Tag: financial crisis

Can We Rely on Inflation Expectations?

The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that in his recent press conference Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke used the words “inflation expectations” (or some variation) 21 times. His argument is that we need not worry about inflation because we will see it coming, and then the Fed will do something about it. Such an argument relies heavily on the ability of inflation expectations to predict inflation. Which of course raises the question, just how predictive are inflation expectations?

The graph below compares inflation, as measured by CPI, and inflation expectations, as measured by the University of Michigan consumer survey, the longest times series we have on inflation expectations.

Clearly the two move together. For instance, the correlation between current inflation and expectations is almost 1 (its 0.93), while the correlation between inflation and actual inflation a year later is slightly less at 0.81. The relationship declines as we move further into the future. So yes, consumer expectations appear a reasonable predictor of the direction of inflation. However, they don’t appear to be a great predictor of the magnitude or the frequency of changes. For instance, the standard deviation of actual inflation is about twice that of expected inflation. As one can easily see from the chart, expectations are quite sticky and rarely pick up the extremes. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, expectations did move up, but then never reached the heights actually experienced, nor did consumers ever actually expect deflation during the recent financial crisis (if we are going to base policy on expectations, we should at least be consistent about it).

For about the last decade we also have market based measures of inflation, based upon inflation-indexed bonds. The TIPS measure tends to be less correlated with actual inflation, but does a better job of capturing the extremes. Although interesting enough, TIPS was already predicting that deflation would be short-lived before we even experienced any deflation.

The point is that while expectations are useful for qualitatively purposes, they do not have a strong record of recording the extremes. Given that most of us expect some positive level of inflation, the real debate is over how much. In this regard, either survey or market-based expectations are likely to be both a lagging indicator and an under-estimate of actual inflation.

Another Day in the Life of the IRS

A previous post of mine at International Liberty addressed the debate over whether Republicans should trim the IRS’s budget. The following case study should convince everyone that the answer is a resounding yes.

First, some background from a Joe Nocera column in the New York Times. The federal government made a rather troubling decision a few years ago to investigate, prosecute, and ultimately imprison a random home-loan borrower named Charlie Engle for the crime of mortgage fraud.

Mr. Engle is far from blameless in this saga, but I noted in another post that it was rather odd that the government would target a nobody while letting all the big fish swim away. This episode certainly paints a picture of a government that has one set of rules for ordinary people, but an entirely different set of rules for the political elite and those who make big campaign contributions to that ruling class.

But I also noted that I’m not a lawyer or legal expert and was unsure about the degree to which the big players actually broke laws, or whether they simply made stupid business decisions (often encouraged by bad government policy).

The most upsetting part of the story, though, is how the government wound up targeting Mr. Engle. It turns out that an IRS agent, Robert Norlander, must have been competing for the IRS’s Bully-of-the-Year Award because here are some of the things he did:

  • Norlander decided to snoop into Engle’s affairs because he saw a film about him training for a marathon. In other words, there was no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, nothing. Just the perverse decision of an IRS bully to go after someone.
  • Norlander admitted a pattern of thuggish behavior, stating that he will snoop into someone’s private life simply because that person drives an expensive car.
  • Norlander continued to investigate and persecute Engle, subjecting him to undercover surveillance, even though his tax returns showed no wrongdoing.
  • Norlander even engaged in “dumpster dives” to look for evidence of wrongdoing in Mr. Engle’s garbage. Keep in mind that there is no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, and Engle’s tax returns were legit.
  • Norlander used a sleazy KGB tactic by sending an attractive woman to flirt with Mr. Engle in hopes of getting him to somehow admit to a crime.
  • Norlander failed to find any evidence of a tax crime. He couldn’t even hit Engle with a money-laundering offense. But the undercover agent who was part of the “honey trap” was wearing a wire and supposedly got Engle to admit to mortgage fraud and Norlander used that extremely flimsy evidence to justify a Justice Department case against Engle.

In other words, this whole thing has a terrible stench. Assuming the details in the story are accurate, we have an IRS agent engaging in a random vendetta against someone, and then apparently justifying his jihad by figuring out how to nail the guy on a very weak charge of mortgage fraud. I would describe Norlander as a “rogue agent,” but apparently this behavior is business-as-usual at the IRS.

Here are the relevant passages from Nocera’s column:

Mr. Engle received $30,000 for his participation. The film, “Running the Sahara,” was released in the fall of 2008. Eventually, it caught the attention of Robert W. Nordlander, a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service. As Mr. Nordlander later told the grand jury, “Being the special agent that I am, I was wondering, how does a guy train for this because most people have to work from nine to five and it’s very difficult to train for this part-time.” (He also told the grand jurors that sometimes, when he sees somebody driving a Ferrari, he’ll check to see if they make enough money to afford it. When I called Mr. Nordlander and others at the I.R.S. to ask whether this was an appropriate way to choose subjects for criminal tax investigations, my questions were met with a stone wall of silence.) Mr. Engle’s tax records showed that while his actual income was substantial, his taxable income was quite small, in part because he had a large tax-loss carry forward, due to a business deal he’d been involved in several years earlier. (Mr. Nordlander would later inform the grand jury only of his much lower taxable income, which made it seem more suspicious.) Still convinced that Mr. Engle must be hiding income, Mr. Nordlander did undercover surveillance and took “Dumpster dives” into Mr. Engle’s garbage. He mainly discovered that Mr. Engle lived modestly. In March 2009, still unsatisfied, Mr. Nordlander persuaded his superiors to send an attractive female undercover agent, Ellen Burrows, to meet Mr. Engle and see if she could get him to say something incriminating. In the course of several flirtatious encounters, she asked him about his investments. …Unbeknownst to Mr. Engle, Ms. Burrows was wearing a wire. …No tax charges were ever brought, even though that was Mr. Nordlander’s original rationale. Money laundering, the suspicion of which was needed to justify the undercover sting, was a nonissue as well. As for that “confession” to Ms. Burrows, take a closer look. It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.

Stories like this explain why I’m a libertarian.

As George Washington supposedly said, ”Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Unfortunately, thanks to bad laws and thuggish bureaucrats, government is definitely now our master and no longer just a servant. The IRS is a grim example of this phenomenon. President Obama, not surprisingly, wants to increase their budget.

Fannie, Freddie: Late to the Party?

Debates over the causes of the financial crisis sometimes center on whether Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were “late to the party” in terms of subprime lending.  As it relates to the recent crisis, I address this question elsewhere

The GSEs and their apologists do claim to have been big contributors to one party: the expansion of homeownership in the United States.  Yet the facts suggest otherwise.

The chart below compares the GSE’s market-share, in terms of home mortgage lending (as reported in the Fed’s Flow of Funds data), with the national homeownership rate (as reported in the Decennial Census). 

The chart makes readily apparent that the largest increases in homeownership occurred before the GSEs played much of a role, if any, in the mortgage market.  For instance, by 1970, the homeownership rate had reached 62.3, yet the GSE market-share was just above 6%.  Even a decade after Fannie was “privatized,” the GSE market-share was still under 20%.

The real growth in GSE activity occurred during the 1980s, particularly the later half.  The reason?  The implosion of the savings and loan industry.  It seems we simply substituted several thousand mismanaged and under-capitalized thrifts for two large mismanaged and under-capitalized thrifts.  Interestingly enough, as the GSEs were doubling their market-share in the 1980s the homeownership rate actually fell.  By the time the GSEs had reached a market-share of 50%, the U.S. homeownership rate had already come close to the rate we see today, of 66%.

The data clearly show that we became a nation of homeowners with little assistance from Fannie and Freddie.  Not only did they join that party late, they simply took the place of the last group to ruin the party:  the S&Ls.

SEC Employees Hard at Work during Financial Crisis

Thanks to Denver lawyer Kevin Evans, who filed the Freedom of Information Act Request, we now know that several employees of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) might have missed the financial crisis because their eyes were glued to their computer screens watching porn.

The chart below shows the number of incidents, as reported by the SEC’s Inspector General.  What caught my eye was that the number of porn-viewing incidents shows a massive spike in 2008, when the financial crisis was at its worst.

It should, of course, be noted that the overall level of incidents was small in number, so we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions about the SEC overall.  We should, however, be concerned at at least one of these employees was being paid $222,418 a year.  I might be able to accept someone getting paid $20,000 a year spending their work time watching porn, but not $222,418.  But then at least this employee has an excuse for missing the financial crisis; we are still waiting to hear the excuse for the SEC’s non-porn viewing employees (perhaps they were too busy on Facebook to keep an eye on Wall Street).

Bank Deregulation and Income Inequality

Since the financial crisis, “deregulation” has become a catch-all phrase for everything that went wrong in our financial markets.  Unfortunately said deregulation is rarely ever explained, but is rather asserted.  To truly inform policy debates, discussions must center on specific instances of deregulation.  One such example of banking deregulation that did actually occur was the The Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994 (imagine that, a Democrat Congress and a Democrat President deregulating the banking industry).  The heart of Riegle-Neal was to remove barriers to interstate branching. 

A recent article in the Journal of Finance looks at the impact of bank branching deregulation on the distribution of income across U.S. States.  A working paper version can be found here.  The researchers find that as bank deregulation increased competition and improved efficiency, “deregulation materially tightened the distribution of income by boosting incomes in the lower part of the income distribution while having little impact on incomes above the median. Bank deregulation tightened the distribution of income by increasing the relative wage rates and working hours of unskilled workers.”  The bottom line is that the increased competition that resulted from deregulation disproportionately benefited those on the bottom of the income distribution.  As Washington continues to pile additional new regulations upon the banking industry, we should bear in mind that much of the impact of increased regulation might be felt by those least able to bear it.

The extent to which regulatory barriers in banking benefits the rich at the expense of the poor is also illustrated in a forthcoming article, again in the Journal of Finance.  In this article, the authors find in the early 20th century, counties where the elite had disproportionately large land holdings had fewer banks per capita, with costlier credit, and more limited access. The authors see this as suggestive that elites restrict financial development in order to limit access to finance, and hence maintain existing income inequalities.

One of the lessons I take away from these papers is that we need to examine banking regulation/deregulation as it actually occurs and is implemented, and not how we believe some all knowing, benevolent government would impose it.  The odds seem to me that the more extensive is banking regulation, the more likely it is to be captured by economic elites and narrow interests.

Johan Norberg on Bubbles Yet to Come

Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg, author of In Defense of Global Capitalism and Financial Fiasco, has the cover story in this week’s issue of The Spectator, the eminent 182-year-old British weekly. Titled “The great debt bubble of 2011,” it warns that governments are repeating their mistakes of the past decade:

There is a broad consensus that the financial crisis of 2007 was at least in part a result of record-low interest rates, huge deficits and large-scale credit-financed consumption. Today, governments across the world are trying to solve the crisis — by means of record-low interest rates, huge deficits and large-scale credit-financed consumption. This time, they are also using more novel means of creating easy money: bank bailouts, stimulus packages and quantitative easing.

After discussing the soaring debt burdens of European countries, Norberg writes:

At this point, it is traditional to say: thank God for those roaring economics in East Asia, India and Brazil. But how real is their remarkable growth? Look closely, and even this may be in part a result of artificial stimulus. India’s and Brazil’s growth is financed by short-term capital from abroad: money that could disappear overnight. Easy money always ends up somewhere. The last time it was in property, this time it is in emerging markets (and often in the property markets of emerging markets)….

Aside from the foreign capital inflows, China had its own stimulus package, as big as America’s. Beijing has printed yuan and pushed banks and local governments to spend like drunken Keynesians. Absurdly, China’s money supply is now larger than America’s, even though its economy is a third of the size. We can see the results of this stimulus in stock market prices and in new roads, bridges and housing complexes all over the country.

Happy New Year! And watch for more on incipient bubbles in the January-February issue of Cato Policy Report.

Advocates Complain Banks Not Putting FHA at Enough Risk

A constant narrative of the financial crisis is that banks out-smarted the government by taking excessive risks, and that if only we had empowered regulators, the whole crisis would have been avoided.  The truth, however, is that government was often the driver of excessive risk-taking, and nowhere is that more true than in the mortgage market.

One of the worst offenders has been the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).  Even today, one can get an FHA backed loan with only a 3.5% downpayment.  After the financing of seller concessions, the borrower can leave the closing table with zero, or even negative, equity.  FHA will even offer these low equity loans to subprime borrowers, those with the worst credit history.  If there’s anything to be learned from the financial crisis, combining high risk borrowers with low downpayment loans is asking for default.

Despite FHA’s loose standards, several lenders have responsibly chosen to impose higher underwriting standards than FHA.  Sadly instead of being praised for being slightly more responsible than FHA, these lenders are being attacked by so-called consumer advocates for not taking enough risk.

The Washington Post reports that a coalition of advocates is planning to file complaints against lenders who have higher standards than FHA, claiming that higher standards discriminate against minorities, since minorities on average have lower credit scores.  It seems some have learned nothing, continuing to push the very same policies that contributed to the crisis.  If anything, FHA should start moving in the direction of the more responsible lenders and improve its woefully weak underwriting standards.  Congress should also move in the direction of requiring meaningful downpayments on FHA loans, as well as shifting some of the credit risk back to the lender.