Another Idiosyncratic Comment

Kevin Erdmannn comments,

It seems like you’re making the very mistake Smith is warning about. I don’t think historians looking at the newspapers of 2005 would be struck with the high level of trust we had in financial intermediaries. We imposed our distrust on them politically. The GSEs had four CEOs during the 2000s. All four were driven out. Ironically the second pair are accused of understating loss reserves in 2007. The first pair were paying fines in 2007 because they had been accused, among other things, of overstating loss reserves to manage earnings. It was impossible to be a GSE executive in the 2000s without being accused of fraud. The idea that the housing boom happened because of too much trust in financial intermediaries is laughably implausible. The only reason it seems plausible is because communal distrust is so ubiquitous that you will always find support for the idea that we trust them too much.

I agree that political meddling with Freddie and Fannie was harmful, and that they were better run before their CEOs were forced out in scandals that were either minor or perhaps not scandals at all. However, once that happened, confidence in Freddie and Fannie to invest in quality mortgages was unwarranted. More important, the confidence in the private mortgage securities market, based on AAA-ratings for mortgage tranches, was quite unwarranted. That form of financial intermediation got out of control.

Common-law Banks

A commenter asks,

What do you think of the limited purpose banking proposal advanced by Laurence
Kotlikoff and others? Link to PDF:

I am skeptical of the ability of government to design banks. It is one thing to write legislation that defines the activities that constitute banking and to issue charters and regulations to these legislatively-defined banks. It is something else entirely to keep banking from breaking out somewhere else.

Consider the money-market fund as an example of what I mean by a common-law bank. Money market funds are not banks as legally defined. They were not eligible for deposit insurance. And yet, I would argue that the regulators hit the panic button in 2008 because of what happened to Reserve Primary money market fund as a result of the Lehman failure. So from a common-law perspective, money market funds had become banks by the time of the financial crisis.

What Was Glass-Steagall?

I don’t think that Robert Reich actually knows.

Some argue Glass-Steagall wouldn’t have prevented the 2008 crisis because the real culprits were non-banks like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. But that’s baloney. These non-banks got their funding from the big banks in the form of lines of credit, mortgages, and repurchase agreements. If the big banks hadn’t provided them the money, the non-banks wouldn’t have got into trouble. And why were the banks able to give them easy credit on bad collateral? Because Glass-Steagall was gone.

Pointer from Alex Tabarrok. Reich seems to think that Glass-Steagall was some sort of magical regulation that allowed regulators to keep banks from making unwise loans.

In fact, my understanding (like most commentators, I have not actually read the law itself) is that it was intended to separate commercial banking from investment banking. That is, one type of institution could take deposits and make loans, and another type of institution could underwrite securities. It started to fall apart in the 1970s, when money market funds were invented, allowing investment banks to issue debt that looked a lot like deposits. This caused banks to complain that financial activity was going to shift out of banks, which was going to hurt banks and make bank regulation irrelevant. The 1980s were spent with lobbyists and legislators trying to work out a fair way for commercial banks to compete in investment banking and vice-versa.

Ironically, what Reich is describing, with commercial banks lending to investment banks, shows that the two were still somewhat separate even ten years ago. I am willing to be corrected, but as far as I know, there was nothing in Glass-Steagall to stop a commercial bank from lending to an investment bank. Repurchase agreements and lines of credit were not forbidden. And when Reich says that non-banks received mortgages from commercial banks, he is completely unhinged.

I continue to believe that the Nirvana Fallacy it what drives a lot of analysis of the financial crisis, and of government intervention in general. That is, if you believe that Nirvana is achievable through government intervention, then if we have disappointing outcomes it must be because government is being held back from intervening the way it should.

The overall Atlantic piece to which Tyler refers includes comments from some left-leaning economists that are actually reasonable concerning the irrelevance of Glass-Steagall. But on the whole, the left is locked into its Nirvana fallacy of financial regulation.

Larry Ball Gets Pushback

From Stephen G. Cecchetti and Kermit L. Schoenholtz:

There is certainly room for debate, but we see the question of whether Lehman’s net worth was negligible or sharply negative as ancillary to the real issue. In important ways, lending to a bank of doubtful solvency is little different from lending to one that is certainly so. It will continue to put other institutions, and therefore the system, at risk. In this case, central bank lending to Lehman, an institution widely thought to be bankrupt, would have tarnished everyone else.

Pointer from Mark Thoma. My thoughts:

1. For those of us inclined to agree with this point, an implication is that Citigroup should have been allowed to fail. In fact, the whole bailout policy was misguided. Remember how some banks were forced to take bailout funds even if they did not want them? The idea was exactly to “tarnish everyone else” in order to avoid tarnishing the insolvent banks!

2. Regardless of the merits of letting Lehman fail, one of Ball’s main points still stands. That is, Bernanke and others have been lying by claiming that the decision was based on legal considerations. Ball did not find any evidence that the Fed made a judgment based on such considerations. In fact, it appears that it was not the Fed’s judgment at all, and instead Hank Paulson was calling the shots.

Paulson, Bernanke, and Lehman, continued

James B. Stewart writes,

One of the more intriguing questions Professor Ball tackles is why Mr. Paulson, rather than Mr. Bernanke, appears to have been the primary decision maker, when sole authority to lend to an institution in distress rests with the Fed. The answer, he suggests, is to be found more in psychology than data.

“By many accounts, Paulson was a highly assertive person who often told others what to do, and Bernanke was not,” Professor Ball writes. “Based on these traits, we would expect Paulson to take charge in a crisis.”

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

Stewart, who did his own reporting on the events, supports Professor Ball’s view. My reading of Paulson is that he is a high-testosterone guy. My reading of Bernanke is that he isn’t. I have always viewed Paulson as the great villain of the financial crisis response. I do not believe that any of the bailouts were justified, and I view him as the driver of the bailouts.

Suppose you take a Bagehot view, which is that in a crisis the central bank should lend freely, on good collateral, at a penalty rate. In the case of Bear Stearns, my recollection is that the Fed took on crummy collateral. Ball claims that Lehman had good collateral that the Fed could have lent against.

The Fed and Lehman

Laurence Ball writes,

The people in charge in 2008, from Ben Bernanke on down, have said repeatedly that they wanted to save Lehman, but could not do so because they lacked the legal authority. . .

I conclude that the explanation offered by Fed officials is incorrect, in two senses: a perceived lack of legal authority was not the reason for the Fed’s inaction; and the Fed did in fact have the authority to rescue Lehman. I base these broad conclusions on the following findings:

  • There is a substantial record of policymakers’ deliberations before the bankruptcy, and it contains no evidence that they examined the adequacy of Lehman’s collateral, or that legal barriers deterred them from assisting the firm.
  • Arguments about legal authority made by policymakers since the bankruptcy are unpersuasive. These arguments involve flawed interpretations of economic and legal concepts, and factual claims that do not appear to be accurate.
  • From a de novo examination of Lehman’s finances, it is clear that the firm had ample collateral for a loan to meet its liquidity needs. Such a loan could have prevented a disorderly bankruptcy, with negligible risk to the Fed.
  • More specifically, Lehman probably could have survived by borrowing from the Fed’s Primary Dealer Credit Facility on the terms offered to other investment banks.

In short: Bernanke lied, Lehman died.

My thoughts:

1. Whenever you look at government policy in financial markets, assume that the primary goal is to allocate credit to preferred borrowers, particularly toward governments themselves. This goes for regulatory policy and so-called monetary policy.

2. I am inclined to interpret the decisions made in 2008 as credit allocation decisions based on Hank Paulson’s personal whims. Note that Ball says

The record also shows that the decision to let Lehman fail was made primarily by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Fed officials deferred to Paulson even though they had sole authority to make the decision under the Federal Reserve Act.

The decisions helped some investment banks, including Goldman Sachs (the “AIG bailout” was mainly a funneling of short-term Treasury securities to Goldman and other investment banks). The decisions hurt Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Lehman. I think that is what Paulson wanted to see happen.

3. Whereas Ball seems to suggest that the Fed should have bailed out Lehman, I am more inclined to believe that the government should have allowed institutions to go through bankruptcy or to make concessions among themselves. By the latter, I mean that if nobody bails out AIG, then maybe Goldman and the others decide that “collateral calls” are only going to hurt themselves in the long run, so they allow AIG to keep some near-term liquidity, and it ultimately survives.

4. The consensus story from the establishment is that Bernanke and Paulson saved the country from another Great Depression. Maybe that story is right, but with my heterodox views I do not believe it. I think that many ordinary citizens do not believe it, either. The widespread suspicion of the establishment gave rise to such phenomena as the Tea Party and, arguably, Donald Trump. It would be easier to defend the establishment if you could say that Bernanke was telling the truth.

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.

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.