Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

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.

The Good Side of Bad News in Europe

What does the Greco-Euro currency/debt crisis mean for the U.S. economy?

Nearly everyone except the uniquely wise economist John Cochrane assumes very bad “contagion” effects –on U.S. banks, exports and particularly U.S. manufacturing.

This echoes identical anxieties while the world went through a far more dramatic Asian currency crisis after  July 1997,  and a Russian debt crisis the following May.

The most widely ignored effect of that crisis, however, was to depress foreign demand for oil, and thus slash oil prices to U.S. buyers from $25 a barrel in early 1997 to $11 by the end of 1998.

Oil is a major input into the manufacturing process (e.g., chemicals and plastics), and a major cost of distribution (trucks, trains and airplanes).  It is also a major determinant of the cost of all energy sources used in making other goods such as aluminum and paper.   When marginal costs go down, it becomes profitable to expand production.

At the height of the Asian/Russian crises, the table below shows that U.S. manufacturing output  rose by more than 10 percent. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.

Looking at the same phenomenon from the other side, every recession but one (1960) was preceded by a big increase in the price of oil. For oil importers like the U.S., cheaper oil is definitely better.

During the last big foreign currency/debt crisis, the real growth of U.S. Gross Domestic Purchases (the home-grown portion of GDP) jumped by 4.7% in 1997 and 5.5% in 1998.  Yet the Fed cut interest rates three times in October and November of 1998 because of what was happening in other countries.

The table  show what happened to the price of oil and to U.S. manufacturing from June 1997 to December 1998. The middle column is the price of a barrel of West Texas crude, and the column to the right is the U.S. industrial production index for the manufacturing sector.

1997-06    19.17    87.80
1997-07    19.63    88.12
1997-08    19.93    89.69
1997-09    19.79    90.45
1997-10    21.26    90.98
1997-11    20.17    92.05
1997-12    18.32    92.52
1998-01    16.71    93.36
1998-02    16.06    93.31
1998-03    15.02    93.13
1998-04    15.44    93.68
1998-05    14.86    94.25
1998-06    13.66    93.53
1998-07    14.08    92.96
1998-08    13.36    95.40
1998-09    14.95    95.11
1998-10    14.39    95.96
1998-11    12.85    96.08
1998-12    11.28    96.63

In recent weeks, as the debt and currency problems in Euroland hit the front page, the price of crude oil fell by about 20 percent.

Once again, as in 1997-98, everyone may be watching the wrong ball in the wrong court.

Senate Rejects Capping Fannie/Freddie Losses

Yesterday the Senate rejected an amendment by Senators McCain, Shelby and Gregg that would have capped the taxpayer losses on Fannie and Freddie at $200 billion each.  The amendment would have also brought Fannie and Freddie onto the Federal budget, forcing the government to admit what most of us already suspect: we’re on the hook for their bad behavior.  All Republicans, with the additions of Democrats Feingold and Bayh, voted for the failed amendment.  As a substitute, which passed along party lines, Senator Dodd proposed that the Treasury Department would “study” the issue and report back to Congress.

While it was not surprising that Dodd lead the opposition to the McCain amendment (it is not the first time he’s protected Fannie and Freddie), what was surprising was his repeated explanation that the National Association of Realtors and National Association of Home Builders opposed the amendment.  With all of Obama’s talk about taking on special interests, I was starting to think the Senate might be serious.  But what’s a few $100 billion of taxpayer dollars to insure that real estate agents can get a few more fat commissions.

Even more bizarre was Dodd’s claim that his substitute amendment was a “tough study”.  What exactly is so tough about requiring Treasury to do a study that they’ve already said they were going to do.  For that matter, what’s so tough about a “study”?  The failings of Fannie and Freddie, and their inherent conflicts, have been studied extensively for years. The rejection of the McCain amendment illustrates why we need GSE reform now, as the special interests are already claiming that another study is all we need.