Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

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.

Great Moments in Bureaucracy

The picture below, taken from a story in The Economist, shows that France, Germany, and Italy are among the nations with the most central bank employees (as a share of the population). In some sense, this is a dog-bites-man factoid. After all, is anyone surprised that Europe’s major welfare states have bloated public payrolls? But there’s more to this story. All three of these central banks ceased to have a monetary policy, starting back in 2002, when their nations adopted the euro. The mission is gone, but the bureaucracy lives on.

Central bank bureaucrats

To be fair, the bureaucrats in these nations presumably are not sitting in quiet rooms playing minesweeper. Perhaps these central banks are responsible for other functions, such as financial regulation. Of course, given how governments around the world pursued policies that led to a financial crisis, perhaps all of us would be better off if bureaucrats did play computer games all day.

Volcker Unloads on Bankers

As reported in today’s Wall Street Journal, Paul Volcker, who is a former Fed Chairman and current adviser to President Obama, challenged bankers to produce a “shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy.”  Yet some of these innovative financial products brought the economy to “the brink of disaster.”   Profits in banking are being restored in part by playing financial brinkmanship once again.

How can this be?  Volcker focuses in on public policies that back excessive risk taking by bankers.  They and their stockholders garner the profits, but, through bailouts and government guarantees, manage to socialize the losses. That process is what economists call moral hazard.

He questions whether improved regulation can resolve the problems without serious structural change.  He repeats his longstanding policy of separating traditional commercial banking from what has been aptly termed casino banking. Casino banks must not be protected by the government.

Here is my suggestion for a start.  Hedge funds can serve a very useful function in the economy. But banks taking insured deposits should not be permitted to operate hedge funds in their institutions.  Most proprietary trading by banks amounts to an in-house hedge fund.  Separate the activity from banking.

It’s the Obama Economy Now

Undoubtedly President Obama inherited an economic mess.  Also undoubtedly, he’s made it worse.  Barring substantial revisions to recent job loss estimates, we have now crossed the line where as many jobs have been lost during this recession under President Obama as under President Bush.  From the start of the recession, in December 2007, until President Obama took the oath of office at the end of January 2009, there have been 3.36 million nonfarm payroll jobs lost.  From February 2009 until now there have been about 3.36 million nonfarm payroll jobs lost (estimates from ADP employment report).

Even during the best of times, the economy experiences substantial job loss.  However, we consider those times good because the labor market is also creating lots of jobs, so that job losses are offset by job gains.  The early parts of a recession are generally characterized by large increases in job losses, with minor declines in job creation.  Eventually the job losses moderate and job creation picks up, bringing us out of the recession.  We are arguably past the worst of the job losses.  What has escaped us is job creation.

And it is on the job creation front that Obama takes ownership of the economy.  While there are certainly problems in the credit markets, the major reason behind the lack of job creation is the massive uncertainty being generated by Washington.  For any employer today, it is almost impossible to estimate what the future health care costs of new hires will be.  It’s impossible to gauge what your environment costs are going to be.  Same with the costs of the 90 new workplace rules that the Department of Labor promised would be forthcoming over the next year.

Sadly this administration learned the wrong lesson from the defeat of the Clinton health care plan.  The history lesson they should have learned is that Clinton inherited a recession as well (as did Bush for that matter), but that job creation was weak until the Clinton health care plan stalled. 

Until employers and investors feel it is safe once again to put their businesses and investments at risk, and Washington ends its war on the productive elements of our society, we will not have significant private sector job growth.

Does CRA Undermine Bank Safety?

A recent policy forum here at Cato discussed the role of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) in the financial crisis.  While the forum focused on the federal push for ever expanding homeownership to marginal borrowers, the analysis did not touch directly upon the question of whether CRA lending undermines bank safety.

Fortunately this is a question that one economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas bothered to ask.  While his research findings were available before the crisis, they were clearly ignored.

In a peer-reviewed published article, appearing in the journal Economic Inquiry, economist Jeff Gunther concludes that there is “evidence to suggest that a greater focus on lending in low-income neighborhoods helps CRA ratings but comes at the expense of safety and soundness.”  Specifically he finds an inverse relationship between CRA ratings and safety/soundness, as measured by CAMEL ratings.

In another study Gunther finds that increases in bank capital are associated with an increase substandard CRA ratings.  Apparently bank CRA examiners prefer that capital to be lend out, rather than serve as a cushion in times of financial distress.

Given the current attempts in Washington to expand CRA, it seems some people never learn.  One can always argue over how CRA should work, but the evidence is quite clear how it has worked, once again proving: there’s no free lunch.

One Thing Greenspan Got Right and Bernanke Didn’t

While both Greenspan and Bernanke merit considerable blame for helping to inflate the housing bubble, it is worth mentioning what Greenspan did get right:  bringing to the attention of Congress and the public the risk posed to our financial system from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

During Bernanke’s confirmation hearing last week, Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd criticized the Fed for not doing enough to warn Congress on systemic risks facing the economy.  Given Dodd’s attendance record, both as Chair and before, he can perhaps be forgiven if he missed one of Greenspan’s many appearances before the Banking Committee.

To help remind us, on Feb. 24, 2004, Greenspan told the Banking Committee:

Concerns about systemic risk are appropriately focused on large, highly leveraged financial institutions such as the GSE’s…to fend off possible future system difficulties, which we assess as likely…preventive actions are required sooner rather than later.”  In Greenspanspeak, that translates to “do something now.

Again on April 6, 2005, Greenspan warned the Banking Committee:

When these institutions were small, the potential for such risk, if any, was small.  Regrettably, that is no longer the case.  From now on, limiting the potential for systemic risk will require the significant strengthening of GSE regulation.

These are just a few of Greenspan’s many warnings to Congress on the risks posed by Fannie and Freddie.  In addition, economists at the Fed published numerous studies, during Greenspan’s tenure, on the nature of Fannie and Freddie.

Sadly, upon taking over as Chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke scaled back these efforts.  Gone was the published economic research on GSEs.  Gone was the loud voice of authority from a Fed Chairman on GSE policy.  Instead, Bernanke choose to appease the GSE’s protectors in Congress.

While the Federal Reserve does not maintain primary regulatory authority over Fannie and Freddie, the Fed has long been viewed as the most credible voice in Washington on issues of systemic risk.  When faced with the choice of protecting the Fed, or protecting the financial system, by raising the pressure on GSE reform, Bernanke punted.  How he can be trusted to find the courage to taken on the next “Fannie Mae” is beyond me.

Here We Go Again

In the early 1990s, two Federal Reserve studies on mortgage lending were held up by proponents of interventionist government as proof that banks were discriminating against minorities. The government swung into action with lawsuits against allegedly discriminatory lenders, HUD started pressuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to target the “underserved,” and the Community Reinvestment Act was enhanced to pressure lenders into lowering their lending standards. A decade later, the housing bubble, which was fueled by short-sighted government policies, burst and the financial well-being of many minority families crumbled along with it.

In a bad case of déjà vu, it’s being reported that “regulators will be bringing pressure on banks to make greater efforts to serve poorer communities after an FDIC survey showed that more than a quarter of U.S. households have little or no financial activity through banks.” This language is eerily similar to language employed in the 1990s that fueled liberal housing loan practices we now know were downright foolish. The recent news report continues:

The survey, conducted through the Census Bureau, found that 25.6 percent of the nation’s households – representing some 60 million adults – are ‘unbanked’ or ‘underbanked’… minorities, particularly African Americans, are disproportionately part of this group. More than half the black households fell into the two categories.

‘Access to an account at a federally insured institution provides households with an important first step toward achieving financial security – the opportunity to conduct basic financial transactions, save for emergency and long-term security needs, and access credit on affordable terms,’ FDIC chairman Sheila Bair said in a statement.

It used to be the “undeserved” in the housing market who supposedly needed the government’s help. Now it’s the “underbanked.” We were told that government involvement was necessary to make housing more “affordable.” Now the government is saying access to credit needs to be more affordable.

A lot of establishment analysts oppose term limits on Congress because they claim that we need experienced leaders to deal with today’s complex policy problems. But government officials stubbornly refuse to learn from their own mistakes, as we’ve seen over and over since the housing bust.