view was correct. Since the crisis, capital requirements and capital levels have both gone up substantially. Yet, outside the still-fragile euro area, lending spreads have barely moved, bank interest margins have fallen and loan volumes are up. To the extent that more demanding capital regulations had any macroeconomic impact, it would appear to have been offset by accommodative monetary policy. ...

[There is much, much more in the post.]

Paul Krugman: Wall Street’s Revenge

The battle over financial reform is far from over:

Wall Street’s Revenge, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: On Wall Street, 2010 was the year of “Obama rage,” in which financial tycoons went ballistic over the president’s suggestion that some bankers helped cause the financial crisis. They were also, of course, angry about the Dodd-Frank financial reform, which placed some limits on their wheeling and dealing.
The Masters of the Universe, it turns out, are a bunch of whiners. But they’re whiners with war chests, and now they’ve bought themselves a Congress. ...
Wall Street overwhelmingly backed Mitt Romney in 2012, and invested heavily in Republicans once again this year. And the first payoff to that investment has already been realized. Last week Congress passed a ... rollback of one provision of the 2010 financial reform.
In itself, this rollback is significant but not a fatal blow to reform. But it’s utterly indefensible. ... One of the goals of financial reform was to stop banks from taking big risks with depositors’ money. ... If banks are free to gamble, they can play a game of heads we win, tails the taxpayers lose. ...
Dodd-Frank tried to limit this kind of moral hazard in various ways, including a rule barring insured institutions from dealing in exotic securities, the kind that played such a big role in the financial crisis. And that’s the rule that has just been rolled back. ...
What just went down isn’t about free-market economics; it’s pure crony capitalism. And sure enough, Citigroup literally wrote the deregulation language that was inserted into the funding bill.
Again, in itself last week’s action wasn’t decisive. But it was clearly the first skirmish in a war to roll back much if not all of the financial reform. And if you want to know who stands where in this coming war, follow the money: Wall Street is giving mainly to Republicans for a reason. ...
Meanwhile, it’s hard to find Republicans expressing major reservations about undoing reform. You sometimes hear claims that the Tea Party is as opposed to bailing out bankers as it is to aiding the poor, but there’s no sign that this alleged hostility to Wall Street is having any influence at all on Republican priorities.
So the people who brought the economy to its knees are seeking the chance to do it all over again. And they have powerful allies, who are doing all they can to make Wall Street’s dream come true.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

'Citigroup Will Be Broken Up'

Simon Johnson:

Citigroup Will Be Broken Up: Citigroup is a very large bank that has amassed a huge amount of political power. Its current and former executives consistently push laws and regulations in the direction of allowing Citi and other megabanks to take on more risk, particularly in the form of complex highly leveraged bets. Taking these risks allows the executives and traders to get a lot of upside compensation in the form of bonuses when things go well – while the downside losses, when they materialize, become the taxpayer’s problem.
Citigroup is also, collectively, stupid on a grand scale. The supposedly smart people at the helm of Citi in the mid-2000s ran them hard around – and to the edge of bankruptcy. A series of unprecedented massive government bailouts was required in 2000-09 – and still the collateral damage to the economy has proved enormous. Give enough clever people the wrong incentives and they will destroy anything.
Now the supposedly brilliant people who run Citigroup have, in the space of a single working week, made a series of serious political blunders with long-lasting implications. Their greed has manifestly proved Elizabeth Warren exactly right about the excessive clout of Wall Street, their arrogance has greatly strengthened a growing left-center-right coalition concerned about the power of the megabanks, and their public exercise of raw power has helped this coalition understand what it needs focus on doing – break up Citigroup. ...

If we can't stop Citigroup from inserting changes to Dodd-Frank it desires into the "Cromnibus", then how, exactly -- with that sort of political influence -- does it get broken up?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'What is Congress Trying to Secretly Deregulate in Dodd-Frank?'

And so it begins:

What is Congress Trying to Secretly Deregulate in Dodd-Frank?, by Mike Konczal: There are concerns that the budget bill under debate in Congress will eliminate Section 716 of Dodd-Frank, using language previously drafted by Citigroup. So what is this all about?
Section 716 of Dodd-Frank says that institutions that receive federal insurance through FDIC and the Federal Reserve can’t be dealers in the specialized derivatives market. Banks must instead “push out” these dealers into separate subsidiaries that don’t benefit from the government backstop. They can still trade in many standardized derivatives and hedge their own risks, however. This was done because having banks act as swap dealers put taxpayers at risk in the event of a sudden collapse. That’s it.
Why would you want a regulation like this? The first is that it acts as a complement to the Volcker Rule. ...
A second reason is 716 will also prevent exotic derivatives from being subsidized by the government’s safety net. ...
The third reason is for the sake of financial stability. ...
Stiglitz reiterated this point today, saying “Section 716 facilitates the ability of markets to provide the kind of discipline without which a market economy cannot effectively function. I was concerned in 2010 that Congress would weaken 716, but what is proposed now is worse than anything contemplated back then.”
Now many on Wall Street would argue that this rule is unnecessary. However, their arguments are not persuasive. ...
We should be strengthening, not weakening, financial reform. And removing this piece of the law will not benefit this project.

See also Barney Frank Criticizes Planned Roll-Back of Namesake Financial Law.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

'Maths and Morals, Economics and Greed'

Tim Johnson, "a mathematician who works on financial problems":

Maths and morals, economics and greed: ... Mathematics has always been part of finance but with the re-introduction of derivatives markets in the 1970s and their growth in the nineties, ‘quants’, trained in engineering, physics and mathematics, came to dominate the ‘casino banking’ that is widely criticised. My concern is that the quants are not amenable to questions of morality, and so the problems of finance are going to be difficult to resolve without finding the right way of communicating with the bankers who see themselves as scientists. ...

The Chartered Institute of Bankers are working on Professional Standards but are struggling to engage with the quants, who operate the casino branch of banking, because the quants believe science is value neutral; it delivers truths beyond morality. ...
This brings to mind Alasdair MacIntyre's ‘disquieting suggestion’ that modern society has completely lost the ability to make moral judgements and I see it as the brick wall that most attempts to reform banking will crash into.

I believe the brick wall can be dismantled relatively easily: by recognising that many of the practices of contemporary finance associated with ‘casino banking’ were widespread before the eighteenth century. Unlike today, they were undertaken in the context not of consequentialist or deontological ethics, but of virtue ethics that focuses on good practice. It might seem surprising that I suggest this is a relatively easy approach. What make it easy is that rather than criticising modern finance on the basis that it is degraded from a mythic golden age of finance, the starting point is the doux-commerce thesis that finance is civilising. Rather than characterising bankers as amoral spivs, they are presented as paragons of rational morality and the approach gives the bankers the opportunity to carry on their activities while, critically, reconstructing their own ethos.  I developed this representation in my paper Reciprocity as a Foundation of Financial Economics.

The hurdle this approach needs to cross is that of the dominant ideologies of markets. The market ideology holds that the market mechanism will deliver optimal solutions to society, while anti-market ideology argues that profits are degrading and markets are destructive. The hurdle can be crossed by ignoring both these ideologies and analysing the role that money and markets have played in forming both Western science and democracy. We need to represent markets as centres of communication and deliberation, not as competitive arenas driven by profit maximisation. The clue is in the word forum, which defined both the market place and the political centre of a Roman city.

As I noted after a speech by William Dudley on the same topic, I am not so sure this will work, but it's interesting how much of the recent commentary on the problems in financial markets are focused on changing the ethics of the financial industry. I'd rather focus on regulation and enforcement -- real regulation and real enforcement, not what we had before the financial crisis -- and more importantly putting circuit breakers in place that will limit the damage should problems reoccur, as they surely will at some point now matter how much we regulate or what ethical structure is in place (e.g. limits on leverage and interconnectedness).

Monday, November 17, 2014

'It's the Leverage, Stupid!'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz

It's the leverage, stupid!: In the 30 months following the 2000 stock market peak, the S&P 500 fell by about 45%. Yet the U.S. recession that followed was brief and shallow. In the 21 months following the 2007 stock market peak, the equity market fell by a comparable 52%. This time was different: the recession that began in December 2007 was the deepest and longest since the 1930s.
The contrast between these two episodes of bursting asset price bubbles ought to make you wonder. When should we really worry about asset price bubbles? In fact, the biggest concern is not bubbles per se; it is leverage. And, surprisingly, there remain serious holes in our knowledge about who is leveraged and who is not. ...

All of this leads us to draw two simple conclusions. First, investors and regulators need to be on the lookout for leverage; that’s the biggest villain. In the United States and many other countries, mortgage borrowing has been at the heart of financial instability, and it may be so again in the future. But we should not be lulled into a sense of security just because banks’ real estate exposure has declined. If leverage starts rising in real estate or elsewhere – on or off balance sheet – then we should be paying attention.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

'Will the Big Banks Ever Clean Up Their Act?'

I am not convinced that telling the kids to be good or else -- when there's a history of not doing much to enforce the request -- will work:

Will the big banks ever clean up their act?, by Mark Thoma: Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley delivered a stern warning to the largest banks in a speech earlier this week. Either clean up your illegal and unethical behavior through "cultural change" from within, he said, or be broken into smaller, more manageable pieces.

In his conclusion, the warning was direct and explicit:

"...if those of you here today as stewards of these large financial institutions do not do your part in pushing forcefully for change across the industry, then bad behavior will undoubtedly persist. If that were to occur, the inevitable conclusion will be reached that your firms are too big and complex to manage effectively. In that case, financial stability concerns would dictate that your firms need to be dramatically downsized and simplified so they can be managed effectively. It is up to you to address this cultural and ethical challenge."

How can the needed change be accomplished? ...

Will this work? Will large financial firms take the threat that they might be broken up seriously? Will they even bother to implement the many suggestions Dudley made?

Regulators have been reluctant to break up big banks in the past out of fear that it might undercut their ability to finance very large projects and hurt their competitiveness in international markets. And given that this behavior is so pervasive and has endured for so long, regulators haven't been as tough as they could be in stopping it.

Maybe this time is different. Maybe financial firms believe regulators are serious, and they will change the culture that has allowed these problems to exist. Perhaps the threat to break up the banks if they continue to prove they are "too big to manage" is real.

Let's hope so, because the financial instability that can occur when large banks behave unethically or when they fail to comply with existing regulations can be very costly for the nation's economy.

But, again, I doubt asking banks to change their culture will be enough, they will need to be persuaded through other, stronger means. (If it was up to me, I would have broken them into smaller pieces long ago. I do not beleive the minimum efficient scale is anywhere near as large as the largest banks, their political and economic power is too strong, and they pose a risk for the economy when they misbehave or make big mistakes. Smaller banks don't solve all these problems, there can still be widespread, cascading bank failures for example, but it does reduce the risks.)

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

'Shadow Banking: U.S. Risks Persist'

I've noted this several times in the past, but it's worth pointing out again. The problems in the shadow banking sector are still present for the most part. From Tim Taylor:

Shadow Banking: U.S. Risks Persist: ...A "shadow bank" is any financial institution that gets funds from customers and then in some way lends the money to borrowers. However, a shadow bank doesn't have deposit insurance. And while the shadow bank often faces some regulation, it typically falls well short of the detailed level of risk regulation that real banks face. In this post in May, I tried to explain how shadow banking works in more detail. Many of the financial institutions at the heart of the financial crisis were "shadow banks." ...
Five years past the end of the Great Recession, how vulnerable is the U.S. and the world economy to instability from shadow banking? ... The IMF devotes a chapter in its October 2014 Global Financial Stability Report to "Shadow Banking Around the Globe: How Large, and How Risky?" ...
It is discomforting to me to read that for the U.S., shadow banking risks are "slightly below precrisis levels." In general, the policy approach here is clear enough. As the IMF notes: "Overall, the continued expansion of finance outside the regulatory perimeter calls for a more encompassing approach to regulation and supervision that combines a focus on both activities and entities and places greater emphasis on systemic risk and improved transparency."
Easy for them to say! But when you dig down into the specifics of the shadow banking sector, not so easy to do. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

'Why the Fed Is So Wimpy'

Justin Fox:

Why the Fed Is So Wimpy, by Justin Fox: Regulatory capture — when regulators come to act mainly in the interest of the industries they regulate — is a phenomenon that economists, political scientists, and legal scholars have been writing about for decades.  Bank regulators in particular have been depicted as captives for years, and have even taken to describing themselves as such.
Actually witnessing capture in the wild is different, though, and the new This American Life episode with secret recordings of bank examiners at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York going about their jobs is going to focus a lot more attention on the phenomenon. It’s really well done, and you should listen to it, read the transcript, and/or read the story by ProPublica reporter Jake Bernstein.
Still, there is some context that’s inevitably missing, and as a former banking-regulation reporter for the American Banker, I feel called to fill some of it in. Much of it has to do with the structure of bank regulation in the U.S., which actually seems designed to encourage capture. But to start, there are a couple of revelations about Goldman Sachs in the story that are treated as smoking guns. One seems to have fired a blank, while the other may be even more explosive than it’s made out to be. ...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Finance Sector Wages: Explaining Their High Level and Growth

Joanne Lindley and Steven McIntosh:

Finance sector wages: explaining their high level and growth, by Joanne Lindley and Steven, Vox EU: Individuals who work in the finance sector enjoy a significant wage advantage. This column considers three explanations: rent sharing, skill intensity, and task-biased technological change. The UK evidence suggests that rent sharing is the key. The rising premium could then be due to changes in regulation and the increasing complexity of financial products creating more asymmetric information. ...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

'The Biggest Lie of the New Century'

Barry Ritholtz:

The Biggest Lie of the New Century: Yesterday, we looked at why bankers weren't busted for crimes committed during the financial crisis. Political corruption, prosecutorial malfeasance, rewritten legislation and cowardice on the part of government officials were among the many reasons.
But I saved the biggest reason so many financial felons escaped justice for today: They dumped the cost of their criminal activities on you, the shareholder (never mind the taxpayer). ... Many of these executives committed crimes; got big bonuses for doing so; and paid huge fines using shareholder assets (i.e., company cash), helping them avoid prosecution.
As for claims, like those of white-collar crime defense attorney Mark F. Pomerantz, that “the executives running companies like Bank of America, Citigroup and JP Morgan were not committing criminal acts,” they simply implausible if not laughable. Consider a brief survey of some of the more egregious acts of wrongdoing: ...

Monday, September 08, 2014

What were they thinking? The Federal Reserve in the Run-Up to the 2008 Financial Crisis

At Vox EU:

What were they thinking? The Federal Reserve in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, by Stephen Golub, Ayse Kaya, Michael Reay: Since the Global Crisis, critics have questioned why regulatory agencies failed to prevent it. This column argues that the US Federal Reserve was aware of potential problems brewing in the financial system, but was largely unconcerned by them. Both Greenspan and Bernanke subscribed to the view that identifying bubbles is very difficult, pre-emptive bursting may be harmful, and that central banks could limit the damage ex post. The scripted nature of FOMC meetings, the focus on the Greenbook, and a ‘silo’ mentality reduced the impact of dissenting views.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Minority Mortgage Market Experiences and the Financial Crisis

Stephen Ross at Vox EU:

Minority mortgage market experiences leading up to and during the Financial Crisis, by Stephen L. Ross, Vox EU: The subprime lending crisis in the US triggered a broad financial panic that lead to the global recession. Domestically, it meant bankruptcy and disaster for many households. This column analyses racial discrimination in subprime lending. Careful estimation of a detailed dataset reveals across-lender effects to have substantially disadvantaged black and Hispanic borrowers.

The concluding paragraph:

... Minority homebuyers – especially blacks – tend to face a higher cost of mortgage credit and had substantially worse credit market outcomes during the recent downturn than white homebuyers with equivalent mortgage risk factors. In terms of the price of credit, a majority of the unexplained differences are associated with the lender from which the homebuyer obtained credit. These effects are felt most among minority borrowers with the lowest levels of education, and are likely due in part to the concentrated activity of subprime lenders in minority neighborhoods and a lack of knowledge of financial markets among minority borrowers with low levels of education. On the other hand, most of the racial differences in loan performance that are unexplained by traditional credit risk factors cannot be captured by controlling for the lender or other aspects of subprime lending. African-Americans and Hispanics appear to be more vulnerable to an economic downturn and to the associated risks of unemployment and housing price declines than observationally similar white homeowners. This higher vulnerability is most pronounced for borrowers who purchased their homes right before the onset of the financial crisis, even after controlling for the increased risk of negative equity associated with buying at the peak of the market. While the expansion of the subprime sector may have contributed to a higher cost of credit for black homebuyers, their concentration in high cost loans (and in the subprime market more generally) can explain only a small portion of the racial differences in foreclosure. Rather, a broad spectrum of black and Hispanic borrowers appear to be especially vulnerable to the economic downturn and associated shocks to their ability to meet their mortgage commitments.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

What Savings Glut?

Joe Stiglitz in a review of Martin Wolf's new book "The Shifts and the Shocks":

... If I have a point of difference with Wolf’s analysis, it is that he ... is insufficiently critical of the “savings glut” hypothesis advanced by former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, among others, which presents what used to be a virtue (savings) as a vice, shifting blame to China and (less vocally) to Germany. Yet the investment needs of today are staggering: for infrastructure in the developing world, let alone in the US; for retrofitting the global economy to cope with global warming; even for small and medium-sized enterprises starved of capital in much of the world. This should make it obvious that the problem is not an excess of savings but a financial system that is more fixated on speculation than on fulfilling its societal role of intermediation ... in which scarce savings are allocated to the investments of highest social returns.

The problem goes beyond a "financial system that is more fixated on speculation":

It is striking how much Wolf, like so many advocates of financial reform, focuses on protecting us against the banks: making sure that they don’t engage in excessive risk-taking... Wolf doesn’t dwell much on some of the more antisocial aspects evidenced in the aftermath of the crisis: the market manipulation (as in the Libor and forex scandals), the anti-competitive practices, the predatory and discriminatory lending, the lack of transparency, the fraudulent behavior. Presumably, this is because he believes, or hopes, that even too-big-to-fail and too-big-to-jail banks won’t be politically powerful enough to continue such behavior unimpaired. But he says too little about what might be done to make banks actually fulfill the societal role that they should be playing. ...

Friday, August 22, 2014

Minority Mortgage Market Experiences During the Financial Crisis

Via Vox EU:

Minority mortgage market experiences leading up to and during the financial crisis, by Stephen L. Ross, Vox EU: The foreclosure crisis that followed the subprime crisis has had significant negative consequences for minority homeowners. This column reviews recent evidence in the racial and ethnic differences in high cost loans and in loan performance. Minority homeowners, especially black homebuyers, faced higher price of mortgage credit and had worse credit market outcomes during the crisis. This is largely due to the fact that minority borrowers are especially vulnerable to the economic downturn. ...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

'Irrational Exuberance Meets Secular Stagnation'

Antonio Fatás:

Irrational exuberance meets secular stagnation: Robert Shiller warns us in the New York Times about the potential risks of high stock market valuations in the US. According to Shiller "the United States stock market looks very expensive right now". Brad DeLong and Dean Baker disagree with Shiller and argue that stock prices might look higher than historical averages but this could be ok given other changes in the economic environment. ... But there are ... reasons why the historical average might not be relevant...

Monday, August 04, 2014

Paul Krugman: Obama’s Other Success

Financial reform is working:

Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Is Working, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...The Dodd-Frank reform bill ... is working a lot better than anyone listening to the news media would imagine. Let’s talk, in particular, about two important pieces of Dodd-Frank: creation of an agency protecting consumers from misleading or fraudulent financial sales pitches, and efforts to end “too big to fail.”
The decision to create a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shouldn’t have been controversial, given what happened during the housing boom. ...
Of course, that obvious need didn’t stop the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, financial industry lobbyists and conservative groups from going all out in an effort to prevent the bureau’s creation or at least stop it from doing its job, spending more than $1.3 billion in the process. Republicans in Congress dutifully served the industry’s interests...
At this point, however, all accounts indicate that the bureau is in fact doing its job, and well... But what happens if a crisis occurs anyway?
The answer is that, as in 2008, the government will step in to keep the financial system functioning; nobody wants to take the risk of repeating the Great Depression.
But how do you rescue the banking system without rewarding bad behavior? ...
The answer is that the government should seize troubled institutions when it bails them out, so that they can be kept running without rewarding stockholders or bondholders who don’t need rescue. In 2008 and 2009, however, it wasn’t clear that the Treasury Department had the necessary legal authority to do that. So Dodd-Frank filled that gap, giving regulators Ordinary Liquidation Authority, also known as resolution authority, so that in the next crisis we can save “systemically important” banks and other institutions without bailing out the bankers.
Bankers, of course, hate this idea; and Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell tried to help their friends with the Orwellian claim that resolution authority was actually a gift to Wall Street, a form of corporate welfare, because it would grease the skids for future bailouts. ...
Did reform go far enough? No. In particular, while banks are being forced to hold more capital, a key force for stability, they really should be holding much more. But Wall Street and its allies wouldn’t be screaming so loudly, and spending so much money in an effort to gut the law, if it weren’t an important step in the right direction. For all its limitations, financial reform is a success story.

Monday, July 21, 2014

'Truth or Consequences: Ponzi Schemes and Other Frauds'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

... A well-functioning financial system is based on trust. Widespread belief in honesty and integrity are essential for intermediation. That is, when we make a bank deposit, purchase a share of stock or a bond, we need to believe that terms of the agreement are being accurately represented. Yes, the value of the stock can go up and down, but when you think you buy an equity share, you really do own it. Fraud can undermine confidence, and the result will be less saving, less investment, less wealth and less income.
Unfortunately, in a complex financial system, the possibilities for fraud are numerous and the incidence frequent. Most cases are smaller and more mundane than Madoff or Ponzi. But they are remarkably common even today, despite enormous public efforts to prevent or expose them. One website devoted to tracking financial frauds in the United States lists 67 Ponzi schemes worth an estimated $3 billion in 2013 alone. ...

See also: Four years after passage, House keeps trying to kill Dodd-Frank.

Friday, July 18, 2014

'Did the Banks Have to Commit Fraud?'

Dean Baker:

Did the Banks Have to Commit Fraud?: Floyd Norris has an interesting piece discussing Citigroup's $7 billion settlement for misrepresenting the quality of the mortgages in the mortgage backed securities it marketed in the housing bubble. Norris notes that the bank had consultants who warned that many of the mortgages did not meet its standards and therefore should not have been included the securities.
Towards the end of the piece Norris comments:
"And it may well be true that actions like Citigroup’s were necessary for any bank that wanted to stay in what then appeared to be a highly profitable business. Imagine for a minute what would have happened in 2006 if Citigroup had listened to its consultants and canceled the offerings. To the mortgage companies making the loans, that might have simply marked Citigroup as uncooperative. The business would have gone to less scrupulous competitors."
This raises the question of what purpose is served by this sort of settlement. Undoubtedly Norris' statement is true. However, the market dynamic might be different if this settlement were different.
Based on the information Norris presents here, Citigroup's top management essentially knew that the bank was engaging in large-scale fraud by passing along billions of dollars worth of bad mortgages. If these people were now facing years of prison as a result of criminal prosecution then it may well affect how bank executives think about these situations in the future. While it will always be true that they do not want to turn away business, they would probably rather sacrifice some of their yearly bonus than risk spending a decade of their life behind bars. The fear of prision may even deter less scrupulous competitors. In that case, securitizing fraudulent mortgages might have been a marginal activity of little consequence for the economy.
Citigroup's settlement will not change the tradeoffs from what Citigroup's top management saw in 2006. As a result, in the future bankers are likely to make the same decisions that they did in 2006.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

'Debt, Great Recession and the Awful Recovery'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

Debt, Great Recession and the Awful Recovery: ... In their new book, House of Debt, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi portray the income and wealth differences between borrowers and lenders as the key to the Great Recession and the Awful Recovery (our term). If, as they argue, the “debt overhang” story trumps the now-conventional narrative of a financial crisis-driven economic collapse, policymakers will also need to revise the tools they use to combat such deep slumps. ...
House of Debt is at its best in showing that: (1) a dramatic easing of credit conditions for low-quality borrowers fed the U.S. mortgage boom in the years before the Great Recession; (2) that boom was a major driver of the U.S. housing price bubble; and (3) leveraged housing losses diminished U.S. consumption and destroyed jobs.
The evidence for these propositions is carefully documented... The strong conclusion is that – as in many other asset bubbles across history and time – an extraordinary credit expansion stoked the boom and exacerbated the bust. Of that we can now be sure.
What is less clear is that these facts diminish the importance of the U.S. intermediation crisis as a trigger for both the Great Recession and the Awful Recovery..., while the U.S. recession started in the final quarter of 2007, it turned vicious only after the September 2008 failure of Lehman. ...
What about the remedy? Would greater debt forgiveness have limited the squeeze on households and reduced the pullback? Almost certainly. ...
The discussion about remedies to debt and leverage cycles is still in its infancy. House of Debt shows why that discussion is so important. Its contribution to understanding the Great Recession (and other big economic cycles) will influence analysts and policymakers for years, even those (like us) who give much greater weight to the role of banks and the financial crisis than the authors.

They also talk about the desirability of "new financial contracts that place the burden of bearing the risk of house price declines primarily on wealthy investors (rather than on borrowers) who can better afford it."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

'Why Macroeconomists, Not Bankers, Should Set Interest Rates'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Why macroeconomists, not bankers, should set interest rates: More thoughts on the idea that interest rates ought to rise because of the possibility that the financial sector is taking excessive risks: what I called in this earlier post the BIS case, after the Bank of International Settlements, the international club for central bankers. I know Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma, Tony Yates and many others have already weighed in here, but - being macroeconomists - they were perhaps too modest to draw this lesson. ...

Saturday, July 12, 2014

'The Collapse of the French Assignat and Its Link to Virtual Currencies Today'

In case you missed this in links, I thought it was interesting:

Crisis Chronicles: The Collapse of the French Assignat and Its Link to Virtual Currencies Today, by James Narron and David Skeie, Liberty Street Economics: In the late 1700s, France ran a persistent deficit and by the late 1780s struggled with how to balance the budget and pay down the debt. After heated debate, the National Assembly elected to issue a paper currency bearing an attractive 3 percent interest rate, secured by the finest French real estate to be confiscated from the clergy. Assignats were first issued in December 1789 and initially were a boon to the economy. Yet while the first issues brought prosperity, subsequent issues led to stagnation and misery. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we review how fiat money inflation in France caused the collapse of the French assignat and describe some interesting parallels between the politics of French government finance in the late 1700s and more recent fiscal crises.

Remembering John Law and the Mississippi Bubble
It was not without grave reservation that the National Assembly elected to pursue a new issue of paper currency. Some who spoke out against issuing the assignat recalled the wretchedness and ruin to which their families were subjected during John Law’s tenure as head of French finance and the Mississippi Bubble of 1720. But there was also great political willpower against raising taxes of any sort and deficits were already high. So the only option was to turn to the printing press once again.
But this time, the National Assembly was convinced it would be different. The currency would be secured by confiscated church property...[continue reading]...