Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

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.

Overcriminalization in the Financial Reform Legislation

The Heritage Foundation and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) made a stir by announcing their joint report, Without Intent: How Congress is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law. The report highlights the growth of federal criminal provisions in the 109th Congress. Many criminal statutes are drafted without the traditional requirement of criminal intent. When there is no requirement that the government prove you “willfully” or “knowingly” broke the law, mistakes are treated the same as intentional criminality. Some laws are written so broadly that it is impossible for anyone to know what conduct is illegal. Criminal provisions are included in statutes that are never reviewed by the judiciary committees of either chamber of Congress.

The NACDL has a follow-up analysis of the financial regulatory reform currently being considered by Congress. The Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010 has passed both houses and is heading into committee.

This 1600-page bill does everything that the Without Intent report warned against. The “reckless disregard” intent requirement is imported from tort law in several provisions and many others have no mental state requirement at all. New bribery and mail/wire fraud provisions are included where none are necessary. Bribery and fraud are already illegal.

Read the whole thing (direct .pdf link here).

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.

Kazakhstan’s Approach to Bank Failure

Gillian Tett has an interesting column in today’s Financial Times, discussing the recent resolution of one of Kazakhstan’s largest banks, BTA.  What’s novel about this particular bank resolution?  Well instead of the taxpayer, or the rest of the banking sector, covering a large hole in BTA’s balance sheet, the bondholders are taking the hit (of course shareholders are also taking a loss).

Some of this is  probably due to politics; the bondholders in this case are mostly foreign, and of course, the taxpayers are domestic voters.  Not that the foreign bondholders didn’t lobby for a bailout. 

But putting the politics aside, this represents a real test of whether we are stuck only with the choice of bailouts or mass panic, as argued by the Bernanke-Paulson-Geithner crowd.  If, in the weeks ahead, Kazakhstan, and particularly its other banks, are still able to tap the debt markets and its economy does not crater, then I believe we have sufficient evidence to end bailouts here in the United States and start letting the bondholders, instead of the taxpayer, take the losses.

Will lending costs to Kazakhstan banks likely go up?  Of course, that is the point.  One of the most damaging aspects of the 2008 bank bailouts was the elimination of whatever market discipline remained, in terms of large bank creditors.   As most financial institutions fund 90% plus of the activities via borrowing, we simply cannot rely solely on equity, management, and regulators to police their behavior.  Only if creditors really have something to lose will we ever have any hope of ending “too-big-to-fail.”

Krugman’s Fannie Mae Fantasyland

An insightful op-ed in yesterday’s Financial Times by Raghu Rajan (who will be presenting his latest book soon here at Cato), apparently was too much for Paul Krugman to bear.  What was Rajan’s great crime that so upset Krugman?  Rajan, correctly, pointed out that US policies, such as Fannie Mae and the Community Re-investment Act, were direct contributors to the financial crisis and that bankers shouldn’t be blamed for simply reacting to perverse government incentives.

Now Krugman cannot bear to see CRA and Fannie questioned.  He claims that Rajan is relying on some blind faith that has been disproven by all thinking people.  Krugman offers two points (his supposed “facts”) that prove Fannie Mae and CRA are innocent.

First, he argues that the bad lending was done not by banks covered by CRA, but by non-banks that were exempt from CRA.  Now in Krugman’s defense, there is a grain of truth to this.  For instance, up until its purchase of a thrift, Countrywide, the largest subprime player, was not covered by CRA.  However, comparing Countrywide to say Bank of America, which was covered by CRA, misses a crucial point:  these non-CRA lenders were selling their loans to Fannie and Freddie, who were getting housing goal credit for those loans.  For instance, 25% of Fannie’s whole loan purchases were from Countrywide.  So rather than, as Paul claims that CRA didn’t matter, what the comparison shows is that the GSE housing goals were more damaging than CRA.

Krugman tries to cover this base by claiming that Fannie and Freddie were “sidelined by Congress” during the worst years of the boom.  As someone who spent the boom years as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I found that claim to be insane.  For every Senator Shelby who tried to sideline the GSE’s, there was 10 Senators Sarbanes, Dodd and Schumer who pushed the GSEs to do more.  Krugman needs to move past empty assertions and offer some, any, evidence that Congress sidelined Fannie and Freddie.

What evidence he does offer is to show that during the boom, the percent of the market that was securitized by Fannie/Freddie fell, while the percent securitized by the private-label market increased.  Krugman has that fact correct, yet he misses a critical point.  That increase in private-label securities was being funded/purchased by Fannie and Freddie.

As my chart illustrates, the more involved were Fannie and Freddie in purchasing subprime MBS, the more the subprime market grew.  During the bubble years, Fannie and Freddie were the largest single source of liquidity for the subprime market.  And the chart doesn’t even take into account all the subprime whole loans being purchased by the GSEs.

Sadly Krugman has his facts on CRA wrong as well.  I point the reader to Ed Pinto’s work in this area, as well as my post on CRA from a few months ago.

We have little hope of avoiding a future financial crisis if we do not undo all the perverse government incentives for irresponsible lending.  Krugman’s presentation of selective and misleading data only makes true and meaningful reform all the more difficult.

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.

Public Wants Fed Audit

A new Rasmussen poll has 80% of the American public supporting an audit of the Federal Reserve.  Only 9% of the public oppose, with the rest unsure.

Unfortunately the poll did not ask specific questions over whether such an audit should cover monetary policy or just the Fed’s 2008 bailout activities.  So while the poll is likely to keep pressure on Congress, during its conference negotiations over financial regulation, to retain some audit of the Fed, the likely result is that Congress will leave out any real, on-going audit of monetary policy. 

After Sen. Bernie Sanders essentially gutted his own amendment, Senator Dodd and the Obama administration agreed to a minor audit of the Fed’s emergency lending programs.  Ron Paul, sponsor of the House version of the audit, quickly labeled this as a “sell-out”.  Fortunately Congressman Paul looks to be a House conferee on the bill, so some hope remains of a full audit being included.

Opponents of a Fed audit claim this would undermine the Fed’s political independence.  Sadly what opponents, including many economists, are missing is that the Fed is currently far from independent of politics.  This is again an area where the public gets what the experts miss, as just 20% of poll respondents thought the Fed has acted independently.  A full 60% felt the Fed was too much influenced by the President, getting at a crucial point concerning Fed independence:  it is independence from the Executive branch that is critical.