Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

New York Proposes Special Bitcoin Regulation, But Won’t Say Why

Yesterday, the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) issued the second draft of its “BitLicense” proposal, a special, technology-specific regulation for digital currencies like Bitcoin. For a second time, the NYDFS claims to have a strong rationale for such regulation, but it has not revealed its rationale to the public, even though it is required to do so by New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

If you’re just joining the “BitLicense” saga, the NYDFS welcomed Bitcoin in August 2013 by subpoenaing every important person in the Bitcoin world. A few months later, New York’s Superintendent of Financial Services announced his plan for a special “BitLicense,” which would be required of anyone wanting to provide Bitcoin-based services in New York.

About a year later, Superintendent Lawsky released the first draft of the “BitLicense” proposal, to strongly negative reviews from the Bitcoin community. It didn’t help that after a year’s work the NYDFS offered the statutory minimum of 45 days to comment. Relenting to public demand, the NYDFS extended the comment period.

In announcing the regulation, the NYDFS cited “extensive research and analysis” that it said justifies placing unique regulatory burdens on Bitcoin businesses. On behalf of the Bitcoin Foundation, yours truly asked to see that “extensive research and analysis” under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The agency quickly promised timely access, but in early September last year it reversed itself and said that it may not release its research until December.

Does Fed Leverage and Asset Maturity Matter?

Debate over whether to subject the Federal Reserve to a policy audit has occasionally focused on the size and composition of the Fed’s balance sheet. While I don’t see this issue as central to the merits of an audit, it has given rise to a considerable amount of smug posturing. Let’s step beyond the posturing and give these questions some of the attention they deserve.

First the facts. The Fed’s balance sheet has ballooned over the last few years to about $4.5 trillion. And yes, the Fed discloses such. No argument there. The Fed, like most central banks, has traditionally conducted its open-market operations in the “short end” of the market. The various rounds of quantitative easing have changed that. For instance the vast majority of its holdings of Fannie & Freddie mortgage-backed securities ($1.7 trillion) have an average maturity of well over 10 years. Similarly the Fed’s stock of treasuries have long maturities, about a fourth of those holdings in excess of 10 years.

Now the leverage question. We all get that the Fed cannot go “bankrupt” like Lehman. But that’s because “bankrupt” is a legal condition and one from which the Fed has been exempted. Just like Fannie and Freddie cannot go “bankrupt” (they are considered legally outside the bankruptcy code). The eminent economist historian Barry Eichengreen tells us the Fed’s leverage doesn’t matter as “the central bank can simply ask the government to replenish its capital, much like when a government covers the losses of its national post office.” Some of us would say that’s a problem not a solution, just like it is with the Post Office.

Others would suggest the Fed’s leverage doesn’t matter because “the Fed creates money”. Again that misses the point. Any losses could be covered by printing money, but isn’t that inflationary?  And that, of course, is just another form of taxation. So it seems Senator Paul’s primary point, that the Fed’s balance sheet exposes the taxpayer to some risk has actually been supported, not discredited, by these supposed rebuttals.

Let’s get to another issue, the maturity of the Fed’s assets. There’s a good reason central banks generally stay in the short end of the market. It avoids taking on any interest rate risk.  When rates go up, bond values fall. Yes the Fed can avoid recognizing those losses by simply not selling those assets. But that creates problems of its own. If we do see inflation, normally the Fed would sell assets to drain liquidity from the market. But would the Fed be willing to sell assets at a loss? At the very least there would be some reluctance. And yes they could cover those losses by printing money, but that’s hardly helpful if the Fed finds itself in a situation of rising prices.

The point here is that the Fed’s balance sheet does raise tough questions about its exit strategy.  Perhaps the economy will remain soft for years and the Fed can exit gracefully.  Perhaps not.  I raised this possibility before Congress a year ago.  I don’t know anyone with a crystal ball on these issues.  But one thing is certain, this is a debate we should be having.  Its the “nothing to see here, move along” crowd that poses the true risk to our economy.

Europe: A Fiscal & Monetary Reality Check

Led by Alexis Tsipras, head of Greece’s newly-elected, left-wing coalition, some other leading political lights in Europe—Messrs. Hollande and Valls in France and Renzi in Italy—are raising a big stink about fiscal austerity. Yet they always fail to define austerity. Never mind. They don’t like it. The pols have plenty of company, too. Yes, they can trot out a host of economists—from Nobelist Paul Krugman on down—to carry their water.

But public expenditures in Greece, Italy and France are not only high, but growing as a proportion of the economy. One can only wonder where the austerity is. As the first chart shows, only five of 28 European Union countries now spend a smaller proportion of national income on government than they did before the current crisis. For example, Greece spent 47.5% of national output on government in 2007 and 58.5% in 2013, an increase of 11 percentage points. 

Government expenditures cut to the bone? You must be kidding. Even in the United States, where most agree that there is plenty of government largesse, the government (federal, plus state and local) still accounts for “only” 38.1% of GDP.

Bipartisan Baloney About Top 1 Percent Income Gains

In the State of the Union address on January 20, President Obama said, “those at the top have never done better… Inequality has deepened.”  The following day, Fox News anchor Brett Baier said, “According to the work of Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during the post-recession years of 2009-2012, top earners snagged a greater share of total income growth than during the boom years of 2002-2007. In other words, income inequality has become more pronounced since the Bush administration, not less.” 

Senator Bernie Sanders agrees that “in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.”  And Senator Ted Cruz likewise confirmed that, “The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogued earned a higher share for our income than any year since 1928.” 

When any statistic is so politically useful and wildly popular among left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans you can be pretty sure it’s baloney.  Bipartisan baloney.

In November 2013, I wrote that, “Because reported capital gains and bonuses were…shifted forward from 2013 to 2012 [to avoid higher tax rates], we can expect a sizable drop in the top 1 percent’s reported income when the 2013 estimates come out a year from now. The befuddled media will doubtless figure out some way to depict that drop as an increase.” As predicted, the New York Times took one look at a 14.9% drop in top 1% incomes and concluded that “The Gains from the Recovery are Still Limited to the Top One Percent” That involved slicing the same old baloney very badly.

What Fed Officials Really Don’t Want You to Know (Hint: They Are Telling You)

Yesterday morning I had a query from someone asking me to share my thoughts about the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, better known as the bill to “Audit the Fed.” Having given him a brief answer, I thought I might say a little more here.

Although Rand Paul promises that his measure will shed much-needed light on the Fed’s undertakings (the Senate version of his measure was even called “The Federal Reserve Sunshine Act”), the truth is that it’s unlikely to reveal anything of importance beyond what existing Fed audits–including those provided by Title XI of the Dodd-Frank Act (which provides for a GAO audit of the Fed’s crisis-related emergency lending)–can themselves reveal.

True, unlike existing measures Paul’s bill would also let the GAO “audit” the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy, including its open-market operations and financial dealings with other central banks. But if “sunshine” is the first word that pops into your head when contemplating this possibility, you probably have had a little too much of it already. Certainly you have not read many GAO reports.

Don’t get me wrong: the GAO does its job well, and a report by it on the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy would probably be a much better read than most academic papers on the same topic. But if you’re looking forward to seeing the GAO give the FOMC a good thrashing, or to any other sort of scintillating reading, you’re barking up the wrong tree, because what you’re likely to be in for instead is a bunch of charts and tables, accompanied by a competent but very measured and detached review of the Fed’s activities, of the sort that might prove very handy, but that is hardly likely to be the least-bit earth-shattering.

How Not to Spin a Big Drop in Top 1% Incomes

Pre-1944 method of estimating top 1% shares

When Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez release their annual estimates of top 1 percent incomes, you can count on The New York Times to put it in a front page headline with additional hype on the editorial page.  This time, however, the news was that the top 1 percent had suffered a 14.9 percent decline in real income in 2013 if capital gains are included, as they always had been until now.  

The New York Times heroic spin was “The Gains From the Economic Recovery Are Still Limited to the Top One Percent.”  The author, Justin Wolfers of the Peterson Institute wrote, “Emmanuel Saez … has just released preliminary estimates for 2013. The share of total income (excluding capital gains) going to the top 1 percent remains above one ­sixth, at 17.5 percent. By this measure, the concentration of income among the richest Americans remains at levels last seen nearly a century ago.”

I will have more to say about this in another blog post.  For now, I just want to call attention to the artistic way in which the subject was changed.  Since 2008, Saez has been comparing changes in top incomes (for which he has preliminary IRS data) to incomes of the bottom 90 percent (for which IRS data are singularly inappropriate).   He always included realized capital gains because that makes the top 1 percent share both larger and more cyclical.

If We Decide to Keep Fannie Mae Around…

I’ve repeatedly said since 2009 that the further in time we get from the crisis, the greater the probability that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would survive in some form.  Such looks like an ever-increasing likelihood.  I’m occasionally asked if there are any reforms that would make Fannie & Freddie acceptable.  I’m tempted to say “no.” 

In the spirit of lively debate, I submit the following changes to address most of the flaws in the government sponsored enterprise (GSE) model that would also allow the companies to survive in some form.  I do emphasize that this is not an argument for keeping the GSEs.  That’s a different question altogether.

1)   Open up the charters to competition.  If we learned anything from the rampant corruption that characterized early 1800s U.S. state banking, it is that legislators shouldn’t give out exclusive charters.  Accordingly, the government should delegate chartering authority to the regulator and allow anyone who can meet the requirements to get a charter.

2)   Increase Capital.  Fannie and Freddie were (and still are) massively leveraged.  Laurie Goodman suggests 4 to 5 percent would be a reasonable minimum capital.  I believe something closer to what insurance companies have–around 8 percent (real, not risk-weighted) would be appropriate.  While I’m not completely in the Admati camp on capital, I do agree with her general point that capital isn’t “dead” –it would be used for lending.  And since GSEs aren’t providing some form of payment medium like banks, I see little cost to requiring higher capital levels. So I’d say 8 percent, if not more.

3)   Ditch loan limits, go with income.  In order to make sure these entities actually serve middle-class America, rather than be a subsidy to the well-off, we should eliminate the loan limits and make mortgage eligibility based on income.  This is similar to the USDA’s Rural Housing Service loans.

4)   Break ‘em up.  This might be the most controversial, but simply allowing other institutions to enter the market is unlikely to guarantee sufficient competition.  We broke up Ma Bell.  Under any antitrust standard, Fannie and Freddie are a duopoly.  Unless we are repealing the Sherman Act, the two companies should be broken into at least 6 pieces each and barred from merging.  Existing shareholders would get shares in the off-spring companies.

5)   Require More Mortgage Insurance.  In order to protect the taxpayer, mortgage insurance companies should take the first 35 percent of loss, instead of the customary 20 percent.

6)   Improve Underwriting Standards.  End the housing goals and require minimum down payments of 5 percent and minimum FICO scores of 700.

7)   End all securities law exemptions.  Subject companies to 1933 & 1934 Act requirements. 

8)   End banking law preferences.  Banks aren’t allowed to hold corporate equity, except for that of GSEs.  We know how that turned out.  For the purposes of all banking regulation, especially capital and asset concentration limits, treat GSE securities as you would any other corporate security.

9)   Limit portfolios.  Allow portfolios to be used for an inventory function only. A minimum of 90 percent of debt issued should be required to be mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

These are just some initial thoughts.  Implementing all of these would go a long way towards bringing competition to our mortgage markets and protecting the taxpayer.  If some remain concerned that this lacks a “catastrophic” backstop, then we can allow the Federal Home Loan Banks to discount advances on the MBS issued by these new and improved GSEs.

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