Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The UK’s Capital Obsession

Last Thursday, Mervyn King, the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, called for yet another round of recapitalization of the major UK banks. For some time, I have warned that higher bank capital requirements, when imposed in the middle of an economic slump, are wrong-headed because they put a squeeze on the money supply and stifle economic growth. So far, bank recapitalization efforts, such as Basel III, have resulted in financial repression – a credit crunch. It is little wonder we are having trouble waking up from the current economic nightmare.

So why would Mr. King want to saddle the UK banking system  with another round of capital-requirement increases, particularly when the UK economy is teetering on the edge of a triple-dip recession? Is King simply unaware of the devastating unintended consequences this would create?

In reality, there is more to this story than meets the eye. To understand the motivation behind the UK’s capital obsession, we must begin with infamous Northern Rock affair. On August 9, 2007, the European money markets froze up after BNP Paribas announced that it was suspending withdrawals on two of its funds that were heavily invested in the US subprime credit market. Northern Rock, a profitable and solvent bank, relied on these wholesale money markets for liquidity. Unable to secure the short-term funding it needed, Northern Rock turned to the Bank of England for a relatively modest emergency infusion of liquidity (3 billion GBP).

This lending of last resort might have worked, had a leak inside the Bank of England not tipped off the BBC to the story on Thursday, September 13, 2007. The next morning, a bank run ensued, and by Monday morning, Prime Minister Gordon Brown had stepped in to guarantee all of Northern Rock’s deposits.

The damage, however, was already done. The bank run had transformed Northern Rock from a solvent (if illiquid) bank to a bankrupt entity. By the end of 2007, over 25 billion GBP of British taxpayers’ money had been injected into Northern Rock. The company’s stock had crashed, and a number of investors began to announce takeover offers for the failing bank. But, this was not to be – the UK Treasury announced early on that it would have the final say on any proposed sale of Northern Rock. Chancellor of the Exchequer Allistair Darling then proceeded to bungle the sale, and by February 7, 2008, all but one bidder had pulled out. Ten days later, Darling announced that Northern Rock would be nationalized.

Looking to save face in the aftermath of the scandal, Gordon Brown – along with King, Darling and their fellow members of the political chattering classes in the UK – turned their crosshairs on the banks, touting “recapitalization” as the only way to make banks “safer” and prevent future bailouts.

In the prologue to Brown’s book, Beyond the Crash, he glorifies the moment when he underlined twice “Recapitalize NOW.” Indeed, Mr. Brown writes, “I wrote it on a piece of paper, in the thick black felt-tip pens I’ve used since a childhood sporting accident affected my eyesight. I underlined it twice.”

I suspect that moment occurred right around the time his successor-to-be, David Cameron, began taking aim at Brown over the Northern Rock affair.

Clearly, Mr. Brown did not take kindly to being “forced” to use taxpayer money to prop up the British banking system. But, rather than directing his ire at Mervyn King and the leak at the Bank of England that set off the Northern Rock bank run, Brown opted for the more politically expedient move – the tried and true practice of bank-bashing.

It turns out that Mr. Brown attracted many like-minded souls, including the central bankers who endorsed Basel III, which mandates higher capital-asset ratios for banks. In response to Basel III (and Basel III, plus), banks have shrunk their loan books and dramatically increased their cash and government securities positions (both of these “risk free” assets are not covered by the capital requirements imposed by Basel III and related capital mandates).

In England, this government-imposed deleveraging has been particularly disastrous. As the accompanying chart shows, the UK’s money supply has taken a pounding since 2007, with the money supply currently registering a deficiency of 13%.

 

How could this be? After all, hasn’t the Bank of England employed a loose monetary policy scheme under King’s leadership? Well, state money – the component of the money supply produced by the Bank of England – has grown by 22.3% since the Bank of England began its quantitative easing program (QE) in March 2009, yet the total money supply, broadly measured, has been shrinking since January 2011.

The source of England’s money-supply woes is the all-important bank money component of the total money supply. Bank money, which is produced by the private banking system, makes up the vast majority – a whopping 97% – of the UK’s total money supply. It is bank money that would take a further hit if King’s proposed round of bank recapitalization were to be enacted.

As the accompanying chart shows, the rates of growth for bank money and the total money supply have plummeted since the British Financial Services Authority announced its plan to raise capital adequacy ratios for UK Banks.

 

In fact, despite a steady, sizable expansion in state money, the total money supply in the UK is now shrinking, driven by a government-imposed contraction in bank money. So, contrary to popular opinion, monetary policy in the UK has been ultra-tight, thanks to the UK’s capital obsession.

Despite wrong-headed claims to the contrary by King, raising capital requirements on Britain’s banks will not turn around the country’s struggling economy – any more than it will un-bungle the Northern Rock affair. Indeed, this latest round of bank-bashing only serves to distract from what really matters – money.

Fed Toys with Ratcheting Up the Credit Crunch

When the Basel I accords, mandating higher capital-asset ratios for banks, were introduced in 1988, they were embraced by the administration of President George H.W. Bush. With higher capital-asset ratios came a sharp slowdown in the money supply growth rate and—unfortunately for President George H. W. Bush and his re-election campaign—a mild recession from July 1990 through March 1991.

Now, we have Basel III and its higher capital-asset ratio requirements being imposed on banks in the middle of a weak, drawn-out economic recovery. This is one of the major reasons why the recovery is so anemic.

How could this be? Well, banks produce bank money, which accounts for roughly 85% of the total U.S. money supply (M4). Mandated increases in bank capital requirements result in contractions in bank money, and thus in the total money supply.

Here’s how it works:

While the higher capital-asset ratios that are required by Basel III are intended to strengthen banks (and economies), these higher capital requirements destroy money. Under the Basel III regime, banks will have to increase their capital-asset ratios. They can do this by either boosting capital or shrinking assets. If banks shrink their assets, their deposit liabilities will decline. In consequence, money balances will be destroyed.

So, paradoxically, the drive to deleverage banks and shrink their balance sheets, in the name of making banks safer, destroys money balances. This, in turn, dents company liquidity and asset prices. It also reduces spending relative to where it would have been without higher capital-asset ratios.

The other way to increase a bank’s capital-asset ratio is by raising new capital. This, too, destroys money. When an investor purchases newly-issued bank equity, the investor exchanges funds from a bank account for new shares. This reduces deposit liabilities in the banking system and wipes out money.

We now learn that the Fed, using the cover of the Dodd-Frank legislation, is toying with the idea of forcing foreign banks that operate in the United States to hold billions of dollars of additional capital  (read: increase their capital-asset ratios).

This will make the credit crunch “crunchier” and throw the U.S. economy into an even more vulnerable position.  The last thing the Fed should be doing is squeezing the banks and tightening the screws on the production of bank money.

Where’s Iran’s Money?

Since I first estimated Iran’s hyperinflation last month , I have received inquiries as to why I have never so much as mentioned Iran’s money supply. That’s a good question, which comes as no surprise. After all, inflations of significant degree and duration always involve a monetary expansion.

But when it comes to Iran, there is not too much one can say about its money supply, as it relates to Iran’s recent bout of hyperinflation. Iran’s money supply data are inconsistent and dated. In short, the available money supply data don’t shed much light on the current state of Iran’s inflation.

Iran mysteriously stopped publishing any sort of data on its money supply after March 2011. Additionally, Iranian officials decided to change their definition of broad money in March 2010. This resulted in a sudden drop in the reported all-important bank money  portion of the total money supply, and, as a result, in the total. In consequence, a quick glance at the total money supply chart would have given off a false signal, suggesting a slump and significant deflationary pressures, as early as 2010

While very dated, at least Iran’s state money, or money produced by the central bank (monetary base, M0), is a uniform time series. The state money picture, though dated, is consistent with a “high” inflation story. Indeed, the monetary base was growing at an exponential rate in the years leading up to the end of the reported annual series.  No annual data are available after 2010 (see the chart below).

Iran is following in Zimbabwe’s well-worn footsteps, trying to throw a shroud of secrecy over the country’s monetary statistics, and ultimately its inflation problems. Fortunately for us, the availability of black-market exchange-rate data has allowed for a reliable estimate  of Iran’s inflation—casting light on its death spiral .

Is Turkey Golden?

Recently, Moody’s Investors Service took some wind from Turkey’s sails, when it declined to upgrade Turkey’s credit rating to investment grade. Moody’s cited external imbalances, along with slowing domestic growth, as factors in its decision. This move is in sharp contrast to the one Fitch made earlier this month, when it upgraded Turkey to investment grade.   Moody’s decision not to upgrade Turkey, and its justification, left me somewhat underwhelmed – given how well the Turkish economy has done in recent years.

Since the fall of Lehman Brothers, Turkey’s central bank has employed a so-called unorthodox monetary policy mix. For example, a little over a year ago, it began to allow commercial banks to purchase gold from Turkish citizens and allowed banks to count gold to fulfill their reserve requirements. Incidentally, this was a remarkable success – from 2010-2012, the Turkish banking sector’s precious metal account increased by over 7 billion USD.

For all the criticism its unconventional monetary policies have garnered, the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey has, in fact, produced orthodox, golden results. Indeed, as the accompanying chart shows, the central bank has delivered on the only thing that really matters – money.

Turkey’s economic performance has been quite strong (despite some concerns about inflation and its current account deficit) . Turkey’s money supply has been close to the trend level for some time, and it currently stands 2.41% above trend. This positive pattern is similar to that of many Asian countries, who continue to weather the current economic storm better than the West.  And, it stands in sharp contrast to the unhealthy economic picture in the United States and Europe – both of which register significant money supply deficiencies.

So, why would Moody’s not follow Fitch’s lead and upgrade Turkey to investment grade? To understand this divergence, one should examine Turkey’s recent current account activity. Since late 2011, Turkey’s current account has rebounded somewhat (see the accompanying chart).

But, if gold exports are excluded from the current account (on a 12-month rolling basis), a rather significant 47% of this improvement, from the end of 2011 to September 2012, magically disappears.

Where is this gold going? Well, a quick look at the accompanying chart shows just how drastically exports to Iran and the UAE have surged this year.

Taken together, the charts indicate that Turkey is exporting gold to Iran, both directly and via the UAE , propping up their current account in the process. This has put Turkey and the UAE in the crosshairs of proponents of anti-Iranian sanctions.   Those who beat the sanctions drum are now seeking to impose another round of sanctions, aimed at disrupting programs such as Turkey’s gold-for-natural-gas exchange. This proposal clearly highlights some of the problems associated with sanctions, specifically the unintended costs imposed on the friends of the U.S. and EU in the region. Indeed, Dubai has already taken a hit, with its re-exports falling dramatically as a result of the sanctions.

What is the U.S. to do – go against Turkey, its NATO ally? Believe it or not, some in the Senate are allegedly considering such a wrong-headed move.

If these proposed sanctions are implemented, then Moody’s pessimistic outlook on Turkey may turn out to be not so far from the mark, after all – and Turkey will have no one but its “allies” to blame.

From the Bank of Canada to Threadneedle Street – Finally

On July 1st 2013, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney will assume the position of Governor of the Bank of England . Will Carney’s hat-switching be good for the UK? At present, one thing is certain; Carney has delivered to Canada the one thing that matters – money .

A quick comparison of the money supply in Canada to that of the UK shows the stark differences in the health of their respective money supplies  (and thus, of their respective economies).

 

 

The Canadian money supply has managed to stay near trend throughout the post-Lehman era. In fact, the Canadian total money supply is currently 0.5% above trend, while the UK’s money supply is a dismal 12.1% below trend – no wonder the UK keeps flirting with recession. Although Canada’s GDP growth rates are less than stellar, they are above the average of the 34 OECD nations . Indeed, Canada’s overall economic outlook is much stronger than that of the UK .

In his new position, Carney will face the formidable challenge of turning around the UK’s slumping money supply. Regardless of Carney’s success in Canada, we will have to wait and see if he’ll be able to pull it off on the other side of the pond.

FYI Memo for Senator McConnell: Medicare Is Already Means-Tested

Speaking of the “fiscal cliff,” a November 11 Wall Street Journal interview of the Senate minority leader asked, “What kind of a deal would Mr. [Mitch] McConnell accept? The senator’s top priority is long-term entitlement reform. ‘Changing the eligibility for entitlements is the only thing that can possibly fix the country long term.’ He wants means-testing for programs like Medicare. ‘Warren Buffett’s always complaining about not paying enough in taxes,’ he says. ‘What really irritates me is I’m paying for his Medicare.’”

In reality, means-testing entitlements would be a nonsensical “top priority” in fiscal cliff negotiations because (1) the fiscal cliff is not about fixing long-term problems but about preventing rather than postponing an imminent $536 billion tax hike, and because (2) the U.S. already imposes means-testing for both Social Security and Medicare.

With Social Security, the ratio of benefits to “contributions” is lowest for those who paid the most payroll taxes for the most years and highest for those who paid the least.  Making matters much worse, up to 85 percent of benefits are now taxable for seniors who either saved for retirement or keep working, but tax-exempt for others.  That highly-progressive 1993 tax on benefits is another devious way of means-testing after-tax retirement benefits.

Thanks to new redistributionist rules from the Obama administration, monthly Medicare premiums now rise from $99.90 on single seniors with less than $85,000 in income to $229.70 (including drug coverage) at incomes from $107,000 to $160,000, and to $386.10 above $214,000.   Since President Clinton removed any ceiling on income subject to Medicare payroll tax, those who had relatively high salaries while working paid many thousands more in Medicare taxes than they can ever expect to receive in benefits – assuming they are foolish enough to sign up (as I did not) for benefits that also cost nearly four times as much as others pay.

The most money that Medicare might save by denying benefits to the “top 1 percent” would be roughly 1 percent.  That would leave 99 percent of Medicare spending untouched.  If high-income people were denied benefits, however, they would also be relieved of the steeply-progressive new Medicare premiums.  Medicare would then lose all that revenue they are now expecting to collect by charging much higher premiums at higher incomes.    The net effect of eliminating both benefits and premiums of high-income seniors offers no solution to the nation’s long-term fiscal problems.  It is certainly no solution to the very-near-term threat of a series of massive tax increases on January 1.

 

 

 

How the CFPB Distorts the Facts about College Loans

Last month, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – a rogue creation of Dodd-Frank – released the first annual report from its private student loan “ombudsman.” And boy, does the report illustrate how far off the rails government has gotten.

Start with the focus: private student loans. These and for-profit colleges have gotten huge, damning attention from Washington – and much of the higher ed commentariat – over the last few years. But even if they were true devil’s spawn, private loans are absolutely not the main problems in higher ed.

Even at their very brief peak in 2007-08, private student loans constituted only 12.5 percent of total student aid. In 2011-12 they were just 2.6 percent. The vast majority of funds have always come from other sources, first and foremost the federal government. Yes, it is primarily “aid” from Washington that lets colleges raise their prices with impunity, and enables students to take on substantial debt for often less-than-substantial studies.

Government, not private lending, is the Lex Luthor here. But to be fair, private lending is the CFPB’s bailiwick, so you can’t blame the agency for putting out the report. You can sure as heck, though, blame politicians for creating a bureau whose job seems simply to be pointing fingers at private companies.

You can also blame the CFPB for the content of its report, which is simply a summary of complaints the bureau has received from disgruntled borrowers. Fairly early on it even states that “the report does not attempt to present a statistically significant picture of issues faced by borrowers” (as if its findings are empirical at all). Unfortunately, it goes on to say that the report “can help to illustrate where there is a mismatch between borrower expectations and actual service delivered.”

Actually, no it can’t. At least not reliably. All it can tell you is what people complained to the CFPB about. It can’t tell you if the complaints had bases in fact. It can’t tell you if complaint-lodgers were really just motivated by a desire not to pay. And it can’t tell you what the lenders’ sides of the stories are.

Okay, it probably could do the last thing, but it seems the ombudsman chose not to. There is not an ounce of response from any lender to the anecdotes that essentially are this report. In other words, the report seems to be doing exactly what the bureau’s opponents feared CFPB would do: functioning as an unaccountable propaganda machine against private companies. And don’t be surprised to hear this report invoked repeatedly by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and other profit-haranguers as damning proof that private student lenders are out of control.

Sadly, the prominent role of government in student lending is ignored even when it is obvious from data on private lending. As one table shows, 46 percent of complaints received were about loans connected to Sallie Mae, and 12 percent about loans from American Education Services, an offshoot of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA).

Sallie Mae, of course, is the student-loan cousin of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federal creations at the heart of bad mortgage lending. And PHEAA? “Created in 1963 by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, PHEAA has evolved into one of the nation’s leading student aid organizations.”

Yup, more than half of the complaints about ostensibly private lending were really about government-created lenders. But don’t expect to find even a footnote in the report hinting that government might be the real problem.

It’s hard not to conclude that the major goal of the CFPB is to bash private companies, and in so doing justify more and more government control of the economy. If that’s the case, and if this report is any indication, then the CFPB is doing its job. Too bad that job serves the public so poorly.

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com