Posts tagged ‘banks’

Huh? Punishment for Taking Out A Loan You Couldn't Afford is... You Don't Have To Pay the Loan Back?

I really was not going to blog this week but this article exceeded by fury threshold, which is pretty hard to do nowadays.

The report, shared with MarketWatch, states that some of Puerto Rico’s debt may have been issued illegally, allowing the government to potentially declare the bonds invalid and courts to then decide that creditors’ claims are unenforceable. The scope of the audit report, issued by the island’s Public Credit Comprehensive Audit Commission, covers the two most recent full-faith-and-credit debt issues of the commonwealth: Puerto Rico’s 2014 $3.5 billion general-obligation bond offering and a $900 million issuance in 2015 of Tax Refund Anticipation Notes to a syndicate of banks led by J.P Morgan

So government officials break the law by taking out a loan they shouldn't have taken out, and the punishment is that they get to keep the money and not pay it back?  This is absolutely absurd.  That means that completely innocent third parties are essentially being fined $4.4 billion for the malfeasance of Puerto Rico's government officials.  Were the creditors truly innocent?  Well, the same report goes on to further criticize the government officials for not telling their creditors that what the government was asking for was illegal

Puerto Rico did not inform bondholders that its constitution forbids it from using debt to finance deficits. That, the commission’s report says suggests “substantive” noncompliance with the letter of the constitution

So in fact, incredibly, the creditors' very innocence is used as part of the proof that the debt was illegal, and thus that creditors should be expropriated.

I thought that this couldn't possibly be the law, except that the Supreme Court has already upheld the same outcome in other cases:

The U.S. Supreme Court has said in the Litchfield v. Ballou case and, more recently, in litigation related to Detroit’s bankruptcy that borrowing above a debt ceiling may allow the issuer to declare debt invalid and, therefore, unpayable. Detroit went to court to invalidate $1.45 billion in certificates of participation, debt issued by two shell companies called “service corporations.” The parties settled before the case went to trial, but, while refusing two initial proposed settlements, the judge stated that Detroit’s argument had “substantial merit” and that the suit would have had a “reasonable likelihood of success.”

This is they type of thing that occurs in banana republics.  No honest nation with a strong rule of law operates this way.  And what is to prevent other distressed government bodies with limited ethics (e.g. the State of Illinois) from carefully borrowing money in a way that is subtly illegal and then repudiate it a few years later?

Are You In Control of Electronic Payments from Your Checking Account?

If your business is like mine, a lot of folks to whom I owe money are insisting on the ability to automatically remove the money I owe them each month from our checking account (via an electronic process known as ACH, which is slower but much cheaper and easier to use than the old wire transfer method).  At first, any loan I took out insisted that the lender be able to automatically withdraw my payments.  Then my workers compensation company.  Then certain vendor accounts.  And of course my merchant processing companies are constantly shoving money in and out of my bank accounts.

In retrospect, I was far too sanguine about this situation.  What finally caused me to abandon my sense of security was a libel lawsuit filed by one of my vendors over a bad review I wrote of their product [I won't mention the name here but I am sure anyone can figure it out with a simple search].  Anyway, I realized that this company, who was suing me for untold bazillions of dollars, actually had the right to freely jack whatever they wanted out of my checking account.  What is worse, this same company is being sued by many companies for trying to take an arbitrarily high final payment out of their accounts at contract termination.  Eeek!  And this does not even include the possibility of outright fraud.  I have ACH tools where if I have your bank's name and your account number, I could pull out money from your account without your ever knowing about it until you see it missing.  I presume criminals could do the same thing.

Something had to be done, and it turned out that my bank, Bank of America, has something called ACH positive pay wherein nothing gets ACH'ed out of my accounts without my first approving the payments.   I check a screen each morning and in 60 seconds can do the approvals for the day.  They also have a very easy to use rules system where one can set up rules such that payments to certain vendors or for certain amounts don't need further daily approvals.

I presume most major banks have a similar product.  It cost me some money but I feel way safer and encourage you to look into it if you are in the same situation.

I Would Really Like to Get Elizabeth Warren and Other Progressives On the Record Right Now About Sub-Prime Auto

To me, the sub-prime auto loan market looks exactly like the home mortgage market in about 2006.

Back before 2009, Progressives were pushing like crazy to get banks to write mortgages to low-income borrowers with bad credit.  Banks that refused to do so would face the wrath of the banking regulators and lawsuits over redlining and ever other thing the Left could think of.   Seriously, if you had tried to stop sub-prime lending in 2006 the Progressives would have excoriated you as being racist, hating the poor, etc.  When the whole mess inevitably collapsed, the Progressives suddenly were there blaming this lending to low income people on the banks, accusing them of predatory lending practices.

OK, so now it is 2006 in the consumer credit market, and specifically in auto loans.  Banks are making crap loans to no-credit individuals on cars and getting them off the books by securitization.   So let's get Elizabeth Warren on the record right now.  Should banks stop lending to these no-credit low-income people?  My bet is that she would support this lending, doubly so because the Obama Administration feels on the hook still for their GM and Chrysler bailouts and would rather not see these companies tank (which they would if sub-prime credit suddenly dried up).  So, before she can piously accuse banks of predatory practices 3 years hence when it all collapses, I want to know what Elizabeth Warren thinks of all this right now.

Update:  Well, good news and bad news.  Good news is that Elizabeth Warren has criticized sub-prime auto.  Bad news is she appears to be totally on the wrong track with causes, talking not about the fact the loans should not be written at all but about the fact that she thinks dealers are reaping huge profits marking up the loans.  It would be interesting to see what the Obama Administration would think about a clamp-down on sub-prime auto.  Methinks they might freak out at that, knowing sub-prime loans are all that is keeping US automakers out of a new recession.

Revisiting the Financial Crisis

This video below is pretty good, though it addresses only one of the two major distortions created by government.  In addition to the incentives, even mandates, to issue risky mortgages discussed below, Basel II capital standards created really strong incentives for banks to prefer holding mortgage-backed securities.

Why Exxon Provides a Good Analogy for the Central Banker's Dilemma

This article on Exxon stock seemed to be an allegory for the current problem central bankers face:

Earlier this month, Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) reported Q4 2015 earningswhich, as expected, looked ugly considering the large decline in the price of oil over the last one and a half years. Exxon Mobil has long been one of the largest repurchasers of shares, spending a net of $89.74B on share buybacks during the 2010 through 2015 period. However, during the Q4 earnings release, management stated that share buybacks were being halted, presumably to preserve cash...

Contrast that with the strategy from 2008 when share buybacks were accelerated during the market fallout of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the beginnings of what's now known as the Great Recession. Management reduced shares outstanding by 7.5% in 2008 alone...

Oil prices have sunk to lows not seen in more than a decade. The share price hit a low in the $60s in 2015 which hadn't been seen since late 2010. If you're of the belief that oil prices will rebound, eventually, then now should be the time that Exxon Mobil is ramping up the share buybacks not eliminating them.

This is the problem the author is highlighting:  Exxon ran up tens of billions in debt to stimulate the stock price in good times.  Now that times are bad, at least in the oil patch, the tank is empty (so to speak) and they have had to cease buybacks at the very time they would make the most sense (the same amount of money spent at lower stock prices would have higher impact on EPS).  The tank is empty enough that they might have to cut the dividend, an action with such negative consequences for stock value that it would likely undo all the effects of years of stock purchases.

I am not trying to beat up on Exxon -- I actually admire them as a well-managed company and pretty much every large corporation has gotten caught up in this unproductive Fed-inspired game of borrowing at close to zero and buying back stock (to my mind the financial equivalent of the Keynesian digging of holes and filling them back in).  But I hope you can see the analogy with the position of governments and central bankers.   For the last 5 years, when economic times have been good (alright, maybe just OK) governments have been deficit spending like crazy and central banks have been expanding their balance sheets with programs like QE to keep the economy stimulated.  But just as with the situation at Exxon, when the bad times come, bankers are going to find themselves with far fewer options than they had in 2008.

PS:  This is what Exxon really should have been doing the last 5 years -- hoarding their cash and borrowing reserves to be able to buy assets like crazy on the cheap in the next downturn.  They have always been able to do this in past downturns.  I suspect it may not be possible this time.

Keynesians Have Shot Their Only Bolt -- How Will They Spend Their Way Through The Next Crisis?

Governments have spent so much, to so little effect, to try to stimulate the current economy, I wonder where they will find the resources to spend more the next time?  Because you can be sure that despite the fact that we are likely near the top of a weak cycle, no one is paying back what was spent in the last recession or proposing to reduce central bank balance sheets.

This is a couple of years old, but tells the story pretty well:

The financial crisis that began in late 2007, with its mix of liquidity crunch, decreased tax revenues, huge economic stimulus programs, recapitalizations of banks and so on and so forth, led to a dramatic increase in the public debt for most advanced economies. Public debt as a percent of GDP in OECD countries as a whole went from hovering around 70% throughout the 1990s to almost 110% in 2012. It is now projected to grow to 112.5% of GDP by 2014, possibly rising even higher in the following years. This trend is visible not only in countries with a history of debt problems - such as Japan, Italy, Belgium and Greece - but also in countries where it was relatively low before the crisis - such as the US, UK, France, Portugal and Ireland.

So over a third of the debt that has been built up in all of history by Western nations was added in just a few years from 2007-2012.  At the same time, the central banks of these countries were adding to their balance sheets like crazy, essentially printing money in addition to this deficit spending.  In the US, the Fed's balance sheet as a percent of GDP hovered around 6% until the second half of 2008.   That had tripled to over 18% in 2012 (source).  At the same time, European central bank assets grew from about 7% to over 16% of GDP.

James Taranto has a regular feature named after a reporter named Fox Butterfield.  The feature takes statements such as "Despite Mary getting a PhD in Peruvian gender studies from Harvard, she has struggled to find a job" and argues that the "despite" should be replaced by "because".

This is certainly true of the statement that "despite record stimulus and Fed balance sheet expansion, the economy has remained sluggish".  That "despite" should be "because of".  The government continues to distort the allocation of capital and wonders why investment is sluggish and tends towards bubbles in certain assets.  Japan has stimulated for 25 years to absurd levels of debt and has gotten 25 years of sluggishness in return.

All this reminds me of a story in one of my favorite business books, "Barbarians at the Gate."  Back in the day, tobacco companies had a practice of jamming inventory into the channel just ahead of the semi-annual price increase.   They called this "loading."  The channel liked it because they got cheap product to sell at the new higher prices.  The tobacco companies liked it because it boosted quarterly revenues at the end of the quarter.  But that boost only happens once.  To show growth the next quarter, one must load even more.  Over time, they were jamming huge amounts of inventory into the channel.  I have never been a smoker, but apparently freshness is an issue with cigarettes and they can go stale.  Eventually, the company was loading so much their sales started to drop because everyone was buying stale cigarettes.

In find this a powerful metaphor for government interventions in the economy today.

Postscript:  I will give another example.  In Arizona, we are on a July-June fiscal year.  Years ago, some government yahoo had the bright idea to close a budget hole by passing a law that all businesses had to pre-pay their estimate of sales taxes due in July a month earlier in June.  For that one glorious year, politicians had 13 months of revenue to spend rather than 12.

But to set things aright the next year, they would have to live with just 11 months of revenue.  No way they were going to do that!  So they did the pull-forward thing again to get a full 12 months.  And they have done it every year since.  It has become an institution.  All this costs a ton of money to process, as the state must essentially process a 13th return each year, presumably paying overtime and temp costs to do it.  All for the benefit of one year where they got the use of one month of revenue early, we have been stuck with higher state operating costs forever.

If We Are Using Every Stimulus Tool in the Book at the Top of the Cycle, What Are We Going To Do In The Next Downturn?

From the Telegraph

The world will be unable to fight the next global financial crash as central banks have used up their ammunition trying to tackle the last crises, the Bank for International Settlements has warned.

The so-called central bank of central banks launched a scatching critique of global monetary policy in its annual report. The BIS claimed that central banks have backed themselves into a corner after repeatedly cutting interest rates to shore up their economies.

These low interest rates have in turn fuelled economic booms, encouraging excessive risk taking. Booms have then turned to busts, which policymakers have responded to with even lower rates....

“Rather than just reflecting the current weakness, [lower rates] may in part have contributed to it by fuelling costly financial booms and busts and delaying adjustment. The result is too much debt, too little growth and too low interest rates.

"In short, low rates beget lower rates."

The BIS warned that interest rates have now been so low for so long that central banks are unequipped to fight the next crises.

I Have Been Wondering This Same Thing

In an article on an incipient bank run in Greece, Zero Hedge wonders, "What is perhaps more shocking is that anyone still had money in Greek banks at all..."  I agree.  With talk for weeks of capital controls and the example of raids on depositor funds (even supposedly insured deposits) in Cyprus, my money would have been long gone.  Even in the US in 2008-2010, I took our corporate funds out of the main Bank of America account and spread them all over.  It was a pain in the butt to manage but even facing much smaller risks than in Greece, I thought it was worth it.

Obama Thinks The Free Market Killed Neighborhood Diversity. In Fact, It Was the New Deal

Here is a very telling paragraph from the HUD's new proposed fair housing rule

Despite the existing obligation to AFFH, in too many communities, the Fair Housing Act has not had the impact it intended — housing choices continue to be constrained through housing discrimination, the operation of housing markets, investment choices by holders of capital, the history and geography of regions, and patterns of development and the built environment.

So, they list "discrimination" as a problem, but then look at the other four items they list as problems.  These can all be summarized as "the normal operation of free markets, property rights, and individual choice."

Oddly missing from this list of causes is what many historians consider to be the #1 cause of lack of neighborhood diversity and ghetto-ization:  The Federal Government and the New Deal.  New Deal rules essentially forced the concentration of blacks into just a few neighborhoods.   The biggest unmixing of races in New York can be seen between 1930 and 1950.   Blacks in Brooklyn went from fairly evenly mixed to concentrated in Bed-Stuy, all directly attributable to New Deal rules.   Basically, ever since then, we have just been living with the consequences.  Via NPR in an interview with Richard Rothstein

On how the New Deal's Public Works Administration led to the creation of segregated ghettos

Its policy was that public housing could be used only to house people of the same race as the neighborhood in which it was located, but, in fact, most of the public housing that was built in the early years was built in integrated neighborhoods, which they razed and then built segregated public housing in those neighborhoods. So public housing created racial segregation where none existed before. That was one of the chief policies.

On the Federal Housing Administration's overtly racist policies in the 1930s, '40s and '50s

The second policy, which was probably even more effective in segregating metropolitan areas, was the Federal Housing Administration, which financed mass production builders of subdivisions starting in the '30s and then going on to the '40s and '50s in which those mass production builders, places like Levittown [New York] for example, and Nassau County in New York and in every metropolitan area in the country, the Federal Housing Administration gave builders like Levitt concessionary loans through banks because they guaranteed loans at lower interest rates for banks that the developers could use to build these subdivisions on the condition that no homes in those subdivisions be sold to African-Americans.

Postscript:  Here is how the Ken Burns New York documentary series explained it, though the source page is no longer available:

Government policies began in the 1930s with the New Deal's Federal Mortgage and Loans Program. The government, along with banks and insurance programs, undertook a policy to lower the value of urban housing in order to create a market for the single-family residences they built outside the city.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation, a federal government initiative established during the early years of the New Deal went into Brooklyn and mapped the population of all 66 neighborhoods in the Borough, block by block, noting on their maps the location of the residence of every black, Latino, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Polish family they could find. Then they assigned ratings to each neighborhood based on its ethnic makeup. They distributed the demographic maps to banks and held the banks to a certain standard when loaning money for homes and rental. If the ratings went down, the value of housing property went down.

From the perspective of a white city dweller, nothing that you had done personally had altered the value of your home, and your neighborhood had not changed either. The decline in your property's value came simply because, unless the people who wanted to move to your neighborhood were black, the banks would no longer lend people the money needed to move there. And, because of this government initiative, the more black people moved into your neighborhood, the more the value of your property fell.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation finished their work in the 1940s. In the 1930s when it started, black Brooklynites were the least physically segregated group in the borough. By 1950 they were the most segregated group; all were concentrated in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, which became the largest black ghetto in the United States. After the Home Owners Loan Corp began working with local banks in Brooklyn, it worked with them in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.

The state also got involved in redlining. (Initially, redlining literally meant the physical process of drawing on maps red lines through neighborhoods that were to be refused loans and insurance policies based on income or race. Redlining has come to mean, more generally, refusing to serve a particular neighborhood because of income or race.) State officials created their own map of Brooklyn. They too mapped out the city block by block. But this time they looked for only black and Latino individuals.

This site has some redlining maps, including one of Brooklyn, prepared by the Feds.  Remember, this is not some evil Conservative business CABAL, these are Roosevelt Democrats making these maps.  This site adds:

While the HOLC was a fairly short-lived New Deal agency, the influence of its security maps lived on in the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and the GI Bill dispensing Veteran’s Administration (VA). Both of these government organizations, which set the standard that private lenders followed, refused to back bank mortgages that did not adhere to HOLC’s security maps. On the one hand FHA and VA backed loans were an enormous boon to those who qualified for them. Millions of Americans received mortgages that they otherwise would not have qualified for. But FHA-backed mortgages were not available to all. Racial minorities could not get loans for property improvements in their own neighborhoods—seen as credit risks—and were denied mortgages to purchase property in other areas for fear that their presence would extend the red line into a new community. Levittown, the poster-child of the new suburban America, only allowed whites to purchase homes. Thus HOLC policies and private developers increased home ownership and stability for white Americans while simultaneously creating and enforcing racial segregation.

The exclusionary structures of the postwar economy pushed African Americans and other minorities to protest. Over time the federal government attempted to rectify the racial segregation created, or at least facilitated, in part by its own policies. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer struck down explicitly racial neighborhood housing covenants, making it illegal to explicitly consider race when selling a house. It would be years, however, until housing acts passed in the 1960s could provide some federal muscle to complement grassroots attempts to ensure equal access.


What I Think is Going on With Greece

I want to offer a perspective on the Greek financial mess.

I am not confused about the Greek desire to get out from under their debt load - past governments have built up intolerable levels of debt which is costs a huge portion of Greek GDP to pay off.

At one time in my life I would have been confused by folks, often on the Left, who argue that the answer to Greek debt problems is ... deficit spending.  This might have seen inexplicable to me earlier in life as a wondered how the same behavior of fiscal irresponsibility that led them into debt would get them out.  But I have learned that there is no limit to the optimism Keynesians hold for the effects of government spending.  The last trillion of debt may have not done anything measurable but the next trillion is always going to be the one that turns us around.  Sort of like Cubs fans.

No, what confuses me today is the fact that other institutions and countries are still willing to buy Greek debt and even entertain some sort of debt swap where they end up with even more Greek debt.  I have heard it said by many experts that it is unrealistic to expect that lenders will get even a fraction of their principle back from these loans.  So why loan more?

The key for me in understanding this is the book "Engineering the Financial Crisis".  In that book, the authors presented the theory that the Basel capital accords, which set capital requirements for banks, had a lot to do with the last financial crisis.  Specifically, the rules allowed bank investments in two types of securities to be counted at 100% towards their capital levels.  Any other type of investment was severely discounted, so there were enormous incentives in the regulations to focus bank investments on these two types of securities.  What were they?  Sovereign debt and mortgages (and mortgage-backed securities).

In the authors' view, which I find persuasive, a lot of the last financial crisis was caused by these rules creating a huge artificial demand by banks for mortgage securities.  This created a sort of monoculture that was susceptible to small contagions spreading rapidly.  As this demand for mortgage backed securities inevitably drove down their returns, it also created a demand for higher-yielding, riskier mortgage investments that might still "count" as mortgage securities under the capital requirements.

Anyway, for the Greek crisis, we need to look at the other piece of these capital requirements that give 100% capital credit:  sovereign debt.  Now, I may have this wrong, but for Euro denominated credit, it all counts as 100% whether its German or Greek, which is a bit like saying a mortgage to Bill Gates and a mortgage to Clark Griswold's country cousins count the same, but those are the rules.

So here is the problem as I understand it:  Greek debt, because of its risk, paid higher returns than other sovereign debt but still counted the same against capital requirements.   So European banks loaded up on it.  Now that the debt is clearly bad, I am sure they would love to get paid for it.  But what they want even more is to continue to get credit for it on their balance sheets against capital requirements.  So what the banks need more than getting paid is for the debt to still exist and to (nominally) be current so that they can still count it on their balance sheets.  Otherwise, if the debt gets written off, that means banks need to run out and raise hundreds of billions in new capital to replace it.

Yes, I know this seems insane.  If everyone knows that the debt is virtually worthless, isn't it a sham to keep taking expensive steps (like issuing even more new debt) just to make sure the debt still appears on the books at 100%?  Yes, of course it is.  This is a problem with just about every system ever tried on bank capital requirements.  Such requirements make sense (even to this libertarian) in a world of deposit insurance and too big to fail, but they can and do create expensive unintended consequences.

Quantitative Easing and the Left's Relationship to the Rich and to Large Corporations

The Left spends a lot of time railing against the rich and large corporations.  But in practice, they seem hell-bent on lining the pockets of exactly these groups.  Today the ECB announces a one trillion plus euro government buyback of public and private securities.

Between Japan, the US, and now Europe, the world's central banks are printing money like crazy to inflate securities values around the world -- debt securities directly by buying them but indirectly a lot of the money spills over into stocks as well.  This has been a huge windfall for people whose income mostly comes from capital gains (i.e. rich people) and institutions that have access to bond and equity markets (i.e. large corporations).  You can see the effects in the skyrocketing income inequality numbers over the last 6 years.  On the other end, as a small business person, you sure can't see any difference in my access or cost of capital.  It is still just as impossible to get a cash flow loan as it always was.

Explaining the Financial Crisis: Government Creation of a Financial Investment Mono-culture

Arnold Kling on the recent financial crisis:

1. The facts are that one can just as easily blame the financial crash on an attempted tightening of regulation. That is, in the process of trying to rein in bank risk-taking by adopting risk-based capital regulations, regulators gave preference to highly-rated mortgage-backed securities, which in turn led to the manufacturing of such securities out of sub-prime loans.

2. The global imbalances that many of us thought were a bigger risk factor than the housing bubble did not in fact blow up the way that we thought that they would. The housing bubble blew up instead.

What he is referring to is a redefinition by governments in the Basel accords of how capital levels at banks should be calculated when determining capital sufficiency.  I will oversimplify here, but basically it categorized some assets as "safe" and some as "risky".  Those that were risky had their value cut in half for purposes of capital calculations, while those that were "safe" had their value counted at 100%.  So if a bank invested a million dollars in safe assets, that would count as a million dollar towards its capital requirements, but would count only $500,000 towards those requirements if it were invested in risky assets.  As a result, a bank that needed a billion dollars in capital would need a billion of safe assets or two billion of risky assets.

Well, this obviously created a strong incentive for banks to invest in assets deemed by the government as "safe".  Which of course was the whole point -- if we are going to have taxpayer-backed deposit insurance and bank bailouts, the prices of that is getting into banks' shorts about the risks they are taking with their investments.  This is the attempted tightening of regulation to which Kling refers.  Regulators were trying for tougher, not weaker standards.

But any libertarian could tell you the problem that is coming here -- the regulatory effort was substituting the risk judgement of thousands or millions of people (individual bank and financial investors) for the risk judgement of a few regulators.  There is no guarantee, in fact no reason to believe, the judgement of these regulators is any better than the judgement of the banks.  Their incentives might be different, but there is also not any guarantee the regulators' incentives are better (the notion they are driven by the "public good" is a cozy myth that never actually occurs in reality).

Anyway, what assets did the regulators choose as "safe"?  Again, we will simplify, but basically sovereign debt and mortgages (including the least risky tranches of mortgage-backed debt).  So you are a bank president in this new regime.  You only have enough capital to meet government requirements if you get 100% credit for your investments, so it must be invested in "safe" assets.  What do you tell your investment staff?  You tell them to go invest the money in the "safe" asset that has the highest return.

And for most banks, this was mortgage-backed securities.  So, using the word Brad DeLong applied to deregulation, there was an "orgy" of buying of mortgage-backed securities.  There was simply enormous demand.  You hear stories about fraud and people cooking up all kinds of crazy mortgage products and trying to shove as many people as possible into mortgages, and here is one reason -- banks needed these things.  For the average investor, most of us stayed out.   In the 1980's, mortgage-backed securities were a pretty good investment for individuals looking for a bit more yield, but these changing regulations meant that banks needed these things, so the prices got bid up (and thus yields bid down) until they only made sense for the financial institutions that had to have them.

It was like suddenly passing a law saying that the only food people on government assistance could buy with their food stamps was oranges and orange derivatives (e.g. orange juice).  Grocery stores would instantly be out of oranges and orange juice.  People around the world would be scrambling to find ways to get more oranges to market.  Fortunes would be made by clever people who could find more oranges.  Fraud would likely occur as people watered down their orange derivatives or slipped in some Tang.  Those of us not on government assistance would stay away from oranges and eat other things, since oranges were now incredibly expensive and would only be bought at their current prices by folks forced to do so.  Eventually, things would settle down as everyone who could do so started to grow oranges. And all would be fine again, that is until there was a bad freeze and the orange crop failed.

Government regulation -- completely well-intentioned -- had created a mono-culture.  The diversity of investment choices that might be present when every bank was making its own asset risk decisions was replaced by a regime where just a few regulators picked and chose the assets.  And like any biological mono-culture, the ecosystem might be stronger for a while if those choices were good ones, but it made the whole system vulnerable to anything that might undermine mortgages.  When the housing market got sick (and as Kling says government regulation had some blame there as well), the system was suddenly incredibly vulnerable because it was over-invested in this one type of asset.  The US banking industry was a mono-culture through which a new disease ravaged the population.

Postscript:  So with this experience in hand, banks moved out of mortage-backed securities and into the last "safe" asset, sovereign debt.  And again, bank presidents told their folks to get the best possible yield in "safe" assets.  So banks loaded up on sovereign debt, in particular increasing the demand for higher-yield debt from places like, say, Greece.  Which helps to explain why the market still keeps buying up PIIGS debt when any rational person would consider these countries close to default.  So these countries continue their deficit spending without any market check, because financial institutions keep buying this stuff because it is all they can buy.  Which is where we are today, with a new monoculture of government debt, which government officials swear is the last "safe" asset.  Stay tuned....

Postscript #2:  Every failure and crisis does not have to be due to fraud and/or gross negligence.  Certainly we had fraud and gross negligence, both by private and public parties.  But I am reminded of a quote which I use all the time but to this day I still do not know if it is real.  In the great mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", the actor playing astronaut Frank Borman says to a Congressional investigation, vis a vis the fatal Apollo 1 fire, that it was "a failure of imagination."  Engineers hadn't even considered the possibility of this kind of failure on the ground.

In the same way, for all the regulatory and private foibles associated with the 2008/9 financial crisis, there was also a failure of imagination.  There were people who thought housing was a bubble.  There were people who thought financial institutions were taking too much risk.  There were people who thought mortgage lending standards were too lax.  But with few exceptions, nobody from progressive Marxists to libertarian anarcho-capitalists, from regulators to bank risk managers, really believed there was substantial risk in the AAA tranches of mortgage securities.  Hopefully we know better now but I doubt it.

Update#1:  The LA Times attributes "failure of imagination" as a real quote from Borman.  Good, I love that quote.  When I was an engineer investigating actual failures of various sorts (in an oil refinery), the vast majority were human errors in procedure or the result of doing things unsafely that we really knew in advance to be unsafe.  But the biggest fire we had when I was there was truly a failure of imagination.  I won't go into it, but it resulted from a metallurgical failure that in turn resulted form a set of conditions that we never dreamed could have existed.

By the way, this is really off topic, but the current state of tort law has really killed quality safety discussion in companies of just this sort of thing.  Every company should be asking itself all the time, "is this unsafe?"  or "under what conditions might this be unsafe" or "what might happen if..."   Unfortunately, honest discussions of possible safety issues often end up as plaintiff's evidence in trials.  The attorney will say "the company KNEW it was unsafe and didn't do anything about it", often distorting what are honest and healthy internal discussions on safety that we should want occurring into evidence of evil malfeasance.  So companies now show employees videos like one I remember called, I kid you not, "don't write it down."

Apparently, Corporations Are Not Investing Because They Are Not "Socially Engaged"

Paul Roberts has an editorial in the LA Times that sortof, kindof mirrors my post the other day that observed that corporate stock buybacks (and investments to reduce tax rates) were likely signs of a bad investment climate.  Until he starts talking about solutions

Roberts begins in a similar manner

Here's a depressing statistic: Last year, U.S. companies spent a whopping $598 billion — not to develop new technologies, open new markets or to hire new workers but to buy up their own shares. By removing shares from circulation, companies made remaining shares pricier, thus creating the impression of a healthier business without the risks of actual business activity.

Share buybacks aren't illegal, and, to be fair, they make sense when companies truly don't have something better to reinvest their profits in. But U.S. companies do have something better: They could be reinvesting in the U.S. economy in ways that spur growth and generate jobs. The fact that they're not explains a lot about the weakness of the job market and the sliding prospects of the American middle class.

I suppose I would dispute him in his implication that there is something unseemly about buybacks.  They are actually a great mechanism for economic efficiency.  If companies do not have good investment prospects, we WANT them returning the cash to their shareholders, rather than doing things like the boneheaded diversification of the 1960's and 1970's (that made investment bankers so rich unwinding in the 1980's).  That way, individuals can redeploy capital in more promising places.  The lack of investment opportunities and return of capital to shareholders is a bad sign for investment prospects of large companies, but it is not at all a bad sign for the ethics of corporate management.   I would argue this is the most ethical possible thing for corporations to do if they honestly do not feel they have a productive use for their cash.

The bigger story here is what might be called the Great Narrowing of the Corporate Mind: the growing willingness by business to pursue an agenda separate from, and even entirely at odds with, the broader goals of society. We saw this before the 2008 crash, when top U.S. banks used dodgy financial tools to score quick profits while shoving the risk onto taxpayers. We're seeing it again as U.S. companies reincorporate overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes. This narrow mind-set is also evident in the way companies slash spending, not just on staffing but also on socially essential activities, such as long-term research or maintenance, to hit earnings targets and to keep share prices up....

It wasn't always like this. From the 1920s to the early 1970s, American business was far more in step with the larger social enterprise. Corporations were just as hungry for profits, but more of those profits were reinvested in new plants, new technologies and new, better-trained workers — "assets" whose returns benefited not only corporations but the broader society.

Yes, much of that corporate oblige was coerced: After the excesses of the Roaring '20s, regulators kept a rein on business, even as powerful unions exploited tight labor markets to win concessions. But companies also saw that investing in workers, communities and other stakeholders was key to sustainable profits. That such enlightened corporate self-interest corresponds with the long postwar period of broadly based prosperity is hardly a coincidence....

Without a more socially engaged corporate culture, the U.S. economy will continue to lose the capacity to generate long-term prosperity, compete globally or solve complicated economic challenges, such as climate change. We need to restore a broader sense of the corporation as a social citizen — no less focused on profit but far more cognizant of the fact that, in an interconnected economic world, there is no such thing as narrow self-interest.

There is so much crap here it is hard to know where to start.  Since I work for a living rather than write editorials, I will just pound out some quick thoughts

  • As is so typical with Leftist nostalgia for the 1950's, his view is entirely focused on large corporations.  But the innovation model has changed in a lot of industries.  Small companies and entrepreneurs are doing innovation, then get bought by large corporations with access to markets and capital needed to expanded (the drug industry increasingly works this way).  Corporate buybacks return capital to the hands of individuals and potential entrepreneurs and funding angels.
  • But the Left is working hard to kill innovation and entrepreneurship and solidify the position of large corporations.  Large corporations increasingly have the scale to manage regulatory compliance that chokes smaller companies.  And for areas that Mr. Roberts mentions, like climate and green energy, the government manages that whole sector as a crony enterprise, giving capital to political donors and people who can afford lobbyists and ignoring everyone else.  "Socially engaged" investing is nearly always managed like this, as cronyism where the politician you held a fundraiser for is more important than your technology or business plan.  *cough* Solyndra *cough*
  • One enormous reason that companies are buying back their own stock is the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing program, which I would bet anything Mr. Roberts fully supports.  This program concentrates capital in the hands of a few large banks and corporations, and encourages low-risk financial investments of capital over operational investments
  • All those "Social engagement" folks on the Left seem to spend more time stopping investment rather than encouraging it.  They fight tooth and nail the single most productive investment area in the US right now (fracking), they fight new construction in many places (e.g. most all places in California), they fight for workers in entrenched competitors against new business models like Lyft and Uber, they fight every urban Wal-Mart that attempts to get built.  I would argue one large reason for the lack of operational investment is that the Left blocks and/or makes more expensive the investments corporations want to make, offering for alternatives only crap like green energy which doesn't work as an investment unless it is subsidized and you can't count on the subsidies unless you held an Obama fundraiser lately.
  • If corporations make bad investments and tick off their workers and do all the things he suggests, they get run out of business.  And incredibly, he even acknowledges this:  "And here is the paradox. Companies are so obsessed with short-term performance that they are undermining their long-term self-interest. Employees have been demoralized by constant cutbacks. Investment in equipment upgrades, worker training and research — all essential to long-term profitability and competitiveness — is falling."  So fine, the problem corrects itself over time.  
  • He even acknowledges that corporations that are following his preferred investment strategy exist and are prospering -- he points to Google.   Google is a great example of exactly what he is missing. Search engines and Internet functionality that Google thrives on were not developed in corporate R&D departments.  I don't get how he can write so fondly about Google and simultaneously write that he wishes, say, US Steel, were investing more in R&D.  I would think having dinosaur corporations eschew trying to invest in these new areas, and having them return the money to their shareholders, and then having those individuals invest the money in startups like Google would be a good thing.  But like many Leftists he just can't get around the 1950's model.  At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is too chaotic -- the Left wants large corporations that it can easily see and control.

When Regulation Makes Things Worse -- Banking Edition

One of the factors in the financial crisis of 2007-2009 that is mentioned too infrequently is the role of banking capital sufficiency standards and exactly how they were written.   Folks have said that capital requirements were somehow deregulated or reduced.  But in fact the intention had been to tighten them with the Basil II standards and US equivalents.  The problem was not some notional deregulation, but in exactly how the regulation was written.

In effect, capital sufficiency standards declared that mortgage-backed securities and government bonds were "risk-free" in the sense that they were counted 100% of their book value in assessing capital sufficiency.  Most other sorts of financial instruments and assets had to be discounted in making these calculations.  This created a land rush by banks for mortgage-backed securities, since they tended to have better returns than government bonds and still counted as 100% safe.

Without the regulation, one might imagine  banks to have a risk-reward tradeoff in a portfolio of more and less risky assets.  But the capital standards created a new decision rule:  find the highest returning assets that could still count for 100%.  They also helped create what in biology we might call a mono-culture.  One might expect banks to have varied investment choices and favorites, such that a problem in one class of asset would affect some but not all banks.  Regulations helped create a mono-culture where all banks had essentially the same portfolio stuffed with the same one or two types of assets.  When just one class of asset sank, the whole industry went into the tank,

Well, we found out that mortgage-backed securities were not in fact risk-free, and many banks and other financial institutions found they had a huge hole blown in their capital.  So, not surprisingly, banks then rushed into government bonds as the last "risk-free" investment that counted 100% towards their capital sufficiency.  But again the standard was flawed, since every government bond, whether from Crete or the US, were considered risk-free.  So banks rushed into bonds of some of the more marginal countries, again since these paid a higher return than the bigger country bonds.  And yet again we got a disaster, as Greek bonds imploded and the value of many other countries' bonds (Spain, Portugal, Italy) were questioned.

So now banking regulators may finally be coming to the conclusion that a) there is no such thing as a risk free asset and b) it is impossible to give a blanket risk grade to an entire class of assets.  Regulators are pushing to discount at least some government securities in capital calculations.

This will be a most interesting discussion, and I doubt that these rules will ever pass.  Why?  Because the governments involved have a conflict of interest here.  No government is going to quietly accept a designation that its bonds are risky while its neighbor's are healthy.  In addition, many governments (Spain is a good example) absolutely rely on their country's banks as the main buyer of their bonds.  Without Spanish bank buying, the Spanish government would be in a world of hurt placing its debt.  There is no way it can countenance rules that might in any way shift bank asset purchases away from its government bonds.

Another Reason for Declining Business Formation

I often criticize others for attributing 100% of any bad trend to their personal pet peeve.  To some extent I am guilty of that in my last post, where I blamed declining business formation on increasingly complex regulation and licensing.  I think there are good reasons for doing so -- I have spent the last 6 months passing up on business growth opportunities because I was too consumed with catching up on regulatory compliance minutia, particularly in California.  And I have watched as many of my smaller competitors who have fewer resources to dedicate to such compliance issues have left the business, telling me they could no longer keep up with all the requirements.

But there is seldom just one single cause for any trend in a complex, chaotic system (e.g. climate, but economics as well).  One other reason business formation may have dropped is the crash of the housing market and specifically in the equity many have in their homes.

Home equity has historically been an important source of capital for small business formation.  My first large investment in my company was funded with a loan that was secured by the equity in my home.  What outsiders may not realize about small business banking nowadays is that it is nothing like how banking is taught in high school civics.  In that model, the small business person goes to her local banker and presents a business plan, which the banker may fund if they think it is a good risk.

In the real world, trying to get such an unsecured loan from a bank as a small business will at best result in laughter.  My company is no longer what many would call "small" -- we will do millions in revenue this year.  But there is no way in the world that my banker of over 10 years will lend to my business unsecured -- they will demand some asset they can put a lien on.  So we can get financing of equipment purchases (as a capital lease on the equipment) and on factored receivables and inventory.  But without any of that stuff, a new business that just needs cash for startup cash flow is out of luck -- unless the owner has a personal asset, typically a house, on which the banker can place a lien.

So, without home equity, one of the two top sources of capital for small business formation disappears (the other top source is loans from friends and family, which one might also expect to dry up in a tough economy).

Postscript:  Banks will make cash flow loans if guaranteed by the SBA.  This is another whole can of worms, which I will not discuss today.  SBA loans are expensive and difficult to get, and the SBA has a tendency to turn the money spigot on and off at random times.  I have often wondered if the SBA helped to kill cash flow lending by banks.  First, why make risky small unsecured loans when you can get a government guarantee?  And second, with more formulaic lending criteria, SBA lending eliminated the need for loan officers who were good at evaluating business risks.  I can say from personal experience that the folks who can intelligently discuss a business plan and its risks are all gone from banks now (at least in the small business market).

Window Dressing

Fed's reverse repo activity in Treasuries with major banks.  When I was on the corporate staff of a large conglomerate, we eventually busted one of our divisions for pushing inventory out the door on the last day of the quarter, only to have most of it returned a few days later, all as a way to boost quarterly revenues.  This appears to be the bankers' equivalent of such channel-stuffing.

Reverse Repo


Are the Feds really fooled by artificial quarter-end liquidity that is provided by the Feds themselves?  The stress-tests remind me of the story about FDR declaring a bank holiday, and claiming to have allowed only the strong banks to reopen the next day.  How did they know which were strong and weak?  They didn't, really.  The whole exercise was a PR ploy to boost consumer confidence in the banking industry.

Update:  Yep, there it all goes back where it came from

Reverse Repo April 1 2014


I am registered at a LOT of sites - blogs, hosting accounts, stores, message boards, etc.  A few years ago I started using the Lastpass Chrome add-in to track and remember all these passwords.

One problem though: like most people I was using the same few passwords over and over.  I had fixed, mostly, the most egregious mistakes, such as using the same password for low-trust sites like bulletin boards as for critical sites like banks.  But Lastpass showed me was that I still had a lot of password duplication.

The Adobe security breach finally got me off my butt.  My user name and password were among those that Adobe lost (which was particularly irritating because Adobe was one of those software companies that demanded a registration even when one should not have been necessary).  There was nothing at Adobe of mine they could screw up -- the registration was obviously to try to sell me more stuff but I never bought anything.  But there were possibly other sites using the same password they could screw up.

So I began a mission to change my passwords to 12-digit randomly generated strings of letters and numbers.  Having Fastpass helped a ton, as I would never have remembered all the sites with which I had registrations.  There were hundreds.

This was a real slog, a task so boring it was equaled only by the month when I ripped all my CD's to my hard drive and surpassed only by the 3 months when I ripped all my DVD's to hard drives.  The problem was that every web site was essentially a little portal-like adventure puzzle, trying to figure out where the hell the options for password change could be found.  I challenge those of you who have registered at to sign a survey to find the place to change your password.  At JetBlue, there is no such option in the user accounts -- you have to log off and click "forgot my password" at the logon screen and then click on the option to reset the password, but the reset email never shows up.  At two or three sites I had to email the site web manager to send me a link to the password change page.

Anyway, it's finally done now.  There are a couple of sites I use from my iPad for which I had to create unique memorable passwords because iOS does not have very good support mechanisms for such services as Lastpass, though as Chrome for iOS gets better, I expect that to make the problem easier to manage.  I had forgotten how many of these passwords (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) were plugged into things like my Roku.  It was irritating with the crappy remote to enter these random strings of characters as new passwords.

Of course security of the Lastpass account becomes a problem.  I guess I have to trust them.  My password for them is unique and never has been used anywhere else and contains no real English words.  I use 2-step verification at all times to log into it, so hopefully I am moderately well-protected.

Single-Minded Obsession on Home Ownership

This article from the LA Times confused me greatly:

Advocates for borrowers took such comments to mean that the banks would prioritize debt write-downs on first mortgages, which banks resisted before the [$25 billion] settlement. Now, with nearly all the promised relief handed out, it is clear that the banks had other ideas.

The vast majority of the aid to borrowers, it turns out, came in the form of short sales and forgiveness of second mortgages. Just 20% of the aid doled out under the national settlement went to forgiveness of first-mortgage principal, the kind of help most likely to keep troubled borrowers in their homes. In terms of borrowers helped, just 15% of the total received first-mortgage forgiveness.

The five banks collectively delivered twice as much aid using short sales, in which owners sell their homes for less than the amount owed and move out, with the shortfall forgiven.

In all, the lenders sought credit for nearly $21 billion related to short sales and $15 billion related to second mortgages. That compares with $10.4 billion in write-downs on first mortgages.

Critics on the Left (example) are calling this a failure of the program, that most of the relief went to short-sales and 2nd mortgage forgiveness rather than first mortgage forgiveness.  The original article has this quote:

"It just shows you that the banks are running the government," Marks said. "There's virtually no benefit to borrowers, and yet you give the banks credit for short sales and getting second liens wiped out — something they were going to have to do anyway."

Hmm, well I am not the biggest fan of bankers in the world, but short sales and second lien forgiveness are principle forgiveness as well, just of a different form.  If they wanted a settlement that was first-lien forgiveness only, they should have specified that.

In fact, both short sales and second lien forgiveness have tremendous value to individuals if one considers individual well-being one's goal rather than just this obsessive fixation on home ownership.  

For many people, the worst part of their negative equity is that it created a barrier to their moving.  Perhaps they could find a job in another part of the state or country, or they wanted to move into a home or apartment with less expensive payments but were stuck in their current home because they could not afford to bring tens of thousands of dollars to closing.  In such cases, a short sale is exactly what the homeowner needs and facilitating and expediting this likely helped a ton of people  (It is also an example of just how unique our mortgage rules are in the US -- in almost any other country in the world, the amount of the negative equity in a short sale would get hung on the seller as a lien that must be paid off over time.  Only in the US do buyers routinely walk away clean from such situations).  Given that first mortgage loan forgiveness more often than not does not save the loan (ie it eventually ends in foreclosure anyway), short sales are the one approach that lets lenders get away clean for a fresh start.

As for second mortgages, I can tell you from personal experience that it is virtually impossible in the current environment to restructure or refinance a first mortgage with a second lien on the house -- even in my case where everything is performing and the underlying home value is well above the total of the two liens.  Seriously, what is the point in reducing principle in the first mortgage if there is a second mortgage there, particularly when the second mortgage is likely far more expensive?  For people with a second mortgage, forgiveness of that is probably the first and best gift they could get.  They may end up still losing their home, but they can't even begin to discuss a restructure or refinance without that other mortgage going away.

Trying to Overcome My Ignorance on the Banking System

Over the last year, I have learned that those of us who took economics back in the 1980's with textbooks written in the 1960's and 1970's are not very well prepared to understand the modern banking system.  This was a pretty good article that whetted my appetite for understanding what has changed.  A couple of interesting bits from the piece:

One cannot think straight about the future impact of different exit strategies without understanding of the role of bank reserves in today’s financial markets.

  • Banking and money creation has not worked for at least two decades in the way that most people learned in school.

The old system was rather simple in the textbooks. The basic assumptions were (i) all credit was provided by banks; (ii) all bank credit (assets) were funded by the issuance, or creation, of depository liabilities (money) subject to a reserve requirement; and (iii) central banks controlled credit/money/inflation by rationing bank reserves. A stable 'money multiplier' was hypothesised to allow central banks to accurately predict the eventual impact of changes in bank reserves on money and credit.

The problem with the old theory of monetary operations is that none of the three assumptions has been true for at least a generation.
Most credit in the US is created by nonbanks; virtually all bank lending is funded by the creation of liabilities that are not subject to reserve requirements,3 and central banks do not ration reserves. In fact they take great pains to provide banks with the amount of reserves they desire. Central banks influence credit not by rationing the quantity of reserves but by altering the interest rate that banks must pay to obtain the quantity of reserves they desire.

  • Today, credit creation in general and money creation in particular are no longer tied to the stock of reserves (i.e. the stock of banks’ deposits at the Fed).

This gets to the heart of the question of why over $2 trillion in excess bank deposits built up at the Fed over the last 4 years are not really moving the needle on bank lending  (of course, this is a supply AND demand problem, and part of the issue with flat bank lending is tie to lack of demand as many businesses deleverage).  But in terms of supply, I am increasingly coming to terms with the following statement which seems counter-intuitive to someone who studied banking 30 years ago

One of the unintended consequences of Fed LSAPs has been the withdrawal of high quality liquid collateral such as US Treasuries from the financial markets paid for by crediting commercial bank reserve accounts. As discussed above, the banking system as a whole cannot dispose of these assets (reserves). At the same time, banks are under massive pressure world-wide to deleverage. This can take place either by increasing capital (a bank liability), which is costly to shareholders, or by reducing assets. Thus banks’ massive holdings of reserves at the Fed are ‘deadwood’ as far as the banks and their credit-creation capacity are concerned. They may crowd out credit.

The deadwood problem will get worse if the US tightens regulatory leverage ratios – that is, reduces the maximum ratio permitted between a bank’s total assets and capital.6

There is a great irony in the journalistic history of monetary policy. What many are calling central bank “money creation” “helicopter money” or “rolling the printing presses” may – in combination with tighter leverage ratios – lead to a tightening of bank credit and deflationary pressures.  And all this is occurring while the spectre of uncontrolled credit expansion and monetary debasement are being decried countless times by those who have not recognized that yesteryear’s monetary paradigm is defunct.

Interesting.  I hear this from a lot of people in the know about the system.  The author suggests one solution is having the Fed begin to do reverse repos with non-banks, which would drain excess reserves while adding high quality collateral back to the banking system which would allow more lending.  Which appears to be exactly what the Fed is considering.

I am reading this article next to see if I can get a better handle on how all this works.  I will let you know if I find it useful.

Keynesian Multiplier of 0.05

So much for that Keynesian stimulus notion (emphasis in the original)

With everyone focused on the 5th anniversary of the Lehman failure, we are taking a quick look at how the world's developed (G7) nations have fared since 2008, and just what the cost to restore "stability" has been. In a nutshell: the G7 have added around $18tn of consolidated debt to a record $140 trillion, relative to only $1tn of nominal GDP activity and nearly $5tn of G7 central bank balance sheet expansion (Fed+BoJ+BoE+ECB). In other words, over the past five years in the developed world, it took $18 dollars of debt (of which 28% was provided by central banks) to generate $1 of growth. For all talk of "deleveraging" G7 consolidated debt has been at a record high 440% for the past four years.

The theory of stimulus -- taking money out of the productive economy, where it is spent based on the information of hundreds of millions of people as to the relative value of millions of potential investments, and handing it to the government to spend based on political calculus -- never made a lick of sense to me.  I guess I would have assumed the multiplier in the short term was fractional but at least close to one, indicating in the short run that if we borrow and dump the money into the economy we would get some short-term growth, only to have to pay the piper later.  But we are not even seeing this.

Krugman Dead Wrong on Capital Controls

I am a bit late to the game in addressing Krugman's comments several days ago when he said:

But the truth, hard as it may be for ideologues to accept, is that unrestricted movement of capital is looking more and more like a failed experiment.

This was in response to the implosion of Cyprus banks, which was exacerbated (but not necessarily caused) by the banks being a home for a lot of international hot money - deposits so large they actually dwarfed the country's GDP.

I generally rely on Bastiat's definition of the role of the economist, which I will quote from Wikipedia (being too lazy on this Friday morning to find a better source):

One of Bastiat's most important contributions to the field of economics was his admonition to the effect that good economic decisions can be made only by taking into account the "full picture." That is, economic truths should be arrived at by observing not only the immediate consequences – that is, benefits or liabilities – of an economic decision, but also by examining the long-term second and third consequences. Additionally, one must examine the decision's effect not only on a single group of people (say candlemakers) or a single industry (say candlemaking), but on all people and all industries in the society as a whole. As Bastiat famously put it, an economist must take into account both "What is Seen and What is Not Seen."

By this definition, Krugman has become the world's leading anti-economist.  Rather than reject the immediate and obvious (in favor of the larger picture and the unseen), he panders to it.  He increasingly spends his time giving intellectual justification to the political predilection for addressing symptoms rather than root causes.  He has become the patron saint of the candle-makers petition.

I am not naive to the fact that there are pools of international hot money that seem to be some of the dumbest money out there.  Over the last few years it has piled into one market or another, creating local asset bubbles as it goes.

But to suggest that international capital flows need to be greatly curtailed merely to slow down this dumb money, without even considering the costs, is tantamount to economic malpractice.

You want to know what much of the world outside of Western Europe and the US would look like without free capital flows?  It would look like Africa.  In fact, for the younger folks out there, when I grew up, countries like China and India and Taiwan and Vietnam and Thailand looked just like Africa.  They were poor and economically backwards.  Capital flows from developed nations seeking new markets and lower cost labor has changed all of that.  Over the last decade, more people have escaped grinding subsistence poverty in these nations than at any other time in history.

So we have the seen:  A million people in Cyprus face years of economic turmoil

And the unseen:  A billion people exiting poverty

By pandering to those who want to expand politicians' power based on a trivial understanding of the seen and a blindness to the unseen, Krugman has failed the most important role of an economist.

Other thoughts:  I would offer a few other random, related thoughts on Cyprus

  • Capital controls are like gun and narcotics controls:  They stop honest people and do little to deter the dishonest.  In the case of Cyprus, Krugman obviously would have wanted capital controls to avoid the enormous influx of Russian money the overwhelmed the government's effort to stabilize the banks.  But over the last several weeks, the Cyprus banks have had absolute capital controls in place - supposedly no withdrawals were allowed.  And yet when the banks reopened, it become increasingly clear that many of the Russians had gotten their money out.  Capital controls don't work as a deterrence to money that is already corrupt and being hidden.
  • No matter what anyone says, the huge capital inflows into Cyprus had nothing to do with the banking collapse.  The banks had the ability to invest the money in a range of international securities, and the money was tiny compared to the size of those security pools.  So this is not like, say, a housing market where in influx of money might cause a bubble.   The only harm caused by the size of the Russian investments is that once the bank went bad, the huge size of the problem meant that the Cyprus government did not have the resources to bail out the bank and protect depositors from losses.
  • Capital controls are as likely to make bubbles worse as they are to make them better.  Certainly a lot of international money piling into a small market can cause a bubble.  But do capital controls really create fewer bubbles?  One could easily argue that the Japanese asset bubble of the late 80's would have been worse if all the money were bottled up in the country. When the Japanese went around the world buying up American movie studios and landmark real estate, that was in some sense a safety valve reducing the inflationary pressure in Japan.
  • Capital controls are the worst sort of government expropriation.  You hear on the news that the "haircut" taken by depositors in Cyprus might be 20% or 80% or whatever.  But in my mind it does not matter.   Because once the government put strict capital controls in place, the haircut effectively became 100%, at least for honest people that don't have the criminal ability or crony connections to beat the system.  Cyprus basically produces nothing.  Since money is only useful to the extent that it can buy or invest in something, then bottling up one's money in Cyprus basically makes it worthless.
  • Capital controls are a prelude to protectionism.   First, international trade is impossible without free flow of capital.   No way Apple is going to sell ipods in Cyprus if they cannot at some point repatriate their profits.  Capital controls can also lead to export controls.  If I can't export money, I might instead buy jets, fly them out of the country, and then sell the jets.
  • Let's not forget that the core of this entire problem is a government, not a private, failure.  Banks and investors treated sovereign euro-denominated debt as a risk-free investment, and banking law (e.g. Basil II) and pension law in most countries built this assumption into law.  Cyprus banks went belly-up because the Greeks, in whom they had (unwisely) invested most of their funds, can't exercise any fiscal responsibility in their government.  If European countries could exercise fiscal responsibility in their government borrowing, 80% of the banking crisis would not exist (housing bubbles and bad mortgage securities have contributed in some countries like Spain).  There is a circle here:  Politicians like to deficit spend.  They write regulations to encourage banks to preferentially invest in this government paper.  When the government debt gets iffy, and the banks face collapse, the governments have to bail them out because otherwise there is no home for their future debt.  The bailouts get paid for with more debt, which gets crammed back into increasingly over-leveraged banks.    What a mess.
  • All of this creates an interesting business school problem for the future:  What happens when there are no longer risk-free investments?  Throughout finance one talks about risk free rates and all other risks and risk premiums and discussed in reference to this risk-free benchmark.  In regulation, much of banking capital regulation and pension regulation is based on there being a core of risk free, liquid investments.  But what if these do not exist any more?
  • I have thought a lot about a banking model where the bank accepts deposits and provides basic services but does no lending - a pure deposit bank with absolute transparency on its balance sheet and investments.  I think about a web site depositors can check every day to see exactly where depositors money is invested and its real time values.  Only listed, liquid securities with daily mark to market.   Open source investing, as it were.  In the past, deposit insurance has basically killed this business model, but I think public confidence in deposit insurance just took a big-ass hit this week.

Postscript:  I don't want to fall into a Godwin's law trap here, but I am currently reading Eichmann in Jerusalem and it is impossible for me to ignore the role strict capital controls played in Nazi Germany's trapping and liquidation of the Jews.

PS#2:  Oops, Hayek beat me by about 70 years to the postscript above

The extent of the control over all life that economic control confers is nowhere better illustrated than in the field of foreign exchanges. Nothing would at first seem to affect private life less than a state control of the dealings in foreign exchange, and most people will regard its introduction with complete indifference. Yet the experience of most Continental countries has taught thoughtful people to regard this step as the decisive advance on the path to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual liberty. It is, in fact, the complete delivery of the individual to the tyranny of the state, the final suppression of all means of escape—not merely for the rich but for everybody.

Totally Depressing

I found this article on foreclosed homeowners vindictively trashing houses now owned by the bank to be really depressing.  An example quote:

Myra Beams, a realtor in Tamarac, Fla., said half of her foreclosed properties, regardless of the price range, have been vandalized by the former owners. "I think the former owners are angry, and for some reason, they think they're entitled to destroy properties," said Beams. "I guess they're angry at the banks for giving them the mortgage."

There is a lot more like that.  A couple of quick thoughts

  • The sense of entitlement here is stunning.  It is these homeowners, not the bank, that failed to fulfill their end of the bargain.  Who is the guilty party here, anyway?
  • These folks are lucky to live in the US -- we have the most lenient home mortgage system in the world.  Very, very few other countries in the world have no-recourse mortgages where one can walk away only with a ding on their credit record, without even a personal bankruptcy.  Almost anyplace else, they would be facing years of garnishments for whatever losses on the loan the bank had after they sold the home.
  • I always thought the critique of lower income people "trashing" housing projects in the 70s and 80s had a vaguely racial tone to them, as if this were somehow a proof of African-Americans being shiftless and irresponsible.   But here we have white middle class people actively trashing their homes.  Proving once again that being an inconsiderate jerk is truly a multi-racial, multi-ethinic behavior.

Why Europe Won't Let Banks Fail

Dan Mitchell describes three possible government responses to an impending bank failure:

  1. In a free market, it’s easy to understand what happens when a financial institution becomes insolvent. It goes into bankruptcy, wiping out shareholders. The institution is then liquidated and the recovered money is used to partially pay of depositors, bondholders, and other creditors based on the underlying contracts and laws.
  2. In a system with government-imposed deposit insurance, taxpayers are on the hook to compensate depositors when the liquidation occurs. This is what is called the “FDIC resolution” approach in the United States.
  3. And in a system of cronyism, the government gives taxpayer money directly to the banks, which protects depositors but also bails out the shareholders and bondholders and allows the institutions to continue operating.

I would argue that in fact Cyprus has gone off the board and chosen a fourth option:  In addition to bailing out shareholder and bondholders with taxpayer money, it will protect them  by giving depositors a haircut as well.

The Cyprus solution is so disturbing because, hearkening back to Obama's auto bailout, it completely upends seniority and distribution of risk on a company balance sheet.  Whereas depositors should be the most senior creditors and equity holders the least (so that equity holders take the first loss and depositors take the last), Cyprus has completely reversed this.

One reason that should never be discounted for such behavior is cronyism.  In the US auto industry, for example, Steven Rattner and President Obama engineered a screwing of secured creditors in favor of the UAW, which directly supported Obama's election. In Cyprus, I have no doubt that the large banks have deep tendrils into the ruling government.

But it is doubtful that the Cyprus banks have strong influence over, say, Germany, and that is where the bailout and its terms originate.  So why is Germany bailing out Cyprus bank owners?  Well, there are two reasons, at least.

First, they are worried about a chain reaction that might hurt Germany's banks, which most definitely do have influence over German and EU policy.  There is cronyism here, but perhaps once removed.

But even if you were to entirely remove cronyism, Germany and the EU have a second problem:  They absolutely rely on the banks to consume their new government debt and continue to finance their deficit spending.  Far more than in the US, the EU countries rely on their major banks continuing to leverage up their balance sheets to buy more government debt.  The implicit deal here is:  You banks expand your balance sheets and buy our debt, and we will shelter you and prevent external shocks from toppling you in your increasingly precarious, over-leveraged position.

Update:  Apparently, there is very little equity and bondholder debt on the balance sheets -- its depositor money or nothing.  My thoughts:  First, the equity and bondholders better be wiped out.  If not, this is a travesty.  Two, the bank management should be gone -- it is as bad or worse to bail out to protect salaried manager jobs as to protect equity holders.  And three, if depositor losses have to be taken, its insane to take insured depositor money ahead of or even in parallel with uninsured deposits.

When Low Interest Rates are Anti-Stimulus

We have heard about the difficulty folks who are retired are having with low interest rates.  But low interest rates are having a huge impact on corporations that still have defined-benefit pensions.

Across America's business landscape, the gap between the amount that companies expect to owe retirees and what they have on hand to pay them was an estimated $347 billion at the end of 2012. That is better than the $386 billion gap recorded at the end of 2011, but the two years represent the worst deficits ever, according to J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

The firm estimates that companies now hold only $81 of every $100 promised to pensioners.

In general, everything happening on the liability side of the pension equation is working against companies. A big source of the problem: persistently low interest rates, set largely by the Federal Reserve....

Pension liabilities change over time as employees enter and leave a pension plan. For financial-reporting purposes, companies use a so-called discount rate to calculate the present value of payments they expect to make over the life of their plan.

The discount rate serves as a proxy for the hypothetical interest rate that an insurance company would expect on a bond today to fund a company's future pension payments. The lower the discount rate, the greater the company's pension liabilities.

Boeing's discount rate, for example, fell to 3.8% last year from 6.2% in 2007. The aircraft manufacturer said in a securities filing that a 0.25-percentage-point decrease in its discount rate would add $3.1 billion to its projected pension obligations.

Boeing reported a net pension deficit of $19.7 billion at the end of 2012.

The discount rate is based on the yields of highly rated corporate bonds—double-A or higher—with maturities equal to the expected schedule of pension-benefit payouts.

Moody's decision last summer to lower the credit rating of big banks hurt UPS and other companies by booting those banks out of the calculation. And because bonds issued by some of those banks carried higher yields than other bonds used in the calculation, UPS's discount rate fell 1.20 percentage points.

This is obviously not a wildly productive use of corporate funds, to divert ever-increasing amounts of money to pay people who are no longer producing.  But at least corporations are acknowledged the problem (I will give credit where it is due -- thanks to accounting rules and government regulations that force a fair amount of transparency here).

It is interesting to note the Boeing example, where their expected rate of return on pension funds fell from 6.2% to 3.8%.  Compare that to corrupt government entities like Calpers, which bravely faced this new reality by cutting its discount rate from an absurd 7.75% to a still absurd 7.5%.  This despite returns last year around 1%.  By keeping the number artificially high, Calpers is hiding its underfunding problem.  An interesting reform would be to force Calpers to use a discount rate equal to the average of that used by the 10 largest private pension funds.

Capital Controls

I am not sure I understand Kevin Drum's argument for capital controls.  He seems to be arguing that these controls are a sort of financial speed limit and making an awkward analogy to highway speed limits to justify them.

In a world where I as a taxpayer have to bail out banks, I don't have a huge problem with capital requirements for banks, though this seemingly simply topic is rife with unintended consequences -- I have seen it argued persuasively that the pre-2008 Basil capital requirements helped fuel the housing bubble by giving special preference to MBS in computing capital.  In fact, one might argue the same for the sovereign debt crisis, that by creating a huge demand for sovereign debt for bank balance sheets it fueled an unsustainable expansion in such debt.

Anyway, the point of this post was capital controls.  Drum quotes this from an IMF report:

19. Indeed, as the recent global financial crisis has shown, large and volatile capital flows can pose risks even for countries that have long been open and drawn benefits from capital flows and that have highly developed financial markets. For example, in several advanced economies, financial supervision and regulation failed to prevent unsustainable asset bubbles and booms in domestic demand from developing that were partly fueled by cheap external financing. Rather than favoring closed capital accounts, these experiences highlight the need for policymakers to remain vigilant to the risks. In particular, there is a constant need for sound prudential frameworks to manage the risks that capital inflows can give rise to, which may be exacerbated by financial innovation.

The logic, then, is that bubbles are exacerbated by inflows of foreign capital so capital controls can keep bubbles from getting worse.  I have very little knowledge of international finance, but let me test three thoughts I have on this:

  1. Doesn't this cut both ways?  If bubbles can be inflated by capital inflows, can't they also be deflated by capital outflows?  Presumably, if people domestically see the bubble, they would logically look for other places to invest their money.  International investments outside of the overheated domestic market are a logical alternative, and such capital flows would act a s a safety valve to reduce pressure on the bubble.  So wouldn't capital controls just as likely make bubbles worse, by confining capital within the bubble, as make them better by preventing new capital from outside the country flowing in?
  2. The implication here is that the controls would be dynamic.  In other words, some smart person in government would close the gates when a bubble starts to build and open them at other times.  But does that not presupposed the ability to see the bubble when one is in it?  Certainly there were a few who pointed out the housing bubble before 2008, but few in power did so.  And even if they had seen it, what is the likelihood that they would have pointed it out or taken action?  Who wants to be the politician who pops the bubble?  Remember the grief Greenspan got for pointing to an earlier bubble?
  3. Controls on capital inflows tend to be anti-consumer.  Yeah, I know, no one in government ever seems to care when they pass protectionist laws that protect 100 tire workers at the cost of higher tires for 100 million drivers.  But limiting capital inflows would reduce the value of the dollar, and make anything imported (or made from imported parts or materials) more expensive.