The Mervyn King Book

It is called The End of Alchemy. I can give it faint praise, but not much more than that.

1. It is long-winded.

2. I share his view that risk-based capital regulations inject a false sense of precision into bank regulation.

3. His main idea is this:

The aim of the PFAS [Pawnbroker for all seasons] is threefold. First to ensure that all deposits are backed by either actual cash or a guaranteed contingent claim on reserves at the central bank. Second, to ensure that the provision of liquidity insurance is mandatory and paid for upfront. Third, to design a system which in effect imposes a tax on the degree of alchemy in our financial system.

Here is how I understand the idea would work. A bank would make a risky loan of, say, $100. The bank and the central bank would agree that in an emergency the loan could be sold to the central bank for, say, $90. In that case, the bank could finance up to $90 of the loan with deposits. This would replace deposit insurance, risk-based capital regulations, and other attempts to reconcile the desire to prevent the bank from failing with the need to address moral hazard.

I do not see how this can handle modern financial instruments. Take AIG, for example. Their problem was that liquid liabilities appeared seemingly out of nowhere, as “collateral calls” on the credit default swaps that they had written on mortgage securities. There is no way that this contingency would have been built into King’s system. King writes,

No doubt there would be other practical issues to resolve, but the reason we employ high-quality public servants is to solve such problems.

That was the exact sort of hand-waving that came with the original TARP proposal to buy up the “toxic assets” in order to fix the financial system. Those of us who understood the financial instruments involved knew that it was impossible to work that way, and TARP as implemented did not work that way at all.

4. Perhaps of all the high-level officials involved in central banking over the past twenty years, King’s thinking is the most nuanced, realistic, and humble. And yet his ideas did not impress me. This is going to sound really arrogant, but I do not believe that the central bankers know enough about finance to be able to fulfill their promise to stabilize financial markets.

An Accounting Threat

The WSJ reports,

Starting in 2017, EU rules will require European governments to calculate the total amount they must pay current and future pensioners. Making this obligation more visible could spur them to deal with it, said Hans Hoogervorst, chairman of the International Accounting Standards Board and a former Dutch finance minister. “It will make clear that the current situation is unsustainable.”

Such a rule would be helpful here, as well.

Jason Collins on John Kay

Jason makes it sound like Kay’s book is worth reading.

One of the most interesting threads in the books is that many of the regulatory mantras are about the financial intermediaries, not the end users. The drives for transparency and liquidity in particular come in for criticism by Kay. First, the demand for transparency is a sign of the problem

The quoted passage that follows strikes me as very good. I also have argued that non-transparency is in some sense the point of financial intermediation. If I know everything about a bank’s portfolio, then I do not need the bank. I can just buy the portfolio myself.

A China Bear Growls

He writes,

It’s unprecedented. With almost 50 million empty houses and with big inventories of major commodities, China’s lenders, builders, and manufacturers are still going for more. As one small example, the world, led by China, is still on track to produce as much as 40 percent more iron and steel than it needs this year.

No, it’s not Tyler Cowen. It’s Richard Vague (what a name to live down!).

The Issue that Worries Me

Alan J. Auerbach and William G. Gale write,

Although current deficits are reasonably low, the medium and long-term fiscal outlooks have deteriorated in the past year, due largely to legislative actions (and their implications for future policy) and changes in economic projections. Even under a low interest rate scenario, the long-term budget outlook is unsustainable. Moreover, the nation already carries a debt load that is twice as large as its historical average as a share of GDP and that makes evolution of the debt-GDP ratio much more sensitive to interest rates.

The necessary adjustments will be large relative to those adopted under recent legislation. Moreover, the most optimistic long-run projections already incorporate the effects of success at “bending the curve” of health care cost growth, so further measures will clearly be needed. These changes, however, relate to the medium- and long-term deficits, not the short-term deficit.

They say that the solution is to build a wall on our southern border.

Just kidding.

Ed Kane on Financial Regulation

The headline on the interview is confusing, but his remarks are not.

She [Hillary Clinton] goes part way toward Senator Sanders in proposing to give regulators more power to break up financial firms. But federal regulators have a lot of authority already. The key is to give them the incentive to use that authority. When a bank is in distress, fear of disrupting the system becomes their dominant concern.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. Kane has been around for a long time, and he has been for right for a long time. In the 1980s, he was among those warning about the weakness of capital requirements and the political power of big banks. The fact that his warnings today are similar tells you that Dodd-Frank and other responses to the financial crisis were not sufficient.

The Big Short on Outsider Personalities

This weekend I watched The Big Short. The movie makes a big deal, as does the book, about the odd personalities of the investors who saw the financial crisis coming more clearly than others. Some thoughts on that:

1. If the typical normal person (or normal investor or normal regulator) saw a financial crisis coming, then it would not occur.

2. At any one time, there are lots of outsiders forecasting extreme events. If you bet on outsiders all the time, most of the time you will lose.

3. The challenge for insiders is to filter out the noise from outsiders without filtering out the signal.

4. You filter out signal when you hold as sacred hypotheses beliefs that really should be questioned. As the movie points out, the hypothesis that AAA-rated securities are safe was sacred. The hypothesis that house prices never go down in more than a few locations at the same time was sacred. The hypothesis that new risk management techniques made old-fashioned mortgage underwriting standards obsolete was sacred.

5. People with outsider personalities are less likely to fall into the trap of holding hypotheses as sacred. If you don’t need to get along with the insiders, then you question them. You question them when they are right and you question them when they turn out to be wrong.

6. As you know, I think that MIT economics has produced a set of insiders who hold sacred hypotheses. Math equals rigor. AS-AD. Market failure always justifies government intervention. Etc. The Book of Arnold is an attempt to call them out on it.

Raise the Age of Government Dependency

Courtney Coile, Kevin S. Milligan, and David A. Wise write,

This is the introduction and summary to the seventh phase of an ongoing project on Social Security Programs and Retirement Around the World. The project compares the experiences of a dozen developed countries and uses differences in their retirement program provisions to explore the effect of SS on retirement and related questions. The first three phases of this project document that: 1) incentives for retirement from SS are strongly correlated with labor force participation rates across countries; 2) within countries, workers with stronger incentives to delay retirement are more likely to do so; and 3) changes to SS could have substantial effects on labor force participation and government finances. . .

This seventh phase of the project explores whether older people are healthy enough to work longer. We use two main methods to estimate the health capacity to work, asking how much older individuals today could work if they worked as much as those with the same mortality rate in the past or as younger individuals in similar health. Both methods suggest there is significant additional health capacity to work at older ages.

The simplest, most logical fix for entitlement programs is to raise the age of government dependency. Most people ought to be able to support themselves well into their seventies. Those of us who want to stop working earlier can plan for it and pay for it ourselves.

If Social Security and Medicare had been indexed for longevity from the outset, those two programs would not be in trouble today.

Market Monetarism Watch

David Beckworth, with Romesh Ponnuru, makes the NYT.

It took a bigger shock to the economy to bring the financial system down. That shock was tighter money. Through acts and omissions, the Fed kept interest rates and expected interest rates higher than appropriate, depressing the economy.

In a way, this is an easy argument to make.

1. A recession is, almost by definition, the economy operating below potential.

2. Operating below potential is, almost by definition, a shortfall in aggregate demand. The only other type of adverse event is a supply shock, which reduces potential but does not force the economy to operate below that reduced potential.

3. The Fed controls aggregate demand.

4. Therefore, all recessions are the fault of the Fed. Either by commission or omission, the Fed has messed up if we have a recession.

It is an easy argument to make, but I believe close to none of it. I do not believe in the AS-AD framework. And I do not believe (3). If you do not know why I have my views, go back and read posts under the categories “PSST and Macro” and “Monetary Economics.”

My view is that the housing boom and the accompanying financial mania helped hide some underlying adjustment problems in the economy. The crash, the financial crisis, and the response to that crisis all helped to aggravate those underlying adjustment problems. I suspect that, on net, the bailouts and the stimulus diverted resources to where they were less useful for maintaining employment than would have been the case if the government had not intervened. My basis for this suspicion is my belief that people who do not need help are often more effective at extracting money from the government than people who do need it.

There has been much other commentary on the op-ed–see Scott Sumner’s post.