Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Did Bank CEO Compensation Cause the Financial Crisis?

Earlier this summer, the House of Representatives approved legislation intended to, as Rep. Frank, put it, “rein in compensation practices that encourage excessive risk-taking at the expense of companies, shareholders, employees, and ultimately the American taxpayer.”

While there are real and legitimate concerns over CEOs using bailout funds to reward themselves and give their employees bonuses, Washington has operated on the premise that excessive risk-taking by bank CEOs, due to mis-aligned incentives, caused, or at least contributed to, the financial crisis.  But does this assertion stand up to close examination, or are we just seeing Congress trying to re-direct the public anger over bailouts away from itself and toward corporations?

As it turns out, a recent research paper by Professors Fahlenbrach (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) and Rene M. Stulz (Ohio State) conclude that “There is no evidence that banks with CEOs whose incentives were better aligned with the interests of their shareholders performed better during the crisis and some evidence that these banks actually performed worse…”

Professors Fahlenbrach and Stulz also find that “banks where CEOs had better incentives in terms of the dollar value of their stake in their bank performed significantly worse than banks where CEOs had poorer incentives.  Stock options had no adverse impact on bank performance during the crisis.”  While clearly many of the bank CEOs made bad bets that cost themselves and their shareholders, the data suggests that CEOs took these bets because they believed they would be profitable for the shareholders.

Of course what might be ex ante profitable for CEOs and bank shareholders might come at the expense of taxpayers.  The solution then is not to further align bank CEOs with the shareholders, since both appear all too happy to gamble at the public expense, but to limit the ability of government to bailout these banks when their bets don’t pay off.

What Recovery?

Despite the ballyhooed cash-for-clunkers program, retail sales dipped in July. Initial claims for unemployment also rose. Housing continues to be plagued by foreclosures. And many banks are still operating under the burden of toxic assets, which inhibits their ability to provide credit. These are not the recipe for an economic recovery. Yet the Federal Reserve is signalling it thinks a recovery is on the way. And President Obama is making happy talk on the economy.

A recovery may very well technically begin in the 3rd quarter of 2009, as signalled by rising GDP. But it is shaping up to be a jobless and joyless recovery. Firms are finding ever new ways of producing and earning some profits without hiring workers. The prospect of higher taxes for health care and to fund all the bailouts understandably makes businessmen cautious about taking on the liability of new workers.

The administration’s economic policy has been behind the curve. The idea of initiating new federal mandates, like health care and cap-and-trade with the attendant higher taxes, is a sure way to derail an economic recovery. What is needed is less spending and broad-based tax cuts. The administration’s economic policy is the real clunker and it is time to trade it in.

Measuring Policy Success

NPR reported this morning that “Cash for Clunkers” style programs in Germany and France are “popular and successful.” Successful by what standard? I see that the Wall Street Journal has reported that in Europe “’cash for clunker’ programs have breathed fresh life into a battered auto industry.”

Yes, by that standard, no doubt subsidies for buying cars are successful in encouraging the sale of cars. Certainly subsidies to homebuying encouraged the buying of homes. A “Cash for Computers” program would “breathe fresh life” into computer sales. Make it “Cash for Compaq” or “Cash for Windows,” and you could direct purchasers to particular companies.

But to declare a policy successful, shouldn’t you mean that it makes the country better off? And that means that the subsidies produced more economic growth or more overall consumer satisfaction than a policy of nonintervention would have. That’s a much harder standard to meet. Subsidies by definition divert consumer choices from their natural outcome. Economists generally agree that subsidies create deadweight losses for society. And sometimes, by distorting consumer decisions and encouraging decisions that don’t make real economic sense – as in the long effort to channel consumer resources into housing – subsidies eventually prove unsustainable and unstable.

Indeed, it seems likely that another part of the Wall Street Journal was correct when it described “Cash for Clunkers” as “crackpot economics.”

No Consensus on Stimulus

Following up on Chris Edwards’ comments, Alan Blinder of Princeton writes in the Washington Post that the stimulus is working and “we need to stay the course.”

But Casey Mulligan of the University of Chicago writes in the New York Post that 90 percent of the stimulus money hasn’t been spent yet, so we could still stop it before it does too much harm:

The best case scenario for the stimulus law gives us results that are miniscule compared with the costs. In the worst case scenario, we actually pay money to further harm an already struggling economy….

It would have been designed better if money had stayed with the taxpayers instead of funneling through dozens of federal agencies – an option that is still available. Otherwise, we are looking at heavy taxes – and further economic damage – down the road to pay for all the borrowing.

Mulligan wrote earlier in the New York Times that “The economy has gotten worse than the Obama administration had predicted it would be even if Congress had spent nothing on ‘fiscal stimulus.’” Mulligan provides more details at his blog

Meanwhile, Mario Rizzo of New York University asks

what is the mechanism by which about $70 billion in extra spending (this is the amount of the total stimulus package now spent) reduces the rate of increase in unemployment and reduces the rate of decrease in output in a $14 trillion economy? If my advanced arithmetic is correct this is ½ of 1 percent of the GDP. What kind of Super Multiplier is that?

He goes on to point out that unemployment is now higher than the administration predicted just a few months ago it would be if we didn’t pass the stimulus. So how can we believe today’s econometric claims about the good effects of the so-called stimulus?

Congress Passed TARP for What?

I thought it was to clear up so-called toxic assets.  But apparently no toxic assets have been cleared up.

Reports ABC News:

Signs abound that the worst of the recession is over: Stocks have been surging, the rate of job losses has slowed, so it seems that the economic apocalypse has been averted.

Government programs such as the $787 billion stimulus and last fall’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program have so far been successful, the Obama administration says.

Except, the Congressional Oversight Panel warns in its August report, TARP never actually bought any troubled assets.

“It is likely that an overwhelming portion of the troubled assets from last October remain on bank balance sheets today,” the panel’s report says.

Those bad assets are still there, rotting away on banks’ books, making banks reluctant to ratchet up lending, and maybe, the watchdog warns, paving the way for another financial meltdown.

Isn’t American government great?!  The executive branch stampedes Congress into authorizing the former to spend an enormous amount of money allegedly to save the nation from economic calamity.  The executive branch changes its mind and uses the money in other ways.  The original problem remains — while the taxpayers are  far poorer — presumably still threatening economic calamity.  Now what?

TARP II.  Don’t be surprised if the Obama administration eventually unveils a massive new program to clear up toxic assets.

The lesson?  Beware government officials promising to help you by seizing your money and distributing it to a gaggle of grasping individuals and companies.  Especially beware government officials demanding a second chance after wasting your money the first time!

Flood Insurance: Mend It or End It, But Don’t Just Extend It

Before leaving for the August recess, the House of Representatives passed a bill (HR3139) to extend the authority for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) until March 2010.  The program was set to expire on Oct. 1, 2009.   The bill now goes to the Senate.  Instead of taking up HR3139, the Senate should insist on real reforms to the NFIP, rather then a blanket extension.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the NFIP has operated under a deficit of close to $17 billion, which had to be borrowed from the Treasury in order to pay claims.  Under the NFIP’s current structure, it cannot even make the interest payments on its borrowing; these losses will ultimately hit the taxpayer. 

The Senate last Congress passed a strong reform bill that would have eliminated almost half of the subsidies in the NFIP.  The House decided to instead seek an expansion of the broken program, adding wind coverage and raising the coverage levels (despite the availability of private flood insurance).

Many of the homes receiving subsidies under the NFIP are either vacation/second homes or properties where the government has paid repeated claims.  In one instance, a house in Houston this is valued at around $100,000 received over $800,000 in flood insurance claims over a 20-year period, before it was finally destroyed. 

Not only does the NFIP subsidize at taxpayer expense beach-front vacation homes, but there is growing evidence that the program causes substantial harm to the environment and local fisheries.  Just last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a finding that the NFIP is pushing orcas and some runs of salmon to extinction.  Before the federal government forces significant costs on the private sector to protect the environment, perhaps it should take a close look at the damage its own activities inflict.

Too Risky to Continue

The profits being reported so far this year by the major financial firms appear to be driven by proprietary trading (trading for their own account, as opposed to those of their customers). The recent $3.44 billion profit of Goldman Sachs in the second quarter is a dramatic case in point.

Proprietary trading is a high-risk activity and signals the financial sector is returning to its bad old ways. Returns cannot be systematically high unless risk is correspondingly high.

None of this would matter if it were just private capital at stake. But Goldman, along with other major financial firms, is being guaranteed under the dubious doctrine that it is too-big-to-fail. Better there were no government guarantees. As long as these guarantees are in place, however, high-risk activity must be curtailed.

The simplest solution is that a firm should not be permitted to take insured deposits and operate what amounts to a hedge fund within the institution. Goldman is a difficult case because it is not currently relying on deposits (even though it has a bank charter). It should be told to return to a private partnership.

A firm too big-to-fail is too-big-to-exist (as a federally insured entity).