Resolving Illiquid Institutions

Noam Scheiber brings up the AIG bailout, once again.

Which leaves only two possible explanations for the overly solicitous treatment of Goldman and the others. The first is that their own financial position was so precarious that accepting anything less than the billions they expected from A.I.G. would have destabilized them, too. Which is to say, it really was a backdoor bailout of the banks — many of which, like Goldman, claimed they didn’t need one. Alternatively, maybe Mr. Geithner simply felt that Goldman and the like had a more legitimate claim to billions of dollars in funds than the taxpayers who were footing the bill.

Five years ago, AIG had more liquid liabilities (“collateral calls”) than liquid assets. There were a number of ways this could have been resolved.

1. No government action, AIG’s creditors go to court, they win a quick judgment, and AIG has to sell off assets in order to pay the creditors.

2. No government action, AIG’s creditors go to court, things stay tangled up for a while, meanwhile AIG’s liquidity position improves, and creditors get paid out without AIG having to sell assets.

3. What I advocated, which was that the government tell creditors that they could get most of their money now or all their money later, but not all of their money now. I called this the “stern sheriff” solution.

4. A pure government bailout, which ensured that creditors could get all of their money now, courtesy of the taxpayers.

5. What we got, in which creditors received their money, but the government made sure that AIG shareholders suffered in the long run.

Note that (5) ended up close to (1), and (3) would have ended up close to (2). Had the government done nothing, then the courts would have effectively decided which path to head down. The advantage is that we would have gotten there by the rule of law, not by arbitrary exercise of power.

I think that the lesson we should draw is that in future cases of liquidity problems, officials should stand back and let nature take its course. I think that the number of prominent economists who agree with me on that approaches zero.

Question: Suppose that the top officials involved in dealing with the financial crisis had been forced to wear cameras and an audio recorders during all of the meetings during the crisis, with the stipulation that they could delay the release of the recordings for 90 days if they determined that immediate release would be harmful to financial stability. Do you think that this would have changed either their decisions or the public perception of those decisions?

Good Sentences, Bad Sentences

1. From Edward Conard:

The key to accelerating the recovery is not to generate unsustainable consumption, as Mian and Sufi propose. Rather, we must find sustainable uses for risk-averse savings

Mian and Sufi make a big deal over the fact that consumer spending fell in places where housing prices fell. Conard suggests that this is because consumers in those areas were spending at an unsustainable rate, based on capital gains in housing that disappeared.

2. From Alex Ellefson:

Laplante said he expects all 50 states to require software engineering licenses within the next decade, and possibly much sooner.

Not surprisingly, most software engineers endorse this. [UPDATE: from the article "The licensing effort was supported by nearly two-thirds of software engineers surveyed in a 2008 poll." Commenters on this blog dispute that most software engineers endorse licensing. They may be correct.] But it is really, really, not a good idea. Bad software may be created by coders. But its cause is bad management. The typical problems are needlessly complex requirements, poor communication in the project team between business and technical people, and inadequate testing.

I would favor licensing for journalists if I thought that it would keep incompetent stories like this one from appearing. But I don’t think that would work at all.

The pointers to both of these are from Tyler Cowen.

Central Banking’s New Normal

Tyler Cowen writes,

Were not these exit strategies supposed to be easy and painless? Maybe they are, except having no exit strategy is all the more easy and painless.

The title of his post is Will the major central banks evolve into mega-hedge funds? But perhaps the title should be, will the major central banks ever give up their mega-hedge fund activities?

In the wake of the financial crisis, the Fed has decided that credit allocation is too delicate and important to be left alone. The financial crisis did to the Fed what the 9-11 attacks did to national security agencies. I think that the chances that central banks will decide that they no longer need to behave like hedge funds are about as high as the chances that our national security apparatus will decide that they no longer need to treat terrorism as a major threat.

Larry Summers on Mian and Sufi

He writes,

They argue that, rather than failing banks, the key culprits in the financial crisis were overly indebted households. Resurrecting arguments that go back at least to Irving Fisher and that were emphasised by Richard Koo in considering Japan’s stagnation, Mian and Sufi highlight how harsh leverage and debt can be – for example, when the price of a house purchased with a 10 per cent downpayment goes down by 10 per cent, all of the owner’s equity is lost. They demonstrate powerfully that spending fell much more in parts of the country where house prices fell fastest and where the most mortgage debt was attached to homes. So their story of the crisis blames excessive mortgage lending, which first inflated bubbles in the housing market and then left households with unmanageable debt burdens. These burdens in turn led to spending reductions and created an adverse economic and financial spiral that ultimately led financial institutions to the brink.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Summers points out that Mian and Sufi’s suggestion that we should have bailed out homeowners is probably not correct. I feel even more strongly than Summers does about this.

Suppose that we accept the balance-sheet recession story. Some comments and questions.

1. Vernon Smith is also a proponent.

2. What was the difference between the damage to consumer wealth caused by the dotcom crash of 2000 and by the housing crash of 2007-2008? Was it solely the fact that the latter had been financed more by borrowing?

3. Suppose that there had been no debt-fueled consumer boom in 2005-2006. What would there have been instead? A sluggish economy? A more sustainable boom?

4. Suppose that we take a PSST perspective. Then the period from the late 1990s to the present is one long, painful, still-unfinished adjustment to the Internet and factor-price equalization. We happened to have a sharp boom-bust cycle in home construction in the middle of it, but even during the boom we did not have four consecutive months of gains in employment over 200,000. Then, in 2008 we had a panic about large financial institutions, leading to a big increase in government intervention, which mostly consisted of transfers of resources to less-productive businesses, such as GM, Citigroup, and Solyndra.

Re-telling the AIG story

Hester Peirce writes,

AIG’s securities lending program is just as critical to the story of its downfall. Through the securities lending program, AIG and its life insurance subsidiaries had massive exposure to residential mortgage-backed securities. At the height of the 2008 crisis, the program experienced a run, and AIG could not meet the massive repayment demands. The losses in the securities lending program were severe enough to imperil a number of AIG’s regulated life insurance subsidiaries. Before the bailout, AIG itself may have been insolvent.

The standard story is that all of the problems at AIG were caused by its credit default swaps. As those out-of-the-money options came closer to being in the money, their counterparties exercised rights to collateral calls, creating a liquidity crisis for AIG.

I have always accepted the standard story, and my view is that the way to handle it would have been to block the collateral calls. Make Goldman Sachs and DeutscheBank and everyone else wait to see how things play out.

Peirce says that in addition to the collateral calls on credit default swaps, AIG had exposure to mortgage securities through its regular insurance subsidiaries’ portfolios. Those securities lost market value during the crisis. For AIG, the problem became acute because of its securities-lending business. I don’t think I understand completely how this securities lending worked, but I think that the effect was to create a very significant maturity mismatch for AIG, so that it had a lot of short-term liabilities backed by long-term assets. When counterparties for a variety of reasons stopped providing short-term funding to AIG, it was faced with a need to sell long-term assets, and a lot of those assets were mortgage securities whose prices were depressed.

I came away from this analysis believing that the securities-lending program was important. However, I am less convinced that AIG was insolvent or that some of its subsidiaries were insolvent.

Financial Stability, Regulation, and Country Size

Lorenzo writes,

Something that is very clear, is that “de-regulation” is a term empty of explanatory power. All successful six have liberalised financial markets–Australia and New Zealand, for example, were leaders in financial “de-regulation”. If someone starts trying to blame the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) on “de-regulation”, you can stop reading, they have nothing useful to say.

Pointer from Scott Sumner.

The deregulation story amounts to saying that we know that regulation can prevent a crisis, but a crisis occurred, therefore there must have been deregulation. In fact, the risk-based capital rules that I have suggested helped cause the crisis were at the time they were enacted viewed as regulatory tightening, to correct flaws in the regime that existed at the time of the S&L crisis. The deregulation that did take place was intended to reduce bank profits by making the industry more competitive, not to increase profits or risk-taking.

Lorenzo’s post mostly beats a drum that I have been beating, which is that government tends to get worse as scale increases. He writes,

It is generally just harder to stick it to folks (either by what you do or what you don’t do) in a way that doesn’t get noticed in smaller jurisdictions. (Unless jurisdictions are so small they fly under the media radar but are big enough to be semi-anonymous–urban local government in Oz has a bit of a problem there.)

In Debt to Social Engineering

Ryan Avent writes,

What is needed, they argue, is to make debt contracts more flexible, and where possible, replace them with equity. Courts should be able to write down the principal of mortgages as an alternative to foreclosure. They recommend “shared-responsibility mortgages” whose principal would decline along with local house prices. To compensate for the risk of loss, lenders, they reckon, would have to charge a fee equal to 1.4% of the mortgage, or receive 5% of any increase in the value of the property.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. “They” are Mian and Sufi, in House of Debt. Avent argues similarly that student loans should have an equity component.

What these forms of bad debt have in common, in my view, is that they reflect clumsy social engineering. Public policy was based on the idea that getting as many people into home “ownership” with as little money down as possible was a great idea. It was based on the idea of getting as many people into college with student loans as possible.

The problem, therefore, is not that debt contracts are too rigid. The problem is that the social engineers are trying to make too many people into home “owners” and to send too many people to college. Home ownership is meaningful only when people put equity into the homes that they purchase. College is meaningful only if students graduate and do so having learned something (or a least enjoyed the party, but not with taxpayers footing the bill).

As long as we still have these sorts of public policies, monkeying around with the nature of the loan contract is simply doubling down on clumsy social engineering.

John Cochrane vs. Financial Intermediation

He writes,

demand deposits, fixed-value money-market funds, or overnight debt must be backed entirely by short-term Treasuries. Investors who want higher returns must bear price risk. Intermediaries must raise the vast bulk of their funds for risky investments from run-proof securities. For banks, that means mostly common equity, though some long-term or other non-runnable debt can exist as well. For [money-market?] funds, or in the absence of substantial equity, that means shares whose values float and, ideally, are tradable.

I suppose Murray Rothbard would have liked this.

My own aphorism about financial intermediation is that the nonfinancial sector wants to issue risky, long-term liabilities and to hold riskless, short-term assets, which the financial sector accommodates by doing the opposite. If that aphorism is correct, then Cochrane’s vision involves getting rid of financial intermediation.

I suspect that the optimal amount of financial intermediation is not zero. However, I suspect that it is not as much as we get in a world in which there is deposit insurance, too-big-to-fail guarantees, and tax advantages of leverage. Here, Cochrane’s tactical approach is interesting.

Pigouvian taxes provide a better structure for controlling debt than capital ratios or intensive discretionary supervision, as in stress tests. For each dollar of run-prone short-term debt issued, the bank or other intermediary must pay, say, five cents tax. Pigouvian taxes are more efficient than quantitative limits in addressing air pollution externalities, and that lesson applies to financial pollution. By taxing run-prone liabilities, those liabilities can continue to exist where and if they are truly economically important. Issuers will economize on them endogenously rather than play endless cat-and-mouse games with regulators.

The way I put it is that you cannot make financial institutions too regulated to fail. So instead of trying to make financial institutions harder to break, try to make them easier to fix. This means taking away the incentives to adopt unstable financial structures. Cochrane would go further and penalize unstable financial structures using taxes.

Meanwhile, Peter Wallison warns that the command-and-control approach to regulation has a logic of ever-widening jurisdiction.

The Financial Crisis and Wealth Transfer

Amir Sufi writes (with Atif Mian).

The strong house price rebound in high foreclosure-rate cities likely reflects these markets bouncing back after excessive price declines. But these foreclosed properties are not being bought by traditional owner-occupiers that plan on living in the home. Instead, they have been bought by investors in large numbers.

This is from a new blog spotted by Tyler Cowen, and both of the first two posts are worth reading in their entirety.

The picture that I get is of a pre-crisis economy in which middle- and lower-middle-income households thought they were doing well in the housing market. Then their house prices collapsed. Vulture investors swooped in to buy. Meanwhile, the government bailed out big banks and the stock market boomed. Some folks will credit the Fed for the latter. I don’t, but that is a bit beside the point here.

Net this all out–the sucker bets on housing by the non-rich, followed by big gains by wealthier folks in stocks and in foreclosed houses, and you get a picture of a huge regressive wealth transfer engineered in Washington. Carried out primarily by those who profess to be outraged by inequality.