Tag: financial markets

Ricardo Paging Alan Blinder

I almost hesitate to suggest that anyone actually read Alan Blinder’s defense of Keynesian economics in today’s Wall Street Journal, except that the piece lays out clearly in my mind why Blinder is so wrong.  The only part you really need to read is:

In sum, you may view any particular public-spending program as wasteful, inefficient, leading to “big government” or objectionable on some other grounds. But if it’s not financed with higher taxes, and if it doesn’t drive up interest rates, it’s hard to see how it can destroy jobs.

So in Blinder’s world, deficits are explicitly not future taxes, despite what I believe is a fairly strong consensus among economists that some form of Ricardian equivalence holds (see John Seater’s literature review and conclusion, “despite its nearly certain invalidity as a literal description of the role of public debt in the economy, Ricardian equivalence holds as a close approximation.”).  Perhaps Blinder is blind to the fact that deficits are so much a part of the public debate today because households absolutely see those deficits as future taxes.

I also think Blinder misses that fact that crowding out can occur without raising interest rates.  As Cato scholar Steve Hanke points out, the Fed’s current policies have basically killed the interbank lending market, which has encouraged banks to load up on Treasuries and Agencies, rather than lend to the productive elements of the economy.  While I sadly don’t expect most mainstream macroeconomists to focus on the link between the banking sector and the macroeconomy, Blinder has no excuse; he served on the Fed board.

As I have argued elsewhere, banks are indeed lending, but to the government, not the private sector.  The simplistic notion that crowding out can only occur via higher interest rates, as if price is ever the only margin along which a decision is made, has done serious harm to macroeconomics.  But then if macroeconomists actually understood the mechanics of financial markets, then we might not be in this mess in the first place.

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.

If Not Fannie, then Who?

A common defense offered for keeping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or something like them, is that the market simply cannot absorb the same level of mortgage lending without them.  The central flaw in this argument is that Fannie and Freddie themselves must be funded by the market.  So if the financial markets can absorb X in GSE debt, then the financial markets can absorb X in mortgages.

Different market participants currently face different capital requirements for the same assets.  To some extent, Fannie and Freddie were a vehicle for shifting mortgage risk from higher capitalized institutions to less capitalized.  If the Obama administration and bank regulators are serious about closing “regulatory gaps” then all entities backed by the govt, implicit or otherwise, should hold the same capital against the same risks.  In the following I will thus assume that differences in capital requirements behind mortgages are irrelevant.

So to determine who could absorb the GSEs’ buying of mortgages, let’s look at who holds GSE debt.  Of the approximately $5 trillion in GSE debt and mortgage backed securities (MBS), about a trillion is held by commercial banks and thrifts.  Another trillion is held by insurance companies and pension funds.  Close to a trillion is held by mutual funds.  That quickly gets one to 3 trillion.  Households and state/local governments also hold close to a trillion.  That leaves us with about a trillion left, held mostly by foreign governments (usually central banks).  For this analysis, I am using data pre-Federal Reserve purchases of GSE debt/MBS.

Given that banks hold about a trillion in excess reserves and over 9 trillion in deposits, I think its fair to assume commercial banks could easily absorb another $1 trillion in mortgages, as represented by foreign holders.   Some holders of GSE debt are legally prohibited from holding mortgages.  These entities can generally hold bank commercial paper (think mutual funds) which could then fund the same level of mortgages.  

The point here should be clear, by swapping out GSE debt for mortgages, our financial markets have sufficient capacity to replace Fannie and Freddie.  In fact, we are the only advanced country that does not fund our mortgage market primarily or exclusively with bank deposits.  This analysis also does not assume any reduction in the size of our mortgage market, which should actually be an objective of reform.  We devote too much capital to mortgages, at the expense of more productive sectors of our economy.

A Fiscal Train Wreck

That is the title of a 2003 New York Times column by economist Paul Krugman. The gist of his column was that the Bush tax cuts and future entitlement program liabilities would usher in calamitous deficits. Setting aside the tax cut and entitlements issue, Krugman’s comments on the dangers of deficits are interesting considering seven years later Krugman is one of the most prominent supporters of massive deficit spending to stimulate the economy.

Here are some selected Krugman quotes from the column:

With war looming, it’s time to be prepared. So last week I switched to a fixed-rate mortgage. It means higher monthly payments, but I’m terrified about what will happen to interest rates once financial markets wake up to the implications of skyrocketing budget deficits.

Two years ago the administration promised to run large surpluses. A year ago it said the deficit was only temporary. Now it says deficits don’t matter. But we’re looking at a fiscal crisis that will drive interest rates sky-high. A leading economist recently summed up one reason why: ‘When the government reduces saving by running a budget deficit, the interest rate rises.’ Yes, that’s from a textbook by the chief administration economist, Gregory Mankiw.

But my prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt. And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar. It won’t happen right away. With the economy stalling and the stock market plunging, short-term rates are probably headed down, not up, in the next few months, and mortgage rates may not have hit bottom yet. But unless we slide into Japanese-style deflation, there are much higher interest rates in our future.

Although this shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement of George Bush’s fiscal policies, the deficit for fiscal year 2003 when Krugman wrote his column was $378 billion. The Congressional Budget Office just reported that the deficit for the first quarter of FY 2010 was $434 billion.

The following chart shows the annual deficits from fiscal years 2002 through 2010 (projected). For 2009 and 2010 the first quarter deficit is also shown. In short, the two most recent first quarter deficits have been about $100 billion higher than the average annual deficits run from 2002 to 2008.

In FY2003, the deficit was 3.4 percent of GDP – for FY2010 it’s projected to be 10.6 percent. According to the President’s optimistic FY2011 budget, annual deficits won’t fall below 3.6 percent of GDP at any point in the next ten years.

Yes, Krugman believes that large deficit spending is necessary to turn the economy around. But that doesn’t change the fact that his dire warnings about deficits in 2003 should apply to today’s even larger deficits, especially now that we’re even closer to an entitlement crisis. However, Krugman recently penned a column warning against “deficit hysteria” in which he makes comments that are more than just a little at odds with his 2003 column:

These days it’s hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on a news program without encountering stern warnings about the federal budget deficit. The deficit threatens economic recovery, we’re told; it puts American economic stability at risk; it will undermine our influence in the world. These claims generally aren’t stated as opinions, as views held by some analysts but disputed by others. Instead, they’re reported as if they were facts, plain and simple.

Yet they aren’t facts. Many economists take a much calmer view of budget deficits than anything you’ll see on TV. Nor do investors seem unduly concerned: U.S. government bonds continue to find ready buyers, even at historically low interest rates. The long-run budget outlook is problematic, but short-term deficits aren’t — and even the long-term outlook is much less frightening than the public is being led to believe.

Scratching your head?  I am too.

Did the Fed Buying MBS Make a Difference?

Recent years have witnessed a multitude of new Federal Reserve programs aimed at bringing stability to our financial markets.  One of the largest programs has been the Fed’s purchase of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guaranteed mortgage-backed securities (MBS).  The program was initially announced in November 2008 with the goal of buying up to $500 billion, later expanded to $1.25 trillion.  Clearly we are talking a lot of money.

The ultimate objective of the FED MBS purchase program was, in the words of the Fed, to reduce mortgage rates “relative to what they otherwise would have been.”  Did the Fed meet this objective?  According to a new study by Stanford University Economists Johannes Stroebel and John Taylor the Fed did not. 

More specificially, the professors “find that the MBS program has no significant effect.  Movements in prepayment risk and default risk explain virtually all of the movements in mortgage spreads.”  So while it is clear that mortgage rates declined over the time the Fed has operated the MBS purchase program, those declines were due to factors outside of the Fed’s control.

Professors Stroebel and Taylor only look at the claimed benefits of the Fed’s MBS purchase program, leaving aside the issue of cost.  Since any losses on MBS purchased by the Fed reduces the amount of funds transferred from the Fed to Treasury, these losses are ultimately borne by the taxpayer, as that reduction will have to be made up elsewhere.  With close to a trillion in purchases, even minor declines in value can result in large losses for the taxpayer.  For instance, a 5% loss in value would translate to $50 billion loss to the taxpayer.  Another good reason to audit the Fed.

The Audacity of Hypocrisy

In his ongoing effort to micromanage the U.S. economy President Obama used his Dec. 12 weekly radio address to promote his proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  It will be filled with bureaucrats second-guessing entrepreneurs and is sure to improve the performance of our financial institutions – much in the manner of the SEC’s bureaucrats alertly nailing Bernie Madoff just 30 years into his Ponzi scheme.  Never mind that the federal government had much more to do with the financial meltdown than the banks did, the real knee-slapper in his address was his claim that the CFPA “would bring new transparency and accountability to the financial markets…” This, from a man demanding passage of a 2000-page health care reform bill that no one, including Mr. Obama, has read.  So much for transparency and accountability.

The Fed and Policy Uncertainty

How and when should the Fed unwind the enormous monetary expansion it undertook in response to the financial crisis and recession? The WSJ reports [$]:

As the Federal Reserve’s next meeting approaches in early November, an internal debate is brewing about how and when to signal the possibility of interest-rate increases.

The Fed has said since March that it will keep rates very low for an “extended period.” Long before it raises rates, however, it will need to change that public signal to financial markets.

Because the recovery is so young and is expected to be so weak, many central bank officials are comfortable, for now, keeping rates very low. But they are beginning to strategize about how to walk away from the “extended period” language.

My suggestion is that the Fed announce a path of gradual increases in the federal funds rate, say beginning next year and lasting for two years, until the rate is at some “normal level.”

This approach is different than what the Fed is likely to undertake; it will probably want to maximize “discretion,” the ability to adjust on the fly as conditions unfold.

My approach maximizes predictability and reassurance: it commits the Fed to shrinking the money supply and heading off future inflation. This reassures markets and takes substantial uncertainty out of the picture.

The problem with my approach is the pre-commitment: everyone knows the Fed could abandon a pre-announced path.

But such an announcement might still give markets useful guidance, and the Fed would know that any deviation would itself upset markets, and this might encourage adherence to the pre-commitment.

C/P Libertarianism, from A to Z