The dismantling of the economy’s legal infrastructure IV: the 1930s restructuring of the banking system [Updated]

1930s banking reform was predicated on the assumption that because commercial banks issue monetary liabilities, it is essential to control the flow of credit – financed by the expansion of the money supply – from banks. In the absence of such control the economy is prone to destabilizing asset price bubbles, because in Anglo-American financial systems there are robust capital markets, and feedback loops can develop between the expansion of the money supply by the banking system and securities prices or real property prices. Given the demonstrated inability in the 1930s of the recently-created Federal Reserve to impose such control through regulation, Congress took a statutory approach and created a compartmentalized financial system. Legislative history makes it clear that preventing the instability associated with asset price bubbles was a motivating force behind the legislation (Senate Report 1933; Sissoko 2018). [Update 2-6- 2019: The link to the Senate Report has been added at the bottom of the post.]

Thus, in the financial reform of the 1930s investment banking was separated from commercial banking and the existing distinction between mortgage lending institutions and commercial banks was preserved. This compartmentalized structure lasted for less than 40 years, as the inflation of the 1970s led to innovations and policy decisions that created deep fissures in the structure of the segmented system. By the 1980s reform was necessary. Both the policy decisions of the 1970s and the reforms of the 1980s were based on a completely different model of the financial system than that on which the 1930s structure had been built.

The discussion of this history will be separated into two parts: (i) the financial reform of the 1930s and the evolution of the segmented financial system through the 1960s, and (ii) the dissolution of that system. This blogpost addresses the early history.

Mortgage lending in the 1920s

In the years preceding the Depression mortgage lending was provided by a wide range of institutions including savings and loan associations, savings banks, mortgage companies,[1] commercial banks and insurance companies. Only the savings and loan associations offered longer-term amortizing loans of up to 12 years. More typical loans were for five years or less and required only interest payments until maturity when a balloon payment of the whole principal was due.[2]

This market structure reflected basic principles of asset-liability matching as they were applied to financial institutions at the time. In order to limit the likelihood of a liquidity crisis, commercial bank loans that were funded by demand deposits were generally short-term and/or callable. Longer term loans, such as mortgages, were funded by savings deposits which often required that notice be given before withdrawal. Thus, commercial banks were actively engaged in mortgage lending, but only with a small portion of their funding, since most of their funding was demand deposits. Even so, commercial banks were prohibited by statute from lending on mortgages of more than 5 years (Eccles 1937: 164). Thus, it was the savings banks and savings and loan associations that put most of their funds into mortgage lending.

The term savings and loan association reflects the concept underlying this cooperative means of mortgage finance. A member in the association was expected to keep his or her savings with it, earning a good rate of return, and in exchange the member was eligible for a loan. Thus, these cooperatives did not intermediate between a group that saved money and a distinct group that borrowed money. Instead, these mutual associations were created because those who were saving money would also need to borrow money to purchase property. Members had an interest in establishing a savings account in order to meet the eligibility requirements of the savings and loan association for a loan, and would often continue placing their savings with the association even after they had paid their loan since a competitive rate of interest was earned while at the same time they were supporting other members of the community.

The 12-year amortized loan[3] was the means by which the savings and loans made it possible for the middle class to afford a home, while at the same time managing the risks of funding these purchases with savings accounts (Weiss 1989: 109). A $5000 home loan at 6% per annum amortized over 12 years results in a monthly payment just under $50 or about the weekly wage of a skilled urban worker. (At 9% interest the payment would be $57 per month.) At the same time even in the first year of a 12 year loan 6% of the principal is repaid, and on average across an evenly spaced portfolio of loans over 8% of principal is paid every year. In short, this was the type of loan that was both a little hard for a savings bank to manage and little bit of a stretch for a lower-middle class consumer at the time. By contrast, 30 year fixed rate loans strongly favor the consumer, and are very difficult for a depository institution to manage: A $5000 home loan at 6% amortized over 30 years results in a monthly payment of $30, just over 1% of principal is repaid in the first year and on average these loans repay 3% of principal every year.

In short, the reason that 30 year mortgages were not offered in the years preceding the Depression is because the savings banks funding mortgages could not possibly hope to manage the risks of lending over that time horizon. With 12 year loans 58% of their funds were committed for more than 5 years. With a portfolio of 30 year loans 83% of their funds would be committed for more than 5 years. Given that their liabilities were all short-term and a lot can change over the course of just 5 years, the 12 year amortized mortgage was considered to be the limit of risk that it was appropriate for a savings institution to take – for good reason.

On the other hand, this loan structure – and particularly the fact that many mortgages were insurance company, commercial bank, or personal loans that were only for about 5 years and were not amortizing – meant that a severe recession could cause defaults, foreclosures and declining housing prices. As a result, real estate crises in which many lenders failed were regular events: the late 1890s and mid-1920s are examples. Thus, the housing troubles of the 1930s differed mostly in terms of their severity and the nationwide reach of the crisis. During the Depression housing became a national problem, and it was addressed at the Federal level. Indeed, alongside employment and social security, preserving homes was one of the three goals President Roosevelt announced in his 1935 State of the Union speech.

Mortgage lending: the reforms of the 1930s and their consequences

The Federal Home Loan Bank System was established in 1932 under President Hoover (Pub. L. 72-304). It was modelled on the Federal Reserve System with 12 regional banks and a governing board, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, in Washington, D.C. It was designed as a mutual association of savings institutions (also known as thrifts), all of which jointly guarantee Federal Home Loan Bank debt issues. These debt issues are used to fund purchases of mortgages originated by member institutions. Thus, the system was designed to serve as a source of liquidity for thrifts, which in 1932 financed over 46% of all residential mortgages.[4]

Unfortunately, the Federal Home Loan Bank Act was a matter of too little, too late and did little to mitigate the housing crisis. Furthermore, like banks, many thrifts failed in 1932 and 1933. Unlike banks, thrifts were not covered by FDIC insurance when it was created in the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, and as a result over the course of subsequent months savings migrated from thrifts to banks. By 1934 the thrifts’ share in the mortgage market had dropped to 37% (Lea 1996), a dramatic 20% decline over the course of two years.

In 1934 the National Housing Act (Pub. L. 73-479) was designed to stimulate the building trades and promote employment in them by creating both the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) to support the thrifts, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to support other mortgage lenders (Cong. Rec. 1934: 11189).[5] The FSLIC was designed to stabilize the thrift institutions, just as the creation of the FDIC had stabilized the banking system a year earlier. The thrifts’ share of the mortgage market would slowly recover reaching 40% in 1952 and would peak at about 55% in the mid-1960s (PC on Housing, 1982; Lea 1996).

The FHA facilitated non-thrift mortgage lending by creating a consumer-friendly long-term amortized mortgage product that commercial banks and insurance companies could invest in. The FHA addressed the fact that these mortgages were not viewed as appropriate investments for banks and insurance companies by providing government insurance to long-term fixed-rate amortizing mortgages that met specified underwriting criteria. The insurance premium of one-half a percent on the principal value of the loan was paid by the borrower on top of an interest rate with a statutory maximum of 6%.[6] At the same time the new law permitted national banks to hold FHA-insured loans despite the general statutory prohibition on loans in excess of 5 years or in excess of 50% of the property value. (State legislatures promptly passed similar enabling legislation for state-chartered banks, Eccles 1937.) Thus, the FHA program served the needs of insurance companies and commercial banks, and their share of mortgages outstanding grew from 10% each in 1932 to about 20% each in 1952 (Lea 1996).

Mortgages outstanding by holder

By slowly increasing the participation of commercial banks and insurance companies in the mortgage market and by promoting consumer-friendly mortgages, the FHA almost certainly played a positive role in the recovery from the Depression and from World War II. This, however, came at a cost as the FHA played a dramatic role in shaping not just the structure of US mortgage markets, but also patterns of housing construction and of home-ownership in the US with vast and long-lasting unintended consequences.

America’s urban fabric places great emphasis on suburban living and on cars as means of transportation. Troubled inner-cities surrounded by well-to-do suburbs did not develop by accident, but in no small part because the FHA in its effort to promote the construction industry favored large, new buildings over the existing housing stock and more modest sized homes. Urban construction frequently did not qualify for insurance. The very structure of the typical American subdivision is a product of FHA handbooks, including the preference for strip malls over ubiquitous corner shops (Hanchett 2000; Zuegel 2018).[7]

The FHA also played a huge role in institutionalizing redlining – or racially discriminatory practices – throughout the country and demanded racial and class-based segregation of subdivisions (Hanchett 2000; Brooks & Rose, 2013). And one should remember as one discusses the extraordinary advantages of federal support for housing finance that the groups that were deliberately excluded from these advantages are much less wealthy today than they would have been if the same advantages had been extended fairly to all citizens (Baradaran 2017).

But our focus here is on how the FHA transformed mortgage markets. The FHA played a huge role both in the standardization of mortgages and in the reduction of the costs paid by the homeowner: the 30-year fixed rate mortgage with a maximum 90% loan to value became the norm, as did relatively low interest rates. Prior to the FHA the typical first mortgage was for up to 60% of the home’s value at a rate between 6 and 10% (depending on location) and most borrowers also carried additional mortgages at higher rates (Eccles 1937; FHLB Review 1934: 18). Although the thrifts did much less FHA insured lending, they too extended the terms of their loans and increased the amount they were willing to lend against the value of the home.

The National Housing Act (specifically Title III of the Act) had envisioned that liquidity would be provided to the non-thrift mortgage market through the creation of federally chartered, but privately owned, national mortgage associations that would stand ready to buy FHA insured loans. In fact, not one such association was formed – possibly because the thrifts had successfully lobbied against giving the national mortgage association’s debt the same tax exemption as the Federal Home Loan Banks’ debt (Cong. Rec. 1934: 11181, 11208, 12566). To address this situation in 1938 the government-owned Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) was created. In 1948 (Pub. L. 80-864) Fannie Mae was made a federally chartered institution and authorized to purchase in addition to FHA loans the Veteran Administration-insured loans that had been created by the post-War GI Bill (Pub. L. 78-346).

As the economy recovered and Fannie Mae’s role in the mortgage market increased, concerns were raised over an excessive government role in the mortgage market. Transition to private ownership on the model of the Federal Home Loan Banks – that is lenders who sold loans to Fannie Mae had to also hold Fannie Mae stock – was initiated in 1954 (Pub. L. 83-560). In 1964 Fannie Mae was authorized to bundle FHA and VA mortgages together and to sell interests in the bundles. That is, Fannie Mae was authorized to securitize FHA and VA mortgages. At the same time national banks, thrifts, and FHLBs were authorized to invest in these securitizations (Pub. L. 88-560). In 1968, however, Fannie Mae was separated into two entities (Pub. L. 90-448): Ginnie Mae (the Government National Mortgage Association) remained a government-owned entity that packaged together FHA and VA loans and sold the securitizations to private investors; Fannie Mae was transformed into a government-sponsored private corporation that was required to allocate a reasonable portion of its business to mortgages on low- and moderate-income housing and was authorized to securitize mortgages, subject to government supervision.[8]

Observe that, because the thrifts had never relied heavily on Fannie Mae’s facilities, it was a commercial bank and insurance company-owned entity. The thrift industry immediately recognized that if Fannie Mae was authorized to securitize privately-originated mortgages, this could leave the thrifts at a disadvantage, so they lobbied for a similar facility.[9] Thus, in 1970 the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) was created, as an entity owned by the FHL banks and run by the FHLB Board with authority to purchase conventional mortgages (with a limit on the amount and on the loan-to-value of each loan) and securitize them (Pub. L. 91-351). This same law explicitly authorized Fannie Mae to purchase conventional mortgages on the same terms. This had the effect of establishing both a statutory standard targeting low- and moderate-income housing and a statutory prudential limit on the riskiness of the mortgages.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider the structure of US mortgage markets in the post-War years. It was divided into two segments: the non-thrift financial institutions supported by Fannie Mae and the thrifts supported by the FHLB system, FSLIC deposit insurance, and later Freddie Mac. Up to 1968, the non-thrift financial institutions mostly originated FHA and VA insured loans that could be sold to Fannie Mae, and conventional loans (that is, those that were not government insured) were mostly originated by the thrifts. This structure had worked for most of the 1950s and 1960s, because the growth of lending by the thrifts had met the needs of the public and made government-insured loans a decreasing percentage of the mortgage market.

The problematic nature of private institutions funding 30 year loans with short-term deposits was in evidence by 1965 when the Federal Funds rate rose over 4%. Competition between thrifts led them to increase their savings account rates, which raised safety and soundness concerns at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (Hester 1969). In 1966 Regulation Q, which had long governed the maximum interest rate paid on commercial bank savings deposits, was extended to the savings accounts held at thrifts and authority was given to the FHLB Board to set the maximum rate. The long-term effect of Regulation Q was, however, that as interest rates rose, the thrifts had fewer deposits with which to finance their activities, and through the early 1970s the diminished lending capacity of the Savings and Loans was a growing problem for the mortgage market.

Investment banking: the reforms of the 1930s

As was noted above, 1930s financial sector regulation was constructed on the premise that commercial banks are special because their primary liabilities and thus their primary sources of funding circulate as money. Commercial banks, like the savings and loan associations, had developed because the same businessmen who often had positive cashflow – and thus money to put in the bank – also were very aware that sometimes they had negative cashflow and that short-term loans could be very valuable under these circumstances. These businessmen kept their money with their local bank, not because the were “savers,” but because by doing so they could also rely on the bank to advance them money when they needed a short-term loan. The commercial bank was thus a coordination device that converted the local money supply into a source of short-term funding for local businesses. That a bank-based money supply expands the working capital available to the business community was a fundamental precept of  monetary theory at the time.[10]

In short, in the 1930s money was understood to be a network phenomenon that – to a limited extent – the banks could expand at will without affecting prices. Of course, if the money supply expanded beyond a certain threshold, it could cause either localized inflation, for example when a particular type of long-term asset was being financed by the issue of bank money, or general inflation when an excessive monetary expansion was not so targeted. In short, in the 1930s monetary expansion was understood to be the cheapest way to fund productive activity both for the banks and for the economy as a whole as long as the coordination problem of not issuing too much money and thereby setting off inflation and instability could be addressed (Schumpeter 1939). For 1930s regulators the challenge of financial regulation was to harness the extraordinary power of monetary finance and at the same time control it.

The 1929 stock market crash had been fed by commercial banks offering accounts that invested in stock market margin loans paying as much as 10% per annum – for an overnight, overcollateralized loan – despite the jawboning of the Federal Reserve and influential Congressmen (Senate 1933). In short, the stock market crash had made it clear that the Federal Reserve did not have adequate control over the commercial banking system and the use of funds created by expansion of the money supply (Sissoko 2018). 1930s policymakers decided to turn the monetary system into one that was susceptible of control.

Because of the ease with which the commercial banks can expand the money supply and because of the tendency for bank finance of long-term assets to result in asset price bubbles as had occurred in 1929, the most important aspect of this control was the structural separation of the commercial banks from the investment banks. The Senate Report on the Glass Steagall Act clearly identifies the asset price bubble in the stock market as a consequence of a feedback mechanism generated by bank finance of margin loans (Senate 1933; Sissoko 2018. See also Adrian & Shin 2010). Thus, when the Senate Report summarizes the ills that the Glass-Steagall is designed to address, the first point is “bank loans and their uses” and the Report goes into some detail into how the legislation is designed to control and restrain the use of bank loans. In short, the legislative history is crystal clear: the Glass Steagall Act was passed for the purpose of controlling the flow of bank money. (Note that real estate finance was already for the most part a structurally separate activity and thus was not directly addressed in the bills reforming the commercial banking system.)

While it is generally understood that the Glass Steagall Act separated commercial banks from investment banks (or broker-dealers), the full impact of the Act on the banking system is underestimated. The Glass Steagall Act was designed to protect deposit-taking institutions by (i) preventing them not just from acting as broker-dealers, but also from intermediating security-backed loans to broker-dealers; (ii) empowering the Federal Reserve (a) to regulate the quantity of security-backed loans held by banks as well as interest rates paid by them on deposits, and (b) to replace bank officers and directors who fail to comply with banking laws or to respond to safety and soundness warnings; (iii) prohibiting a bank from lending to its own executive officers, and limiting loans to affiliates and investments in bank premises; (iv) setting capital requirements for all Federal Reserve member banks; (v) creating the FDIC to provide federal deposit insurance to commercial banks; and finally (vi) prohibiting broker-dealers from receiving deposits and requiring state or federal examination and supervision over any deposit-taking institution. For national banks the Act also imposed limits on the interest rate that could be charged on loans; as the limit was the higher of the state usury limit or 1% over the 90-day commercial bill rate, presumably the goal was to limit the risk involved in any national bank loan.

In short, the Senate’s concern with the use of bank loans and their destabilizing flow into securities markets was addressed from every angle. Federal Reserve member banks were forced to spin off any affiliates whose principal activity was broker-dealing (“the issue, underwriting, or distribution of securities”). And broker-dealers were prohibited from taking deposits. And member banks were prohibited from having an officer or director who was also an officer, director, or manager of a broker-dealer. And directors, officers, and employees of any bank organized or operating under the laws of the US were prohibited from being at the same time the director, officer, or employee of a business that makes loans secured by the collateral of stocks or bonds. And every deposit-taking institution was required to be subject to either state or federal examination and regulation. And Federal Reserve member banks were prohibited from intermediating non-bank loans to the broker-dealers if they are backed by securities. And the Federal Reserve was required to set limits on direct bank lending to broker-dealers that is secured by stock or bond collateral.

As a result of this structure the flow of funds from banks that had access to the Federal Reserve discount window into securities-based lending was strictly regulated by the Federal Reserve, and this was an essential part of the structure designed in the 1930s to stabilize the financial system. While federal deposit insurance, statutory capital requirements, constraints on self-dealing, and the additional authority over banks granted to the Federal Reserve surely also played a role in the decades of financial stability, it is a mistake to forget that the first goal of the Act was the firewall it constructed between deposit-taking institutions and securities markets.

Overall, the goal of the segmented structure created by the Glass-Steagall Act was to support a liberal flow of bank money – which monetary theory at the time viewed as playing a crucial supporting role in the circular movement of economic activity – while preventing that liberal flow of money from playing a significant role in the finance of capital market assets or real estate. This structure remained intact through the 1960s, until the inflation of the 1970s coincided with a shift in monetary theory that no longer viewed the flow of commercial bank money as both essential and in need of control. Thus, the 1970s were years of dramatic financial innovation that set the financial system on a very different path from that laid out in the 1930s. The history of this evolution is the topic of the next post.

[1] Mortgage companies were intermediaries that sold whole loans or covered bonds – that is, bonds guaranteed by the mortgage company – to investors including commercial banks and pension funds.

[2] See Michael J. Lea, Innovation and the Cost of Mortgage Credit: A Historical Perspective, 7 Housing Pol’y Debate 147, 154-59 (1996); Marc A. Weiss, Market and Financing Home Ownership: Mortgage Lending and Public Policy in the United States, 1918-1989, 18 Bus. & Econ. Hist. 110, 111-12 (1989); Daniel Immergluck, Private Risk, Public Risk: Public Policy, Market Development, and the Mortgage Crisis, 36 Fordham Urb. L.J., 447, (2009); David Min, Sturdy Foundations: Why Government Guarantees Reduce Taxpayer Risk in Mortgage Finance (Working paper: 2012).

[3] I am simplifying here by describing the situation with respect to the maximum term of a savings and loan mortgage of the 1920s.

[4] Note that another similar predecessor of the FHLB system was the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916 (Pub. L. 64-158) which established 12 Federal Land Banks which were mutual associations owned by national farm loan associations and supervised by the Federal Farm Loan Board, and was designed to provide fairly priced credit to farmers. It was restructured in 1933 under the Farm Credit Administration which also refinanced mortgages for farmers. The Farm Credit System still operates today. See Quinn 2016.

[5] The crisis was also addressed in 1933 by two additional programs, the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which purchased respectively defaulted mortgages and the stock of bankrupt banks and thrifts. Because these programs did not continue, they are not relevant to our discussion. Note also that the federal charter for savings and loans was created by the 1933 Home Owners Loan Act.

[6] This statutory maximum stayed in place until 1968 (Pub. L. 90-301).

[7] As the spouse of an architect, let me add that the real estate industry’s focus on square footage over quality living spaces has meant that the whole housing stock is of remarkably low quality in terms of the use of space and quality of life. Visitors from Europe sometimes remark on this. The FHA favored the “efficiency” of large operations over small craft builders (Hanchett 2000).

[8] Note that in 1959 Fannie Mae’s statutorily permitted investments had been expanded to include “obligations which were lawful investments for fiduciary, trust, or public funds” (Milgrom 1993: 83).

[9] William Osborn of the National League of Insured Savings Associations testimony March 5, 1970 to the Senate Subcommittee on Housing and Urban Affairs of the Committee on Banking and Currency, Hearing on Secondary Mortgage Market and Mortgage Credit p. 284 (“The National League has no objection to the establishment of a secondary market for conventional mortgages in FNMA as long as a similar facility is made available through the Federal Home Loan Bank System.”)

[10] For example Wicksell (1898: 135) wrote: “But money, which is the one thing for which there is really a demand for lending purposes, is elastic in amount. Its quantity can to some extent be accommodated—and in a completely developed credit system the accommodation is complete—to any position that the demand may assume.” See also Willis, American Banking 3-4 (1916); Dunbar 1909 13-14, 18.

Update 2-6-2019: Link to Senate Report on Glass Steagall Act:  1933 S Rpt on Banking Act

Advertisements

The dismantling of the economy’s legal infrastructure II: Investment funds

From the beginning there was a “private offering exemption” to both the disclosure requirements of the Securities Act of 1933 (“’33 Act”) and the investment company registration requirement of the Investment Company Act of 1940 (“’40 Act”). The basic idea behind ’33 Act and the ’40 Act exemptions were somewhat different, however. For the ’40 Act if an issuer’s activities were sufficiently small and didn’t involve marketing to the public they didn’t need to be covered. For the ’33 Act the focus was on the fact that certain financial professionals, such as banks, as well as the principals of a corporation did not need the protection of the disclosure requirements.

Thus, the original ‘40 Act had the “section 3(c)(1)” exemption for funds “that are beneficially owned by not more than 100 persons” and that issue securities that are not offered publicly. Companies that were required to register under the ’40 Act faced leverage restrictions and controls on self-dealing amongst other requirements. Until 1996, a private fund that sought to opt out of the ’40 Act had to fall under the 100 investor exemption. Obviously, this constrained the size of any given hedge fund or private equity fund.

Similarly, the original ’33 Act had the Section 4(a)(2) exemption from the disclosure requirements for “transactions not involving any public offering.” From the earliest days, this was understood to exempt corporate activities such as obtaining bank loans, placing securities privately with institutions, and promoting a business endeavor amongst a small group of closely related individuals (SEC 2015: 11). This approach was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1953 which interpreted a non-public offering to include “an offering to those who are shown to be able to fend for themselves” and found that an offering to corporate executives “who, because of their position, have access to the same kind of information that the Securities Act would make available in the form of a registration statement” could also fall within the exemption.[1]

In short, for the first decades of this comprehensive regulatory regime, the private offering exemption was narrow, and offered little or no scope for hedge funds to operate. Needless to say, the financial industry pushed continuously to widen the scope of the exemption.

The process by which hedge funds were allowed to grow started slowly when in 1974 the SEC adopted Rule 146 which stated that the Section 4(a)(2) exemption would apply to offerings with no more than 35 purchasers, with dissemination of information comparable to a registration statement, and “reasonable belief” that purchasers or their representatives had the capacity to evaluate the information.[2] The Rule allowed sales to purchasers who couldn’t evaluate the information themselves, but instead (i) were wealthy enough to bear the risks associated with the security, and (ii) had a representative with the capacity to evaluate the information, thus creating an investment category specifically for wealthy individuals. At the same time in the Adopting Release the Commission declared:

“[I]t is frequently asserted that wealthy persons and certain other persons such as lawyers, accountants and businessmen are “sophisticated” investors who do not need the protections afforded by the Act. It is the Commission’s view that “sophistication” is not a substitute for access to the same type of information that registration would provide.” (SEC Rule 146 Adopting Release No. 33-5487, 39 FR 15621)

In short, the ’33 Act’s goal of investor protection meant that regulation had to ensure that even sophisticated investors received the relevant information to evaluate. On the other hand, the rule imposed no constraint on the amount of money that could be raised from those 35 investors.

A year later Rule 240 was adopted to benefit small businesses by exempting issuers raising less than $100,000 in a 12 month period with no general advertising, and with no more than 100 investors. Notably, the requirement that investors have access to information comparable to a registration statement was omitted from this Rule, presumably in order to reduce the costs and legal risks faced by small businesses.

The pressure for broader exemptions continued and was met in 1980 with Rule 242, which was the first time the concept of an “accredited investor” was used. An “accredited investor” included categories that had long been covered by the 4(a)(2) exemption including banks, institutional investors, and directors and executives of the issuer. Added to these groups were pension funds (explicitly), and anyone who purchased $150,000 of the issuer’s securities. And this rule no longer required that the investor be furnished with information “based on the assumption that accredited persons were in a position to ask for and obtain the information they believed was relevant” (SEC 2015: 14). In short, Rule 242 blew a hole in the comprehensive regulatory regime, but was designed to harm only those wealthy and institutional investors that happened to lack the financial acumen the SEC attributed to them.

A few months later in the Small Business Investment Incentive Act of 1980 (Pub.L. 96-477) the concept of “accredited investor” was made law. The legislation (i) defined the term to include the broad categories of financial intermediaries covered by Rule 242 while authorizing the SEC to adopt additional categories and (ii) created a new exemption for issues of up to $5 million to accredited investors only (SEC 2015: 15).

Just two years later, the SEC replaced all of these refinements of the private offering exemptions with a single regulation, Regulation D. Regulation D was organized around the concept of the “accredited investor” and at the same time widened its scope. In addition to those covered by Rule 242 were added anyone with substantial net worth ($1 million)[3] or income ($200,000 per annum), and any entity all of whose owners were accredited investors. At the same time the SEC explained that purpose of this redefinition was to define a class of investors who did not need the ’33 Act’s protections, because of their sophistication, ability to sustain loss, or ability to fend for themselves (SEC 2015: 17).[4]

Reg D significantly revised the three categories of exempt issues: Rule 504 exempted the sale of up to $500,000 without general solicitation (imposing no limitations on number or type of investors). Rule 505 exempted the sale of up to $5 milllion in a 12 month period to an unlimited number of accredited investors and 35 additional persons without general solicitation. Rule 506 dramatically broadened the Rule 146 safe harbor by treating as private offerings sales of unlimited amounts of securities to an unlimited number of accredited investors and up to 35 non-accredited, but sophisticated, investors without general solicitation. Although Rule 506 was viewed as a replacement for Rule 146, by allowing unlimited amounts to be raised from an unlimited number of investors, it was different in character from the original Rule 146. In addition, Rule 506 eliminated entirely the requirement for accredited investors that they be furnished with or have access to information comparable to a registration statement.

Observe the structure of this change. It would have been very hard for the SEC to argue that the Regulation D exemptions were consistent with the legislature’s intent in enacting the ’33 Act, because in 1933 the primary purpose was to protect investors by addressing the problem of information asymmetry in the market and there was no intent to exempt wealthy individuals or pension beneficiaries (through their fiduciaries) from that protection. This was clear in in 1974 when Rule 146 was adopted. But, with the passage of the Small Business Investment Incentive Act of 1980 the relevant intent when discussing an “accredited investor” was that of the 1980 legislature – and the stated intent of that legislature was to increase the ability of “small business” to raise capital. Thus, the adopting release for Regulation D states that its purpose is to “facilitate capital formation consistent with the protection of investors” and the emphasis throughout the release is on small business.[5] Hedge funds and leveraged buyout companies were small businesses – not just from an employment perspective, but at the time in terms of their capacity to raise funds too. The latter was, however, due to the constraints imposed by the regulatory regime, as would become clear after those constraints were relaxed.

To summarize, the 1980 law opened the door to a 180 degree shift in the focus of the ’33 Act from the goal of protecting the beneficial owners of securities to the goal of making it easier for “small businesses” to raise vast amounts of money. And Regulation D threw that door wide open by eliminating the constraints that were designed to ensure that the exemptions were targeted to small businesses. Not only was an exemption created that allowed unlimited sums to be raised without any disclosure whatsoever, but the same exemption allowed that money to be raise from an unlimited number of wealthy investors.

With Regulation D a new era in U.S. finance was born.[6] The 1980s saw private equity funds take off along with leveraged buyouts, see Chart 1. The economic inefficiencies created by leveraged buyouts were immediately recognized (e.g. Shleifer and Summers 1988), but apparently no connection was drawn linking the growth of these funds and their economically inefficient activities to the lifting of the ’33 Act’s limitations on private fundraising by securities issuers.

pe funds.pdf

Even though Regulation D made it much easier for investment funds to raise money without disclosure, most funds did not want to register under the ’40 Act and as a result in order to qualify for the 3(c)(1) exemption the number of investors was capped at 100. It was not until 1996 that the National Securities Markets Improvement Act created a new exemption from registration under the ‘40 Act. Section 3(c)(7) funds are permitted an unlimited number of investors as long as they are “qualified purchasers,” a category which includes individuals with $5 million in investments and institutional investors with at least $25 million in assets under management.[7] Legislative history indicates that Congress deemed these investors to be capable of evaluating “on their own behalf matters such as the level of a fund’s management fees, governance provisions, transactions with affiliates, investment risk, leverage, and redemption rights” (S. Rep. No. 104-293). In other words, as the SEC explained “Congress determined that the amount of a person’s investments should be used to measure a person’s financial sophistication” (2015: 25).

Thus, after 1996 we see once again a significant acceleration in growth of private funds, see Chart 2.

hedge funds

Data from: Joenvaara, Kosowski, & Tolonen (2012). For hedge fund AUM over time, see here.

 

This unregulated environment fostered certain decades-long frauds like that perpetrated by Bernie Madoff and insider trading as took place at SAC Capital. The remarkable window that has been opened into one wealthy family’s activities by the Mueller investigation naturally raises the question of the degree to which these underreporting investment funds are systematically breaking the law on the principle that they are very unlikely to ever be caught doing so.

The wrongdoing that has been uncovered is entirely consistent with the wrongdoing that the Investment Company Act was designed to prevent. Six years before the Act was passed the Pecora Committee Report discussed the problem of investment trusts:

“laissez fair policy nurtured a mushroom propagation of investment trusts of incalculable economic significance. The investment company became the instrumentality of financiers and industrialists to facilitate acquisition of concentrated control of the wealth and industries of the country. The investment trust was the vehicle employed by individuals to enhance their personal fortunes in violation of their trusteeship, to the financial detriment of the public. Conflicts of duty and interest existing between managers of the investment trusts and the investing public were resolved against the investor. The consequences of these management trusts have been calamitous to the Nation. … the exposure of the abuses and evils of investment trusts must be expeditiously translated into legislative action to prevent recurrence of these practices” (S. Rep. 73-1455: 333).

In the event Congress moved with much more deliberation than Senator Pecora demanded. The newly created SEC was tasked with studying the problem, and the law was developed in close consultation with the investment industry. As a result, the final bill was sent to Congress with the full support of the both the SEC and the investment industry, leading a prominent legal scholar to remark that “the passage of such comprehensive legislation with virtually no debate is probably without precedent” (Jaretski 1941: 310-11). In short, the Investment Company Act was carefully designed to work to the benefit of the financial industry by improving its operation. While the term asymmetric information had not yet been coined, contemporary Congressional reports on the Act make it clear that that the law was carefully targeted to address information problems. To quote from the Senate Report on the Act:

“The representatives of the investment trust industry were of the unanimous opinion that ‘self-dealing’ – that is, transactions between officers, directors, and similar persons and the investment companies with which they are associated – presented opportunities for gross abuse by unscrupulous persons, through unloading of securities upon the companies, unfair purchases from the companies, the obtaining of unsecured or inadequately secured loans from the companies, etc. The industry recognized that, even for the most conscientious managements, transactions between these affiliated persons and the investment companies present many difficulties. Many investment companies have voluntarily barred this type of transaction. …

“Finally, particularly with respect to those companies which have not registered their securities under the Securities Act of 1933 or the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and only a small number has so registered its securities, the investor has been unable to obtain adequate information as to their operations. The accounting practices and financial reports to stockholders of management investment companies frequently are deficient and inadequate in many respects and ofttimes are misleading. In many cases, dividends have been declared and paid without informing the stockholders that such dividends represented not earning but a return of capital to stockholders.” (S. Rpt. No 76-1775: 8).

Currently in the US hedge funds have $4 trillion in assets under management and private equity funds have $2.5 trillion (SEC Private Fund Statistics Q1 2018). As the total assets of the U.S. commercial banking system are a little less than $17 trillion, we find that the funds in the US that are not subject to standard controls on the use and abuse of asymmetric information are equivalent in size to one-third of the banking system. In short, one driver of financialization and the inequality associated with it is the vast quantity of underregulated investment funds that hide in the shadows of the US financial system.

It’s worth mentioning that the 1980s and 1990s also witnessed the proliferation of business forms that offer limited liability without either corporate status or corporate taxation. The limited liability company or LLC is the foremost of these structures, and plays a part in the development of a vast financial system that hides in the shadows of the regulated financial system. Many hedge funds are structured as LLCs.

Prior to 1988 the only business structure that combined pass-through taxation with limited liability was the S-corporation. The Chapter S election is available only to small corporations with no more than 100 shareholders,[8] all of whom are individuals. In 1988 the IRS granted the LLC structure the “pass through” tax status that makes it such a useful tool for structuring and hiding assets. By 1996 LLC statutes had been enacted in every state. A variety of other limited liability business structures that have pass through taxation are also available now.

Overall, a vast swathe of the US financial system operates in the dark with minimal supervision even today. That this situation was allowed to develop in the name of financing “small business” is astounding.

An adjustment should be made in our understanding of the purpose of our financial regulatory laws: The deployment of hundreds of millions of dollars in funds has public implications. For this reason alone, all investment companies with assets under management in excess of $500 million and either at least one pension fund investor (and thus hundreds of beneficial investors) or more than 35 investors should be subject to the Securities Act’s reporting requirements.

[1] SEC v. Ralston Purina, 346 U.S. 119 (1953).

[2] Rule 146 stated that the Section 4(a)(2) exemption would apply if:
(i)            Offerings were limited to 35 purchasers;
(ii)           Offerees had access to or were furnished with information comparable to what a registration statement would contain;
(iii)          Issuers reasonably believed that all offerees either (a) had the requisite knowledge and experience in financial matters to evaluate the risks of the investment or (b) could bear the economic risks of the investment;
(iv)          Sales were made only to those who had the requisite knowledge and experience or who had a representative who was capable of providing the requisite knowledge and experience;
(v)           There was no general advertising or solicitation.

[3] The Dodd Frank Act, Section 413(a) caused the value of a primary residence to be excluded from the measure of net worth.

[4] In 1988 the Commission’s position that a $150,000 investment guaranteed that the investor had sufficient “bargaining power” that no protection was needed was reconsidered “particularly at the $150,000 level” and this criterion for accredited investor status was withdrawn entirely (SEC 2015: 17-18).

[5] The crude model of capital formation underlying this approach is remarkable coming from an agency that was created in order to address problems of information asymmetry. Afterall, it is investor protections that safeguard the economy’s long-term capacity to raise capital.

[6] This growth has been attributed to other causes such as anti-takeover statutes or high yield bonds, but the timing doesn’t line up for these. High yield bonds began to take off as an asset class in the 1970s. And when the Supreme Court struck down an anti-takeover statute in 1982, it was far from clear that this would invalidate the statutes that had been enacted in other states, and indeed in 1987 the Supreme Court upheld an anti-takeover statute – and leveraged buyouts continued to boom.

[7] Note that in order to avoid registration under Section 12(g) of the ’34 Act, most funds today limit their investors to 499.

[8] In the original law only 35 shareholders were permitted.

The dismantling of the economy’s legal infrastructure I: Background

In December I attended a remarkable conference, Money as a Democratic Medium, where a whole spectrum of progressive critiques of the current economic situation were discussed. I noticed, however, that many attendees did not seem to entirely grasp that our currently state of financial instability and financially-driven inequality was very much constructed by legislation from the 1980s on that revised the laws governing our financial infrastructure — and that these laws were passed due to aggressive lobbying by the financial interests that benefited from them. So my next series of posts will go into some detail on how the comprehensive regulatory regime that was so carefully designed in the 1930s was dismantled. (Note that Katharina Pistor is one of the few who has a good grasp of this problem, and these posts complement her work.)

This post opens the discussion with a background exposition of the US Depression era financial legislation and what it was designed to do.

In the 1930s and 40s a comprehensive regulatory regime was designed for the financial system. The designers of this system had learned from the real estate and the stock market booms and busts of the 1920s and were not just conscious of the credit-creation function of banking, but also of the disastrous consequences that result when bank credit is used to finance leveraged positions in financial or real assets. Thus, the system was designed with firewalls that would keep credit from flowing inefficiently from the banking system into sectors, like housing and stock market investments, where there was abundant empirical evidence that the primary result would be asset price inflation.

The new system also took into account the fact that state and common law had long granted a limited form of self-governance to the commodities and securities exchanges, which set rules for their members, and gained certain privileges in deference to the role they played in establishing the prices for financial contracts. In the new regime the Exchanges would be recognized as “Self Regulatory Organizations.” Every one of them was, however, made subject to the supervision of either the SEC or the Secretary of Agriculture (prior to the creation of the CFTC).

The financial regulatory laws enacted in the 1930s and early 1940s were designed to augment the existing legal regime governing financial contracts, which was constructed on the principle that financial contracts are legally enforceable only when they are tied to the real economy. Thus, if any one of three conditions are met (i) the contract insures one party against an existing risk, (ii) the intent is to deliver the underlying asset, or (iii) the contract is traded on a designated exchange, the contract is deemed to play a role in distributing real economic risk and is legally enforceable. On the other hand, a financial contract where both parties were speculating on some future event – such as the price of an asset – had to be traded on an exchange or it would be considered a wager and void.[1]

The financial regulatory laws enacted in the 1930s and early 1940s were designed as a comprehensive regulatory regime where every financial product had a designated regulator. The first step in this process had been the Federal Home Loan Bank Act of 1932 which established a Federal Home Loan Bank System to support liquidity in the mortgage markets on the model of the Federal Reserve System. Mortgage lending had never been a significant activity for commercial banks, but was instead the purview of a variety of savings associations. Very innovative policies would be put in place to support the mortgage markets over the course of the decade, but this history is not pertinent here.

The second step in the process of creating a comprehensive regime with firewalls designed to construct a silo’d financial system was to separate out banks from brokers and dealers on financial markets. Formal separation of the commercial banks from their investment banking affiliates was adopted in the Banking Act of 1933 (“the Glass-Steagall Act”).

The next step was to extend federal law to cover the broker-dealers, the exchanges, and over-the-counter markets. The latter were covered, not because major improprieties on OTC markets had been discovered in the years leading up to the Great Depression, but because legislators recognized that “since business tends to flow from regulated to unregulated markets … the regulation of exchange markets made necessary the regulation of [over the] counter markets” (SEC Tenth Annual Report, 1945: 44). That is, 1930s legislators were well aware of the need for a comprehensive regulatory regime. Thus, the Securities Act of 1933 (“’33 Act”), the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“’34 Act”), the Commodity Exchange Act of 1936 (“CEA”), and the Investment Company Act of 1940 (“’40 Act”) were designed to ensure that there was no unregulated financial market into which business could flow.

The Commodity Exchange Act of 1936 (CEA) prohibited trading of commodities contracts for future delivery – a category which encompasses options and swaps contracts that reference commodities — with two exceptions, contracts traded on designated markets and the forward contract exclusion (which requires that delivery is expected take place).[2] Observe that this prohibition was simply a means of bringing well-established state and common law rules under the purview of federal law.

The SEC regulated broker-dealers and their over-the-counter transactions through the creation of a new self-regulatory organization (explicitly authorized by the Maloney Act of 1938), the National Association of Securities Dealers (which was replaced in 2007 by FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority). This decision to create an SRO for the purpose of regulating the formerly unregulated segments of the securities markets should have been viewed as precedent. Any unregulated financial market, needed to form a self-regulatory organization, and apply to the SEC (or the CFTC as might be appropriate) for its right to exist.

So how did we go from a system of comprehensive regulation in 1940 to the 2008 environment where vast swathes of the financial system were unregulated? The short answer is that the deregulatory ideology of the 1980s and 1990s turned a comprehensive regulatory regime into a tattered web of regulations and in doing so facilitated the growth of the same kind of conduct that the regulatory regime had been designed to repress in the first place.

Links [to be updated]

The dismantling of the economy’s legal infrastrucure II: Hedge and private equity funds

The dismantling of the economy’s legal infrastructure III: Derivatives

The dismantling of the economy’s legal infrastructure IV: Mortgage lending

The dismantling of the economy’s legal infrastructure V: Commercial and investment banking

[1] Notice that in a contract where both parties are speculating, neither party has a real economic risk that is being transferred; instead, the two parties are just making different predictions about the future. As a result, the frequent claim that speculation serves to transfer risk away from those who will have difficulty bearing is not applicable to those contracts that were treated as wagering contracts under 19th and early 20th century financial regulatory principles.

[2] Stein, “The Exchange-Trading Requirement of the Commodity Exchange Act,” 41 Vand. L. Rev 473, 480-81, 491 (1988). See also Lynn Stout, “Why the law hates speculators,” Duke Law Journal, 48(701), pp. 722 – 3.

 

 

Collateralized shadow banking: still at risk of fire sales

A few basic points about shadow banking ten years after the crisis:

“What shadow banking is” isn’t very complicated if banking is defined as “borrowing short to lend long”

What makes banks unstable is that their liabilities are on demand (i.e. they borrow short) while their assets pay out only over the course of years (i.e. they lend long). A principle reason that we are worried about “shadow” banks is that they have the same instability as banks, but lack the protections in the form of a strict regulatory regime and a lender of last resort. When shadow banks have this instability it is because they borrow short to lend long.

This approach makes it easy to understand the world of shadow banking, because there are only a limited number of financial instruments that are used to borrow on a short-term basis. Thus, for the most part shadow banks have to finance themselves on the commercial paper market (unsecured financing) or on the repo market (secured financing) or, especially for investment banks, via derivatives collateral (e.g. that is posted by prime brokerage clients). These are the major sources of wholesale short-term funding.

So typically when a financial product is subject to losses due to a run-prone (and therefore classified as a shadow bank), it’s because of the product’s relationship to the commercial paper market, to the repo market, and/or to the derivatives market.* The latter two, which comprise the collateralized segment of shadow banking, are the most complicated, because the run can come from many different directions: that is, lenders may stop lending (e.g. Lehman Bros), borrowers who post collateral may stop posting collateral (e.g. novation at Bear Stearns), and for derivatives contracts conditions may shift so that suddenly collateral posting requirements increase (e.g. AIG).

Collateralized shadow banking is governed by ISDA protocols and contracts, not the traditional law governing debt

While repos have been around for centuries, a “repo market” in which anyone can participate and where collateral other than government debt is posted is a relatively new phenomenon. Similarly derivatives contracts have been subject to margin requirements for more than a century, but in the past these contracts were exchange-traded and exchanges set the rules both for margin and for eligibility to trade on the exchange.

Thus, what made repo and derivatives financially innovative in the 1980s and 1990s was that suddenly there were unregulated over the counter (OTC) markets in them. What “unregulated” really meant, however, was that the big banks wrote the rules for this market themselves in the form of International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) protocols and contracts.

In the early days of repo and derivatives it was far from clear that they wouldn’t fall under the existing regulatory regime as securities (regulated by the SEC), or as commodities and/or futures (regulated by the CFTC). (The legal definitions of the SEC’s and the CFTC’s jurisdiction was deliberately made very broad in the implementing legislation, so an intuitive understanding of these terms will not coincide with their legal definitions.) Similarly, it was far from clear that the collateral posted in these OTC contracts would not be subject to the standard terms in the bankruptcy code governing collateralized debt. (Kettering who describes repos in this era as too big to fail products is great on this.)

Thus, one of the ISDA’s first projects was lobbying in the US for exceptions to the existing regulatory regime. Progress was incremental, but a long series of legislative amendments to the financial regulatory regime starting in 1982 and culminating in the bankruptcy reform act of 2005 effectively placed the whole system of repo and margin collateral outside the financial regulatory regime that had been set up in the 1930s and 1940s (for details see here, or ungated). These reforms also exempted these contracts from the bankruptcy code’s protections for debtors (see here or ungated).

Where the US led others followed. Gabor (2016) documents how Germany and Britain came to adopt the US model of collateralized lending, despite the central banks’ serious reservations about the system’s implications for financial stability. The world economy entered into 2008 with repo and derivatives markets effectively subject only to the private “regulation” of ISDA protocols and contracts.

Despite reforms, the instability at the heart of the collateralized shadow banking system has yet to be addressed

We saw in 2008 how the collateralized shadow banking system relies extremely heavily on the central bank for stability. (Federal Reserve programs to support the repo market included the TSLF and the PDCF.  Data released by the Fed indicates that at the peak of the crisis it accepted substantial amounts of very risky collateral.)

Indeed the International Capital Markets Association has put it quite bluntly that it considers the systemic risk associated with fire sales in repo and derivatives markets to be a problem that “the authorities” are expected to step in and address.

“The question is how to mitigate such systemic liquidity risk. We believe that systemic risks require systemic responses. In this case, the authorities can be expected to intervene as lenders of last resort to ensure the liquidity of the system as a whole. For their part, market users should be expected to remain creditworthy and to have liquidity buffers sufficient to sustain themselves until official intervention restores sufficient liquidity to obviate the need for fire sales.”

In short, the collateralized shadow banking system is constructed on the expectation of a “Fed put”. Instead of attempting to build a robust infrastructure of debt, shadow banking embraces the risk of fire sales and expects the governments that don’t make the shadow banking rules to bail it out.

The only sure-fire way to eliminate the risk of fire sales is to reduce the financial system’s reliance on repo- and margin-type contracts that allow a decline in the value of collateral to be a trigger for demanding additional funds. Based on financial market history this would almost certainly require an increase in the use of unsecured interbank debt markets. However, not much progress has been made on this front, especially since the EU’s proposed Financial Transactions Tax stalled in 2015.

On the other hand, significant reforms have been made since 2008 (Please let me know if I’ve left out anything important.) :

  • Collateral has shifted mostly to sovereign debt. This helps stabilize the market, but perhaps only temporarily as a broad range of collateral is still officially acceptable (so deterioration of the quality of collateral can creep in).
  • Approximately 50% of derivatives now are held with central counterparties. (The estimate is based on a 2015 BIS report.) This reduces the risk that the failure of a small market participant sets off a chain of failures that results in a fire sale. There is some concern however that fire sale risk has been transformed into the risk of a failure of a central counterparty.
  • Derivatives are now officially regulated by either the CFTC or the SEC and and there has been an effort to harmonize OTC margining requirements internationally.
  • Under pressure from regulators a voluntary stay protocol has been developed by the ISDA that is designed to work with the regulators’ special resolution regimes and to limit the right to terminate a contract due the default of a related entity. In the US systemically important banks are required to include this protocol in their OTC derivatives contracts.
  • Bank liquidity regulations have been adopted that limit the degree to which regulated banks are exposed to significant risk in these markets.

Notice that these new regulations embrace the basic framework of collateralized shadow banking: much of the focus is on making sure that enough collateral is being used. Special rules are designed to protect the largest banks and the banking system more generally. But aside from protecting the banks, it’s not clear that significant measures have been taken to eliminate the risk of fire sales that originate outside the banking system. Assuming that these regulations are effective at protecting the banks, this raises the question: Who bears the fire sale risk in this new environment?

Thanks to @kiffmeister for requesting that I write up this blogpost.

* While one can usually figure this out after the run has occurred, current regulation does not necessarily make the relevant information available before a run has occurred. Mutual funds are a case in point: the vast majority of them have so little exposure to repo and derivatives markets that it can be ignored, but the few that take on significant risk may have disclosures that are hard to distinguish ex ante from the ones that don’t (e.g. Oppenheimer Core Bond Fund in 2008).

A regression discontinuity test error

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GanongNoel

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

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

What’s the problem with financialization?

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

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

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

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

Here’s the long answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ideology of Financialization

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

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

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

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

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

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

First sentence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second sentence

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

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

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

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

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

Third sentence

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

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

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

The ideology of financialization has become powerful indeed.

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

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