Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

New Release: Monetary Policy in an Uncertain World

Ten years after the 2008 financial crisis we are again facing the possibility of economic turmoil as the Fed and other central banks exit their unconventional monetary policies by raising interest rates and shrinking their balance sheets. Although central banks will move gradually, unforeseen circumstances could trigger a flight to safety and a collapse of asset prices that had previously been stimulated by near-zero interest rates and large-scale asset purchases, popularly known as “quantitative easing.”

This book brings together leading scholars and former policymakers to draw lessons from the decade of unconventional monetary policies relied upon to stimulate the global economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The articles included in this book combine historical perspectives and forward-looking views of the Fed’s exit strategy and monetary normalization, along with the arguments for a rules-based monetary policy both at the domestic and international levels.

Kevin Warsh, a former member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, reminds us in his article that, although the economy has improved since the crisis, the tasks facing the Fed are still large. “So we should resist allowing the policy debate to be small or push aside ideas that depart from the prevailing consensus. The Fed’s job is not easier today, and its conclusions are not obvious.” The contributors to this volume meet Warsh’s challenge by questioning the status quo and offering fresh ideas for improving monetary policy.

A No-News Press Release from the Fed

Today, the Federal Reserve’s policy setting body decided to hold interest rates steady—a policy move that was predicted with near certainty by financial markets. Because this Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting was not a “live” one, that is Fed Chairman Powell did not follow it with a press conference, the only news comes from the press release. And the news there is basically no news at all—except for calling economic growth “strong” instead of “solid.” 

But this slightly more bullish tone on economic growth is not license to ignore other potential issues in the economy.

One concern is escalating trade tensions. The increasing levels of protectionism emanating from the U.S. and reverberating across the globe could dampen the economic outlook. Powell, fortunately, is aware of the risks of higher trade barriers—but it remains debatable what precisely the Fed can or should do in light of mounting protectionism.

Another concern is the flattening yield curve, where yields on short-term Treasury bonds have been inching higher and closer to yields on long-term Treasury bonds. If short-term yields exceed long-term yields, we end up with a yield curve inversion. Yield curve inversions often portend a recession, as they indicate market uncertainty about short-term prospects. While the flattening has abated this month—and while some Fed watchers rightly point out that if the curve stays relatively flat without inverting, there is less reason to worry—the Fed should continue to monitor important feedback from the bond market.

But the real issue the FOMC ought to be focused on is the Fed’s operating framework. I discussed the FOMC’s tinkering with the mechanics of monetary policy last month, highlighting that the current operating system was an experiment that grew out of the financial crisis and that it remains a framework with which the Fed has little experience. Of course, my colleague George Selgin has been the leader on this issue, bringing much needed attention to the myriad problems the “leaky floor” system poses. When the minutes from this FOMC meeting are released in three weeks, we can only hope they reveal the members giving this topic its rightful due.

It’s all well and good for the FOMC to adjust its language in the wake of positive GDP figures, but the Fed still has a very large question to address. It’s past time that they begin to do so in earnest.  

The Treasury’s Fintech Report: Key Takeaways

Today was a busy day for financial regulatory policy. In the morning, the Department of the Treasury released its long-awaited report on nonbank financials, fintech, and innovation. A few hours later, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency announced that it will start taking applications for a special purpose charter for “fintech companies engaged in the business of banking.”

Over the eighteen months since President Trump signed an executive order outlining the core principles for financial regulation under his watch, the fintech sector has been gripped by policy uncertainty and the looming threat of regulation by enforcement. Today’s events bring much-needed clarity on the Trump administration’s outlook for financial innovation, and the likely way forward.

At 222 pages, the Treasury report is a mammoth document. However, in grappling with the chief ailments of the U.S. financial regulatory framework, the report starts a discussion that will hopefully lead to major revision of existing rules and regulatory approaches.

Three problems afflict the current edifice of the financial regulatory system. Firstly, it was largely designed at a time when most of the technologies that are changing financial services provision did not exist. Secondly, there is a great deal of fragmentation, both horizontal—with rulemaking, supervisory, and enforcement power dispersed across many federal agencies—and vertical—with competences distributed between states and the federal government. Thirdly, it is by design a precautionary system, focused on protecting consumers at all costs, often at the expense of beneficial innovation.

Comprehensively addressing these three problem areas will take more than a sympathetic attitude from the executive. However, the report helpfully points the way forward in seven areas.

1. Clarity about how financial providers talk to consumers

The rules governing communications between financial providers and their customers stem from the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), passed respectively in 1977 and 1991. Unsurprisingly, both laws fail to take account of the increasing reliance on text and email communication via smartphones—and the Federal Communications Commission has given a wide interpretation to statutory provisions, constraining providers’ ability to reach their customers using new media. The Treasury report finds that the reach of current regulations is overly broad, an assessment vindicated by recent court rulings. It recommends changes to the FDCPA and TCPA to make it easier for consumers to revoke consent to be contacted. It also calls for greater clarity about the ways in which providers can reach consumers and the information they can disclose over email and voicemail services.

2. Data access and use by fintech firms

More people are making use of technology platforms for budgeting, saving, investment, and debt management. Enabling fintech applications to gain access to one’s financial data can improve consumer welfare by making it easier and cheaper to refinance loans, manage bank accounts, and learn about suitable new financial products. But banks and other established financial firms are reluctant to give access to customer data to third parties—partly because it is a competitive threat but also because it can compromise the confidentiality of those data, for which banks could be found liable. The Treasury report calls for increased efforts to improve data aggregation. It favors private-sector action and standardization of applications to make data-sharing easier and more secure but doesn’t rule out federal standards.

3. Credit scoring

One of the key ways that financial innovation is improving consumer welfare is by helping to model risk and predict default in more accurate ways. This lowers the cost of credit and expands access to marginal borrowers. For instance, a recent Federal Reserve paper finds fintech credit scoring to lead to better default estimates and lower interest spreads than FICO scores. The Treasury recognizes the value of alternative data use for better credit scoring, but it is wary of potential discrimination. Growing empirical evidence, on the other hand, suggests that better outcomes can be achieved without undermining equal treatment laws.

4. Harmonizing or federalizing money transmitter and nonbank lender licensing

As Brian Knight from the Mercatus Center has discussed at length, a key weakness of existing financial regulation is its fragmentation across states. The Treasury is aware of the onerous licensing and compliance costs that such fragmentation imposes on providers, and its report encourages voluntary harmonization by states, via passporting rules. If states cannot achieve the requisite degree of equivalence, the Treasury advocates federal action. Given New York’s fierce opposition to any perceived dilution of its financial rules, it looks like federal preemption will come sooner or later. Federalization would foreclose healthy regulatory competition, but in light of the operating costs imposed by fragmentation, the trade-off may redound to the benefit of consumers.

5. Codifying valid-when-made for banks and nonbank lenders

Legal precedent for two hundred years has established that, if a loan extended by a national bank did not violate usury laws at the time or location of its issue, then it is valid at a subsequent time and location within the United States. More recent judicial decisions have expanded the application of this doctrine to nonbanks, but a recent case involving defaulted credit card debt questioned the principle, throwing interstate marketplace lending into disarray. The Treasury rightly calls on Congress to codify the valid-when-made doctrine. In fact, the House already passed a bill that does exactly that.

6. Rescind the BCFP’s payday rule

Nobody likes high-cost short-term credit, but the accumulated evidence—contrary to popular wisdom—shows that payday loans serve many customers much of the time—especially those with urgent need for funds and no access to alternatives. Despite this evidence, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (BCFP) under its previous director sought to apply new rules on payday lenders that would have required them to verify the borrower’s ability repay. These checks would be inappropriate precisely because payday loans are a last-resort emergency product, meaning that some non-negligible proportion of borrowers will indeed end up not paying them back. That makes payday loans costly to extend, but it does not mean they do not help the typical borrower. The Treasury recommends that this draconian BCFP rule be rescinded. Instead, the emphasis should be on removing regulation to encourage a broader spectrum of lower-cost small-dollar products provided by banks and nonbanks alike.

7. Adopt regulatory sandboxes as a spur to innovation

Existing rules aiming to protect consumers may not pose a threat to established institutions, but they do raise barriers to entry for challenger firms, reducing competition. A pragmatic way to maintain existing protections—even though the case to do so is often dubious—while encouraging innovation is to allow for regulatory sandboxes: in which new firms can begin operations under regulatory supervision, but without being subject to the full corpus of regulation. Leading financial jurisdictions such as Britain and Singapore have implemented sandbox programs. The Treasury report calls for similar policies from U.S. regulators, and, if needed, congressional action to facilitate innovation and preempt state barriers. While the sandbox approach eschews the broader question of whether existing rules are appropriate, it almost surely will improve the environment for innovators.

The above is not a comprehensive discussion of the report, but a summary of its key proposals. The tenor of the Treasury’s recommendations is laudable and many of the specific reforms much-needed. However, perhaps the thorniest of issues goes unmentioned, namely, whether the sheer number of regulators and regulatory restrictions placed on financial services firms is making the financial services industry less dynamic and innovative than it could be. That is the question underlying present efforts, however modest, at regulatory relief for banks, nonbank lenders and new players such as cryptocurrency issuers and exchanges.

The tone of the Treasury’s report suggests an answer, but it remains to be seen whether executive and legislative action will measure up to the challenge.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org.]

Some Things a Central Bank’s Banker Doesn’t Know about Monetary History

In February 2018 Agustin Carstens, the General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, gave a speech at Goethe University in Frankfurt entitled “Money in the digital age: what role for central banks?” The speech quickly became notorious in the cryptocurrency community for its brusque dismissal of Bitcoin and other cryptoassets. Among other things, Carstens there called Bitcoin “a combination of a bubble, a Ponzi scheme and an environmental disaster.” A combination? One may judge the price of Bitcoin a bubble, but there is no other sense in which Bitcoin is a “Ponzi scheme.” The BIS being the central bankers’ bank, crypto supporters in response mocked Carstens for merely representing the interests of national fiat currency monopolies in quashing potential competitors.

More recently Carstens gave an interview to a Swiss periodical, available in English translation on the BIS website, in which he reiterated his anti-cryptocurrency position. “It’s a fallacy to think money can be created from nothing” was one of the oddest claims he made there, given that fiat monies are closer than cryptocurrencies are to being gratuitously created. This interview too has provoked criticism from crypto defenders.

Overlooked in the debate over Carstens’ dubious statements about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency have been the dubious statements he makes about historical forms of private money. I want to shine some critical light on those statements.

Eppur Si Muove, or, How Not to Explain Stagnant Real Wages

Lately the old-timers here at Cato’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives — which is to say, Jim Dorn and I — have been talking a lot about the Phillips Curve, which seems to be playing a part in monetary policy discussions today almost as big as the one it played in the 1970s. And you can bet that, because both Jim and I actually remember what happened in the 70s, and afterwards, neither of us has a good word to say about the concept, except as a very reduced-form means for describing very transient relationships.

Because Jim has a CMFA Policy Briefing on Phillips Curve reasoning in the works, I won’t belabor here his — and my — general objections to it. My main concern is to draw attention to a current example of that reasoning at work, in the shape of a recent New York Times op-ed by Jared Bernstein, entitled “Why Real Wages Still Aren’t Rising.”

Noting that, despite the low and still falling U.S. unemployment rate, real wage rates for workers in factories and the service industries have been stagnant for several years. Mr. Bernstein finds this stagnancy puzzling: According to the BLS, he writes, as of this June money “wages” (presumably meaning hourly wage rates) grew at an annual rate of 2.7 percent, whereas “looking at the historical link between wages and unemployment, wage growth should have been rising about a percentage point faster.” The “historical link” to which Mr. Bernstein refers is based partly on the Phillips Curve — a negative relation between the unemployment rate on one hand and the rate of either nominal “wage” or price inflation on the other — and partly on the historical tendency for the rate of nominal wage inflation to exceed that of price inflation. In the present instance, prices have failed to rise as rapidly as the decline in unemployment suggests they should, while wages — factory workers’ wages especially — have been rising still less rapidly.

Fed’s Powell Is Asked Little, Responds Less

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell was before the Senate Banking Committee today to present the semiannual Monetary Policy Report to Congress. Unfortunately, there was little discussion of monetary policy during the proceedings.

The Senators spent nearly all of their time asking the Chairman about the recent stress tests, changes to the tax code, and concerns over additional tariffs. On tariffs, Powell deserves credit for plainly stating that “in general, countries that have remained open to trade and haven’t erected barriers, including tariffs, have grown faster, have had higher incomes, [and] higher productivity, and countries that have…gone in a more protectionist direction have done worse.”

While many Senators ignored monetary policy, the one notable exception came when Senator Pat Toomey asked whether the flattening yield curve on bonds would cause the Fed to adjust either its path for interest rates increases or the pace of its balance sheet reduction.

A flattening yield curve means the difference, or spread, between short- and long-term bonds is narrowing. When short-term bond yields end up higher than those on long-term bonds, then the yield curve has inverted. The concern that Toomey’s question points to is that, in the past, an inverted yield curve has typically signaled a coming recession.

Rather than a direct response to what the flatter yield curve potentially means for normalizing monetary policy, Powell delivered his weakest answer of the day. He admitted that the Fed has discussed yield curve dynamics in policy meetings, that “different people think about it different ways,” and that he tries to understand the yield curve in terms of what it says about neutral interest rates. He ignored the part of the question about whether or not the narrowing spread was signaling a potential economic slowdown—something not lost on seasoned Fed watchers.

While the Senators’ questions left a lot to be desired on the monetary front, the Chairman’s prepared remarks were a bit more encouraging. There, as David Beckworth notes, Powell once again highlighted the FOMC’s use of monetary policy rules when setting policy. It was only a year ago that the Fed added a new section to its semiannual report on monetary policy rules. That the Fed has continued to update and expand that section in subsequent reports is welcome news. However, Powell discusses monetary policy rules as useful insofar as they guide FOMC decisions on the path of interest rates. Because they do not accurately reflect the stance of monetary policy, this laser focus on interest rates can be problematic.

To truly improve the Fed’s performance, Powell should move beyond policy rules that fixate on interest rates and instead explore a monetary regime that would enhance macroeconomic stability.

Powell will be on the Hill again tomorrow, before the House Committee on Financial Services.

The Fed’s Recent Defense of Interest on Reserves

As regular Alt-M readers know, I’ve been saying for over a year now that, despite their promise to “normalize” monetary policy, Fed officials have been determined to maintain the Fed’s post-crisis “floor” system of monetary control, in which changes to the Fed’s monetary policy stance are mainly achieved by means of adjustments to the rate of interest the Fed pays on banks’ excess reserve balances, or the IOER rate, for short.

Until recently the Fed’s intentions had to be inferred by reading between the lines of its official press releases, or by referring to personal preferences expressed by leading Fed officials. But with today’s release of the Fed’s official Monetary Policy Report by the Board of Governors, it’s no longer necessary to speculate. The section “Interest on Reserves and Its Importance for Monetary Policy,” on pp. 44-46, leaves hardly any room for doubt that the Board of Governors still regards the IOER rate as “the principal tool the FOMC [sic] uses to anchor the federal funds rate,” and that it plans to keep on doing so after it “normalizes” monetary policy by completing its ongoing balance sheet unwind and by further raising its fed funds rate target upper limit by another percentage point or so.[1]

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