Category Archive for: Financial System [Return to Main]

Monday, February 08, 2016

'The Scandal is What's Legal'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

The Scandal is What's Legal: If you haven’t seen The Big Short, you should. The acting is superb and the story enlightening: a few brilliant outcasts each discover just how big the holes are that eventually bury the U.S. financial system in the crisis of 2007-2009. If you’re like most people we know, you’ll walk away delighted by the movie and disturbed by the reality it captures. ...
But we’re not film critics. The movie—along with some misleading criticism—prompts us to clarify what we view as the prime causes of the financal crisis. The financial corruption depicted in the movie is deeply troubling (we’ve written about fraud and conflicts of interest in finance here and here). But what made the U.S. financial system so fragile a decade ago, and what made the crisis so deep, were practices that were completely legal. The scandal is that we still haven’t addressed these properly.
We can’t “cover” the causes of the crisis in a blog post, but we can briefly explain our top three candidates: (1) insufficient capital and liquidity reflecting poor risk management and incentives; (2) the ability of complex, highly interconnected intermediaries to take on and conceal enormous amounts of risk; and (3) an absurdly byzantine regulatory structure that made it virtually impossible for anyone, however inclined, to understand (let alone manage) the system’s fragilities. ...[long explanationss of each]...
To say that this is a scandal that makes the system less safe is to dramatically understate the case.
Now, we could go on. There are plenty of other problems that policymakers have ignored and are allowing to fester (how about the government-sponsored enterprises?). But we focused on our top three: the need for financial intermediaries to have more capital and liquid assets; the need to improve the ability of both financial market participants and authorities to assess and control risk concentrations through a combination of central clearing and better information collection; and the need to simplify the structure and organization of the U.S. regulatory system itself.
Only if people learn how far the financial system remains from these ideals, only if they understand that the scandal is almost always what is legal, will there be much chance of making the next crisis less severe. ...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

'The Price of Oil, China, and Stock Market Herding'

Olivier Blanchard:

The Price of Oil, China, and Stock Market Herding: The stock market movements of the last two weeks are puzzling.
Take the China explanation. A collapse of growth in China would indeed be a world changing event. But there is just no evidence of such a collapse. ...
Take the oil price explanation. It is even more puzzling. Traditionally, it was taken for granted that a decrease in the price of oil was good news for oil importing countries such as the United States. ... We learned in the last year that, in the short run, the adverse effect on investment on energy producing firms could come quickly and temporarily slow down the effect, but this surely does not undo the general conclusion. Yet the headlines are now about low oil prices leading to low stock prices. ...
Maybe we should not believe the market commentaries. Maybe it was neither oil nor China. Maybe what we are seeing is a delayed reaction to the slowdown in the world economy... Maybe…
I think the explanation is largely elsewhere. I believe that to a large extent, herding is at play. If other investors sell, it must be because they know something you do not know. Thus, you should sell, and you do, and so down go stock prices. Why now? Perhaps because we have entered a period of higher uncertainty. ...
So how much should we worry? This is where economics ... gives the dreaded two-handed answer. If it becomes clear within a few days or a few weeks that fundamentals are in fact not so bad, stock prices will recover... If, however, the stock market slump lasts longer or gets worse, it can become self-fulfilling. Low stock prices lasting for long lead to lower consumption, lower demand, and, potentially, to a recession. The ability of the Fed, fresh out of the zero lower bound, to counteract a slowdown in demand remains limited. One has to hope for the first scenario, but worry about the second.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

'Market Bubbles: What Goes Up Doesn't Always Come Down'

I wonder if conditioning on the type of bubble (e.g. driven by housing) would make a difference (though not sure it would be possible to fit them into tidy categories). I guess another way to ask the question is whether the cases of a "dramatic market rise followed by an equally spectacular fall" have anything in common:

Market Bubbles: What Goes Up Doesn't Always Come Down, by Matt Nesvisky, NBER Digest: The great majority of booms during which market values doubled in a single year were not followed by crashes wiping out those gains.

Do market booms inevitably result in busts? History suggests not, according to William N. Goetzmann in Bubble Investing: Learning from History (NBER Working Paper No. 21693).
A dramatic market rise followed by an equally spectacular fall, such as a doubling in prices that is followed by a halving in value, is often regarded as a bubble followed by a bust. Seeking out such events, Goetzmann analyzes returns for 42 stock markets around the world from 1900 through 2014. He finds that bubble-and-bust episodes are uncommon, and urges caution in drawing conclusions from the widely-reported and discussed great bubbles of history.
Conditional upon a market boom amounting to a stock price increase of 100 percent or more in a three-year period, crashes gave back prior gains only 10 percent of the time. Market prices were more likely to double again following a 100 percent price boom. The frequency of a market crash over a five-year period is significantly higher when that market has just experienced a boom, but the frequency of doubling over the next five years is not much affected by whether a market has recently boomed. Thus a boom does raise the probability of a crash, but the probability of a crash remains low. Probabilities of a crash following a boom in which prices doubled in a single calendar year were also higher, however the great majority of such extreme events were not followed by crashes that wiped out those gains.
Goetzmann suggests that his findings are relevant for regulators who are considering the desirability of deflating bubbles. If bubbles are often associated with investment in promising, albeit risky, new technologies, then when considering policies that may deflate them, policy-makers may face a trade­off between staving off a financial crisis and encouraging fruitful investment. They may evaluate this trade-off differently if the probability of a crash following a boom is low rather than high.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

'The Real Issue with Fannie and Freddie'

Dean Baker:

Private Profit with Public Guarantee: The Real Issue with Fannie and Freddie: The NYT had a column by Jim Parrot and Mark Zandi on reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. ... The article argues that the problem with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was that they were considered too big to fail. It therefore puts forward the case for ending their monopoly on issuing government guaranteed mortgage-backed securities (MBS).
This argument seriously misrepresents the issues with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The real problem was that they issued trillions of dollars in MBS that were implicitly backed up by the government. At the time they failed in the summer of 2008, the generally held view in financial circles was that the government would be obligated to honor their MBS regardless of whether or not it kept Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in business. ...
This was a direct result of the perverse incentives created by a system where private shareholders and top executives stood to profit by passing risk off to the government. This incentive does not exist today. ... As long as Fannie and Freddie are essentially public companies, that do not offer high returns to shareholders and pay outlandish salaries to CEOs, no one has incentive to take excessive risks.
This changes if we allow private banks to issue mortgage backed securities with the guarantee of the government. This would mean that Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and the rest would be able to issue the same sort of subprime MBS they did in the bubble years with assurance that even in a worst case scenario the government would reimbursement investors for almost the full value of their investment. This is a great recipe for pumping up financial sector profits and another housing bubble. It does not make sense as public policy.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Hillary Clinton: How I’d Rein In Wall Street

Hillary Clinton's plan for Wall Street:

Hillary Clinton: How I’d Rein In Wall Street: Seven years ago, the financial crisis sent our economy into a tailspin. ...
Under President Obama, our economy has come a long way back. ... And we have tough new rules on the books, including the Dodd-Frank Act, that protect consumers and curb recklessness on Wall Street.
But not everyone sees that as a good thing. Republicans, both in Congress and on the campaign trail, are dead-set on rolling back critical financial protections. ...
President Obama and congressional Democrats should do everything they can to stop these efforts. But it’s not enough simply to protect the progress we have made. As president, I would not only veto any legislation that would weaken financial reform, but I would also fight for tough new rules, stronger enforcement and more accountability that go well beyond Dodd-Frank. ...

Thursday, December 03, 2015

'Fed Emergency Lending'

Ben Bernanke:

Fed emergency lending: Earlier this week, the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors approved a rule implementing restrictions on its emergency lending powers that were mandated by Congress in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. On the whole, the rule is a sensible compromise which clarifies the procedures for Fed lending in a panic while responding to critics’ concerns. ... Going forward, however, we should be wary of any further changes that might have the effect of deterring financial firms from borrowing from the Fed during a financial panic. ...

In a financial panic, providers of short-term funding to financial institutions refuse to renew their lending, out of fear that an institution might fail. ... When banks or other financial firms cannot obtain funding, they ... stop extending credit to households and businesses, which can bring the economy to a halt.

The most important tool that central banks (like the Fed) have for fighting financial panics is their ability to serve as a lender of last resort... Crucially, the Fed retains the authority to lend freely in a panic. ...

My biggest concern about the collective impact of the reforms is related to what economists call the stigma of borrowing from the central bank. For lender-of-last resort policies to work, financial institutions have to be willing to avail themselves of the central bank’s loans. If they fear that by doing so that they will be identified by the marketplace as weak, and thus subject to even more pressure from creditors and counterparties, then they will see borrowing from the Fed as counterproductive and will stay away. This is the stigma problem... Deprived of access to funding, financial firms will instead hoard cash, dump assets, cut credit, and call in loans, with bad effects on the whole economy.

We faced a serious stigma problem during the recent crisis, and, collectively, the reforms to the Fed’s lending authorities have probably made the problem worse. An example is the effect of new reporting requirements. Dodd-Frank requires that the identities of all borrowers (including non-emergency borrowers through the discount window) be disclosed... These provisions serve the important purposes of advancing transparency, accountability, and democratic legitimacy, and I am not advocating that they be changed. But we should be aware that, by increasing the risk of early disclosure of borrowers’ identities, these requirements will probably reduce the willingness of firms to borrow from the Fed in a panic... 

I don’t see an easy remedy for this problem. As is often the case, policymakers must trade off competing goals. However, in contemplating possible future changes to the Fed’s authorities, we should be very careful to avoid anything that might worsen further the stigma problem...

Monday, November 30, 2015

'The Euro Debate and the Abuse of Language'

Colm McCarthy writing at The Irish Economy blog:

The Euro Debate and the Abuse of Language: Defenders of the Eurozone’s initial design, subsequent management and purported reform invariably refer to the system as a ‘monetary union’. So do academic commentators including the authors of the recent Vox piece on the origins of the crisis. Whether intended or unconscious, this is an abuse of language.
Monetary unions do not experience selective bank closures, the re-introduction of exchange controls or the numerous other manifestations of financial fragmentation that have occurred before and after the Eurozone ‘reforms’. Germany is a monetary union. In 1974 the Herstatt Bank collapsed in Cologne and several banks based in Dusseldorf went down in the recent crisis. Both cities are in Nordrhein Westfalen, but there was no closure of bank branches in the state nor were exchange controls introduced by the state authorities on either occasion. Interest rates in Nordrhein Westfalen did not detach from rates elsewhere in Germany nor did bank deposits flee the state.
When the Continental Illinois Bank went under in 1984, at the time the largest-ever US bank failure, the state of Illinois was not expected to handle the fall-out. ... The USA is also a monetary union and there is federal responsibility for bank supervision, bank resolution and the protection of bank creditors.
The Eurozone in contrast was established in 1999 as no more than a common currency area, with a ‘central bank’ responsible only for monetary policy in the aggregate, in pursuit of an inflation target. To describe it as a ‘monetary union’ is to deny that there is any distinction between a common currency area and a monetary union. If the Eurozone really was a monetary union in 2008 the history of the crisis would have been very different.
Language matters. ... The danger is that relentless description of the Eurozone as a monetary union deflects attention from the awkward truth that it is not, and from the political unwillingness to make it so.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Paul Krugman: Democrats, Republicans and Wall Street Tycoons

Financial tycoons broke up with Democrats. Now they ♥ Republicans (or maybe they are just using them with their money):

Democrats, Republicans and Wall Street Tycoons, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had an argument about financial regulation during Tuesday’s debate — but it wasn’t about whether to crack down on banks. Instead, it was about whose plan was tougher. The contrast with Republicans like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who have pledged to reverse even the moderate financial reforms enacted in 2010, couldn’t be stronger.
For what it’s worth, Mrs. Clinton had the better case. ... But is Mrs. Clinton’s promise to take a tough line on the financial industry credible? Or would she ... return to the finance-friendly, deregulatory policies of the 1990s? ...
To understand the politics of financial reform and regulation, we have to start by acknowledging that there was a time when Wall Street and Democrats got on just fine. Robert Rubin of Goldman Sachs became Bill Clinton’s most influential economic official; big banks had plenty of political access; and the industry by and large got what it wanted, including repeal of Glass-Steagall.
This cozy relationship was reflected in campaign contributions, with the securities industry splitting its donations more or less evenly between the parties, and hedge funds actually leaning Democratic.
But then came the financial crisis of 2008, and everything changed.
Many liberals feel that the Obama administration was far too lenient on the financial industry in the aftermath of the crisis. ... But the financiers didn’t feel grateful for getting off so lightly. ... Financial tycoons loom large among the tiny group of wealthy families that is dominating campaign finance this election cycle — a group that overwhelmingly supports Republicans. Hedge funds used to give the majority of their contributions to Democrats, but since 2010 they have flipped almost totally to the G.O.P. ... Wall Street insiders take Democratic pledges to crack down on bankers’ excesses seriously. And it also means that a victorious Democrat wouldn’t owe much to the financial industry.
If a Democrat does win, does it matter much which one it is? Probably not. Any Democrat is likely to retain the financial reforms of 2010, and seek to stiffen them where possible. But major new reforms will be blocked until and unless Democrats regain control of both houses of Congress, which isn’t likely to happen for a long time.
In other words, while there are some differences in financial policy between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders, as a practical matter they’re trivial compared with the yawning gulf with Republicans.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

'The China Debt Fizzle'

Here at the University of Oregon, one of our specialties is developing models where agents in the macroeconomy don't have rational expectations, instead they learn about the economy over time. Of course, these models need to be taken to the data to see if people do actually learn in the way the models predict. But if the data sets contain too many "Very Serious People", the tests will surely fail. They learn nothing from experience:

The China Debt Fizzle, by Paul Krugman: Remember the dire threat posed by our financial dependence on China? A few years ago it was all over the media, generally stated not as a hypothesis but as a fact. Obviously, terrible things would happen if China stopped buying our debt, or worse yet, started to sell off its holdings. Interest rates would soar and the U.S economy would plunge, right? Indeed, that great monetary expert Admiral Mullen was widely quoted as declaring that debt was our biggest security threat. Anyone who suggested that we didn’t actually need to worry about a China selloff was considered weird and irresponsible.
Well, don’t tell anyone, but the much-feared event is happening now. As China tries to prop up the yuan in the face of capital flight, it’s selling lots of U.S. debt; so are other emerging markets. And the effect on U.S. interest rates so far has been … nothing.
Who could have predicted such a thing? Well,... anyone who seriously thought through the economics of the situation ... quickly realized that the whole China-debt scare story was nonsense. But as I said, this wasn’t even reported as a debate; the threat of Chinese debt holdings was reported as fact.
And of course those who got this completely wrong have learned nothing from the experience.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Ben Bernanke: Execs Should Have Gone to Jail

From an interview in USA Today:

The decision about whether to prosecute individuals wasn't up to him, [Bernanke] says. "The Fed is not a law-enforcement agency," he says. "The Department of Justice and others are responsible for that, and a lot of their efforts have been to indict or threaten to indict financial firms. Now a financial firm is of course a legal fiction; it's not a person. You can't put a financial firm in jail."

From another report:

Asked if someone should have gone to jail, he replied, "Yeah, I think so."

There's a video of the interview at the first link.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Bank Panics and the Next 30 Years

The end of an essay by David Warsh:

... Many regulators and bankers contend that the thousand-page Dodd Frank Act complicated the task of a future panic rescue by compromising the independence of the Fed. Next time the Treasury Secretary will be required to sign off on emergency lending.
Bank Regulators?  Some economists, including Gorton, worry that by focusing on its new “liquidity coverage ratio” the Bank for International Settlements, by now the chief regulator of global banking, will have rendered the international system more fragile rather than less by immobilizing collateral.
Bankers?  You know that the young ones among them are already looking for the Next New Thing.
Meanwhile, critics left and right in the US Congress are seeking legislation that would curb the power of the Fed to respond to future crises.
So there is plenty to worry about in the years ahead. Based on the experience of 2008, when a disastrous meltdown was avoided, there is also reason to hope that central bankers will once again cope. Remember, though, as the Duke of Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo, it was a close-run thing.

Update: See Brad Delong's reply.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

''A Few Less Obvious Answers'' on What is Wrong with Macroeconomics

From an interview with Olivier Blanchard:

...IMF Survey: In pushing the envelope, you also hosted three major Rethinking Macroeconomics conferences. What were the key insights and what are the key concerns on the macroeconomic front? 
Blanchard: Let me start with the obvious answer: That mainstream macroeconomics had taken the financial system for granted. The typical macro treatment of finance was a set of arbitrage equations, under the assumption that we did not need to look at who was doing what on Wall Street. That turned out to be badly wrong.
But let me give you a few less obvious answers:
The financial crisis raises a potentially existential crisis for macroeconomics. Practical macro is based on the assumption that there are fairly stable aggregate relations, so we do not need to keep track of each individual, firm, or financial institution—that we do not need to understand the details of the micro plumbing. We have learned that the plumbing, especially the financial plumbing, matters: the same aggregates can hide serious macro problems. How do we do macro then?
As a result of the crisis, a hundred intellectual flowers are blooming. Some are very old flowers: Hyman Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis. Kaldorian models of growth and inequality. Some propositions that would have been considered anathema in the past are being proposed by "serious" economists: For example, monetary financing of the fiscal deficit. Some fundamental assumptions are being challenged, for example the clean separation between cycles and trends: Hysteresis is making a comeback. Some of the econometric tools, based on a vision of the world as being stationary around a trend, are being challenged. This is all for the best.
Finally, there is a clear swing of the pendulum away from markets towards government intervention, be it macro prudential tools, capital controls, etc. Most macroeconomists are now solidly in a second best world. But this shift is happening with a twist—that is, with much skepticism about the efficiency of government intervention. ...

Monday, September 21, 2015

'Virtual Frenzies: Bitcoin and the Block Chain '

For the bitcoin/blockchain enthusiasts, this is from Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

Virtual Frenzies: Bitcoin and the Block Chain: Bitcoin has prompted many people to expect a revolution in the means by which we make and settle everyday payments. Our view is that Bitcoin and other “virtual currency schemes” (VCS) lack critical features of money, so their use is likely to remain very limited.
In contrast, the technology used to record Bitcoin ownership and transactions – the block chain – has potentially broad applications in supporting payments in any currency. The block chain can be thought of as an ever-growing public ledger of transactions that is encrypted and distributed over a network of computers. Even as the Bitcoin frenzy subsides, the block chain has attracted attention from bank and nonbank intermediaries looking for ways to economize on payments costs. Only extensive experimentation will determine whether there are large benefits.
Again, however, we are somewhat skeptical. Today’s wholesale payments systems are so efficient that it is hard to see how or why one would make the costly and time-consuming effort to replace them. And the apparently high costs of retail transfers at least partly reflect factors that the block chain technology is unlikely to address. ...

After much discussion of these and other points:

So, what’s the bottom line? We share with Bitcoin advocates the desire to protect privacy (see, our post on paper money), but remain skeptical about the potential for any private currency – digital or otherwise – to do the job better than what we currently use. And the evidence so far is that government fiat monies – dollar, euro, yen, or whatever – are far more stable than Bitcoin. Not only that, but if there’s to be profit from issuing a currency, then we believe that it is the public that should benefit.
As for the block chain, there’s plenty of room for experimentation – with the potentially greatest benefits coming where the current payments system is the least developed. But it remains to be seen whether the public ledger can compete against the big clearinghouses that dominate wholesale payments and settlement, and whether it can ensure payments providers have the ability to reliably filter out illegitimate transactions.
Of course, even a big clearinghouse might find the block chain technology useful (see WSJ-gated story here). Wouldn’t it be ironic if it did so, but wished to keep the innovation private?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Lessons from the 'Great Crisis'

The Gloomy European Economist, Francesco Sarsceno, says before complaining about US policy, take a look at Europe:

Lessons from Lehman: Jared Bernstein has a very interesting piece on the lessons we (did not) learn from the great crisis. He basically makes two points:
First, the attitude towards lenders, while somewhat schizophrenic (Bear Sterns, up; Lehman, down. Why? We still don’t know), was forgiving to say the least. in his words, ” Borrowers get austerity, joblessness, and poverty. Lenders get bailouts when credit is scarce and bribes not to lend when it’s too plentiful”. He then argues that both letting lenders fail and bailing them out has large costs, that should be avoided ex ante through better regulation (and we are not there, yet).
Bernstein is perfectly right, but he neglects mentioning a third option, that was advocated at the time, for example by Joe Stiglitz: temporary bank nationalization. ... Temporary nationalization ... would have avoided the “Heads I win Tail you lose” feature of financial sector bailouts.
The second point Bernstein makes is that regardless of the strategy chosen to save the financial sector, fiscal policy should have been much more aggressive in fighting the downturn. ...
Well, he says it all. What drives me nuts, is that the he complains about the US, THE US, where the Fed showed incredible activism, where the Obama administration voted and implemented a huge stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) just weeks after been sworn in office, while it took us 7 years, to decide to adopt a cumbersome investment plan that will make little or no difference.
Without even mentioning the fact that the whole Greek crisis, since 2010, has been managed with an eye to (mostly German and French) lenders’ needs, rather than to the well-being of European (and in particular Greek) taxpayers.
I really would like to know what would Bernstein say, were he to comment the EMU lessons from the crisis…

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

'The Evolution of Scale Economies in U.S. Banking'

This is a question I have wanted to see an answer to for a long time. What is the minimum efficient scale for financial institutions? This is an important question with respect to breaking up large banks into smaller entities. Some have argued, based on very little compelling evidence as far as I can tell, that breaking up big banks would be costly because large banks are able to exploit economies of scale. Others disagree, but again evidence for either point of view is unclear. I don't mean there is no evidence at all, the existing research is described in the introduction to this paper, but the results do not point strongly in any particular direction. Hopefully, more work on the topic will shift the weight of the evidence in one direction or another:

The Evolution of Scale Economies in U.S. Banking, by David C. Wheelock and Paul W. Wilson, August 2015: Abstract Continued consolidation of the U.S. banking industry and general increase in the size of banks has prompted some policymakers to consider policies to discourage banks from getting larger, including explicit caps on bank size. However, limits on the size of banks could entail economic costs if they prevent banks from achieving economies of scale. The extent of scale economies in banking remains unclear. This paper presents new estimates of returns to scale for U.S. commercial banks based on nonparametric, local-linear estimation of bank cost, revenue and pro t functions. We present estimates for both 2006 and 2012 to compare the extent of scale economies in banking some four years after the financial crisis and two years after enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act with scale economies prior to the crisis. We find that most banks faced increasing returns to scale in cost in both years, though results for the very largest banks in 2012 are somewhat sensitive to specification. Further, most banks faced decreasing returns in revenue in both years, though nearly all banks could still increase revenue and pro t by becoming larger.

[As I've written many, many times, I do not think that breaking up big banks will do a lot to reduce our susceptibility to bank crises. After all, we had a financial crisis about every 20 years in the 1800s, and this continued through the Great Depression, and at that time banks were relatively small. Thus, it seems that crises have more to do with the diversity of activity and connectedness than bank size. I favor breaking up the biggest banks to reduce their political power, which I believe is excessive, and to reduce their economic power. If the above results had shown that the minimum efficient scale was much smaller than the typical large, systemically important bank, breaking them up would be an easy call. But that's not what the results imply. Thus, in this case, there is a tradeoff between the benefit or reducing political and economic power versus losing economies of scale (not sure how steep the cost function is at the existing size -- if it's relatively flat the loss of scale economies could be small). The other alternative is to treat them along the lines of a public utility. We allow them to be large to exploit scale economies, then regulate pricing and other behavior. However, this is where the political power of the large banks matters, and it's not clear that a policy of "large but with regulatory oversight" is the best option to pursue.]

'QE and Financial Interests'

Simon Wren-Lewis says:

Corbyn, QE and financial interests: ... I want to talk about Quantitative Easing (QE). The basic idea behind QE is that by buying long term assets at a time when their price is high (interest rates are low) to make their price even higher (interest rates even lower) in the short term, and selling them back later when asset prices are lower (and interest rates higher), you could stimulate additional demand. At first sight it seems not too dissimilar to a central bank’s normal activities in changing short rates. There are however two major differences....

After discussing the differences, and some of the problems with QE, he continues with:

That should mean that everyone is looking around for a better way of doing things when short rates hit their lower bound. Fiscal stimulus is the obvious candidate, but we know the political problems there. ...
In the absence of an appropriate government fiscal policy, I find the logic for helicopter money compelling and the arguments against it pretty weak. But just as with fiscal policy, just because something makes good macroeconomic sense does not mean it will happen. I have always been reluctant to pay too much attention to the distributional impact of monetary policy, because it seemed like one of those occasions when even well meaning attention to distribution can mess up good policy. Yet in terms of the political economy of replacing QE, perhaps we should.
It is more likely than not that QE will lead to central bank losses. ... After all, they are buying high, and selling low. That is integral to the policy. Who gains from these losses. Where does the money permanently created because of these losses go? To the financial sector, and the owners of financial assets (who are selling to the central bank high, and buying back low). In that sense, likely losses on QE will involve a transfer from the public to the financial sector.
If QE was the only means of stabilizing the economy in a liquidity trap, because fiscal policy was out of bounds for political reasons, then so be it. The social benefits would far outweigh any distributional costs, even if the latter could not be undone elsewhere. But if QE is a highly ineffective instrument, and there are better instruments available, you have to ask in whose interest is it that we stick with QE?

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

'Leveraged Bubbles'

The conclusion to "Leveraged bubbles," by Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor:

... In this column, we turned to economic history for the first comprehensive assessment of the economic risks of asset price bubbles. We provide evidence about which types of bubbles matter and how their economic costs differ. Our historical analysis shows that not all bubbles are created equal. When credit growth fuels asset price bubbles, the dangers for the financial sector and the real economy are much more substantial. The damage done to the economy by the bursting of credit boom bubbles is significant and long lasting.
In the past decades, central banks typically have taken a hands-off approach to asset price bubbles and credit booms. This way of thinking has been criticised by some institutions, such as the BIS, that took a less rosy view of the self-equilibrating tendencies of financial markets and warned of the potentially grave consequences of leveraged asset price bubbles. The findings presented here can inform ongoing efforts to devise better macro-financial theory and real-world applications at a time when policymakers are still searching for new approaches in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Paul Krugman: Crash-Test Dummies as Republican Candidates for President

It's a good thing Republicans, at least in theory, take a hands off approach when it comes to the economy (they actually don't, but let's pretend) because they "haven't a clue":

Crash-Test Dummies as Republican Candidates for President, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Will China’s stock crash trigger another global financial crisis? Probably not. Still,... this is a test:  How would the men and women who would be president respond if crisis struck on their watch?
And the answer, on the Republican side at least, seems to be: with bluster and China-bashing. Nowhere is there a hint that any of the G.O.P. candidates understand the problem, or the steps that might be needed if the world economy hits another pothole.
Take, for example, Scott Walker... So what was his suggestion to President Obama? Why, cancel the planned visit to America by Xi Jinping, China’s leader. That would fix things!
Then there’s Donald Trump,... he simply declared that U.S. markets seem troubled because Mr. Obama has let China “dictate the agenda.” What does that mean? I haven’t a clue — but neither does he.
 ...According to Mr. Christie, the reason U.S. markets were roiled ... was U.S. budget deficits, which he claims have put us in debt to the Chinese and hence made us vulnerable to their troubles. ... Did the U.S. market plunge because Chinese investors were cutting off credit? Well, no. ...
In fact, talking nonsense about economic crises is essentially a job requirement for anyone hoping to get the Republican presidential nomination.
To understand why, you need to go back to the politics of 2009, when the new Obama administration was trying to cope with the most terrifying crisis since the 1930s. ...Republicans, across the board, predicted disaster. ...
None of it happened. ... Instead, the party’s leading figures kept talking, year after year, as if the disasters they had predicted were actually happening.
Now we’ve had a reminder that something like that last crisis could happen again — which means that we might need a repeat of the policies that helped limit the damage last time. But no Republican dares suggest such a thing.
Instead, even the supposedly sensible candidates call for destructive policies. Thus John Kasich is being portrayed as a different kind of Republican because as governor he approved Medicaid expansion in Ohio, but his signature initiative is a call for a balanced-budget amendment, which would cripple policy in a crisis.
The point is that one side of the political aisle has been utterly determined to learn nothing from the economic experiences of recent years. If one of these candidates ends up in the hot seat the next time crisis strikes, we should be very, very afraid.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Shiller: Rising Anxiety That Stocks Are Overpriced

Robert Shiller (a reason to agree with Tim Duy):

Rising Anxiety That Stocks Are Overpriced: Over the five trading days between Aug. 17 and Aug. 24, the U.S. stock market dropped 10 percent — the official definition of a “correction,” with similar or greater drops in other countries. ...
But there are reasons to question whether this was a quick, effective slap on the wrist, or if the market is still too overactive, and thus asking for a more extended punishment. ...
It is entirely plausible that the shaking of investor complacency in recent days will, despite intermittent rebounds, take the market down significantly and within a year or two restore CAPE ratios to historical averages. This would put the S. & P. closer to 1,300 from around 1,900 on Wednesday, and the Dow at 11,000 from around 16,000. They could also fall further; the historical average is not a floor.
Or maybe this could be another 1998. We have no statistical proof. We are in a rare and anxious “just don’t know” situation, where the stock market is inherently risky because of unstable investor psychology.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Paul Krugman: A Moveable Glut

 What' causing so much instability in the world economy?

A Moveable Glut, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: What caused Friday’s stock plunge? What does it mean for the future? Nobody knows, and not much. ...
Still, investors are clearly jittery..., the world as a whole still seems remarkably accident-prone. ... But why does the world economy keep stumbling? ...
More than a decade ago, Ben Bernanke famously argued that a ballooning U.S. trade deficit was the result, not of domestic factors, but of a “global saving glut”: a huge excess of savings over investment in China and other developing nations... He worried a bit about the fact that the inflow of capital was being channeled, not into business investment, but into housing; obviously he should have worried much more. ...
Of course, the boom became a bubble, which inflicted immense damage when it burst. Furthermore, that wasn’t the end of the story. There was also a flood of capital from Germany and other northern European countries to Spain, Portugal, and Greece. This too turned out to be a bubble, and the bursting of that bubble in 2009-2010 precipitated the euro crisis.
And still the story wasn’t over. With America and Europe no longer attractive destinations, the global glut went looking for new bubbles to inflate. It found them in emerging markets... It couldn’t last, and now we’re in the middle of an emerging-market crisis...
So where does the moving finger of glut go now? Why, back to America, where a fresh inflow of foreign funds has driven the dollar way up, threatening to make our industry uncompetitive again
What’s ... important now is that policy makers take seriously the possibility, I’d say probability, that excess savings and persistent global weakness is the new normal.
My sense is that there’s a deep-seated unwillingness, even among sophisticated officials, to accept this reality. Partly this is about special interests: Wall Street doesn’t want to hear that an unstable world requires strong financial regulation, and politicians who want to kill the welfare state don’t want to hear that government spending and debt aren’t problems in the current environment.
But there’s also, I believe, a sort of emotional prejudice against the very notion of global glut. Politicians and technocrats alike want to view themselves as serious people making hard choices — choices like cutting popular programs and raising interest rates. They don’t like being told that we’re in a world where seemingly tough-minded policies will actually make things worse. But we are, and they will.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

'The U.S. Foreclosure Crisis Was Not Just a Subprime Event'

From the NBER Digest:

The U.S. Foreclosure Crisis Was Not Just a Subprime Event, by Les Picker, NBER: Many studies of the housing market collapse of the last decade, and the associated sharp rise in defaults and foreclosures, focus on the role of the subprime mortgage sector. Yet subprime loans comprise a relatively small share of the U.S. housing market, usually about 15 percent and never more than 21 percent. Many studies also focus on the period leading up to 2008, even though most foreclosures occurred subsequently. In "A New Look at the U.S. Foreclosure Crisis: Panel Data Evidence of Prime and Subprime Borrowers from 1997 to 2012" (NBER Working Paper No. 21261), Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko provide new facts about the foreclosure crisis and investigate various explanations of why homeowners lost their homes during the housing bust. They employ microdata that track outcomes well past the beginning of the crisis and cover all types of house purchase financing—prime and subprime mortgages, Federal Housing Administration (FHA)/Veterans Administration (VA)-insured loans, loans from small or infrequent lenders, and all-cash buyers. Their data contain information on over 33 million unique ownership sequences in just over 19 million distinct owner-occupied housing units from 1997-2012.


The researchers find that the crisis was not solely, or even primarily, a subprime sector event. It began that way, but quickly expanded into a much broader phenomenon dominated by prime borrowers' loss of homes. There were only seven quarters, all concentrated at the beginning of the housing market bust, when more homes were lost by subprime than by prime borrowers. In this period 39,094 more subprime than prime borrowers lost their homes. This small difference was reversed by the beginning of 2009. Between 2009 and 2012, 656,003 more prime than subprime borrowers lost their homes. Twice as many prime borrowers as subprime borrowers lost their homes over the full sample period.
The authors suggest that one reason for this pattern is that the number of prime borrowers dwarfs that of subprime borrowers and the other borrower/owner categories they consider. The prime borrower share averages around 60 percent and did not decline during the housing boom. Although the subprime borrower share nearly doubled during the boom, it peaked at just over 20 percent of the market. Subprime's increasing share came at the expense of the FHA/VA-insured sector, not the prime sector.
The authors' key empirical finding is that negative equity conditions can explain virtually all of the difference in foreclosure and short sale outcomes of prime borrowers compared to all cash owners. Negative equity also accounts for approximately two-thirds of the variation in subprime borrower distress. Both are true on average, over time, and across metropolitan areas.
None of the other 'usual suspects' raised by previous research or public commentators—housing quality, race and gender demographics, buyer income, and speculator status—were found to have had a major impact. Certain loan-related attributes such as initial loan-to-value (LTV), whether a refinancing occurred or a second mortgage was taken on, and loan cohort origination quarter did have some independent influence, but much weaker than that of current LTV.
The authors' findings imply that large numbers of prime borrowers who did not start out with extremely high LTVs still lost their homes to foreclosure. They conclude that the economic cycle was more important than initial buyer, housing and mortgage conditions in explaining the foreclosure crisis. These findings suggest that effective regulation is not just a matter of restricting certain exotic subprime contracts associated with extremely high default rates.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Paul Krugman: Bungling Beijing’s Stock Markets

The Chinese leadership appears to be "imagining that it can order markets around":

Bungling Beijing’s Stock Markets, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ... Is it possible that after all these years Beijing still doesn’t get how this “markets” thing works?
The background: China’s economy is ... slowing as China runs out of surplus labor. ... The ... problem is how to sustain spending during the transition. And that’s where things have gotten weird.
At first, the Chinese government supported the economy in part through infrastructure spending, which is the standard remedy for economic weakness. But it also did so by funneling cheap credit to state-owned enterprises. The result was a run-up in these enterprises’ debt, which by last year was high enough to raise worries about financial stability.
Next, China adopted an official policy of boosting stock prices... But the consequence was an obvious bubble, which began deflating earlier this year.
The response of the Chinese authorities was remarkable: They pulled out all the stops to support the market — suspending trading in many stocks, banning short-selling, pushing large investors to buy, and instructing graduating economics students to chant “Revive A-shares, benefit the people.”
All of this has stabilized the market for the time being. But it is at the cost of tying China’s credibility to its ability to keep stock prices from ever falling. And the Chinese economy still needs more support.
So this week China decided to let the value of its currency decline... But Chinese authorities seem to have imagined that they could control the renminbi’s descent, taking it a couple of percent at a time.
They appear to have been taken completely by surprise by the market’s predictable reaction; namely, the initial devaluation of the renminbi was ... a sign of much bigger declines to come. Investors began fleeing China, and policy makers abruptly pivoted from promoting currency devaluation to an all-out effort to support the renminbi’s value.
The common theme in these wild policy swings is that China’s leadership keeps imagining that it can order markets around, telling them what prices to reach. ... Do the country’s leaders really not understand why that won’t work?
If they really don’t, that’s a big concern. China is an economic superpower — not quite as super as the United States or the European Union, yet, but big enough to matter a lot. And it’s facing tough times. So if its leadership is really as clueless as it has been looking lately, that bodes ill, not just for China, but for the world as a whole.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

'Do Asset Purchase Programs Push Capital Abroad?'

Thomas Klitgaard and David Lucca at the NY Fed's Liberty Street Economics"

Do Asset Purchase Programs Push Capital Abroad?: Euro area sovereign bond yields fell to record lows and the euro weakened after the European Central Bank (ECB) dramatically expanded its asset purchase program in early 2015. Some analysts predicted massive financial outflows spilling out of the euro area and affecting global markets as investors sought higher yields abroad. These arguments ignore balance of payments accounting, which requires any financial outflow from the euro area to be matched by a similar-sized inflow, absent a quick and substantial current account improvement. The focus on cross-border financial flows also is misguided since, according to asset pricing principles, the euro and global asset prices can move without any change in financial outflows. ...
The recent experience with quantitative easing in Japan helps illustrate our point. In late 2012, the yen started to depreciate with the increased likelihood that the country would expand its asset purchase program. In April 2013, when the policy was actually implemented, commentary similar to that on the ECB program anticipated a “wall of money” flowing out of Japan in search of higher yields and affecting global asset prices. Indeed, analysts worried that emerging countries would have trouble absorbing these flows, leading to asset price bubbles. While asset prices and exchange rates adjusted in Japan and abroad, a surge in outflows never occurred. ... The wall of money never materialized.
Nor does euro area data suggest substantial financial outflows. ...
The euro’s fall has been a key channel through which the ECB’s asset purchase policy has affected financial markets in the rest the world. However, the idea that foreign asset prices would be pushed up by a surge in money flowing out of the region, as some observers predicted, runs contrary to balance of payments accounting and asset pricing principles and should be discounted.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

'The Aftermath of LIBOR and Penny-Shaving Attacks'

Tim Taylor:

The Aftermath of LIBOR and Penny-Shaving Attacks: Anyone remember the LIBOR scandal from back in spring 2008? A trader for UBS Group and Citigroup named Tom Hayes was just sentenced by a British court to 14 years imprisonment for his role as a ringleader of the scandal. Darrell Duffie and Jeremy C. Stein discuss both the scandal and--perhaps more interesting to those of us who bleed economics--the economic function of financial market benchmarks in  "Reforming LIBOR and Other Financial Market Benchmarks," in the Spring 2015 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. (All JEP articles back to the first issue in 1987 are freely available online courtesy of the American Economic Association. Full disclosure: I've worked as Managing Editor of the JEP since that first issue.)

For those who have blotted the episode from their memories, LIBOR stands for London Interbank Offered Rate. It's the interest rate at which big international banks borrow overnight from each other. A main use of LIBOR in financial markets was as a "benchmark" for adjustable interest rates. For example, if you are a potential borrower or lender worried about the risk that interest rates might shift, you might be able to agree on a loan where the interest rate was, say, the LIBOR rate plus 4%. Duffie and Stein point out that using LIBOR as a benchmark interest rate for international loans dates back to 1969, when "a consortium of London-based banks led by Manufacturers Hanover introduced LIBOR in order to entice international borrowers such as the Shah of Iran to borrow from them." 

Two key details set the state for the LIBOR fraud. The first detail is that after LIBOR became well-established as a basis for interest rates on loans, the finance industry began to use LIBOR as the basis for lots of more complex financial transactions: for example, "exchange-traded eurodollar futures and options available from Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group, and over-the-counter derivatives including caps, floors, and swaptions (that is, an option to engage in a swap contract)." I won't plow through an explanation of those terms here. The key takeaway is that the benchmark LIBOR interest rate wasn't just linked to about $17 trillion in US dollar loans. It was also linked to $106 trillion in interest rate swap agreements, and tens of trillions more in interest rate options and futures, as well as cross-currency swaps. As a result, if you had some information on how LIBOR was likely to change on a day-to-day basis--even if the change was a seemingly tiny amount that didn't much matter to borrowers or lenders--you could make a substantial amount of money in these more complex financial markets. 

The second detail involves how LIBOR was actually calculated. Banks did not actually submit data on the costs of borrowing; indeed, someone at a bank responded to a survey each day with an estimate of what it would cost that bank to borrow--even though on a given day many of these banks weren't actually borrowing from other banks. In addition, during the financial crisis as it erupted in 2007 and 2008, no bank wanted to admit that it would have been charged a higher interest rate if it wanted to borrow, because financial market would be quick to infer that such bank might be in a shaky financial position. 

So on one side, LIBOR is a key financial benchmark that affects literally tens of trillions of dollars of continuously traded and complicated financial instruments.  On the other side, you have this key benchmark being determined by a survey of the opinions of fairly junior bank officers who have some incentive to shade the numbers. The British court found that Tom Hayes led a group of traders who sent messages to the bankers who responded to the LIBOR survey, requesting that the LIBOR rate be jerked a little higher one day, or pushed a little lower another day. Again, those who were just using the LIBOR rate as a benchmark for loans probably wouldn't even notice these fluctuations. But traders who knew in advance how the LIBOR was going to twitch up and down could make big money in the options and futures markets. 

What's the solution here? Duffie and Stein point out that financial benchmarks like LIBOR are extremely useful in financial markets. However, you need to design the benchmark with some care. For example, instead of using a survey of bank officers, it makes a lot more sense to use an actual market-determined interest rate for a benchmark. Moreover, the LIBOR rate is based on banks borrowing from banks, and so it will reflect risk in the banking sector. For certain kinds of lending and borrowing, it's not clear that you would want your interest rate to rise and fall with changes in the riskiness of the banking sector. Thus, they discuss the virtues of benchmark rates that are market-determined and not linked to the banking sector--like the interest rate for short-term borrowing by the US government. (They also discuss the merits of using some other less well-known  benchmark interest rates, like the Treasury general collateral repurchase rate or the  overnight index swap rate, fo those who want such details.)

More broadly, it seems to me that the LIBOR scandal is the actual real-life version of what seems to be an urban legend plot: the story of how a fraudster finds a way to program the computers of a bank or financial institution so that a tiny amount of certain transaction is siphoned off into a different account (for examples, see the 1983 movie Superman III, or the 1999 movie Office Space). The problem with these "penny-shaving" or "salami-slicing" attacks in real life is that if you steal a little bit from a large number of transactions, it's quite possible that no individual party will notice. But if you take a few million dollars out of a financial institution, the accountants are going to notice! 

In the LIBOR scandal, however, the fraud happened by knowing about tiny little changes in LIBOR a day in advance. Those who lost out from not knowing these changes in advance had no way of knowing that they were being cheated. In a similar scandal from earlier this year, Citicorp, JPMorgan, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS pled guilty to felony charges for their actions in foreign exchange markets. Again, these are very large markets, and so small acts of dishonesty can add up to large amounts. As the US. Department of Justice described it:

"According to plea agreements to be filed in the District of Connecticut, between December 2007 and January 2013, euro-dollar traders at Citicorp, JPMorgan, Barclays and RBS – self-described members of “The Cartel” – used an exclusive electronic chat room and coded language to manipulate benchmark exchange rates. Those rates are set through, among other ways, two major daily “fixes,” the 1:15 p.m. European Central Bank fix and the 4:00 p.m. World Markets/Reuters fix. Third parties collect trading data at these times to calculate and publish a daily “fix rate,” which in turn is used to price orders for many large customers. “The Cartel” traders coordinated their trading of U.S. dollars and euros to manipulate the benchmark rates set at the 1:15 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. fixes in an effort to increase their profits.

As detailed in the plea agreements, these traders also used their exclusive electronic chats to manipulate the euro-dollar exchange rate in other ways. Members of “The Cartel” manipulated the euro-dollar exchange rate by agreeing to withhold bids or offers for euros or dollars to avoid moving the exchange rate in a direction adverse to open positions held by co-conspirators. By agreeing not to buy or sell at certain times, the traders protected each other’s trading positions by withholding supply of or demand for currency and suppressing competition in the FX market."

A trader at Barclay's reportedly wrote in the group's electronic chat room: “If you aint cheating, you aint trying,” Clearly, situations where relatively small groups of people can cause relatively small and almost imperceptible  tweaks in values that affect a very large market are ripe for manipulation. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

'The US Financial Sector in the Long-Run: Where are the Economies of Scale?'

 And one more  before heading out the door. From Tim Taylor:

The US Financial Sector in the Long-Run: Where are the Economies of Scale?: A larger financial sector is clearly correlated with economic development, in the sense that high-income countries around the world have on average larger markets for banks, credit cards, stock and bond markets, and so on compared with lower-income countries. But there are also concerns that the financial sector in high-income countries can grow in ways that end up creating economic instability (as I've discussed herehere, and here). Thomas Philippon provides some basic evidence on the growth of the US financial sector over the past 130 years in "Has the US Finance Industry Become Less Efficient? On the Theory and Measurement of Financial Intermediation," publishes in the April 2015 issue of the American Economic Review (105:4, pp. 1408–1438). The AER is not freely available online, but many readers can obtain access through a library subscription.

There are a couple of ways to think about the size of a country's financial sector relative to its economy. One can add up the size of certain financial markets--the market value of bank loans, stocks, bonds, and the like--and divide by GDP. Or one can add up the economic value added by the financial sector. For example, instead of adding up the bank loans, you add up the value of banking services provided. Similarly, instead of adding up the value of the stock market, you add up the value of the services provided by stockbrokers and investment manager.

Here's a figure from Philippon showing both measures of finance as a share of the US economy over the long run since 1886.

The orange line measured on the right axis is "intermediated assets," which measures the size of the financial sector as the sum of all debt and equity issued by nonfinancial firms, together with the sum of all household debt, and some other smaller categories. Back in the late 19th century, the US financial sector was roughly equal in size to GDP. By just before the Great Depression, it had risen to almost three times GDP, before sinking back to about 1.5 times GDP. More recently, you can see the financial sector spiking with the boom in real estate markets and stock markets in the mid-2000s at more than 4 times GDP, before dropping slightly. The overall trend is clearly up, but it's also clearly a bumpy ride.

The green line shows "finance income," which can be understood as a measure of the value added by firms in the financial sector. For the uninitiated, "value added" has a specific meaning to economists. Basically, it is calculated by taking the total revenue of a firm and subtracting the cost of all goods and services purchased from other firms--for example, subtracting costs of supplies purchased or machinery. In the figure, most of the "value-added" that measures  "finance income" includes all wages and salaries paid by a firm, along with any profits earned.

An intriguing pattern emerges here: finance income tracks intermediated assets fairly closely. In other words, the amount paid to the financial sector is more-or-less a fixed proportion of total financial assets. It's not obvious why this should be so. For example, imagine that because of a rise in housing prices, the total mortgage debt of households rises substantially over time, or because of rising stock prices over several decades, the total value of the stock market is up. Especially in an economy where information technology is making rapid strides, it's not clear why incomes in the financial sector should be rising at the same pace. Does a bank need to incur twice the costs if it issues a mortgage for $500,000 as compared to when it issues a mortgage for $250,000? Does an investment adviser need to incur twice the costs when giving advice on a retirement account of $1 million as when giving advice on a retirement account of $500,000? Shouldn't there be some economies of scale in financial services?

Philippon isn't the first to raise this question: for example, Burton Malkiel has asked why there aren't economies of scale in asset management fees here. But Philippon provides evidence that, for whatever reason, a lack of economies of scale has been widespread and long-lasting in the US financial sector.

Full disclosure: The AER is published by the American Economic Association, which is also the publisher of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, where I have worked as Managing Editor since 1986.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Paul Krugman: America’s Un-Greek Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Appalachia

Austerity for Puerto Rico would be a "terrible idea":

America’s Un-Greek Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Appalachia, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: On Friday the government of Puerto Rico announced that it was about to miss a bond payment. It claimed that for technical legal reasons this wouldn’t be a default, but that’s a distinction without a difference.
So is Puerto Rico America’s Greece? No, it isn’t, and it’s important to understand why.
Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis is basically the byproduct of a severe economic downturn. The commonwealth’s government was slow to adjust to the worsening fundamentals, papering over the problem with borrowing. And now it has hit the wall. ... But ... while the island’s economy has declined sharply, its population, while hurting, hasn’t suffered anything like the catastrophes we see in Europe. ... Why have the human consequences of economic troubles been muted?
The main answer is that Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. fiscal union. When its economy faltered, its payments to Washington fell, but its receipts from Washington — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and more — actually rose. So Puerto Rico automatically received aid on a scale beyond anything conceivable in Europe.
Is Puerto Rico’s status as part of the U.S. all good? A recent report ... argues that its economy is hurt by sharing the U.S. minimum wage, which raises costs, and also by federal benefits that encourage adults to drop out of the work force. ...
But the evidence that minimum wages or social benefits are really a problem is, as one careful if older study put it, “surprisingly fragile.” Notably, Puerto Rico’s low rate of labor force participation probably has more to do with outmigration than with welfare: when job opportunities dry up, young, able-bodied workers move elsewhere, while the least employable stay in place. ...
There is, of course, the problem of maintaining public services for those who remain. ... What this tells us ... is that even for a part of the United States, too much austerity can be self-defeating. It would, in particular, be a terrible idea to give the hedge funds that have scooped up much of Puerto Rico’s debt what they want — basically to destroy the island’s education system in the name of fiscal responsibility.
Overall, however, the Puerto Rican story is one of bad times that fall well short of utter disaster. And the saving grace in this situation is big government — a federal system that provides a crucial safety net for American citizens in times of need, wherever they happen to live.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

'Lehman Brothers Once Again...'

Brad DeLong:

Lehman Brothers Once Again…: Ah. The debate continues:

David Zaring: Did The Fed Fail To Save Lehman Brothers Because It Legally Couldn’t?: “The Fed’s lawyers said, after the fact, that no, they didn’t have the legal power to bail out Lehman…

…Peter says yes they did, Philip says no, and I’m with Peter on this one...

I have two points to make here…

My first point is one that is obvious to an economic historian. But I do not see picked up by the lawyers. It is that central banks are government-chartered corporations rather than government agencies precisely to give them additional freedom of action. Corporations can and do do things that are ultra vires. Governments then either sanction them, or decide not to.

During British financial crises of the nineteenth century, the Bank of England repeatedly violated the terms of its 1844 charter restricting its powers to print bank notes. The Chancellor the Exchequer would then not take any steps in response to sanction it. Such a policy–of writing a charter for the central bank with the expectation that in an emergency the Bank would do whatever was needed to stabilize the economy in spite of the limitations placed on it by its charter, was clearly envisioned by the author of the 1844 charter, then Prime Minister Robert Peel, who expected to see the Governor of the Bank of England take responsibility for doing what was needed...

Peel saw a choice: either (i) give the Bank of England explicit powers (and so run the risk that financiers, expecting that those powers would be used, would exploit moral hazard and so produce irrational exuberance, extravagant overleverage, and repeated frequent financial crises), or (ii) forbid the Bank of England from acting and rely on financial statesmen in the future to take actions ultra vires under the principle that in the end salus populi suprema lex. Peel chose (ii). To him and his peers, the risks that granting explicit powers would enable moral hazard appeared greater than the risks that when a crisis should come the makers of monetary policy would not understand their proper role. And the Federal Reserve banks have inherited their non-agency but corporation legal structure from the Bank of England.

My second point is that Bernanke, Geithner, and their company at the head of the Federal Reserve in 2008 really, really, really want their decision not to have rescued Lehman in the fall of 2008 to have been a judgment call that went wrong.

They really do not want to have let a situation develop in which there is a systemically-important financial institution that they cannot support. Should any systemically-important financial institution ever approach a state in which the central bank could not support it in an emergency, the most elementary principles of central banking command that such an institution be resolved or shut down immediately.

To fail to do so is complete and total central banking malpractice.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Paul Krugman: China’s Naked Emperors

What can we learn from the response of the Chinese government to the problems in China's stock market?:

China’s Naked Emperors, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ... We’ve seen ... strange goings-on in China’s stock market. In and of itself, the price of Chinese equities shouldn’t matter all that much. But the authorities have chosen to put their credibility on the line by trying to control that market — and are in the process of demonstrating that, China’s remarkable success over the past 25 years notwithstanding, the nation’s rulers have no idea what they’re doing. ...
China is at the end of an era — the era of superfast growth... Meanwhile, China’s leaders appear to be terrified — probably for political reasons — by the prospect of even a brief recession. ... China’s response has been an all-out effort to prop up stock prices. Large shareholders have been blocked from selling; state-run institutions have been told to buy shares; many companies with falling prices have been allowed to suspend trading. ...
What do Chinese authorities think they’re doing?
In part, they may be worried about financial fallout. It seems that a number of players in China borrowed large sums with stocks as security, so that the market’s plunge could lead to defaults. This is especially troubling because China has a huge “shadow banking” sector that is essentially unregulated and could easily experience a wave of bank runs.
But it also looks as if the Chinese government, having encouraged citizens to buy stocks, now feels that it must defend stock prices to preserve its reputation. And what it’s ending up doing, of course, is shredding that reputation at record speed.
Indeed, every time you think the authorities have done everything possible to destroy their credibility, they top themselves. Lately state-run media have been assigning blame for the stock plunge to, you guessed it, a foreign conspiracy against China, which is even less plausible than you may think: China has long maintained controls that effectively shut foreigners out of its stock market, and it’s hard to sell off assets you were never allowed to own in the first place.
So what have we just learned? China’s incredible growth wasn’t a mirage, and its economy remains a productive powerhouse. The problems of transition to lower growth are obviously major, but we’ve known that for a while. The big news here isn’t about the Chinese economy; it’s about China’s leaders. Forget everything you’ve heard about their brilliance and foresightedness. Judging by their current flailing, they have no clue what they’re doing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

'Using Math to Obfuscate — Observations from Finance

More from Paul Romer on "mathiness" -- this time the use of math in finance to obfuscate communication with regulators:

Using Math to Obfuscate — Observations from Finance: The usual narrative suggests that the new mathematical tools of modern finance were like the wings that Daedalus gave Icarus. The people who put these tools to work soared too high and crashed.
In two posts, here and here, Tim Johnson notes that two government investigations (one in the UK, the other in the US) tell a different tale. People in finance used math to hide what they were doing.
One of the premises I used to take for granted was that an argument presented using math would be more precise than the corresponding argument presented using words. Under this model, words from natural language are more flexible than math. They let us refer to concepts we do not yet fully understand. They are like rough prototypes. Then as our understanding grows, we use math to give words more precise definitions and meanings. ...
I assumed that because I was trying to use math to reason more precisely and to communicate more clearly, everyone would use it the same way. I knew that math, like words, could be used to confuse a reader, but I assumed that all of us who used math operated in a reputational equilibrium where obfuscating would be costly. I expected that in this equilibrium, we would see only the use of math to clarify and lend precision.
Unfortunately, I was wrong even about the equilibrium in the academic world, where mathiness is in fact used to obfuscate. In the world of for-profit finance, the return to obfuscation in communication with regulators is much higher, so there is every reason to expect that mathiness would be used liberally, particularly in mandated disclosures. ...
We should expect that there will be mistakes in math, just as there are mistakes in computer code. We should also expect some inaccuracies in the verbal claims about what the math says. A small number of errors of either type should not be a cause for alarm, particularly if the math is presented transparently so that readers can check the math itself and check whether it aligns with the words. In contrast, either opaque math or ambiguous verbal statements about the math should be grounds for suspicion. ...
Mathiness–exposition characterized by a systematic divergence between what the words say and what the math implies–should be rejected outright.

'Spare Tire? Stock Markets, Banking Crises, and Economic Recoveries'

From Ross Levine, Chen Lin, and Wensi Xie at Vox EU:

Spare tire? Stock markets, banking crises, and economic recoveries: Do stock markets act as a ‘spare tire’ during banking crises, providing an alternative corporate financing channel and mitigating the economic severity of crises when the banking system goes flat?

In 1999, Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve System, argued that stock markets could mitigate the negative effects of banking crises, including more fragile businesses and greater unemployment. Using the analogy of a spare tire, he conjectured that banking crises in Japan and East Asia would have been less severe if those countries had built the necessary legal infrastructure so that their stock markets could have provided financing to corporations when their banking systems could not. If firms can substitute equity issuances for bank loans during banking crises, then banking crises will have less harmful effects on the public.

But researchers have not evaluated the spare tire view. Although official entities and others discuss the spare tire argument (e.g. US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission 2011, Wessel 2009), we are unaware of systematic assessments of the testable implications emerging from Greenspan’s view of how financial markets can ease the effects of systemic banking failures.

In a recent paper, we provide the first assessment of the spare tire view... The findings are consistent with the three predictions of the spare tire view. ... The estimated economic effects are large...

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Financial Regulation: Which Reform Strategy is Best?

Today is the 5th anniversary of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. When the bill was being debated, I was torn on which strategy is best, to strike while the iron is hot -- to implement financial reform legislation as soon as possible -- or to take a patient approach that allows careful consideration and study of proposed regulatory changes:

Kashyap and Mishkin ... may be right that now is not the time to change regulations because it could create additional destabilizing uncertainty in financial markets, and that waiting will give us time to see how the crisis plays out and to consider the regulatory moves carefully. But as we wait, passions will fade, defenses will mount, the media will respond to the those opposed to regulation by making it a he said, she said issue that fogs things up and confuses the public as well as politicians. By the time it is all over there's every chance that legislation will pass that is nothing but a facade with no real teeth that can change the behaviors that go us into this mess.

More and more, I think doing what you can while passions are inflamed, and then defending the legislation as much as possible when the inevitable attack from the industry comes is the best strategy. For example, in the WSJ two days ago, there was an opinion piece with the title "After Five Years, Dodd-Frank Is a Failure," and the sub-header "The law has crushed small banks, restricted access to credit, and planted the seeds of financial instability."

There is a problem with small banks. Here's an email I received earlier this year (last March, in response to an article of mine at CBS MoneyWatch on the decline in the number of small banks and how that could harm smaller buinesses):

Mr. Thoma,
I am a regular reader of your columns, and lean more to the left than virtually any banker I know, but I have to tell you that you are on to something with the decline in the number of small banks, and regulations. As the Chairman of a small bank in [state omitted], the shear amount of regulations that have come out since the banking crisis started are incredible. I know of banks in the area which have simply had to hire a full time staff person to help with compliance. Our bank has had to hire the CPA firm [omitted] to have them come in once a quarter to help us keep up with the compliance. Obviously, this crimps our profits, as does the ZLB which we have had to deal with for six years now, through no fault, at all, of our own.
Don't get me wrong, I understand why all these regulations have been put in place, but unfortunately for us, most of these have little to do with our small bank. They seem to be designed to keep the behemoths out of trouble, and we got dragged along. There needs to be a different set of rules for banks under a certain size. Banks like ours, who keep all our loans in house, and aren't a threat to the economy as a whole, have never been ones to "screw" our customers, or write "bogus" loans, and sell them. Our loan losses since 2008 have been minimal to say the least, because we try very hard to make loans that are going to be repaid. Our total losses over the last six or seven years are not any worse than, and probably, better than they were before the banking crisis arrived.
We, as a board of the bank, have talked on numerous occasions in the last few years on what to do about this problem, and have brought it up with the federal regulators at our last two exams, but have really gotten no where as far as coming up with any ideas on what to do to try and alleviate these burdens on small banks. Any suggestions, or publicity regarding the issue, would be greatly appreciated.

The point I'm trying to make is this. There are two choices when trying to fix a financial system after a crisis. The first is to move fast while the politics are supportive, and put as many of the needed rules and regulations in place as possible. Then, over time, *carefully* adjust the rules to overcome unforeseen problems (while resisting attempts to rollback needed legislation, a delicate balance). The second is to proceed slowly and deliberately and "consider the regulatory moves carefully" before implementing legislation. But by the time this deliberate procedure has been completed, it may very well be that the politics have changed and nothing will be done at all. So I'd rather move fast, if imperfectly, and then fix problems later instead of waiting in an attempt to put near perfect legislation in place and risk doing very little, or nothing at all.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Who Should Pay for Recessions?

I have a new column:

Who Should Pay for Recessions?: Over the last several hundred years, financial panics have repeatedly caused severe economic turmoil. For example, there were financial panics every 10 to 20 years in the late 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s, many of which resulted in severe recessions. 
To combat this instability, new rules and regulations were imposed on the financial sector after the Great Recession, and for approximately 50 years this seemed to be very successful. The bank panics that had caused so much trouble appeared to be over. But in recent years there has been a return of financial instability in the relatively unregulated shadow banking system, and a “Great Recession” associated with a financial meltdown. 
The conclusion seems obvious. No matter what we do in terms of regulating the financial sector, the risk of a financial collapse and subsequent recession is always present. Given this, a question to ask is who should pay the costs of the inevitable meltdown? That is, when the financial sector gets into trouble, as it surely will at some point in the future, who should shoulder the burden? ...

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

'Trading on Leaked Macroeconomic Data'

Carola Binder:

Trading on Leaked Macroeconomic Data: The official release times of U.S. macroeconomic data are big deals in financial markets. A new paper finds evidence of substantial informed trading before the official release time of certain macroeconomic variables, suggesting that information is often leaked. Alexander Kurov, Alessio Sancetta, Georg H. Strasser, and Marketa Halova Wolfe examine high-frequency stock index and Treasury futures markets data around releases of U.S. macroeconomic announcement...
They consider the 30 macroeconomic announcements that other authors have shown tend to move markets...
Why do prices start to move before release time? It could be that some traders are superior forecasters, making better use of publicly-available information, and waiting until a few minutes before the announcement to make their trades. Alternatively, information might be leaked before the official release. Kurov et al. note that, while the first possibility cannot be ruled out entirely, the leaked information explanation appears highly likely. ...
I wish I had a better sense of who was obtaining the leaked information and how much they were making from it.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

'Growth in Finance is a Drag on the Real Economy'

Stephen Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi in Vox EU:

Why growth in finance is a drag on the real economy: A booming financial sector means economic growth. Or does it? This column presents new evidence showing that when the financial sector grows more quickly, productivity tends to grow disproportionately slower in industries with either lower asset tangibility or in industries with higher research and development intensity. It turns out that financial booms are not, in general, growth-enhancing.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Did Dodd-Frank Fix Too Big To Fail?

Gara Afonso and João Santos at the NY Fed's Liberty Street Economics blog:

What Do Bond Markets Think about “Too-Big-to-Fail” Since Dodd-Frank?: In our previous post, we concluded that, in rating agencies’ views, there is no clear consensus on whether the Dodd-Frank Act has eliminated “too-big-to-fail” in the United States. Today, we discuss whether bond market participants share these views.
As we discussed in our post on Monday, the Dodd-Frank Act includes provisions to address whether banks remain “too big to fail.” Title II of the Act creates an orderly liquidation mechanism for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to resolve failed systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs). ...
Since the Dodd-Frank Act makes it easier to intervene at the holding company level, we predict that, relative to the pre-Dodd-Frank era, investors’ perceptions of the risk of holding bonds of a parent company would have increased relative to the risk of holding bonds of its subsidiary bank. To test this hypothesis, we compared how bond spreads evolved for a matched pair of bonds—one issued by the parent company and one by its subsidiary bank. This approach lets us isolate any differential effect of the new resolution procedure on the parent company relative to its subsidiary. A downside, though, is that there are only a few cases where both the parent and the subsidiary have the same bonds traded in financial markets.
Contrary to our hypothesis, the difference in option-adjusted spreads to Treasuries of the parent companies and their subsidiary banks ... has not widened since the Dodd-Frank Act was enacted. ...
Our previous post demonstrated that rating agencies do not have a unanimous view of the current level of government support of U.S. commercial banks and their holding companies. The results here indicate that market participants’ perceptions of the relative risk have not increased as one would have expected given the new resolution framework introduced by the Dodd-Frank Act. ...
Together the evidence suggests that rating agencies and market participants may have some doubts about the ability, so far, of the Dodd-Frank Act to deal with “too big to fail.” However, some observers have argued that once all provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act are implemented, any remaining expectations of government support will disappear. Time will tell.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

'Thinking About the All Too Thinkable'

Paul Krugman:

Thinking About the All Too Thinkable: The path toward non-Grexit — toward Greece and its creditors reaching a deal that keeps it in the euro — is getting narrower, although it’s not yet completely closed. ...
At this point quite a few people on the creditor/Troika side of the negotiations seem almost to welcome the prospect. But this is bizarre in terms of their underlying interests. Yes, the lives of the officials would become easier, for a while, because they wouldn’t have to deal with Syriza. But from the point of view of the creditors, Grexit would be a pure negative. They would almost surely receive less in payments than they would under any deal that keeps Greece in, and the proof that the euro is in fact reversible would grease the rails for future crises, even if the ECB is able to contain this one.
And as Martin Wolf points out, Greece will still be there, and will still need dealing with.
The Greeks, on the other hand, should feel conflicted. There would probably be a lot of financial chaos in the immediate aftermath of euro exit. And maybe the apocalyptic warning from the Bank of Greece that devaluation would push the nation back into the Third World is right, although I’d like to know about the model and historical examples that would justify this claim. But absent that kind of implosion, a devalued currency should eventually produce an export-led recovery — I understand the cynicism one hears, but demand curves do slope downwards even in Greece.
The point is that nobody should be casual or confident here. But the creditors should actually be even more worried than the Greeks about a potential exit that has no upside for the rest of Europe.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

'Disaster Risk and Asset Pricing'

Jerry Tsai and Jessica Wachter at Vox EU:

Disaster risk and asset pricing, Jerry Tsai, Jessica Wachter, Vox EU: A persistently puzzling feature of the US stock market is the high return to holding a diversified equity portfolio. On average, over the last 60 years, equities have outperformed short-term bonds by 7.5% a year. The difference, when cumulated over time, is dramatic. ...$1 invested in 1947 in a value-weighted portfolio of equities traded on major exchanges would have increased 100-fold (in 1947 dollars), while a strategy of rolling over short-term Treasury bills would have barely kept up with inflation. The 2008 Global Crisis resulted in a very temporary dip in this performance. ...
Why do equities earn such a high rate of return?
The most obvious possibility is that this high return is a compensation for risk. However, while equity markets are very risky (the standard deviation of the above portfolio is 18% per year), this risk is not reflected in the broader economy. For long-run investors who are willing to ride out the ups and downs of the stock market, the risk that matters is the risk in actual consumption. And that standard deviation has historically been less than 2% a year, even when taking the Great Recession into account. This disconnect between the return to holding stocks and the risk of the overall economy, is known as the equity premium puzzle (Mehra and Prescott 1985).
In a recent article (Tsai and Wachter 2015), we argue that this equity premium reflects the risk of an economy-wide disaster. Our argument builds on work by Robert Barro (2006), further developed with co-authors Emi Nakamura, John Steinssen and Jose Ursua (Barro and Ursua 2008, Nakamura et al. 2011). ...
Once we account for the possibility of rare disasters, the equity premium is no longer a puzzle. High equity returns do not represent a ‘free lunch’ in which investors receive high returns without taking on risk. On the other hand, equities do not represent something that prudent investors should avoid. Rather high returns on equities reward investors for bearing the risk of a large decline in stock prices during an economic disaster.
Stock market volatility
Another basic question about the stock market pertains to the level of volatility. Various studies, beginning with Shiller (1981) have concluded that the volatility in the stock market is too great to represent forecasts of future dividends or other measures of cash flows of corporations. As memorably described by Shiller, the stock market appears to exhibit ‘excess’ volatility, namely volatility that cannot be attributed to rational factors and rather reflects (in the words of Keynes) the ‘animal spirits’ of investors. 
Rare disaster models offer an alternative way to understand excess volatility. Rather than reflecting the day-to-day whims of investors, stock market fluctuations could reflect investors' changing views of the probability of a rare disaster..., stock returns, which incorporate these probabilities, can be far more volatile than dividends or consumption, which reflect (primarily) the disaster itself. ...
Low interest rates
As is well-known, the Global Crisis and its aftermath have been characterised by interest rates that are extremely low by historical standards. ... Of course, many factors influence interest rates. However, the same model that can explain a high equity premium and high stock market volatility, can also explain this seemingly anomalous interest rate behaviour. When the risk of a rare disaster rises, investors want to save to protect their assets for the future. This lowers the required return on savings, namely the interest rate, even as it raises the implicit rate of return on equities. This could contribute to the challenge facing central banks when conducting monetary policy. According to this view, raising interest rates may not be a matter of a simple policy decision, and may require the far-harder task of altering investors' perceptions of risk. ...
Recent research demonstrates how rare disasters can explain both a high equity premium and high stock market volatility. Time-varying disaster risk offers a compelling explanation for the patterns in equity values, consumption, and interest rates during the recent Global Crisis and its aftermath. While significant attention has rightly been paid to reducing or eliminating risk in the aftermath of the Crisis, research on disasters suggests that this is a risk that, to some extent, has long been present and accounted for in equity markets. While policymakers struggle with strategies to avoid crises, investors may have decided that a risk of a crisis can never be truly eliminated, and have acted accordingly. ...

Saturday, June 06, 2015

'Crisis Chronicles: Railway Mania, the Hungry Forties, and the Commercial Crisis of 1847'

James Narron and Don Morgan

Crisis Chronicles: Railway Mania, the Hungry Forties, and the Commercial Crisis of 1847, by James Narron and Don Morgan, Liberty Street: Money was plentiful in the United Kingdom in 1842, and with low yields on government bonds and railway shares paying handsome dividends, the desire to speculate spread—as one observer put it, “the contagion passed to all, and from the clerk to the capitalist the fever reigned uncontrollable and uncontrolled” (Francis’s History of the Bank of England). And so began railway mania. Just as that bubble began to burst, a massive harvest failure in England and Ireland led to surging food imports, which drained gold reserves from the Bank of England. Constrained by the Bank Charter Act, the Bank responded by tightening policy. When food prices fell in the spring of 1847 on the prospects for a successful harvest, commodity speculators were caught short and a crisis, one of the worst in British history (Bordo), ensued. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we cover the Commercial Crisis of 1847.

Here's the part I want to highlight:

The Bank of England’s ability to contain the crisis as a lender of last resort was severely constrained by the Bank Charter Act of 1844 (Humphrey and Keleher). The Act gave the Bank of England a monopoly on new note (essentially money) issuance but required that all new notes be backed by gold or government debt. The intent, per Currency School doctrine, was to prevent financial crises and inflation by inhibiting currency creation. Adherents recognized that the Act might also limit the central bank’s discretion to manage crises, but they argued that limiting currency creation would prevent financial crises in the first place, thus obviating the need for a lender of last resort. But, of course, not all crises originate in the financial sector. In the case of the Commercial Crisis, the perverse effect of the Act was to cause the Bank to tighten monetary conditions in both April and October as gold reserves drained from the Bank (Dornbusch and Frenkel). In July, a coalition of merchants, bankers, and traders issued a letter against the Bank Charter Act, blaming it for “an extent of monetary pressure, such as is without precedent” (Gregory 1929, quoted in Dornbusch and Frenkel).
The panic culminated in a “Week of Terror,” October 17-23, with multiple banks failing or suspending payments to depositors in the midst of runs. The Royal Bank of Liverpool shuttered its doors on Tuesday, followed by three other banks, and by the end of the week the Bank of England held less than two million pounds in reserve, down from eight million in January. Systemic collapse seemed imminent. On Saturday of that week, London bankers petitioned Parliament to suspend the Bank Act, and by midday Monday it had done so, thus enabling the Bank to issue new notes without gold backing and to “enlarge the amount of their discounts and advances upon approved security” (J. Russell and Charles Wood, Bank of England). The ability to expand fiat note issuance increased liquidity and helped the Bank restore confidence, and the seven percent discount rate the Bank was charging attracted gold reserves back to its vaults (hence the maxim “seven percent will draw gold from the moon”). By December, interest rates were down substantially from their panic levels.

And the big question:

In contrast to the Bank of England in 1847, the Federal Reserve during the Panic of 2007-2008 was authorized to act as lender of last resort, and, in fact, the Fed acted aggressively to provide liquidity to the financial system in unprecedented ways. Through a variety of newly created facilities, the Fed expanded the types of institutions it would lend to, including nonbanks, and the types of collateral it would lend against, including asset-backed securities.
While some observers have praised the Fed’s actions, others, including some within the Fed, have been more critical. Partly in response to such criticism, the Dodd-Frank Act limits the Fed’s ability to lend to individual firms, as the Fed did during the panic, and a more recently proposed bill would further constrain the Fed’s emergency lending discretion. Will these reforms curb the moral hazard (excess risk-taking) that last-resort lending might invite? Might they aggravate future crises by curbing the Fed’s discretion as lender of last resort?

I have always believed that if another big financial crisis hits, the associated fear and panic would cause the Fed's emergency lending discretion to be restored.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

'Did The Fed Fail To Save Lehman Brothers Because It Legally Couldn't?'

David Zaring at The Conglomerate:

Did The Fed Fail To Save Lehman Brothers Because It Legally Couldn't?: My soon to be colleague Peter Conti-Brown and Brookings author (and future Glom guest) Philip Wallach are debating whether the Fed had the power to bail out Lehman Brothers in the middle of the financial crisis. The Fed's lawyers said, after the fact, that no, they didn't have the legal power to bail out Lehman. Peter says yes they did, Philip says no, and I'm with Peter on this one - the discretion that the Fed had to open up its discount window to anyone was massive. In fact, I'm not even sure that Dodd-Frank, which added some language to the section, really reduced Fed discretion much at all. It's a pretty interesting debate, though, and goes to how much you believe the law constrains financial regulators.

Here's Peter:

as I discuss at much greater length in my forthcoming book, The Power and Independence of the Federal Reserve, the idea that 13(3) presented any kind of a statutory barrier is pure spin..., so long as the Reserve Bank was “satisfied” by the security offered and there is “evidence”—some, any, of undefined quality—the loan could occur. 

Here's Philip:

I (and most observers) read the “satisfaction” requirement as meaning that the Fed can only lend against what it genuinely believes to be sound collateral—i.e., it must act as a (central) bank, and not as a stand-in fiscal authority. The Fed’s assessment of Lehman Brothers as deeply insolvent at the time of the crisis meant that it did not have the legal power to lend. ...

And the debate will be going on over at the Yale J on Reg for the rest of the week.  Do give it a look.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

'Bailout Barometer: How Large is the Financial Safety Net?'

John Cochrane points to this from the Richmond Fed (he has a few additional comments):

Bailout Barometer: How Large is the Financial Safety Net?: ...The Bailout Barometer is our estimate of the share of financial system liabilities for which the federal government provides protection from losses. In addition to protection from explicit government guarantee programs, our estimate includes implicit protection that people are likely to infer from past government actions and statements. Despite efforts to end ad hoc bailouts, the financial safety net that protects certain firms remains large under current government policies.

Estimated Share of Financial Sector Liabilities Subject to Implicit or Explicit Government Protection From Loss (as of 12/31/13)

How large is it?

Our latest estimate shows that the financial safety net covers 60 percent of the financial sector. This estimate also includes a breakdown by sector. These measures, compiled in March 2015, use data as of December 31, 2013. Our Bailout Barometer has grown considerably since our first estimate in 1999.

Why does it matter?

When creditors expect to be protected from losses, they will overfund risky activities, making financial crises and bailouts like those that occurred in 2007-08 more likely. An extensive safety net also creates a need for robust supervision of firms benefitting from perceived protection. Over time, shrinking the financial safety net is essential to restore market discipline and achieve financial stability. Doing so requires credible limits on ad hoc bailouts. Read more on our perspective.

Want to learn more?

Monday, May 11, 2015

'An Open Letter to Bill McNabb, CEO of Vanguard Group'

Stephen G. Cecchetti and Kermit L. Schoenholtz (sort of a follow up on the claim that financial reform is working -- perhaps -- but as noted in the post below this one there is more to do):

An Open Letter to Bill McNabb, CEO of Vanguard Group: Dear Mr. McNabb,
We find your WSJ op-ed (Wednesday, May 6) misleading, short-sighted, self-serving, and very disappointing.
Vanguard has been in the forefront of providing low-cost, reliable access to U.S. and global capital markets to millions of customers, including ourselves. Following the financial crisis of 2007-2009, the firm naturally should be a leader in promoting a more resilient financial system. Your op-ed sadly goes in the opposite direction.
Let’s start with the most stunning example: your defense of money market mutual funds. MMMFs are simply banks masquerading as professionally managed investment products. Like banks, they engage in liquidity and maturity transformation. Like banks, they faced runs in 2008 that ended only when the federal government provided a guarantee that put taxpayers at risk. Even with that guarantee, the government still had to support many healthy U.S. corporations with household names that – having previously relied on MMMF purchases of their commercial paper – suddenly faced a severe credit crunch. And, to limit a fire sale amidst the crisis, the Federal Reserve had to provide special funding to buyers to help MMMFs unload their assets.
Unsurprisingly, fund sponsors and their clients – both creditors and borrowers – want to keep these opaque federal subsidies (especially the implicit guarantees that only become explicit and transparent in a crisis). Like them, you make the false, but popular claim that power-hungry regulators (who wish to limit the subsidies that make future crises more likely) are attacking (taxing!) Main Street instead of Wall Street.
In fact, the investment company industry captured its primary regulator long ago, and hasn’t let go. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s 2014 “reform” of MMMFs is exhibit A. It almost surely makes these funds more, not less, liable to runs (see here and here). And – what a surprise – Congress seems to find protecting U.S. taxpayers from contingent liabilities (like implicit financial guarantees to your industry) less attractive than the largesse of financial lobbyists. Even the voluminous Dodd-Frank Act didn’t address MMMFs! ...

After quite a bit more, they conclude with:

As the CEO of one of the largest mutual fund companies in the world that is dedicated to serving and protecting small investors, you should be in the vanguard of advocating reforms that enhance stability.
Instead of complaining about regulation under the guise of protecting Main Street, you should highlight the vulnerabilities in our financial system and make the case for efficient regulation that treats all activities equally. You should also promote investment vehicles that are likely to prove robust in a crisis, while warning about existing products that probably won’t be.
Only greater resilience in the system can make investors confident that capital markets here and elsewhere will remain strong. That is in Vanguard’s interest, too.
Stephen G. Cecchetti and Kermit L. Schoenholtz

Paul Krugman: Wall Street Vampires

Financial reform seems to be working:

Wall Street Vampires, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Last year the vampires of finance bought themselves a Congress. I know it’s not nice to call them that, but I have my reasons, which I’ll explain in a bit. For now, however, let’s just note that these days Wall Street, which used to split its support between the parties, overwhelmingly favors the G.O.P. And the Republicans who came to power this year are returning the favor by trying to kill Dodd-Frank, the financial reform enacted in 2010.
And why must Dodd-Frank die? Because it’s working. ...
For one thing, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — the brainchild of Senator Elizabeth Warren — is, by all accounts, having a major chilling effect on abusive lending practices. And early indications are that enhanced regulation of financial derivatives — which played a major role in the 2008 crisis — is having similar effects, increasing transparency and reducing the profits of middlemen.
What about the problem of ... “too big to fail”? There, too, Dodd-Frank seems to be yielding real results, in fact, more than many supporters expected. ...
All of this seems to be working: “Shadow banking,” which created bank-type risks while evading bank-type regulation, is in retreat. ...
But the vampires are fighting back.
O.K., why do I call them that? Not because they drain the economy of its lifeblood, although they do: there’s a lot of evidence that oversize, overpaid financial industries — like ours — hurt economic growth and stability. Even the International Monetary Fund agrees.
But what really makes the word apt in this context is that the enemies of reform can’t withstand sunlight. Open defenses of Wall Street’s right to go back to its old ways are hard to find. When right-wing think tanks do try to claim that regulation is a bad thing that will hurt the economy, their hearts don’t seem to be in it. ...
Republicans would love to undo Dodd-Frank, but they are, rightly, afraid of the glare of publicity that defenders of reform like Senator Warren — who inspires a remarkable amount of fear in the unrighteous — would shine on their efforts.
Does this mean that all is well on the financial front? Of course not. Dodd-Frank is much better than nothing, but far from being all we need. And the vampires are still lurking in their coffins, waiting to strike again. But things could be worse.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

'Social Costs of the Financial Sector'

Via Tim Taylor, a quotation from Luigi Zingales ("watch video of the lecture or read the talk at his website"):

While there is no doubt that a developed economy needs a sophisticated financial sector, at the current state of knowledge there is no theoretical reason or empirical evidence to support the notion that all the growth of the financial sector in the last forty years has been beneficial to society. In fact, we have both theoretical reasons and empirical evidence to claim that a component has been pure rent seeking. ...
There is a large body of evidence documenting that on average a bigger banking sector (often measured as the ratio of private credit to GDP) is correlated with higher growth, both cross-sectionally and over time. ... [I]in this large body there is precious little evidence that shows the positive role of other forms of financial development, particularly important in the United States: equity market, junk bond market, option and future markets, interest rate swaps, etc. ...
If anything, the empirical evidence suggests that the credit expansion in the United States was excessive. The problem is even more severe for other parts of the financial system. There is remarkably little evidence that the existence or the size of an equity market matters for growth. ...  I am not aware of any evidence that the creation and growth of the junk bond market, the option and futures market, or the development of over-the-counter derivatives are positively correlated with economic growth. ...

Reminds me of this graph from the IMF blog:


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Trader as Scapegoat

Rajiv Sethi in the NY Times:

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

'Spoofing in an Algorithmic Ecosystem'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

'An Overwhelming Argument for Draconian Bank Regulation'

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

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

Monday, April 20, 2015

'Credit Supply and the Housing Boom'

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

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

Real House Prices

Household Mortgages-to-GDP Ratio

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

Household Mortgages-to-Real Estate Ratio

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

Real Mortgage Interest Rates

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

Response to a Change in the Lending-Limit

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

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

Thursday, April 16, 2015

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

Simon Johnson:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Summers (Video): New Lending For A New Economy

Monday, April 13, 2015

'The Mythic Quest for Early Warnings'

Cecchetti & Schoenholtz:

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

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