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 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 equal than it is today.

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Discount Markets, Liquidity, and Structural Reform

Bengt Holmstrom has a paper explaining the “diametrically opposite” foundations of money markets and capital markets.* This dichotomy is also a foundation of traditional banking theory, and of the traditional functional separation that was maintained in the U.S. and Britain between money and capital markets.

Holmstrom explains that “the purpose of money markets is to provide liquidity,” whereas price discovery is an important function of capital markets. In a paper I extend this view a step further: money markets don’t just provide liquidity but a special form of price stable liquidity that is founded on trade in safe short-term assets; by contrast capital markets provide market liquidity which promotes price discovery, not price stability.

A century ago in Britain privately issued money market assets were, like capital market assets, actively traded on secondary markets. The two types of assets traded, however, on completely different markets with completely different structures that reflected the fact that money market assets needed to be “safe.”

To understand why the markets had different structures consider this question: how does one ensure that the safety of the money market is not undermined by asymmetric information or more specifically by the possibility that when the owners of money market assets have information that the assets are likely to default they do not use the market to offload the assets, adversely affecting the safety of the market itself, and therefore its efficacy as a source of price stable liquidity? The answer is to structure the market as a discount market.

In a discount market, every seller offers a guarantee that the asset sold will pay in full. (You do this yourself when you endorse a check, signing its value over to a bank — while at the same time indemnifying the bank against the possibility that the check is returned unpaid.) This structure was one of the foundations upon which the safety of the London money market was built. The structure ensures that the owner of a dubious asset has no incentive to attempt to sell it, and in fact is very unlikely to sell it in order to hide from the public the fact that it is exposed to such assets.

From their earliest days it was well-understood that discount markets were designed to align the incentives of banks originating money market assets and to promote the safety of the assets on the money market. (See van der Wee in Cambridge Economic History of Europe 1977.) Any bank that originates or owns a money market asset can never eliminate its exposure to that asset until it is paid in full. For this reason a discount market is specifically designed to address problems of liquidity only. That is, a bank that is illiquid can get relief by selling its money market assets, but if it has originated so many bad assets that it is insolvent, the money market will do nothing to help.

Contrast the structure of a discount market with that of an open market. On an open market, the seller is able to eliminate its exposure to the risks of the asset. This has the effect of attracting sellers (and buyers) with asymmetric information and as a result both increasing the riskiness of the market and creating the incentives that make the prices of the risky assets that trade on open market informative. Thus, it is because price discovery is important to capital markets, that they are structured as open markets. Capital markets can only offer market liquidity — or liquidity with price discovery — rather than the price stable liquidity of the money market. On the other hand, an entity with asymmetric information about the assets that it holds can use the open market structure of capital markets to improve its solvency as well as its liquidity position.

Historically it appears that in order for a money market to have active secondary markets, it must be structured as a discount market. (Does anyone have counterexamples?) That is, it appears that when the only option for secondary trading of money market instruments is an open market, then secondary markets in such instruments will be moribund. This implies not only that the absence of incentives to exploit asymmetric information plays an important role in the liquidity available on money markets (cf. Holmstrom) — but also that price stable liquidity is an important benefit of the discount market structure.

Both discount markets and open markets can be adversely affected by extraordinary liquidity events. But only one of the two markets is premised on safe assets and price stable liquidity. Thus, the lender of last resort role of the central bank developed in Britain to support the money (discount) market only. (In fact, I would argue that the recognized need for a provider of liquidity support to the discount market explains why the Bank of England was structured as it was when it was founded, but that goes beyond the scope of this post. See Bowen, Bank of England during the Long 18th c.) One consequence of the fact that the central bank supported only assets that traded on a discount market is that it was able to support the liquidity of the banks, without also supporting their solvency.

Given the common claim that one hears today that it is unreasonable to ask a central bank to distinguish illiquidity from insolvency in a crisis, perhaps it is time to revisit the discount market as a useful market structure, since acting through such a market makes it easier for a central bank to provide liquidity support without providing solvency support.

 

*His focus is actually money markets and stock markets, but in my view he draws a distinction between debt and equity that is far less clear in practice than in theory. In a modern financial system unsecured long-term bonds are not meaningful claims on the assets of a firm, because as the firm approaches bankruptcy it is likely to take on more and more secured debt leaving a remnant of assets that is literally unknowable at the time that one buys an unsecured long-term bond.

What Gorton and Holmstrom get right and get wrong

Mark Thoma directs us to David Warsh on Gorton and Holmstrom’s view of the role of banking. I’ve written about this view in several places. My own view of banking is very different and here is a quick summary of my key points.

The source of Gorton and Holmstrom’s errors: Taking U.S. banking history as a model

In my view Gorton and Holmstrom err by basing their view of what banking is on the pre-Fed U.S banking system. Nobody argues that the U.S. represented a “state-of-the-art” banking system in the late 19th century. In fact, in the late 19th century the U.S. banking system was still recovering from the reputational consequences of the combination of state and bank defaults in the 1840s that had led many Europeans to conclude that American institutions facilitated fraud. By the end of the 19th century, however, the U.S. did have access to European markets and there is evidence that the U.S. banking system relied heavily on the much more advanced European banking system for liquidity (e.g. the flow of European capital during seasonal fluctuations). Indeed, the crisis of 1907, during which the none-too-respected U.S. banking system was at least partially cut off from the London money market, was so severe, it led to the decision to emulate European banking by establishing the Federal Reserve.

What Gorton and Holmstrom get right: the fundamental difference between money market and capital market liabilities, or as Warsh puts it: “Two fundamentally different financial systems [are] at work in the world”

In particular, it is essential for the debt that circulates on the money market to be price stable or “safe.” This distinguishes money markets are from capital markets, where price discovery is essential. Holmstrom writes:

Among economists, the mistake is to apply to money markets the lessons and logic of stock markets. … Stock markets are … aimed at sharing and allocating aggregate risk … [and this] requires a market that is good at price discovery. … [By contrast,] The purpose of money markets is to provide liquidity for individuals and firms. The cheapest way to do so is by … obviat[ing] the need for price discovery.

What Gorton and Holmstrom get wrong:

1.  The historical mechanisms by which the banking system created “safe” money market assets.

Holmstrom writes: “Opacity is a natural feature of money markets and can in some instances enhance liquidity.” This is the basic thesis of Gorton and Holmstrom’s work.

A study of the early 20th century London money market indicates, however that the best way to create safe money market assets is to (i) offset the implications of “opacity” by aligning incentives: any bank originating or selling a money market asset is liable for its full value, and (ii) establish a central bank that (a) has the capacity to expand liquidity and thereby prevent a crisis of confidence from causing a shift to a “bad” equilibrium, and (b) controls the assets that are traded on the money market by (1) establishing a policy of providing central bank liquidity only against assets guaranteed by at least two banks, and (2) withdrawing support from assets guaranteed by low-quality originators. (ii)(b) plays a crucial role in making the money market safe: no bank can discount its own paper at the central bank, so it has to hold the paper of other banks; at the same time, no bank wants to hold paper that the central bank will reject. Thus, the London money market was designed to ensure that the banks police each other — and there is no American-style problem of competition causing the origination practices of banks to deteriorate.

The Gorton-Holmstrom approach is based on the historical U.S. banking system and sometimes assumes that deterioration of origination quality is inevitable — it is this deterioration that is “fixed” by financial crises, which have the effect of publicizing information and thereby resetting the financial system. In short, by showing us how a banking system can function in the presence of both opacity and misaligned incentives, Gorton and Holmstrom show us how a low-quality banking system, like that in the late 19th century U.S. which could only create opaque (not safe) assets, can be better than no banking system.

Surely, however, what we want to understand is how to have a high-quality banking system. The kind of system represented by the London market is ruled out by assumption in the Gorton-Holmstrom framework which focuses on collateralized rather than unsecured debt. An alternative model for high-quality banking may be given by the 1930s reforms in the U.S. which improved the origination practices of U.S. banks and — temporarily at least — stopped the continuous lurching of the U.S. banking system from one crisis to another that is implied by opaque (rather than safe) money market assets.

2. Gorton and Holmstrom err by focusing on collateral rather than on overlapping guarantees.

Holmstrom writes: “Trading in debt that is sufficiently over-collateralised is a cheap way to avoid
adverse selection.” His error, however is to use both language and a model that emphasize collateral in the literal sense. The best form of “over-collateralization” for a $10,000 privately-issued bill is to add to the borrower’s liability the personal guarantee of Jamie Dimon — or even better both Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffett. This is the principle on which the London money market was built (and because both extended liability for bank shares and management ownership of shares was the norm until the 1950s in Britain, personal liability played a non-negligible role in the way the banking system worked). This is rather obviously an excellent mechanism for ensuring that money market debt is “safe.”

The fact that it may seem outlandish in 21st century America to require that a bank manager have some of his/her personal wealth at stake whenever a money market asset is originated, is really just evidence of the degree to which origination practices have deteriorated in the U.S.

Note also that there is no reason to believe that the high-quality money market I am describing will result in restricted credit. Nothing prevents banks from making the same loans they do now; the only issue is whether the loans are suitable for trade on the money market. Given that our current money market is very heavily reliant on government (including agency) assets and that these would continue to be suitable money market assets, there is little reason to believe that the high-quality money market I am describing will offer less liquidity that our current money market. On the other hand, it will offer less liquidity than, say, the 2006 money market — but I would argue that this characteristic is a plus, not a minus.

3. Holmstrom errs by focusing on debt vs. equity, rather than money markets vs. capital markets

Holmstrom claims that: “Equity is information-sensitive while debt is not.” He clearly was not holding GM bonds in the first decade of the current century. A more sensible statement (which is also consistent with the general theme of his essay) is that capital market assets including both equity and long-term debt are information sensitive, whereas it is desirable for money market assets not to be informationally sensitive.

Conclusion

In short, I argue that in a well-structured banking system money market assets are informationally insensitive because they are safe. For institutionally-challenged countries, a second-best banking system may well be that presented by Gorton and Holmstrom, where money markets assets are “safe” — at least temporarily — because they are informationally insensitive.

In my view, however, we should establish that a first-best banking system is unattainable, before settling on the second-best solution proposed by Gorton and Holmstrom.

Liquidity provision and total informational “efficiency” are incompatible goals

Matt Levine writes:

Prices very quickly reflect information, specifically the information that there are big informed buyers in the market.

That’s good! That’s good. It’s good for markets to be efficient. It’s good for prices to reflect information.

Let’s take this argument to the limit. Every order contains some small amount of information. Therefore every order should move the market (as they do in building block models of market microstructure)– and of course big orders should move the market even more than small orders. Matt Levine is claiming that this is the definition of efficiency.

But wait: What is the purpose of markets? Do we want them to be informationally efficient about the fundamental value of the assets, or do we want them to be informationally efficient about who needs/wants to buy and sell in the market? These are conflicting goals. When a hedge fund is forced to liquidate by margin calls, those sales contain no information about the fundamental value of the asset. Should prices reflect the market phenomena or should they reflect fundamental value? According to Matt Levine they should reflect the market not the fundamentals.

Matt Levine supports his view by referencing an academic paper that assumes on p. 3 that all orders contain some information about fundamental value — and thus assumes away the problem that some market information has nothing to do with fundamental value. With only a few exceptions the theory supporting the view that trade makes markets informationally efficient in the academic literature assumes (i) that  informed traders trade on the basis of fundamental information about the value of the asset and (ii) that the informed traders have no opportunity to use their information strategically by delaying its deployment. Almost nobody models the issue of intermediaries trading on the basis of market information.  And the whole literature by definition has nothing to say about efficiency in the sense of welfare (i.e. the Pareto criterion) because it assumes that liquidity traders are made strictly worse off by participating in markets.

It has long been recognized that liquidity is one of, if not, the most important service provided by secondary markets. Liquidity is the ability to buy or sell an asset in sizable amounts with little or no effect on the price.

Matt Levine’s version of informational efficiency presumes that there is no value to liquidity in markets. Every single order should move the market because there is some probability that it contains information.

I thought the reason that financial markets attract vast amounts of money from the uninformed was because they were carefully structured to provide liquidity and to ensure that the uninformed could get a fair price. Now it’s true that U.S. markets were never designed to be fair — and were undoubtedly described in extremely deprecating terms by London brokers and dealers for decades — at least prior to 1986. But there’s a big difference between arguing that markets don’t provide liquidity as well as they should, and arguing, as Matt Levine does, that the provision of liquidity should be sacrificed at the altar of some poorly defined concept of informational efficiency.

If Matt Levine is expressing the views of a large chunk of the financial world, then I guess we were all wrong about the purpose of financial markets: as far as the intermediaries are concerned the purpose of financial markets is to improve the welfare of the intermediaries because they’re the ones with access to information about the market.  Good luck with that over the long run.

Time priority is the key to fair trading

A true national market system would have the following property. There are clearly defined points of entry to the system: that is, when an order is placed on specific exchanges, ECNs or ATSs, they will count as part of the system. These orders are time-stamped by a perfectly synchronized process. In other words, it doesn’t matter where your point of entry is, the time-stamp on your order will put it in the correct order relative to every other part of the system.

Order matching engines are, then, required to take the time to check that time-priority is respected across the national market system as a whole.

This structure would eliminate many of the nefarious aspects of speedy trading, while at the same time allowing high-speed traders to provide liquidity within the constraints of a strictly time priority system. Speedy orders couldn’t step in front of existing orders, because time-priority would be violated. Cancellations couldn’t be executed until after the matching engine had swept the market to look for an order preceding the cancellation that required a fill. In short, speedy traders would be forced to take the actual risk of market making, by always being at risk of having their limit orders matched before they can be cancelled.

Overall, it seems to me that the error the SEC made was in creating a so-called “national market system” without a time-priority rule.

Note: this post was probably influenced by @rajivatbarnard ‘s tweets about this same topic today.

Update: Clark Gaebel explains very clearly that we don’t have anything remotely resembling a “national market system.” We have a plethora of independent trading venues and your trade execution is highly dependent on your routing decisions.

Does the 2007-2008 crisis show that the universal banking experiment has failed?

The Anglo-American universal banking experiment started in 1986 with Britain’s Big Bang which was quickly followed by regulatory policies in the US that would lead to the formal repeal of Glass Steagall a decade or so later. The question that needs to be asked is whether the 2007-2008 crisis is evidence of the failure of this quarter-century of experimenting with universal banking.

In Germany universal banking has been successful over the long-run, but Germany has a civil, not a common law legal system and a social structure that ensures that companies are managed in the interests of many participants in addition to those of shareholders/management. When universal banking is combined with Anglo-American law and social norms, it is possible that it generates pathological behavior that is not evidenced by the German economy.

A standard objection to the claim that universal banking is the underlying source of the crisis is that the only banks that were allowed to fail were not universal banks, but investment banks. This objection ignores that the whole investment banking industry had been reshaped over the decades preceding the crisis by the need to compete with the universal banks, so the fact that it was the investment banks that failed tells us nothing. Furthermore there is significant evidence that one or two of the universal banks did not fail only because the government considered them too big to fail.

John Quiggin recently argued that Wall Street isn’t worth it and that we should put an end to the universal banking experiment:

The only remaining option is to separate these markets entirely from the socially useful parts of the financial system, then let them fail. Publicly guaranteed banks should be banned from engaging in all but the most basic financial transactions, such as issuing loans and bonds and accepting deposits. In particular, banks should be prohibited from doing any business with institutions engaged in speculative finance such as trade in derivatives. Such institutions should be required to raise all their funds directly from investors, on a “buyer beware” basis, and should never be bailed out, directly or indirectly, when they get into trouble.

Matthew Yglesias critiques this view arguing that “it’s a very hard concept to operationalize.” And then limits his focus to derivatives regulation. He writes:

But while it’s easy to say “we should allow derivatives trading for the purpose of hedging but not for the purpose of speculating” (certainly that’s what I think), it’s a lot harder to write precise legislative and regulatory language that accomplishes that goal. If you look at something like the Harvard interest-rate-swap fiasco, it’s difficult to say precisely where this crossed the line from a reasonable hedge to just gambling with endowment money.

Yglesias’ critique, however, misses Quiggen’s point: commercial banks shouldn’t be engaged in market making or in trading on financial markets at all. The difficulty of implementing the Volcker rule is that it’s trying to draw a line between trading that’s okay (e.g. market making) and trading that’s not okay (proprietary trading). Quiggen is stating that commercial banks should not be engaged in either of these activities. This is a much easier policy to implement (see Glass-Steagall).

This may leave open some room to allow commercial banks to be end-users of financial contracts like interest rate swaps for hedging purposes, but drawing this distinction is much less difficult than Yglesias implies. The distinction between the use of derivatives for hedging or for speculating is precisely the same distinction that is drawn in insurance markets between an insurable interest and the absence of one. Given that we know that drawing the distinction is not an insuperable problem in insurance markets, it’s far from clear why the problem suddenly becomes insuperable when the label “derivative” is placed on the financial contract.

[In addition the whole point of Felix Salmon’s post on the Harvard IRS fiasco is that it was clearly gambling at the time the swaps were entered into. Salmon states with barely veiled sarcasm “Larry was certain of two things: firstly that his beloved Allston project was a go — despite the fact that he hadn’t raised the funds for it, and secondly that interest rates would rise by the time construction started. Therefore, he decided to lock in funding costs by using forward swaps.” In short Salmon is stating that the contracts represents two gambles, first, on the future need for the funds, and, second, on the future path of interests rates. While ex post we know that in 2008 Harvard would have been better off holding on to its side of the bet rather than buying itself out of the contracts, the post is crystal clear about the fact that these swaps were never a “reasonable hedge.”]

While we can certainly debate whether or not the 2007-2008 crisis demonstrates that the Anglo-American experiment with universal banking has failed, arguments that it’s just too hard to reverse the experiment only play into the interests of the universal banks and probably should not be given much weight. If policies that were implemented at the tail end of the last century completely destabilized our financial system, it is clearly worth the effort to find a way to reverse those policies.

The Problem with “Rational Expectations” is that it’s Usually Irrational

The internet is still abuzz with the distinction between Fama and Shiller.  E.g. from Mark Thoma:

Fama is a staunch defender of efficient markets and rationality, while Shiller argues, “The theory makes little sense, except in fairly trivial ways.” Shiller emphasizes “the enormous role played in markets by human error, as documented in a now-established literature called behavioral finance.”

These discussions, however, failure to state the basic problem with models that assume rational expectations: theorists long ago demonstrated that only in aberrant circumstances (i.e. when market participants are small relative to the market) is rational expectations rational. John Geanokoplos entry in the New Palgrave on Arrow Debreu Equilibrium makes this clear:

[The definition of a rational expectations equilibrium] is itself suspect; in particular, it may not be implementable. Even if rational expectations equilibrium were accepted as a viable notion of equilibrium, it could not come to grips with the most fundamental problems of asymmetric information. For like Arrow-Debreu equilibrium, in [rational expectations equilibrium] all trade is conducted anonymously through the market at given prices. Implicit in this definition is the assumption of large numbers of traders on both sides of every market

The short version of this quote is this: Rational expectations is not incentive compatible with the behavior of self-interested individuals in the typical market where at least one side of the market is likely to have either a small number of traders or a few traders who are large relative to the size of the market. When rational traders should take the effects of their actions on the price itself into account when making their decisions, the rational expectations approach will fail to be rational.

Thoma concludes:

Rational expectations are important for two reasons. First, they serve as a “perfect case” benchmark. In order to understand departures from rationality such as those embraced by Shiller, we need to know how the economy will function if agents fully understand everything about the economy, and can process the information optimally.

Assuming rational expectations is like assuming a perfect vacuum in physics – it provides a baseline that can be augmented with real-world features. Second, there are cases – simple games and financial markets for example – where the assumption of rational expectations may be approximately satisfied. But it’s a mistake, I think, to assume that rational expectations apply in all other settings or to the economy as a whole.

I agree with Thoma’s first point. As a benchmark rational expectations is invaluable. It’s so difficult to discuss what’s going on in the economy that idealized models are very useful reference points.

I disagree with Thoma’s second point. Why on earth would financial markets, where there are almost always market participants who are large either in terms of their inventories or in terms of the information they have about the market, be composed of people who don’t take into account the effects of their actions on prices. In fact, is there anyone who actually thinks that the large banks that dominate our financial market trade as “price-takers”? As long as rational behavior on a market includes significant effort to affect the movement of the price, then deviations from the rational expectations model will be as important to understanding the behavior of prices on these market as the benchmark model itself.

To avoid the possibility that the foregoing discussion generates confusion, Fama deserves his Nobel.  But as this year’s award clearly shows he doesn’t deserve it because he got the theory of financial markets right. Nobody can do that.  He deserves it because the efficient markets hypothesis is an extremely important benchmark and he showed us its importance.

Note: Toned down the text a little.