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
- 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.
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.