Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Banks Are ‘Under Assault’

J.P. Morgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon has it right when he asserts that banks are “under assault.

This has put a damper on the source of 80 percent of the U.S. money supply, broadly measured. The CFS Divisia M4 is growing at an anemic 2.2 percent on a year-over-year basis.

Since the course of nominal national income is determined by the money supply, it’s not surprising that U.S. growth is also anemic. Final Sales to Domestic Purchasers, the best proxy for U.S. aggregate demand, has still not reached its trend rate of growth. In the face of these facts,

I don’t anticipate that the Fed will (or should), “tighten” at its Federal Open Market Committee meetings on January 27–28. Nor do I think the Fed will tighten as soon as most people think. 

The Fed Should Quit Making Interest-Rate Promises

If there’s anything we ought to have learned from the recent boom and bust, it’s that a Fed commitment to keep interest rates low for any considerable length of time, like the one Greenspan’s Fed made in 2003, is extremely unwise. 

The problem isn’t simply that interest rates should be higher, or that the Fed should have a different plan for how it will adjust them in the future.  It’s that the Fed shouldn’t be making promises about future interest rates at all, because it can’t predict whether a rate chosen today will be consistent with stability in six months, or in one month, or even in a week.

Instead of making promises about future interest rates, the Fed should promise to change its interest rate target whenever doing so will serve to maintain a reasonable level of nominal spending or nominal gross domestic product, which is the best way to avoid causing either a boom or a bust.

The World Misery Index: 108 Countries

Every country aims to lower inflation, unemployment, and lending rates, while increasing gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Through a simple sum of the former three rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth, I constructed a misery index that comprehensively ranks 108 countries based on “misery.”

Below the jump are the index scores for 2014. Countries not included in the table did not report satisfactory data for 2014.

The five most miserable countries in the world at the end of 2014 are, in order: Venezuela, Argentina, Syria, Ukraine, and Iran. In 2014, Argentina and Ukraine moved into the top five, displacing Sudan and Sao Tome and Principe.

The five least miserable are Brunei, Switzerland, China, Taiwan, and Japan. The United States ranks 95th, which makes it the 14th least miserable nation of the 108 countries on the table.

The Fed Policy Statement

Here is the statement I would like to see the Federal Open Market Committee issue on January 28 on conclusion of its first meeting of 2015:

Information received since the FOMC met in December confirms that economic activity is expanding at a moderate pace. Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s longer-run objective, primarily reflecting a decline in energy prices. That decline appears to be principally a consequence of improving technology in oil and natural gas production and is, thus, a change in relative prices that has no long-term implications for the aggregate rate of inflation.

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. To support continued progress toward these goals, the Committee today reaffirmed its view that the current 0 to 1/4 percent target range for the federal funds rate remains appropriate.

To minimize uncertainty over the course of policy, the Committee judges that the process of normalizing interest rates should begin in June. However, the exact timing is data dependent and might be adjusted as necessary.

The Committee also judges that it is now appropriate to begin the process of normalizing its open market portfolio. Effective immediately, the Federal Reserve will cease to reinvest interest on the portfolio and maturing principal.

Several FOMC members have suggested that midyear will be the appropriate time to begin to raise policy rates. The FOMC itself has been vague. No member of the leadership team–which I would define as Chair Janet Yellen, Vice Chair Stanley Fischer, and William Dudley, President Federal Reserve Bank of New York–has ruled out the midyear timing. In general, it is not good practice to announce a future date for a policy change, but such an approach makes sense at this time given that policy rates have been near zero since December 2008. Announcing a June date will not be a shock to the market, as market commentary widely suggests that June is the time the FOMC will act. It is, of course, always possible that economic conditions will change dramatically before June, requiring a change of plan. Nonetheless, it is time for the FOMC to clear the air by stating a plan.

Recollections on Fannie Mae’s Housing Goals

With the release of Peter Wallison’s new book, Hidden in Plain Sight, I suspect the debates over the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the financial crisis may heat up again (I suspect Joe Nocera is working up a nasty review).  Anyone interested in the financial crisis should read this book.  It is extensively documented and well-written.  While the narrative is similar to other of Wallison’s writings, he musters far more evidence for his case here. The amount of contemporaneous material from advocates, HUD and the GSEs (Fannie and Freddie) is impressive.

I’ve generally been on the fence about the housing goals, as I have felt that GSE leverage was a far greater issue.  The book leaves me more sympathetic to Wallison’s argument.  For the best counter-argument regarding the goals, see John Weicher’s paper on the issue (unlike Nocera, Weicher includes facts and analysis). 

FHA: On Mortgage Insurance and Adverse Selection

According to a White House release, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which insures lenders’ against borrower default, will be lowering its annual premiums. While I believe this to be a reckless move in the wrong direction, I am the first to say that setting the appropriate premium is a lot harder than it looks.

The fundamental problem facing any insurer, like the FHA, is that the risk profile of borrowers is influenced by the premium rates they are charged. Obviously a rate that is set too low will not cover losses and the insurance fund will lose money. But a rate set too high will drive away low-risk borrowers and leave the insurer covering only high risk borrowers (and likely also losing money). An insurance fund can easily find itself in a position where it needs to raise rates to cover losses from risky borrowers, but each rate increase only drives out the good borrowers, making the risk composition of the pool ever worse. If you want to see this spelled out with a lot of fancy math, I refer you to Joe Stiglitz and Andrew Weiss’s classic paper on the topic (which builds upon earlier work by Dwight Jaffee).

Figure 3 from Stiglitz and Weiss (below the jump) illustrates this tension. If you want to attract both low- and high-risk borrowers, you need to have a much lower rate than if you only want to attract high-risk borrowers. In fact, one of the rationales I often hear from advocates of expanding the FHA is that doing so will improve the health of the fund by attracting better quality borrowers.

The problem with this is that President Obama is quite explicit that his desire is to lower the credit quality of FHA borrowers. From the White House fact sheet: “FHA premium reduction will help hundreds of thousands of additional families own a home for the first time.” This initiative is targeted at first-time buyers, those who have not been able to get a loan previously. First-time buyers who have been previously “waiting on the sidelines” are likely to be younger and hence have lower credit scores on average, or else be older buyers who have had trouble finding credit because they are high-risk.

Such is also borne out in the FHA’s most recent origination report, which shows average FICO scores (a measure of creditworthiness) declining over recent years. Almost 60 percent of recent FHA borrowers have FICOs below 680. Almost 75 percent made a down-payment of less than 5 percent. If they would need to sell their homes within a few years of purchase, then given the transactions costs they’d need to bring cash to the table. This is not a high-quality book of business. 

As I wrote almost three years ago, if the FHA is serious about rebuilding its financial health and protecting the taxpayer, it needs to move in the direction of reducing its lending to higher-risk borrowers. If the agency is unwilling to do so, which appears to be the case, then any change in premiums should be up not down.

EU Demand for US Subprime: the Case of Germany

The growth of the U.S. subprime mortgage market was made possible only by the willingness of investors to fund that market.  The largest single investors in the market for private label subprime securities appears to have been Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose market share reached almost 40% of private label subprime mortgage-backed securties (MBS) in 2004.  A less recognized driver was investment demand coming from the European Union.  Perhaps the role of EU has been less appreciated due to data limitations, which will soon become apparent.

What we do know is that as of June 30, 2008, just before the crisis hit, almost $460 billion in non-agency residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) was held outside the US (see table 24 here). This represented almost a fourth of total US-issued RMBS at that time.  Of course not all non-agency MBS is subprime.  For instance a significant share are jumbo prime mortgages.  Estimates suggest subprime were a little more than half of outstanding non-agency MBS.  This breakdown does not appear to be available for EU holdings, which were almost half of non-US holdings.  More than $30 billion was held by German institutions.

One reason Germany merits special discussion is that some research has been done on who exactly these institutions were.  Germany is also interesting because of the diversity of its financial system and the special role of state-owned banks.  Almost half of banking in Germany is conducted by the public sector.  The most prominent of this being the Landesbanken, which are owned by the German regional governments.  One study found losses from US subprime MBS to be “on average three times as large for state-owned banks compared to privately owned banks.” Overall about two-thirds of losses in Germany on US subprime MBS were from holdings by state owned banks.