Archive for the ‘banking’ Category

Declare victory and taper?

19 December 2013

Wednesday the Federal Open Market Committee did the expected, by announcing a “tapering” off of its $85 billion monthly purchases of long-term Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities (MBS’s), citing “the cumulative progress toward maximum employment.” Thursday the BLS announced that weekly jobless claims rose to their highest level in nine months. Ouch.

Granted, the spike in jobless claims might not mean much, as they can be volatile, especially around holiday time, and indeed the four-week average of jobless claims “only” rose to its highest level in one month. Even so, the “progress toward maximum employment” has been glacial, if it can be called progress at all. The media have trumpeted the good news in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) latest employment report, which found that the standard unemployment rate fell from 7.3% to 7.0%, its lowest level in five years, and employers added 203,000 jobs. That’s fine, but it’s also just one month. Let’s look at the past year, from Nov 2012 to Nov 2013, using the Households Survey numbers in the employment report.

In the past year the adult US population grew by almost 2.4 million. The number of people “Not in labor force” (neither employed nor actively looking for a job) also grew by slightly more than 2.4 million. The total US labor force actually fell by 25,000, and the employment-to-population ratio also fell slightly, from 58.7% to 58.6%. While it’s good news that total employment rose by 1.1 million and unemployment (and people who say they currently want a job) fell by 1.1. million, the biggest growth sector by far is “Not in labor force,” again with 2.4 million. The employment/population ratio is exactly the same now as it was four years ago, in Nov 2009. This is not progress.

I wouldn’t be an economist if I never said “On the other hand,” however, and on that hand we have the “Establishments Survey” that furnishes the other half of the BLS report. The unemployment and employment/population rates come from the Households Survey; the payroll numbers (e.g., 203,000 jobs added) come from the Establishments Survey. Average monthly payroll growth for the past year was 191,000 jobs, or more than double the puny job growth in the Households Survey (1.1 million / 12 months = 92,000 jobs per month).

What would victory look like on the jobs front? I would say 5% unemployment, which the economy had for 35 straight months in the mid-2000s, or less. (And I would want the reduction to come from job growth and not from people leaving the labor force.) How far are we from 5% unemployment? The Atlanta Fed’s handy jobs calculator has the answer. If the economy keeps on adding 191,000 jobs per month, we return to 5% unemployment in three years. If it adds just 92,000 jobs per month, we never get back to 5% unemployment, unless the labor force does a whole lot of shrinking. If we split the difference and figure the correct figure is right in the middle at 141,500, then we get there in seven and a half years, in early 2021.

Back to the taper. The labor data suggest a need for more, not less, monetary stimulus, but how much stimulus were those emergency bond-buying programs providing? All we know is that they created $85 billion in new bank reserves each month. For the programs to work, banks needed to loan out those reserves. Not much of that has been happening:

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Real estate and consumer loans are flat. Business loans are rising but not fast enough to return to their trend level. (Which, by the way, is true of just about every other macro aggregate — household consumption, business investment, etc.) Just as the fastest-growing occupational category is Not In Labor Force (NILF?), the most dramatic growth on bank balance sheets is excess reserves:

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This is what pushing on a string looks like. Maybe the taper is causing the volume of loans, however meager, to be larger than it otherwise would be, but it’s hard to believe it’s making a world of difference. An oft-cited study published by the Brookings Institution found that the MBS purchases had managed to lower mortgage rates but that the Treasury bond purchases had not lowered long-term Treasury rates. And lowering long-term interest rates, as the bond buying is supposed to do, is only part of the game. Banks have to make loans at those rates. As we saw in the first graph, not nearly enough of that is happening. And the economy probably has to improve a lot more before banks are eager to lend and people are eager to borrow. Catch-22, yes.

All in all, the slight taper, from $85 billion to $75 billion a month, is unlikely to do noticeable harm, since the bond-buying program doesn’t seem to be making a big difference in the first place. Declaring victory, or even declaring substantial progress, on the employment front is foolish, but tapering is another story. Alternative policies, like ending the payment of interest (currently 0.25%) on bank reserves, might be preferable to the long-term bond-buying, but it’s clear from the last few years that Fed cannot be the main driver on the road to recovery. Congress could, through fiscal policy, but won’t, preferring austerity to stimulus, when it isn’t shutting down the government entirely. It looks like we’ll have to cross our fingers and hope for the “natural forces of recovery” to work their magic.

 

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The law can’t touch them at all

9 March 2013

“Too big to prosecute” is the recurring headline this week after Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarkable statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday:

“I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.”

Where to begin? “Too big to fail” is one thing, but to say these institutions are too big to clean up their act is another. The attorney general seems to be implying that the big banks are more important than the laws themselves. It is one thing to say that the outright collapse of these institutions would bring economic ruin. It is quite another to assume that prosecuting criminal acts by them or some of their employees would also bring ruin.

Skeptics have long called the big banks “too big to prosecute” because their lavish campaign contributions give them unparalleled access and influence in Washington, but Holder’s remarks point to something more insidious: ideological capture. When cabinet officials are products of Wall Street or, worse, credulously believe Wall Street claims that their firms are delicate life-giving flowers that must never be disturbed, we have a problem that won’t go away anytime soon.

Fortunately, several members of Congress, including Republicans David Vitter and Charles Grassley and Democrats Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, are pushing back. Vitter and Brown have co-sponsored a bill to limit the size of the big banks. But we have been here before, as recently as 2010, when a similar bill lost by a vote of 61-33 and was opposed by the Obama administration. Until further notice, it’s hard to disagree with these words of Huey Long from 1932:

“They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.”

The law can’t touch them at all.

Tired of defending it

1 December 2011

Chris Rock has a great bit where he says he still loves rap music but is tired of defending it, the misogynistic lyrics in particular. I’ve been a longtime advocate of the Federal Reserve and continue to defend it against various conspiracy-mongers, but I really can’t defend this at all: “Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress.”

The story is not from a conspiracy peddler or a grandstanding politician, but from Bloomberg News, and actually involved investigative reporting. The $13 billion figure is the profit the banks earned from subsidized low-interest loans, etc. The Fed’s total commitment, including loan rollovers, guarantees, and lending limits, was an eye-popping $7.7 trillion. Now, when I first heard a similar figure presented by Congressman Bernie Sanders a few months ago, it looked like a distortion, because it included rollover loans (if I loan you $100 and you pay me back a month later and get a new loan and so on for 12 months, have I loaned you $100 or $1200?) and the total assets on the Fed’s balance sheet have never been much larger than $2 – 2.5 trillion, with a maximum of $1.5 trillion that could be loans to banks. But the non-rollover figures are still staggering. The banks “required a combined $1.2 trillion on Dec. 5, 2008, their single neediest day.”

Other areas for concern (or outrage, take your pick):

  • These loans covered a much longer period that one might think. They were greatest at the height of the fall 2008 crisis, but they began in August 2007 and lasted until April 2010. Was such a massive amount of subsidized lending justified this whole time?
  • The identities of the banks were kept secret, until Bloomberg obtained them via a Freedom of Information Act request. Now, the Fed’s usual lender-of-last-resort apparatus, the discount window, is supposed to keep borrowers’ identities secret, but traditionally there was at least supposed to be some stigma attached to discount loans, so that banks didn’t take advantage of the Fed’s low interest rates by borrowing too much. The Fed wouldn’t out them, but it might audit them. While there is a rationale for keeping the borrowers’ names secret — you don’t want to spark a panic by signaling that these banks are in trouble — surely this secretiveness should have some limits? Last year’s Dodd-Frank financial reform bill requires disclosure of discount loans after a two-year lag. This seems modest to me, but tellingly, Fed officials are wringing their hands and saying this will destroy discount lending.
  • What kind of lender of last resort charges the lowest interest rate in town? The interest rates on these loans got as low as 0.01%. This is a huge subsidy to banks that supposedly can’t get loans anyplace else. A few years ago the Fed reset its discount rate (the rate it charges its borrowers) a notch above the federal funds rate (the rate banks charge each other), presumably so that banks wouldn’t take advantage of the Fed’s low rate. Yet the big banks got to borrow at interest rates below that, and below what anyone else was offering.
  • The loans appear to have been completely unconditional. This could maybe be justified at the peak of the 2008 crisis, when it seemed like fast action was needed, but before and after too? The Federal government’s TARP loans to banks (which, at $700 billion, now appear puny by comparison) were basically unconditional but at least attempted to impose some restrictions on banker bonuses. With the benefit of hindsight and time, more meaningful restrictions, like radically changing the pay structure so as to discourage taking wild risks with other people’s and taxpayers’ money, and limits on leverage, could be devised, and the Fed wouldn’t have worry about getting them through Congress.

I still favor an independent central bank, with minimal political meddling. But these loans don’t look like the work of an independent entity at all. They scream “regulatory capture” by big banks. Gigantic, secret, and unconditional subsidies like these are a recipe for moral hazard that could make the next financial crisis one of those sequels that’s bigger, costlier, and suckier than the original.

Audit the Fed? Yeah, why not.

UPDATE, 2 DEC. 2011: Felix Salmon and Brad DeLong teach me that my point that the lender of last resort should not have the lowest rates in town was made a long, long time ago, by Walter Bagehot: “Lend freely, but at a penalty rate.” DeLong writes:

“Without the Fed and the Treasury, the shareholders of every single money-center bank and shadow bank in the United States would have gone bust.”

Dean Baker on banks, bailouts, and reform

14 November 2011

Naked Capitalism has an excellent two-part interview with Dean Baker, one of the Cassandras who spotted the housing bubble years before it burst and who has been a much-needed gadfly in the ointment of economic news reporting and the economics profession. Baker’s new book, The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive, is available for free download here, including in Kindle and Nook formats. Here are some highlights from the interview, conducted by Philip Pilkington. I’ve highlighted in boldface some lines I found particularly compelling:

PP: Moving on, in the book you make the claim that had the financial system been allowed to melt down we would not actually have ended up in another Great Depression. This is not to say that you don’t recognise that letting the financial system melt down would have caused a lot of problems – for banks, of course, but also for pension funds and the like – but you say that those in charge of the bailouts exaggerated the importance of the financial sector. Could you explain briefly what you mean by this? And what do you think should have been done at the time of the bailouts?

DB: The point here is that we know how to reflate an economy. Massive government spending will do it. It got us out of the Great Depression, although not until World War II created the political consensus for the level of spending that was necessary to actually do the job.

A financial collapse cannot condemn us to a decade of stagnation and high unemployment. That only comes about from a prolonged period of political failure. If we had allowed the banks to collapse in the financial panic of 2008 then we would [still?] have had the opportunity to pick up the pieces and get the economy back on track with a massive stimulus program.

Of course it was best to not let the banks collapse. However the bailout should have come with real conditions that would have ensured the financial system was fundamentally restructured. This would have included breaking up the too big to fail banks (on a clear timetable, not necessarily at that time), serious caps on compensation, a commitment to principal write-downs and other real conditions.

At that time the banks were desperate. Without a big dose of public money they would almost certainly have been insolvent, so they would have had little choice but to accept whatever conditions were imposed. As it was, they almost got President Obama thanking them for taking taxpayer dollars in the bailout.

PP: Any ideas about what could be done with the banks now? Or is the damage already done?

DB: We still need to reform and downsize the financial sector. We don’t have the same leverage over the banks as we did at the peak of the crisis when we could have slapped whatever conditions we wanted on the loans and guarantees they needed to stay alive, but Congress can still pass laws that will rein in the industry.

At the top of the list is a financial speculation tax. A modest tax on financial transactions will do much to reduce the rents in the industry and to eliminate or drastically reduce short-term trading that serves no productive purpose. It will also raise a ton of money.

The second thing is breaking up the too big to fail banks. There is no justification for allowing banks to be able to borrow at below market interest rates because they enjoy an implicit government guarantee.

The third item on my list would be re-instating a Glass-Steagall type separation between commercial and investment banking. The Volcker rule, which limits proprietary trading by banks with insured deposits, was a step in the right direction. However it looks as though the industry is using the rule-making process to turn the law into Swiss cheese. It is likely that most banks will be able to find loopholes that will allow them to do as much proprietary banking as they want.

Anyhow, these would be my top three reforms. Politically, all of them would be very tough sells right now. By contrast, at the peak of the crisis, the industry would have voluntarily agreed to the last two in order to get the money they needed to stay alive.

PP: You write in the book that the idea that the banks repaid all the money from TARP is misleading. Could you explain this, because this myth is very prevalent in the mainstream media?

DB: Yes, this is really kind of a joke. The banks got loans at way below market interest rates from the government, and we are supposed be grateful that they repaid the loans? The difference between the market interest rate and the rate they actually paid amounted to a huge subsidy. This is something that anyone with even a passing familiarity with business or economics would recognize, which is why it is so insulting when political figures go around yapping about how the money was repaid with interest.

To see this point, suppose the government gives me a 30-year mortgage at 1 percent interest. If I make all my payments and pay off the mortgage has the government made money? By the logic of the politicians claiming that we profited by the bailout, the answer is yes.

A serious assessment would look at what the market rate for these loans was at the time they were made. To take one example, just before we lent $5 billion to Goldman through TARP, Warren Buffet lent $5 billion himself. He got twice the interest and a much more generous deal on warrants. Plus he knows that it was likely that the government would bail out Goldman if it got in trouble.

Elizabeth Warren commissioned a study of the implicit subsidies in the bailouts when she was head of the TARP oversight panel. As I recall, it came to over $100 billion on just the first batch of TARP loans to the large banks. This didn’t count the value of later TARP lending, the much larger lending programs from the Fed, nor the extensive set of guarantees provided by the Fed, Treasury, and the FDIC.

All of these commitments involved enormous subsidies. In the business world firms pay huge amounts of money if they want their debt to be guaranteed. And everyone understands that a below market loan is essentially a gift. That is why it is so insulting when they try to imply that the public has profited from these loans.

You can make the argument that it was good policy to subsidize the financial industry to get through the crisis, but to pretend that we did not subsidize them is just dishonest.

Incidentally, the reforms Baker suggests are similar to those recently suggested by Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi as a starting point for the Occupy Wall Street protesters. More on those later.

 

The world economy’s “Mingya!” moment?

10 November 2011

“Italy Is Now the Biggest Story in the World,” says Kevin Drum. And he’s not talking about Joe Paterno (whose story I confess to having spent a lot more time following lately than Italy’s). But this is bad: another Eurozone country with a high debt/GDP ratio, soaring interest rates on its government debt, and no currency of its own that could depreciate to revive net exports, and no central bank of its own to expand the supply of credit. Just like Greece, except that Italy’s economy is about six times as large. It’s the fourth-largest economy in all of Europe, in fact.

For months people have been nervously watching Europe’s toxic cauldron of economic depression, austerity, sovereign debt crises, and bank funding problems (verging on crisis), and wondering if and when Europe’s problems might lead to a double-dip recession (or, as I’d call it, a recession within a depression, a la 1937). I wonder if someone else has already written the headline “Italy: Waiting for the Other Boot to Drop” yet.

P.S. If you’ve never heard the expression “Mingya!” then you obviously don’t live in Oswego. The Urban Dictionary will set you straight.

Thomas Hoenig (“Too Big Has Failed”) tapped for FDIC

22 October 2011

Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank President Thomas Hoenig was my favorite recent member of the Federal Open Market Committee, mainly for his outspoken and eloquent criticism of the “too big to fail” policy. I’ve written about his ideas a few times, including here. So now that the Kansas City Fed’s rotating term on the FOMC has come to an end, it’s good to see that President Obama has nominated Hoenig to be Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Hoenig’s views are summed up in this quote from the article: “We must make sure that large financial organizations are not in position to hold the U.S. economy hostage. We must break up the largest banks.” His March 2009 speech “Too Big Has Failed” lays it out in detail.

Now, I have no idea how much policy-shaping ability the vice chairman of the board of directors of the FDIC has, and Hoenig himself has said the FDIC still lacks adequate resolution-authority powers for closing big bank holding companies, but I’ll be glad to have him back in the loop. Assuming that Senate Republicans don’t block his nomination for one reason or another.

The big banks are still socializing the losses; or, Sympathy for the stockholder

20 October 2011

The original bank bailout may have been repaid in full, but the big banks are still socializing the losses. This time, it’s among their shareholders. Brad DeLong offers some specifics:

‘Investors in Goldman Sachs have lost more than half their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Morgan Stanley have lost more than three-quarters of their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Citigroup have lost 93% of their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Bank of America have lost 85% of their money since 2007 . . .

‘Investors in Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch lost more than 90% if their investments as well . . .’

DeLong’s charts (click above link to see them) show that even after bank stocks started to rebound in fall 2009, the losses have still been huge.

One might think this is just a case of the rich getting poorer, but it’s not that simple. In fact, the distributional consequences seem to run the other way. The stockholders, most of whom are middle-class and upper-middle-class folks, are getting hammered. About half of the population owns stock (granted, the wealthy own most of it), so about half of The Other 99% own stock and are seeing their retirement portfolios shrink along with the rest of their savings. (If you own stock at all, you probably own a lot of big bank stock, because they are weighted heavily in index funds, other mutual funds, and pension funds.)

How has the reduced market value of these firms affected the executives and highest-paid employees at the big banks? Not much, apparently. While I don’t have precise data handy, there have been reports all through this Lesser Depression of huge payouts to bankers, including yesterday’s news of Morgan Stanley. It’s happening in England, too.

DeLong’s post includes some excellent comments about how the banks’ poor performance has affected their shareholders and their high-level employees so differently. There’s a technical term for it: looting.

P.S. The Wall Street Journal reports that bank losses have been huge of late. Goldman Sachs lost money in the second quarter of this year, and has had six straight year-over-year quarterly losses. Goldman’s stock is down 39% for the year, and Bank of America’s is down 50%. No mention of how (or whether) bonuses will be affected.

The political economy of the financial crisis, in a picture

25 February 2011

From Mother Jones, this is a picture of what the Senate would look like if its 100 seats went not to the current senators but to the interest groups that have been their largest donors over their careers. The green one, which would have 57 seats, is Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. Lawyers and Lobbyists would have 25 seats. No other group would have more than 5.

Ask what you can do for the banks

13 December 2010

Spencer Bachus, Alabama Republican and incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, lets us know who’s his daddy:

“In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”

The honesty’s too much.

Hat tip and emphasis: Matt Yglesias.

Why is the Fed still paying interest on reserves?

12 November 2010

Matt Yglesias, channeling Scott Sumner and Louis Woodhill, makes a good case that the interest rate on bank reserves, which was 0% up until just a couple years ago, should be lowered from its current 0.25%.  He suggests lowering it to 0.15%; I’d go lower, to 0.10% if going back to zero is out of the question.

Paying interest on reserves made some sense back in 2008 when the Fed was flooding the system with reserves in order to prevent a deflationary catastrophe.  The fear then was that when the economy picked up, banks would start loaning those reserves out and unleash a huge inflation; to prevent that, the Fed put an interest rate on reserves that could be raised whenever it became necessary to “soak up” those reserves.  But nothing like that is happening now — instead we have a banking system with about $1 trillion in reserves that they’re not loaning out, and the amount is likely to grow as the Fed makes its monthly $75 billion purchases of longer-term bonds under QE2.  The string the Fed is pushing on ought to move a little more if the interest rate on reserves were closer to zero.  0.25% might not sound like much, but it’s more than the federal funds rate on any given day and more than the short-term Treasury bill rate.  If banks could only earn 0.10% on reserves, I think they’d be more likely to loan them out, i.e., monetary policy would be more likely to work.

When the recovery finally shifts into high gear (and it could be sooner than most of us think, considering all the “green shoots” among leading indicators at present) and banks start loaning out those reserves, then the Fed can raise the interest rate on reserves.  But keeping it this high now gives preemption a bad name.