Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

CBO Projections Are No Basis for Claiming Tax Reform “Loses Trillions”

I recently wrote in The Hill on Donald Trump’s fiscal plan. The graph below clarifies some of my comments.

CBO REVENUE PROJECTIONS

Estimates purporting to show the new, evolving Trump/Ryan Tax Reform must “lose trillions” over 10-20 years are usually static – meaning they assume lower marginal tax rates on labor and capital have zero effect on economic growth or tax avoidance.  Yet that is a relatively small part of the problem.

Even if static estimates made any sense, the alleged revenue losses would still be wildly exaggerated because they compare estimated revenues from reform plans with “baseline” revenues projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  

As the graph shows, CBO projections pretend that revenues from the existing individual income tax will somehow rise as a share of GDP every year –forever– reaching levels never before seen in U.S. history, even in World War II. 

Real wages in the CBO forecast supposedly rise so rapidly that more and more middle-income taxpayers are pushed into higher and higher tax brackets.  Since tax reform eliminates the highest tax brackets, it thwarts these sneaky tax increases and thus appears to “lose money.” But the CBO’s phantom projections are sheer fantasy and no basis for rejecting sensible tax reforms to encourage more business investment and greater labor force participation.

 

Can the Fed Raise Interest Rates?

I chose my title carefully. I will focus on what is possible for the U.S. central bank to achieve rather than what they might want to accomplish or may attempt to effect.  I examine three possible senses in which the Federal Reserve could not raise interest rates, or would not be able to raise them to the extent they wish.

First, the Fed might face financial headwinds working against attempts to raise short-term, domestic interest rates. Second, there might be undesirable consequences to raising these interest rates that render it practically impossible to pursue higher rates. Third, it might be technically impossible to raise rates.

The major financial headwinds are the actions of other central banks. There are now more than 20 central banks in the world that have instituted negative short-term interest rates (including all of the Eurozone). The trend has been for more central banks to go negative, and for those already in negative rate territory to go deeper. In some of these countries, yields are negative out to 10 years and even beyond.

Were the Fed to attempt to hike short-term interest rates another 25 basis points, it would be moving against the tide of global central bank policies. The European Central Bank’s overnight deposit rate is -40 basis points. The Fed is paying 50 basis points on reserves, so that is a positive spread of 90 basis points. Were the Fed to raise the rate to 75 basis points, there would be a positive spread of 115 basis points.

In the near term, a Fed rate hike would attract capital flows into dollar assets. That would put upward pressure on the value of the U.S. dollar and off-setting downward pressure on short-term U.S. interest rates. It is difficult to go up when the world is headed down.

A Victory for Bitcoin Users

On July 25, Miami-Dade Florida circuit judge Teresa Pooler dismissed money-laundering charges against Michell Espinoza, a local bitcoin seller. The decision is a welcome pause on the road to financial serfdom. It is a small setback for authorities who want to fight crime (victimless or otherwise) by criminalizing and tracking the “laundering” of the proceeds, and who unreasonably want to do the tracking by eliminating citizens’ financial privacy, that is, by unrestricted tracking of their subjects’ financial accounts and activities. The US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) is today the headquarters of such efforts.

As an Atlanta Fed primer reminds us, the authorities’ efforts are built upon the Banking Secrecy Act (BSA) of 1970. (A franker label would be the Banking Anti-Secrecy Act). The Act has been supplemented and amended many times by Congress, particularly by Title III of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, and expanded by diktats of the Federal Reserve and FinCEN. The laws and regulations on the books today have “established requirements for recordkeeping and reporting of specific transactions, including the identity of an individual engaged in the transaction by banks and other FIs [financial institutions].”  These requirements are collectively known as Anti-Money-Laundering (AML) rules.

In particular, banks and other financial institutions are required to obey “Customer Identification Program” (CIP) protocols (aka “know your customer”), which require them to verify and record identity documents for all customers, and to “flag suspicious customers’ accounts.” Banks and financial institutions must submit “Currency Transaction Reports” (CTRs) on any customers’ deposits, withdrawals, or transfers of $10,000 or more. To foreclose the possibility of people using unmonitored non-banks to make transfers, FinCEN today requires non-depository “money service businesses” (MSBs) – which FinCEN defines to include “money transmitters” like Western Union and issuers of prepaid cards like Visa – also to know their customers. Banks and MSBs must file “Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs)” on transactions above $5000 that may be associated with money-laundering or other criminal activity. Individuals must also file reports. Carrying $10,000 or more into or out of the US triggers a “Currency or Monetary Instrument Report” (CMIR).” Any US citizen who has $10,000 or more in foreign financial accounts, even if it never moves, must annually file “Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts Reports (FBARs).”

Basel’s Liquidity Coverage Ratio: Redux

Last summer I contributed a post about the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR), a new regulation that is part of the latest international Basel Accords (Basel III) and that is being imposed on U.S. banks and other financial institutions. As I explained in that post, the LCR requires banks to hold “high quality liquid assets” (HQLA) sufficient to cover potential net cash outflows over 30 days. Both George Selgin and I have pointed out that the LCR probably contributes to the continuing desire of banks to maintain such a high level of reserves.

Two economists who have severely criticized the LCR are Gary Gorton, noted for his work on bank panics, and his co-author, Tyler Muir. Earlier this year they published online a short version of a much longer unpublished paper that scrutinizes the potential impact of the LCR. Whereas my post, appropriately entitled “Reserve Requirements Basel Style,” compared the LCR to the traditional but now largely abandoned reserve requirements imposed on banks, Gorton and Muir compare it to the bond-collateral (or bond-deposit) requirement of the national banking era, prevailing from the Civil War until creation of the Federal Reserve. They conclude that the LCR will cause the same sorts of problems that, ironically, the Fed was supposed to solve.

Italy’s Renzi Goes Toe-to-Toe with the EU over Italy’s Troubled Banks

Only 17 percent of Italy’s money supply (M3) is accounted for by State money produced by the European Central Bank (ECB). The remaining 87 percent is Bank money produced by commercial banks through deposit creation. So, Italy’s banks are an important contributor to the money supply and, ultimately, the economy.

In anticipation of poor results from the Italian banks’ stress tests (which will be reported on July 29th), Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has indicated that his government will unilaterally pump billions of euros into Italy’s troubled banks to recapitalize them, so that they can continue to extend credit and contribute to the growth of Italy’s broad money supply. There is a problem with this approach: it is not allowed under new EU rules. These rules require that bank bondholders take losses (a bail-in) before government bailout money can be deployed. But, in Italy, a big chunk of bank debt (bonds) is held by retail investors. These retail investors vote in large numbers. So, the EU bail-in regulation, if invoked, will certainly put Renzi’s neck on the chopping block. And that will come sooner rather than later because the Prime Minister has called for a referendum on Italy’s constitution in October and stated that he’ll resign if the referendum is voted down.

It’s no surprise that Renzi has his eye on banks. It’s also easy to see why he is worried and ready to pull the trigger on a state-sponsored bank bailout. The accompanying chart on non-performing loans should be cause for concern.

To put the non-performing loans into perspective, there is nothing better than the Texas Ratio (TR). The TR is the book value of all non-performing assets divided by equity capital plus loan loss reserves. Only tangible equity capital is included in the denominator. Intangible capital — like goodwill — is excluded.

So, the denominator is the defense against bad loans wiping the bank out, forcing it into insolvency. A TR over 100 percent means that a bank is skating on thin ice. Indeed, if the non-performing loans were written off, a bank with a TR in excess of 100 percent would be wiped out. All of the five big Italian banks in the accompanying table — including the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (BMPS), the world’s oldest bank — fall into this ignominious category.

They need to be recapitalized. This could be done by issuing new shares on the market. But, all these banks’ shares are trading well below their book values. BMPS’ price is only about 10 percent of its book value, and Intesa Sanpaolo (the best of the lot) is only about 66 percent. In consequence, any new shares issued on the market would dilute existing shareholders and be unattractive. This is why an Italian state rescue is the most attractive source for the recapitalization.

Financial Deregulation? Don’t Bank on Brexit

On June 23, Britain voted by a margin of 52 to 48 percent to leave the European Union (EU). Much ink has already been spilled on the policy implications of that vote and, indeed, its long-run consequences may prove quite profound. When it comes to financial regulation, however, it is difficult to see any significant changes emerging in the short- to medium-term. There are a couple of fundamental reasons for this.

The first stems from the fact that the British financial sector is desperate to maintain its current access to the European Economic Area (EEA), also known as the “single market.” As things stand, a process known as “passporting” allows British financial firms to do business throughout the single market, whether on a cross-border basis or by establishing branches, without having to get separate regulatory approval in every jurisdiction. This arrangement is important to the industry and — given that financial services produce 8 percent of the UK’s output — the British government is likely to make its continuation after Brexit a priority.

But how can they bring that about? The most straightforward path is for Britain to leave the EU, but remain a member of the EEA. This approach, often referred to as the “Norway option,” would see Britain exit the EU’s centralized political institutions, while still participating fully in its “four freedoms” — that is, the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. There is much to commend such a settlement, as I’ve written before. But if it did come to pass, Britain’s financial sector would clearly be subject to EU rules in much the same way as it is now.

There’s also a political problem with EEA membership: namely, it wouldn’t allow the British government to pursue its stated aim of controlling immigration from the EU. That suggests that the obvious alternative — a bilateral, post-Brexit trade treaty — might be the more likely outcome of Britain’s eventual withdrawal. Such a treaty could, theoretically, protect the British financial sector’s passporting rights. However, the quid pro quo for market access of that sort would undoubtedly be regulatory equivalence — that is, the European Commission would have to deem British regulation equivalent to EU rules before any passporting could take place. The handful of existing EU directives that provide “third country” financial firms access to the single market work in precisely this way. Ultimately, then, there are unlikely to be any major reforms to British financial regulation so long as the British financial services industry maintains access to the single market.