The 2007-09 crisis: not a panic, but the collapse of shadow banking models

This post is a response to Ben Bernanke’s retrospective on the crisis and also addresses some of the comments others have made on his retrospective.

But first let me start the post with a little etymology. The term “lender of last resort” is generally acknowledged to have originated with Francis Baring’s 1797 tract, Observations on the Establishment of the Bank of England. Baring, however, did not use the English phrase; instead he called the Bank of England, the dernier resort. The use of the French is telling, because it is a well-established French phrase referring to the “court of last appeal.” Thus, the etymology of the phrase “lender of last resort” indicates that this is the entity that makes the ultimate decision about rescuing a firm or affirming the market’s death sentence. In short, when we talk about the central bank as lender of last resort, we are talking about the final arbiter of which troubled firms have a right to continue to exist in the economy.

Why would a lender of last resort allow some firms to fail? Because in an economy where bank lending decisions can expand or contract the money supply, banks that engage in fraud or make dangerously stupid lending decisions affect financial stability. So a lender of last resort has to police the line between good bank lending and bad bank lending. This almost always means that some lenders need to be closed down — preferably before they destabilize the financial system.

Framing the lender of last resort as having a duty to determine which of the entities that are at risk of failing for lack of funding will survive and which will not, sheds light on the debate between Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and Brad Delong. The key to this is to reframe Ben Bernanke’s “panic” which he describes as lasting from August 2007 to Spring 2009 as the process by which the Federal Reserve allowed certain shadow banks — which had no reasonable expectation of Federal Reserve support — to collapse completely.

I. “Financial fragility” was initially driven by the collapse of non-viable funding models

  1. Collapse of shadow banking vehicles (for details see this post, coming soon)

In 2007 most of the commercial paper segment of the shadow banking system collapsed. These shadow banks included SIVs, and a few CDOs. (The commercial paper collapse was extended over three years, apparently due to Fed approved bank support of the market.) Several categories of commercial paper issuer entirely disappeared.

From 2007 to 2008 several other categories of shadow bank collapsed and disappeared. Some can be classified as existing only due to the excesses of the boom: e.g. Leveraged Super Senior CDO, Constant Proportion Debt Obligations, CDO squared, and ABS CDO. (The  latter two products are best described as combining the return of a bond with the risk of an equity share. Once investors figured this out, they ran for the hills.) Others, such as Private label mortgage backed securities, are less obviously flawed products, and yet 10 years after the crisis are hardly to be found.

All of these shadow banks were “market-based” products with no claim whatsoever to Federal Reserve support, so it was unremarkable that the Fed allowed them to collapse. On the other hand, they had been used to provide funding to the real economy. So their collapse was necessarily accompanied by a decline in real economy lending.

To describe this phenomenon of the collapse of non-viable shadow bank lending models as a “panic” is inaccurate. Lax financial regulation allowed non-viable entities to play a significant role in funding real activity pre-crisis. These entities failed when reality caught up to them. They did not fail because of a panic, they failed because they were non-viable. Because of the significant degree to which banks were exposed to these non-viable shadow banks, short-term funding costs rose more generally, but to a large degree rationally.

2.  End of the 2000’s investment banking model

Over the final decades of the 20th century U.S. investment banks transformed themselves from partnerships into corporations. As corporations they grew to rely much more significantly on borrowed funds than they had when partners’ capital was at risk. By 2007 the investment bank funding model in the U.S. relied extremely heavily on repurchase agreements, derivatives collateral, and commercial paper. Arguably, this was another non-viable shadow bank model.

Bear Stearns failed in March 2008 because of runs on these instruments. Lehman Brothers failed in September for similar reasons. Merrill Lynch was purchased by Bank of America in an 11th hour transaction. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs were at the edge of failure, but saved by the Federal Reserve’s extremely fast decision to permit them to become bank holding companies with full access to the Federal Reserve’s lender of last resort facilities.

While some may believe that financial stability would have been better served by the Federal Reserve’s support of the 2000’s investment banking model, at this point the question is an unanswerable hypothetical. Because the Federal Reserve exercised its lender of last resort authority to refuse to support the 2000’s investment banking model, this shadow banking model no longer exists.

Thus, in September 2008, just as was the case in earlier months of short-term funding pressures,  a major cause of these pressures was real (though in this case elements of “panic” were also important): i.e. the collapse of a shadow banking model that was non-viable without central bank support. Once again, the fact that such a collapse had real effects is not at all surprising.

II. “Financial fragility” did culminate in a well-managed, short-lived panic

Unsurprisingly the collapse of the 2000’s investment banking model was such a significant event that it was in fact accompanied by panic. It is in the nature of a financial panic that it is best understood as the market’s expression of uncertainty as to where the central bank will draw the line between entities that are to be saved and those that are allowed to fail. Effectively, funding dries up for all entities that might hypothetically be allowed to fail. As the central bank makes clear where the lines will be drawn, the panic recedes. This view is supported by the programs that Bernanke lists as having had a distinctly beneficial effect on crisis indicators (p. 65): the Capital Purchase Program, the FDIC’s loan guarantee program, and the announcement of stress test results were all designed to make it clear that depository institutions would be supported through the crisis. Similarly, the support of money market funds gave confidence that no more money market funds would be allowed to “break the buck.”

As Bernanke observes “the [post-Lehman] panic was brought under control relatively quickly” (p. 65). Within six weeks funding pressures had already begun to ease up and by the end of 2008 they had almost entirely receded. In short, once it was clear which entities would be saved by the lender of last resort, there was no longer any cause for panic.

Brad DeLong in a review of Gennaioli and Schleifer’s new book argues that there might not have been a panic associated with Lehman’s failure if some form of resolution authority had been in place. With this I agree. As I argued here: it is almost certainly the case that if Treasury had reacted to the March 2008 Bear Stearns failure by carefully drawing up a Resolution Authority instead of the 3-page original TARP document, 2008 would have looked very different indeed. I also agree with DeLong’s positive evaluation of Gennaioli and Schliefer’s theory of investor psychology. In my view, however, their theory is more properly framed as putting modern bells and whistles on financial market dynamics that have been well-understood for centuries. The whole point of having a central bank and a lender of last resort is, after all, to control the dynamics generated by investor psychology (see e.g. Thornton 1802).

III. Additional bubbles explain Bernanke’s “non-mortgage” credit series

Ben Bernanke focuses on the housing bubble, but there were actually three bubbles created by the shadow banking boom of the early naughties: the housing bubble, the commercial real estate (CRE) bubble, and the syndicated loan “bubble”. SIFMA’s Global CDO data shows how MBS was only one form of shadow banking collateral. Lending to corporations was almost equally important.
Global CDO collateral
As Dean Baker points out the CRE bubble peaked in September 2007. Commercial real estate prices dropped by over 30% over the course of the next 18 months.

The syndicated loan “bubble” has behaved differently. While the market was subject pre-crisis to a deterioration in loan terms that was comparable to the mortgage or CRE market, this “bubble” never popped. The length of the loans was such that not many matured in 2008, and many corporations had committed credit lines from banks that they were able to draw down. Thus, it was in 2009 that concerns about likely corporate defaults weighed heavily on the market (see here and here). These concerns were, however, never realized. The combination of ultra low interest rates, retail investors shifting their focus to bond funds and ETFs, and pension funds reaching for yield meant that corporations were typically able to refinance their way out of the loans, and no aggregate collapse was ever realized. (To see how short lived corporate deleveraging was, see here.)

Thus, the fact that 2009 was a year in which massive corporate bankruptcies were expected just over the horizon probably explains a lot of the stress exhibited by Bernanke’s non-mortgage credit series (which is composed of non-financial corporate credit indicators and consumer-oriented securitization indicators). Treating this series as representing “a run on securitized credit, especially non-mortgage credit” (p. 46) as if it can only be explained by “panic,” does not seem to address the deterioration of corporate fundamentals and the implications of those fundamentals for corporate employees.

Bernanke considers the possibility that borrower financial health drives this indicator, but rejects this explanation, because:  “First, aggregate balance sheets evolve relatively
slowly, which seems inconsistent with the sharp deterioration in the non-mortgage credit factor after Lehman, and (given the slow pace of deleveraging and financial recovery) looks especially inconsistent with the sharp improvement in this factor that began just a few months later” (p. 41). Bernanke appears to assume that the deterioration would have been driven by the housing bubble, but that is not my (or Dean Baker’s) claim. I am arguing that the collapse of the CRE bubble and the weight of needing to refinance maturing syndicated loans in an adverse environment caused corporate balance sheet deterioration. The improvement is then explained by the fact that CRE prices bottomed in mid-2009 and in early 2009 the Federal Reserve made clear its commitment to keep interest rates ultra-low for “an extended period” of time. Both of these helped corporates deal with their debt burden.

In short, I find that Ben Bernanke’s data is entirely consistent with the presence of only a short-lived panic in late 2008. The economic deterioration that Bernanke associates with the prolonged short-term funding crisis and the more short-lived non-mortgage credit crunch can be explained respectively by the collapse of a large number of shadow banking vehicles and by the deflation of the other two lending booms associated with the crisis.

IV. Why Ben Bernanke’s characterization of the crisis is problematic

Thus, my most serious objection to Ben Bernanke’s characterization of the crisis is that, having exercised the lender of last resort authority appropriately to its full potential by permitting shadow bank funding models that were deemed destabilizing to collapse, he seems to want to avoid acknowledging the actual nature of the central bank’s lender of last resort role. His description of the 2007-09 crisis as “a classic financial panic” implies that the crisis was fundamentally a coordination problem in which the public was choosing a bad equilibrium and just needed to be redirected by the central bank into a good equilibrium in order to improve economic performance. Brad DeLong also embraces the language of panic in his response to Bernanke on the AEA Discussion Forum: “all that needed to be done was to keep demand for safe assets from exploding.”

(For Paul Krugman the problem is to explain not just the depth of the recession that ended in mid-2009, but the extraordinarily slow recovery from that recession, which he dubs “the Great Shortfall”. I suspect much of the explanation for the Great Shortfall will be found in post-crisis policies that were designed to protect Wall Street balance sheets at the expense of pension funds and the public, but that is a very different post.)

If one reframes Bernanke’s data from August 2007 to Spring 2009 as representing the complete collapse of certain shadow bank funding models, we see the Federal Reserve as the ultimate decision maker over which funding models were allowed to survive. Because some shadow bank funding models were allowed — properly — to collapse short-term funding rates skyrocketed and areas of the real economy that had adapted to rely upon the doomed funding models struggled as they had to adjust to a world with a different set of choices. This adjustment was temporary because the Federal Reserve — properly — acted to promote restabilization of a financial system without the terminated shadow banks.

What drove the data was not the public choosing a bad equilibrium, (that is, a panic), but the Federal Reserve properly exerting its authority by allowing market forces to eliminate certain shadow banks. This authority is properly exercised because in a world with credit-based money such as ours, financial stability is only possible if the lines between bank-like lending that is acceptable and bank-like lending that is not acceptable are strictly drawn and carefully policed. Thus, the Federal Reserve’s most significant error was its failure to exercise this authority stringently enough long before the crisis broke in order to act preventively to forestall the financial instability that was experienced in 2007-09.

That said, Bernanke is rightly proud of the speed with which the post-Lehman panic was brought under control and is right to conclude that “the suite of policies that controlled the panic likely prevented a much deeper recession than (the already very severe) downturn that we suffered” (p. 66). He also draws a lesson from the crisis that is entirely consistent with the view of it presented here: “continued vigilance in ensuring financial stability” is absolutely necessary. Indeed, I suspect that he would agree with me that that the Federal Reserve should have exercised greater vigilance prior to 2007.

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Why claims that the 2008 bailout was a “success” should make you angry

In 2008 we needed a bailout – or at least significant government/central bank intervention – but the bailout we got was unfair and almost certainly hampered the recovery. Furthermore, claims that “the bailout made money in the end” need to address the actual structure of the bailout.

So let’s talk about how the 2008-10 bailout of mortgage-related securities and instruments was structured. I focus on the mortgage-related bailout, because even when you’re talking about much more complicated instruments like CDOs, a lot of the trouble came from the outrageous practices that had been going on for the last few years in the US mortgage market. Here I’m not going to get into how the various instruments were related to mortgages, I’m just going to break down how the US used government funds to bail out the issuers and investors in private housing market-related instruments. There were three steps.

STEP 1: The Fed provided temporary assistance by supporting asset prices from March 2008 through February 2010 by accepting just about everything as collateral at the TSLF and PDCF and thus preventing fire sales of assets. The Fed also wrote supervisory letters granting bank holding companies (BHCs) the right to exceed normal limits on aid from the FDIC-insured bank to the investment bank, so that a lot of support of these asset markets took place on the balance sheets of the BHCs.

STEP 2: Many of the mortgages underlying the troubled assets were refinanced with the support of government guarantees against credit risk. The process of refinancing a mortgage requires the existing mortgage to be paid off in full. Thus, these refis had the effect of transferring poorly originated mortgages out of private portfolios and into government insured portfolios. This would not be a problem if the government insured mortgages were carefully originated, but that would not have solved the private sector’s problem, so that’s not what happened. Step 2 required both immense purchases by the government of mortgage backed securities and a simultaneously massive expansion in insurance offered for riskier loans.

1.  Massive purchases of GSE MBS.
The goals were to make sure the GSEs could continue to be active in the mortgage market, to drive down the 30 year mortgage rate to facilitate refinancing as well as purchases, and to raise the price of housing.

a. On Sept 7 2008 when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were put into conservatorship, Treasury also announced plan to purchase MBS securities. Apparently this program only ever reached about $200 billion in size (Sigtarp Report July 2010 136). Soon it was superseded by:

b. The Federal Reserve’s QE1: In November 2008 the Federal Reserve announced a massive program of supporting mortgage markets by buying mortgage backed securities issued by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae. This purchase program ended up buying $1.25 trillion in MBS and continued until February 2010.

  • By the end of 2008 the 30 year fixed mortgage rate had fallen by a full percentage point. and would only decline further in later years.

//fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/graph-landing.php?g=ldKE&width=670&height=475

  • Private sector MBS issues had declined to almost nothing by mid 2008 and even GSE MBS issues had dropped over the course of 2008. In 2009 GSE MBS came roaring back so that by mid-2009 monthly MBS issues were almost as high as they had ever been. The fact that in several months Fed purchases in the form of QE1 exceeded GSE MBS issues undoubtedly played a role in this dramatic recovery of the MBS market.

2008 Housing mkt
from “Charting the Financial Crisis” by Brookings & Yale SOM

2.   FHA insurance grew to account for almost 1/3 of the mortgage market.
From mid-2009 to mid-2010 alone FHA and GNMA insured loans increased by $500 billion (Sigtarp Report July 2010 p. 119).

FHA insured loans became a growing and then significant portion of the mortgage market after the major subprime lenders collapsed in early 2007, and FHA became the only choice for borrowers who couldn’t put down much of a down payment. Prior to the crisis FHA loans accounted for as little as 3% of the market. By June 2009 FHA loans accounted for 30% of the market and would continue to do so for several years. (See Golobay 2009 and Berry 2011a.)

By mid-2011 all the major banks held billions in FHA insured loans that were 90 days or more past due: BoA $20 billion, WFC $14 billion, JPM $10 billion, Citi $5 billion. Eventually every major bank would end up settling lawsuits over misrepresentations in FHA insurance applications. In the meanwhile they were using FHA insurance as a cover to avoid taking writedowns on the loans. (See Berry 2011b.)

Here is the FHA’s 2015 report on how the loans it guarantees have been performing. Note that the FHA insured $73 billion single family mortgages in FY 2006, $84 billion in FY 2007, $205 billion in FY 2008 and $365 billion in FY 2009 (see Table 1 here.)

FHA loan performance
(Note that the decision to separate fiscal year 2009 into first half (October 2008 to March 2009) and second half (April 2009 to September 2009) appears to be a genuine effort to show how different the two cohorts are, and as far as I can tell should not be interpreted as questionable data manipulation.)<\small>

3. Expansion of loans eligible for securitization by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by increasing the conforming loan limit to $729,750 in high cost states (which lasted until 10-1-2011).

  • The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program concluded that the government had adopted an explicit policy of supporting housing market prices (SIGTARP report Jan 2010 p. 126). These programs stopped the decline in house prices nationally (the yellow line in the chart below) for the year 2009 and slowed the drop in house prices thereafter. As a result, nationally the bottom in housing prices wasn’t reached until January 2012. This meant that the massive 2009 government guaranteed refinancing of mortgages was deliberately executed at higher than market prices.

CR Case Shiller Index

Before going on to Step 3, let’s pause for a moment to get a good picture of what is going on here. By late 2008, it had become abundantly clear that Private Label Securitization was a shitshow. Tanta, who had 20-odd years of mortgage industry experience and spent the months before her death blogging at Calculated Risk, put it well in a July 2007 blogpost :

“we as an industry have known how to prevent a lot of fraud for a long time; we just didn’t do it. It costs too much, and too many bonuses were at stake to carve out the percent of loan production it would take to get a handle on fraud. The only thing that got anybody’s attention, finally, was a flood of repurchase demands on radioactive EPD [early payment default, i.e. 3 missed payments in first 6 months of loan] loans and other violations of reps and warranties. If [you] want[] to accomplish something, I’d suggest [you] … start slapping some issuers around on their pre-purchase or pre-securitization quality control and due diligence.”

So what was going on in 2007 and 2008 is that the market was recognizing that the “Non-Agency MBS” in the chart below was going to perform very badly, because it was so full of loans that should never have been made.

collapse of PLMBS
In many cases the originators who were theoretically on the hook for the reps and warranties they had made when they sold the loans to Wall Street had been driven into bankruptcy by – you guessed it – claims based on their reps and warranties. The bag they had in theory been holding had most definitely been passed on to someone else, but it wasn’t clear yet to whom. The obvious candidate was the issuers who had packaged these loans – with utterly inadequate due diligence – into securities for investors to buy. The catch was that the issuers were all the big banks: Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, etc.

And we had financial regulators who were like deer in the headlights, transfixed by terror, when they heard that one of the big retail banks might be in danger. These regulators threw themselves headlong into the project of rescuing the big banks from their failure to perform the due diligence necessary to issue mortgage-backed securities according to the terms in their securities documentation. While I suspect that Ben Bernanke never quite wrapped his head around these issues (he had plenty of other things to worry about), it seems fairly clear that Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner worked consciously to “save the financial system” by hiving loans that should never have been made off onto the Government. Geithner, in particular, would almost certainly claim that this was the right thing to do in the interests of financial stability.[1]

Thus, the mortgage sector bailout was designed so that the mortgages underlying the private label mortgage backed securities (PLMBS), the bulk of which had been made at the peak of the bubble, would be refinanced out of the PLMBS securities as quickly as possible. The private sector had no interest in financing such an endeavor itself, so the only way to do it was through the government sponsored entities.

By engineering a drop in the 30 year mortgage rate (the announcement of QE1 was apparently enough to do this), an incentive was created for mortgagors to refinance their loans. The same Fed program ensured that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae would have no problem getting the funds to buy the refinanced mortgages. There was only one catch, a nontrivial segment of the PLMBS mortgages were not of a quality that could be sold to Fannie and Freddie – and the same would be true of any refis of those mortgages. That’s where the FHA comes in: by guaranteeing 30% of all mortgages in the crucial years 2009-2010, the FHA provided a way for some of the more dubious mortgages in the PLMBS to be refinanced and be paid in full. FHA loans are typically securitized by Ginnie Mae and may also be held on a bank’s balance sheet. The PLMBS loans that were paid in full – due solely to the presence of government guarantees in the mortgage market – almost certainly played a huge role in protecting the returns on the PLMBS, in reducing the losses to investors, and in reducing the liability of the issuers for their due diligence failures.

The key point to remember here is that there was nothing “market” about this whole process. The Fed was both providing the funds and driving down the interest rates, while a government backstop for the credit risk on the loans was provided by the GSEs. Multiple experts described the housing finance market as having been “nationalized” or put “on government life support” in this period.

Because of the degree to which the government took over the mortgage market in these crucial years, it becomes a little silly to focus on the fact that no money was lost (in aggregate) due to the government’s support of PLMBS and related assets. (As far as I can tell the costs included in bailout figures never include the losses that the GSEs incurred on the loans guaranteed from 2008Q4 to 2010Q4.) Overall it can hardly be a surprise that the government made money on the officially recognized bailout loans given that the government also took steps in to make sure that many of the underlying assets were paid off in full.

At this point you may be saying: Well okay, but given that the Fed and Treasury were successful in returning the banks to health and the GSEs are all doing okay now too, was there really any harm done by a few years of de facto nationalization of the housing market?

This is where Step 3 comes in. The whole scheme only works because of Step 3, and Step 3 is what has most of those who understand what happened absolutely smoking mad about the bailouts. The key to the PLMBS performing well was that the mortgages in them had to be paid off in full. In order for the existing mortgage to be paid in full, the refi that pays it off will have to be for the same amount as the existing mortgage or a little more.

STEP 3: No principal reduction for mortgage holders. It was essential to make sure that people who hold mortgages don’t have access to a program that allows principal to be reduced. Effectively, since the banks can’t be the bagholders because of the terror of financial instability and the government can’t just be handed the bag because that has very bad visuals, the public had to be made the bagholders. The only way to do this was to make sure the public was not cut any breaks.

1. Prevent cramdown legislation from being passed
Cramdown is how bankruptcy law treats collateral that has fallen in value below the value of the loan. If the debtor declares bankruptcy, the lender only has a security interest up to the value of the collateral and remainder of the loan is not treated as collateralized debt. An exception was written into the 1977 Bankruptcy Code excluding mortgages on primary residences from cramdown. (The claim at the time was that this would be better for borrowers. LOLWT[2].) In short, the bankruptcy code takes the position that finding a good solution to someone’s inability to pay debt requires recognizing the economic reality of the situation in virtually every case except for mortgages on primary residences.

Forcing lenders to come to the table on the basis of economic reality is something that every collateralized borrower can do – except for the little guy whose only collateralized loan is on his/her primary residence. Fixing the cramdown inequity was one of President Obama’s promises before he was elected. But lo and behold Treasury staffers in his administration “stressed the effects of cramdown on the nation’s biggest banks, which were still fragile. The banks’ books could take a beating if too many consumers [were] lured into bankruptcy by cramdown ” (Kiel & Pierce 2011). Treasury’s position on this should be read: we need to bail out the banks, so we can’t allow the economic reality of the situation to affect the cut that the banks get.

2. Failure to establish an effective principal reduction program until 2012
In July 2010 SIGTARP called Treasury out for its failure to establish an effective principal reduction program as part of its mortgage modification program (Sigtarp Report July 2010 174ff.) However, not until May 2011 had the Treasury been sufficiently shamed over the lack of principal reductions to begin reporting on the Principal Reduction Alternative (PRA) data. By May 2011 less than 5000 permanent modifications had been started that included principal reduction. This was less than 1% of the permanent modifications started under the HAMP program (MHA Report May 2011).

This delay was important, because if borrowers had been offered modifications with principal reduction in the crucial years from 2009-10, it undoubtedly would have affected decisions to refinance loans that had been made at the peak of the bubble. By May 2012 permanent modifications with PRA that had been started had jumped to 83,362 which was over 8% of all permanent modifications started (MHA Report May 2012).  More recent reports indicate that ultimately 17% of all permanent modifications started included principal reduction. (MHA Report 2017Q4 p. 4)

3. Failure of FHA short refinance program. In August 2010 the FHA established a short refinance program which imposed strict rules on lenders including 10% 1st lien principal writedowns.  A year later the program had helped only 246 borrowers, in part because Fannie and Freddie refused to participate, and the program was slated to be closed (Prior 2011).

So what’s my conclusion? Everybody who wants to tout the success of the bailout needs to tackle the reality of the bailout’s structure. There was a housing bubble. Somebody was going to have to absorb the losses that are created when lending takes place against overpriced assets.

Because in the name of financial stability the Fed and Treasury decided that banks weren’t going to bear any of the losses on the origination and securitization of bad mortgages, they had to find a way to put the tab to the government and to the public.

It was put to the government by putting the mortgage market on government life support from late 2008 to 2010, so that people would refinance out of the bad mortgages in PLMBS securitizations into FHA loans and into GSE MBS.

It was put to the public by making sure that their mortgages were not written down in value, even though the value of the house being used as collateral had collapsed. This means that the housing price bubble of 2006-07 is still with us today. It is being paid off by homeowners who are still paying these mortgages, who can’t spend that money on consumption, and who are scheduled to keep paying off bubble-level housing prices right up until 2050.

HH svgs
From Deutsche Bank via Tracy Alloway: https://twitter.com/tracyalloway/status/1040391962090590209

So when you see a chart like the one just above, which shows US consumers saving far more than predicted, you should recall that paying down mortgage principal counts as savings and a lightbulb should go off in your head. You should be thinking when you see this chart: “Aha. Look at all the US consumers who are still paying for the housing bubble. The 2008 crisis should have been handled differently.”

P.S. While we’re talking about anger and crisis housing policy let me offer two notes on HAMP modifications.

  1. Look at this chart from “Charting the Financial Crisis” by Brookings & Yale SOM (part of a project advised by Tim Geithner)

HAMP by count

They very carefully report the number of borrowers helped, but not the principal value of the mortgages before the modification and the principal value of the mortgage after the modification. Most HAMP modifications included significant increases in the principal borrowed, as not only interest accrued during trial modifications but also a variety of fees that borrows rarely understood or reviewed, were capitalized into the loans.

  1. In general the HAMP program is performing execrably as might have been expected given its design. (See here for details.) After 60 months the program increases the payments that were carefully set to the maximum the borrower can afford when the loan was made. The program may continue to increase payments each year for 2 to 3 years, that is, at 72 and 84 months. In short, the program was designed to give borrowers as little as possible: borrowers get five years respite in payments without reducing the present value of the modified loan on bank balance sheets. To avoid hitting bank balance sheets payments have to go up for the remaining 35 years of the loan. On pages 7 and 9 of the 2017Q4 MHA Report, the data on performance is very carefully presented only up to 60 months. One has to read the appendices – specifically Appendix 6 – to learn that for each vintage with 84 months of data at least 50% (and up to 65%) of loans have become delinquent.

[1] I have a draft paper in which I draw the analogy between Geithner and a couple of early 19th c. Bank of England directors who had been similarly traumatized by their early experiences dealing with financial crises and also advocated throwing money at them no matter what. The difference is that these two directors were lambasted by their contemporaries including Ricardo, and their claims have gone down in history as “answers that have become almost classical by their nonsense” (Bagehot 1873, p. 86).

[2] LOLWT = Laugh out loud with tears.

How to evaluate “central banking for all” proposals

The first question to ask regarding proposals to expand the role of the central bank in the monetary system is the payroll question: How is the payroll of a new small business that grows, for example, greenhouse crops that have an 8 week life cycle handled in this environment? For this example let’s assume the owner had enough capital to get the all the infrastructure of the business set up, but not enough to make a payroll of say $10,000 to keep the greenhouse in operation before any product can be sold.

Currently the opening of a small business account by a proprietor with a solid credit record will typically generate a solicitation to open an overdraft related to the account. Thus, it will in many cases be an easy matter for the small business to get the $10,000 loan to go into operation. Assuming the business is a success and produces regular revenues, it is also likely to be easy to get bank loans to fund slow expansion. (Note the business owner will most likely have to take personal liability for the loans.)

Thus, the first thing to ask about any of these policy proposals is: when a bank makes this sort of a loan how can it be funded?

In the most extreme proposals, the bank has to have raised funds in the form of equity or long-term debt before it can lend at all. This is such a dramatic change to our system that it’s hard to believe that the same level of credit that is available now to small business will be available in the new system.

Several proposals (including Ricks et al. – full disclosure: I have not read the paper) get around this problem by allowing banks to fund their lending by borrowing from the central bank. This immediately raises two questions:

(i) How is eligibility to borrow at the central bank determined? If it’s the same set of banks that are eligible to earn interest on reserves now, isn’t this just a transfer of the benefits of banking to a different locus. As long as the policy is not one of “central bank loans for all,” the proposal is clearly still one of two-tier access to the central bank.

(ii) What are the criteria for lending by the central bank? Notice that this necessarily involves much more “hands on” lending than we have in the current system, precisely because the central bank funds these loans itself. In the current system (or more precisely in the system pre-2008 when reserves were scarce), the central bank provides an appropriate (and adjustable) supply of reserves and allows the banks to lend to each other on the Federal Funds market. Thus, in this system the central bank outsources the actual lending decisions to the private sector, allowing market forces to play a role in lending decisions.

Overall, proposals in which the central bank will be lending directly to banks to fund their loans create a situation where monetary policy is being implemented by what used to be called “qualitative policy.” After all if the central bank simply offers unlimited, unsecured loans at a given interest rate to eligible borrowers, such a policy seems certain to be abused by somebody. So the central bank is either going to have to define eligible collateral, eligible (and demonstrable) uses of the funds, or some other explicit criteria for what type of loans are funded. This is a much more interventionist central bank policy than we are used to, and it is far from clear that central banks have the skills to do this well. (Indeed, Gabor & Ban (2015) argue that the ECB post-crisis set up a catastrophically bad collateral framework.)

Now if I understand the Ricks et al. proposal properly (which again I have not read), their solution to this criticism is to say, well, we don’t need to go immediately to full-bore central banking for all, we can simply offer central bank accounts as a public option and let the market decide.

This is what I think will happen in the hybrid system. Just as the growth of MMMFs in the 80s led to growth of financial commercial paper and repos to finance bank lending, so this public option will force the central bank to actively operate its lending window to finance bank loans. Now we have two competing systems, one is the old system of retail and wholesale banking funding, the other is the central bank lending policy.

The question then is: Do federal regulators have the skillset to get the rules right, so that destabilizing forces don’t build up in this system? I would analogize to the last time we set up a system of alternative funding for banks (the MMMF system) and expect regulators to set up something that is temporarily stable and capable of operating for a decade or two, before a fundamental regulatory flaw is exposed and it all comes apart in a terrifying crash. The last time we were lucky, as regulatory ingenuity and legal duct tape held the system together. In this new scenario, the central bank, instead of sitting somewhat above the fray will sit at the dead center of the crisis and may have a harder time garnering support to save the system.

And then, of course, all “let the market decide” arguments are a form of the “competition is good” fallacy. In my view, before claiming that “competition is good,” one must make a prior demonstration that the regulatory structure is such that competition will not lead to a race to the bottom. Given our current circumstances where, for example, the regulator created by the Dodd-Frank Act to deal with fraud and near-fraud is currently being hamstrung, there is abundant reason to believe that the regulatory structure of the financial system is inadequate. Thus, appeals to a public option as a form of healthy competition in the financial system as it is currently regulated are not convincing.

In defense of economic theory

I’ve just read JW Mason’s post “The Wit and Wisdom of Trygve Haavelmo.” I read this post as an empiricist’s view of economics, and I think that there is an equally valid theorist’s view of economics. The difference, in my view, lies more in how we think about what economics is that in the more practical question of how we do economics.

That is, I agree “that we study economics not as an end in itself, but in response to the problems forced on us by the world,” but I disagree strongly with the claim that “the content of a theory is inseparable from the procedures for measuring the variables in it.”

JW Mason writes “Within a model, the variables have no meaning, we simply have a set of mathematical relationships that are either tautologous, arbitrary, or false. The variables only acquire meaning insofar as we can connect them to concrete social phenomena.” Oddly, while I disagree vehemently with the first sentence, I have a lot of sympathy with the second.

So how does a theorist think about economic modelling?

To me the purpose of an economic model is to define a vocabulary that we can use to discuss economic phenomena. So the inherent value of a variable in an economic model is the way that the economic model gives the variable a very specific concrete meaning. “Consumer demand” means something very specific and clear in the context of a neoclassical model, and the fact that we can agree on this — separate and apart from economic data — is useful for the purposes of economic discourse.

Of course, it is also true that we need to be able to map this vocabulary over to real economic phenomena in order for the value of the vocabulary to be realized. Thus, the hardest and most important part of economic theory is mapping the theory back into real world phenomena. Thus while I don’t agree that “the content of a theory is inseparable from the procedures for measuring the variables in it,” I wouldn’t have a problem with the claim that “the usefulness of a theory is inseparable from the procedures for measuring the variables in it.”

Economic models are dictionaries, whereas a brilliant economic paper is more like a literary classic. As someone who is always using dictionaries to check the meaning of words, I consider dictionaries valuable in and of themselves, even though I don’t by any means consider that value to be the same as the value of literary classic.

I hope JW Mason won’t see this as splitting hairs, but I think it’s important to understand economic modelling as a means of creating a vocabulary for discussing the economy. The power of theory is that if it is mastered, it can be used to create new words and new ways of understanding the economy. Such a new vocabulary will only be truly useful if it can be brought to the data and if it helps explain the real world. But I think it is essential to understand the power of theory, lest this point be lost in a sea of data.

Brokers, dealers and the regulation of markets: Applying finreg to the giant tech platforms

Frank Pasquale (h/t Steve Waldman) offers an interesting approach to dealing with the giant tech firms’ privileged access to data: he contrasts a Jeffersonian — “just break ’em up” approach — with a Hamiltonian — regulate them as natural monopolies approach. Although Pasquale favors the Hamiltonian approach, he opens his essay by discussing Hayekian prices. Hayekian prices simultaneously aggregate distributed knowledge about the object sold and summarize it, reflecting the essential information that the individuals trading in the market need to know. While gigantic firms are alternate way of aggregating data, there is little reason to believe that they could possibly produce the benefits of Hayekian prices, the whole point of which is to publicize for each good a specific and extremely important summary statistic, the competitive price.

Pasquale’s framing brings to mind an interest parallel with the history of financial markets. Financial markets have for centuries been centralized in stock/bond and commodities exchanges, because it was widely understood that price discovery works best when everyone trades at a single location. The single location by drawing almost all market activity offers both “liquidity” and the best prices. The dealers on these markets have always been recognized as having a privileged position because of their superior access to information about what’s going on in the market.

One way to understand Google, Amazon, and Facebook is that they are acting as dealers in a broader economic marketplace. That with their superior knowledge about supply and demand they have an ability to extract gains that is perfectly analogous to dealers in financial markets.

Given this framing, it’s worth revisiting one of the most effective ways of regulating financial markets: a simple, but strict, application of a branch of common law, the law of agency was applied to the regulation of the London Stock Exchange from the mid-1800s through the 1986 “Big Bang.” It was remarkably effective at both controlling conflicts of interest and producing stable prices, but post World War II was overshadowed and eclipsed by the conflict-of-interest-dominated U.S. markets. In the “Big Bang” British markets embraced the conflicted financial markets model — posing a regulatory challenge which was recognized at the time (see Christopher McMahon 1985), but was never really addressed.

The basic principles of traditional common law market regulation are as follows. When a consumer seeks to trade in a market, the consumer is presumed to be uninformed and to need the help of an agent. Thus, access to the market is through agents, called brokers. Because a broker is a consumer’s agent, the broker cannot trade directly with the consumer. Trading directly with the consumer would mean that the broker’s interests are directly adverse to those of the consumer, and this conflict of interest is viewed by the law as interfering with the broker’s ability to act an agent. (Such conflicts can be waived by the consumer, but in early 20th century British financial markets were generally not waived.)

A broker’s job is to help the consumer find the best terms offered by a dealer. Because dealers buy and sell, they are prohibited from acting as the agents of the consumers — and in general prohibited from interacting with them directly at all. Brokers force dealers to offer their clients good deals by demanding two-sided quotes and only after learning both the bid and the ask, revealing whether their client’s order is a buy or a sell. Brokers also typically get bids from different dealers to make sure that the the prices on offer are competitive.

Brokers and dealers are strictly prohibited from belonging to the same firm or otherwise working in concert. The validity of the price setting mechanism is based on the bright line drawn between the different functions of brokers and of dealers.

Note that this system was never used in the U.S., where the law of agency with respect to financial markets was interpreted very differently, and where financial markets were beset by conflicts of interest from their earliest origins. Thus, it was in the U.S. that the fixed fees paid to brokers were first criticized as anti-competitive and eventually eliminated. In Britain the elimination of fixed fees reduced the costs faced by large traders, but not those faced by small traders (Sissoko 2017). By adversely affecting the quality of the price setting mechanism, the actual costs to traders of eliminating the structured broker-dealer interaction was hidden. We now have markets beset by “flash-crashes,” “whales,” cancelled orders, 2-tier data services, etc. In short, our market structure instead of being designed to control information asymmetry, is extremely permissive of the exploitation of information asymmetry.

So what lessons can we draw from the structured broker-dealer interaction model of regulating financial markets? Maybe we should think about regulating Google, Amazon, and Facebook so that they have to choose between either being the agents in legal terms of those whose data they collect, or of being sellers of products (or agents of these sellers) and having no access to buyer’s data.

In short, access to customer data should be tied to agency obligations with respect to that data. Firms with access to such data can provide services to consumers that help them negotiate a good deal with the sellers of products that they are interested in, but their revenue should come solely from the fees that they charge to consumers on their purchases. They should not be able to either act as sellers themselves or to make any side deals with sellers.

This is the best way of protecting a Hayekian price formation process by making sure that the information that causes prices to move is the flow of buy or sell orders that is generated by a dealer making two-sided markets and choosing a certain price point. And concurrently by allowing individuals to make their decisions in light of the prices they face. Such competitive pricing has the benefit of ensuring that prices are informative and useful for coordinating economic decision making.

When prices are not set by dealers who are forced to make two-sided markets and who are given no information about the nature of the trader, but instead prices are set by hyper-informed market participants, prices stop having the meaning attributed to them by standard economic models. In fact, given asymmetric information trade itself can easily degenerate away from the win-win ideal of economic models into a means of extracting value from the uninformed, as has been demonstrated time and again both in theory and in practice.

Pasquale’s claim that regulators need to permit “good” trade on asymmetric information (that which “actually helps solve real-world problems”) and prevent “bad” trade on asymmetric information (that which constitutes “the mere accumulation of bargaining power and leverage”) seems fantastic. How is any regulator to have the omniscience to draw these distinctions? Or does the “mere” in the latter case indicate the good case is to be presumed by default?

Overall, it’s hard to imagine a means of regulating informational behemoths like Google, Amazon and Facebook that favors Hayekian prices without also destroying entirely their current business models. Even if the Hamiltonian path of regulating the beasts is chosen, the economics of information would direct regulators to attach agency obligations to the collection of consumer data, and with those obligations to prevent the monetization of that data except by means of fees charged to the consumer for helping them find the best prices for their purchases.

When can banks create their own capital?

A commenter directed me to an excellent article by Richard Werner comparing three different approaches to banking. The first two are commonly found in the economics literature, and the third is the credit creation theory of banking. Werner’s article provides a very good analysis of the three approaches, and weighs in heavily in favor of the credit creation theory.

Werner points out that when regulators use the wrong model, they inadvertently allow banks to do things that they should not be allowed to do. More precisely, Werner finds that when regulators try to impose capital constraints on banks without understanding how banks function, they leave open the possibility that the banks find a way to create capital “out of thin air,” which clearly is not the regulator’s intent.

In this post I want to point out that Werner does not give the best example of how banks can sometimes create their own capital. I offer two more examples of how banks created their own capital in the years leading up to the crisis.

1. The SIVs that blew up in 2007

You may remember Hank Paulson running around Europe in the early fall of 2007 trying to drum up support for something called the Master Liquidity Enhancement Conduit (MLEC) or more simply the Super-SIV. He was trying to address the problem that structured vehicles called SIVs were blowing up left, right, and center at the time.

These vehicles were essentially ways for banks to create capital.  Here’s how:

According to a Bear Stearns report at the time, 43% of the assets in the SIVs were bank debt, and commentators a the time make it clear that the kind of bank debt in the SIVs was a special kind of debt that was acceptable as capital for the purposes of bank capital requirements because of the strong rights given to the issuer to forgo making interest payments on the debt.

The liability side of a SIV was comprised of 4-6% equity and the rest senior liabilities, Medium Term Notes (MTNs) of a few years maturity and Commercial Paper (CP) that had to be refinanced every few months. Obviously SIVs had roll-over (or liquidity) risk, since their assets were much longer than their liabilities. The rating agencies addressed this roll-over risk by requiring the SIVs to have access to a liquidity facility provided by  a bank. More precisely the reason a SIV shadow bank was allowed to exist was because there was a highly rated traditional bank that had a contractual commitment to provide funds to the SIV on a same-day basis in the event that the liquidity risk was realized. Furthermore, triggers in the structured vehicle’s paperwork required it to go into wind down mode if, for example, the value of its assets fell below a certain threshold. All the SIVs breached their triggers in Fall 2007.

Those with an understanding of the credit creation theory of banking would recognize immediately that the “liquidity facility” provided by the traditional bank was a classic way for a bank to transform the SIV’s liabilities into monetary assets. That’s why money market funds and others seeking very liquid assets were willing to hold SIV CP and MTNs. In short, a basic understanding of an SIV asset and liability structure and of the banks’ relationship to it would have been a red flag to a regulator conversant with the credit creation theory that banks were literally creating their own capital.

2. The pre-2007 US Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB) System

In the early naughties all of the FHLBs revised their capital plans. For someone with an understanding of the credit creation theory, these capital plans were clearly consistent with virtually unlimited finance of mortgages.

The FHLBs form a system with a single regulator and together offer a joint guarantee of all FHLB liabilities. The FHLB system is one of the “agencies” that can easily raise money at low cost on public debt markets. Each FHLB covers a specific region of the country and is cooperatively owned by its member banks. In 2007 every major bank in the US was a member of the FHLB system. As a result, FHLB debt was effectively guaranteed by the whole of the US banking system. Once again using the credit creation theory, we find that the bank guarantee converted FHLB liabilities into monetary assets.

The basic structure of the FHLBs support of the mortgage market was this (note that I will frequently use the past tense, because I haven’t looked up what the current capital structure is and believe that it has changed):

The FHLBs faced a 4% capital requirement on their loans. Using the Atlanta FHLB’s capital plan as an example, we find that whenever a member bank borrowed from the Atlanta FHL bank, it was required to increase its capital contribution by 4.5% of the loan. This guaranteed that the Atlanta FHL bank could never fall foul of its 4% capital requirement — and that there was a virtually unlimited supply of funds available to finance mortgages in the US.

The only constraint exercised by FHLBs on this system was that they would not lend for the full value of any mortgage. Agency MBS faced a 5% haircut, private label MBS faced a minimum 10% haircut, and individual mortgages faced higher haircuts.

In short, the FHLB system was designed to make it possible for the FHLBs to be lenders of last resort to mortgage lenders. As long as a member bank’s assets were mortgages that qualified for FHL bank loans, credit was available for a bank that was in trouble.

The system was designed in the 1930s — by people who understood the credit creation theory of banking — to deliberately exclude commercial banks which financed commercial activity and whose last-resort lender was the Federal Reserve. Only when the FIRRE Act in 1989 was passed subsequent to the Savings and Loan crisis were commercial banks permitted to become FHLB members.

From a credit creation theory perspective this major shift in US bank regulation ensured that the full credit creation capacity of the commercial banking system was united with the US mortgage lending system making it possible for the FHLBs to create their own capital and use it to provide virtually unlimited funds to finance mortgage lending in the US.

 

Access to Credit is the Key to a Win-Win Economy

Matt Klein directs our attention to an exchange between Jason Furman and Dani Rodrik that took place at the “Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy” Conference. Both argued that, while economists tend to focus on efficiency gains or “growing the pie”, most policy proposals have a small or tiny efficiency effect and a much much larger distributional effect. Matt Klein points out that in a world like this political competition for resources can get ugly fast.

I would like to propose that one of the reasons we are in this situation is that we have rolled back too much of a centuries-old legal structure that used to promote fairness — and therefore efficiency — in the financial sector.

Adam Tooze discusses 19th century macro in follow up to Klein’s post:

Right the way back to the birth of modern macroeconomics in the late 19th century, the promise of productivist national economic policy was that one could suspend debate about distribution in favor of “growing the pie”.

In Britain where this approach had its origins, access to bank credit was extremely widespread (at least for those with Y chromosomes). While the debt was typically short-term, it was also the case that typically even as one bill was paid off, another was originated. Such debt wasn’t just generally available, it was usually available at rates of 5% per annum or less. No collateral was required to access the system of bank credit, though newcomers to the system typically had to have 1 or 2 people vouch for them.

I’ve just completed a paper that argues that this kind of bank credit is essential to the efficiency of the economy. While it’s true that in the US discrimination has long prevented certain groups from having equal access to financial services — and that the consequences of this discrimination show up in current wealth statistics, it seems to me that one of the disparities that has become more exaggerated across classes over the past few decades is access to lines of credit.

The facts are a harder to establish than they should be, because as far as I can tell the collection of business lending data in the bank call reports has never carefully distinguished between loans secured by collateral other than real estate and loans that are unsecured. (Please let me know if I’m wrong and there is somewhere to find this data.) In the early years of the 20th century, the “commercial and industrial loans” category would I believe have comprised mostly unsecured loans. Today not only has the C&I category shrunk as a fraction of total bank loans, but given current bank practices it seems likely that the fraction of unsecured loans within the category has also shrunk.

This is just a long form way of stating that it appears that the availability of cheap unsecured credit to small and medium sized business has declined significantly from what it was back when early economists were arguing that we could focus on efficiency and not distribution. Today small business credit is far more collateral-dependent than it was in the past — with the exception of course of credit card debt. Charge cards, however, charge more than 19% per annum for a three-month loan which is about a 300% markup on what would have been charged to an unsecured business borrower in the 19th century. To the degree that it is collateralized credit that is easily available today, it will obviously favor the wealthy and aggravate distributional issues.

In my paper the banking system makes it possible for allocative efficiency to be achieved, because everybody has access to credit on the same terms. As I explained in an earlier post, in an economy with monetary frictions there is no good substitute for credit. For this reason it seems obvious that an economy with unequal access to short term bank credit will result in allocations that are bounded away from an efficient allocation. In short, in the models with monetary frictions that I’m used to working with equal access to credit is a prerequisite for efficiency.

If we want to return to a world where economics is win-win, we need a thorough restructuring of the financial sector, so that access to credit is much more equal than it is today.