Category Archive for: Financial System [Return to Main]

Monday, April 14, 2014

FRBSF Economic Letter: How Important Are Hedge Funds in a Crisis?

Another one that may be of interest:

How Important Are Hedge Funds in a Crisis?, by Reint Gropp, FRBSF Economic Letter: Before the 2007–09 crisis, standard risk measurement methods substantially underestimated the threat to the financial system. One reason was that these methods didn’t account for how closely commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds, and insurance companies were linked. As financial conditions worsened in one type of institution, the effects spread to others. A new method that more accurately accounts for these spillover effects suggests that hedge funds may have been central in generating systemic risk during the crisis.

Paul Krugman: Three Expensive Milliseconds

 What is the "true cost of our bloated financial industry"?:

Three Expensive Milliseconds, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Four years ago ... Spread Networks finished boring its way through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. Spread’s tunnel was ... a fiber-optic cable that would shave three milliseconds — three-thousandths of a second — off communication time between the futures markets of Chicago and the stock markets of New York. ...
Who cares about three milliseconds? The answer is, high-frequency traders, who make money by buying or selling stock a tiny fraction of a second faster than other players. ...
Think about it..., spending hundreds of millions of dollars to save three milliseconds looks like a huge waste. And that’s part of a much broader picture, in which society is devoting an ever-growing share of its resources to financial wheeling and dealing, while getting little or nothing in return.
How much waste are we talking about? A paper by Thomas Philippon of New York University puts it at several hundred billion dollars a year. ...
What are we getting in return for all that money? Not much, as far as anyone can tell. ...
But if our supersized financial sector isn’t making us either safer or more productive, what is it doing? One answer is that it’s playing small investors for suckers, causing them to waste huge sums in a vain effort to beat the market. Don’t take my word for it — that’s what the president of the American Finance Association declared in 2008. Another answer is that a lot of money is going to speculative activities that are privately profitable but socially unproductive. ...
 It’s ... hard ... to see how the three-millisecond advantage conveyed by the Spread Networks tunnel makes modern America richer; yet that advantage was clearly worth it to the speculators.
In short, we’re giving huge sums to the financial industry while receiving little or nothing — maybe less than nothing — in return. Mr. Philippon puts the waste at 2 percent of G.D.P. Yet even that figure, I’d argue, understates the true cost of our bloated financial industry. For there is a clear correlation between the rise of modern finance and America’s return to Gilded Age levels of inequality.
So never mind the debate about exactly how much damage high-frequency trading does. It’s the whole financial industry, not just that piece, that’s undermining our economy and our society.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Have We Repaired Financial Regulations Since Lehman?

"The 2008 financial crisis led to the worst recession in the developed world since the Great Depression. Governments had to respond decisively on a large scale to contain the destructive impact of massive debt deflation. Still, several large financial institutions and thousands of small-to-medium-sized institutions collapsed or had to be rescued, numerous non-financial businesses closed, and millions of households lost their savings, jobs, and homes. Five years later, we are still feeling these effects. Will the financial reforms introduced since the onset of the crisis prevent another catastrophe? This keynote panel titled 'Have We Repaired Financial Regulation Since Lehman' at the Institute for New Economic Thinking's "Human After All" conference in Toronto."

Featured speakers: Anat Admati, Richard Bookstaber, Andy Haldane, and Edward Kane, moderated by Martin Wolf.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

'Pseudo-Mathematics and Financial Charlatanism'

"Past performance is not an indicator of future results":

Pseudo-mathematics and financial charlatanism, EurekAlert: Your financial advisor calls you up to suggest a new investment scheme. Drawing on 20 years of data, he has set his computer to work on this question: If you had invested according to this scheme in the past, which portfolio would have been the best? His computer assembled thousands of such simulated portfolios and calculated for each one an industry-standard measure of return on risk. Out of this gargantuan calculation, your advisor has chosen the optimal portfolio. After briefly reminding you of the oft-repeated slogan that "past performance is not an indicator of future results", the advisor enthusiastically recommends the portfolio, noting that it is based on sound mathematical methods. Should you invest?
The somewhat surprising answer is, probably not. Examining a huge number of sample past portfolios---known as "backtesting"---might seem like a good way to zero in on the best future portfolio. But if the number of portfolios in the backtest is so large as to be out of balance with the number of years of data in the backtest, the portfolios that look best are actually just those that target extremes in the dataset. When an investment strategy "overfits" a backtest in this way, the strategy is not capitalizing on any general financial structure but is simply highlighting vagaries in the data. ...
Unfortunately, the overfitting of backtests is commonplace not only in the offerings of financial advisors but also in research papers in mathematical finance. One way to lessen the problems of backtest overfitting is to test how well the investment strategy performs on data outside of the original dataset on which the strategy is based; this is called "out-of-sample" testing. However, few investment companies and researchers do out-of-sample testing. ...

Sunday, April 06, 2014

'Superfluous Financial Intermediation'

Rajiv Sethi:

Superfluous Financial Intermediation: I'm only about halfway through Flash Boys but have already come across a couple of striking examples of what might charitably be called superfluous financial intermediation. This is the practice of inserting oneself between a buyer and a seller of an asset, when both parties have already communicated to the market a willingness to trade at a mutually acceptable price. If the intermediary were simply absent from the marketplace, a trade would occur between the parties virtually instantaneously at a single price that is acceptable to both. Instead, both parties trade against the intermediary, at different prices. The intermediary captures the spread at the expense of the parties who wish to transact, adds nothing to liquidity in the market for the asset, and doubles the notional volume of trade. ... [gives two examples] ....

Michael Lewis has focused on practices such as these because their social wastefulness and fundamental unfairness is so transparent. But it's important to recognize that most of the strategies implemented by high frequency trading firms may not be quite so easy to classify or condemn. For instance, how is one to evaluate trading based on short term price forecasts based on genuinely public information? I have tried to argue in earlier posts that the proliferation of such information extracting strategies can give rise to greater price volatility. Furthermore, an arms race among intermediaries willing to sink significant resources into securing the slightest of speed advantages must ultimately be paid for by investors. ...

I hope that the minor factual errors in Flash Boys won't detract from the book's main message, or derail the important and overdue debate that it has predictably stirred. By focusing on the most egregious practices Lewis has already picked the low-hanging fruit. What remains to be figured out is how typical such practices really are. Taking full account of the range of strategies used by high frequency traders, to what extent are our asset markets characterized by superfluous financial intermediation?

Friday, April 04, 2014

'The Legitimacy of High Frequency Trading'

Tim Johnson on high frequency trading:

The Legitimacy of High Frequency Trading: Mark Thoma brought my attention to a post by Dean Baker, High Speed Trading and Slow-Witted Economic Policy. High Frequency Trading, or more generically Computer Based Trading, is proving problematic because it is a general term involving a variety of different techniques, some of which appear uncontroversial, others appear very dubious.

For example, a technique I would consider legitimate derives from Robert Almgren and Neil Chriss' work on optimal order execution: how do you structure a large trade such that it has minimal negative price impact and low transaction costs. There are firms that now specialise in performing these trades on behalf of institutions and I don't think there is an issue with how they innovate in order to generate profits.

The technique that is most widely regarded as illegitimate is order, or quote, stuffing. The technique involves placing orders and within a tenth of a second or less, cancelling them if they are not executed. I suspect this is the process that Baker refers to that enables HFTs to 'front run' the market. Baker regards the process as illegitimate...

The problem I have with Baker's argument is that I do not think it is robust. ... [explains why] ...

The substantive question is whether I can come up with a more robust argument than Baker's, and I offer an argument at the bottom of this piece. ...

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

'High Speed Trading and Slow-Witted Economic Policy'

Busy morning, so I will take advantage of the Creative Commons license and do a quick post. This is from Dean Baker:

High Speed Trading and Slow-Witted Economic Policy, by Dean Baker: Michael Lewis' new book, Flash Boys, is leading to large amounts of discussion both on and off the business pages. The basic story is that a new breed of traders can use sophisticated algorithms and super fast computers to effectively front-run trades. This allows them to make large amounts of money by essentially skimming off the margins. By selling ahead of a big trade, they will push down the price that trader receives for their stock by a fraction of a percent. Similarly, by buying ahead of a big trade, they will also raise the price paid for that trade by a fraction of a percent. Since these trades are essentially a sure bet (they know that a big sell order or a big buy order is coming), the profits can be enormous.
This book is seeming to prompt outrage, although it is not clear exactly why. The basic story of high frequency trading is not new. It has been reported in most major news outlets over the last few years. It would be nice if we could move beyond the outrage to a serious discussion of the policy issues and ideally some simple and reasonable policy to address the issue. (Yes, simple should be front and center. If it's complicated we will be employing people in pointless exercises -- perhaps a good job program, but bad from the standpoint of effective policy.)
The issue here is that people are earning large amounts of money by using sophisticated computers to beat the market. This is effectively a form of insider trading. Pure insider trading, for example trading based on the CEO giving advance knowledge of better than expected profits, is illegal. The reason is that it rewards people for doing nothing productive at the expense of honest investors.
On the other hand, there are people who make large amounts of money by doing good research to get ahead of the market. For example, many analysts may carefully study weather patterns to get an estimate of the size of the wheat crop and then either buy or sell wheat based on what they have learned about the about this year's crop relative to the generally held view. In principle, we can view the rewards for this activity as being warranted since they are effectively providing information to the market with the their trades. If they recognize an abundant wheat crop will lead to lower prices, their sales of wheat will cause the price to fall before it would otherwise, thereby allowing the markets to adjust more quickly. The gains to the economy may not in all cases be equal to the private gains to these traders, but at least they are providing some service.
By contrast, the front-running high speed trader, like the inside trader, is providing no information to the market. They are causing the price of stocks to adjust milliseconds more quickly than would otherwise be the case. It is implausible that this can provide any benefit to the economy. This is simply siphoning off money at the expense of other actors in the market.
There are many complicated ways to try to address this problem, but there is one simple method that would virtually destroy the practice. A modest tax on financial transactions would make this sort of rapid trading unprofitable since it depends on extremely small margins. A bill proposed by Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Peter DeFazio would impose a 0.03 percent tax on all trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives. This would quickly wipe out the high-frequency trading industry while having a trivial impact on normal investors. (Most research indicates that other investors will reduce their trading roughly in proportion to the increase in the cost per trade, leaving their total trading costs unchanged.)The Joint Tax Committee projected that this tax would raise roughly $400 billion over a decade.
A scaled tax that imposed a somewhat higher fee on stock trades and lower fee on short-term assets like options could be even more effective. Japan had a such tax in place in the 1980s and early 1990s. It raised more than 1 percent of GDP ($170 billion a year in the United States). Representative Keith Ellison has proposed this sort of tax for the United States.
If the political system were not so corrupt, such taxes would be near the top of the policy agenda. Even the International Monetary Fund has complained that the financial sector is under-taxed. However, because of the money and power of the industry the leadership of both political parties will run away from imposing any tax on the financial industry. In fact Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has been working to torpedo the imposition of such a tax in Europe. So look for lots of handwringing and outrage in response to Lewis' book. And look also for nothing real to be done. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Video: Robert Shiller on Market Bubbles – And Busts

Sunday, March 23, 2014

'Secular Stagnation and Wealth Inequality'

Atif Mian and Amir Sufi:

Secular Stagnation and Wealth Inequality, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: Alvin Hansen introduced the notion of “secular stagnation” in the 1930s. Hansen’s hypothesis has been brought back to life by Larry Summers...
A brief summary of the hypothesis goes something like this: A normally functioning economy would lower interest rates in the face of low current demand for goods and services... A lower interest rate helps boost demand.
But what if ... real interest rates need to be very negative to boost demand, but prevailing interest rates are around zero, then we will have too much savings in risk-free assets — what Paul Krugman has called the liquidity trap. In such a situation, the economy becomes demand-constrained.
The liquidity trap helps explain why recessions can be so severe. But the Summers argument goes further. He is arguing that we may be stuck in a long-run equilibrium where real interest rates need to be negative to generate adequate demand. Without negative real interest rates, we are doomed to economic stagnation. ...
In our view, what is missing from the secular stagnation story is the crucial role of the highly unequal wealth distribution. Who exactly is saving too much? It certainly isn’t the bottom 80% of the wealth distribution! We have already shown that the bottom 80% of the wealth distribution holds almost no financial assets.
Further, when the wealthy save in the financial system, some of that saving ends up in the hands of lower wealth households when they get a mortgage or auto loan. But when lower wealth households get financing, it is almost always done through debt contracts. This introduces some potential problems. Debt fuels asset booms when the economy is expanding, and debt contracts force the borrower to bear the losses of a decline in economic activity.
Both of these features of debt have important implications for the secular stagnation hypothesis. We will continue on this theme in future posts.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

'The Free Market’s Weak Hand'

James Kwak:

The Free Market’s Weak Hand, by James Kwak:

“Except where market discipline is undermined by moral hazard, owing, for example, to federal guarantees of private debt, private regulation generally is far better at constraining excessive risk-taking than is government regulation.”

That was Alan Greenspan back in 2003. This is little different from another of his famous maxims, that anti-fraud regulation was unnecessary because the market would not tolerate fraudsters. It is also a key premise of the blame-the-government crowd (Wallison, Pinto, and most of the current Republican Party), which claims that the financial crisis was caused by excessive government intervention in financial markets.

Market discipline clearly failed in the lead-up to the financial crisis. ... However, one thrust of post-crisis regulation has been to attempt to strengthen market discipline. This is consistent with the overall Geithner-Summers doctrine that markets generally work close to perfectly, and that regulation should mainly attempt to nudge markets in the right direction.

David Min (the lead rebutter of Wallison and Pinto’s theory of subprime mortgages, which relied on a made-up definition of “subprime”) has a new paper explaining why this is likely to fail. ...

Ultimately, one of Min’s suggestions is that we simply cannot rely heavily on market discipline as a means of constraining risk-taking by financial institutions. This leaves us with relatively unfashionable tools like higher capital requirements and structural reforms (size and complexity limits). But that’s not nearly sophisticated enough for the Geithner-Summers-Bernanke crew.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

'In Search of a Stable Electronic Currency'

Robert Shiller:

In Search of a Stable Electronic Currency, by Robert Shiller, Commentary, NY Times: ... Bitcoin’s future is very much in doubt. Yet whatever becomes of it, something good can arise from its innovations... I believe that electronic forms of money could give us better pricing, contracting and risk management. ...
Bitcoin has been focused on the wrong classical functions of money, as a medium of exchange and a store of value. ... It would be much better to focus on another classical function: money as a unit of account...
This has already begun to happen. ... For example, since 1967 in Chile, an inflation-indexed unit of account called the unidad de fomento (U.F.), meaning unit of development, has been widely used. Financial exchanges are made in pesos, according to a U.F.-peso rate posted on the website valoruf.cl. One multiplies the U.F. price by the exchange rate to arrive at the amount owed today in pesos. In this way, it is natural and easy to set inflation-indexed prices, and Chile is much more effectively inflation-indexed than other countries are. ...
With electronic software in the background, we can ... move beyond just one new unit of account to a whole system of them...
Bitcoin has been a bubble. But the legacy of the Bitcoin experience should be that we move toward a system of stable economic units of measurement — a system empowered by sophisticated mechanisms of electronic payment.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

'Random Variation'

James Kwak:

... I used to believe that no one could beat the market: in other words, that anyone who did beat the market was solely the beneficiary of random variation (a winner in Burton Malkiel’s coin-tossing tournament). I no longer believe this. I’ve seen too many studies that indicate that the distribution of risk-adjusted returns cannot be explained by dumb luck alone; most of the unexplained outcomes are at the negative end of the distribution, but there are also too many at the positive end. Besides, it makes sense: the idea that markets perfectly incorporate all available information sounds too much like magic to be true. ...

Sunday, January 19, 2014

'Rational Agents: Irrational Markets'

Roger Farmer:

Rational Agents: Irrational Markets: Bob Shiller wrote an interesting piece in today's NY Times on the irrationality of human action. Shiller argues that the economist's conception of human beings as rational is hard to square with the behavior of asset markets.
Although I agree with Shiller, that human action is inadequately captured by the assumptions that most economists make about behavior, I am not convinced that we need to go much beyond the rationality assumption, to understand what causes financial crises or why they are so devastatingly painful for large numbers of people. The assumption that agents maximize utility can get us a very very long way. ...
In my own work, I have shown that the labor market can go very badly wrong even when everybody is rational.  My coauthors and I showed in a recent paper, that the same idea holds in financial markets. Even when individuals are assumed to be rational; the financial markets may function very badly. ...
Miles Kimball and I have both been arguing that stock market fluctuations are inefficient and we both think that government should act to stabilize the asset markets. Miles' position is much closer to that of Bob Shiller; he thinks that agents are not always rational in the sense of Edgeworth. Miles and Bob may well be right. But in my view, the argument for stabilizing asset markets is much stronger. Even if we accept that agents are rational, it does not follow that swings in asset prices are Pareto efficient. But whether the motive arises from irrational people, or irrational markets; Miles and I agree: We can, and should, design an institution that takes advantage of the government's ability to trade on behalf of the unborn. More on that in a future post. ...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

'Capital Markets Balkanization Should Not Prevent Regulation'

Adair Turner:

Adair Turner: Capital Markets Balkanization Should Not Prevent Regulation, by The Institute for New Economic Thinking: “Don’t worry about the balkanisation of global capital markets” – Adair Turner
Fears that bank regulation or capital controls could lead to a “balkanisation” of global capital markets are overstated and should not constrain policy action to address the problems created by volatile short term capital flows and excessive credit creation, says Adair Turner, Senior Fellow at the Institute for New Economic Thinking and former chairman of the United Kingdom Financial Services Authority.
Speaking at a conference in Delhi sponsored by the Reserve Bank of India, Turner focused on the links between the international monetary system and domestic financial stability. [For the text of the speech and presentation please see below.] ...
Ultimately, Turner rejected the idea that this would lead to a harmful fragmentation of global capital markets.
“Talk of such policies is often met by objections that this will lead to a dangerous ‘balkanisation’ of global capital markets, preventing the free flow of capital and stymieing its allocative efficiency benefits,” he said. “But since the evidence for the benefits of financial integration is at best elusive and ambiguous, some ‘balkanisation’ of short term international debt markets could be a good thing”.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

'The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?'

Could it really be that no fraud was committed prior to the Great Recession? It's unlikely:

The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?, by Jed S. Rakoff, NYRB: Five years have passed since the onset of what is sometimes called the Great Recession. While the economy has slowly improved, there are still millions of Americans leading lives of quiet desperation: without jobs, without resources, without hope.
Who was to blame? Was it simply a result of negligence, of the kind of inordinate risk-taking commonly called a “bubble,” of an imprudent but innocent failure to maintain adequate reserves for a rainy day? Or was it the result, at least in part, of fraudulent practices, of dubious mortgages portrayed as sound risks and packaged into ever more esoteric financial instruments, the fundamental weaknesses of which were intentionally obscured?
If it was the former—if the recession was due, at worst, to a lack of caution—then the criminal law has no role to play in the aftermath. ... If the Great Recession was in no part the handiwork of intentionally fraudulent practices by high-level executives, then to prosecute such executives criminally would be “scapegoating” of the most shallow and despicable kind.
But if, by contrast, the Great Recession was in material part the product of intentional fraud, the failure to prosecute those responsible must be judged one of the more egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years. Indeed, it would stand in striking contrast to the increased success that federal prosecutors have had over the past fifty years..., Michael Milken..., the so-called savings-and-loan crisis, which again had some eerie parallels to more recent events, resulted in the successful criminal prosecution of more than eight hundred individuals, right up to Charles Keating. And again, the widespread accounting frauds of the 1990s, most vividly represented by Enron and WorldCom, led directly to the successful prosecution of such previously respected CEOs as Jeffrey Skilling and Bernie Ebbers.
In striking contrast with these past prosecutions, not a single high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis, and given the fact that most of the relevant criminal provisions are governed by a five-year statute of limitations, it appears likely that none will be. It may not be too soon, therefore, to ask why.
One possibility, already mentioned, is that no fraud was committed. This possibility should not be discounted. ... For example, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in its final report, uses variants of the word “fraud” no fewer than 157 times in describing what led to the crisis, concluding that there was a “systemic breakdown,” not just in accountability, but also in ethical behavior. ...[continue]...

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

'Five Years Later'

David Warsh on the "nature of what happened in September five years ago":

...George W. Bush was one of the heroes of the crisis. Despite the cavalier behavior of the first six years of his presidency, his last two years in office were pretty good – especially the appointment of Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Bush clearly shares credit with Obama for a splendid instance of cooperation in the autumn of 2008. (Bush, Obama and John McCain met in the White House on September 25, at the insistence of Sen. McCain, in the interval before the House of Representatives relented and agreed to pass the TARP bill. Obama dominated the conversation, Bush was impressed, and, by most accounts, McCain made a fool of himself.) ...

Much more here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

'Actually, Economists Can Predict Financial Crises'

I've argued for some time that we need new measures of systemic risk in financial markets -- we won't know if we can find reliable measures or not until we try -- so as it says below, recent "efforts to develop measures of systemic risk are encouraging":

Actually, Economists Can Predict Financial Crises, by Mark Buchanan, Commentary, Bloomberg: ... In recent years, an inconsistency has emerged in the economics profession. Many, including some Nobel Prize winners, maintain that crises are by their very nature unpredictable. At the same time, others -- aided by engineers, physicists, ecologists and computer scientists -- are developing ways to detect and quantify systemic risks, including measures that regulators could use to identify imbalances or vulnerabilities that might result in a crisis. ...
The challenge for economists is to find those indicators that can provide regulators with reliable early warnings of trouble. ...
Work is racing ahead. In the U.S., the newly formed Office of Financial Research has published various papers on topics such as stress tests and data gaps -- including one that reviews a list of some 31 proposed systemic-risk measures. The economists John Geanakoplos and Lasse Pedersen have offered specific proposals on measuring the extent to which markets are driven by leverage, which tends to make the whole system more fragile.
One problem has been “physics envy” -- a longing for certainty and for beautiful, timeless equations that can wrap up economic reality in some final way. Economics is actually more like biology, with perpetual change and evolution at its core. This means we’ll have to go on discovering new ways to identify useful clues about emerging problems as finance changes and investors jump into new products and strategies. Perpetual adaptation is part of living in a complex world.
The efforts to develop measures of systemic risk are encouraging. ...

Saturday, November 09, 2013

'The Crisis as a Classic Financial Panic'

Ben Bernanke on how the bank panic of 2007 is similar to the panic of 1907:

The Crisis as a Classic Financial Panic, by Chairman Ben S. Bernanke: I am very pleased to participate in this event in honor of Stanley Fischer. Stan was my teacher in graduate school, and he has been both a role model and a frequent adviser ever since. An expert on financial crises, Stan has written prolifically on the subject and has also served on the front lines, so to speak--notably, in his role as the first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund during the emerging market crises of the 1990s. Stan also helped to fight hyperinflation in Israel in the 1980s and, as the governor of that nation's central bank, deftly managed monetary policy to mitigate the effects of the recent crisis on the Israeli economy. Subsequently, as Israeli housing prices ran upward, Stan became an advocate and early adopter of macroprudential policies to preserve financial stability.
Stan frequently counseled his students to take a historical perspective, which is good advice in general, but particularly helpful for understanding financial crises, which have been around a very long time. Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, I think the recent global crisis is best understood as a classic financial panic transposed into the novel institutional context of the 21st century financial system.1 An appreciation of the parallels between recent and historical events greatly influenced how I and many of my colleagues around the world responded to the crisis.
Besides being the fifth anniversary of the most intense phase of the recent crisis, this year also marks the centennial of the founding of the Federal Reserve.2 It's particularly appropriate to recall, therefore, that the Federal Reserve was itself created in response to a severe financial panic, the Panic of 1907. This panic led to the creation of the National Monetary Commission, whose 1911 report was a major impetus to the Federal Reserve Act, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on December 23, 1913. Because the Panic of 1907 fit the archetype of a classic financial panic in many ways, it's worth discussing its similarities and differences with the recent crisis.3 
Like many other financial panics, including the most recent one, the Panic of 1907 took place while the economy was weakening; according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a recession had begun in May 1907.4 Also, as was characteristic of pre-Federal Reserve panics, money markets were tight when the panic struck in October, reflecting the strong seasonal demand for credit associated with the harvesting and shipment of crops. The immediate trigger of the panic was a failed effort by a group of speculators to corner the stock of the United Copper Company. The main perpetrators of the failed scheme, F. Augustus Heinze and C.F. Morse, had extensive connections with a number of leading financial institutions in New York City. When the news of the failed speculation broke, depositor fears about the health of those institutions led to a series of runs on banks, including a bank at which Heinze served as president. To try to restore confidence, the New York Clearinghouse, a private consortium of banks, reviewed the books of the banks under pressure, declared them solvent, and offered conditional support--one of the conditions being that Heinze and his board step down. These steps were largely successful in stopping runs on the New York banks.
But even as the banks stabilized, concerns intensified about the financial health of a number of so-called trust companies--financial institutions that were less heavily regulated than national or state banks and which were not members of the Clearinghouse. As the runs on the trust companies worsened, the companies needed cash to meet the demand for withdrawals. In the absence of a central bank, New York's leading financiers, led by J.P. Morgan, considered providing liquidity. However, Morgan and his colleagues decided that they did not have sufficient information to judge the solvency of the affected institutions, so they declined to lend. Overwhelmed by a run, the Knickerbocker Trust Company failed on October 22, undermining public confidence in the remaining trust companies.
To satisfy their depositors' demands for cash, the trust companies began to sell or liquidate assets, including loans made to finance stock purchases. The selloff of shares and other assets, in what today we would call a fire sale, precipitated a sharp decline in the stock market and widespread disruptions in other financial markets. Increasingly concerned, Morgan and other financiers (including the future governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Benjamin Strong) led a coordinated response that included the provision of liquidity through the Clearinghouse and the imposition of temporary limits on depositor withdrawals, including withdrawals by correspondent banks in the interior of the country. These efforts eventually calmed the panic. By then, however, the U.S. financial system had been severely disrupted, and the economy contracted through the middle of 1908.
The recent crisis echoed many aspects of the 1907 panic. Like most crises, the recent episode had an identifiable trigger--in this case, the growing realization by market participants that subprime mortgages and certain other credits were seriously deficient in their underwriting and disclosures. As the economy slowed and housing prices declined, diverse financial institutions, including many of the largest and most internationally active firms, suffered credit losses that were clearly large but also hard for outsiders to assess. Pervasive uncertainty about the size and incidence of losses in turn led to sharp withdrawals of short-term funding from a wide range of institutions; these funding pressures precipitated fire sales, which contributed to sharp declines in asset prices and further losses. Institutional changes over the past century were reflected in differences in the types of funding that ran: In 1907, in the absence of deposit insurance, retail deposits were much more prone to run, whereas in 2008, most withdrawals were of uninsured wholesale funding, in the form of commercial paper, repurchase agreements, and securities lending. Interestingly, a steep decline in interbank lending, a form of wholesale funding, was important in both episodes. Also interesting is that the 1907 panic involved institutions--the trust companies--that faced relatively less regulation, which probably contributed to their rapid growth in the years leading up to the panic. In analogous fashion, in the recent crisis, much of the panic occurred outside the perimeter of traditional bank regulation, in the so-called shadow banking sector.5 
The responses to the panics of 1907 and 2008 also provide instructive comparisons. In both cases, the provision of liquidity in the early stages was crucial. In 1907 the United States had no central bank, so the availability of liquidity depended on the discretion of firms and private individuals, like Morgan. In the more recent crisis, the Federal Reserve fulfilled the role of liquidity provider, consistent with the classic prescriptions of Walter Bagehot.6 The Fed lent not only to banks, but, seeking to stem the panic in wholesale funding markets, it also extended its lender-of-last-resort facilities to support nonbank institutions, such as investment banks and money market funds, and key financial markets, such as those for commercial paper and asset-backed securities.
In both episodes, though, liquidity provision was only the first step. Full stabilization requires the restoration of public confidence. Three basic tools for restoring confidence are temporary public or private guarantees, measures to strengthen financial institutions' balance sheets, and public disclosure of the conditions of financial firms. At least to some extent, Morgan and the New York Clearinghouse used these tools in 1907, giving assistance to troubled firms and providing assurances to the public about the conditions of individual banks. All three tools were used extensively in the recent crisis: In the United States, guarantees included the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's (FDIC) guarantees of bank debt, the Treasury Department's guarantee of money market funds, and the private guarantees offered by stronger firms that acquired weaker ones. Public and private capital injections strengthened bank balance sheets. Finally, the bank stress tests that the Federal Reserve led in the spring of 2009 and the publication of the stress-test findings helped restore confidence in the U.S. banking system. Collectively, these measures helped end the acute phase of the financial crisis, although, five years later, the economic consequences are still with us.
Once the fire is out, public attention turns to the question of how to better fireproof the system. Here, the context and the responses differed between 1907 and the recent crisis. As I mentioned, following the 1907 crisis, reform efforts led to the founding of the Federal Reserve, which was charged both with helping to prevent panics and, by providing an "elastic currency," with smoothing seasonal interest rate fluctuations. In contrast, reforms since 2008 have focused on critical regulatory gaps revealed by the crisis. Notably, oversight of the shadow banking system is being strengthened through the designation, by the new Financial Stability Oversight Council, of nonbank systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs) for consolidated supervision by the Federal Reserve, and measures are being undertaken to address the potential instability of wholesale funding, including reforms to money market funds and the triparty repo market.7 
As we try to make the financial system safer, we must inevitably confront the problem of moral hazard. The actions taken by central banks and other authorities to stabilize a panic in the short run can work against stability in the long run, if investors and firms infer from those actions that they will never bear the full consequences of excessive risk-taking. As Stan Fischer reminded us following the international crises of the late 1990s, the problem of moral hazard has no perfect solution, but steps can be taken to limit it.8 First, regulatory and supervisory reforms, such as higher capital and liquidity standards or restriction on certain activities, can directly limit risk-taking. Second, through the use of appropriate carrots and sticks, regulators can enlist the private sector in monitoring risk-taking. For example, the Federal Reserve's Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR) process, the descendant of the bank stress tests of 2009, requires not only that large financial institutions have sufficient capital to weather extreme shocks, but also that they demonstrate that their internal risk-management systems are effective.9 In addition, the results of the stress-test portion of CCAR are publicly disclosed, providing investors and analysts information they need to assess banks' financial strength.
Of course, market discipline can only limit moral hazard to the extent that debt and equity holders believe that, in the event of distress, they will bear costs. In the crisis, the absence of an adequate resolution process for dealing with a failing SIFI left policymakers with only the terrible choices of a bailout or allowing a potentially destabilizing collapse. The Dodd-Frank Act, under the orderly liquidation authority in Title II, created an alternative resolution mechanism for SIFIs that takes into account both the need, for moral hazard reasons, to impose costs on the creditors of failing firms and the need to protect financial stability; the FDIC, with the cooperation of the Federal Reserve, has been hard at work fleshing out this authority.10 A credible resolution mechanism for systemically important firms will be important for reducing uncertainty, enhancing market discipline, and reducing moral hazard.
Our continuing challenge is to make financial crises far less likely and, if they happen, far less costly. The task is complicated by the reality that every financial panic has its own unique features that depend on a particular historical context and the details of the institutional setting. But, as Stan Fischer has done with unusual skill throughout his career, one can, by stripping away the idiosyncratic aspects of individual crises, hope to reveal the common elements. In 1907, no one had ever heard of an asset-backed security, and a single private individual could command the resources needed to bail out the banking system; and yet, fundamentally, the Panic of 1907 and the Panic of 2008 were instances of the same phenomenon, as I have discussed today. The challenge for policymakers is to identify and isolate the common factors of crises, thereby allowing us to prevent crises when possible and to respond effectively when not.

1. See Ben S. Bernanke (2012), "Some Reflections on the Crisis and the Policy Response," speech delivered at "Rethinking Finance," a conference sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation and Century Foundation, New York, April 13. For the classic discussion of financial panics and the appropriate central bank response, see Walter Bagehot ([1873] 1897), Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons).
2. Information on the centennial of the Federal Reserve System is available at www.federalreserve.gov/aboutthefed/centennial/about.htm.
3. The Panic of 1907 is discussed in a number of sources, including O.M.W. Sprague (1910), A History of Crises under the National Banking System (PDF), National Monetary Commission (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office), and, with a focus on its monetary consequences, Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz (1963), A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press). An accessible discussion of the episode, from which this speech draws heavily, can be found in Jon R. Moen and Ellis W. Tallman (1990), "Lessons from the Panic of 1907 (PDF)," Leaving the Board Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Economic Review, May/June, pp. 2-13.
4. See Charles W. Calomiris and Gary Gorton (1991), "The Origins of Banking Panics: Models, Facts, and Bank Regulation," in R. Glenn Hubbard, ed., Financial Markets and Financial Crises (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 109-74.
5. As discussed in Bernanke, "Some Reflections on the Crisis" (see note 1), shadow banking, as usually defined, comprises a diverse set of institutions and markets that, collectively, carry out traditional banking functions--but do so outside, or in ways only loosely linked to, the traditional system of regulated depository institutions. Examples of important components of the shadow banking system include securitization vehicles, asset-backed commercial paper conduits, money market funds, markets for repurchase agreements, investment banks, and mortgage companies.
6. See Bagehot, Lombard Street, in note 1.
7. For a more comprehensive discussion of recent changes in the regulatory framework, see Daniel K. Tarullo (2013), " Evaluating Progress in Regulatory Reforms to Promote Financial Stability," speech delivered at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Washington, May 3.
8. See Stanley Fischer (1999), "On the Need for an International Lender of Last Resort," Leaving the Board Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 13 (Fall), pp. 85-104.
9. For example, see Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (2013), Capital Planning at Large Bank Holding Companies: Supervisory Expectations and Range of Current Practice (PDF) (Washington: Board of Governors, August).
10. For a more detailed discussion, see Daniel K. Tarullo (2013), "Toward Building a More Effective Resolution Regime: Progress and Challenges," speech delivered at "Planning for the Orderly Resolution of a Global Systemically Important Bank," a conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Washington, October 18.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

(Unmet) Credit Demand of American Households

From Liberty Street Economics at the NY Fed:

(Unmet) Credit Demand of American Households, by Basit Zafar, Max Livingston, and Wilbert van der Klaauw, NY Fed: One of the direct effects of the 2008 financial crisis on U.S. households was a sharp tightening of credit. Households that had previously been able to borrow relatively freely through credit cards, home equity loans, or personal loans suddenly found those lines closed off—just when they needed them the most. In recent months, aggregate statistics such as the Federal Reserve’s Consumer Credit series and the Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey have shown a gradual improvement in consumer credit. The former series is an indicator of interaction of credit supply and demand, while the latter shows only short-term changes in demand and supply (as reported by lenders) separately. It is, therefore, not entirely clear whether the observed trends are a result of fluctuations in demand or supply. Are those demanding credit getting it? What differences are there among U.S. consumers in their demand for and access to credit?
To answer these questions, we designed and included a set of questions on credit access and demand as part of an internet-based survey... Using our survey, we have been able to determine that currently there is a large amount of unmet demand for credit. In the future, we intend to follow-up on respondents’ ability to obtain credit to see how their actions and perceptions with regard to credit change over time.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Do People Have Rational Expectations?

New column:

Do People Have Rational Expectations?, by Mark Thoma

Not always, and economic models need to take this into account.

DeLong on Blinder's 'After the Music Stopped'

Brad DeLong reviews Alan Blinder's new book:

You Got Me Feelin Hella Good So I'm Gonna Keep on Dancing: Alan Blinder: "After the Music Stopped": Tuesday Book Reviews Extended Version Weblogging: A Review of Alan Blinder's After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead (New York: Penguin Press), J. BRADFORD DELONG is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley

Properly edited shorter version in Foreign Affairs, July/August 2013

Alan Blinder is the latest economist out of the gate with an analytical account of the recent economic downturn. His 2013 After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead (New York: Penguin) is, I think, the best of accounts--at least the best for those without the substantial background and experience in finance needed to successfully crack the works of Gary Gorton. It is the best for four reasons:

  1. The narrative is very good--it is, from my perspective at least, clear and correct.
  2. Alan Blinder has a deep understanding of macroeconomics--thus he can place the events in context, and explain just how it was that the housing boom and its crash had such catastrophic effects on the American economy while, say, the dot-com boom and its crash did not (and was in fact a net plus for the U.S. economy as a whole: a lot of research and development got done, a lot of useful business-model experimentation took place, and a lot of very valuable twenty-first century virtual infrastructure got built--the housing boom brought us no analogous benefits).
  3. Alan Blinder has a very clear sense of the policy options, both in the past and now: what did work, what would have worked, what might have worked, and what would still work were we to try it to get us out of the current fix we are in.
  4. As noted, the book is very readable, even for those who have not been marinated in finance enough to grasp the technicalities and even for those who find topics like "the fall of the rupee" sensational and interesting. For those who do and have worked in or near Wall Street or it equivalent, I recommend Gary Gorton. For everybody else, I recommend Alan Blinder.The topic is certainly enormously important. The economy is today, still, four and a half years after the crash of 2008, six years after the emergence of the first signs of significant trouble in Wall Street, and seven years after the peak of the housing boom, deeply depressed.

Blinder writes that "policy makers are still nursing a frail economy back to health". I am not so sure that is right. It does not look, to me at least, "frail" and "being nursed back to health". To me, it still looks very sick. Blinder writes: "having the national unemployment rate near 8 percent is a lot better than having it near 10 percent, but it is far from good". Blinder is thinking in terms of an economy in which acceptable (although far from ideal or attainable) employment performance has an unemployment rate of 6 percent, and thus that we are halfway back to economic health.

I see an economy in which the share of American adults who were employed was 63% in the mid-2000s, fell to 58.5% in 2009, and is still 58.5% today. We would have expected the natural aging of America's population to have carried the share of adults at work from 63% down to 62% over the past seven years or so--not to 58.5%. And we would have expected the collapse of people's retirement savings either in housing or in stocks in 2008 to have led many Americans to postpone retirement. Given the collapse in the value of retirement savings and their impact on desired retirements, I see a healthy American economy today as one that would still have the same adult employment-to-population ratio of 63% as the economy of the mid-2000s.

From that perspective, we are not halfway back to health. We had a gap of 4.5% points between actual employment and full employment at the end of 2009. We have a gap of 4.5% points between actual employment and full employment today. We are flatlining. It is true that in late 2009 there were still real and rational fears that things might become worse very quickly, and that that possibility is no longer on the menu. But in my view our "recovery" has taken the form not of things getting better but of having successfully guarded against the possibility that things would get even worse. And that is a very feeble recovery indeed. And, in Europe, things are getting worse right now.

Most economists would say that there is a silver lining, in that this is not a Great Depression. I have been calling the current episode the "Lesser Depression". I now think that most economists are--and that I was--wrong in claiming this silver lining. ...[continue to much, much, much more]...

Thursday, October 31, 2013

'Why Bankers Still Aren't Chastened'

From Spiegel:

Why Bankers Still Aren't Chastened, by Martin Hesse and Anne Seith, Spiegel: ... At 1:45 on the morning of Oct. 19, Italian police arrested the 53-year-old [Raoul Weil, once one of the most influential executives at Swiss bank UBS] ... and brought him to ... Dozza prison. The reason: US authorities had indicted Weil, the former head of wealth management at UBS, for allegedly helping American clients hide their assets from US tax authorities on Swiss bank accounts.
Weil's arrest was only one of a series of reminders last week that bankers around the globe are no longer the admired elite of the business world. Public prosecutors, financial regulators and politicians everywhere now suddenly seem to be striving to condemn all of the industry's excesses in fast forward.
British authorities recently hit the financial sector with record penalties. Last week, on the other side of the Atlantic, a US court found Bank of America and a former manager guilty of fraud because of a scheme involving shoddy home loans. Shortly before that, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan,reluctantly negotiated a record settlement of $13 billion (€9.45 billion) to at least put a stop to civil claims that his bank knowingly sold toxic US mortgage-backed securities. ...
The truth is, spectacular coups like Weil's arrest are little more than symbolic gestures. The fines and settlements paid by many financial institutions are akin to the indulgences sold by the medieval Catholic Church. The sins of the past may now be forgiven -- but there are no guarantees of improvement in the future.
Regulatory agencies and politicians have not set effective controls on banks and bankers, and although their reputation may be tarnished, their power remains unbroken. ...

Monday, October 21, 2013

Predatory Lending and the Subprime Crisis

From the NBER:

Predatory Lending and the Subprime Crisis, by Sumit Agarwal, Gene Amromin, Itzhak Ben-David, Souphala Chomsisengphet, Douglas D. Evanoff, NBER Working Paper No. 19550 Issued in October 2013: We measure the effect of an anti-predatory pilot program (Chicago, 2006) on mortgage default rates to test whether predatory lending was a key element in fueling the subprime crisis. Under the program, risky borrowers and/or risky mortgage contracts triggered review sessions by housing counselors who shared their findings with the state regulator. The pilot cut market activity in half, largely through the exit of lenders specializing in risky loans and through decline in the share of subprime borrowers. Our results suggest that predatory lending practices contributed to high mortgage default rates among subprime borrowers, raising them by about a third.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sovereigns versus Banks: Crises, Causes and Consequences'

Here's the conclusion from a Vox EU piece by Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, Alan Taylor:

... Conclusion

The long-run historical record underscores the central role played by private-sector borrowing behavior for the buildup of financial instability.

  • The idea that financial crises typically have their roots in fiscal problems is not supported by history.
  • We find evidence, however, that high levels of public debt can matter for the path of the recovery, confirming the results of Reinhart et al. (2012).

However, this effect is related to recoveries from financial crises rather than typical recessions.

  • While high levels of public debt make little difference in normal times, entering a financial crisis recession with an elevated level of public debt exacerbates the effects of private-sector deleveraging, and typically leads to a prolonged period of sub-par economic performance.

Put differently, the long-run data suggest that without enough fiscal space, a country’s capacity to perform macroeconomic stabilisation and resume growth may be impaired.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Are Market Bubbles Predictable, Controllable?

"The limitation of our paper is that we haven't shown that our circuit has relevance to the stock market":

Market bubbles may be predictable, controllable, EurekAlert: It's an idea financial regulators have dreamed of. Experiments on a simple model of chaos have found that it may be possible not only to predict an extreme event, like a stock market collapse, but to intervene and prevent it from happening.
In a paper appearing October 21 in the journal Physical Review Letters, an international team of chaos researchers say that these extreme events, which they call "dragon kings," are less random than had been thought and that, in a simple experiment at least, they can be anticipated and controlled.
"These dragon kings are predictable, if we knew what to measure," said co-author Dan Gauthier, the Robert C. Richardson professor of physics at Duke University.
The latest finding is an outgrowth of experimental work Gauthier has been doing since the 1990s with simple electrical circuits he calls "chaos generators." ...
During a long run of the experiment, the data reveal that the chaotic behavior visits "hot spots" in which an extreme event, "a bubble," might occur. This is an event in which the circuits suddenly and temporarily loose synch. Sometimes the size of the event is small, like a small change in a financial market, and other times it is gigantic, like a market crash. And the size of most of these disturbances follows a power law distribution, in which one variable changes as a power of the other. The most extreme events, the "dragon kings," are responsible for significant deviations from the curve of the power law.
Extreme events that may be governed by these laws would include sudden population crashes in species or freak waves in the ocean, Gauthier said. Other examples might be epileptic storms of activity in the brain and rolling power outages caused by an initial small disturbance, like a squirrel shorting out one substation on a large grid. Other examples could be found in the occurrence of incipient failure of materials and of engineering structures, in the synchronized behavior of kidney and heart cells in the body, in meteorological front dynamics and in climate change, among many others.
In a series of experiments performed with the coupled chaos circuits by Gauthier's colleague and former post-doctoral research associate, Hugo Cavalcante, who is now at the Federal University of Paraiba in Brazil, it was found that the introduction of a tiny amount of current injected into one of the circuits at just the right time prevented a predicted dragon king from happening. "Maybe tiny nudges can make a big difference," Gauthier said. ...
"The limitation of our paper is that we haven't shown that our circuit has relevance to the stock market," which has many more variables, Gauthier said. "We aren't yet sure where to look, but for this one simple system, we figured out how to find it."
Gauthier said the five-page paper faced a difficult gauntlet of reviewers before being accepted in PRL. ...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

'Information, Beliefs, and Trading'

Under the weather today, so I'll hand the microphone over to Rajiv Sethi:

Information, Beliefs, and Trading: Even the most casual observer of financial markets cannot fail to be impressed by the speed with which prices respond to new information. Markets may overreact at times but they seldom fail to react at all, and the time lag between the emergence of information and an adjustment in price is extremely short in the case of liquid securities such as common stock.
Since all price movements arise from orders placed and executed, prices can respond to news only if there exist individuals in the economy who are alert to the arrival of new information and are willing to adjust positions on this basis. But this raises the question of how such "information traders" are able to find willing counterparties. After all, who in their right mind wants to trade with an individual having superior information?
This kind of reasoning, when pushed to its logical limits, leads to some paradoxical conclusions. As shown by Aumann, two individuals who are commonly known to be rational, and who share a common prior belief about the likelihood of an event, cannot agree to disagree no matter how different their private information might be. That is, they can disagree only if this disagreement is itself not common knowledge. But the willingness of two risk-averse parties to enter opposite sides of a bet requires them to agree to disagree, and hence trade between risk-averse individuals with common priors is impossible if they are commonly known to be rational.
This may sound like an obscure and irrelevant result, since we see an enormous amount of trading in asset markets, but I find it immensely clarifying. It means that in thinking about trading we have to allow for either departures from (common knowledge of) rationality, or we have to drop the common prior hypothesis. And these two directions lead to different models of trading, with different and testable empirical predictions.
The first approach, which maintains the common prior assumption but allows for traders with information-insensitive asset demands, was developed in a hugely influential paper by Albert Kyle. Such "noise traders" need not be viewed as entirely irrational; they may simply have urgent liquidity needs that require them to enter or exit positions regardless of price. Kyle showed that the presence of such traders induces market makers operating under competitive conditions to post bid and ask prices that could be accepted by any counterparty, including information traders. From this perspective, prices come to reflect information because informed parties trade with uninformed market makers, who compensate for losses on these trades with profits made in transactions with noise traders.
An alternative approach, which does not require the presence of noise traders at all but drops the common prior assumption, can be traced to a wonderful (and even earlier) paper by Harrison and Kreps. Here all traders have the same information at each point in time, but disagree about its implications for the value of securities. Trade occurs as new information arrives because individuals interpret this information differently. (Formally, they have heterogeneous priors and can therefore disagree even if their posterior beliefs are commonly known.) From this perspective prices respond to news because of heterogeneous interpretations of public information.
Since these two approaches imply very different distributions of trading strategies, they are empirically distinguishable in principle. But identifying strategies from a sequence of trades is not an easy task. At a minimum, one needs transaction level data in which each trade is linked to a buyer and seller account, so that the evolution of individual portfolios can be tracked over time. From these portfolio adjustments one might hope to deduce the distribution of strategies in the trading population.
In a paper that I have discussed previously on this blog, Kirilenko, Kyle, Samadi and Tuzun have used transaction level data from the S&P 500 E-Mini futures market to partition accounts into a small set of groups, thus mapping out an "ecosystem'' in which different categories of traders "occupy quite distinct, albeit overlapping, positions.'' Their concern was primarily with the behavior of high frequency traders both before and during the flash crash of May 6, 2010, especially in relation to liquidity provision. They do not explore the question of how prices come to reflect information, but in principle their data would allow them to do so.
I have recently posted the first draft a paper, written jointly with David Rothschild, that looks at transaction level data from a very different source: Intrade's prediction market for the 2012 US presidential election. Anyone who followed this market over the course of the election cycle will know that prices were highly responsive to information, adjusting almost instantaneously to news. Our main goal in the paper was to map out an ecology of trading strategies and thereby gain some understanding of the process by means of which information comes to be reflected in prices. (We also wanted to evaluate claims made at the time of the election that a large trader was attempting to manipulate prices, but that's a topic for another post.)
The data are extremely rich: for each transaction over the two week period immediately preceding the election, we know the price, quantity, time of trade, and aggressor side. Most importantly, we have unique identifiers for the buyer and seller accounts, which allows us to trace the evolution of trader portfolios and profits. No identities can be deduced from this data, but it is possible to make inferences about strategies from the pattern of trades.
We focus on contracts referencing the two major party candidates, Obama and Romney. These contracts are structured as binary options, paying $10 if the referenced candidate wins the election and nothing otherwise. The data allows us to compute volume, transactions, aggression, holding duration, directional exposure, margin, and profit for each account. Using this, we are able to group traders into five categories, each associated with a distinct trading strategy.
During our observational window there were about 84,000 separate transactions involving 3.5 million contracts and over 3,200 unique accounts. The single largest trader accumulated a net long Romney position of 1.2 million contracts (in part by shorting Obama contracts) and did this by engaging in about 13,000 distinct trades for a total loss in two weeks of about 4 million dollars. But this was not the most frequent trader: a different account was responsible for almost 34,000 transactions, which were clearly implemented algorithmically.
One of our most striking findings is that 86% of traders, accounting for 52% of volume, never change the direction of their exposure even once. A further 25% of volume comes from 8% of traders who are strongly biased in one direction or the other. A handful of arbitrageurs account for another 14% of volume, leaving just 6% of accounts and 8% of volume associated with individuals who are unbiased in the sense that they are willing to take directional positions on either side of the market. This suggests to us that information finds its way into prices largely through the activities of traders who are biased in one direction or another, and differ with respect to their interpretations of public information rather than their differential access to private information.
Prediction markets have historically generated forecasts that compete very effectively with those of the best pollsters.  But if most traders never change the direction of their exposure, how does information come to be reflected in prices? We argue that this occurs through something resembling the following process. Imagine a population of traders partitioned into two groups, one of which is predisposed to believe in an Obama victory while the other is predisposed to believe the opposite. Suppose that the first group has a net long position in the Obama contract while the second is short, and news arrives that suggests a decline in Obama's odds of victory (think of the first debate). Both groups revise their beliefs in response to the new information, but to different degrees. The latter group considers the news to be seriously damaging while the former thinks it isn't quite so bad. Initially both groups wish to sell, so the price drops quickly with very little trade since there are few buyers. But once the price falls far enough, the former group is now willing to buy, thus expanding their long position, while the latter group increases their short exposure. The result is that one group of traders ends up as net buyers of the Obama contract even when the news is bad for the incumbent, while the other ends up increasing short exposure even when the news is good. Prices respond to information, and move in the manner that one would predict, without any individual trader switching direction.
This is a very special market, to be sure, more closely related to sports betting than to stock trading. But it does not seem implausible to us that similar patterns of directional exposure may also be found in more traditional and economically important asset markets. Especially in the case of consumer durables, attachment to products and the companies that make them is widespread. It would not be surprising if one were to find Apple or Samsung partisans among investors, just as one finds them among consumers. In this case one would expect to find a set of traders who increase their long positions in Apple even in the face of bad news for the company because they believe that the price has declined more than is warranted by the news. Whether or not such patterns exist is an empirical question that can only be settled with a transaction level analysis of trading data.
If there's a message in all this, it is that markets aggregate not just information, but also fundamentally irreconcilable perspectives. Prices, as John Kay puts it, "are the product of a clash between competing narratives about the world." Some of the volatility that one observes in asset markets arises from changes in perspectives, which can happen independently of the arrival of information. This is why substantial "corrections" can occur even in the absence of significant news, and why stock prices appear to "move too much to be justified by subsequent changes in dividends." What makes markets appear invincible is not the perfect aggregation of information that is sometimes attributed to them, but the sheer unpredictability of persuasion, exhortation, and social influence that can give rise to major shifts in the distribution of narratives. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

'Housing Market Is Heating Up, if Not Yet Bubbling'

Robert Shiller:

Housing Market Is Heating Up, if Not Yet Bubbling, by Robert Shiller, Commentary, NY Times: Home prices have been rising rapidly, so much so that there is talk that we are entering another national bubble. ...
Is it possible that we are lapsing into what I call a bubble mentality — a self-reinforcing cycle of popular belief that prices can only go higher? ...
People who are now inclined to buy a home are most often just thinking that we are gradually recovering from a recession and that this is a good time to buy. The mental framing still seems to be about economic recovery and the likelihood that interest rates will rise. People mostly don’t seem to be prompted by the anticipation of another housing boom.
That’s the thinking at the moment. But whether these attitudes mutate into a national epidemic of bubble thinking — one big enough to outweigh higher mortgage rates, fiscal austerity in Congress and other factors — remains to be seen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bubbles are All in Your Head

Noah Smith, in a tweet, seemed to think this research is important:

Drivers of financial boom and bust may be all in the mind, study finds, EurekAlert: Market bubbles that lead to financial crashes may be self-made because of instinctive biological mechanisms in traders' brains that lead them to try and predict how others behave...
The research offers the first insight into the processes in the brain that underpin financial decisions and behavior leading to the formation of market bubbles. ... Although bubbles have been intensely investigated in economics, the reasons why they arise and crash are not well understood and we know little about the biology of financial decision behavior.
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology ... found that the formation of bubbles was linked to increased activity in an area of the brain that processes value judgments. People who had greater brain activity in this area were more likely to ride the bubble and lose money by paying more for an asset than its fundamental worth.
In bubble markets, they also found a strong correlation between activity in the value processing part of the brain and another area that is responsible for computing social signals to infer the intentions of other people and predict their behaviour.
Dr Benedetto De Martino, a researcher at Royal Holloway University of London who led the study while at the California Institute of Technology, said: "We find that in a bubble situation, people ... shift the brain processes they're using to make financial decisions. They start trying to imagine how the other traders will behave and this leads them to modify their judgment of how valuable the asset is. They become less driven by explicit information, like actual prices, and more focused on how they imagine the market will change. ...
Professor Peter Bossaerts from the University of Utah, a co-author of the study, explains: "It's group illusion. When participants see inconsistency in the rate of transactions, they think that there are people who know better operating in the marketplace and they make a game out of it. In reality, however, there is nothing to be gained because nobody knows better." ...
The findings give the first glimpse to the decision-making mechanisms in the brain that drive financial markets. Although they may not help to predict the onset of a bubble, the research could help to design better social and financial interventions to avoid the formation of future bubbles in financial markets.

'Lehman Was Not Alone – Measuring System Risk in the 2008 Crisis'

Robert Engle at the INET blog:

Lehman Was Not Alone – Measuring System Risk in the 2008 Crisis, by Robert Engle: On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and ushered in the worst part of the recent financial crisis. Today, we still discuss whether taxpayer money should have been used to rescue Lehman. My colleagues at NYU and I have developed measures of systemic risk, and this fifth anniversary affords us a good opportunity to look at what these measures would have indicated to Treasury Secretary Paulsen if they had been available at that time.
The answer is quite surprising. ... On the website, you can go back to August 29, 2008, to see the ranking of U.S. firms based on SRISK.  . Was Lehman at the top of the list in 2008? No. In fact, it was Number 11. ...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

'DeLong: The Lehman Disaster was Foreseeable'

Brad DeLong:

... The uncontrolled bankruptcy of Lehman was a disaster.
Lehman was a systemically-important financial institution, and it was foreseeable that an uncontrolled bankruptcy would be a disaster--the only surprise was that it turned out to be a much bigger disaster than Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner were expecting at the time.
There is a date--April 15, 2008, say--at which Lehman Brothers was "solvent" in the sense that the Bush Treasury and the Bernanke-Geithner Fed would have been willing to lend to it massively as they near-extinguished the claims of its equity holders, closed down the institution, and distributed some of its risk to the Federal Reserve and some of its risk to other financial institutions.
There was a date--September 15, 2008--at which the Bush Treasury and the Bernanke-Geithner Fed were unwilling to do that, and let Lehman go.
By continuity, in between there is a last date at which Lehman can still be resolved in an orderly fashion--a date on which their special assistants walk into Paulson's, Bernanke's, and Geithner's offices, and say: "Today may be our last chance to close down Lehman in an orderly fashion. If things go badly for Lehman on the markets today, by tomorrow it will be so clearly insolvent that we will not be able to lend to it to grease its shutdown."
When Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner heard that, they should immediately have huddled, and then called Lehman and said: "You need to do a deal today, because tonight we are going to announce that our judgment is that you are on the edge of insolvency."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

New Research in Economics: Rational Bubbles

New research on rational bubbles from George Waters:

Dear Mark,

I’d like to take you up on your offer to publicize research. I’ve spent a good chunk of my time (along with Bill Parke) over the last decade developing an asset price model with heterogeneous expectations, where agents are allowed to adopt a forecast based on a rational bubble.

The idea of a rational bubble has been around for quite a while, but there has been little effort to explain how investors would coordinate on such a forecast when there is a perfectly good alternative forecast based on fundamentals. In our model agents are not assumed to use either forecast but are allowed to switch between forecasting strategies based on past performance, according to an evolutionary game theory dynamic.

The primary theoretical point is to provide conditions where agents coordinate on the fundamental forecast in accordance with the strong version of the efficient markets hypothesis. However, it is quite possible that agents do not always coordinate on the fundamental forecast, and there are periods of time when a significant fraction of agents adopt a bubble forecast. There are obvious implications about assuming a unique rational expectation.

A more practical goal is to model the endogenous formation and collapse of bubbles. Bubbles form when there is a fortuitous correlation between some extraneous information and the fundamentals, and agents are sufficiently aggressive about switching to better performing strategies. Bubbles always collapse due to the presence of a small fraction of agents who do not abandon fundamentals, and the presence of a reflective forecast, a weighted average of the other two forecasts, that is the rational forecast in the presence of heterogeneity.

There are strong empirical implications. The asset price is not forecastable, so the weak version of the efficient markets hypothesis is satisfied. Simulated data from the model shows excess persistence and variance in the asset price and ARCH effects and long memory in the returns.

There is much more work to be done to connect the approach to the literature on the empirical detection of bubbles, and to develop models with dynamic switching between heterogeneous strategies in more sophisticated macro models.

A theoretical examination of the model is forthcoming in Macroeconomic Dynamics.

A more user friendly exposition of the model and the empirical implications is here.

An older published paper (Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control 31(7)) focuses on ARCH effects and long memory.

Dr. George Waters
Associate Professor of Economics
Illinois State University
http://www.econ.ilstu.edu/gawater/

The Rising Yuan

The yuan has made "rapid progress" as an invoicing currency:

CNY on the Rise, by Menzie Chinn: The preliminary results from the BIS triennial survey for 2013 are out. There are a lot of interesting results, but one I want to flag is that the Chinese yuan is increasingly used in forex transactions. ...
The Chinese government has been quite aggressive in increasing the use of the Chinese currency, as noted in this post. The yuan is far from becoming a reserve currency [1] [2], but there are other dimensions of an international currency that the CNY could fulfill. One of these is use as an invoicing currency, and here, the CNY has made rapid progress.
In a study conducted by myself and Hiro Ito (revision soon to be put online), we document the rise in CNY invoicing for Chinese exports and imports, and compare against JPY invoicing for Japanese exports and imports. ...
In the study, we employ a panel time series analysis to predict invoicing, and conclude that 2010 levels of CNY invoicing of exports are below model-predicted levels, suggesting further increases in home currency invoicing are plausible.

[There are graphs showing the change over time in the original post.]

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Single Most Effective Way of Avoiding Another Financial Crisis

Simon Wren-Lewis:

... The single most effective way of avoiding another financial crisis is to reduce the political influence of the banking sector.

'Rethinking Investment Risk'

A new paper in the QJE shows that financial innovation raises portfolio risks:

Rethinking investment risk, by Peter Dizikes, MIT News: Financial innovation is supposed to reduce risk -- in theory, at least. Yes, new financial instruments based on the housing market helped cause the financial crisis of 2008. But in the abstract, those same instruments have the potential to spread risk more evenly throughout the marketplace by making it possible to trade debt more extensively, rather than having it concentrated in a relatively few hands.
Now a paper published by MIT economist Alp Simsek makes the case that even in theory, financial innovation does not lower portfolio risk. Instead, it raises portfolio risks by creating situations in which parties sit on opposing sides of deep disagreements about the value of certain investments.
"In a world in which investors have different views, new securities won't necessarily reduce risks," says Simsek, an assistant professor in MIT's Department of Economics. "People bet on their views. And betting is inherently a risk-increasing activity."
In a paper published this month in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, titled "Speculation and Risk Sharing with New Financial Assets," Simsek details why he thinks this is the case. The risk in portfolios, he argues, needs to be divided into two categories: the kind of risk that is simply inherent in any real-world investment, and a second type he calls "speculative variance," which applies precisely to new financial instruments designed to generate bets based on opposing worldviews.
To be clear, Simsek notes, financial innovation may have other benefits -- it may spread information around world markets, for instance -- but it is not going to lead to lower risks for investors as a whole.
"Financial innovation might be good for other reasons, but this general kind of belief that it reduces the risks in the economy is not right," Simsek says. "And I want people to realize that." ...

[There's quite a bit more explanation in the original post.]

Friday, August 23, 2013

Paul Krugman: This Age of Bubbles

Why have so many bubbles emerged around the world in recent decades?:

This Age of Bubbles, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: So, another BRIC hits the wall. Actually, I’ve never much liked the whole “BRIC” — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — concept: Russia, which is basically a petro-economy, doesn’t belong there at all, and there are large differences among the other three. Still, it’s hard to deny that India, Brazil, and a number of other countries are now experiencing similar problems. And those shared problems define the economic crisis du jour.
What’s going on? It’s a variant on the same old story: investors loved these economies not wisely but too well, and have now turned on the objects of their former affection. ... As a result, India’s rupee and Brazil’s real are plunging, along with Indonesia’s rupiah, the South African rand, the Turkish lira, and more.
Does this reversal of fortune pose a major threat to the world economy? I don’t think so (he said with his fingers crossed behind his back). ...
Still,... this latest financial turmoil raises a broader question: Why have we been having so many bubbles? ...
The thing is, it wasn’t always thus. The ’50s, the ’60s, even the troubled ’70s, weren’t nearly as bubble-prone. So what changed?
One popular answer involves blaming the Federal Reserve — the loose-money policies of Ben Bernanke and, before him, Alan Greenspan. ...
But the Fed was only doing its job. It’s supposed to push interest rates down when the economy is depressed and inflation is low. And what about the series of earlier bubbles, which ... reach back a generation? ... Besides, isn’t the sign of excessive money printing supposed to be rising inflation? We’ve had a whole generation of successive bubbles — and inflation is lower than it was at the beginning.
O.K., the other obvious culprit is financial deregulation — not just in the United States but around the world, and including the removal of most controls on the international movement of capital. Banks gone wild were at the heart of the commercial real estate bubble of the 1980s and the housing bubble that burst in 2007. Cross-border flows of hot money were at the heart of the Asian crisis of 1997-98 and the crisis now erupting in emerging markets — and were central to the ongoing crisis in Europe, too.
In short, the main lesson of this age of bubbles ... is that when the financial industry is set loose to do its thing, it lurches from crisis to crisis.

Monday, August 19, 2013

'Safe Banks Need not Mean Slow Economic Growth'

Banks are objecting to a proposal from regulators to reduce their leverage ratios through higher capital standards. One of the arguments is that it would reduce lending and slow economic growth, but Thomas Hoenig says the evidence doesn't support this claim:

Safe banks need not mean slow economic growth, by Thomas Hoenig, Commentary, FT: ... The largest banks are raising objections designed to scare the public and force a retreat from good public policy. ...
One of the more frequent objections asserts that the proposed increase in equity capital will force banks to curtail lending in the short term and thereby inhibit the recovery. This is false. ... The public should not accept the liability associated with a highly leveraged banking industry as the price of credit and economic growth. A review of real-world data since 1999 on the relationship between equity and loan levels for the eight US globally systemic banks found no evidence that higher capital leads to lower loan volumes over the long run. Indeed, banks with thick capital cushions are better able to maintain lending during a crisis – a key factor influencing the speed of the recovery.
It is also often suggested that higher equity requirements would put US banks on an uneven playing field versus their global peers. I have seen no credible evidence to substantiate this concern. ...

He also explains why some of the other objections banks are trying to use to block this change in regulation have little merit.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fed Watch: Negative Feedback Loops?

More on housing from Tim Duy, and how it might or might not influence thinking at the Federal Reserve:

Negative Feedback Loops?, by Tim Duy: Earlier this week, we were greeted with news that new homes sales posted a solid increase in June:

HOMESSOLD072513

Calculated Risk has more here and here, with the conclusion that is was "a solid report even with the downward revisions to previous months." More interesting, though, is that the gains came amid a spike in mortgage rates. This could be taken as evidence that the rate rise has had only minimal impacts on housing markets, thus clearing the way for the Fed to scale back asset purchases sooner than later.
That said, today we learned this, via Bloomberg:
Rising mortgage rates contributed to increased cancellations and a dropoff in traffic in June, according to Fort Worth, Texas-based D.R. Horton....
....Homebuyers are “shocked and disturbed” rates have moved up so fast, D.R. Horton Chief Executive Officer Donald Tomnitz said on a conference call.
But not everyone in the industry is singing the same tune:
Richard Dugas, PulteGroup’s chief executive officer, said on a conference call today that the higher mortgage rates haven’t hurt demand and buyer traffic remained consistent throughout the quarter and into July.
“We’re in the camp that if higher rates reflect improving economic conditions we’d expect a housing recovery to remain on track,” Dugas said. “As an industry, we can sell more houses if more people have jobs, even with modestly higher rates.”
On the margin, some buyers were certainly impacted by the sharp gain in rates, but rates are only one part of the buying decision - factors like job growth also matter. The initial sticker shock might only be temporary. And perhaps even higher rates are necessary to make a significant dent in the housing market. From Bloomberg:
As Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist wrote yesterday, homebuyers say rising rates is their top worry when looking to buy, even more so than rising prices or finding a home they like. But as Kolko points out, people’s actions aren’t matching their words so far. Despite the higher rates, applications for purchase mortgages rose in June, as did asking prices for homes. Trulia’s data suggest that mortgage rates around 6 percent would be a tipping point that cause a majority of people to reconsider buying.
Overall, I would say the negative anecdotal housing evidence is too limited at this point to have a policy impact. And note the positive anecdotal evidence from the latest Beige Book:
Residential real estate activity increased at a moderate to strong pace in most Districts. Most Districts reported increases in home sales. Cleveland noted that June sales of single-family homes were down compared with earlier in the spring but up from last year. Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco noted strong residential real estate markets. Home prices increased throughout the majority of the reporting Districts. Boston, New York, Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas noted low or declining home inventories and upward pressures on home prices in some areas. Residential construction activity also improved moderately across the Districts, and contacts in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco reported faster growth in multi-family construction, in particular.
Moreover, it is not clear that taking some steam off the housing market was not an intent of some policymakers. San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams was quoted recently saying:
“The outsized response” in the yields of 10-year Treasuries in recent weeks may have stemmed from complacency and “froth” in the market, Williams said. Some investors expected the Fed to keep quantitative easing and zero interest rates in place for longer than officials were anticipating.
“The market reaction to me probably is a sign that there was complacency and excesses going on,” Williams said. “It’s a good thing that maybe came to an end, or maybe was lessened.”
But earlier in the article he said:
Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President John Williams, who has never dissented from a policy decision, said “it’s still too early” for the Fed to begin trimming its bond-buying, warning of risks to the economy from low inflation and government budget cuts.
“We need to be sure that the economy can maintain its momentum in the face of ongoing fiscal contraction,” Williams said in a speech today in Rohnert Park, California. “It is also prudent to wait a bit and make sure that inflation doesn’t keep coming in below expectations, possibly signaling a more persistent decline in inflation.”
I find a lot of inconsistency in Fedspeak of late. If the economy needs continued support, why even begin the tapering discussion? And if the economy needs continuing support, then the rate rise represents a real tightening of monetary conditions, not just a lessening of accommodation, so how can Fed officials cheer-lead the rate rise? We saw something similar from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke:
The second reason for increases in rates is probably the unwinding of leveraged and perhaps excessively risky positions in the market. It's probably a good thing to hav e that happen, although the tightening that's associated with that is unwelcome. But at least the benefit of that is that some concerns about building financial risks are mitigated in that way and probably make some FOMC participants comfortable with this tool going forward.
In my opinion, we no longer know the Fed's reaction function. The reaction function does not appear to be entirely dependent on unemployment and inflation. There was never any reason to adjust QE on that basis, that's why Bernanke's post-FOMC comments caught everyone by surprise. If you take the economy off the table, then the Fed appears to have a financial stability variable now built into their reaction function. Perhaps that variable reflects concerns about leverage, perhaps, as Izabella Kamiska suggests, it reflects liquidity issues. Maybe they were worried about lighting a fire beneath Housing Bubble 2.0. We just don't know; we just know that they are not entirely dissatisfied with rising rates despite the potential for negative feedback on the economy.
Bottom Line: Still too early to conclude the extent of the negative feedback of the recent rise in rates. Moreover, it is not clear to what extent Fed officials are unhappy with that feedback. Less so than we might suppose if they now have a financial stability variable in their reaction function. If so, policy efforts will center less on reversing the rate increase than in moderating the pace of increases.

Hamilton: Krugman's Worries about China

Jim Hamilton says to keep your eyes on China's economy:

Worries about China, by Jim Hamilton: Paul Krugman is among those starting to be concerned about an economic downturn in China. Here are my thoughts on this issue.

... What rings alarm bells for me is the recent sharp spikes in interbank lending rates..., such moves could definitely be signaling some financial fragility. ...

Paul Krugman writes:

Suppose that those of us now worried that China's Ponzi bicycle is hitting a brick wall (or, as some readers have suggested, a BRIC wall) are right. How much should the rest of the world worry, and why?

I'd group this under three headings:

1. "Mechanical" linkages via exports, which are surprisingly small.
2. Commodity prices, which could be a bigger deal.
3. Politics and international stability, which involves some serious risks.

To Paul's list, I would add a fourth: financial linkages. If there are significant disruptions to China's system for funding credit, that could have implications for anyone borrowing from or lending to Chinese entities.....

I'd also like to add an observation to Paul's second point involving commodity prices. A significant economic downturn in China could well mean a collapse in oil prices. One would think that, as a net importer, this would be an overall favorable development for the United States, and certainly it would be a significant plus for many individual U.S. firms and producers. But it's worth remembering what happened after the collapse in oil prices in 1986. In the years leading up to that, just as today, there had been a dramatic economic boom in the U.S. oil-producing states... When oil prices collapsed, domestic producers took a significant hit. ...

My bottom line: China is worth watching.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

'Magnifying the Risk of Fire Sales in the Tri-Party Repo Market'

[One more quick one, and then I am out of here for a bit -- gone fishing (actually hiking) -- back later.]

The fragility of the tri-party repo market was a key part of the financial crisis, and it's problem that is not yet fully resolved:

Magnifying the Risk of Fire Sales in the Tri-Party Repo Market, Leyla Alkan, Vic Chakrian, Adam Copeland, Isaac Davis, and Antoine Martin, Liberty Street Economics: The fragility inherent in the tri-party repo market came to light during the 2008-09 financial crisis. One of the main vulnerabilities is the risk of fire sales, which can be enhanced by the response of some investors to stress events. Money market mutual funds (MMFs) and the agents investing cash collateral obtained from securities lending (SLs) are thought to behave, in times of stress, in ways that exacerbate fire-sale risks in the tri-party repo market. Based on detailed investor data, we find that MMFs and SLs constitute almost half of the investor market, making it crucial for tri-party repo participants and regulators to account for MMF and SL investment behavior when considering how to mitigate the risk of fire sales. ...

Sunday, July 14, 2013

'Remember Citigroup'

Simon Johnson:

Remember Citigroup,  by Simon Johnson: On Thursday of last week, four senators unveiled the 21st Century Glass Steagall Act. The pushback from people representing the megabanks was immediate but also completely lame – the weakness of their arguments against the proposed legislation is a major reason to think that this reform idea will ultimately prevail.
The strangest argument against the Act is that it would not have prevented the financial crisis of 2007-08. This completely ignores the central role played by Citigroup. ...

My argument on this has always been that it doesn't matter whether the repeal of Glass-Steagall was a factor in the financial crisis, what's important is whether it creates the potential for a future crisis (though arguments that it was a factor in the current crisis make the argument even more compelling). If the repeal of Glass-Steagall makes a crisis more likely and more severe, as I believe it does, then it ought to be reinstated.

Friday, June 28, 2013

'What to Do with the Hypertrophied Financial Sector?'

Brad DeLong:

... Over the past year and a half, in the wake of Thomas Philippon and Ariel Resheff's estimate that 2% of U.S. GDP was wasted in the pointless hypertrophy of the financial sector, evidence that our modern financial system is less a device for efficiently sharing risk and more a device for separating rich people from their money--a Las Vegas without the glitz--has mounted. Bruce Bartlett points to Greenwood and Scharfstein, to Cechetti and Kharoubi's suggestion that financial deepening is only useful in early stages of economic development, to Orhangazi's evidence on a negative correlation between financial deepening and real investment, and to Lord Adair Turner's doubts that the flowering of sophisticated finance over the past generation has aided either growth or stability.
Four years ago I was largely frozen with respect to financial sophistication. It seemed to me then that 2008-9 had demonstrated that our modern sophisticated financial systems had created enormous macroeconomic risks, but it also seemed to me then that in a world short of risk-bearing capacity with an outsized equity premium virtually anything that induced people to commit their money to long-term risky investments by creating either the reality or the illusion that finance could, in John Maynard Keynes's words, "defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future". ...
But the events and economic research of the past years have demonstrated ... I should ... have read a little further in Keynes, to "when the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done". And it is time for creative and original thinking--to construct other channels and canals by which funding can reach business and bypass modern finance with its large negative alpha.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

'Corrupted Credit Ratings'

I was working on this post Tuesday morning when the phone rang and, to use Paul Krugman's phrase, life intervened. I had something to say about it, but I don't know what it was at this point. Anyway, may as well post it now (posts from me will continue to be sparse/absent for awhile -- immense thanks for the outpouring of support):

Corrupted Credit Ratings: S&P’s Lawsuit and the Evidence by Matthias Efing, Harald Hau, Vox EU: In its civil lawsuit against Sta)ndard & Poor's, the US Department of Justice accuses the credit-rating agency to have defrauded federally insured financial institutions... The US complaint alleges that Standard & Poor’s presented overly optimistic credit ratings as objective and independent when, in truth, Standard & Poor’s downplayed and disregarded the true extent of credit risk...

According to the plaintiff, Standard & Poor’s catered rating favors in order to maintain and grow its market share and the fee income generated from structured debt ratings. In support of these allegations, the complaint lists internal emails in which Standard & Poor’s analysts complain that analytical integrity is sacrificed in pursuit of rating favors for the issuer banks.

Standard & Poor’s files for dismissal of the case

Standard & Poor’s denies issuing inflated ratings and any possible conflict of interest... That some of Standard & Poor’s very own employees appealed to their colleagues and superiors to withdraw inflated ratings is dismissed as "internal squabbles" and interpreted as a "robust internal debate among Standard & Poor’s employees"...

Statistical evidence on rating bias in structured products

While the US Department of Justice did not give any statistical evidence in its deposition, our new research (Efing and Hau 2013) suggests that rating favors were indeed systematic and pervasive in the industry.

In a sample of more than 6,500 structured debt ratings produced by Standard & Poor’s, Moody's and Fitch, we show that ratings are biased in favor of issuer clients that provide the agencies with more rating business. This result points to a powerful conflict of interest, which goes beyond the occasional disagreement among employees.

The beneficiaries of this rating bias are generally the large financial institutions that issue most structured debt; they in turn provide the rating agencies with most of their fee income. Better ratings on different components (so-called tranches) of the debt-issue amount to a lower average yield at issuance – a cost reduction pocketed by the issuer bank. ...[presents evidence]...

The evidence also suggests that the two other rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch were no less prone to rating favors towards their largest clients than was Standard & Poor’s. ...

Still more evidence on rating bias in bank ratings

Additional evidence for rating bias emerges for bank ratings. Hau, Langfield and Marques-Ibanes (2012) show in a paper forthcoming in Economic Policy that rating agencies gave their largest clients also more favorable overall bank credit ratings. ...

Hau, Langfield and Marqués-Ibañez (2012) also show that large banks profited most from rating favors. ... The rating process for banks may have contributed to substantial competitive distortions in the banking sector, thus fostering the emergence of the too-big-to-fail banks.

Ironies of the case

It is hard to read some of the legal arguments without being struck by a sense of irony.

In its defense, Standard & Poor’s argues (without admitting any rating bias) that it has never made a legally binding promise to produce objective and independent credit ratings. ... For an agency whose business model is based on its reputation as an impartial 'gatekeeper' of fixed income markets, this defense is most remarkable.

But the accusation has its own oddities: Standard & Poor’s argues that it is impossible to defraud financial institutions about "the likely performance of their own products". Standard & Poor’s points out the irony "that two of the supposed 'victims,' Citibank and Bank of America – investors allegedly misled into buying securities by Standard & Poor’s fraudulent ratings – were the same huge financial institutions that were creating and selling the very CDOs at issue"...

In many cases the victim-view on institutional investors may indeed be questionable: Large banks often issued complex securities and at the same time invested in them. It is hard to believe that the asset management division of a bank was ignorant of the dealings by the structured product division with the rating agencies. ... It is difficult to figure out where exactly the border between complicity and victimhood runs.

What could be done?

The lawsuit against Standard & Poor’s highlights the conflicts of interest inherent in the rating business, but can do little to resolve them. If new and complex regulation and supervision of rating agencies provides a remedy is unclear and remains to be seen. However, three alternative policy measures could make the existing conflicts much less pernicious:

  • Similar to US bank regulation under the Dodd-Frank act, Basel III should abandon (or at least decrease) its reliance on rating agencies for the determination of bank capital requirements.
  • As forcefully argued by Admati, DeMarzo, Hellwig and Pfleiderer (2011), much larger levels of bank equity as required under Basel III could reduce excessive risk-taking incentives and ensure that future failures in bank-asset allocation do not trigger another banking crisis.
  • More bank transparency in the form of a full disclosure of all bank asset holdings at the security level would create more informative market prices for bank equity and debt, with positive feedback effects on the quality of bank governance and bank supervision.

Our reliance on bank ratings could thus be greatly reduced. ...

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Wall Street is Winning the War against Regulation

Wall Street is successfully resisting attempts to regulate the financial industry:

Wall Street is winning the long war against post-crash regulation, by Heidi Moore, guardian.co.uk: ...There are no such things as borders in the world of finance; it's an integrated whole. ... That's why it's so baffling that the House of Representatives came down, this week, on the side of ignoring abuses of US-made derivatives – known as swaps – as soon as they're wired overseas. These swaps were at the heart of the London Whale trading debacle...
The House voted overwhelmingly to let the measure – labeled the London Whale Loophole Act by critics – pass. It's one of several measures that the House has taken to weaken oversight of derivatives; the other two will come up for debate soon.
It will surprise no cynic that there is a financial connection between the members of Congress who approve these measures and the industry they are supposed to regulate. According to MapLight:
"On average, House agriculture committee members voting for HR 992 [one of the derivatives bills] have received 7.8 times as much money from the top four banks as House agriculture committee members voting against the bill."
It's no surprise, of course – given the well-known influence of Wall Street in writing and influencing the bills that regulate Wall Street. Citigroup lobbyists infamously drafted 70 lines of an 85-line amendment that protected a large acreage of derivatives from regulation.
There is more to add. ... [adds more] ...
All of this is part of the process of killing off the one flailing, pathetic attempt at financial reform: the Dodd-Frank Act. Dodd-Frank, bloated and vague from the beginning, was never a threat to Wall Street. Big banks thought they could wait out the outrage, then start undermining the intent of the law.
They were right, this time. But when they're wrong – and when those derivatives cause another crisis – it'll be Americans who pay the price.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

'S&P Revises Up Its Outlook for US Debt: Markets Yawn'

Via Jared Bernstein:

S&P Revises Up Its Outlook for US Debt: Markets Yawn, by Jared Bernstein: Perhaps you recall back in August of 2011 when S&P’s credit rating agency downgraded US debt…no?? ... Markets shook it off, maybe because a) it didn’t make a lick of sense at the time, b) the credit raters hadn’t exactly distinguished themselves during the debt bubble.
Well today they revised their outlook from “negative” to “stable.” And again, I expect no one to notice.
In fact, here’s the trajectory of 10-year Treasury yields since the downgrade, wherein you see a conspicuous lack of reaction to the downgrade.  I often poke at financial markets for not being as all-knowing as assumed, but in this case, I gotta give it up: they correctly ignored non-information.

treas_10

Ratings agencies are supposed to solve an asymmetric information problem -- buyers are not as well informed about assets as sellers -- but if nobody trusts them (because the often add noise rather than clarity), what use are they?

Friday, May 17, 2013

'The Key Challenges Facing Central Bankers'

Narayana Kocherlakota on how he sees the balance between keeping interest rates low for an extended time period to help with the unemployment problem (the benefit) and potential financial instability that low rates bring (the cost). He doesn't give a precise statement about how he sees the tradeoff, but does seem to indicate that he sees the benefits as being much larger than the cost. He also explains how the increased demand for safe assets and the fall in supply translates into lowered aggregate demand and the need for stimulative policy from the Fed, and concludes that "Despite its actions, the FOMC has still not lowered the real interest rate sufficiently in light of the changes in asset demand and asset supply that I’ve described." I certainly agree. (This is from a Q&A at the 61st Annual Management Conference of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.):

The Key Challenges Facing Central Bankers, by Narayana Kocherlakota, President Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis: Question: What are the key challenges facing central bankers around the world today?
Narayana Kocherlakota: Thanks for the question. Before answering, I should point out that my remarks today will reflect only my own views and not necessarily those of anyone else in the Federal Reserve System.
In my view, the biggest challenge for central banks—especially here in the United States—is changes in the nature of asset demand and asset supply since 2007. Those changes are shaping current monetary policy—and are likely to shape policy for some time to come.
Let me elaborate. The demand for safe financial assets has grown greatly since 2007. This increased demand stems from many sources, but I’ll mention what I see as the most obvious one. As of 2007, the United States had just gone through nearly 25 years of macroeconomic tranquility. As a consequence, relatively few people in the United States saw a severe macroeconomic shock as possible. However, in the wake of the Great Recession and the Not-So-Great Recovery, the story is different. Workers and businesses want to hold more safe assets as a way to self-insure against this enhanced macroeconomic risk.
At the same time, the supply of the assets perceived to be safe has shrunk over the past six years. Americans—and many others around the world—thought in 2007 that it was highly unlikely that American residential land, and assets backed by land, could ever fall in value by 30 percent. They no longer think that. Similarly, investors around the world viewed all forms of European sovereign debt as a safe investment. They no longer think that either.
The increase in asset demand, combined with the fall in asset supply, implies that households and firms spend less at any level of the real interest rate—that is, the interest rate net of anticipated inflation. It follows that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) can only meet its congressionally mandated objectives for employment and prices by taking actions that lower the real interest rate relative to its 2007 level. The FOMC has responded to this challenge by providing a historically unprecedented amount of monetary accommodation. But the outlook for prices and employment is that they will remain too low over the next two to three years relative to the FOMC’s objectives. Despite its actions, the FOMC has still not lowered the real interest rate sufficiently in light of the changes in asset demand and asset supply that I’ve described.
The passage of time will ameliorate these changes in the asset market, but only gradually. Indeed, the low real yields on long-term TIPS bonds suggest to me that these changes are likely to persist over a considerable period of time—possibly the next five to 10 years. If this forecast proves true, the FOMC will only meet its congressionally mandated objectives over that long time frame by taking policy actions that ensure that the real interest rate remains unusually low.
One challenge with this kind of policy environment—and this is closely linked to the overarching theme of this panel—is that low real interest rates are often associated with financial market phenomena that signify instability. There are many examples of such phenomena, but let me focus on a particularly important one: increased asset price volatility. When the real interest rate is unusually low, investors don’t discount the future by as much. Hence, an asset’s price becomes sensitive to information about dividends or risk premiums in what might usually have seemed like the distant future. These new sources of relevant information can lead to increased volatility, in the form of unusually large upward or downward movements in asset prices.
These kinds of financial market phenomena could pose macroeconomic risks. These potentialities are best addressed, I believe, by using effective supervision and regulation of the financial sector. It is possible, though, that these tools may fail to mitigate the relevant macroeconomic risks. The FOMC could respond to any residual risk by tightening monetary policy. However, it should only do so if the certain loss in terms of the associated fall in employment and prices is outweighed by the possible benefit of reducing the risk of an even larger fall in employment and prices caused by a financial crisis. Hence, the FOMC’s decision about how to react to signs of financial instability—now and in the years to come—will necessarily depend on a delicate probabilistic cost-benefit calculation.
Here’s an example of the kind of calculation that I have in mind. Last week, the Survey of Professional Forecasters reported that it saw less than one chance in 200 of the unemployment rate being higher than 9.5 percent in 2014, and an even smaller chance of the unemployment rate being that high in 2015.1 One possible cause of this kind of a large upward movement in the unemployment rate is an untoward financial shock ultimately attributable to low real interest rates. Thus, the gain to tightening monetary policy is that the FOMC may—and I emphasize the word may—be able to reduce the already low probabilities of adverse unemployment outcomes.
Endnote
1 See the Survey of Professional Forecasters, page 14.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

'Let's Get Real About the Stock Market'

One thing I learned from the recent crisis is that despite my indifference to the day to day gyrations in asset markets, I need to pay more attention to them. For example, is there presently a bubble in stock market prices?

Antonio Fatás argues that it's a difficult to find evidence for this:

Let's get real about the stock market: As reported by the financial press, the stock market continues to hit fresh record-high levels in many advanced economies. The Dow Jones passed the 15,000 mark, the Nikkei just went over 14,000, and the DAX just went above its previous record. It seems to be the time to talk about bubbles in asset prices - an important issue given how these bubbles have dominated the last business cycles in these economies.

Except that we are looking at the wrong numbers. It is remarkable that the discussion on the value that these indices are reaching ignores two fundamental issues:
  1. These are nominal values and as we were told in the first economics lesson, we need to look at real variables and not nominal ones.
  2. Asset prices are not supposed to stay constant (in real terms). In many cases its appreciation will reflect real growth in the economy, earnings and/or the expected return that these assets should provide in equilibrium.
No need to look for data that provides a better benchmark than just nominal indices. Robert Shiller provides all the necessary data in his web site. Adjusting for inflation is easy and below is a chart with the real price of the S&P500 index where the CPI has been used to convert nominal into real variables.
After adjusting for inflation we can see that the index is far from its peak in 2000 and it is even below the peak in 2007. No sign of a record level yet.

Adjusting for inflation is not enough as the fundamentals (earnings) also grow because of real growth. The price-to-earnings ratio takes care of this adjustment (it also takes care of inflation because earnings are measures in nominal terms). Making this adjustment is more difficult but I will reply on Shiller's numbers again (his book and writings provide a lot of detailed analysis on his data).

Once we adjust for nominal as well as real growth, the current levels look even less impressive. Very low compared to the bubble built in the 90s and significantly lower than the ratio observed in most of the years during the 2002-2007 expansion. We are very far from record-high levels if we use this indicator.

Of course, to do a proper analysis we need to bring a lot of other factors: expected earnings growth, interest rates, risk appetite,.... And there will be room there to debate whether the current valuation of the stock market is reasonable, too high or too low. But starting the analysis with a statement of record-high levels when measured in nominal terms and ignoring real growth in earnings is clearly the wrong place to start the debate.

For more on stock prices, see Fernando Duarte and Carlo Rosa of the NY Fed: Are Stocks Cheap? A Review of the Evidence:

We surveyed banks, we combed the academic literature, we asked economists at central banks. It turns out that most of their models predict that we will enjoy historically high excess returns for the S&P 500 for the next five years. But how do they reach this conclusion? Why is it that the equity premium is so high? And more importantly: Can we trust their models? ...

Why is the equity premium so high right now? And why is it high at all horizons? There are two possible reasons: low discount rates (that is, low Treasury yields) and/or high current or future expected dividends. ... We find that the equity risk premium is high mainly due to exceptionally low Treasury yields at all foreseeable horizons. In contrast, the current level of dividends is roughly at its historical average and future dividends are expected to grow only modestly above average in the coming years. ...

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Sachs: Banking Abuses ‘Can’t Get More in Your Face’

Jeff Sachs is interviewed by Paul Vigna of the WSJ's MoneyBeat:

Jeffrey Sachs: Banking Abuses ‘Can’t Get More in Your Face’, by Paul Vigna: ....When I really started to ... keep track of the number of lawsuits, and the number of settlements, and it’s amazing actually how many there are, of course. Libor, Abacus, other financial fraud scandals, money laundering, insider trading. The list is actually extraordinary. The frequency of new cases, new settlements, new SEC charges, is stunning. ...
Why the lack of prosecution?
The legal defenses are very powerful, the lobbying is very powerful, the government in general is completely squeezed even if it would like to regulate. But we also have a revolving door of senior regulatory officials, congressional staff, congressmen and senators. Everyone’s in on this. ...
What will it take to change the system?
I think that the public is utterly disgusted, of course, and that is a major start. There’s going to be a massive backlash..., what one does feel is that the extent of abuse, the stench of it, is reaching such a high level that we’re not in an equilibrium, political or social, right now. This is explosive stuff (scandals like Abacus and insider trading). It’s unbelievable. So far it hasn’t stopped the practice, but it can’t get more in your face than this actually.
I think in the end the question will be ... whether a political movement not based on mega-donations can win political control. I believe that it can actually. Some movement like the populist movement or the progressive era of the past is going to rise and say ‘we don’t need contributions, we’re not taking them, and if you the American people want a way out of this that doesn’t involve politicians bought for big money, we’re the ones.”
But short of that I don’t see a way out. ...

Global Financial Regulation

In case this is of interest:

Global Financial Regulation

Speakers:

  • James Barth, Senior Finance Fellow, Milken Institute; Lowder Eminent Scholar in Finance, Auburn University
  • Bob Corker, U.S. Senator
  • Carey Lathrop, Managing Director and Head of Global Credit Markets, Citi
  • Kevin Lynch, Vice Chairman, BMO Financial Group
  • Thomas Perrelli, Partner, Jenner & Block; Former Associate U.S. Attorney General
Moderator: Jaret Seiberg, Managing Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Guggenheim Partners
As countries implement new regulations in response to the global financial crisis, will safer and sounder markets be the result? Or just more burdens and costs? What impact can we expect on financial institutions, lending, the flow of capital around the world and, eventually, the global economy? Has the too-big-to-fail problem been solved, or should the giants simply be broken up? Is there a place for a global financial regulator? And what should be done about the shadow banking system - the institutions that wield influence but go largely unregulated? Our panel will delve into whether there are more effective ways to oversee financial markets than current methods.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Have Blog, Will Travel: Milken Global Conference

I am here today (Milken Global Conference 2013).

One quick first impression based upon the schedule of sessions. In the last few years, two or three years ago more so than last year, there were quite a few "soul-searching" sessions from the financial industry. How did financial markets fail, how can they be fixed, etc. That's not to say that there wasn't a lot of resistance to regulation from the industry, but they were at least dealing with the main issues, there was an attempt at an honest appraisal from many, and there were quite a few sessions on the topic.

There are sessions on regulation this year -- I'm currently in one called "Global Financial Regulation" (usual TBTF discussion so far, just turning to leverage) -- but compared to previous years the main concern now appears to be where we are headed in the next few years, opportunities for investment, etc. I suppose that's good news for the economy, but for financial stability? There's still a lot of work to be done, and an eroding will to do it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

'Why Gold and Bitcoin Make Lousy Money'

David Andolfatto:

Why gold and bitcoin make lousy money: A desirable property of a monetary instrument is that it holds its value over short periods of time. Most assets do not have this property: their purchasing power fluctuates greatly at very high frequency. Imagine having gone to work for gold a few weeks ago, only to see the purchasing power of your wages drop by 10% in one day. Imagine having purchased something using Bitcoin, only to watch the purchasing power of your spent Bitcoin rise by 100% the next day. It would be frustrating. 
Is it important for a monetary instrument to hold its value over long periods of time? I used to think so. But now I'm not so sure. While I do not necessarily like the idea of inflation eating away at the value of fiat money, I don't think that a low and stable inflation rate is such a big deal. Money is not meant to be a long-term store of value, after all. Once you receive your wages, you are free to purchase gold, bitcoin, or any other asset you wish. (Inflation does hurt those on fixed nominal payments, but the remedy for that is simply to index those payments to inflation. No big deal.)
I find it interesting to compare the huge price movements in gold and Bitcoin recently, especially since the physical properties of the two objects are so different. That is, gold is a solid metal, while Bitcoin is just an abstract accounting unit (like fiat money). 
But despite these physical differences, the two objects do share two important characteristics:
[1] They are (or are perceived to be) in relatively fixed supply; and
[2] The demand for these objects can fluctuate violently.
The implication of [1] and [2] is that the purchasing power (or price) of these objects can fluctuate violently and at high frequency. Given [2], the property [1], which is the property that gold standard advocates like to emphasize, results in price-level instability. In principle, these wild fluctuations in purchasing power can be mitigated by having an "elastic" money supply, managed by some (private or public) monetary institution. This latter belief is what underlies the establishment of a central bank managing a fiat money system (though there are other ways to achieve the same result). ...
The key issue for any monetary system is credibility of the agencies responsible for managing the economy's money supply in a socially responsible manner. A popular design in many countries is a politically independent central bank, mandated to achieve some measure of price-level stability. And whatever faults one might ascribe to the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank,... since the early 1980s, the Fed has at least managed to keep inflation relatively low and relatively stable.