Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Wonkblog’s Debt Denial

A Time article by James Grant warning about rising federal debt has prompted pushback by columnists questioning whether debt is really so bad. At the Washington Post, Wonkblog columnist Matt O’Brien says “there’s no reason to cut the debt today.” Fellow Wonkblog columnist Max Ehrenfreund suggests that Grant’s figure of $42,998 government debt per person overstates the problem.

O’Brien suggests that the only reason to fear debt would be if it was leading to a financial crisis, but it isn’t because interest rates are low. But O’Brien neglects to mention that interest rates may rise substantially in coming years. CBO projects that as rates rise, federal interest costs will triple from $253 billion this year to $839 billion by 2026.

As for Ehrenfreund, he is right that $42,998 overstates the debt problem because it does not take into account our future rising population. At the same, however, $42,998 understates the problem because each year the government adds more debt. Over the next 10 years, the U.S. population will grow 8 percent, but the CBO says federal debt will rise 69 percent. So Grant’s simple debt metric will increase over time.

Other than possibly causing a financial crisis, rising federal debt creates other harms:

Fannie and Freddie: Expropriation?

In the April 13, New York Times an article discusses developments in the civil proceeding between an owner of shares in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the federal government over the latter’s decision in August 2012 to revise the terms of its conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The original agreement stated that the U.S. Treasury would receive a 10 percent dividend on its 189.5 billion dollar injection of capital.  The revised terms gave all positive cash flows from Fannie and Freddie to the Treasury leaving little for the firms’ shareholders.  Granting a request from the government, materials produced under discovery in the case have been under seal.  Responding to a request by the New York Times the judge in the case has released two depositions.  In one the former chief financial officer of Fannie Mae said that she told Treasury officials before their 2012 decision that Fannie Mae would soon earn profits again and that she believes her briefing played a role in the government’s decision to alter the terms governing the conservatorship. 

For some background on this issue you should read my Working Papers column in the Fall 2014 issue of Regulation in which I discuss two papers relevant to the issue.  In “Stealing Fannie and Freddie,” Yale Law School professorJonathan Macey argues that the decision by the Treasury to take all of the profits now earned by Fannie and Freddie erodes the rule of law and violates shareholder rights.

In “The Fannie and Freddie Bailouts Through the Corporate Lens,” Adam Badawi, professor of law at Washington University, and Anthony Casey, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago argue that in the third quarter of 2012, when the federal government changed the financial arrangements to take all future positive cash flows, the value of shareholder equity in Freddie alone was negative $68 billion.  That is, for the shareholders to earn anything, Freddie would first have to earn $68 billion, which was more than Freddie had earned in the 19 years prior to its financial difficulties (1988–2006). But if Freddie lost only $4 billion more (which is the amount of losses per week in 2008–2009), the senior preferred Treasury shares would be worthless.  The data for Fannie were even worse: it would have to earn $114 billion before common shareholders would earn anything, which is more than it had earned in the 27 years prior to the financial crisis.  The authors argue that when equity’s real value is negative, the directors’ duty to maximize the value of the firm is the practical equivalent of a duty to creditors and not shareholders.  The authors argue that the government’s actions are consistent with what we would expect from a private creditor and do not violate shareholder rights.

I think both papers may be relevant.  As my colleague Mark Calabria has argued the Treasury may have violated the spirit if not the letter of the law.  And in a commentary written at the time he argued creditors were advantaged rather than taxpayers.

But similar to the decision in the AIG case in which a judge ruled that the federal government exceeded its authority in its takeover of AIG but that the government owed no damages to shareholders, the damages to Fannie and Freddie shareholders also may be zero because at the time the firms had negative net worth and would continue to have negative net worth for the foreseeable future.

What’s Killing U.S. Growth

On April 6th, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial that merits careful examination: “Jack Lew’s Political Economy”. The Journal correctly points out that the Obama administration’s meddling with regulations and red tape is killing U.S. investment and jobs. The most recent example being the Treasury’s new rules on so-called tax inversions, which burried a merger between Pfizer, Inc. and Allergan PLC.

As the Journal concluded: “This politicization has spread across most of the economy during the Obama years, as regulators rewrite longstanding interpretations of longstanding laws in order to achieve the policy goals they can’t or won’t negotiate with Congress. Telecoms, consumer finance, for-profit education, carbon energy, auto lending, auto-fuel economy, truck emissions, home mortgages, health care and so much more.”

On Free Banking, Monetary Rules, and Crusades

I often find myself described, not as a monetary economist, plain vanilla or otherwise, but as a “free banker,” and (therefore) as someone who wants to “abolish” the Fed.  Yet I’ve also been accused of lacking consistency, and even of being an outright apologist for monetary central planning, because I also have some nice things to say about monetary rules in general, and about nominal spending rules in particular.

So, am I a free banker or not?  The short answer is…well, there isn’t a short answer other than “it’s complicated.”

New Rule, Less Help for Investors

After a long wait, the Department of Labor has announced it is ready to finalize its fiduciary duty rule as early as this week.  Under this rule, brokers will be considered fiduciaries of their clients, meaning that they will be legally bound to act in their best interests.  The proposed rule has been extremely controversial.  At first blush, it’s difficult to see why.  After all, its proponents argue, don’t you want your broker acting in your best interest?   

But the reality is not so simple.  There is a difference between a broker choosing to act in a client’s best interest and being legally obliged to do so.  And the difference will likely mean that many investors, in particular low- and middle-income investors, will lose out. 

Under existing rules, brokers are bound to a suitability standard.  This means that if they offer you a product it must be suitable for your needs.  If you’re an 80 year old retiree, a fund full of high-risk equities is probably not suitable for you.  But as long as the products are suitable, a broker is free to recommend one fund over another, even if the broker’s reason for making the recommendation is that the recommended fund will provide a better commission, not because it’s a better investment for you.

Since many brokers already put their clients’ interests first, isn’t this just holding everyone to the practices of the best brokers?

Against Currency Prohibitionism

From time to time we hear calls for withdrawing today’s lowest and the highest denominations of US currency, the pennyand the $100 bill, from circulation.  In the last year a growing chorus has been calling for prohibition of the $100 bill.

The rhetoric of the anti-high-denomination gang has gotten increasingly shrill.  Erstwhile Bank of England economist Charles Goodhart in September called the European Central Bank and the Swiss National Bank “shameless” for issuing “vastly high-denomination notes,” namely the €500 and SWF 1000, “which are there to finance the drug deals.”  Last month former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers writing in the Washington Post, and citing a working paper by Harvard colleague Peter Sands and student co-authors, extended the indictment to the US $100 bill: it too is used by criminals, so let’s get rid of it.

I have an alternative suggestion for removing $100 bills from the illegal drug trades:  Legalize the trade.  Your local pharmacy doesn’t pay cash to its wholesale suppliers.  My suggestion would reduce the demand for high-denomination currency.  Today’s high-denomination-currency prohibitionists, like today’s drug prohibitionists and yesterday’s alcohol prohibitionists, only think about the supply side.  But does anyone think that banning the $100 bill during Prohibition (when it had a purchasing power more than 11 times today’s, as evaluated using the CPI) and even higher denominations would have put a major dent in the rum-running business, if an army of T-Men couldn’t?[1]

Big Win for MetLife and Other SIFIs

MetLife notched an important win this week, securing a ruling from a federal court that it is not a systemically important financial institution (SIFI) under Dodd-Frank. Like much of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SIFI designation has been controversial since its introduction in 2010. The designation is intended to help the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC, another Dodd-Frank creation) to monitor companies whose demise could destabilize the country’s financial system. Putting aside the question of whether a group of regulators in Washington could see and stop a crisis more quickly than those in the trenches at the nation’s financial giants, the designation triggers a host of regulatory requirements that many companies would prefer to avoid. 

One of the most controversial aspects of the SIFI designation is its black box nature. There is no publicly available SIFI check-list. The rationale for following a more principles- than rules-based approach may be that the definition needs to remain flexible. Companies may be motivated to avoid the letter of such a rules-based approach without avoiding the spirit, leaving FSOC without the ability to monitor a company that, despite not triggering the SIFI designation, still poses a risk to the financial system. But this has left companies in a bind. The SIFI designation has real and substantial ramifications for any company that triggers it, but companies have been unable both to avoid designation and to challenge designation once applied.  It’s hard to argue that you don’t fit a certain definition if you don’t know what the definition is.

Of course, not all companies want to avoid SIFI status. Although some have argued that FSOC and other aspects of Dodd-Frank will prevent future bailouts, it seems naïve to think that the government could designate a company as a risk to the entire financial system and then sit idly by as it burns.  SIFI designation is a wink and a nod, all but assuring government support if the designated company founders in rocky times.