Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Fact Checking the Fed on “Audit the Fed”

With the introduction of bills in both the House (H.R. 24) and Senate (S.264) allowing for a GAO audit of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, officials at both the Board and regional Fed banks have launched an attack on these efforts.  While we should all welcome this debate, it should be one based on facts.  Unfortunately some Fed officials have made a number of statements that could at best be called misleading. 

For instance Fed Governor Jerome Powell recently claimed “Audit the Fed also risks inserting the Congress directly into monetary policy decisionmaking”.  I’ve read and re-read every word of these bills and have yet to find such.  H.R. 24/S.264 provide for no role at all for Congress to insert itself into monetary policy, other than Congress’ existing powers.  I would urge Governor Powell to point us to which particular part of the bill he is referring to, as I cannot find it.

Dr. Krugman Meets Dr. Fox

Dr. Paul Krugman, the hyper-productive New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate, has produced a flood of fiscal factoids. He argues that the only way to put the major economies around the world back on track is to “stimulate” them via deficit-financed government spending.

Most recently, Dr. Krugman has weighed in repeatedly on Greece’s travails with his fiscalist snake oil. His column of January 26th, “Ending Greece’s Nightmare,” makes it clear that he thinks he can deliver an elixir.

Not so fast Doctor. A mountain of evidence shows that the elixir is a fiscal factoid. Never mind.

On Greece: Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

People keep asking me what I think about Europe’s most recent crisis (read: Greece). Well, my sentiments are exactly the same as they were in April 2012, when my Globe Asia column was titled: “China and Greece – Here We Go Again.”

Here’s what I wrote on Greece: “And if you think the political chattering classes in the U.S. are dangerous, take a look at Europe, where the elites are fighting economic reality with all their might — a fight they will lose. Indeed, they have built an economic doomsday machine. And when it comes to Greece, don’t fool yourselves into believing that the recent huge debt restructuring exercise will allow Europe’s politicos to pull their chestnuts out of the fire. Greece’s annual broad money (M3) growth rate has been in negative territory for every month since February 2010, and it is currently contracting at a fantastic 17.5%. In the words of former President George W. Bush (not Yogi Berra): ‘This sucker is going down.’ You can forget all the calculations and soothing noises coming from Europe.”

Yes. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Loan Loss Only Part of Financial Crisis Story

With the release of Peter Wallison’s new book, Hidden in Plain Sight, debates about the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the financial crisis have heated up again. As I’ve written elsewhere, I believe there’s a lot more to the story than the GSEs’ housing goals. While there are a number of omissions in Peter’s otherwise fine book, I want to address a particular criticism of his work that strikes me as simply confused and mistaken.

I’ve often heard that Fannie and Freddie couldn’t have been a cause of the crisis because their loan loss rates (and totals) were far below those of banks. Robert VerBruggen recently repeats this in his review of Peter’s book. 

For this claim, Robert relies on loss estimates by David Min and Mark Zandi. The latter repeated this criticism at an AEI event for Peter’s book, and you can find Zandi’s estimates here (page 8, table 1). Zandi states that as a percent of debt, the GSEs witnessed a loss rate of 2.7 percent on their holdings of residential mortgages. Combined with the Federal Housing Administration’s losses, this comes to around $206 billion. In contrast, depositories (banks & thrifts) had a loss rate of 5.8 percent for a total of $217 billion—both the rate and total are obviously greater than that for the GSEs and FHA.  

So far, so good; I don’t disagree with any of the above. But Zandi’s estimates suffer from a massive omission: the other side of the balance sheet—equity. If you think losses are all that matter, consider that the dot.com bubble erased about $8 trillion in wealth, whereas losses on mortgages, according to Zandi, were just under $1 trillion. So if losses are the issue, why wasn’t the dot.com bubble so much worse than the subprime crisis? Because of leverage.

Yes, the GSEs’ losses on mortgages were less than that for depositories, but the differences in capital were far greater. The GSEs had far less shareholder money to fall back on if mortgages started to sour. Again bear in mind that total losses were similar between the GSEs and the depositories. In the 4th quarter of 2007, Fannie and Freddie held about $70 billion in shareholder equity, behind $1.7 trillion in assets and around $5 trillion in debt and guaranteed mortgage-backed securities. By contrast, depositories held $1.3 trillion in shareholder equity, or about 19 times the equity of the GSEs. Mortgage losses were not enough to sink the entire banking system, even if some banks did sink, whereas the GSEs were toast because of their low levels of capital. 

Why does that matter? Because it takes insolvencies to drive a financial crisis. The banking system, as a whole, was not driven to insolvency, but the GSEs where. Losses (and loss rates) only make sense relative to the capital ready to absorb those losses. And of course the failure of the GSEs was magnified through the system in a uniquely harmful manner. 

Did other banks hold Citibank equity?  Of course not, but they did hold GSE preferred shares. This all isn’t to say that the GSEs were the only cause of the crisis; they weren’t. It is to say that loss rates presented out of context are meaningless and could even be misleading.

Bitcoin Regulation: “Assume the Existence of Public Interest Benefits!”

You’ve probably heard some version of the joke about the chemist, the physicist, and the economist stranded on a desert island. With a can of food but nothing to open it, the first two set to work on ingenious technical methods of accessing nutrition. The economist declares his solution: “Assume the existence of a can opener!”…

There are parallels to this in some U.S. state regulators’ approaches to Bitcoin. Beginning with the New York Department of Financial Services six months ago, regulators have put proposals forward without articulating how their ideas would protect Bitcoin users. “Assume the existence of public interest benefits!” they seem to be saying.

When it issued its “BitLicense” proposal last August, the New York DFS claimed “[e]xtensive research and analysis” that it said “made clear the need for a new and comprehensive set of regulations that address the novel aspects and risks of virtual currency.” Yet, six months later, despite promises to do so under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, the NYDFS has not released that analysis, even while it has published a new “BitLicense” draft.

Yesterday, I filed comments with the Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS) regarding their draft regulatory framework for digital currencies such as Bitcoin. CSBS is to be congratulated for taking a more methodical approach than New York. They’ve issued an outline and have called for discussion before coming up with regulatory language. But the CSBS proposal lacks an articulation of how it addresses unique challenges in the digital currency space. It simply contains a large batch of regulations similar to what is already found in the financial services world.

When Mean-Tested Benefits Rose, Labor Force Participation Fell

The U.S. job market has tightened by many measures – more advertised job openings, fewer claims for initial unemployment insurance, substantial reduction in long-term unemployment and the number of discouraged workers.  Yet the percentage of working-age population that is either working or looking for work (the labor force participation rate) remains extremely low.  This is a big problem, since projections of future economic growth are constructed by adding expected growth of productivity to growth of the labor force.

Why have so many people dropped out of the labor force?  Since they’re not working (at least in the formal economy), how do they pay for things like food, rent and health care?

One explanation answers both questions: More people are relying on a variety of means-tested cash and in-kind benefits that are made available only on the condition that recipients report little or no earned income.   Since qualification for one benefit often results in qualification for others, the effect can be equivalent to a high marginal tax rate on extra work (such as switching from a 20 to 40 hour workweek, or a spouse taking a job).  Added labor income can often result in loss of multiple benefits, such as disability benefits, supplemental security income, the earned income tax credit, food stamps and Medicaid. 

This graph compares annual labor force participation rates with Congressional Budget Office data on means-tested federal benefits as a percent of GDP.  The data appear consistent with work disincentives in federal transfer payments, labor tax rates and refundable tax credits.

U.S. Military Spending: A Lot? Or a Lot More?

In 2015, U.S. defense spending will be about $600 billion, or about 3.24 percent of GDP. The former figure would strike many Americans as sufficient, and a few would find it excessive. Robert Gates once said, “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on a budget of more than half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.”

But hawks want you to focus on the latter figure, 3.24: they believe that an arbitrary fixed percentage of national output should be dedicated to defense spending every year. For example, Mitt Romney and Bobby Jindal would peg defense spending at 4 percent of GDP. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens would see that, and raise them. In his new book, America in Retreat, Stephens calls for sharply increasing “military spending to upwards of 5 percent of GDP.”

It’s unclear whether these gentlemen fully appreciate what their proposals would equate to in real dollar terms. (Take a look at the chart below, prepared by my colleague Travis Evans). The bipartisan Budget Control Act (BCA) capped discretionary Pentagon spending at $3.9 trillion between 2015 and 2021, an average of 2.6 percent of GDP per year. That means Americans would need to spend $2.1 trillion above the current caps to meet the 4 percent threshold, and $3.6 trillion more to reach 5 percent. For added perspective, then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s FY15 alternative projected $4.2 trillion for defense, or 2.8 percent of GDP. In other words, Romney proposed to spend $1.8 trillion more than his running mate, and Stephens’ plan is even more disconnected from fiscal reality – $3.3 trillion more than the de facto GOP budget.