Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Bernanke’s Part in the Housing Bubble

bernankeRecent weeks have seen a swirl of speculation over whether President Obama will or will not re-appoint Ben Bernanke to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board, when his current term as Chair expires in January 2010. Almost all of the debate has centered on his actions as Chairman. This narrow focus misses an important piece: his actions, and words, as a Fed governor during the build-up of the housing bubble.

What should have been Bernanke’s greatest strength as a Fed governor and later chair, his understanding of monetary theory and his knowledge of the Great Depression, has ended up being a weakness. While correct in his analysis of the role of “debt deflation” – where the deflation increases the real burden of debts and correspondingly weakens the balance sheet of both households and businesses – in the deepening of the Great Depression; his obsession with slaying the Great White Whale of Deflation provided intellectual cover for the Fed’s ignoring and contributing to the housing bubble. Like the proverbial general, he was fighting yesterday’s battle, rather than today’s.

While core inflation was moderate and increasing at a decreasing rate between 2001 and 2005, this measure ignores the dramatic up-tick in house prices during those years. First, housing makes up the single largest expense for most households, ignoring housing, especially after one subtracts out energy and food from the definition of inflation, gives a narrow and distorted picture of inflation. Even if one were to focus solely on rents, the 2000s were an era of increasing housing costs.

Separate from the impact of housing prices on inflation is the role which housing plays as the collateral for the primary piece of household debt: a mortgage. Even were the US to suffer a bout of mild deflation and the real burden of their mortgages increased, this would likely have little impact on household balance sheets in an environment of increasing home prices.

Admittedly Bernanke was then only a “governor” and not yet Chair of the Fed, but he was the Fed’s loudest voice when it came to combating deflation and arguing for lower rates. Additionally there have been zero public acknowledgements by either Bernanke or the Fed that its policy earlier this decade contributed to the housing bubble and financial crisis. Without admitting to the occasional mistake, we have no way of judging whether Bernanke has learned from any of his mistakes, and hence less likely to repeat them.

In weighing Bernanke’s record at the Fed, judgement should not solely consider his actions as Chair, but also consider his words and deeds while the housing bubble was inflating. How one responds to a impending disaster is as important as to how one helps to clean up after the disaster has struck.

Why Promiscuous Bail-Outs Never Was a Good Idea

Jeffrey A. Miron explains in Reason why a government bail-out of most everyone was neither the only option nor the best option:

When people try to pin the blame for the financial crisis on the introduction of derivatives, or the increase in securitization, or the failure of ratings agencies, it’s important to remember that the magnitude of both boom and bust was increased exponentially because of the notion in the back of everyone’s mind that if things went badly, the government would bail us out. And in fact, that is what the federal government has done. But before critiquing this series of interventions, perhaps we should ask what the alternative was. Lots of people talk as if there was no option other than bailing out financial institutions. But you always have a choice. You may not like the other choices, but you always have a choice. We could have, for example, done nothing.

By doing nothing, I mean we could have done nothing new. Existing policies were available, which means bankruptcy or, in the case of banks, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation receivership. Some sort of orderly, temporary control of a failing institution for the purpose of either selling off the assets and liquidating them, or, preferably, zeroing out the equity holders, giving the creditors a haircut and making them the new equity holders. Similarly, a bankruptcy or receivership proceeding might sell the institution to some player in the private sector willing to own it for some price.

With that method, taxpayer funds are generally unneeded, or at least needed to a much smaller extent than with the bailout approach. In weighing bankruptcy vs. bailouts, it’s useful to look at the problem from three perspectives: in terms of income distribution, long-run efficiency, and short-term efficiency.

From the distributional perspective, the choice is a no-brainer. Bailouts took money from the taxpayers and gave it to banks that willingly, knowingly, and repeatedly took huge amounts of risk, hoping they’d get bailed out by everyone else. It clearly was an unfair transfer of funds. Under bankruptcy, on the other hand, the people who take most or even all of the loss are the equity holders and creditors of these institutions. This is appropriate, because these are the stakeholders who win on the upside when there’s money to be made. Distributionally, we clearly did the wrong thing.

It’s too late to reverse history.  But it would help if Washington politicians stopped plotting new bail-outs.  At this stage, most every American could argue that they are entitled to a bail-out because most every other American has already received one.

SEC Favors Special Interests in New Corporate Elections Rule

Yesterday, the SEC repealed a long-standing rule which allowed brokers to vote shares on behalf of their investors, unless they obtained written directions from each individual investors.  While investors have long been able to direct the voting of their shares, many do not take the time to.  In these cases, the brokers vote those shares, after all they are the agents of the investors and are hired to act on their behalf.

The direct effect of the rule will be to reduce the voting weight of retail investors, as represented by their brokers.  In voting against the rule, SEC Commissioner Kathy Casey raised the point that the rule would skew voting toward large institutional investors and away from little retail investors.

What did the large institutions investors have to say?  As reported in today’s Financial Times, Ann Yerger, who represents large pension funds claimed that “counting uninstructed broker votes is akin to stuffing the ballot box for management.”  One has to wonder whether the pension funds, which Ms. Yerger represents should have to get written instructions from all the pensioners whose pensions are managed by these funds?  Of course not, treating all agents of investors equally would make too much sense for the SEC.

Then one should not be too surprised to see pension funds be allowed to cast their “uninstructed” votes while brokers cannot.  The largest pension funds manage the retirement of unionized state and local employees, often with the fund management itself representing the interests of the unions.  We witnessed this same favoring of union interests over the common good in the auto bailouts.

The rule once again illustrates that the new bosses in Washington are busy rewarding their allies at the expense of everyone else.

Washington Push on Executive Pay Has Unintended Consequences

Regulators at the SEC and politicians on Capitol Hill seem to have short memories when it comes to executive compensation.  When the SEC years ago decided to make the compensation of top executives public information, it had the all too predictable result of actually increasing average compensation levels.  Once a top CEO knew what other CEOs were making, he could argue for a pay hike based upon being “underpaid”.  Of course regulators were “shocked” by the resulting “race to the top.” 

Similarly Congress was shocked when after deciding to heavily tax salaries over $1 million, that companies shifted away from direct cash pay and toward options and increased bonuses in the form of shares. 

And soon Washington will also pretend to be shocked and outraged that the current anger over Wall Street bonuses is leading firms to reduce bonuses, but increase base pay.  As illustrated in today’s Wall Street Journal, companies like Morgan Stanley have increased their base pay from $300,000 to $400,000.  Even Citibank, essentially a ward of the US government, is increasing its base pay to $300,000 for employees that were previously eligible for bonuses.

The real harm in this is not that Wall Street employees are getting paid more in cash, but that less of their compensation will be tied to their performance, and the performance of their firm.  A flat salary, regardless of how hard you work, will encourage shirking. Perhaps even worse, is that more upfront cash, and less long-term stock options, will shift Wall Street’s focus even more toward today, rather than tomorrow.  So much for Washington fixing the short term focus of Wall Street, but then one shouldn’t be too surprised given the even more short term focus of Washington.

Too Big to Fail

One of the most pernicious public policies aggravating the financial crisis is that of “too big to fail.” The doctrine states that some banks (now financial institutions generally) are so large that their failure would incur “systemic risk” for the financial system. That sounds terrible and it is intended to. Financial services regulators and Treasury secretaries use it to frighten small children and congressmen. How can an elected official vote to incur systemic risk? He must vote to approve the bank bailout of the day. In fact, people who use the term cannot even agree among themselves as to what it means, much less what causes it and, therefore, what the appropriate response would be. I suggest the reader substitute the phrase “too politically connected to fail” whenever he sees “too big to fail.” What follows will then be rendered intelligible.

The Failure of Do-Nothing Policies

A news story from today in a slightly alternate universe:

Jobless Rate at 26-Year High

Employers kept slashing jobs at a furious pace in June as the unemployment rate edged ever closer to double-digit levels, undermining signs of progress in the economy, and making clear that the job market remains in terrible shape.

The number of jobs on employers’ payrolls fell by 467,000, the Labor Department said. That is many more jobs than were shed in May and far worse than the 350,000 job losses that economists were forecasting.

Job losses peaked in January and had declined every month until June. The steep losses show that even as there are signs that total economic activity may level off or begin growing later this year, the nation’s employers are still pulling back.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “President Obama proposed a $787 billion stimulus program to get this country moving again. He tried to save the jobs at GM and Chrysler. But the do-nothing Republicans filibustered and blocked that progressive legislation, and these are the results.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference, “We begged President Bush to save Fannie Mae, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, AIG, the rest of Wall Street, the banks, and the automobile industry. We begged him to spend $700 billion of taxpayers’ money to bail out America’s great companies. We begged him to ignore the deficit and spend more money we don’t have. But did he listen? No, he just sat there wearing his Adam Smith tie and refused to spend even a single trillion to save jobs. And now unemployment is at 9.5 percent. I hope he’s happy.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill agreed that the “do-nothing” response to the financial crisis had led to rising unemployment and a sluggish economy. If the Bush and Obama administrations had been willing to invest in American companies, run the deficit up to $1.8 trillion, and talk about all sorts of new taxes, regulations, and spending programs, then certainly the economy would be recovering by now, they said.

Congress Just Raised Our Credit Card Fees

Technically, it was the companies which raised their fees.  But they did so to anticipate new legislative restrictions on fees taking effect.  Congress wanted to cut costs for consumers, but ended up costing them instead.

Reports the Washington Post:

Credit card companies are raising interest rates and fees seven months before new rules go into effect that will limit their ability to do so, much to the irritation of Congress and consumer advocates.

Chase, for instance, will raise the minimum payment required of some of its customers from 2 percent to 5 percent of the statement balance starting in August. Chase and Discover have increased the maximum fee charged for transferring a balance to the card to 5 percent of the amount, up from 3 and 4 percent, respectively. Bank of America last month raised the transaction fee for balance transfers and cash advances from 3 to 4 percent. Card issuers including Bank of America and Citi also continue to cut limits and hike up rates, which they have been doing with more frequency since January.

“This is a common practice and will continue to be common, because issuers can do these things for really no reason until February,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for, which tracks the industry. “It’s what I call the Credit Card Trifecta – lower limits, higher rates, higher minimum payments.”

It’s not just the top card issuers making changes. Atlanta-based InfiBank, for example, will raise the minimum annual percentage rate it charges nearly all of its customers in September “in order to more effectively manage the profitability of our credit card account portfolio in a very challenging economic environment,” said spokesman Kevin C. Langin.

The flurry of activity, which the banks say is necessary to shore up their revenue losses, has irked members of Congress, who passed a new credit card law, which was signed by President Obama in May. The law, among other things, would prevent card companies from raising rates on existing balances unless the borrower was at least 60 days late and would require the original rate to be restored if payments are received on time for six months. The law would also require banks to get customers’ permission before allowing them to go over their limits, for which they would have to pay a fee.

One hates to think of what additional “help” Congress plans on providing for us in the future.