Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Why Limits On Banker Bonuses Are Meaningless

The European parliament has just approved a measure that would limit bonus payments and other aspects of compensation for bankers. National finance ministers are expected to approve the measure next week, and it will take effect Jan. 1. The goal of the legislation is to limit banker incentives to take risk, since this was allegedly a major cause of the recent financial crisis.

The key question about compensation limits is why shareholders and creditors have not imposed these on bank executives already. If the possibility of large bonuses indeed generates excessive risk-taking, then bank stakeholders have ample incentive to adopt such limits without government coercion.

The answer is that bank risk-taking was not necessarily excessive from the perspective of the bank stakeholders, since banks were living in a world with private gains but public losses.  Stakeholders stood to earn large returns when times were good, and they knew taxpayers would cushion the losses – via deposit insurance or accomodative monetary policy – when times went bad.

Since events of the past two years have done nothing but reinforce the view that major banks are too big to fail, the incentive to pile on risk is stronger than ever.

So limits on bank compensation are fighting an uphill battle, and bankers will find ways around them via creative accounting and clever compensation packages. The limits are therefore just political pandering to populist outrage over banker excesses. That outrage is understandable, but limiting compensation will not prevent the next blow up.

C/P at Forbes.com

Active Government, Passive Economy

Today, Politico Arena asks a second question:

What does Obama need to do on jobs?

My response:

What does Obama need to do on jobs? Asked about that in his Arena interview today, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) answers, “The best thing we could do is encourage banks to lend money.” Encourage them? Banks don’t need to be encouraged: if they can make money by lending it, they will. But that’s just the problem. The regulatory climate under Obama is so uncertain that capital isn’t moving. Andrews adds that “we need to stimulate,” as if we hadn’t already massively stimulated with little to show but massive debt.  And he says that “the Wall Street reform bill will help.” Apparently he hasn’t read Stanford economist John B. Taylor’s analysis in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, which concludes: “People may be waking up to the fact that the bill does not do what its supporters claim. It does not prevent future financial crises. Rather, it makes them more likely and in the meantime impedes economic growth.”

Stimulus Now, Restraint Later?

Journalists have been repeating lately that “economists say” that we need yet more government spending now to keep on goosing the economy, even though – to be sure – we will need to cut back on spending at some point in the undefined future, to avoid the fate of Greece. Well, maybe some economists. But I’m sure this “economists agree” claim is no more true today than it was a year ago. Here’s one example, from NYU economist Mario J. Rizzo, coauthor with Cato senior fellow Gerald P. O’Driscoll Jr. of The Economics of  Time and Ignorance:

But let’s look at the arguments made by the opponents of fiscal stimulus.

Some have argued that, as deficits increase, people now offset the putative stimulus by increasing their savings in anticipation of future tax increases. So there is no stimulus now.

Others have argued that, for example, extending unemployment insurance (again) to those unemployed for more than six months will increase the length of unemploymentnow (by subsidizing it) while failing to stimulate.

The stimulus failure is due to the relatively small increase in spending induced by non-permanent increases in income (as unemployment insurance is certainly not permanent source of income). Even more, producers know that the spending is non-permanent so it is unlikely to result in increased employment of labor. Thus, there is no stimulus now; in fact if unemployment continues there is a kind of anti-stimulus now.

Austrians have argued that failing to allow the housing market to adjust by both fiscal and monetary propping-up measures, worsens the situation now by prolonging the inevitable adjustment to a bubble sector. As the adjustment is dragged out and the rest of the economy suffers the dampening effectsnow. This must include the uncertainty as to when (in calendar time) the market will be allowed to adjust.

In empirical work, John Taylor finds that to the extent there was some effect of the fiscal stimulus it was very small and lasted only a matter of two or three months for each major injection. So I guess the long run is four or five months by this reckoning:

Compared with the 2008 stimulus, the 2009 stimulus was larger, but the amount paid in checks was smaller and more drawn out. Nevertheless, there is still no noticeable effect on consumption. I also show the timing of the “Cash for Clunkers” program in Figure 7; it did encourage some consumption, but did not last and cannot be considered an effective method to stimulate the economy. In addition, my analysis of the government spending part of the stimulus is that it too had little positive impact.

Even frameworks that stress future consequences of current stimulus need not be long-run theories in the calendar sense. For example, if the anticipated taxes required to pay off or service current deficits consist of rises in marginal income tax rates, output will be considerably lower and the real interest rates higher in a matter of a couple of years than without stimulus.

The upshot of all of this is that the anti-stimulus economists are not claiming we must trade off benefits now for some long-term pie-in-the-sky benefits. Most are saying: The stimulus route leads to (almost) no benefits now as well as costs later.

Re. Ezra Klein: Did State and Local Anti-stimulus Nullify Federal Stimulus?

A recent Washington Post column by Ezra Klein dreamed up a new excuse for the conspicuous failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus plan.   Klein argues that the stimulus of federal spending has been offset by the “anti-stimulus” of fiscal austerity by state and local governments.  For proof he quotes Bruce Bartlett, who is fast becoming the favorite go-to guy for liberals seeking conservative allies in their endless quest for more spending and taxes. 

Bartlett says, “When the history of the current crisis is written, much of the blame will be placed on the sharp fiscal contraction of state and local governments.  I think economists will view this as a preventable error equivalent to the Fed’s passive shrinkage of the money supply in the early 1930s.”

A historian himself, Bartlett imagines this to be a question that will have to be pondered by historians in the distant future.   But it is easy to identify each sector’s direct contribution to the overall growth rate of real GDP from a St. Louis Fed publication, “National Economic Trends.” 

State and local government spending was rising during the first three quarters of the recession, and the drop in the fourth quarter of 2008 accounted for just 0.25% of the 5.37% annualized decline in GDP.  In the first quarter of 2009, state and local spending subtracted  just 0.19% from real GDP, but federal spending subtracted more (0.33%) due to cuts in defense spending.  Government obviously made only a minor contribution to the 6.4% drop in overall GDP.
  
In the second quarter of 2009, state and local spending was way up (by 0.48%), as was federal spending (0.85%).  But the private economy did not begin expanding until the third quarter – when government spending stopped diverting so many resources to unproductive uses.
 
The table shows that government spending on goods and services had nothing to do with the recovery (transfer payments don’t contribute to GDP).  

As a matter of simple accounting, the state and local sector has been a very minor negative force −scarcely comparable to the Fed’s inaction in 1930-32

Federal purchases, whether for heavily-subsidized ”green jobs” or shovel-ready pork, have been virtually irrelevant during the last two quarters.

Contributions to Real GDP Growth
……………………..  3rd…… 4th…… 1st qtr

Real GDP              2.2         5.6             3.0%
Private                   1.6         5.8             3.4
Federal                  0.6        0.0            0.1
State & Local     -0.1      -0.3           -0.5

Public Sees Past Facade of “Financial Reform”

A new AP-Gfk poll reveals that about two-thirds of the American public lack confidence that the financial regulation bill, currently being crafted by House and Senate conferees, will actually help avert future financial crises. 

The public is right to be skeptical, as there is nothing in either the House or Senate bill that ends bailouts or ends “too-big-to-fail.”  In fact parts of the bill, such as the expansion of deposit insurance, will actually increase the likelihood of future crises.  (The IMF has an insightful working paper on the negative impacts of deposit insurance). 

Perhaps the failure of Congressional efforts to end financial crises is the result of Washington’s unwillingness to recognize that government itself was the major driver of the recent crisis.  Fortunately the public seems to get that.  Some 70 percent of the poll respondents believe that government shares blame for the crisis.  Here’s to hoping that Congress will at some point listen to the public, and end many of the distortionary policies that caused the crisis.

Two Cheers for the U.S. Economy

Two articles in today’s Wall Street Journal deal with the housing sector.  They complement each other. Journal reporters note that “Industry Speeds Recovery, And Housing Slows It Down.”  The story notes that that “ground-breaking for new homes and applications for building permits both plunged last month.”  Meanwhile, U.S. industrial output showed strong growth in May.

Bravo for both numbers, which are inter-related.  The headline (over which reporters have no control) reflects conceptual confusion.  U.S. industrial production is strong at least in part because construction of new homes is weak.   The bloated home sector is no longer absorbing a disproportionate share of economic resources.  The new homeowners tax credit has mercifully expired, ending that bit of misguided stimulus.

David Wessel’s article, “Rethinking Home Ownership,” further clarifies the reallocation of resources taking place in the U.S. economy.  Beginning in the 1990s, the federal government adopted a number of policies to stimulate home ownership.  As Wessel makes clear, it was a bipartisan effort.  Home ownership rates rose from around 65% to a peak of 69.4% in 2004.  It was an unsustainable policy, a true asset bubble.

Home ownership rates have now fallen back to where they began, or even below.  The experience of the 1990s and early 2000s in housing demonstrates why government stimulus is not a permanent source of demand, nor the path to sustainable economic growth. Lest we forget, the folly of these programs is measured not just in housing numbers, but in shattered dreams and hopes and ruined lives. And the terrible financial crisis to which these programs contributed

Congress to Expand Deposit Insurance

While I never had much hope that this Congress would actually fix the real causes of the financial crisis - loose monetary policy, Fannie/Freddie - I had hoped that they wouldn’t do a lot to make an already bad situation worse.  Boy, was that hope naive.

Take the area of federally provided deposit insurance.  There is a massive amount of scholarly work, much of it empirical, that demonstrates that expanding the level and scope of deposit insurance results in more frequent and severe financial crises.  So what is Congress considering?  Yes, you guessed it:  expanded deposit insurance.

Recall during the financial crisis Congress raised the coverage limit to $250,000 - forget that there were never any premiums charged ahead of time for this coverage.  The FDIC also, without any basis in law, offered unlimited coverage to non-interest bearing accounts, targeted mostly at business customers.  While these expansions may have brought the system some short term stability, they come at the cost of considerable long term instability.

Congress is also making the misguided change of basing  insurance premiums on total assets rather than total deposits.  This will punish banks for relying on sources of funding other than deposits, giving banks an incentive to shift their funding toward deposits, putting the taxpayer ultimately at even greater risk.

So why all these expanded bank guarantees? Smaller banks view these as changes that would give them a competitive advantage relative to larger banks.  After all community and regional banks are far more dependent on deposits as a source of funds.  And while big banks are damaged politically, the smaller banks, despite their higher failure rates, have managed to maintain their political ability to shift the costs of their risk-taking onto the backs of the taxpayer.