Tag: bank of america

Krugman’s Fannie Mae Fantasyland

An insightful op-ed in yesterday’s Financial Times by Raghu Rajan (who will be presenting his latest book soon here at Cato), apparently was too much for Paul Krugman to bear.  What was Rajan’s great crime that so upset Krugman?  Rajan, correctly, pointed out that US policies, such as Fannie Mae and the Community Re-investment Act, were direct contributors to the financial crisis and that bankers shouldn’t be blamed for simply reacting to perverse government incentives.

Now Krugman cannot bear to see CRA and Fannie questioned.  He claims that Rajan is relying on some blind faith that has been disproven by all thinking people.  Krugman offers two points (his supposed “facts”) that prove Fannie Mae and CRA are innocent.

First, he argues that the bad lending was done not by banks covered by CRA, but by non-banks that were exempt from CRA.  Now in Krugman’s defense, there is a grain of truth to this.  For instance, up until its purchase of a thrift, Countrywide, the largest subprime player, was not covered by CRA.  However, comparing Countrywide to say Bank of America, which was covered by CRA, misses a crucial point:  these non-CRA lenders were selling their loans to Fannie and Freddie, who were getting housing goal credit for those loans.  For instance, 25% of Fannie’s whole loan purchases were from Countrywide.  So rather than, as Paul claims that CRA didn’t matter, what the comparison shows is that the GSE housing goals were more damaging than CRA.

Krugman tries to cover this base by claiming that Fannie and Freddie were “sidelined by Congress” during the worst years of the boom.  As someone who spent the boom years as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I found that claim to be insane.  For every Senator Shelby who tried to sideline the GSE’s, there was 10 Senators Sarbanes, Dodd and Schumer who pushed the GSEs to do more.  Krugman needs to move past empty assertions and offer some, any, evidence that Congress sidelined Fannie and Freddie.

What evidence he does offer is to show that during the boom, the percent of the market that was securitized by Fannie/Freddie fell, while the percent securitized by the private-label market increased.  Krugman has that fact correct, yet he misses a critical point.  That increase in private-label securities was being funded/purchased by Fannie and Freddie.

As my chart illustrates, the more involved were Fannie and Freddie in purchasing subprime MBS, the more the subprime market grew.  During the bubble years, Fannie and Freddie were the largest single source of liquidity for the subprime market.  And the chart doesn’t even take into account all the subprime whole loans being purchased by the GSEs.

Sadly Krugman has his facts on CRA wrong as well.  I point the reader to Ed Pinto’s work in this area, as well as my post on CRA from a few months ago.

We have little hope of avoiding a future financial crisis if we do not undo all the perverse government incentives for irresponsible lending.  Krugman’s presentation of selective and misleading data only makes true and meaningful reform all the more difficult.

Should We Break Up the Banks?

When it comes to banking policy, there are few people I respect more than Jonathan Macey and Arnold Kling; so when these two, independently, argue that we should be breaking up the largest banks, it is idea that merits consideration.  Yet I still have my doubts.

First, lets start with what we are fairly certain of.  There is a large empirical literature that suggest most US mega-banks are beyond their efficient size.  There is a good survey of the literature by former Fed Economist Allen Berger .  So, at a minimum, the academic literature suggests the largest banks are beyond a size that is justified by the social benefits.

However, there is also a small literature that suggests more concentrated banking systems are more stable, and less prone to crisis.  Some of this literature has grown out of research efforts by the World Bank.  While this literature is largely cross-country comparisons, recalling our own banking history gives several examples - the savings & loan crisis, the mass of small banks failures in the 1920s and 1930s, and current day Georgia - where lots of small bank failures have been associated with significant economic damage.  So, at minimum, there is some question of whether breaking up the largest banks would give us a more stable, less crisis-prone system.  In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that breaking up the banks would make our financial system more fragile.

To some extent, the debate over breaking up the large banks is about reducing political power.  The argument is that, because of their vast resources, these large banks unduly influence and capture our political system.  Undoubtedly, I believe the largest banks have substantial influence over both our legislative and regulatory systems.  However, so do smaller banks.  From my seven years as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I would definitely argue that the Independent Community Banks Association (ICBA), as a group, has far more pull than does say Bank of America, as a single company.  One need only witness the various exemptions for small banks in the Dodd bill, for instance from the consumer protection bureau, to illustrate the lobbying power of small bankers.  One could also argue that the economic history of progressive era legislation, like the Sherman Act, is one of smaller, organized interests winning against larger sized firms.  Despite its appeal, the assertion that bigger is always better in politics is just an assertion.  Yet this is at heart an empirical argument, and perhaps one that can be tested.  Until then, I still have my doubts.

Fed Opposed by Left and Right

On its front page today, the Washington Times reports that expanded powers for the Federal Reserve are being opposed by “odd allies.”  The Fed’s imperial over-reach for additional regulatory powers is being opposed by Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives alike.  As well it should be.  As Senator Shelby observed, “Anointing the Fed as the systemic-risk regulator will make what has proven to be a bad bank regulator even worse.”

The regulation of financial services failed conspicuously to prevent the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.  The Fed failed most conspicuously as it was charged with oversight of all the major banks, including notably Citigroup and Bank of America. Bank regulation now functions to insulate banks from the consequences of their own bad acts.  The regulatory system enables banks to engage in excessive risk taking.

The Obama Administration and Chairman Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee propose that an expanded role for the Fed and generally more of the same will improve matters. Instead, the proposed legislation will worsen the situation by codifying the status of the major financial institutions as “too-big-to-fail.”  It would thereby provide them with special legal status.  We have all seen this movie and how it ends.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had such a status and collapsed.  Do we need 20 more such disasters?

Three cheers for all those opposing this destructive piece of legislation. End “too-big-to-fail” instead.

U.S. Cutting Pay for Bailed Out Company Executives

According to reports, executives from bailed out companies Citigroup, Bank of America, GM, Chrysler, GMAC, Chrysler Financial and AIG are going to see major pay cuts this year, which will be enforced by the president’s “pay czar,” Kenneth R. Feinberg. WaPo:

NEW YORK – The Obama administration plans to order companies that have received exceptionally large amounts of bailout money from the government to slash compensation for their highest-paid executives by about half on average, according to people familiar with the long-awaited decision.

The administration will also curtail many corporate perks, including the use of corporate jets for personal travel, chauffeured drivers and country club fee reimbursement, people familiar with the matter have said. Individual perks worth more than $25,000 have received particular scrutiny.

The American people have every right to be upset about generous compensation packages for executives at financial firms that are being kept alive by subsidies and bailouts.

But their ire should be directed at the bailouts, because that is the policy that redistributes money from the average taxpayer and puts it in the pockets of incompetent executives. Unfortunately, rather than deal with the underlying problems of bailouts and intervention, some politicians want to impose controls on salaries. This might be a tolerable second-best (or probably fifth-best) outcome if the compensation limits only applied to companies mooching off the taxpayers, but some politicians want to use the financial crisis as an excuse to regulate compensation at firms that do not have their snouts in the public trough.

This would be a big mistake. So long as rich people make money using non-coercive means, politicians should butt out. It should not matter whether we are talking about Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt, or a corporate CEO. The market should determine compensation, not political deal making. Markets don’t produce perfect outcomes, to be sure, but political intervention invariably produces terrible outcomes.

I debate this further on CNBC:

C/P The Hill

Congress Just Raised Our Credit Card Fees

Technically, it was the companies which raised their fees.  But they did so to anticipate new legislative restrictions on fees taking effect.  Congress wanted to cut costs for consumers, but ended up costing them instead.

Reports the Washington Post:

Credit card companies are raising interest rates and fees seven months before new rules go into effect that will limit their ability to do so, much to the irritation of Congress and consumer advocates.

Chase, for instance, will raise the minimum payment required of some of its customers from 2 percent to 5 percent of the statement balance starting in August. Chase and Discover have increased the maximum fee charged for transferring a balance to the card to 5 percent of the amount, up from 3 and 4 percent, respectively. Bank of America last month raised the transaction fee for balance transfers and cash advances from 3 to 4 percent. Card issuers including Bank of America and Citi also continue to cut limits and hike up rates, which they have been doing with more frequency since January.

“This is a common practice and will continue to be common, because issuers can do these things for really no reason until February,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for Credit.com, which tracks the industry. “It’s what I call the Credit Card Trifecta – lower limits, higher rates, higher minimum payments.”

It’s not just the top card issuers making changes. Atlanta-based InfiBank, for example, will raise the minimum annual percentage rate it charges nearly all of its customers in September “in order to more effectively manage the profitability of our credit card account portfolio in a very challenging economic environment,” said spokesman Kevin C. Langin.

The flurry of activity, which the banks say is necessary to shore up their revenue losses, has irked members of Congress, who passed a new credit card law, which was signed by President Obama in May. The law, among other things, would prevent card companies from raising rates on existing balances unless the borrower was at least 60 days late and would require the original rate to be restored if payments are received on time for six months. The law would also require banks to get customers’ permission before allowing them to go over their limits, for which they would have to pay a fee.

One hates to think of what additional “help” Congress plans on providing for us in the future.

Fed to BoA: ‘We Will Not Leave You in the Lurch’

Thursday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform questioned Ken Lewis about Bank of America’s purchase of Merrill Lynch and the subsequent injection of tens of billions of taxpayer funds into Bank of America.

While much of the hearing focused on Lewis’ leadership of Bank of America, the hearing also touched upon the more important questions of government regulators pressuring BoA to purchase Merrill even after BoA realized that Merrill’s losses were greater than expected.

One of the basic tenets of sound regulation, exercised in the public interest, is that regulators remain at “arm’s length” from the entities they regulate. As defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, “arm’s length” relates to “dealings between two parties who are not related or not on close terms and who are presumed to have roughly equal bargaining power; not involving a confidential relationship.”

If anything, it appears that BoA and the federal government were in a bear hug, rather than at arm’s length. As described in Lewis’ notes on one of his many conversations about the Merrill deal with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Bernanke told Lewis, “We will not leave you in the lurch.” Given the funds subsequently injected into BoA, one can say that Chairman Bernanke is at least a man of his word.

One of the significant problems arising from extensive government ownership of private entities is that in regulating those entities, the government no longer has the ability to be a neutral, objective arbitrator. Whether it is BoA or GM, government officials will come under increasing pressure to see a positive return on the taxpayer’s investment. One should not be surprised if that pressure manifests itself by government officials favoring the very companies they have invested in.

While BoA has been saved, it appears that the rule of law has been “left in the lurch.”

If You Like Fannie Mae, You’ll Love Auto Mac

While Bank of America and Citi grabbed most of the attention in the recently released bank “stress tests”  one of the biggest capital holes to be filled is that of GMAC, which under the stress test’s relatively light assumptions will need to raise another $11.5 billion in capital.

As one of the smaller of the stressed tested banks, and having almost no trading and counterparty risk – and hence little or no systemic risk, GMAC would hardly seem the candidate for any additional bailout funds.  Were GMAC to fold, our financial markets would hardly notice.  Who might notice is our auto manufacturers.

Just as easy credit inflated our housing market, it was easy credit – who can forget 0% financing – that lead the auto sales boom of the early 2000’s.  Just as many see Fannie and Freddie – along with help from the Federal Reserve – as leading us to a housing recovery, many also see GMAC as being at the heart of any recovery in the auto industry.

Given the state of the auto industry and the increasing level of defaults on auto loans, the safe bet is that GMAC will have a tough time rasing the needed $11.5 billion from non-governmental sources.

Once the government becomes a majority owner of GMAC, its only a matter of time until its focus shifts from re-bulding its financial health to expanding the American Dream of auto-ownership.