On Modeling Money, Banks and Markets

Every good model is designed to emphasize certain empirical regularities that characterize the real world and by doing so to explain certain aspects of how the real world functions. Thus, the first question when discussing how to model money and banking is: What are the empirical regularities that a model of money and banking should capture?

Drawing on my knowledge not only of the history of money and banking, but also of the structure of modern money markets, I have strong views on the empirical regularities that a model of money and banking should capture. Depending on the purpose of the model, there can be good reasons for focusing on getting either the asset or the liability side of banking right, so I will set forth the relevant empirical regularities separately for the two sides of the bank balance sheet. (Obviously there are also benefits to putting both into the same model, but frequently with formal modelling it is useful to start with something simple.) In both cases, first I state the key features that model should have and then I follow up with a brief discussion of some of the objections that I expect to hear to the approach I am describing.

Banks as issuers of money

When modelling the liability side of banking, there are two key features:

(1) Bank liabilities circulate as money. This means that bank liabilities are generally accepted, or, in other words, that the bank is trusted by everybody in normal times; and

(2) Any constraints on bank borrowing should be clearly explained, and should not imply that the individual members of the public are imposing borrowing constraints on banks. Thus, Diamond and Dybvig appropriately explains a run as a coordination problem, which is not at heart an individual action. And there can clearly be a constraint imposed by an outside authority like a regulator or central bank. But the idea that the individual members of the public refuse to lend to the bank past a certain amount should be viewed as contradicting the basic fact that bank liabilities circulate as money because banks are trusted by the public.

Discussion

Sometimes the claim is made that non-bank liabilities can also circulate as money. While it is true that there are historical examples of private non-bank liabilities circulating as money, these are almost always very localized affairs and thus don’t actually represent examples of generally acceptable means of exchange. These examples are not only lacking in geographic breadth, they are also typically short-lived, of very limited scope, and rare. In short, historical examples of circulating private non-bank liabilities are essentially measure zero events in the history of money. While certain historical events may be worth modeling in order to understand the event in question, these episodes are of far too little importance to be incorporated into a model that is trying to understand the general principles of money and banking.

The basic implication of the approach that I am advocating is that banks are not just a little more trustworthy than other economic entities. When modelling banks (in normal times), banks sit at the extreme of a spectrum of trustworthiness. Thus, models that purport to treat the trustworthiness of banks as only incrementally distinguished from other agents should not be considered as logically consistent with the statement that banks are issuers of money.

Banks as lenders

When modelling the asset side of banking — and especially when modelling how bank lending compares to market-based lending — the essential empirical regularities are:

(1) Banks, with their easy access to liquidity via the issue of monetary liabilities, are the economy’s short-term lenders.

(2) If there is going to be market-based short-term lending that competes directly with banks, then the banks’ role in “wrapping” (or guaranteeing) the short-term debt to make it saleable should be modeled. The reason for this is that in practice bank lending is frequently indirect and takes the form of a backup promise to pay in case the original borrower defaults; the use of these bank guarantees is so common that money market assets are in practice not marketable without bank support. (For a lengthier discussion of this issue, see here.) Note that for simplicity, both market-based short term lending and the bank guarantees that support it can be omitted from most models. It is, however, a clear error to include market-based short term lending without modelling the bank guarantees that support it.

(3) The market-based lending that takes place without bank support is long-term lending, such as 5-30 year bonds. Banks don’t have a comparative advantage here, because their ability to issue monetary liabilities is as likely to get them into trouble as to help them when the loan is long term. (They can easily like the S&Ls or Diamond-Dybvig run into financing problems.)

Thus, a key issue that a model seeking to address both bank lending and market-based lending is: What is the term of the lending in the model? Many models have both bank lending and market-based lending for the same term of the loan. I would argue that all models with this characteristic are effectively assuming long-term lending. Thus, when they find that markets can in many circumstances lend just as well as banks, they reach this conclusion by looking at the type of lending in which banks do not have a comparative advantage. A better way to model bank lending together with market-based lending is to model banks as lending short-term, e.g. working capital, while market-based lending is long-term (with or without banks competing in long-term lending).

Discussion

Many economic theory papers that purport to study money and banking effectively assume that markets in debt can exist in the absence of banks. One might almost say that these papers take markets as the fundamental economic unit and are trying to place banks within that context.

At least from my perspective, this presumption is precisely what heterodox theory seeks to challenge. My read of the history is that, while markets certainly existed before banks became important, neoclassical markets where there is something akin to a single price for a good could only be imagined in a world where banks were providing liquidity so that the typical trader was not liquidity constrained.

That is, “markets” in the sense of common usage have of course always been around, but this is a completely different concept from what an economist means when speaking of markets where every homogeneous good has a single price. Historically it is true that every community has, for example, weekly markets where people get together to trade. Prices in those markets are, however, typically based on individual bargaining and are very variable depending on who you are. People who have traveled broadly may have visited this kind of market, where a local friend is likely to tell you “Just let me know what you want to buy and then go away. I’ll handle the negotiations.” The neoclassical economic model is not designed to capture this kind of market.

The kind of markets that are made possible by banks are neoclassical-like markets. Based on sources like Adam Smith it appears that this type of market only started to grow up in Britain in the late 18th century. Suddenly people had access to enough liquidity that differential liquidity constraints stopped being the determining factor in prices, as is the case in traditional markets. And as Larry Neal explains in The Rise of Financial Capitalism (1990: 35) it was around the same time that published price lists expanded dramatically and began to take on “an increasingly official character.”

Thus, I would argue that markets as they are typically modeled in economic theory papers exist only because banks provide the liquidity that makes the efficient prices they produce feasible. For this reason, a realistic model of banks and markets will reflect the role played by bank-based liquidity in the formation of market prices. This view, as was discussed in this post, is consistent with the realities of markets today, where short-term lending is heavily dependent on banks – and of course it’s hard to imagine how capital markets could function, in the absence of these bank-dependent money markets.

To summarize, in order to capture both bank lending and market-based lending an economic model needs to have at least a three period horizon with banks offering one period debt and markets offering two period debt. Ideally the model would be able to illustrate why markets are better for long term debt and banks are better for short-term debt.

Many thanks to David Andolfatto as this blog post was generated by email correspondence with him.

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Taxonomy of liquidity II: Price stable liquidity

In Taxonomy of liquidity I I found that the distinction between market-based lending and bank lending could be clearly drawn only if the term “market-based lending” was used to refer strictly to traditional capital markets, that is, to the stock and bond markets, because money markets, repo markets, derivatives markets, etc. are all very dependent on explicit and implicit commercial bank guarantees. Here I want to address a different issue: the distinction between price stable liquidity and price disclosing liquidity.

Price disclosing liquidity is fairly intuitive. It is associated with the market liquidity that is available on stock markets or long term bond markets. Even though we consider Treasury bonds or Apple stock to be extremely liquid assets, we also understand that the prices of these assets are not stable, as any intraday chart of their prices will show. Stock and bond markets are designed to give asset holders a reliable venue in which to sell, while at the same time allowing prices to move to reflect what may be very short-term shifts in supply and demand.

Money market liquidity is different from this description of capital market liquidity. Money markets are markets where people who have cash that they will need in the near future try to earn a little interest. For this reason, money market investors are notoriously averse to sustaining capital losses (Stigum and Crescenzi 2007 p. 479). Furthermore, money market instruments are by definition short-term. Thus, unlike capital market issues, every issuer on the money market is more or less continuously raising funds. For this reason, when money market investors are worried that they may incur a loss, they don’t even need to sell their holdings to cause problems for the issuer; all they need to do is to refuse to invest in the new issues and the money market will be disrupted. In addition, because money market investors expect to need the money in the near future and are thus risk-averse, many of them avoid money market instruments that have any aura of credit risk.

An example of how money market investors react to losses is the behavior of prime money market fund investors in September 2008 after one prime money market fund, the Reserve Fund, announced that it would incur a small loss. The panic was so severe that the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and Department of Treasury all established programs to support money market funds and the commercial paper in which they invested.

Thus, it is the nature of money markets that they are expected to provide price stable liquidity (cf. Holmstrom 2015). This form of liquidity is completely different from the liquidity provided by the stock market where losses are expected on a regular basis.

One of the reasons that banks play such an important role in money markets is that bank liabilities are promises to make payment at par. Banks offer price stable liquidity. Not only are banks generally managed so that they can offer price stable liquidity, but the banking system itself – and in particular the structural support provided by the central bank – is designed to protect the system of price stable liquidity. Indeed, it is because price stable liquidity is integral to the business of banking that credit rating agencies generally demand that money market instruments receive liquidity and credit support from a bank in order to qualify for the highest credit rating.

In my previous post I explained that a discount market is an unusual kind of market, because each seller is required to endorse the bill when it is sold and thereby to guarantee payment on the bill in case of default. The importance of price stable liquidity on the money market explains this requirement, and explains the essential difference between the London Discount Market and the London Stock Exchange in the 19th century. When every seller has to guarantee the value of the bill, the incentive structure of the discount market is such that only high quality debt trades, and with every trade the credit quality of the debt increases. This is clearly a means of supporting the price stability of the instruments that trade on the discount market. On the stock exchange, there was no such requirement, because it would have obviated the purpose of the sale.

Why is price stable liquidity so important on the money market? When short term instruments can’t be relied on to hold their value, the public starts to look for better places to put their money, and there are enough reasonable somewhat risky alternatives, including other currencies, that the monetary system will break down if it doesn’t offer enough stability. For a money market to survive over the long term it needs to be in the top of its class in terms of stability.

In short, there’s another aspect of liquidity to add to our taxonomy. Capital markets offer price disclosing liquidity, whereas banks and discount markets offer price stable liquidity. More generally, money markets need to offer price stable liquidity or they will be subject to panics and may be at risk of collapse.

A Taxonomy of Liquidity I

My recent review of Andolfatto (2018) reminds me that underlying the debate between mainstream and heterodox approaches to money is a fundamental dispute over a factual question: Do financial markets and/or non-bank financial institutions provide the same services as banks?

Mainstream approaches typically claim that “clearly” financial markets and non-banks do provide the same services and that the differences are just a matter of degree. In my view, these claims are factually wrong. In this essay I am going to work through a taxonomy of liquidity that is designed to distinguish between the fundamentally different types of liquidity provided by the different types of financial contracts. In my view it is a category error to treat these different types of liquidity as if they were equivalent and interchangeable.

Preliminary question: What do banks do?

I’m going to take it as given that we can agree that banks create money by issuing monetary liabilities. Given this, what I think a lot of modern scholars miss is that those monetary liabilities can be either on balance sheet or off balance sheet. There is a tendency to focus, as Andolfatto (2018) does, on banks’ on balance sheet lending, where the banks issue money in order to fund loans. In fact, however, banks’ contingent, off balance sheet liabilities have for the past few centuries played a crucial role in the monetary system – and they still do today.

When a bank earns fee income by selling the issuer of an asset a credit line that will be used to repay the asset’s owner in the event of a default, the bank is monetizing that asset. Effectively by taking on the tail risk of the asset, the bank turns the asset into the equivalent of a bank liability, even though the bank’s liability is contingent. These contingent bank liabilities are extremely common and may go under the name of acceptance, letter of credit, standby facility, bank credit line, etc.

Because the focus of the mainstream literature on banking is on balance sheet banking, mainstream scholars typically distinguish banks, where debt is held on balance sheet, from markets, where debt is traded. But this framing elides the fact that very often debt is tradable only because of an off balance sheet bank guarantee. As a result, in using this framing mainstream scholars often draw a distinction between banks and markets that is fundamentally misguided.

More recently banks have taken on another role in markets. Morgan Guaranty Trust, which later became JPMorgan Chase, played a crucial role in the development of the modern repo market by market making in repo on the balance sheet of the depository institution so that repo regularly accounted for 10% or more of the depository institution’s assets and of the depository institution’s liabilities from the late 1990s on. Of course, JPMorgan also became a tri-party clearing bank for the repo market. Now that JPMorgan has pulled out of the repo market, the Federal Reserve itself stands ready to lend on the market through its Reverse Repo Program.

Similarly, banks like JPMorgan Chase have been dealers in the derivatives markets since their earliest development, and even today JPMorgan’s depository institution accounts for more than 20% of the US derivatives market (see Table 3 of the OCC’s latest derivatives report). So nowadays we have depository institutions that are not only supporting financial markets via the guarantees they provided to the assets traded on them – as depository institutions have always done – but that also are the key market makers in markets that are viewed as essential to so-called “market-based” lending.

In short, drawing a bright-line distinction between financial markets and banks is a mistake.

Even so, the traditional equity and bond markets continue to operate with relatively minor connections to depository institutions (at least as far as I am aware). These financial markets can properly be viewed as “market-based” lending that is distinct from banks. Thus, while it may be correct to draw a clear distinction between traditional capital markets and banks, it’s also essential to recognize that markets in most other assets, including commercial paper, securitizations, repo, derivatives, etc., rely heavily on the explicit and implicit support of depository institutions for their basic functioning.

This understanding of the nature of financial markets motivates the following taxonomy of liquidity. Taxonomy 1

In addition, to distinguishing between the market, hybrid and bank liquidity that can be provided to an asset, this taxonomy makes another point: different types of liquidity provide very different services to the asset owner.

Market liquidity is the first entry, as it is the archetype that provides the most common mental reference point when one discusses liquidity. Market liquidity refers to the ability to sell an asset without suffering much loss in terms of price. Implicit in the concept is that there is a “true” sale for accounting purposes and that the seller of the asset successfully transfers all of the risk of the asset to the new owner. Thus the balance sheet of the seller of the asset increases by the value of the asset which is received in cash and decreases by the removal from the balance sheet of the risk of the asset (both credit and liquidity).

Nowadays one sometimes hears repos referred to as a kind of market liquidity. This diagram is designed to point out the limitations of repo-based liquidity. As the chart indicates in the row titled “Overnight reverse repo”, repo allows the asset owner to have access to cash without transferring any of the risk of the asset away. This is a very important distinction between market liquidity and repo-based liquidity. Arguably the latter should be called funding and the term liquidity should not be associated with repos at all. Certainly the two concepts are very, very different.

There are two other entries under Hybrid liquidity. The discount market is a historical phenomenon that was very important in 19th century Britain. Bills could trade easily on the discount market as long as they had been “accepted” (i.e. guaranteed) by a bank. A discount market sale was not, however, like a capital market sale: in order to sell a bill the owner had to endorse it, and the endorsement obligated the owner to pay up in the event that the bill went into default. Thus a discount market sale is an effective transfer of the liquidity risk of the bill, without transferring the credit risk of the bill.

A credit default swap is designed to protect the buyer against the credit risk of the asset. Effectively an asset owner can pay the equivalent of an insurance premium in exchange for a promise of payment if the asset goes into default. Note that in this case, the asset owner continues to hold the asset unencumbered on her balance sheet and thus receives no cash upfront from the seller of credit default swap protection. This explains the zero in the “Principal value of asset” column. (Note also that I have depicted credit default swaps here as if they are an effective way to transfer the credit risk of an asset. In fact, these markets are very complicated and there is some concern recently regarding how successful credit default swaps are at transferring the credit risk of an asset.)

There are two entries under “Bank-based liquidity”. The first is a “bank credit/liquidity facility”: this represents the case where for a fee a bank guarantees payment on an asset. As in the case of a credit default swap, this functions effectively as insurance for the holder of the asset, there is no transfer of the asset to the bank, and of course the asset owner receives no payment for the value of the asset from the bank. (On the other hand, the fact that the asset is accompanied by a bank guarantee typically makes it easy for the asset owner to transfer the asset to a third-party in exchange for goods or cash, for example on money markets like commercial paper or discount markets.)

Another important form of bank-based liquidity is the central bank discount window. All loans at the discount window are recourse loans, and as a result in exchange for the central bank’s cash the owner of the asset is able to lay off the liquidity risk, but not the credit risk of the asset.

The point of going through this Taxonomy of Liquidity in somewhat excruciating detail is to make it clear that it is a mistake to talk about “credit” or “liquidity” as if they are simple one-dimensional concepts. Similarly, it is very difficult to draw a bright line distinction between financial markets and banks. Anyone who wants to model money needs to be aware of these issues.

 

A heterodox critique of Andolfatto (2018)

Note: The goal of this post is to stimulate a conversation on how to model banks using economic theory. It may be impenetrable to those who are not already aficionados of economic theory.

In this post I am going to reinterpret a model of banking written by David Andolfatto that is available here. Before I reinterpret the model that Andolfatto presents, let me make some basic observations about the type of environment that is being studied here. First, this is a model of normal times: at present no effort is being made to incorporate crises or even the possibility of crises in the model. Second, there is a sense in which this is a model of short-term lending: all loans are one-period loans and no multi-period loans are considered. Indeed the model is structured so that there is no value to longer term lending.

Andolfatto recognizes that one of the cornerstones of heterodox theory is that banks create the money that they lend. When he introduces banks into his model, however, he ignores this principle and instead models banks according to the standard loanable funds approach as more “trustworthy” than non-banks. That is, he models θb > θ, where θ is a trust parameter. Effectively, he assumes the mainstream view that liquidity is a spectrum phenomenon and that banks just sit incrementally higher on the spectrum than other debt issuers.

I would argue that this framing fails to capture the idea that banks create money. When we say that banks “create money” what we mean is that banks issue liabilities that are generally accepted by the public. If I bring a $20,000 cashiers’ check issued by a bank to purchase a car – aside from confirming that the check is not a fake – just about any car dealership in the country will accept as if it were cash. In short, when we say that banks “create money,” we are saying that the trust parameter is so high that the banks’ liabilities are for practical purposes (in normal times) indistinguishable from fiat money issued by the government. For this reason, the assumption that is consistent with the claim that banks create money is not θb > θ, it is θb = infinity.

On the other hand, at the same time that banks can create money with ease, they are constrained because everybody expects them to give it back on demand. The car dealership accepts the large cashiers’ check, because it represents a promise to deliver the funds to the car dealership within a matter of days, if not faster. Thus, banks can create money and can borrow with extraordinary ease, but the loans are always short-term loans that the bank needs to be prepared to repay promptly.

In fact, Andolfatto presents his results under the assumption that θb = infinity, and he structures the model so that all loans are one-period, or short-term, loans. Thus, we can easily interpret Andolfatto’s model as a model of banks that create money. If we interpret Andolfatto’s model in this way, however, it’s not clear how to relate the model to either financial markets or non-banks.

Market-based lending does not function to finance working capital without bank credit and liquidity support (see, e.g., Stigum and Crescenzi 2007 pp. 976-77 on commercial paper), so if we are going to distinguish financial markets from banks we need to model them as long-term lending markets. Just as the short term assets sold on markets depend on bank guarantees, so do non-banks when they invest in these bank supported assets. Thus, non-bank lending, when it is being distinguished from bank lending, also needs to be modeled as long-term lending. Since there is only one-period, short-term debt in this model, there is no way to discuss market-based or non-bank lending as distinct from bank lending in this model.

This interpretation of the model is completely different from Andolfatto who claims:

“In the model, banks and financial markets are competing mechanisms for allocating credit. Banks are “special” only to the extent they are better than markets at funding investment. This specialness is not (in the model) logically rooted in their ability to create money. In particular, bond-finance in the model is “special” if it is the lower cost way to fund investment. Variations in the parameter that governs the willingness/ability of non-bank creditors to extend credit generates business cycles in the exact same way it would in a banking economy.”

But what Andolfatto has done is to reduce the statement that banks create money to a claim that banks can fund their loans ex nihilo: trust makes it possible for banks to finance working capital in this way. This framework underestimates what it means to say that banks create money, which I argue includes not just (i) the ability to fund loans ex nihilo, but also (ii) the “on demand” nature of the bank’s liability when it funds such loans. In short, there is a fundamental category distinction between bank obligations that are inherently monetary because they are payable at par “on demand” and non-bank obligations which do not have this property.

By modelling in detail only the investment financing side of the bank’s activities and not the monetary or “on demand” aspect of the bank’s liabilities, Andolfatto’s interpretation of his model abstracts from the concept of “money” itself. I would argue that the right way to bring the concept of money back into this model is to recognize that each period over which the bank is lending is fundamentally short, such as a week or a month. There is no evidence that capital markets can finance this type of activity without bank support.

In short, Andolfatto’s whole discussion assumes that “banks and financial markets are competing mechanisms for allocating credit,” and it assumes that it is appropriate to model “credit” as entirely homogeneous. In fact, “credit” is an overarching category that embraces more than one distinct form of lending. Bank credit, because it associated with the expansion of the money supply is categorically different from a bond issue, which does not increase the supply of “on demand” liabilities in the economy. Treating a 10 year bond obligation as substantially the same as a one-month advance of workers’ wages, because they are both “credit” fails to draw enough real-world distinctions about the nature of the financial system to be useful.

Thus, in my view if we are to treat the banking section of the Andolfatto model as a model of banking, then we must also recognize that it cannot at the same time be a model of financial markets. In order to introduce financial markets into the model, it will be necessary to introduce longer term debt.

A regression discontinuity test error

This is post 3 in my HAMP and principal reduction series. For the introductory post see here.

The series is motivated by Peter Ganong and Pascal Noel’s argument that mortgage modifications that include principal reduction have no significant effect on either default or consumption for underwater borrowers. In post 1 I explained how the framing of their paper focuses entirely on the short-run, as if the long run doesn’t matter – and characterize this as the ideology of financialization. In post 2 I explain why financialization is a problem.

In this post I am going to discuss a very technical problem with Ganong and Noel’s regression discontinuity test of the effect of principal reduction on default. The idea behind a regression discontinuity test is to use the fact that there is a variable that is used to classify people into two categories and then exploit the fact that near the boundary where the classification takes place there’s no significant difference between the characteristics of the people divided into the two groups. The test looks specifically at those who lie near the classification boundary and then compare how the groups in the two classifications differ. In this situation, the differences can be interpreted as having been caused by the classification.

Borrowers offered HAMP modifications were offered either standard HAMP or HAMP PRA which is HAMP with principal reduction. In principle those who received HAMP modifications had a net present value (NPV) of the HAMP modification in excess of the NPV of the HAMP PRA modification, and those who received a HAMP PRA modification had an NPV of HAMP PRA greater than NPV of HAMP. The relevant variable for classifying modifications is therefore ΔNPV (which is economists’ notation for the different between the two net present values). Note that in practice, the classification was not strict and there was a bias against principle reduction (see Figure 2a). This situation is addressed with a “fuzzy” regression discontinuity test.

The authors seek to measure how principal reduction affects default. They do this by first estimating the difference in the default rates for the two groups as they converge to the cutoff point ΔNPV = 0, and then estimating the difference in the rate of assignment to HAMP PRA for the two groups as they converge to the cutoff point ΔNPV = 0, and finally taking the ratio of the two (p. 12). The authors find that the difference in default rates is insignificant — and this is a key result that is actually used later in the paper (footnote 30) to assume that the effect of principle reduction can be discounted (apparently driving the results on p. 24).

My objection to this measure is that due to the structure of HAMP PRA, most of the time when ΔNPV is equal to or close to zero, that is because the principal reduction in HAMP PRA is so small that there is virtually no difference between HAMP and HAMP PRA. That is, as the ΔNPV converges to zero it is also converging to the case where there is no difference between the two programs and to the case where principal reduction is zero.

To see this consider the structure of HAMP PRA. If the loan to value (LTV) of the mortgage being modified is less than or equal to 115, then HAMP PRA does not apply and only HAMP is offered. If LTV > 115, then the principal reduction alternative must be considered. Under no circumstances will HAMP PRA reduce the LTV below 115. After the principal reduction amount has been determined for a HAMP PRA mod, the modification terms are set by putting the reduced principal loan through the standard HAMP waterfall. As a result of this process, when the LTV is near 115, a HAMP PRA is evaluated, but principal reduction will be very small and the loan will be virtually indistinguishable from a HAMP loan. In this case, HAMP and HAMP PRA have the same NPV (especially as the data was apparently reported only to one decimal point, see App. A Figure 5), and ΔNPV = 0.

While it may be the case that for a HAMP PRA modification with significant principal reduction the NPV happens to be the same as the NPV for HAMP, this will almost certainly be a rare occurrence. On the other hand, it will be very common that when the LTV is near 115, the ΔNPV = 0, which is just a reflection of the fact that the two modifications are virtually the same when LTV is near 115. Thus, the structure of the program means that there will be many results with ΔNPV = 0, and these loans will generally have LTV near 115 and very little principal modification. In short, as you converge to ΔNPV = 0 from the HAMP PRA side of the classification, you converge to a HAMP modification. Under these circumstances it would be extremely surprising to see a jump in default rates at ΔNPV = 0.

In short, there is no way to interpret the results of the test conducted by the authors as a test of the effect of principal reduction. Perhaps it should be characterized as a test of whether classification into HAMP PRA without principal reduction affects the default rate.

Note that the authors’ charts support this. In Appendix A, Figure 5(a) we see that almost 40% of the authors’ data for this test has ΔNPV = 0. On page 12 the authors indicate that they were told this was probably bad data, because it indicates that the servicer was lazy and only one NPV test was run. Thus this 40% of their data was thrown out as “bad.” Evidence that this 40% was heavily concentrated around LTV = 115 is given by Appendix A, Figure 4(d):

GanongNoel

Here we see that as the LTV drops toward 120, ΔNPV converges to zero from both sides. Presumably the explanation for why it converges to 120 and not to 115 is because almost 40% of the data was thrown out. See also Appendix A Figure 6(d), which despite the exclusion of 40% of the data shows a steep decline in principal reduction as ΔNPV converges to 0 from the HAMP PRA side.

I think this is mostly a lesson that details matter and economics is hard. It is also important, however, to set the record straight: running a regression discontinuity test on HAMP data cannot tell us about the relationship between mortgage principal reductions and default.

What’s the problem with financialization?

This is post 2 in my HAMP and principal reduction series. For the introductory post see here.

The series is motivated by Peter Ganong and Pascal Noel’s argument that mortgage modifications that include principal reduction have no significant effect on either default or consumption for underwater borrowers. In post 1 I explained how the framing of their paper focuses entirely on the short-run, as if the long run doesn’t matter – and even uses language that indicates that people who take their long-run financial condition into account are behaving improperly. I call this exclusive focus on the short-run the ideology of financialization. I note at the end of post 1 that this ideology appears to have influenced both Geithner’s views and the structure of HAMP.

So this raises the question: What’s the problem with the ideology of financialization?

The short answer is that it appears to be designed to trap as many people into a state of debt peonage as possible. Debt peonage, by preventing people who are trapped in debt from realizing their full potential, is harmful to economic performance more generally.

Here’s the long answer.

By focusing attention on short-term payments and how sustainable they are today, while at the same time heaping heavy debt obligations into the future, modern finance has had devastating effects at both the individual and the aggregate levels. Heavy long-term debt burdens are guaranteed to be a problem for a subset of individual borrowers, such as those who are unexpectedly disabled or who see their income decline over time for other reasons. Mortgages with payments that balloon at some date in the future (such as those studied in Ganong and Noel’s paper) are by definition a gamble on future financial circumstances. This makes them entirely appropriate products for the small subset of borrowers who have the financial resources to deal with the worst case scenario, but the financial equivalent of Russian roulette for the majority of borrowers who don’t have financial backup in the worst case scenario. (Remember the probabilities are in your favor in Russian roulette, too.)

Gary Gorton once described the subprime mortgage model as one where the borrower is forced to refinance after a few years and this gives the bank the option every few years of whether or not to foreclose on the home. Because the mortgage borrower is in the position of having sold an option, the borrower’s position is closer to that of a renter than of homeowner. Mortgages that are structured to have payment increases a few years into the loan – which is the case for virtually all of the modifications offered to borrowers during the crisis – similarly tend to put the borrower into a situation more like that of a renter than a homeowner.

The ideology of financialization thus perverts the whole concept of debt. A debt contract is not a zero-sum transaction. Debt contracts exist because they are mutually beneficial and they should be designed to give benefits to both lenders and borrowers. Loans like subprime mortgages are literally designed to set the borrower up so the borrower will be forced into a renegotiation where the borrower can be held to his or her reservation value. That is, they are designed to shift the bargaining power in contracting in favor of the lender. HAMP modifications for underwater borrowers set up a similar situation.

Ganong and Noel treat this distorted bargaining situation as if it is normal in section 6 of their paper, where they purport to characterize “efficient modification design.” The first step in their analysis is to hold the borrowers who need modifications to their reservation values (p. 27).[1] Having done this, they then describe an “efficient frontier” that minimizes costs to lenders and taxpayers. A few decades ago when I studied Pareto efficiency, the characterization of the efficient frontier required shifting the planner’s weights on all members of the economy. What the authors have in fact presented is the constrained efficient frontier where the borrowers are held to their reservation values. Standard economic analysis indicates that starting from any point on this constrained efficient frontier, direct transfers from the lenders to the borrowers up until the point that the lenders are held to their reservation value should also be considered part of the efficient frontier.

In short, Ganong and Noel’s analysis is best viewed as a description of how the financial industry views and treats underwater borrowers, not as a description of policies that are objectively “efficient.” Indeed, when they “rank modification steps by their cost-effectiveness” they come very close to reproducing the HAMP waterfall (p. 31): the only difference is that maturity extension takes place before a temporary interest rate reduction. Perhaps the authors are providing valuable insight into how the HAMP waterfall was developed.

The unbalanced bargaining situation over contract terms that is presented in this paper should be viewed as a problem for the economy as a whole. As everybody realized post-crisis the macroeconomics of debt has not been fully explored by the economics profession and the profession is still in the early stages of addressing this lacuna. Thus, it is not surprising that this paper touches only very briefly on the macroeconomics of mortgage modification.

In my view the ideology of financialization with its short term focus has contributed significantly to growth of a heavily indebted economy. This burden of debt tends to reduce the bargaining power of the debtors and to interfere with their ability to realize their full potential in the economy. Arguably this heavily indebted economy is losing the capacity to grow because it is in a permanent balance sheet recession. At the same time, the ideology underlying financialization appears to be effectively a gamble that it’s okay to shift the debt off into the future, because we will grow out of it so it will not weigh heavily on the future. The risk is that, by taking it as given that g > r over the long run, this ideology may well be creating a situation of permanent balance sheet recession where g is necessarily less than r, even given optimal monetary policy.

[1] The authors justify this because they have “shown” that principal reductions for underwater borrowers do not reduce defaults or increase consumption. Of course, they have shown no such thing because they have only evaluated 5-10% of the life of the mortgage – and even that analysis is flawed.

The Ideology of Financialization

This is post 1 in my HAMP and principal reduction series. For the introductory post see here.

The analysis in Peter Ganong and Pascal Noel’s Liquidity vs. wealth in household debt obligations: Evidence from housing policy in the Great Recession is an object lesson in the ideological underpinnings of “financialization”. So this first post in my HAMP and principal reduction series dissects the general approach taken by this paper. Note that I have no reason to believe that these authors are intentionally promoting financialization. The fact that the framing may be unintentionally ideological makes it all the more important to expose the ideology latent in the paper.

The paper studies government and private mortgage modification programs and in particular seeks to differentiate the effects of principal reductions from those of payment reductions. The paper concludes “we find that principal reduction that increases housing wealth without affecting liquidity has no significant impact on default or consumption for underwater borrowers [and that] maturity extension, which immediately reduces payments but leaves long-term obligations approximately unchanged, does significantly reduce default rates” (p. 1). The path that the authors follow to arrive at these broad conclusions is truly remarkable.

The second paragraph of this paper frames the analysis of the relative effects of modifying mortgage debt by either reducing payments or forgiving mortgage principal. This first post will discuss only the first three sentences of this paragraph and what they imply. They read:

“The normative policy debate hinges on fundamental economic questions about the relative effect of short- vs long-term debt obligations. For default, the underlying question is whether it is primarily driven by a lack of cash to make payments in the short-term or whether it is a response to the total burden of long-term debt obligations, sometimes known as ‘strategic default.’ For consumption, the underlying question is whether underwater borrowers have a high marginal propensity to consume (MPC) out of either changes in total housing wealth or changes in immediate cash-flow.”

Each of the sentences in the paragraph above is remarkable in its own way. Let’s take them one at time.

First sentence

“The normative policy debate hinges on fundamental economic questions about the relative effect of short- vs long-term debt obligations.”

This is a paper about mortgage debt – that is, long term debt – and how it is restructured. This paper is, thus, not about “the relative effect of short- vs long-term debt obligations,” it is about how choices can be made regarding how long-term debt obligations are structured. This paper has nothing whatsoever to do with short-term debt obligations, which are, by definition, paid off within a year and  do not figure in paper’s analysis at any point.

On the other hand, the authors’ analysis is short-term. It evaluates data only on the first two to three years (on average)  after a mortgage is modified. The whole discussion takes it as given that it is appropriate to evaluate a long-term loan over a horizon that covers only 5 to 10% of its life, and that we can draw firm conclusions about the efficiency of a mortgage modification by only evaluating the first few years of the mortgage’s existence. Remember the authors were willing to state that “principal reduction … has no significant impact on default or consumption for underwater borrowers” even though they have no data on 90 – 95% of the performance of the mortgages they study (that is, on the latter 30-odd years of the mortgages’ existence).

Note that the problem here is not the nature of the data in the paper. It is natural that topical studies of mortgage performance will typically only cover a portion of those mortgages’ lives. But it should be equally natural that every statement in the study acknowledges the inadequacy of the data. For example, the authors could have written: “principal reduction … has no significant impact on immediate horizon default or immediate horizon consumption for underwater borrowers.” Instead, the authors choose to discuss short-term performance as if it is all that matters.

This focus on the short-term, as if it is all that matters, is I would argue the fundamental characteristic of “financialization.” It is also the classic financial conman’s bait and switch. The key when selling a shoddy financial product is to focus on how good it is in the short-term and to fail to discuss the long-term risks. When questions arise regarding the long-term risks, these risks are minimized and are not presented accurately. This bait and switch was practiced on municipal borrowers who issued adjustable rate securities and purchased interest rate swaps, on adjustable rate mortgage borrowers who were advised that they would be able to refinance before the mortgage rate adjusted up, and even on the Trustees of Harvard University, who apparently entered into interest rate swaps without bothering to understand to long-term obligations associated with them.

The authors embrace this deceptive framework of financialization whole-heartedly throughout the paper by discussing the short-term performance of long-term loans as if it is all that matters. While it is true that there are a few nods in footnotes and deep within the paper to what is being left out, they are wholly inadequate to address the fact that the basic framing of the paper is extremely misleading.

Second sentence

“For default, the underlying question is whether it is primarily driven by a lack of cash to make payments in the short-term or whether it is a response to the total burden of long-term debt obligations, sometimes known as ‘strategic default.’”

The second sentence is based on the classic distinction between a temporary liquidity-driven stoppage of payments and a stoppage due to negative net worth – i.e. insolvency. (Note that these are the two long-standing reasons for filing bankruptcy.) But the framing in this sentence is remarkably ideological.

The claim that those defaults that are “a response to the total burden of long-term debt obligations” are “sometimes known as ‘strategic default’” is ideologically loaded language. Because the term “strategic default” has a pejorative connotation, this sentence has the effect of putting a moralistic framing on the problem of default: liquidity-constrained defaults are implicitly unavoidable and therefore non-strategic and proper, whereas all non-liquidity-constrained defaults are strategic and implicitly improper. This framing ignores the fact that a default may be due to balance sheet insolvency, which will necessarily be “a response to the total burden of long-term debt obligations” and yet cannot be classified a “strategic” default. What is commonly referred to as strategic default is the case where the debtor is neither liquidity constrained, nor insolvent, but considers only the fact that for this particular asset the payments are effectively paying rent and do not build any principal in the property.

By linguistically excising the possibility that the weight of long-term debt obligations leads to an insolvency-driven default, the authors are already demonstrating their bias against principal reduction and once again exhibiting the ideology of financialization: all that matters is the short-term, therefore balance sheet insolvency driven by the weight of long-term debt does not need to be taken into account.

In short, the implicit claim is that even if the borrower is insolvent and not only has a right to the “fresh start” offered by bankruptcy, but likely needs it to get onto his or her feet again, this would be “strategic” and improper. Overall, the moralistic framing of the paper’s approach to debt is not consistent with either the long-standing U.S. legal framework governing debt which acknowledges the propriety of defaults due to insolvency, or with social norms regarding debt where business-logic default (which is a more neutral term than strategic default) is common.

Third sentence

“For consumption, the underlying question is whether underwater borrowers have a high marginal propensity to consume (MPC) out of either changes in total housing wealth or changes in immediate cash-flow.”

The underlying assumption in this sentence is that mortgage policy had as one of its goals immediate economic stimulus, and that one of the choices for generating this economic stimulus was to use mortgage modifications to encourage troubled borrowers to increase current consumption at the expense of a future debt burden. In short, this is the classic financialization approach: get the borrower to focus only on current needs and discourage focus on the costs of long-debt. Most remarkably it appears that Tim Geithner actually did view mortgage policy as having as one of its goals immediate economic stimulus and that this basic logic was his justification for preferring payment reduction to principal reduction.[1]

Just think about this for a moment: Policy makers in the midst of a crisis were so blinded by the ideology of financializaton that they used the government mortgage modification program as a form of short-term demand stimulus at the cost of inducing troubled borrowers (i.e. the struggling middle class) to further mortgage their futures. And this paper is a full-throated defense of these decisions.

The ideology of financialization has become powerful indeed.

Financialization Post 2 will answer the question: What’s the problem with the ideology of financialization?

[1] See, e.g., the quote from Geithner’s book in Mian & Sufi, Washington Post, 2014