Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Marketplace Lending: Regulation Ahead?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently announced that it would start accepting consumer complaints about marketplace lending.  Marketplace lending, previously known as “peer to peer” or “P2P” lending, emerged in the aftermath of the financial crisis.  A combination of tightening credit markets and low interest rates created a perfect marriage between consumers looking for loans and investors looking for profit.  In its first incarnation, peer to peer lending served as an online matchmaking service, allowing prospective borrowers to post requests for loans to be reviewed by individuals willing to make those loans.  “Peer to peer” referred to the fact that the lenders were ordinary people, just like the borrowers.  The loans are non-recourse, meaning that if the borrower fails to repay, the lender is simply out of luck.  Although these would appear to be risky loans, in fact, the default rate has been surprisingly low: 4.9 percent at market-leader Prosper as of the end of 2014, and 5.3 percent at the other leader, Lending Club, during the period between Q1 2007 and Q1 2015.

The loans have performed so well that the market quickly attracted institutional investors and more sophisticated business models.  As the two leading providers of marketplace loans today, Prosper and Lending Club use the same (somewhat complex) model.  The companies issue notes to investors that are obligations of the issuing company. Simultaneously, WebBank, a Utah-based FDIC-insured bank, originates a loan which is sold to the company. The company pays for the loan with the proceeds from the sale of notes to investors. The loan is disbursed to the borrower. The borrower repays the funds in accordance with the terms of the loan. And the payments from the borrower are used to pay the purchasers of the company’s notes. The payment of the notes is explicitly dependent on the borrower’s repayment of the loan.

Since marketplace lending has gained momentum, there have been concerns about its regulation – expressed both by those who worry that it’s completely unregulated (not true, but there have been no new regulations specifically targeting the industry), and by those–like me–who worry that its innovation will be smothered while the industry is still in its infancy.

Building the Bitcoin Ecosystem: Privacy Edition

Many in the Bitcoin community seek increased financial privacy. As I wrote in a 2014 study of the Bitcoin ecosystem, “Bitcoin can facilitate more private transactions, which, when legal in the jurisdictions where they occur, are the business of nobody but the parties to them.” That study identified “algorithmic monitoring of Bitcoin transactions” as a rather likely and somewhat consequential threat to the goal of financial privacy (pg. 18). It was part of a cluster of similar threats.

Good news: The Bitcoin community is doing something about it.

The Open Bitcoin Privacy Project recently issued the second edition of its Bitcoin Wallet Privacy Rating Report. It’s a systematic, comparative study of the privacy qualities of Bitcoin wallets. The report is based on a detailed threat model and published criteria for measuring the “privacy strength” of wallets. (I’ve not studied either in detail, but the look of them is well-thought-out.)

Reports like this are an essential, ecosystem-building market function. The OBPP is at once informing Bitcoin users about the quality of various wallets out there, and at the same time challenging wallet providers to up their privacy game. It’s notable that the wallet with the highest number of users, Blockchain, is 17th in the rankings, and one of the most prominent U.S. providers of exchange, payment processing, and wallet services, Coinbase, is 20th. Those kinds of numbers should be a welcome spur to improvement and change. Blockchain is updating its wallet apps. Coinbase, which has offended some users with intensive scrutiny of their financial behavior, appears wisely to be turning away from wallet services.

Bitcoin guru Andreas Antonopolis rightly advises transferring bitcoins to a wallet you control so that you don’t have to trust a Bitcoin company not to lose it. The folks at the Open Bitcoin Privacy Project are working to make wallets more privacy protective. Kudos, OBPP.

There’s more to do, of course, and if there is a recommendation I’d offer for the next OBPP report, it’s to explain in a more newbie-friendly way what the privacy threats are and how to perceive and weigh them. Another threat to the financial privacy outcome goal—ranked slightly more likely and somewhat more consequential than algorithmic monitoring—was: “Users don’t understand how Bitcoin transactions affect privacy.”

Stop Encouraging Homeownership

Last month, the Treasury Department announced new steps to boost the market for private mortgage bonds, not backed by the government or any federal entity, in order to increase homeownership and improve access to credit for working-class Americans who might be having trouble borrowing money to buy a house.  The Administration’s latest effort to boost the market for private mortgage lending begs an essential question:  What are the societal benefits to homeownership, and would more investment in homeownership help the economy?

It’s a long-discussed question, of course.  The pro-home-building folks aver that homeownership fosters civic involvement and helps people become more tied to their community, which encourages other behavior beneficial for the economy.  And for a good proportion of homeowners the majority of their net wealth is in their home, so it can be an important source of savings.

But another way to look at it is that correlation is not causation:  The reason that homeowners are more civic-minded and involved in the community is because such people are much more likely to have the wherewithal to save enough to make a downpayment on a house.  Ed Glaeser, the renowned housing economist from Harvard, puts little stock in the notion that homeownership has significant positive societal externalities.

Are Financial Crises Now Less Likely?

According to many politicians and pundits, new financial regulation adopted since 2008 means that financial crises are now less likely than before. President Barack Obama, for example, has suggested that 

Wall Street Reform now allows us to crack down on some of the worst types of recklessness that brought our economy to its knees, from big banks making huge, risky bets using borrowed money, to paying executives in a way that rewarded irresponsible behavior.

Simliarly, Paul Krugman writes that 

financial reform is working a lot better than anyone listening to the news media would imagine…Did reform go far enough? No. In particular, while banks are being forced to hold more capital, a key force for stability, they really should be holding much more. But Wall Street and its allies wouldn’t be screaming so loudly, and spending so much money in an effort to gut the law, if it weren’t an important step in the right direction. For all its limitations, financial reform is a success story.

Krugman is right that, other things equal, forcing banks to issue more capital should reduce the risk of of crises.

But other things have not remained equal.  According to Liz Marshall, Sabrina Pellerin, and John Walter of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, the federal government is now protecting a much higher share of private financial sector liabilities than before the crisis:  

Private Money, Theoretically

Henry James, T.S. Elliot famously remarked, “Had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”  Similarly, more than a few economics papers involve formal models so fine that no facts can violate them.

Two recent examples purport to demonstrate the instability and inefficiency of “private money.”  One, on “Private Money and Banking Regulation,” appeared in the September 2015 Journal of Money, Credit and Banking (JMCB).  Its authors are Cyril Monnet, a Professor at the University of Bern, and Daniel Sanches, an economist at the Philadelphia Fed.  The other, by Sanches alone, is called “On the Inherent Instability of Private Money,” and is about to be published in the Review of Economic Dynamics (RED, for short).

That the models in these papers are indeed “fine,” meaning first-rate, from a strictly analytical point of view, can’t be gainsaid.  They meet all of the exacting requirements of  those economists who insist that a model’s institutional features should be “essential” in the sense Frank Hahn had in mind when he argued that monetary GE models should provide an essential role for money.  The features must, in other words, overcome frictions inherent in the model environment that would otherwise condemn optimizing agents to lower levels of utility.  In particular, the models in question supply “essential” roles for indirect exchange, banks, and banknotes.  Yet they are tractable enough to allow their authors to draw inferences from them concerning both the stability and the efficiency of private currency.  So far as the realm of formal economic modeling is concerned, these are highly impressive achievements.

Good Question: What to Do Before Major Change

“Dean Dad” Matt Reed has responded to my rebuttal to him Tuesday, and I appreciate his engaging me in discussion. His main point now: The student loan default problem is not mainly about big total debts, but smaller debts that are hard to pay off because the students dropped out before getting a degree.

I agree. Indeed, that was pretty much the point of my Wall Street Journal article that kicked off the exchange. As I wrote:

Many dropouts have loans, which are much harder to repay when one fails to finish, or gets a worthless degree. Borrowers on the academic margins, who often attend community colleges and for-profit schools, likely struggle the most to repay even though their debts tend to be relatively small. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 34% of borrowers with debts between $1,000 and $5,000 defaulted, versus only 18% with debts in excess of $100,000, a level of debt associated with advanced degrees.

Where the confusion might lie is that I thought in his response to me Reed was suggesting that a major problem for anyone coming out of community college was that the minimum wage was too low and, connected to that, so were the wages of entry-level jobs. This was based on the following:

Why are former students having a hard time paying debt back? Mostly because entry-level jobs don’t pay very well. But McCluskey never addresses either the supply of entry-level jobs, or the minimum wage. 

Knowing that Reed did not mean to include graduates among “former students” makes his comments about low wages less alarming. Still, his solution – raise low wages instead of requiring evidence of college readiness – seems a broad, slow, and dubious way to deal with the debt problem. “Broad” because it calls for, essentially, overhauling a huge part of the economy as opposed to specifically reforming students loans; “slow” because doing that would take a pretty long time; and “dubious” because there is a lot of evidence that raising the minimum wage has substantial negative effects.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, Reed calls for “free (or much less expensive) community college.”

Free community college would probably solve the problem of community college noncompleters leaving with debt, depending on how one accounted for living expenses, but it comes with its own set of troubles. The first is that we would likely still have lots of people not finishing, only the costs would be borne more by taxpayers and less by students. The second is that, unless “free” were somehow focused on the poor, you would have taxpayers subsidizing well-to-do people. Recent data show about 39 percent of dependent undergraduate students at community colleges, and about 54 percent of independent students, are from the upper half of the income distribution.  About 16 and 28 percent are from the highest income quartile. Then there is the question of how to pay for this, especially if making it free leads to even more people enrolling. And will community colleges be able to handle all of the new students, or will they have to ration spots? What will encourage students to complete their studies as quickly as possible?

The Administration’s Puerto Rico Jujitsu Threatens the States’ Ability to Borrow

The New York Times reported last week on some of the details of the Obama Administration’s recovery plan for Puerto Rico, and it does not bode well for investors — or for states and municipalities that borrow money.

The island’s government is $72 billion in debt, with billions more in unfunded pension obligations.  It has been in recession for a decade during which time it has never run a balanced budget, and today it is nearly bankrupt.  The government has appealed to the federal government to help, and the Treasury has drawn up a plan.  A major feature of that plan is that it will ignore the law by putting government employee pensions in front of general obligation bondholders in the hierarchy of credits, despite the provision of Puerto Rico’s Constitution that mandates GO bondholders will be paid before all other government obligations.  The rationale for doing so is, essentially, that public sector pension holders are in greater need of the money than the investors (many of whom are retirees and pensioners themselves), so this ex post change is simply a matter of fairness.

The bondholders, naturally, do not like this. After lending money to the Puerto Rican government under the explicit assurance that they would have the highest priority in all payment scenarios, having this promise revoked seems a tad unfair, as well as blatantly illegal.

It isn’t just the Puerto Rican bondholders that should be angry.  The problems with screwing over bondholders in order to protect government pensioners goes farther than its illegality:  Doing so sets a precedent for dealing with other bankrupt states in the future.  While the Administration avers that this in no way sets a precedent, since the fifty states have recourse to use Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code to reorganize, the reality is otherwise.

The Times correctly notes that Chapter 9 makes no provision for the states extricating themselves from their own general obligation debt.  No out was given for a very good reason:  Foreclosing the possibility of a default up front (at least as much as possible) makes it easier and cheaper for states to borrow money.

The Obama Administration’s proposal threatens to upset this equilibrium.  By upending the law and decades of precedent, the Treasury’s plan threatens to make it more difficult for the states and municipalities to borrow money as well, since their lenders see that they too, might get their promise of being first to be repaid pulled out from under them.

This administration has a long history of picking winners and losers in bankruptcy.  In the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies, the secured bondholders took a major hit being reduced to unsecured status while workers and pensioners were elevated to protected status, and the Detroit bankruptcy did the same thing.

While it may seem “fair” to help little old ladies rather than mean old hedge funds, the investors who lost money in these maneuvers weren’t Wall Street plutocrats — they were regular people who invested their money into assets they thought were safe, because the law explicitly said they were. Many of them are retirees and pensioners themselves, and thousands of them will see a reduction in the value of their retirement funds.  CNN recently reported that 45% of Puerto Rico’s debt is held by “middle class Puerto Ricans” and “average Joe Americans.”  Abrogating bankruptcy law isn’t akin to Robin Hood — it’s transferring money from one group of retirees to another.

A Puerto Rico bailout that punishes secured bondholders would represent a short-term political win for the Treasury but at a long-run cost to the rest of the country in the form of higher borrowing rates.  It would be a terrible precedent.  It is hard to conceive of a reason for a Republican Congress to acquiesce to such a thing, or to allow a control board to do such a thing down the road.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org]