Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

CBO on Fannie, Freddie and Mortgage Finance Options

Just in time for the holidays, the Congressional Budget Office has released its analysis of the costs and benefits of various alternatives to our current system of mortgage finance, particularly the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The report examines three possibilities:

  1. A hybrid public/private model in which the government provides explicit guarantees on privately issued mortgages or MBSs;
  2. A fully public model in which a wholly federal entity would guarantee qualifying mortgages or MBSs; or
  3. A fully private model in which there would be no special federal backing for the secondary mortgage market.

The report doesn’t really push one option over another, but simply lays out the advantages and disadvantages of each.  Some highlights worth keeping in mind as the debate continues into the new year:

“Relying on explicit government guarantees…would also have some disadvantages…If competition remained muted, with only a few…firms participating in the secondary market, limiting risk to the overall financial system and avoiding regulatory capture could be difficult…federal guarantees would reduce creditors’ incentive to monitor risk. Experience with other federal insurance and credit programs suggests that the government would have trouble setting risk-sensitive prices and would most likely end up imposing some cost and risk on taxpayers. In addition, a hybrid approach might not eliminate the frictions that arise between private and public missions.”

“Privatization might provide the strongest incentive for prudent behavior on the part of financial intermediaries by removing the moral hazard that federal guarantees create.  By increasing competition in the secondary market, the privatization approach would reduce the market’s reliance on the viability of any one firm. Private markets may also be best positioned to allocate the credit risk and interest rate risk of mortgages efficiently, and they would probably be more innovative than a secondary market dominated by a fully federal agency. Further, privatization would eliminate the tension between public and private purposes inherent in the traditional GSE model.”

It is worth remembering that over the years, the CBO has actually been quite strong in warning against the dangers of the GSE model.  Sadly Congress simply chose to ignore those warnings.  Here’s hoping that the CBO has little more influence on this issue than they’ve had in the past.

Economic Slack and Inflation

While listening to NPR this morning, I was subjected to yet another economist claiming that we cannot have inflation in an environment of such high economic slack.  Setting aside the fact that perhaps this economist missed the 1970s, this is a vital question to examine, because it is the foundation of so much of Bernanke and the Federal Reserve’s current thinking.  That is, the notion that inflation is always and everywhere the result of an over-heating, or excess demand, economy.

One of the measures commonly followed by the Fed, and others of the slack-restrains-inflation school, is the measure of capacity utilization rate.  Setting aside some of the problems with this measure, are increases in capacity utilization associated with increasing inflation, as would be suggested by the slack-restraint school?  It turns out not.  Since 1967, when the data series begins, the correlation between capacity utilization and inflation, as measured by the consumer price index (CPI), has been negative.  That is, as more and more industrial and economic resources have been brought into use, inflation has actually fallen, rather than risen (as would be predicted).  A negative correlation also implies that low or falling capacity utilization does not mean low inflation.

Now what is positively correlated with inflation is the growth in the money supply.   The chart below shows annual changes in both CPI and M2.  Even just eye-balling the chart, one can see the positive correlation, which also shows up under statistical analysis. 

Another question one often hears in today’s economic discussions is what would Milton Friedman say?  I won’t claim to be able to channel Milton (or anyone else), but I do think the empirical evidence continues to support the conclusion that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

Banks Are Lending, but to Whom?

A recurring concern we have heard since the financial crisis erupted is that banks are simply not lending, and that this is holding back economic activity.  If only banks would lend, the economy would grow.  As usual, the truth is a little more complex. 

Unlike in the Great Depression, and despite about 300 bank failures, the balance sheets and deposits of insured commercial banks and thrifts has been steady, if slowly, expanding throughout the financial crisis and recess.  Banks have continued lending during this time; however, they have changed who they are lending to.  Over the last two years we have witnessed a massive shift from lending to the private sector to lending to the public.

The chart below shows banking business lending and bank holdings of U.S. government securities.   The chart suggests that the approximately $500 billion increase in bank lending to Uncle Sam came at the expense of a $400 billion decline in lending to private business.  If one assumes that bank balance sheets have either been stable or increased slightly, then a loan to the government must off-set a loan otherwise made somewhere else.

While its hard to exactly measure the job impact of this reduced business lending, some estimates have been made on the impact of SBA lending.  According to one study, every $41,600 in new small business loans is associated with 1 new job created.   While this number should be taken with a grain of salt, it implies that the $400 billion reduction in business lending has cost over 9 million jobs.  Of course, one might argue that the half-trillion in lending to the govt has created or “saved” some jobs.  Accepting the difficulty of coming up with a reliable estimate, I think its fair to say that on net a few million jobs have been lost due to this shift of lending from the private to the public sector.

Also of interest is that since the financial crisis, and despite the failures of Fannie and Freddie, commercial banks and thrifts have increased their holdings of Fannie/Freddie/Ginnie securities by over $300 billion.

Textbook economics usually teaches that government crowding out of private investment only really occurs when we are near full-employment.  Yet looking at the balance sheets of our commercial banks and thrifts, would suggest that U.S. Treasuries and Agency securities have crowded out significant lending that would otherwise go to the private sector.   But this should come as no surprise, since banks can borrow for close to zero and invest risk-free in government debt, earning a nice spread of 3 to 4 percentage points.

Is the Federal Reserve Heading Towards Insolvency?

A recent statement from the Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee, points out that both rounds of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve have dramatically altered the maturity structure of the Fed’s balance sheet.  Normally the Fed conducts monetary policy using short-term Treasury bills, which allows the Fed to avoid most interest rate risk.  In loading up its balance sheet with long-dated Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, the Fed has exposed itself to significant interest rate risk.

Recall that the yield, or interest rate, on a long term asset is inversely related to its price.  So if you’re holding a mortgage that yields 5% and rates go up to 6%, then the value of that mortgage falls below par.  The same holds for Treasury securities.  I think  it is a safe assumption that rates will be higher at some point in the future.  When they finally do rise, and if the Fed still maintains a large balance sheet of long-dated assets, those assets will suffer losses.

Of course the Fed is not subject to mark-to-market rules and can avoid admitting losses by holding these assets to maturity.  But if the Fed, at some point in the future, wants to fight inflation, the most obvious way of doing so would be to sell off assets from its balance sheet.  It is hard to see the Fed engaging in substantial open-market operations without using its long-dated assets.  But if it is to sell these assets, it will have to do so at a loss (once again, because of higher rates).

Now the Fed claims to have other avenues by which to tighten, besides open-market operations.  For instance, it can raise the interest rate on excess reserves.  But then this would further erode the value of assets on its balance sheet.  Not to mention that they have to find the money somewhere to pay these higher rates on reserves.

Ultimately the Fed can continue to pay its bills, not out of earnings from its balance sheet, but by electronically crediting the accounts of its vendors and employees, but that would also be inflationary.  The real danger, again pointed out by the Shadow Committee, is that the Fed may avoid raising rates in order to minimize the losses embedded in its balance sheet.  One of the very real dangers from QE1 and QE2 is that the Fed has exposed itself to potential losses that are correlated with any efforts to fight inflation, raising serious questions as to its willingness to fight inflation.

Take Your Stinking Paws Off My Benjamins You Damn Dirty Statist

Okay, perhaps the title of this post is not quite as memorable as Charlton Heston’s famous line from Planet of the Apes, but it certainly captures my sentiments after reading an article in Slate that calls for the elimination of the $100 bill. The author, Timothy Noah, says that large bills are only for “criminals and sociopaths.” Here’s the crux of his argument.

…why does the U.S. continue to print C-notes…? Technological change has reduced much further the plausible need of any law-abiding American to carry a C-note in his wallet or to stash a pile of C-notes in his mattress.

Noah’s argument is unconvincing for several reasons. First, he is underestimating the degree to which “law-abiding” Americans use “Benjamins.”  And with higher inflation almost certainly around the corner, one can safely expect that $100 bills will become even more common in the future. Second, his entire argument rests on the statist assumption that government should restrict honest people because this will somehow make life more difficult for criminals. Yet he debunks his own anti-money laundering argument by noting that the government already has stopped printing larger bills, such as the $500 note. Has that stopped the drug trade? Hello? Anyone? Bueller?

Like much of what government does, the campaign against money laundering is a costly exercise with very few tangible benefits. This video examines the cost-benefit issues.

I actually think the moral arguments against anti-money laundering laws are even more powerful. As Americans, we should have a presumption of innocence in our daily lives. What business is it of government whether we want to carry $20 bills or $100 bills? And think about the implications of these laws. What if the government said we need to ban cars, or put government-monitored homing devices in all vehicles, because bank robbers occasionally use automobiles as getaway vehicles? In this case, there is a theoretical benefit to the policy, just like there is a somewhat plausible case for anti-money laundering laws, but presumably we would reject such a policy as too intrusive.

Anti-money laundering laws are a classic case of bad policy leading to more bad policy. The government passes drug laws that create huge profits for criminals. But rather than getting rid of victimless crimes, the government imposes policies that make life more difficult and costly for everyone else.

Is There an Inflation-Unemployment Trade-off?

Much of what drives the policy choices of Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve is a belief in the ability to trade higher inflation for lower unemployment, known within the economics profession as the “Phillips curve.”   But does this trade-off actually exist? 

While its true that many have found a negative correlation between inflation and unemployment prior to 1960, looking at U.S. data, this relationship appears to have broken down in the mid-1960s, just about the time policy-makers thought they could exploit it (Lucas critique anyone?).

It is hard, looking at the graph, which displays the annual change in consumer prices over the previous year and unemployment, to see much of a relationship.  In fact, since 1960, the correlation between changes in CPI and unemployment has been positive.  We have generally seen rising unemployment along with rising inflation.  Of course, one might be concerned that the stagflation of the 1970s is driving this result. But looking at the data since 1980, there still remains a positive correlation between inflation and unemployment.  While I am not arguing that inflation causes unemployment (after all, correlation is not causation), it should be clear from the data that there is not some exploitable trade-off that policymakers get to choose.

The Richmond Fed also has a great history of the Phillips curve that is well worth the read.  Perhaps Fed President Jeff Lacker should bring copies to the next FOMC meeting.

Advocates Complain Banks Not Putting FHA at Enough Risk

A constant narrative of the financial crisis is that banks out-smarted the government by taking excessive risks, and that if only we had empowered regulators, the whole crisis would have been avoided.  The truth, however, is that government was often the driver of excessive risk-taking, and nowhere is that more true than in the mortgage market.

One of the worst offenders has been the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).  Even today, one can get an FHA backed loan with only a 3.5% downpayment.  After the financing of seller concessions, the borrower can leave the closing table with zero, or even negative, equity.  FHA will even offer these low equity loans to subprime borrowers, those with the worst credit history.  If there’s anything to be learned from the financial crisis, combining high risk borrowers with low downpayment loans is asking for default.

Despite FHA’s loose standards, several lenders have responsibly chosen to impose higher underwriting standards than FHA.  Sadly instead of being praised for being slightly more responsible than FHA, these lenders are being attacked by so-called consumer advocates for not taking enough risk.

The Washington Post reports that a coalition of advocates is planning to file complaints against lenders who have higher standards than FHA, claiming that higher standards discriminate against minorities, since minorities on average have lower credit scores.  It seems some have learned nothing, continuing to push the very same policies that contributed to the crisis.  If anything, FHA should start moving in the direction of the more responsible lenders and improve its woefully weak underwriting standards.  Congress should also move in the direction of requiring meaningful downpayments on FHA loans, as well as shifting some of the credit risk back to the lender.