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.

Equity financed banking is inefficient

I see that Tyler Cowen and John Cochrane are having an exchange about banking. First, Cowen expresses a nuanced view of banking, then Cochrane takes the opportunity to promote his narrow (aka equity-financed) banking proposal, and Cowen questions how successful equity-financed is likely to be in practice.

With my latest paper, I have something different to contribute to the discussion: a model of how banking — and the leverage of banks — promotes efficiency. From a macro perspective the argument is really very simple: we all know from the intertemporal Euler equation that it is optimal for everyone to short a non-interest bearing safe asset. (The Friedman Rule is just an expression of this fact.) The point of my paper is that we should understand banking as the institutionalization of a naked short of the unit of account.

How is this efficiency-enhancing? A naked short position requires you to sell something that you do not have. It is a means of creating a temporary “phantom” supply of what is sold, until such time as the short position is closed out. The Euler equation tells us that a “phantom” supply that supports short positions is exactly what the economy needs to achieve intertemporal allocative efficiency.

Of course, the problem with a naked short position is that if a short squeeze (aka bank run) forces the closure of the positions too early, bankruptcy will be the result. The paper is a careful study of what is necessary to make this role of the banking system incentive feasible, and finds (alongside many other studies) that competitive banking is inherently unstable. Two means of stabilizing banking in the context of the model are (i) the natural monopoly approach: permit a non-competitive industry structure, but regulate what banks can charge; or (ii) the central bank approach: set a lower bound on the interest rate banks can charge.

So I don’t think that Cowen really captures what banks do when he presents “transforming otherwise somewhat illiquid activities into liquid deposits” as the primary liquidity function of banks. In my model banks promote allocative efficiency by creating “phantom” units of account. But I think Cowen does capture a lot of the regulatory complexity that is created by the liquidity function of banks.

Cochrane is the one, whom I really think is working from the wrong model. I’ll go through his points one by one.

1) We’re awash in government debt.

So what. Unless the government is going to start guaranteeing private sector naked short positions in government debt, it doesn’t matter how government debt we have, because it will do nothing to solve the monetary problem. We need banks because they do make possible for the private sector in aggregate to support a naked short position in the unit of account (that’s what bank deposits are) and this is necessary for intertemporal allocative efficiency.

2) Liquidity no longer requires run-prone assets. Floating value assets are now perfectly liquid

This view fundamentally misunderstands the settlement process in securities transactions. I responded to this view in a previous post and will simply quote it here:

Cochrane, because his theoretic framework is devoid of liquidity frictions, does not understand that the traditional settlement process whether for equity or for credit card purchases necessarily requires someone to hold unsecured short-term debt or in other words runnable securities. This is a simple consequence of the fact that the demand for balances cannot be netted instantaneously so that temporary imbalances must necessarily build up somewhere. The alternative is for each member to carry liquidity balances to meet gross, not net, demands. Thus, when you go to real-time gross settlement (RTGS) you increase the liquidity demands on each member of the system. RTGS in the US only functions because the Fed provides an expansive intraday liquidity line to banks (see Fed Funds p. 18). In short RTGS without abundant unsecured central bank support drains liquidity instead of providing it. (See Kaminska 2016 for liquidity problems related to collateralized central bank support.) In fact, arguably the banking system developed precisely in order to address the problem of providing unsecured credit to support netting as part of the settlement of payments.

Just as RTGS systems can inadvertently create liquidity droughts, so the system Cochrane envisions is more likely to be beset by liquidity problems, than “awash in liquidity” (p. 200) – unless of course the Fed is willing to take on significant intraday credit exposure to everybody participating in the RTGS system. (Here is an example of a liquidity frictions model that tackles these questions, Mills and Nesmith JME 2008). Overall the most important lesson to draw from Cochrane’s proposal is that we desperately need better models of banking and money, so we can do a better job of evaluating what it is that banks do.

3) Leverage of the banking system need not be leverage in the banking system.

Because the purpose of banking is to promote economic efficiency by providing society with “phantom” units of account, we need leverage in the banking system. What Cochrane calls “banking” cannot play the role of banks as I model them.

4) Inadequate funds for investment

My model of banking does not provide funds for investment — as least as a first order effect. My model of banking only provides funds for transactions. On the other hand, as a second order effect by promoting allocative efficiency, it seems likely that banks make investing more profitable than in an environment without banks. So an extension of the model that shows that banking promotes investment should not be difficult.

In short, both Tyler Cowen and John Cochrane are in desperate need of a better model relating the macroeconomy to banking. It’s right here.

 

In Defense of Banking II

Proposals for reform of the monetary system based either on public access to accounts with the central bank or on banking systems that are 100% backed by central bank reserves and government debt have proliferated since the financial crisis. A few have crossed my path in the past few days (e.g. here and here).

I have been making the point in a variety of posts on this blog that these proposals are based on the Monetarist misconception of the nature of money in the modern economy and likely to prove disastrous. While much of my time lately is being spent working up a formal “greek” presentation of these ideas, explaining them in layman’s terms is equally important. Thanks to comments from an attentive reader, here is a more transparent explanation. Let me start by quoting from an earlier post that draw a schematic outline of Goodhart’s “private money” model :

The simplest model of money is a game with three people, each of whom produces something another seeks to consume: person 2 produces for person 1, person 3 produces for person 2, person 1 produces for person 3. Trade takes place over the course of three sequential pairwise matches: (1,2), (2,3), (3,1). Thus, in each match there is never a double coincidence of wants, but always a single coincidence of wants. We abstract from price by assuming that our three market participants can coordinate on an equilibrium price vector (cf. the Walrasian auctioneer). Thus, all these agents need is liquidity.

Let the liquidity be supplied by bank credit lines that are sufficiently large and are both drawn down by our participants on an “as needed” basis, and repaid at the earliest possible moment. Assume that these credit lines – like credit card balances that are promptly repaid – bear no interest. Then we observe, first, that after three periods trade has taken place and every participant’s bank balance is zero; and, second, that if the game is repeated foerever, the aggregate money supply is zero at the end of every three periods.

In this model the money supply expands only to meet the needs the trade, and automatically contracts in every third round because the buyer holds bank liabilities sufficient to meet his demand.

Consider the alternative of using a fiat money “token” to solve the infinitely repeated version of the game. Observe that in order for the allocation to be efficient, if there is only one token to allocate, we must know ex ante who to give that token to. If we give it to person 3, no trade will take place in the first two rounds, and if we give it to person 2 no trade will take place in the first round. While this might seem a minor loss, consider the possibility that people who don’t consume in the first stage of their life may have their productivity impaired for the rest of time. This indicates that the use of fiat money may require particularized knowledge about the nature of the economy that is not necessary if we solve the problem using credit lines.

Why don’t we just allocate one token to everybody so that we can be sure that the right person isn’t cash constrained in early life? This creates another problem. Person 2 and person 3 will both have 2 units of cash whenever they are making their purchases, but in order to reach the equilibrium allocation we need them to choose to spend only one unit of this cash in each period. In short, this solution would require people to hold onto money for eternity without ever intending to spend it. That clearly doesn’t make sense.

This simple discussion explains that there is a fundamental problem with fiat money that ensures that an incentive compatible credit system is never worse and in many environments is strictly better than fiat money. This is one of the most robust results to come out of the formal study of economic environments with liquidity frictions (see e.g. Kocherlakota 1998).

In response to this I received the following question by email:

In your 3 person model, [why not allocate] a token to everybody? – I don’t understand how you reached the conclusion that “this solution would require people to hold onto money for eternity without ever intending to spend it”. If people have more units of cash than they need for consumption, the excess would be saved and potentially lent to others who need credit?

This question arises, because I failed in the excerpt from my post above to explain what the implications of “allocating a token to everybody” are when translated into a real world economy. In order for an efficient outcome to be achieved, you need to make sure that everybody has enough money at the start of the monetary system so that it is not possible that they will ever be cash-constrained at any point in time. In my simple model this just implies that everybody is given one token at the start of time. In the real world this means that every newborn child is endowed at birth with more than enough cash to pay the full cost of U.S. college tuition at an elite institution (for example).

Turning back to the context of the model, if the two people with excess currency save and lend it, we have the problem that the one person who consumes at the given date already has enough money to make her purchases. In short there is three times as much currency in the economy as is needed for purchases. What this implies is that we do not have an equilibrium because the market for debt can’t clear at the prices we have assumed in our model. In short, if we add lending to the model then the equilibrium price will have to rise — with the result that nobody is endowed with enough money to make the purchases they want to make. Whether or not an efficient allocation can be obtained by this means will depend on the details of how the lending process is modeled. (The alternative that I considered was that there was no system of lending, so they had to hold the token. Then when they had an opportunity to buy, choose to spend only one token, even though they were holding two tokens. This is the sense in which the token must be held “for eternity” without being spent.)

Tying this discussion back into the college tuition example. If, in fact, you tried to implement a policy where every child is endowed at birth with enough cash to pay elite U.S. college tuition, what we would expect to happen is that by the time these children were going to college the cost would have increased so that they no longer had enough to pay tuition. But then of course you have failed to implement the policy. In short, it is impossible to “allocate a token to everybody”, because as soon as you do, you affect prices in a way that ensures that the token’s value has fallen below the value that you intended to allocate. There’s no way to square this circle.

Connecting this up with bitcoin or deposit accounts at the central bank: the currently rich have a huge advantage in a transition to such a system, because they get to start out with more bitcoins or larger deposit accounts. By contrast in a credit-based monetary system everybody has the opportunity to borrow against their future income.

The problem with the credit-based monetary system that we have is that guaranteeing the fairness of the mechanisms by which credit is allocated is an extremely important aspect of the efficiency of the system. That is, in a credit-based monetary system fairness-based considerations are not in conflict with efficiency-based considerations, but instead essential in order to make efficiency an achievable goal.

Because of the failure to model our monetary system properly, we have failed to understand the importance of regulation that protects and supports the fair allocation of credit in the system and have failed to maintain the efficiency of the monetary system. In my view appropriate reforms will target the mechanisms by which credit is allocated, because there’s no question that in the current system it is allocated very unfairly.

The problem with proposals to eliminate the debt-based system is that as far as I can tell, doing so is likely to just make the unfairness worse by giving the currently rich a huge advantage that they would not have in a reformed and well-designed credit-based monetary system.

On the Value of an “Aggressive” Academic Culture [Updated]

This morning’s procrastination included a few tweets and blogposts on the “women in economics” debate, and the twist the discussion is taking concerns me. Claudia Sahm writes about ” the toll that our profession’s aggressive, status-obsessed culture can take” and references specific dismissive criticism that is particularly content-free and therefore non-constructive. Matthew Kahn follows up with some ideas about improving mutual respect noting that “researchers are very tough on each other in public seminars (the “Chicago seminar” style).” This is followed up by prominent economists’ tweets about economics’ hyper-aggressiveness and rudeness.

I think it’s important to distinguish between the consequences of “status-obsession,” dismissiveness of women’s work and an “aggressive” seminar-style.

First, a properly run “Chicago-style” seminar requires senior economists who set the right tone. The most harshly criticized economists are senior colleagues and the point is that the resultant debate about the nature of economic knowledge is instructive and constructive for all. Yes, everyone is criticized, but students have been shown many techniques for responding to criticism by the time they are presenting. Crucial is the focus on advancing economic knowledge and an emphasis on argument rather than “status-obsession”.

The simple fact is that “Chicago-style” seminars when they are conducted by “status-obsessed” economists are likely to go catastrophically wrong. One cannot mix a kiss up-kick down culture with a “Chicago-style” seminar. They are like oil and water.

An important point to keep in mind is that a “status-obsessed” academic environment with a more gentle seminar style quickly degenerates into a love-fest for influential academics, whose skills frequently and noticeably degrade. In short, there’s a lot to be said for a tell-it-like-it-is culture, as long as the focus of that culture is on advancing knowledge and not on one-upsmanship.

One of the best descriptions I have heard of the “Chicago-style” seminar is that it’s a contact sport. Getting knocked to the ground is part of the game. You just pick yourself up and pay your opponent back in kind. And then you both head out to the pub afterwards to discuss the game, the sport, and solve the world’s problems.

Will some people be uncomfortable in such an environment? Of course. But some of us are uncomfortable in an environment where aggressively advocating a position is seen as rude or unscholarly. In any environment there will always be some people who are uncomfortable.

Do women tend to feel more uncomfortable than men in such an environment? Maybe. I have my doubts because I’m the kind of woman who’s often asking herself whether I’ve been too assertive, so I feel like I can finally relax when I’m around assertive people. I suspect that it’s patronizing to assume that women are more uncomfortable then men in such an environment — but I may be biased.

In short, “status-obsession” and the acceptability of denigrating behavior towards women and towards junior scholars without adequate patronage may well be a problem for the economics profession, but “Chicago-style” seminars are unlikely to be a major source of the profession’s problems.

Update: I should probably add that I have no direct familiarity at all with “Chicago” seminars, but only with those run by Prescott’s descendants. So maybe what I’m referring to is a “Minnesota-style” seminar. In any event, the rough and tumble of economic discourse seems to me essential to its progress.

 

Reasons to reform macro by rejecting “M” #2: To End the Mission-Creep of Central Banks

New monetarist theory tells us that monetary frictions can only be fully addressed by unsecured private sector debt — and thus can only be solved by designing incentive structures that make unsecured private sector debt enforceable, or in other words by a carefully designed banking system.

Prior to the 1930s, the central bank played two main roles: it supported the private sector money supply through panics and monitored the growth of credit, taking action to prevent credit-boom-driven inflation. (The latter was the real bills approach to bank regulation, which the Fed unfortunately was not well-equipped to address — explained here.)

Monetarism introduced a new era in which it was believed that government “control” of the money supply played an important role in economic activity. The financial system has evolved to match the theory. There has been a steady increase in the role of the central bank over the past few decades, and this evolution culminated in the vast expanse of the central bank role subsequent to the crisis of 2007-08.

With the collapse of interbank lending markets, the growth of central bank reserves, and the shift to secured lending backed by government debt, the role of unsecured private sector debt in the money supply has declined dramatically. In short, the better part of a century after it was first set forth the monetarist agenda of putting in place government control over the money supply and of minimizing the role of the private sector in the money supply is finally being achieved.

And just as new monetarist theory would predict, the decline in the use of unsecured, private sector instruments as money is associated with sluggish economic activity — because “M” is a poor substitute for the money that a well-structured banking system can provide.