How the Fed Became a Giant Hedge Fund

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel tells the story.

Phase Two of Bernanke’s policies transformed the Federal Reserve from a central bank confined primarily to managing the money supply into an institution that is now a giant government intermediary borrowing massive sums in order to allocate credit. In that respect, the Fed has become similar to Fannie or Freddie, with the important distinction that the Fed has greater discretion in subsidizing a wider variety of assets.

Target Bubbles?

Ian Talley (WSJ) reports,

Financial market risk-taking is reaching excesses comparable to those that precipitated the global financial meltdown, José Viñals said

That is the “top adviser to the International Monetary Fund,” according to the story.

My point is not that I agree or disagree. My point is to note the following:

1. It is easier to picture policy makers doing something about excessive risk taking now, after they have seen what can happen, than in 2006.

2. Nothing is being done about this alleged risk-taking.

3. Therefore, it is very hard to picture policy makers doing something about excessive risk-taking in 2006.

Identifying clear and present financial danger is not as easy as it appears to be in hindsight.

The Single Point of Entry Solution

Rebecca J. Simmons writes,

The critical element of the SPOE strategy is the recapitalization of the company’s material operating subsidiaries with the resources of the parent company. For the SPOE top-down approach to work effectively, there must be sufficient resources at the holding company level to absorb all the losses of the firm, including losses sustained by the operating subsidiaries.

SPOE is being touted as the solution to the too-big-to-fail problem. You have a gigantic bank holding company that gets in trouble. You (the FDIC) want to keep all the subsidiaries going, because you want depositors and counterparties not to panic. So you put the holding company into receivership, and only pay off shareholders and debtholders of the holding company after your are sure you have got money to do that.

I may not fully understand this. Here is what I think happens. The value of the subsidiaries as ongoing concerns is positive, say $100. However, if you subtract the value of the outstanding debt of the holding company, the value of the holding company is negative. With, say, $150 in outstanding debt, the holding company’s value is -$50. The receivership creates a new holding company, which will eventually be sold back to the public, but without the outstanding debt. When the new holding company is sold, the debtholders in the old company get first dibs on the proceeds, and if there is anything after that, the equity holders can get it. Again, I could be completely wrong about this, but that is my understanding.

Simmons continues,

The capitalization of the bridge financial company must be sufficient…not only to allow the operating subsidiaries to obtain needed capital from the bridge to continue operations but also to allow stakeholders and the broader public to view the entity as safe and viable as it transitions from failed firm to bridge financial company, and ultimately to emergence as a new firm.

The problem is that financial firms have multiple self-fulfilling states of equilibrium. There is a state in which everyone believes in you, so you pay low interest rates on your debt, and you are fine. There is a state in which counterparties do not believe in you, so your interest costs soar, and you are dead. One key question about SPOE is whether it can prevent a jump from the good equilibrium to the bad equilibrium.

Suppose that we had this strategy in place, with all of the legal means for implementation. I still believe that if JP Morgan Chase or Citigroup got into trouble, the Fed Chairman and the Treasury Secretary would be wetting their pants. In a crisis, the probability that they would go through with SPOE, rather than undertake an ad hoc bailout, is very low.

Francis Fukuyama on Big Banks

In his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, he writes,

Though no one will ever find a smoking gun linking bank campaign contributions to the votes of specific congressmen, it defies belief that the banking industry’s legions of lobbyists did not have a major impact in preventing the simpler solution of simply breaking up the big banks or subjecting them to stringent capital requirements.

It is taking me a long time to finish Fukuyama’s book. It is long and repetitive. I think that every time I read something from him, my temptation is to condense it to something much shorter. If I post a review, I will let you know, and my guess is that if you read my review you will not need to read the book.

He favors a combination of state capacity, rule of law, and democracy. In terms of our three branches of government, the executive branch is responsible for state capacity, the courts are responsible for the rule of law, and legislatures are to respond to democracy.

(Bryan Caplan is not happy with the concept of state capacity. He suspects that it is a meaningless yay-word. If nothing else, Fukuyama seems to me to endow the word with meaning. It means that bureaucrats are effective and ethical, as in Singapore, rather than ineffective and corrupt, as in India.)

Many on the right consider the administrative state, meaning government agencies operating independently, to be a bug. For Fukuyama, it is a feature. In his view, one main reason that these agencies function poorly in this country is that they face too much interference from Congress and from the courts. In my view, agencies are as easily captured by special interests as are legislators.

If David Brooks ever gets around to reading this book, he will heart it. Like Brooks, Fukuyama longs for a political system in which an autonomous elite governs on behalf of the public good. In Fukuyama’s view, the libertarian efforts to constrain government, including checks and balances as well as federalism, end up backfiring. They make government less effective while not constraining its growth.

The ideas are worth chewing on. Do I believe that the elites would, for example, fix the unsustainable entitlements promises if we had a parliamentary system? Or do I believe that a stronger government would be worse rather than better? It’s a tough call.

A Rant on Narrative vs. Reality re the Financial Crisis

1. Narrative: Subprime mortgages were a consumer protection failure. Thus, we need the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Reality: By a strict definition, predatory lending is when the loan is made with the intent of going to foreclosure and allow the lender to take possession of the house. This was not a factor in the subprime boom, which was fueled by the originate-to-distribute model. In the originate-to-distribute value chain, there is no one whose goal is to take the house from the borrower.

I think you could accuse loan originators of Ponzi lending. That is, lending to borrowers who could only avoid defaulting on the loan by taking out a new loan. Taking out a new loan in turn required continual increase in home prices, so that the borrower could use the equity in the house as collateral. But I would say that the biggest pushers of Ponzi lending were the “affordable housing” lobby, and I think that the last thing we will ever see is the CFPB take on the affordable housing lobby.

2. Narrative: The 1980s deregulation in banking was driven by the free-market ideology of Reagan and Greenspan.

Reality: The three main regulations that were dropped were the restrictions against banks paying market rates for deposits, the restrictions on interstate banking, and the restrictions on combining commercial banking with investment banking. I do not recall any pushback by the left on any of these–until 2008, when they made the retroactive claim that getting rid of Glass-Steagall caused the financial crisis.

In fact, these three regulatory boats had started sinking in the 1960s. The legislation that was passed in the 1980s and 1990s was simply the final order to abandon ship.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the big fight in bank regulation was not left vs. right, or deregulation vs. regulation. It was interest groups battling it out. Wall Street, big banks, savings and loans, and small banks had divergent interests, and that caused gridlock in Congress until things unraveled so much that Congress had no choice but to act.

If you want a parallel today, look at the battles between Amazon and the book publishers, or between Verizon and Google. You aren’t seeing legislators line up on ideological lines in those contests.

3. Free-market economists wanted to turn bankers loose to take whatever risks they wanted, and they got their wish.

Reality: Free-market economists were the strongest proponents of higher bank capital regulations and the biggest skeptics of the Basel risk-based capital regulations. We see the same thing today, with free-market economists skeptical of Dodd-Frank, and mainstream, establishment types like Stan Fischer saying things like

The United States is making significant progress in strengthening the financial system and reducing the probability of future financial crises.

In other words, this time will be different. Pointer from Timothy Taylor.

Bank Breakup Worries

1. I am worried that breaking up the biggest banks would not make the system safer.

I do not believe that having smaller banks would have prevented the 2008 crisis or the next crisis. I do not believe that regulatory policy can prevent such crises. My only solution for systemic financial risk is to try to make the financial system easier to fix when it does break. I think it is easier to fix when there is less debt, so I would look for ways to reduce incentive to take on debt. Instead of subsidies for mortgage borrowing, how about subsidies for down-payment saving? Instead of favorable tax treatment for debt, why not favor equity–or at least be neutral between the two? etc.

For me, breaking up the banks is not a safety issue. It is instead an issue of restoring democracy and the rule of law. Really big banks are crony banks, whose interactions with government officials are at the highest levels. Instead, I would like to see the biggest banks dealt with by career civil servants who are following clear, predictable rules and guidelines.

2. I am worried that it would be difficult to define size.

Once you decide that banks above a certain size should be broken up, you need a definition of size. Among the problems with doing this, the first one that comes to my mind is accounting for derivatives. If you ignore derivatives, then in very short order banks will mutate their loan portfolios into derivative books. But if you try to include derivatives, then the whole notional-value vs. market-value argument is going to kick in. Also, gross exposure vs. net exposure.

Instead, I am attracted to using the amount of insured deposits as a measure of size. It is a clean measure that cannot be gamed using accounting transactions. It is a measure of the potential impact of the bank on the FDIC. Charging a risk premium that is graduated by size would be a reasonable rule-of-law approach to discouraging large banks. Banks could avoid the risk premium by spinning off branches. The giants that were assembled by mergers could be dis-assembled by spin-offs.

3. I am worried about large shadow banks.

You can do a lot of banking without a lot of deposits. You can finance with commercial paper. You can finance with repo. You can write a ton of derivatives. I do not think that this is bad per se. But, just as with large commercial banks, large shadow banks could acquire the political power of large commercial banks.

I welcome suggestions for dealing with shadow banking. I am not thinking about how to reduce the risk of shadow banking. My view is that systemic risk is systemic risk, and you cannot get rid of it by breaking up banks.

What I am concerned with is the political power that might be concentrated in a large financial institution. The problem is that, once you get away from deposits, measuring “large” becomes quite tricky.

Remembering the Suits vs. Geeks Divide

I’ll provide a post-mortem on my appearance at this panel on whether or not to break up the banks after I’ve had more time to reflect.

Prior to the panel, I Googled one of the other panelists, and I found that he had hopes for the Volcker Rule, which would try to keep banks from doing proprietary trading. I am not a fan of the Volcker Rule. In fact, in recent years, I have not been a fan of Paul Volcker, because I think he has what I call a low geek quotient.

What I call Geek Finance has emerged over the past thirty years. It is used extensively in derivatives markets and in mortgage finance. It involves very complex probabilistic simulation models that are used to assign values to long-term, deep out-of-the-money options. Some thoughts.

1. Is Geek Finance a good thing? On the one hand, I would say that we need some rational way of valuing these sorts of options. On the other hand, it is important to be aware of the assumptions that go into such models and not to have too much faith in their precision. In the case of mortgage default risk, for example, it matters whether you assume that house prices across different locations are highly correlated or nearly independent. It matters whether you assume that a large nationwide house price decline is practically impossible or just somewhat unlikely.

2. Shortly after the financial crisis, Robert Merton, who shared the Nobel Prize for developing option price theory, gave a lecture in which he suggested that many top corporate executives did not really understand what was being done by the practitioners who worked for them. I termed this the Suits vs. Geeks divide. Many CEOs, and also many top officials in Washington, had low geek quotients.

3. Whether you love or hate geek finance, whether you want to tolerate it or would seek to get rid of it, you have to understand it. I think that Suits with low geek quotients are dangerous.

4. In 2003, Freddie Mac’s Board ousted a CEO with a high geek quotient and replaced him with a CEO with a low geek quotient. The main change that resulted from that was that Freddie Mac greatly increased its exposure to risky loans.

5. In 2006, Goldman Sachs lost a CEO with a low geek quotient. Subsequently, and this may have been purely coincidental, Goldman was relatively good at reducing its exposure in the mortgage market.

6. The original idea of TARP, which was to use government funds to buy toxic assets, had a low geek quotient. As a geek, I did not think it was workable. Of course, this idea was never implemented. Instead, the TARP money pile was used to inject capital into banks, to restructure GM and Chrysler, and ….well, whatever the President and Treasury Secretary felt like spending it on, it seems.

7. Back to the Volcker Rule. I don’t think it can fly. My prediction is that they will get it off the ground to save face, then it will wobble at low altitude for a bit, and within a few years you will find it resting on the ground. I imagine a sequence of conversations going something like this:

Volcker rulers: Banks, you cannot touch securities.

Banks: But you do want us to hedge our risks, don’t you?

Volcker rulers: Hmmm. OK, but you have to hold your hedging instruments until they mature.

Banks: But when interest rates change, you do want us to rebalance, don’t you?

Volcker rulers: Hmmm. OK, but…

etc., etc., until there is no rule left

Bank Regulation, Left and Right

One possibility I am considering for this panel discussion is to give a spiel on how free-market economists have been more hawkish than mainstream economists when it comes to bank regulation. I was inspired by listening to Robert Litan recount some of the history at a talk last night on Trillion Dollar Economists. You may recall that may take on that book is that it has great material, but I would have liked to see different organization and emphasis. I was reading it with my high school economics students in mind.

Anyway, here is the spiel.

Long ago, two groups of free-market economists decided to “shadow” the Fed. The Shadow Open Market Committee, which I believe started in the 1970s, issued pronouncements critical of monetary policy. The Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee (SFRC) , issued pronouncements critical of regulatory policy starting in 1986.

The SFRC had both a deregulation agenda and a regulation agenda. Their deregulation agenda was mainstream. Observers of banking regulation across the political spectrum recognized that deposit interest ceilings were no longer workable, that the Glass-Steagall separation of banking and securities was no longer workable, and that prohibitions against interstate banking and branch banking were no longer workable. People had known since the late 1960s that those regulatory boats were sinking, and the laws that Congress passed in the 1980s were just the long-awaited permission to abandon ship.

Take Glass-Steagall, for example. In 1968, the distinction between a loan and a security was obliterated by GNMA. A few years later, the distinction between a deposit and a security was obliterated by money market funds. Even though some people try to blame the financial crisis on the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the fact is that it collapsed 20 years before it was repealed and nobody has said that you could bring it back.

It was the SFRC’s hawkish regulatory agenda that was out of the mainstream. In particular, if you read through its old statements, you will see that the SFRC issued many warnings that bank capital regulations were inadequate. They pleaded for tighter regulation of Freddie Mac and Fannnie Mae, for higher capital requirements for banks, and for regulators to require banks to have a thick layer of subordinated debt which would put the onus for failure on the private sector rather than the taxpayers. These calls went unheeded. The SFRC economists were viewed as cranks, whose judgment on these matters was impaired by an irrational distrust of government agencies.

The Financial Supermarket Bubble and Banking History

Here is a chart, using the Google ngram tool, showing the frequency of the appearance of the term “financial supermarket” over time.

Note the spike in the mid-1980s. Given that these are books, which appear with a slight lag, I would say that the spike in the media was in the early 1980s.

At this panel, I don’t know whether I will have time to get into the history of bank concentration in the U.S., but here it is.

1. The market share of the largest banks follows a hockey stick pattern since 1950. It stayed very low until the late 1970s, and then around 1980 it started to grow exponentially. Growth of banks had been retarded by ceilings on deposit interest rates, branching restrictions, and Glass-Steagall restrictions. Banks had been trying to find loopholes and ways around these restrictions, and regulators had been trying to close the loopholes. Then, during the period 1979-1994, the regulators stopped trying to maintain the restrictions, and instead cooperated in ending them. That was when the hockey stick took off.

2. The regulators thought that this would bring more competition and consumer benefits. What the banks had in mind was something else. That is where the chart comes in. The bankers all thought that “cross-selling” and “one-stop shopping” would be killer strategies in consumer banking. In 1981, when Sears bought Dean Witter, many pundits thought that putting a brokerage firm inside a department store was going to be a total game-changer.

3. It turned out, though, that consumers did not flock to brokerage firms in department stores, or to any of the other one-stop-shopping experiments in financial services. The economies of scope just weren’t there.

4. Meanwhile, concentration in banking soared thanks to mergers and acquisitions. I’ve read that JP Morgan Chase is the product of 37 mergers and Bank of America is the product of 50. All of these took place within the past 35 years.

5. Just five years into this exponential growth process, Continental Illinois became insolvent, and that was when “too big to fail” began. So out of the 35 years where we were on the exponential part of the hockey stick, 30 of them have taken place under a “too big to fail” regime. In short, the concentration in banking got started during the “financial supermarket” bubble, and from then on was supported, if not propelled, by “too big to fail.” But the market share of the biggest banks is not something that grew naturally and organically out of superior business processes.

6. As another historical point, when the S&L crisis hit, the government set up the Resolution Trust Corporation. Each failing institution was divided into a “good bank” and a “bad bank,” with the good bank merged into another bank and the assets of the bad bank bought by the RTC. While this was a somewhat distasteful bailout, it was conducted under the rule of law. When TARP was enacted in 2008, Congress and the public were led to expect something similar to the RTC, with TARP used to buy “toxic assets” in a blind, neutral way. Instead they ended up calling the biggest banks into a room and “injecting” TARP funds into them. They also spent TARP funds on restructuring General Motors. It was the opposite of government acting in a predicable, law-governed way. It was Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner making ad hoc, personal decisions. I think that in the U.S., that is what bank concentration leads to–arbitrary use of power. That is why as a libertarian I do not think that allowing banks to become too big to fail is desirable.

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?