Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Fed Governor Starting to Make Sense

Despite still defending the Fed’s bailouts, Fed Governor Kevin Warsh gave a speech this morning offering a few insights about reforming our financial system that seem to be lost on both Obama and Bernanke.

A few highlights:

The mortgage finance system is owed far stricter scrutiny to gather a fuller appreciation of the causes of the crisis. The government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, were given license and direction to take excessive risks.

One has to hope that both Bernanke and Obama are listening.  The silence of the Obama administration on fixing Fannie and Freddie is nothing short of shocking and irresponsible.  Any commitment to real reform has to include the GSEs.

Granting new powers to resolve failing firms in the discretionary hands of regulators is unlikely, in the near-term, to drive the market discipline required to avoid the recurrence of financial crises.

…Some newly-empowered and untested regulatory structure is not likely – in and of itself – to be sufficient to tackle institutions that are too-big-to-fail, particularly as memories of the crisis fade. Regulation is too important to be left to regulators alone.

I believe these two points cannot be stated more strongly:  what we need is more market discipline, rather than less.  Putting the entire weight of our financial system on the backs of our financial regulators is a crisis just waiting to happen.  Sadly the direction of both President Obama and Congress seems to be in undermining market monitoring of firms and relying solely on regulators to “get it right” – the very same regulators who were asleep at the wheel prior to the last crisis.

Obama Small Business Lending Fund Likely A Bust

President Obama has announced his intention to use $30 billion in TARP funds to create a new small business lending fund.  In all likelihood, this is $30 billion the taxpayers will never see returned.

First of all, the problem facing small business, outside of the massive uncertainty being created by Washington, is one of credit availability, not cost.  For those who can get credit, its quite cheap, arguably too cheap.  So if the president doesn’t intend to lower the cost of credit, the plan must be to lower the quality; using the $30 billion to cover expected credit losses.  Of course, we tried throwing lots of taxpayer money at unsustainable homeownership, is there any reason to believe throwing taxpayer money at unsustainable businesses is going to work any better?

Using TARP funds for this program is also somewhat disingenuous.  This program adds $30 billion to the deficit regardless of whether it’s funded by TARP or by Congressional appropriations.  Taking from the TARP only allows the President to keep treating the TARP as his personal slush fund.  Nowhere in the TARP legislation can you find language authorizing the use of funds to cover credit losses on new loans.  Being a constitutional scholar, the President should know very well that the spending power rests with Congress, not the President.  If we are to have a new small business lending program, it should be designed and funded by Congress, not bureaucrats at the Treasury Department.

Historically the two main sources of small business start-up funding have been home equity and credit cards.  Clearly the availability of home equity has declined.  Sadly as well, with the passing of credit card “reform” the availability of credit card lending has also declined.  If the President truly wants to help small business, then the first thing to do is ask Congress to repeal the credit card bill and then just get out of the way.

Why the Slow Recovery?

“Wealthy Face Higher Taxes.” That’s the headline that greeted two million American businesspeople Tuesday when they opened their Wall Street Journals. Inside, another banner head: “Big Firms Would Face Deeper Tax Bite.” Turn to the New York Times: “A Red-Ink Decade/Obama Budget Sees Years of Deficits.” The Financial Times: “Obama to target overseas tax breaks.” Investor’s Business Daily: “Higher Taxes for All in Obama Budget, $1.6 Tril 2010 Deficit.” And the Washington Post (not that many productive people get that on their doorstep): “Obama budget would spend billions more.”

And President Obama wonders why banks aren’t lending, employers aren’t hiring, and investors are holding back? As the Economic Policy Institute illustrates, this is the slowest recovery of any postwar recession.

[chart: Current downturn is far worse than any other in post-War period]

Let’s hope the Obama administration soon learns that higher taxes, more regulation, a larger share of GDP shifted to government, fears of Fed monetization of soaring debt – not to mention newspaper reports of Obama budgeteers “flipp[ing] through the tax code, looking for ideas” – can only discourage employers, investors, and entrepreneurs. Robert Higgs has cited the role of “regime uncertainty” in prolonging the Great Depression, as investors worried about what FDR might do next. Will Wilkinson points to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s saying “businesses want certainty. They need certainty so they can make long-term plans today.” Unfortunately, Will says, “Creating completely irresponsible, economically chilling regime uncertainty would appear to be the basic modus operandi of the Obama administration.”

Taxes, regulation, and uncertainty – and Obama asks why businesses aren’t lending, investing, and hiring.

FHA Bailout Watch

The Federal Housing Administration has been one of the government’s main instruments for propping up the housing market in the wake of the housing bust. But as has been widely reported, the FHA is in danger of needing a taxpayer bailout because of rising defaults on mortgages it insures.

FHA-insured loans originated in 2007 and 2008 – when Bush administration housing officials were mainly concerned with “winning back our share of the market” – are defaulting at higher rates as this graphic from the Washington Post shows:

FHA officials are optimistic a bailout won’t be needed, but the Post reports that not everyone shares this optimism:

The audit, released in November, found that the cash the FHA set aside to pay for unexpected losses had dipped to historic lows, well below the level required by law. As of Sept. 30, those reserves were estimated at $3.6 billion, down from nearly $13 billion a year earlier. The most recent figure represents 0.53 percent of the value of all FHA single-family-home loans – far lower than the 2 percent required by Congress.

But Ann Schnare, a former Freddie Mac official, said the situation could be even worse. She said the audit underestimates future losses because it does not take into account all loans that are now overdue, only those that the FHA has paid claims on.

To avoid a bailout, the FHA recently proposed more stringent standards, which would include raising the premiums it charges to cover losses. However, even if a bailout isn’t needed and the FHA continues to “make money,” that would only call into question the need for the FHA to begin with. Why can’t the private sector provide all mortgage insurance?

The answer is that the mortgage lending industry likes knowing it can originate mortgages that the government will cover in the event of a default. Heads they win, tails Uncle Sam loses. The president’s new budget makes this clear in addressing concerns about the FHA’s currently low reserves:

However, it is important to note that a low capital ratio does not threaten FHA’s operations, either for its existing portfolio or for new books of business. Unlike private lenders, the guarantee on FHA and other federal loans is backed by the full faith and credit of the Federal Government, and is not dependent on capital reserves — FHA can never “run out” of money.

That’s right – the federal government can simply tax, borrow, or fire up the printing presses.

The government has been propping up the housing market with taxpayer subsidies in the wake of a housing boom and bust it helped create. If policymakers continue to keep the housing market on artificial life support, taxpayer will remain on the hook. If it pulls the plug and the market takes another downward spiral, Washington will probably rush in with more bailouts.  It appears taxpayers can’t win.

See this essay for more on federal housing finance.

Volcker Rule Misses the Mark

Today Paul Volcker appears before the Senate Banking Committee to argue for the separation of proprietary trading and commercial banking.  In Mr. Volcker’s own works “what we plainly need are authority and methods to minimize the occurrence of those failures that threaten the basic fabric of financial markets.”

Using his own test, the Volcker Rule fails miserably.  Had this rule been in place say five or even ten years ago, we’d most likely be in the same place we are today.  It would have not avoided the crisis, and may potentially have made it worse.

First of all the proposal ignores the fact that those institutions at the heart of the crisis, Bear, Lehman, Fannie, Freddie, AIG, were not commercial banks.  They were not using federally insured deposits to gamble in our financial markets.  Those commercial banks with proprietary trading activities that did fail, such as Wachovia, were sunk not by proprietary trading, but by bad mortgage lending.

Mr. Volcker is correct in arguing for a change in assumptions that institutions and their creditors will not be bailed out.  He errs in believing that the House passed financial “reform” bill achieves that.  One has to wonder if he’s bother to even read the bill.  The House bill explicitly allows for rescuing creditors.  The House bill does not reduce the chance of bailouts, it increases them.

While the Obama Administration may have changed the face of its reforms, sadly the substance of its proposals continue to bear little relation to the actual causes of our financial crisis.  Nowhere in the President’s proposals do we see any efforts at avoiding future housing bubbles.  Perhaps this should come as no surprise given Washington’s continued attempts to re-inflate the last housing bubble.

Financial Fiasco: ‘Best Books of 2009’

Johan Norberg’s Financial Fiasco: How America’s Infatuation with Homeownership and Easy Money Created the Economic Crisis has been named one of the best books of 2009 by the Spectator, Britain’s most important political affairs magazine. Excerpt:

Ever since the crash, I have been waiting for Johan Norberg to write about it – and finally, this year, he has obliged. I have three copies of his first book, In Defence of Globalisation, with varying degrees of annotation. I have already started to deface Financial Fiasco, his book showing how governments created this mess. The American government pumped up the housing bubble – and then there was a collective delusion that the market was rational. As Norberg says, the market is no more than a collection of humans who fall prey to hubris. And their hubris was imagining that computer models had eliminated risk: that the boom would not be followed by a bust.

It previously got an excellent review in the Financial Times. It’s enough to make you think that the elite British press are smarter than the elite American press.

Do Democratic Presidents Create More Jobs?

Politifact.com looked into a remark from Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., that “Democrats have been considerably more effective at creating private-sector jobs.”

The statement was rated true, as a purely statistical matter.  Yet the poltifact researcher did a good job questioning the significance of his own figures.  He noted, correctly, that the president usually “deserves less credit for the good times – and less blame for the bad times.”  And he added that job figures can be driven by outside factors such as oil price shocks, demographic changes or soldiers coming home after World War Two.  He wryly noted “how surprised we are that Eisenhower, who presided over the ‘happy’ 1950s, managed an anemic half-percent job growth per year, while Jimmy “Malaise” Carter finished second with 3.45 percent annual job growth.”   Anyone who remembers the runaway inflation of the Carter era will realize that annual rates of job growth are not enough to describe the overall economic situation.

The author also quoted me making the point that “timing can be hugely important.”   It is so important, in fact, that we may need to add another dimension to politifact’s true-false meter to deal with political comments that are simply meaningless.

For the record, what follows is the full text of my email on this topic:

The error involved with assigning rates of job growth to Presidential terms is that six recent Presidents took office within a few months of the start of a recession: Obama (recession began December 2007), H.W. Bush (July 1990), G.W. Bush (Mar 2001), Reagan (July 1981), Nixon (Dec. 1969) and Ike (July 1953).   As it happens, four of the five were Republicans.

One might argue that recessions launched near the end of the previous administration helped get these men elected. But these recessions were clearly left over from events that began previous years.  It didn’t help that the first Pres. Bush passed a tax increase three months after the 1990 recession began, but the start of that recession is more plausibly blamed on the earlier spike in oil prices when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Since employment is a lagging indicator (one of the last things to improve), that means average job growth among Presidents who took office near the start of recessions is bound to look bad in comparison with Presidents who took office after an expansion was well underway.  Bill Clinton took office in 1993, long after recession ended in March 1991.   The same was true of Truman, LBJ and Carter.   JFK took office a month before the 1960 recession ended.

Two-term Presidents also have more time to show good numbers, but only if they’re lucky enough to get out of office just before the next recession starts.  Clinton squeaked by (despite falling stock prices and industrial production 2000), but Nixon, Eisenhower, Carter and G.W. Bush did not.

Since Bush 2nd began and ended office in recession, averages over 8 years outweigh 4 reasonably good years.  This unprecedented bad timing is exaggerated by Paul Krugman’s comparison of “decades” [and President Obama’s recent reference to “the lost decade” of 1999-2009] which relies on starting and ending each decade in boomy 1959 rather than slumping 1960, ditto 1969 rather than 1970, 1979 rather than 1980, 1989 rather than 1990, and 1999 rather than 2000.

In short, statistics about employment growth over Presidential terms are dominated by the timing of the “business cycle” (including Federal Reserve policy), and have no apparent connection to economic policies attributed to the White House (as opposed to Congress).