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?

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.