Good Turner, Bad Turner

In Between Debt and the Devil, Adair Turner writes (p. 61),

Textbook descriptions of banks usually assume that they lend money to businesses to finance new capital investment…But in most modern banking systems most credit does not finance new capital investment. Instead, it funds the purchase of assets that already exist and above all, existing real estate.

…Different categories of credit perform different economic functions and have different consequences. Only when credit is used to finance useful new capital investment does it generate the additional income flows required to make the debt certainly sustainable. Contrary to the pre-crisis orthodoxy that the quantity of credit created and its allocation between different uses should be left to free market forces, banks left to themselves will produce too much of the wrong sort of debt.

What is good about the book is that he invites us to examine how credit is created and where it goes. As he points out, standard macro models have totally ignored this issue.

What is bad about the book is embedded in the last sentence quoted above. We are left to assume that the huge allocation of credit toward housing was the operation of “free market forces.” I do not know about other countries, but for the United States this is totally false. The government was very much involved in channeling credit, and it channeled as much as it could toward housing finance.

Still, I think that what is good about the book makes it worth reading. I plan to say more when I have finished it.

Mishkin Before vs. Bernanke After

In Greg Ip’s new book, Foolproof, he writes,

Frederic Mishkin, an expert on banking who had studied the Great Depression, examined what would happen if housing prices fell 20 percent. The Fed, he argued in a lengthy presentation to other central bankers, would lower interest rates quite quickly, the economy would shrink only 0.5 percent, and unemployment would barely rise.

I have not yet read Bernanke’s new book, but I gather that he thinks that without the bailouts the economy was headed toward another Great Depression. So my point is that there is quite a gap between what Mishkin thought would happen if housing prices fell and what Bernanke was afraid was going to happen. Some possibilities.

1. Mishkin actually was right. The economy easily could have withstood the housing price crash. The problem must have been something else. (Scott Sumner would say that it was tight money.)

2. Mishkin was working with a simplistic model of the economy, which did not include the fragility of the financial sector or the feedback from loss of confidence in banks to the rest of the economy. There are two variations on this view

a) the bailouts helped, just as Bernanke says they did.
b) the bailouts made no macroeconomic difference. They simply served to redistribute losses away from the some of the stakeholders in the bailed out firms.

3. Mishkin actually was right. The economy would have recovered quickly with only a small recession. However, Bernanke and other policy makers did the wrong thing and turned what would have been a short-term crisis and the failure of a few firms into a long, drawn-out period of slow growth.

I think that (2a) is the most generally accepted view. My own view is 2b. I could also make a case for (3). Note that in the Great Depression, both Hoover and Roosevelt thought that destructive competition was a major problem. Both tried to discourage businesses from competing, Hoover through exhortation and Roosevelt through the National Industrial Recovery Act. In hindsight, reducing competition was a counterproductive idea. Perhaps in hindsight TARP and the other bailouts will not look so good, either.

By the way, I can offer a lot of praise for Ip’s economic judgment. However, I think I will end up putting Foolproof in the “very good but could have been even better if. . .” category.

Bethany McLean responds

In an email (which she gave me permission to post), she writes,

So first of all, thank you for your kind words about All the Devils. I’ve always been a fan of your work, and I wholeheartedly second the title of your blog! Secondly, I’m always fine with criticism of my work and disagreement with any interpretation I’ve made. In particular, the GSEs are a nuanced, difficult subject, and frankly, I learn new things all the time. I am always willing to change my mind if someone shows me that I’m wrong.

What I’m not ok with is mischaracterizations of my work, whether deliberate or because you didn’t actually read most of the book [her newest book, Shaky Ground]. My main reason for writing is that you say I dismiss Ed DeMarco as a free market ideologue. That is exactly the opposite of what I actually wrote, which is that you cannot dismiss him as just that! I think Ed is a good man who did the best job he could and held true to his beliefs – saving taxpayers money – under very difficult circumstances. I don’t want people reading your review to think I impugned someone’s character when in fact, I did the opposite. It’s really unfair of you.

You are intellectually dishonest about some other points as well, but frankly, everyone is intellectually dishonest about the GSEs, so I won’t bother with most of it. But since I’m writing, I’m going to point another one out.

You also say that the shareholders made a political bet, which they lost, fair and square. There are many different types of shareholders, but as I detail (gory detail – it’s hard to miss!) a number of them made a purely financial bet, and totally missed the poisonous politics. They did loan level analysis and saw that the GSEs were going to become profitable again. Their bet was not that they could buy special favors, but precisely the opposite: that the government would treat Fannie and Freddie as normal companies – ie, like AIG, like Chrysler, like the big banks. Which, not incidentally, is what Jim Lockhart said would happen at the time of conservatorship. And the government set up this situation by leaving the common and preferred shares outstanding. You can blame the investors for being politically naive, but I don’t see how you can fail to acknowledge that there’s a lot of blame to go around here. (It might be a fair point to say that the GSEs are only profitable again because of government support. But then, you’d have to say the same thing about the big banks. In fact, you’d have to say the same thing about our whole stock market, which is supported by the Fed! Etc, etc. )

I agree with your point about there being a powerful case to be made against the government caving into the housing lobby. Perhaps I do give in too easily to what I view as the political reality. That said, the history of the private market financing residential real estate is not a pretty one either! Look back to the booms and busts in the 1800s and the spectacular default rates in the Great Depression. I also would contest the idea that there is such a thing today as a private sector, as pertains to the mortgage market. If the big banks finance the mortgage market, they too will be GSEs, if they aren’t already. But on this, there is much grist for debate, and criticism is fair.

Anyway, the tag line on your blog, “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree,” is so important. Live up to it! Don’t set up straw men so that you can knock me down.

My remarks:

1. I am glad that she respects Ed DeMarco, and I am sorry that I interpreted her as siding with his opponents.

2. She and I will have to agree to disagree about the hedge fund investors in Freddie and Fannie stock. I see no role for financial calculation, or “loan-level analysis.” Instead, it would have been obvious that the GSEs could be restored to profitability if you kept them going long enough using Treasury funds to borrow while having the entire mortgage market to themselves. The wild, speculative bet was that in the meantime there would be no reform of the housing finance system and that politicians would then decide to return Freddie and Fannie to the status quo prior to 2008. However, neither the Bush Administration nor the Obama Administration indicated any intent to do that. If you bought GSE stock for pennies in 2009 or 2010, you were making a bet that could pay off spectacularly, but only if Congress and the Administration were to do something very different from what they were saying.

In dealing with the crisis, the only purist, follow-the-law approach would have been to put the firms (including big banks) through bankruptcy. I would have preferred that, although I understand the fears that policy makers had about such a process. In my view, the next best alternative would have been to nationalize the GSEs and the failed banks, on the grounds that taxpayers were on the hook for the losses of those firms. Then the government would gradually wind these firms down. Instead, the policy makers chose bailouts, which necessarily involved arbitrary treatment of stakeholders. I do not think that any of those stakeholders has a compelling legal complaint at this point, because the rule of law went out the window with TARP and the bailouts.

Just the other day, some bloggers at the New York Fed wrote,

our view is that an optimal intervention into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would have involved the following elements:

The firms would be able to continue their core securitization function as going concerns, supporting the supply of mortgage credit.

The firms would continue to honor their debt and mortgage-backed securities obligations.

The value of the common and preferred equity in the two firms would be extinguished, reflecting their insolvent financial position.

Note that last sentence.

3. For writing my earlier post, I have been subjected to vicious, ad hominem attacks from former members of the Fannie Mae lobbying arm. If nothing else were to convince me that restoring the status quo for the GSE’s is a bad idea, then these crude, juvenile social media posts would suffice. Perhaps government backing for housing finance is inevitable in America. But at least let us hope that the institutions that receive such support do not replicate Fannie Mae’s aggressive and unprincipled lobbying machine.

In an opinion piece in today’s WaPo, McLean dismisses this lobbying with an “everybody does it” line.

One legitimate complaint about the old Fannie and Freddie was the way they garnered political clout through their promotion of homeownership. In their heyday, it was immense and ugly. (“Fannie has this grandmotherly image, but they will castrate you, decapitate you, tie you up, and throw you in the Potomac,” a congressional source told the International Economy in the late 1990s. “They are absolutely ruthless.” That would pale next to the political clout of a big bank that also controlled the mortgage market, and whatever evils grew out of the GSEs’ need to please politicians, there could be worse. Imagine the conversation in a back room between the politicians and the bank executives, where they agree that if the bank will loosen up credit in their states, the politicians will go easy on, say, derivatives regulation. It almost makes the old Fannie and Freddie look pure.

No it doesn’t. And the rest of her piece consists of cheerleading for housing finance subsidies, which is exactly what makes her new book such a disappointment.

Two Stars for Shaky Ground

For the first time in many years, I wrote a review for Amazon. About Bethany McLean’s book on Freddie and Fannie, I say,

I was disappointed with this book, because I think that her earlier work, All the Devils are Here, co-authored by Joe Nocera, is probably the best journalistic account of the run-up to the financial crisis.

On “Shaky Ground,” here are my thoughts:

1. This book might have been titled “Sympathy for the Devils.” There is way too much sympathy expressed for the hedge funds that bought preferred stock in Freddie and Fannie. They were making a bet that the political process would come out a certain way, and they lost that bet, fair and square. End of story, as far as I am concerned. I should note that on several occasions representatives of the hedge funds have felt me out about doing some “research” or writing an article to support their position. I would not have done it for any amount of money. I am not accusing McLean of having succumbed to this, but I would not completely rule it out.

2. The other devil who gets a ton of sympathy is former Fannie Mae executive Tim Howard. McLean endorses all of his self-serving views, which include a claim that he did nothing wrong in Fannie’s giant accounting scandal. Also, his view is that had the Fannie management not been replaced, his team would have averted the crisis. Both claims may be true. In my opinion, Freddie and Fannie were better managed before both of their management teams fell in accounting scandals. But I think that more journalistic skepticism is in order. Regardless of who was in charge, there was pressure on Freddie and Fannie management to dive into high-risk lending, with shareholders seeing profits and regulators seeing a mission to expand home ownership opportunity.

3. She is no fan of Ed DeMarco, who was the only person in Washington working to gradually wind down the GSE’s, which is supposedly what everyone wanted. I think it is fair to say his approach was too unpopular with key players to be sustained. But he does not deserve to be dismissed by McLean with boo-words, like “free-market ideologue.”

4. She says that if you take it as given that the government is going to promote what the housing lobby wants, namely “home ownership” with little actual equity and a mortgage market dominated by the 30-year fixed-rate loan, then keeping Freddie and Fannie is better than the alternatives. If you accept the premise, then I agree. But there is a powerful case to be made against government caving into the housing lobby. The costs of this, including serial financial crises (the S&L crisis, the crisis of 2008) and misallocation of capital, are huge, and the social benefits are miniscule. (The private benefits can be enormous–just ask Tim Howard.) McLean does mention some of the evils of this housing-industrial complex, but her bottom line is, in effect “you can’t beat ‘em, so don’t try.”

Overall, this is not a terrible book. But if you read it, you should keep in mind that she gives the most favorable treatment possible to Freddie, Fannie, the hedge fund investors, and to policy makers who attempt social engineering using housing finance. Although the book is not completely one-sided, she does not give alternative points of view as much respect as I think they deserve.

How Bad was 2008?

Timothy Taylor writes,

my point here is not to parse the details of economic policy over the last seven years. Instead, it is to say that I agree with Furman (and many others) on a fundamental point: The US and the world economy was in some danger of a true meltdown in September 2008. Here are a few of the figures I used to make this point in lectures, some of which overlap with Furman’s figures. The underlying purpose of these kinds of figures is to show the enormous size and abruptness of the events of 2008 and early 2009–and in that way to make a prima facie case that the US economy was in severe danger at that time.

Taylor highlights the fall in house prices, the drop in bank lending, and the rise in the TED spread. However, if you look at just these indicators, the crisis ended relatively quickly. But employment just kept dropping (long after the official end of the recession). So it looks to me like the policies had a neutron bomb effect. The buildings (banks) were left standing but the people (workers) died.

As Taylor says, these are points that are not going to be settled. In my terminology, there are many frameworks that can be made consistent with observed economic performance. Some of these frameworks will be consistent with policies having made a positive difference, and others will not.

The Causes of Mortgage Defaults

The latest paper is by Fernando Ferriera and Joseph Gyourko. This article about the paper says,

Ferreira’s data show that even with strict limits on borrowing—say, requiring every borrower to put 20% down in all circumstances—wouldn’t have prevented the worst of the foreclosure crisis. “It’s really hard for certain regulations to stop the process [of a bubble forming],” Ferreira says. “I really wish my research had showed that it’s all about putting down 20% and all problems are solved, but the reality is more complicated than that.”

This analysis has both good points and bad points. The good point is that it goes against the “predatory lending” narrative. As a home buyer, you were better off with a predatory loan in 2002 (when prices were still headed higher) than with a prime loan in 2006 (when prices were near the peak). The bad point is the implication that there was nothing wrong with loans with low down payments. In fact, it was those loans that allowed speculation to get out of control.

Scott Sumner thinks that the finding that many of the mortgage defaulters were “prime” borrowers is enough to confirm that mortgage defaults were caused by a slowdown in nominal GDP growth. But mortgage defaults do not come from a lack of nominal GDP growth. They come from negative equity among mortgage borrowers.* And that comes from house prices falling, for which the main cause was the rapid rise in the first place. And both the rise in prices and the subsequent wave of defaults were much exacerbated by the fact that so many borrowers, “prime” or otherwise, had so little equity to begin with.

From part of the NBER coverage of the paper that Sumner does not quote:

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.

Let’s assume that we can agree that the big drop in house prices caused the wave of mortgage defaults. Three possibilities:

1. The drop in house prices was a purely exogenous shock.

2. The drop in house prices was due to the slowdown in nominal GDP growth.

3. The drop in house prices was due to the internal dynamics of a housing market that had become saturated with speculative buying with little or no money down.

The stories about the study make it sound like it was (1). Sumner believes (2). I vote for (3).


UPDATE: See Megan McArdle for a similar point of view.

The Greek Crisis and the Subprime Crisis

Ana Swanson writes,

Matthijs compares the situation to the U.S. subprime crisis. Who was really at fault for the housing crisis in the U.S.: The subprime borrowers who bought houses they couldn’t afford, or the predatory lenders who encouraged them to take them out?

I, too, see parallels with the subprime crisis. However, I do not think that predatory lenders are to blame for either. In both cases, bank regulators were responsible for allocating credit. In the first instance, the regulators encouraged banks to treat mortgage loans as low risk. In the second case, they encouraged banks to treat all European sovereign debt as low risk. See The Regulator’s Calculation Problem.

The irony is that after messing up credit markets, the regulators ask for and receive more power. With the sub-prime crisis, the regulators were rewarded with Dodd-Frank. I presume that the ultimate outcome of the Greek crisis will be similar.

Axel Leijonhufvud vs. Calomiris and Haber

Leijonhufvud writes,

The financial structure inherited from the 1930s divided the system into a number of distinct industries: commercial banks, savings and loan associations (S&Ls), credit unions, and others. It also divided it spatially. Banks located in one state could not branch across the line into another. This structure of the financial sector gave it great resilience. On another occasion I used the metaphor of a ship with numerous watertight compartments. If one compartment is breached and flooded, it will not sink the entire vessel.

This is directly the opposite of what Calomiris and Haber argue. They say that American cultural hostility to large banks produced an overly fragmented system, and that this fragmentation is the root cause of the peculiar instability of American finance.

Leijonhufvud elaborates,

At the time, the abolishment of all the regulations that prevented the different segments of the industry from entering into one another’s traditional markets was seen as having two obvious advantages. On the one hand, it would increase competition and, on the other, it would offer financial firms new opportunities to diversify risk. Economists in general failed to understand the sound rationale of Glass-Steagall. The crisis has given us much to be modest about.

In other words, economists championed open competition without thinking about how this would turn idiosyncratic risk into systemic risk.

The thing is, I was following these regulatory issues at the time, and I do not think that economists were as influential as we would like to believe. I think that the driving factors were computer technology, inflation, and massive lobbying. With high inflation, the regulatory ceilings on deposit interest rates that were a vital part of the regulatory structure became untenable. Moreover, with computer technology, it became easy for Wall Street to “disintermediate” banks using money market funds and securitization. These forces produced an inevitable turf battle between commercial banks and investment banks, which took years to resolve, as everybody lawyered up on the lobbying front. There were multiple possible political/regulatory outcomes, but hanging on to Glass-Steagall was not one of them.

Another Leijonhufvud quote:

Deregulation. . .allowed the great investment banks to incorporate and one by one they all did so. . .Incorporation meant limited liability for the investment bank and no direct liability for its executives. The incentives for executives in the industry changed accordingly. . .Now they are seen as jet-setting high rollers. Economists in general failed to predict this change in bankers’ risk attitudes. We have much to be modest about.

I cannot disagree with that.

However, I would instead put most of the emphasis on the regulations that directly affected housing finance. The pressure to lend with little or no money down and the designation of highly-rated mortgage securities as low risk for bank capital purposes are the main villains in the story as I tell it.

Public Availability of Freddie, Fannie Loan Performance Data

Todd W. Schneider has a write-up and some analysis.

I decided to dig in with some geographic analysis, an attempt to identify the loan-level characteristics most predictive of default rates, and more. As part of my efforts, I wrote code to transform the raw data into a more useful PostgreSQL database format, and some R scripts for analysis. The code for processing and analyzing the data is all available on GitHub.

I recommend reading the entire post.

Derailing the Narrative

Various politicians and pundits seized on the Amtrak derailment as a narrative of failure to spend on infrastructure. Then it turned out that at 100 miles per hour the train was going twice the speed limit in the area.

Similarly, when the financial crisis struck, politicians and pundits seized on it as showing an excess of greed and exploitation by banks and an “atmosphere of deregulation” that allowed the banks to run amok. In my view, this is as misleading as the narrative about the train derailment.

Some further comments.

1. Perhaps in the end both misleading narratives will dominate. Maybe that is just the way things work in matters where what matters is the political orientation of most journalists and historians.

2. Perhaps the misleading narrative of the train derailment will not stand. Perhaps the facts will stand in the way. On the other hand, the complexity of the financial crisis makes it difficult to sift through the facts, and by the same token makes it easy to impose a dubious narrative.

3. Perhaps eventually historians will look more carefully and objectively at the financial crisis, and the misleading narrative will be set aside.

As of this writing, my money is on (1).