Tag: financial institutions

Who Wants To Be ‘Too-Big-To-Fail’?

I’ve argued that the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill does not end “too-big-to-fail”, that is the belief that certain companies are implicitly backed by the government because policy-makers are unlikely to let said institutions actually fail. By naming some companies as ”systemically important” – as required by Dodd-Frank – the government is actually sending a signal as to who is likely to be bailed out.

As evidenced by regulators’ behavior during the financial crisis, the prime beneficiaries would be the creditors of these companies, as even when shareholders and management suffered, creditors generally did not. This should allow such firms to borrow at a cost lower than firms not deemed systemically important.

Given this funding advantage, it would seem natural that firms would want to be included as systemically important. Sure they might be examined by bank regulators more often, but that’s hardly a large cost compared to the funding advantage.

Congressman Frank has attempted to refute that there are any benefits from being deemed “systemically important” by the fact that ”so many financial institutions have lobbied against being designated in this way.” What his argument misses, or chooses to ignore, is that these benefits are not the same for all institutions. It is companies that rely heavily on debt market financing, such as banks, that have the most to gain. And under Dodd-Frank, the largest banks are automatically included. They have no opportunity to lobby to be in or out. The firms that are not automatically in, the most important of which are insurance companies, do not fund themselves primarily via the debt markets. Insurance companies get most of their funding from the premiums paid by their policyholders. And those premiums must be sufficient to cover expected losses, which have little to do with funding costs in the debt markets. Other non-bank financial companies, such as hedge funds and private equity, do not gain to the same extent that banks do because they have traditionally been a lot less leveraged than banks.

So the answer to Mr. Frank’s point is that those who have the most to gain from being ”systemically important” are already included, those with the least the gain are the very ones lobbying against being included. The real perversity is that once they are included, they will have a strong incentive to shift their business models toward more debt funding, making them riskier and more likely to fail (debt markets are far more fickle than insurance policy-holders). We are left relying solely on the judgment of the regulators to avoid this outcome, the same regulators who were asleep at the wheel as the housing bubble expanded.

Bill Daley and ‘Too Big To Fail’

MIT Professor Simon Johnson recently argued that Bill Daley’s appointment as Obama’s Chief of Staff signals that “too big to fail,” as it relates to our largest financial institutions, is here to stay.  Personally I never thought it was in doubt.  With Geithner at Treasury and Dodd-Frank further codifiying “too big to fail,” its been clear for some time that the bailout net is larger than it’s ever been, and is not being pulled back. 

That said, Professor Johnson’s focus on Daley distracts from the real issue, which is changing our bank regulatory structure to end bailouts.  The focus on Daley has the potential to lead us down that path of “if we just had the right people in government…”  We shouldn’t be designing our regulatory structures with the “right” people in mind, but rather with the rule of law in mind.  In fact, one of the benefits of the Obama administration is that it serves as a great test of the “right people” hypothesis of government.  One is unlikely to see a more left-leaning White House than this one, so if this one gets captured by special interests, including Wall Street, than it’s a safe bet that any future administration will as well. 

Since I believe most of us actually want to end “too big to fail,” the real question is how to do it.  It strikes me that we have three options:  regulate the largest institutions to death (or competitive disadvantage), break them up, or credibly impose losses on their creditors.  Ultimately I think the regulation approach is bound to fail, if for no other reason than regulatory capture.   (Even Elizabeth Warren seems to get this: “Regulations, over time, fail. I want to see Congress focus more on a credible system for liquidating the banks that are considered too big to fail.”)  Breaking them up might sound attractive in theory, but I have a hard time seeing how it truly works in practice.  After all, few in Washington viewed Bear Stearns as “too big to fail.”  Accordingly, I believe the best approach would be to force creditors to take losses or be converted into equity.  To make this credible, we must bind the hands of the regulators.  As long as the Fed, Treasury, or the FDIC can inject money, then bailouts are always on the table.    

Sadly, what the Daley appointment reminds us is that any attempt to end “too big to fail” will likely have to wait until the next administration.  Not only is this one wed to bailouts, the President would likely veto any bill that really tied the hands of the Fed.

Fannie Mae and Greece’s Problems Enabled by Basel

On the surface the failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would appear to have little connection to the fiscal crisis in Greece, outside of both occurring in or around the time of a global financial crisis.  Of course in the case of Fannie and Freddie, primary blame lies with their management and with Congress.  Primary blame for Greece’s problems clearly lies with the Greek government. 

Neither Greece or Fannie would have been able to get into as much trouble, however, if financial institutions around the world had not loaded up on their debt.  One reason, if not the primary reason, for bailing out both Greece and the US’s government sponsored enterprises is the adverse impact their failures would have on the banking system.

Yet bankers around the world did not blindly load up on both Greek and GSE debt, they were encouraged to by the bank regulators via the Basel capital standards.  Under Basel, the amount of capital a bank is required to hold against an asset is a function of its risk category.  For the highest risk assets, like corporate bonds, banks are required to hold 8%.  Yet for those seen as the lowest risk, short term government bonds, banks aren’t required to hold any capital.  So while you’d have to hold 8% capital against say, Ford bonds, you don’t have to hold any capital against Greek debt.  Depending on the difference between the weights and the debt yields, such a system provides very strong incentives to load up on the highest yielding bonds of the least risky class.  Fannie and Freddie debt required holding only 1.6% capital.  Very small losses in either Greek or GSE debt would cause massive losses to the banks, due to their large holdings of both.

The potential damage to the banking system from the failures of Greece and the GSEs is not the result of a free market run wild.  It was the very clear and predictable result of misguided and mismanaged government policies meant to create a steady market for government borrowing.

Planned Economy, Privacy Problems

If someone asked you what’s wrong with a planned economy, your first answer might not be “privacy.” But it should be. For proof, look no further than the financial regulation bill the Senate is debating. Its 1,400 pages contain strong prescriptions for a government-micromanaged economy—and the undoing of your financial privacy. Here’s a look at some of the personal data collection this revamp of financial services regulation will produce.

The “Office of Financial Research” (sec. 152) will have a “Data Center” (sec. 154) that requires submisson of data on any financial activity that poses a threat to financial stability.

Use your noggin, now: Will government researchers know in advance what might cause financial instability? Will they home in on precisely that? No.

This is government entrée into any financial activities federal bureaucrats suspect might cause instability. It’s carte blanche to examine all financial transactions—including yours. (Confidentiality rules? The better view is that privacy is lost when the government takes data from your control, but we’ll come back to confidentiality.)

The Office of Financial Research is also a sop to industry. Morgan Stanley estimates that it will save the company 20 to 30 percent of its operating costs. The advocates for this bureaucracy want to replace the competitive environment for financial data with a uniform government data platform. Students of technology will instantly recognize what this data monoculture means: If the government’s data and assumptions are bad, everyone’s data and assumptions are bad, and all players in the financial services system fall together. The Office of Financial Research itself poses a threat to financial stability.

But all that’s about money. On with privacy…

The “Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection” (sec. 1011) in the bill is another beetle boring into your personal financial life. Among its mandates is to “gather information … regarding the organization, business conduct, markets, and activities of persons operating in consumer financial services markets” (sec. 1022(c)(4)).

In case you’re wondering, the definition of “person” includes “an individual” (sec. 1002(17)). The Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection can investigate your business conduct and activities.

Come now. All this private data gathering can’t possibly be what they mean to do, can it?

Section 1071(b) requires any deposit-taking financial institution to geo-code customer addresses and maintain records of deposits for at least three years. Think of the government having its own Google map of where you and your neighbors do your banking. The Bureau may “use the data for any other purpose as permitted by law,” such as handing it off to other bureaus, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Still, that’s really not what the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection is supposed to be about, is it? It can’t be!

It’s not. Nor was the Social Security number about creating a uniform national identifier that facilitates both lawful (excessive) data collection and identity fraud. The construction of surveillance infrastructure doesn’t turn on the intentions of its builders. They’re just giving another turn to the wheels that crush privacy.

Promises of confidentiality and “de-identified” data are not reassuring. It’s getting harder and harder to collect data that are not personally identifiable. Latanya Sweeney’s 2002 “k-anonymity” paper is best known for establishing how anonymous data can be “re-identified,” unraveling promised confidentiality and privacy.

Just a few “anonymous” data points can pick out individuals. Data-driven triangulation on individuals will get easier as data collection grows society-wide. Confidentiality rules in the bill will tend to fail over time, if they’re not simply reversed when some future exigency demands it. If we’re to maintain privacy, government data collection should be shrinking, not growing.

How do you manage an economy from the top? You collect data. Thanks to computing and communications, there are lots of data available nowadays. Maybe the failed Progressive-Era dream of “scientific government” has been revitalized by the idea that data can shore up regulation’s natural defects.

My colleague Mark Calabria has investigated and drawn into question whether it was a lack of consumer protection that caused the financial crisis. But Washington, D.C. has determined that Washington, D.C. should manage the financial services industry. Your personal and private financial affairs will be managed there too.

Lehman’s Failure Taught Us Nothing

Several commentators have reacted to Senator McConnell’s floor statement regarding the Dodd bill as a defense of “doing nothing”.  And accordingly argue that such a position would be, in the words of Simon Johnson, both dangerous and irresponsible.  This familiar canard is based upon the oft repeated assertion that the failure of Lehman proved that we cannot simply let large financial companies enter bankruptcy.

The simple, but important, fact is that we have no idea what would have happened had we let AIG and Bear go into bankruptcy proceedings.  Nor do we know what would have happened if Lehman had been saved.  Macroeconomics does not have the luxury of running natural experiments to determine the impact of a corporate failure.   Scholars have an obligation to accurately reflect the uncertainties in the debate.  Those that assert Lehman proved anything, are being at best disingenuous, and at worst, dishonest.

Let us, however, put forth a few things we do know:

  1. We know none of Lehman’s counterparties failed as a result of Lehman’s failures.  Just as we know none of AIG”s counterparties would have failed if they did not get 100 cents on the dollar from their CDS positions.  So where exactly is the proof of contagion?
  2. We know we had a nasty housing bubble.  We were going to lose millions of jobs in construction and real estate regardless of what we did.  We knew financial institutions heavily invested in housing would suffer.  How exactly would saving Lehman have prevented any of that?

The debate over ending bailouts and too-big-to-fail will not progress, we will not learn a thing, if we let simple, empty assertion pass as fact.  Much of the public remains angry at Washington because those responsible, such as Bernanke and Geithner, have never laid out a believable or plausible narrative for the bailouts.  It always comes back to “panic.”  If we are ever to hope to return to being a country governed by the rule of law, rather than the whims of men, then we need a lot more of an explanation than “panic.”

A Georgian Constitution of Economic Liberty

The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is a late economic reformer, having started such liberalization after the Rose Revolution in 2004. But it is one of the most successful post-Soviet reformers, and it may be the country that has implemented the largest range of serious market reforms in the shortest period of time. Its growth rate from 2004 through 2008 averaged 7.6 percent per year (which includes the comparatively low 2.1 percent rate of 2008 that resulted from the global financial crisis and the war with Russia).

Last month, the government submitted a draft act to Parliament that calls for amending the country’s constitution so that it would safeguard various elements of economic freedom. The amendments would put caps on public debt, spending and deficits; and ban any kind of price controls, state ownership of banks and financial institutions and restrictions on currency convertibility, and any kind of control over the movement of capital. New taxes or increases in tax rates would require approval through a national referendum.

With the possible partial exception of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, I’m not aware of any other constitution that explicitly enshrines economic freedom. I’m told by Georgian colleagues that prospects for passage of the law looks good, with the constitution being amended as early as next month.

What Is ‘Unreasonable’ Compensation? And Who Gets to Decide?

As could be expected, the effects of the financial crisis — and people’s reaction thereto — are starting to make their way to the least political branch of government, the judiciary.  The Supreme Court this term will be hearing several cases that could have serious repercussions on our economic recovery, one of which led us to file an amicus brief.  Here’s the situation:

The Investment Company Act of 1940 places on investment advisers a fiduciary duty with respect to the compensation they receive for the services they provide their clients. In the case of Jones v. Harris Associates, shareholders in various mutual funds contend that their adviser fees were excessive and violated the ICA. The Seventh Circuit, the federal appellate court based in Chicago, affirmed the judgment of the district court that the fees were not excessive but also expressly disapproved of the  methodology for evaluating such claims used by the Second Circuit (based in New York). Judge Frank Easterbrook’s opinion explains that the ICA creates a fiduciary duty but does not act as a rate regulator, and that judicial price-setting does not accompany fiduciary duties. Judge Richard Posner, writing for five judges, dissented from the denial of an en banc rehearing. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case to settle the circuit split.

Our brief supports the investment adviser and makes three arguments:

  1. All persons have a fundamental human right to whatever compensation their contracting partners freely and honestly choose to pay them.
  2. Courts have no power to second-guess the reasonableness of any salary or compensation agreement honestly and freely signed by both contracting parties.
  3. The ICA’s fiduciary duty requires only fair dealing, not any particular outcome.

Thanks to Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur for spearheading this effort, and to Cato legal associate Matthew Aichele for helping with much of the attendant busywork.