Posts tagged ‘banks’

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

Passwords

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 WhiteHouse.gov 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.

Cargo Cult Social Engineering

Once upon a time, government officials decided it would help them keep their jobs if they could claim they had expanded the middle class.  Unfortunately, none of them really understood economics or even the historical factors that led to the emergence of the middle class in the first place.  But they did know two things:  Middle class people tended to own their own homes, and they sent their kids to college.

So in true cargo cult fashion, they decided to increase the middle class by promoting these markers of being middle class.  They threw the Federal government strongly behind promoting home ownership and college education.  A large part of this effort entailed offering easy debt financing for housing and education.  Because the whole point was to add poorer people to the middle class, their was a strong push to strip away traditional underwriting criteria for these loans (e.g. down payments, credit history, actual income to pay debt, etc.)

We know what happened in the housing market.  The government promoted home ownership with easy loans, and made these loans a favorite investment by giving them a preferential treatment in the capital requirements for banks.  And then the bubble burst, with the government taking the blame for the bubble.  Just kidding, the government blamed private lenders for their lax underwriting standards, conviniently forgetting that every President since Reagan had encouraged such laxity (they called it something else, like "giving access to the poor", but it means the same thing).

A similar bubble is just about to burst in the college loan market, and this time it will be much harder for the government to blame private lenders, since the government effectively nationalized the market several years ago and for years has been the source of at least 90% of all college loans.  In the Wall Street Journal today, it was reported that student loans are now the largest component of consumer debt, and growing

Further, a Fed report yesterday said that student loan diliquencies have jumped substantially of late

The scary part was found by Zero Hedge in the footnotes of the report, which admit that this number is understated by as much as half, meaning the true delinquency rate of student debt may be north of 20%.

The Journal article linked above explains why this is:

Nearly all student loans—93% of them last year—are made directly by the government, which asks little or nothing about borrowers' ability to repay, or about what sort of education they intend to pursue.

President Barack Obama championed easy-to-get loans during the campaign, calling higher education "an economic imperative in the 21st century." A spokesman for Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the goal is "to make student loans available to as many people as possible," and requiring minimum credit scores would block many Americans

Any of this sound familiar?  I seldom learn much from anecdotes in new stories since it is too easy to craft a stirring anecdote on either side of just about any issue.  But I was amazed at the story of the woman who was issued $184,500 in student debt to send her son to college when her entire income is a $1600 a month disability check.

Killing Mainstreet Banks

C. Boyden Gray and Adam White make the case that Dodd-Frank is an enormous gift to big banks, for two reasons:

  • By putting large banks in a special class -- essentially too big to fail -- it ensures that these banks will be able to raise capital far more easily than can smaller banks, since investments in larger banks are essentially guaranteed by the US government.  This is the same mechanism by which Fannie and Freddie crowded out most other sources of mortgage financing.
  • By creating an enormous mass of new regulations, large banks get a cost advantage because they can much more easily pay these fixed costs as they are amortized over a much larger business.

Sleep With The Dogs, Wake Up With Fleas

JP Morgan finds itself under the government microscope for having heartlessly... cooperated with the government four years ago

The U.S. Department of Justice and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman teamed up last week to sue J.P. Morgan in a headline-grabbing case alleging the fraudulent sale of mortgage-backed securities.

One notable detail: J.P. Morgan didn't sell the securities. The seller was Bear Stearns—yes, the same Bear Stearns that the government persuaded Morgan to buy in 2008. And, yes, the same government that is now participating in the lawsuit against Morgan to answer for stuff Bear did before the government got Morgan to buy it....

As for the federal government's role, it's helpful to recall some recent history: In the mid-2000s, Bear Stearns became—outside of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—perhaps the most reckless financial firm in the housing market. Bear was the smallest of the major Wall Street investment banks. But instead of allowing market punishment for Bear and its creditors when it was headed to bankruptcy, the feds decided the country could not survive a Bear failure. So they orchestrated a sale to J.P. Morgan and provided $29 billion in taxpayer financing to make it happen.

The principal author of the Bear deal was Timothy Geithner, who was then the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and is now the Secretary of the Treasury. Until this week, we didn't think the Bear intervention could look any worse.

Somewhere there was a legal department fail here - I can't ever, ever imagine buying a company with Bear's reputation that was sinking into bankruptcy without doing either via an asset sale or letting the mess wash through Chapter 7 so there could be an old bank / new bank split.  But Bank of America made exactly the same mistake at roughly the same time with Countrywide, so it must have appeared at the time that the government largess here (or the government pressure) was too much to ignore.

The New Deal and Black Ghettoization

I have been watching the old PBS documentary series (in that Ken Burns style but I don't think by Ken Burns) and found this an interesting story of government policy fail that I had never heard much about.  Much like segregated train and bus service, racial redlining that is commonly blamed on private enterprise in fact began as government policy

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.

The academics interviewed in the series argued that nearly every black ghetto in the country was created in the 1930's by this program.

Bank Advice

This is a note for small businesses that deposit a lot of cash and small checks, perhaps from a retail operation.  We have found that the fees of the large banks are simply awful for retail deposit accounts.  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, US Bank, and Zions are all fairly large banks who have raised fees as high as $100+ a month just for a checking account into which we make a weekly deposit of cash and small checks. In particular, US Bank has taken over two of our small deposit banks recently, and raised our fee from $7 on one account to over $120 last month.

Even if your main banking relationship is with someone else, look for a small local bank or credit union for deposit accounts.  I have a number of such small banks around the country that charge us zero a month for our deposit account, and at worst up to $10.  Anything more, and you can probably do better.

Bid Rigging for Municipal Asset Management

Rolling Stone Magazine has an good story on the conviction of a number of banks and brokers on charges of bid-rigging, specifically on contracts for short-to-medium term management of municipal bond cash accounts.  Apparently brokers were paid by certain banks to be given a look at all the other bids before they made their final bid.  The article focuses mainly on the ability of winning bidders not to bid any higher than necessary, though I would suppose there were also times when, given this peek, the winning bidder actually raised its bid higher than it might have to ace out other bidders.

This is classic government contracting fraud and it's great to see this being rooted out.  I am not wildly confident it is going to go away, but any prosecutorial attention is welcome.

But I am left with a few questions:

  • It seems that government contracting is more susceptible to this kind of manipulation.  Similar stories have existed for years in state highway contracting, and the municipal bond world has had accusations of kick-backs for years.  Is this a correct perception, or is the rate of fraud between public and private contracting the same but we just notice more with the government because the numbers are larger, the press coverage is greater, and the prosecutorial resources are more robust?
  • If government contracting of this sort is more susceptible to fraud, why, and how do we fix it?

The latter is not an academic question for me.  I run a company that privately operates public recreation areas.  I bid on and manage government contracts.  Frequently, a major argument used against the expansion of such privatization initiatives is that past government outsourcing and contracting efforts have been characterized by fraud and mismanagement.  The argument boils down to "the government has so many management problems that it can't be trusted with contracting for certain services so it needs to operate those services itself."

The only way to reconcile this view is to assume that private actors are more likely to act fraudulently and be dishonest than public employees.  If this were true, then the public would be safer if a public management process of questionable ability were applied towards public employees rather than outside private contractors, because those who were being managed would be less likely to take advantage.  And certainly there are plenty of folks with deep skepticism of private enterprise that believe this.

However, I would offer that only by adopting an asymmetric view of what constitutes fraud would we get to this conclusion.  Clearly, banks colluding to shave a few basis points off municipal asset returns is fraud.     As the author of the Rolling Stone piece puts it several times, the crime here is that the public did not get the best market rate.  So why is, say, elected officials colluding with public employees unions to artificially raise wages, benefits, and staffing levels above market rates not fraud as well?  In both cases insiders are manipulating the government's procurement and political processes to pay more than the market rates for certain services.

This is Bastiat's "seen and unseen" of the privatization debate.   Yes, the world is unfortunately littered with examples of government procurement fraud.  This is often cited as a reason for maintaining the status quo of continued government management of a diverse range of services.  But what we miss, what is unseen, is that these government services are often run with staffing levels, work rules, productivity expectations, and pay rates that would constitute a scandal if uncovered in a division of a corporation, particularly if the workers were spending a lot of money to make sure the manager handing them this largess was able to keep his job.

Yes, the public lost several basis points on its investments when it did not get the market rate of return from cheating bankers.  But it loses as much as 50% of every tax dollar sent to many state agencies because it does not get market rates (and practices) for state labor.

Not A Sign of Good Health

Swiss government bonds are trading at rates that imply a negative interest rate.  The German government is issuing bonds with interest rates of zero that are actually trading above face value.

This is really bad news.  Investing in these securities is effectively the equivalent of putting money in one's mattress -- it means that investors don't perceive any money-making uses for their money better than paying paying financially strong governments to keep it safe for a while.   I am far from an expert on banking regulations, but my first guess on this is that this is at least in part a function of bank capital requirements that effectively require banks to put a lot of cash into government securities no matter how bad the return.

Germany and Switzerland certainly are providing some value in creating a safe haven for capital, but I wonder if in the long-run this is anything but destructive, shifting wealth and investment out of the private economy and into investments with no return.

 

A Stupid Suggestion

A guest blogger on Megan McArdle's blog writes:

Here's my first such idea:

Abolish Mortgage-Backed Securities (and Offspring)

CDOs and credit default swaps don't kill financial systems, mortgages kill financial systems. There has been altogether too much opproprium directed at CDOs, credit default swaps and other structuring techniques that spread financial contagion, and not enough directed at the underlying collateral. The record seems to be, however, that Dick Pratt was correct when he called the mortgage "the neutron bomb of financial products."

This makes no sense.  I don't have time for a comprehensive argument, so here are a few bullet points:

  • His argument rests on the fact that mortgages have inherently hard-to-quantify risks.  I don't believe that, given how long the financial system worked just fine writing mortgages, but if this is really the case, shouldn't he be proposing to ban mortgages, not just mortgage-backed securities?
  • Holding the higher-quality tranches of an MBS simply cannot, by any mechanism I can fathom, be more risky than holding a lot of individual mortgages.  In fact, for a given bank, it should spread the risk geographically and to a larger number of mortgages.
  • The first actual problem with MBS's is that the default risks were under-estimated by those packaging the securities.  Basically, the top AAA tranches were too large (or too wide, I think the term is).  This is correctable, and likely already has been corrected (In fact it had more to do with the actions of the government-enforced credit rating oligopoly than with actions of bankers).
  • The second actual problem with MBS's is that the default risks were under-estimated by government regulators world-wide when in Basil II and the equivalent US law changes c. 1991, MBS's were given very preferential capital requirement treatment.  Basically, MBS were treated, for capital requirements, as if they were nearly as risk-free as US treasuries, providing incentives for banks to over-weight in them.
  • The largest problem was the reduction in credit requirements for mortgages.  Increasing LTV from 80% to 97% or 100% or even 100%+ hugely increased the risk of default, and no one really took that into account in MBS packaging or bank capital requirements.  Bank capital requirements for mortgages and MBS were set as if they were European style recourse loans with 80% LTV.  But the same regulations and requirements applied to MBS built on US-style non-recourse loans with 97% LTV, which is crazy.

Here is a better plan:

  1. Narrow the AAA tranches of MBS
  2. Fix bank capital requirements vis a vis mortgages and MBS
  3. Stop encouraging high loan to values on mortgages

Myth-Making By the Left on Europe Continues

The Left continues to push the myth that government "austerity"  (defined as still running a massive deficit but running a slightly smaller massive deficit) is somehow pushing Europe into a depression.  Well, this myth-making worked with Hoover, who is generally thought to have worsened the Depression through austerity despite the reality that he substantially increased government spending.

It is almost impossible to spot this mythical austerity beast in action in these European countries.  Sure, they talk about austerity, and deficit reduction, and spending increases, but if such talk were reality we would have a balanced budget in this country.  If one looks at actual government spending in European nations, its impossible to find a substantial decline.  Perhaps they are talking about tax increases, which I would oppose and have been occurring, but I doubt the Left is complaining about tax increases.

Seriously, I would post the chart showing the spending declines but I can't because I keep following links and have yet to find one.  I keep seeing quotes about "commitment" to austerity, but no actual evidence of such.

Let's take Britain.  Paul Krugman specifically lashed out at "austerity" programs there are undermining the British and European economy.  So, from this source, here is actual and budgeted British government spending by year, in billions of pounds:

2007: 544.0

2008: 575.7

2009: 621.5

2010:  660.6

2011:  683.4

2012:  703.4

2013: 722.2

Seriously, I will believe the so-called austerity when someone shows it to me.  And this is not even to mention the irresponsibility of demanding more deficit spending without even acknowledging the fact that whole countries already have so much debt they are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Here is the European problem -- they are pouring hundreds of billions of Euro into bailing out failed banks and governments.  They are effectively taking massive amounts of available resources out of productive hands and pouring it into failed institutions.   Had they (or we) let these institutions crash four years ago, Europe would be seeing a recovery today.  The hundreds of billions of Euros used to keep banks on life support could have instead been used to mitigate the short term effects of bigger financial crash.

New Greek Bailout Announced

It is an open question how long this bailout will plug the dam.  I continue to maintain the position that Greece is going to have to be let out of the Euro. Pulling this Band-Aid off a millimeter at a time is delaying any possible recovery of the Greek economy, and really the European economy, indefinitely.  All to protect the solvency of a number of private banks (or perhaps more accurately, to protect the solvency of the counter-parties who wrote the CDO's on all that debt).

Anyway, the interesting part for me is that with this bailout, the total cumulative charity sent the Greek's way by other European countries now exceeds Greek GDP, by a lot.

Lesson We Keep Missing in the Financial Crisis: Bite the Bullet Now

Investors have a saying - your first loss is your best loss.  In other words, if you think an investment sucks, swallow your pride, take your lumps, and get out entirely now.

This is NOT how we have dealt with the financial crisis.  Through a series of bailouts, we have tried to keep failing financial institutions and countries on life support.   We have dragged out the reckoning on mortgages, so we still have not had a real clearing in the real estate market.  Worse, we have postponed, even entirely interrupted, financial accountability for those who made bad investments or took on too much debt.

Here is an interesting counter-example - Iceland, which basically went entirely bankrupt along with pretty much all their banks, is on the road to recovery.

The Bankrupt as Victims

One of the amazing aspects of our new post-modern outlook on personal responsibility and obligations is that folks who are profligate and take on too much debt are increasingly considered victims to which other people owe something (generally a bailout).

We see this no only among US mortgage holders but in Greece as well

Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos told lawmakers to back a deeply unpopular EU/IMF rescue in a vote on Sunday or condemn the country to a "vortex" of recession.

He spoke in a televised address to the nation, ahead of Sunday's vote on 3.3 billion euros ($4.35 billions) in wage, pension and job cuts as the price of a 130-billion-euro bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

The effort to ease Greece's huge debt burden has brought thousands into the streets in protest, and there were signs on Saturday of a small rebellion among lawmakers uneasy with the extent of the cuts.

So outsiders generously agree to pay for 130 billion Euros of past Greek spending if only the Greeks will cut their current spending by 3.3 billion Euros (at which spending level the country would still be running large deficits).  And people riot as if they have been gang-raped.  Incredible.

Let the Greeks go.  Of course, this is not actually about bailing out Greece, but about bailing out, indirectly, European banks that invested in Greek bonds.  The banks seem to run public policy in Europe, even more so than in the US.

Flash: European Finances Still Screwed Up

As I predicted, the various highly touted European debt and currency interventions last month did squat.  This is no surprise.  The basic plan currently is to have the ECB give essentially 0% loans to banks with the implied provision that they use the money to buy sovereign debt.  Eventually there are provisions for austerity, but I wrote that I don't think it's possible these will be effective.   It's a bit unclear where this magic money of the ECB is coming from - either they are printing money (which they refuse to own up to because the Germans fear money printing even more than Soviet tanks in the Fulda Gap) or there is some kind of leverage circle-jerk game going where the ECB is effectively leveraging deposits and a few scraps of funding to the moon.

At this point, short of some fiscal austerity which simply is not going to happen, I can't see how the answer is anything but printing and devaluation.  Either the ECB prints, spreading the cost of inflation to all counties on the Euro, or Greece/Spain/Italy exit the Euro and then print for themselves.

The exercise last month, as well as the months before that, are essentially mass hypnosis spectacles, engineered to try to get the markets to forget the underlying fundamentals.  And the amazing part is it sort of works, from two days to two weeks.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the final chapters of Atlas Shrugged where officials do crazy stuff to put off the reckoning even one more day.

Disclosure:  I have never, ever been successful at market timing investments or playing individual stocks, so I generally don't.  But the last few months I have had fun shorting European banks and financial assets on the happy-hypnosis news days and covering once everyone wakes up.  About the only time in my life I have made actual trading profits.

Thought problem:  I wish I understood the incentives facing European banks.  It seems like right now to be almost a reverse cartel, where the cartel holds tightly because there is a large punishment for cheating.  Specifically, any large bank that jumps off the merry-go-round described above likely starts the whole thing collapsing and does in its own balance sheet (along with everyone else's).  The problem is that every day they hang on, the stakes get higher and their balance sheets get stuffed with more of this crap.  Ironically, everyone would have been better getting off a year ago and taking the reckoning then, and certainly everyone would be better taking the hit now rather than later, but no one is willing to jump off.  One added element that makes the game interesting is that the first bank to jump off likely earns the ire of the central bankers, perhaps making that bank the one bank that is not bailed out when everything crashes.  It's a little like the bidding game where the highest bidder wins but the two highest bidders have to pay.  Anyone want to equate this with a defined economics game please do so in the comments.

Greek Government Essentially in State of Default

Nice tax refund you have coming .... we think we'll keep it

The [Greek] government has decided to stop tax returns and other obligation payments to enterprises, salary workers and pensioners as it sees the budget deficit soaring to over 10 percent of gross domestic product for 2011.

For all the supposed austerity, the budget situation is worse in Greece.  Germany and other countries will soon have to accept they have poured tens of billions of euros down a rathole, and that they will have to do what they should have done over a year ago - let Greece move out of the Euro.

Government workers and pensioners simply will not accept any cuts without rioting in the street.  And the banks will all go under with a default on government debt.  And no one will pay any more taxes.  And Germany is not going to keep funding a 10% of GDP deficit.  The only way out seems to be to print money (to pay the debt) and devalue the currency (to effectively reduce fixed pensions and salaries).  And the only way to do all that is outside of the Euro.  From an economic standpoint, the inflation approach is probably not the best, but it is the politically easiest to implement.

The Goldman Sachs Strategy

For a while now, a few authors have been quipping at Zero Hedge that the best investment strategy is to do the opposite of what Goldman Sachs is telling is retail customers.  The theory is that if Goldman tells the public to buy, it means that they are selling like crazy for their own account.

This seemed a bit cynical, but on Friday Zero Hedge observed that Goldman was telling its retail customers to buy European banks.  This advice seemed so crazy -- the European agreement last weekly explicitly did not contain anything to help banks in the near term with over-leveraged bets on shaky sovereign debt -- that for the fun of it I played along.  I shorted a couple hundred shares of EUFN, a US traded fund of European financial firms (took a bit of work to find the shares to borrow).

Made 6% in one day.  Thanks Goldman.