Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Administration’s Fiscal Muddle

Recent comments by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and National Economic Council Director Larry Summers illustrate the incoherence of the administration’s fiscal policy. Previously, they were against raising taxes in the short-run because that would damage the economic recovery. Now they are hinting or suggesting that recovery depends on raising taxes to reduce the deficit.

Previously, they supported rising levels of spending and deficits to supposedly grow the economy, but now they are saying that deficits need to be cut for the economy to grow. Geithner and Summers seem to be repeatedly changing their message depending on the political requirements of the news cycle, rather than providing a consistent program based on economic theory.

The reality is that rising taxes and spending suck resources out of the private sector economy, which damages growth whether we are in an expansion or a contraction. That’s because governments in America already consume more than one-third of everything produced in the nation, and so further resources added to the government sector produce very little or negative returns.

Geithner and Summers ought to stop trying to manipulate the short-term macroeconomy, and instead focus on economic reforms to remove obstacles to private sector growth over the long-term.

The Benefits of Going Naked…Swaps and Derivatives

Key House Democrats have just proposed a new plan for regulating our Nation’s derivatives’ markets.  While the heart of the plan mirrors the Obama Administration’s proposal to require standardized derivatives, such as credit default swaps (CDS), to be traded over a centralized exchange, the House proposal also goes further, raising the possibility of banning “naked” positions in the derivatives, equities and debt markets.

Taking a naked position, where one hedges or bets on a specific risk without actually holding the underlying asset or liability, has been widely blamed for bringing down our financial system.  This blame is misplaced.  For instance, credit default swaps betting that companies such as Fannie Mae, Bear Stearns or AIG would fail did not bring down those companies - bad management practices and excessive risk-taking did.  Of course when those companies were on the way down, their management wanted to blame everyone but themselves; short-sellers and speculators were just the messenger of a truth that management wanted to hide.

At heart, our markets, particularly our capital markets, serve as valuable aggregators of information, generally via the price mechanism.  Speculators, including those holding a naked position, help bring new and valuable information to the market place.  Recall it was the short-sellers who discovered Enron’s frauds, not the regulators or the rating agencies.   Banning naked positions will only serve to reduce the information content of market prices, and also further entrench incompetent management.

In addition to the aid in price discovery, speculators also provide much needed liquidity to other holders of the same instruments.   For instance if you purchase a GM bond and also a credit default swap on GM to hedge the credit risk in that bond, you would prefer to be able to see that CDS contract in as broad a market as possible.  If you were limited to selling that contract only to another holder of that same bond, you will likely have both a harder time selling that contract and will receive a lower price for it.  One of the hardest parts of resolving AIG has been finding buyers for its derivatives contracts.  A deeper market in derivatives would lessen the potential “fire sales” that can occur when a large financial firm fails. 

Of course how one treats derivatives in the case of an issuer failure can greatly impact the stability of the financial system.  By removing derivatives and CDS from the automatic stay provisions of the bankruptcy code in 2005, Congress guaranteed that when a large issuer of CDS got into any trouble, there would be a run on its collateral.  The solution is not to ban naked positions, but to reduce the potential for collateral runs by treating CDS counter-parties like any other creditor.

Who are Entrepreneurs?

The Kauffman Foundation has produced an interesting study about the background of entrepreneurs.  They create businesses for many reasons, including to make money and work for themselves, and play a major role in generating the economic growth that benefits the rest of us.  Too bad politicians, who create so little of value, so often stand in the way of productive entrepreneurs.

Mortgage Mods: Congressman Prefers Coercion over Cooperation

The recent focus in Washington on mortgage modifications once again illustrates one of the most fundamental flaws in current political debate:  the notion of using government to threaten or force the “voluntary” transfer of wealth from one group of citizens to another.

Just this week Rep. Barney Frank warned the banking industry if they don’t “voluntarily” do more to reduce foreclosures, Congress will step in and make them do so, by allowing bankruptcy judges to re-write mortgage contracts.  This proposal is really nothing more an ex poste transfer of wealth from investors in mortgage backed assets to borrowers.

Of course, Rep. Frank and others respond that they are only trying to “bring lenders to the table” in order to keep negotiations going.  In the words of many “consumer” advocates, this is just a “stick” to the motivate the lenders.  I could think of few things more offensive to a free society.  In a government truly constituted on the notion of the common good or general welfare, it would be no more appropriate to use the stick of the state on lenders than it would be on borrowers.  Government quite simply should not take sides in purely private disputes. 

One would think that if anyone could understand the principle that government should not interfere in the private, voluntarily entered relationships of consenting adults, it should be Mr. Frank.

Out of the TARP, But Still on the Dole

While banks such as Goldman and J.P. Morgan have managed to find a way to re-pay the capital injections made under the TARP bailout, their reliance on public subsidies is far from over. The federal government, via a debt guarantee program run by the FDIC, is still putting considerable taxpayer funds at risk on behalf of the banking industry.  The Wall Street Journal estimates that banks participating in the FDIC debt guarantee program will save about $24 billion in reduced borrowing costs of the next three years. The Journal estimates that Goldman alone will save over $2 billion on its borrowing costs due to the FDIC’s guarantees.

One of the conditions imposed by the Treasury department for allowing banks to leave the TARP was that such banks be able to issue debt not guaranteed by the government.  Apparently this requirement did not apply to all of a firm’s debt issues.  These banks should be expected to issue all their debt without a government guarantee and be required to pay back any currently outstanding government guaranteed debt.

To add insult to injury, not only are banks reaping huge subsidies from the FDIC debt guarantee program, but the program itself is likely illegal.  The FDIC’s authority to take special actions on behalf of a failing ”systemically” important bank is limited to a bank-by-bank review.  The FDIC’s actions over the last several months to declare the entire banking system as systemically important is at best a fanciful reading of the law. 

The FDIC should immediately terminate this illegal program and end the continuing string of subsidies going to Wall Street banks, many of which are reporting enormous profits.

Would Summers Be Any Worse than Bernanke?

As I have argued elsewhere, Bernanke’s record as both a Fed governor and Chair suggest we be better off with a new Fed Chair come January 2010, when Bernanke’s term as Chair expires. Outside of those who believe the bailouts have saved capitalism, two very reasonable arguments are put forth for keeping Bernanke at the helm:  1) in a time of crisis, the markets need certainty and dislike change; and 2) the alternatives, such as Larry Summers, would be worse.  Both these points have real merit, however I believe in both cases the pros of change outweigh the cons of staying the course with Bernanke.  I will save the “certainty” debate for another time, for now, let’s ask ourselves:  Would Summers really be any worse than Bernanke?

Before I make the case for Summers, I do want to make clear, President Obama, and the country, would best be served by a “Carter picks Volcker” type moment.  Go outside the Administration, go beyond the usual circle of easy-money, new Keynesians.  The Fed lacks creditability in two (at least two) important areas: bailouts and inflation.  And one doesn’t even need to go outside of the Federal Reserve System to find candidates.  Topping my list would be Jeff Lacker (Richmond Fed), Gary Stern (Minn Fed) and Charles Plosser (Philly Fed).  Any of these three know the workings of the Fed, have the respect of the Fed staff, and have taken strong positions on both “too big to fail” and easy money.  In the case of Gary Stern, it would seem especially appropriate, as his early warnings (see his 2004 book on bank bailouts) were largely ignored and dismissed.  If we want to reward and promote those who got it right, these guys are at the top of the list.

But let’s reasonably suppose that Obama wants someone close, someone he personally knows and will stick with tradition by picking a member of his own administration.  Without going into any detail, picking Romer would offer little substantial difference with keeping Bernanke.  The case for Summers is essentially that here is one instance where his enormous ego would be an asset.  One easily gets the sense that when Summers sits next to President Obama, Summers is thinking to himself just how lucky the President is to be sitting next to Larry Summers.  One can call Summers lots of things, starstruck is not one of them.  Given what we now need most in a Fed Chair is true independence, from especially the Administration but also from Congress, Summers is the only qualified economist close to the President who displays even the slightest streak of independent thinking.  Bernanke, in contrast, has endlessly pandered to the Administration and to Congressional Democrats.  Summers has been willing on occasion to actually defend the sanctity of contract (remember the debates over the AIG bonuses), a rarity on the Left, and more than Bernanke was willing to say.  

So forced to choose between Bernanke and Summers, the need for an independent Fed Chair willing to take on the Administration and Congress, when appropriate, makes Summers a far better choice.  That said, here’s to encouraging Obama go outside his comfort zone and pick someone who has the will to remove excess liquidity from the system before the next bubble gets going.

For Financial Stability, Fix the Tax Code

There seems to be near universal agreement that the excessive use of debt among both corporations, particularly banks, and households contributed to the severity of the financial crisis.  However, other than the occasional refrain that banks should hold more capital, there has been little discussion over why corporations choose to be so highly leveraged in the first place.  But then such a discussion might lead us to the all too obvious answer – the federal government, via the tax code, encourages, even heavily subsidizes corporate leverage.

Cato scholar and banking analyst Bert Ely has estimated that the subsides for debt have historically resulted in an after tax cost of debt of 3 to 5 percent, compared to an after tax cost of equity of 12 to 15 percent.  With differences of this magnitude, it should not be surprising that financial companies and corporations in general become highly leveraged.

For corporations, this massive difference in cost between debt and equity financing results primary from the ability to deduct interest expenses on debt, while punishing equity due to the double-taxation of dividends along with taxing capital gains. 

If we are going to use the tax code to subsidize debt and tax equity, we shouldn’t act surprised when firms load up on the debt and reduce their use of equity – making financial crises all too frequent and severe.