Tag: financial crisis

The Fraud From Basel

Despite every major US bank being declared by regulators as “well capitalized” prior to the financial crisis, we still found ourselves watching the government plow hundreds of billions of capital into said banks.  How can this be?  The answer is quite simple:  we were lied to.  Maybe that’s a little harsh, after all these banks did meet the regulatory definition of “well capitalized”.  But when push came to shove, market participants rightly ignored regulatory capital.  After all you cannot use things like “deferred tax losses” to pay your bills with.

It is hard to improve upon Martin Wolf’s observation in today’s Financial Times:  “This amount of equity is far below levels markets would impose if investors did not continue to expect governments to bail out creditors in a crisis.”  This point is best illustrated by the trend in bank capital over the last 100 years.  Back when banks were actually subject to market forces and were not explicitly subjected to government capital standards, they held significantly more capital.   In 1900 the average US bank capital ratio was close to 25%, now it’s closer to 5%.  The trend is unmistakable:  the more government has regulated bank capital, the less capital banks have ended up holding.

Despite the claims of the banking industry, what the bank regulators have just delivered with “Basel III” is simply another fraud upon the public and investors.  Any framework that continues to treat say Greek or Fannie Mae debt as largely risk-free is a sham.

The real solution is to first end the various government bailouts, guarantees and subsidies behind the banking system, subjecting bank creditors to actual losses, while also abandoning the charade that is capital regulation.   Sadly politicians (see the Dodd-Frank Act) and regulators continue to simply tweak a flawed and morally bankrupt system.

GOP Spending Cap

Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee have announced support for caps on the discretionary spending portion of the federal budget. According to press reports, discretionary spending under the cap for fiscal year 2011 would be approximately $20 billion less than what the president has proposed.

Appropriators – often referred to as the “third party” in Washington – exist to do one thing: spend other people’s money. Getting appropriators to agree to place any sort of limit themselves is a plus.

However, it’s hard to get excited about spending $20 billion less than the president. As the following chart shows, discretionary outlays have soared in the past decade:

With three months still to go in the current budget year, the federal deficit has already hit the trillion dollar mark. By year’s end the government will have borrowed about $1.4 trillion. It’s like the entire discretionary budget – defense and hundreds of other activities – are all financed by borrowing from the next generation.

Republicans apparently want agitated voters to see this gesture as evidence that the party is serious about out-of-control spending and deficits. But capping spending at the already exorbitant levels that Republicans helped reach isn’t exactly a big reform. Instead, Republicans need to propose the elimination of entire agencies and major programs for them to be taken seriously as a party willing to confront the nation’s looming financial crisis.

Senate Bill Sows Seeds of Next Financial Crisis

With Majority Leader Harry Reid’s announcement that Democrats have the 60 votes needed for final passage of the Dodd-Frank financial bill, we can take a moment and remember this as the moment Congress planted the seeds of the next financial crisis.

In choosing to ignore the actual causes of the financial crisis – loose monetary policy, Fannie/Freddie, and never-ending efforts to expand homeownership – and instead further expanding government guarantees behind financial risk-taking, Congress is eliminating whatever market discipline might have been left in the banking industry.  But we shouldn’t be surprised, since this administration and Congress have consistently chosen to ignore the real problems facing our country – unemployment, perverse government incentives for risk-taking, massive fiscal imbalances – and instead pursued an agenda of rewarding special interests and expanding government.

At least we’ll know what to call the next crisis: the Dodd-Frank Crash.

Two Cheers for the U.S. Economy

Two articles in today’s Wall Street Journal deal with the housing sector.  They complement each other. Journal reporters note that “Industry Speeds Recovery, And Housing Slows It Down.”  The story notes that that “ground-breaking for new homes and applications for building permits both plunged last month.”  Meanwhile, U.S. industrial output showed strong growth in May.

Bravo for both numbers, which are inter-related.  The headline (over which reporters have no control) reflects conceptual confusion.  U.S. industrial production is strong at least in part because construction of new homes is weak.   The bloated home sector is no longer absorbing a disproportionate share of economic resources.  The new homeowners tax credit has mercifully expired, ending that bit of misguided stimulus.

David Wessel’s article, “Rethinking Home Ownership,” further clarifies the reallocation of resources taking place in the U.S. economy.  Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government adopted a number of policies to stimulate home ownership.  As Wessel makes clear, it was a bipartisan effort.  Home ownership rates rose from around 65% to a peak of 69.4% in 2004.  It was an unsustainable policy, a true asset bubble.

Home ownership rates have now fallen back to where they began, or even below.  The experience of the 1990s and early 2000s in housing demonstrates why government stimulus is not a permanent source of demand, nor the path to sustainable economic growth. Lest we forget, the folly of these programs is measured not just in housing numbers, but in shattered dreams and hopes and ruined lives. And the terrible financial crisis to which these programs contributed

Congress to Expand Deposit Insurance

While I never had much hope that this Congress would actually fix the real causes of the financial crisis - loose monetary policy, Fannie/Freddie - I had hoped that they wouldn’t do a lot to make an already bad situation worse.  Boy, was that hope naive.

Take the area of federally provided deposit insurance.  There is a massive amount of scholarly work, much of it empirical, that demonstrates that expanding the level and scope of deposit insurance results in more frequent and severe financial crises.  So what is Congress considering?  Yes, you guessed it:  expanded deposit insurance.

Recall during the financial crisis Congress raised the coverage limit to $250,000 - forget that there were never any premiums charged ahead of time for this coverage.  The FDIC also, without any basis in law, offered unlimited coverage to non-interest bearing accounts, targeted mostly at business customers.  While these expansions may have brought the system some short term stability, they come at the cost of considerable long term instability.

Congress is also making the misguided change of basing  insurance premiums on total assets rather than total deposits.  This will punish banks for relying on sources of funding other than deposits, giving banks an incentive to shift their funding toward deposits, putting the taxpayer ultimately at even greater risk.

So why all these expanded bank guarantees? Smaller banks view these as changes that would give them a competitive advantage relative to larger banks.  After all community and regional banks are far more dependent on deposits as a source of funds.  And while big banks are damaged politically, the smaller banks, despite their higher failure rates, have managed to maintain their political ability to shift the costs of their risk-taking onto the backs of the taxpayer.

Congress Begins Conference on Financial Regulation

Today begins the televised political theatre that Barney Frank has been waiting months for:  the first public meeting of the House and Senate conferees on the two financial regulation bills.  While there are a handful of important differences between the House and Senate bills, these differences are overshadowed by what the bills have in common.  The most important, and tragic, commonality is that both bills ignore the real causes of the financial crisis and focus on convenient political targets.

As our financial system was brought to its knees by an exploding housing bubble, fueled by government mandates and distortions, one would think, just maybe, that Congress would roll back these distortions.  Despite their role in contributing to the crisis and the size of their bailout, however, neither bill barely mentions Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.   Except, of course, to continue their favored and privileged status, such as their exemption from a proposed new “consumer protection” agency.  What we really need is a new “taxpayer protection” agency.

Nor will either bill change the government’s meddling in what is probably the most important price in the economy:  the interest rate.  Given the overwhelming evidence that loose monetary policy was a direct cause of the housing bubble, one might expect Congress to spend time and effort preventing the Fed from creating another bubble.  Not only does Congress ignore the issue, the Senate won’t even allow GAO to look at the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy.

Instead of spending the next few weeks gazing into the camera, Congress should stop and gaze into the mirror.  This was a crisis conceived and born in Washington DC.  The Rayburn building serving as the proverbial back-seat of the housing bubble.

‘Make Wall Street traders and CEOs fear for their lives, or at least for their freedom to travel.’

Recall the unionists’ siege of the Maryland banker’s home the other day? Perhaps it was inspired in part by this screed on the world financial crisis that appeared a little while back on the blog New Deal 2.0, published by the left-leaning Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Other advice in the same piece on how to handle execs from Goldman Sachs and similar investment banks: “Build some Guantanamo-like facility to hold these enemy financial combatants until they can be tried, convicted, and properly punished.” And: “Post the names of all managers and traders on Interpol. Arrest anyone who tries to board a plane, train, or boat; confiscate their passports; revoke their visas and work permits; and put a hold on their bank accounts until culpability can be assessed.”

Tongue in cheek-ism, evidence of a genuine impulse to dispense with the rule of law, or some of both? Well, judge for yourself, bearing in mind what sorts of rhetoric serve in accusing, say, the Tea Party movement of extremism and worse. The “braintrusters” roster of the Roosevelt Institute, incidentally, boasts such respectables as Jonathan Alter, Hendrik Hertzberg, appeals court nominee Goodwin Liu, Joseph Stiglitz and Sean Wilentz.

As part of a symposium the other day, the recently launched blog Think Tanked asked me to help define what a think tank is and what it should do. My advice on the latter was to “let ‘em rip” – the scholars and thinkers, that is – but maybe in the case of the Roosevelt Institute I’d advise making an exception.