Tag: credit

End the Credit Rating Monopoly

Earlier this week, SEC Chair Mary Shapiro appeared before Congress to suggest ways to fix the failings in our credit rating agencies.   Sadly her proposals miss the market, although that shouldn’t be so surprising as her suggestions appear to rest upon a misunderstanding of the problem.

The thrust of the SEC’s current approach is more disclosure, such as releasing “pre-ratings” that debt issuers may get before final issuance.  Additional disclosure of ratings methodology and assumptions is likely to be useless.  Almost all that information was available during the building housing bubble.  The problem is that the rating agencies had little incentive to go beyond the consensus forecasts of increasing to at most modest declines in home prices.  These same assumptions were the foundation of almost all government economic forecasting as well, yet few believe that forcing CBO or OMB to disclosure more of their forecasts will cure our budget imbalances.  What is needed is a change in incentives.

Here again the SEC seems to misunderstand the incentives at work, but then recognizing such would force the SEC to admit its own role in creating those some perverse incentives.  The SEC’s notion that agencies issue favorable ratings in order to gain business misses the most basic fact of the ratings business - they don’t have to compete for business, any debt issuer wanting to place “investment grade” debt has to use the agencies, and often has to use more than one of them.  Due to a variety of SEC and bank regulations, there is almost no competition among the rating agencies.  They have been given a government created monopoly.  If the rating agencies were, as the SEC proposes, competing strongly for business, then they wouldn’t have been earning huge profits on that business.  Competition erodes a business’ profits.  During the housing boom, the rating agencies continued to make ever more profits - more the sign of a monopoly than one of competition.

The truth is not that the agencies were captive to the debt issuers, but the other way around.  And like any monopolist, the agencies became lazy, slow and fat.  The real fix for the failure of the credit raters is to reduce the excessive reliance on their judgements inherent in most securities, banking and insurance regulations.  An investment grade rating should never serve as a substitute for appropriate due diligence on the part of investors (especially pension fund managers) or regulators.

Why Promiscuous Bail-Outs Never Was a Good Idea

Jeffrey A. Miron explains in Reason why a government bail-out of most everyone was neither the only option nor the best option:

When people try to pin the blame for the financial crisis on the introduction of derivatives, or the increase in securitization, or the failure of ratings agencies, it’s important to remember that the magnitude of both boom and bust was increased exponentially because of the notion in the back of everyone’s mind that if things went badly, the government would bail us out. And in fact, that is what the federal government has done. But before critiquing this series of interventions, perhaps we should ask what the alternative was. Lots of people talk as if there was no option other than bailing out financial institutions. But you always have a choice. You may not like the other choices, but you always have a choice. We could have, for example, done nothing.

By doing nothing, I mean we could have done nothing new. Existing policies were available, which means bankruptcy or, in the case of banks, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation receivership. Some sort of orderly, temporary control of a failing institution for the purpose of either selling off the assets and liquidating them, or, preferably, zeroing out the equity holders, giving the creditors a haircut and making them the new equity holders. Similarly, a bankruptcy or receivership proceeding might sell the institution to some player in the private sector willing to own it for some price.

With that method, taxpayer funds are generally unneeded, or at least needed to a much smaller extent than with the bailout approach. In weighing bankruptcy vs. bailouts, it’s useful to look at the problem from three perspectives: in terms of income distribution, long-run efficiency, and short-term efficiency.

From the distributional perspective, the choice is a no-brainer. Bailouts took money from the taxpayers and gave it to banks that willingly, knowingly, and repeatedly took huge amounts of risk, hoping they’d get bailed out by everyone else. It clearly was an unfair transfer of funds. Under bankruptcy, on the other hand, the people who take most or even all of the loss are the equity holders and creditors of these institutions. This is appropriate, because these are the stakeholders who win on the upside when there’s money to be made. Distributionally, we clearly did the wrong thing.

It’s too late to reverse history.  But it would help if Washington politicians stopped plotting new bail-outs.  At this stage, most every American could argue that they are entitled to a bail-out because most every other American has already received one.

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.

Administration Reform Plan Misses the Mark

The Obama Administration is presenting a misguided, ill-informed remake of our financial regulatory system that will likely increase the frequency and severity of future financial crises. While our financial system, particularly our mortgage finance system, is broken, the Obama plan ignores the real flaws in our current structure, instead focusing on convenient targets.

Shockingly, the Obama plan makes no mention of those institutions at the very heart of the mortgage market meltdown – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These two entities were the single largest source of liquidity for the subprime market during its height. In all likelihood, their ultimate cost to the taxpayer will exceed that of TARP, once TARP repayments have begun. Any reform plan that leaves out Fannie and Freddie does not merit being taken seriously.

Instead of addressing our destructive federal policies aimed at extending homeownership to households that cannot sustain it, the Obama plan calls for increased “consumer protections” in the mortgage industry. Sadly, the Administration misses the basic fact that the most important mortgage characteristic that is determinate of mortgage default is the borrower’s equity. However, such recognition would also require admitting that the government’s own programs, such as the Federal Housing Administration, have been at the forefront of pushing unsustainable mortgage lending.

While the Administration plan recognizes the failure of the credit rating agencies, it appears to misunderstand the source of that failure: the rating agencies’ government-created monopoly. Additional disclosure will not solve that problem. What is needed is an end to the exclusive government privileges that have been granted to the rating agencies. In addition, financial regulators should end the outsourcing of their own due diligence to the rating agencies.

The Administration’s inability to admit the failures of government regulation will only guarantee that the next failures will be even bigger than the current ones.

Senators Want to Delay Housing Recovery

As discussed in a recent Bloomberg piece, several U.S. senators from both parties are pushing to almost double the recently enacted $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers to $15,000. The same senators are also pushing to remove the current income restrictions — $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples — while also removing the first-time buyer requirement.

The intent of the increase, and the original credit, is to increase the demand for housing and to create a “bottom” to the housing market. The flaw of this approach is that it creates a false bottom, one characterized by government-inflated prices and not fundamentals. It was excessive government subsidies into housing that helped create the housing bubble, additional subsidies to re-inflate the bubble will only prolong the actual market adjustment.

If it were only a matter of prolonging the adjustment, then the huge cost of the tax credit might be easier to justify. Yet by encouraging increased housing production, the tax credit will increase supply when we already have a huge glut of housing. Despite housing starts being near 50-year lows, there is still too much construction going on. The way to spur demand in housing is the same way you spur demand in any market: you cut prices.

Removing the income limits makes clear the real intention of the tax credit, to help the wealthiest households. About three-fourths of existing families already fall under the income cap of $75,000. As we move up the income latter, home equity makes up a smaller percentage of one’s total wealth. The richest families can make do with a decline in their housing wealth and continue spending; they have other substantial sources of wealth. If we have learned anything from the housing boom and bust, it should be that continued government efforts to rearrange the housing market have been costly failures.

Who’s Going to Buy Your Debt, Mr. President?

The administration’s presumption that America can borrow its way to prosperity has taken a couple of big hits over the last couple days.

First, just as the Third World debt crisis destroyed the belief among international bankers that countries don’t go bankrupt, so is the West’s borrowing binge ending the belief among international investors that the U.S. and other Western nations are safe economic bets.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Britain was warned by Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service that it may lose its coveted triple-A credit rating, triggering a drop in U.K. bonds and sparking global fears about the consequences of massive debts being incurred by the U.S. and other major nations as they try to dig out from the economic crisis.

The announcement quickly sent waves across the Atlantic. Investors initially dumped U.K. bonds and the pound, heading for the relative safety of U.S. Treasurys. But within hours, worries about an onslaught of new U.S. bond sales and the security of America’s own triple-A rating drove down the prices of U.S. Treasurys.

The yield of the benchmark U.S. 10-year bond, which moves in the opposite direction to the price, rose by 0.15 percentage point from Wednesday to 3.355%, its highest level in six months.

The relative gloom about the U.K. and the U.S. was apparent Thursday in the market for credit-default swaps, where investors can buy and sell insurance against sovereign defaults. Five years of insurance on $10 million in U.K. debt jumped to around $81,000 a year, from $72,000 earlier in the day. U.S. debt insurance cost the equivalent of $37,500 — in the same range as France at $38,000, and Germany at $35,000.

A shot across the bow of the American ship of state, some analysts have called it.

But shots also were being fired from another direction:  East Asia.  The Chinese are starting to have doubts about Uncle Sam’s creditworthiness.  Reports the New York Times:

Leaders in both Washington and Beijing have been fretting openly about the mutual dependence — some would say codependence — created by China’s vast holdings of United States bonds. But beyond the talk, the relationship is already changing with surprising speed.

China is growing more picky about which American debt it is willing to finance, and is changing laws to make it easier for Chinese companies to invest abroad the billions of dollars they take in each year by exporting to America. For its part, the United States is becoming relatively less dependent on Chinese financing.

Financial statistics released by both countries in recent days show that China paradoxically stepped up its lending to the American government over the winter even as it virtually stopped putting fresh money into dollars.

This combination is possible because China has been exchanging one dollar-denominated asset for another — selling the debt of government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in a hurry to buy Treasuries. While this has been clear for months, new data shows that China is also trading long-term Treasuries for short-term notes, highlighting Beijing’s concerns that inflation will erode the dollar’s value in the long run as America amasses record debt.

The national debt is over $11 trillion.  This year’s deficit will run nearly $2 trillion.  Next year the deficit is projected to be $1.2 trillion, but it undoubtedly will run more.  The administration projects an extra $10 trillion in red ink over the coming decade.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need more money.  The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is in trouble.  The FDIC will need more cash to clean up failed banks.  The effectively nationalized auto companies will soak up more funds.  Then there’s the more than $70 trillion in unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities.

But don’t worry, be happy!

Support for Private School Choice Officially “Mainstream”

The USA Today editorializes this morning in support of the DC voucher program and school choice in general. That’s a shift from last year when Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation had to respond to their dismissal of vouchers. From the enlightened board:

As an Education Department spokesman says, “The unions are not happy.” But 20 million low-income school kids need a chance to succeed. School choice is the most effective way to give it to them.

The shift of center-left elite opinion on school choice is a hugely important development, as I noted with the first wave of mainstream media attention to the DC voucher program’s death-sentence:

When elites unite on mainstream issues, the public’s response is relatively nonideological and lopsided. School choice is progressively mainstreaming, slowly but surely moving from a polarized elite debate to one where the intensity and support is weighted in favor of school choice.

When an issue that used to be considered free-market fringe is embraced as a moral litmus test for politicians by liberal editorial boards, the issue-argument has been won. That’s certainly not to say the policy war has been won, but an important battle toward realizing that goal has been.

The opposition’s intensity and moral certitude is bleeding out one program at a time. School choice is no longer an abstract proposition; faces and lives are attached to the 24 private school-choice programs in 14 states and the District of Columbia. In the past four years, four education tax-credit programs have passed that serve at least low-income children…

School-choice opponents might have won the battle over vouchers in the District, but they are losing the larger war. They have inadvertently revealed what’s truly at stake; not funding issues or public school ideology, but our promise to all children of a fair shot at success in life.

Choice opponents are on the wrong side of right and the wrong side of history.