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April 13, 2011

How has the financial system changed? (And what to do about it)

The subject of this post's title was, in essence, the centerpiece of the most recent edition of the Atlanta Fed's annual Financial Markets Conference, convened this year in Stone Mountain, Ga. (just outside Atlanta). In terms of formal papers, the conference was bookended by work that came to very similar conclusions but from very different angles. From the vantage point of recent developments in micro banking structure, Arnoud Boot offered this diagnosis:

"A fundamental feature of more recent financial innovations is their focus on augmenting marketability. Marketability has led to a strong growth of transaction-oriented banking (trading and financial market activities). This is at least in part facilitated by the scalability of this activity (contrary to relationship banking activities). It is argued that the more intertwined nature of banks and financial markets induces opportunistic decision making and herding behavior. In doing so, it has exposed banks to the boom and bust nature of financial markets and has augmented instability."

Taking the very long view, Moritz Schularick presented (from a paper co-authored with Alan Taylor) pretty compelling evidence that the ongoing shift from relationship banking to transactions-based banking has fundamentally altered the nature of financial developments on real activity in modern economies:

"We first document and discuss our newly assembled dataset on money and credit, aligned with various macroeconomic indicators, covering 14 developed countries and the years from 1870 to 2008. This new dataset allows us to establish a number of important stylized facts about what we shall refer to as the 'two eras of finance capitalism.' The first financial era runs from 1870 to 1939. In this era, money and credit were volatile but over the long run they maintained a roughly stable relationship to each other, and to the size of the economy measured by GDP. The only exception to this rule was the Great Depression period: in the 1930s money and credit aggregates collapsed. In this first era, the one studied by Friedman and Schwartz, the 'money view' of the world looks entirely plausible. However, the second financial era, starting in 1945, looks very different. With the banking sector progressively more leveraged in the second financial era, particularly towards the end, the divergence between credit supply and money supply offers prima facie support for the credit view as against a pure money view; we have entered an age of unprecedented financial risk and leverage, a new global stylized fact that is not fully appreciated."

If there was agreement on increasing threats to financial stability, what to do about it (unsurprisingly) was somewhat more controversial. On the microprudential front, several conference participants—Viral Acharya, for example—looked to greater capital buffers as a key to greater financial stability. Others—George Kaufman commenting on Boot's paper, for instance—were more inclined to rely on market solutions. Boot, for his part, was highly skeptical of the self-correcting market forces and, while sympathetic to greater reliance on bank capital, believes much more is required:

"What we have also argued is that market discipline might be rather ineffective. We described this as a paradox. When particular strategies have momentum in financial markets, the market as a whole may underestimate the risks that these entail. How then can we expect market discipline to work? It appears to us that market discipline might not be present when banks follow financial market inspired strategies. Things are even worse because these strategies will lead to a high correlation in actual exposures between financial institutions because all see the same opportunities and hence herding occurs. Systemic risk would then be considerable and not checked by market discipline."

Earlier in the paper, Boot puts forward:

"We believe that heavy handed intervention in the structure of the banking industry—building on the Volcker Rule—might ultimately be an inevitable part of the restructuring of the industry. It could address complexity but also help in containing market forces that might run orthogonal to what prudential concerns would dictate (as the insights on market discipline in section 6 suggest). For now, the structural interventions in the banking industry are rather tentative. Other measures such as higher capital and liquidity requirements are clearly needed. But these primarily focus on individual institutions while a more system-orientation is crucial to identify externalities and interlinkages (Goodhart, 2009; and Calomiris, 2009). Anti-cyclical capital surcharges and other measures and surcharges depending on the degree of interconnectedness are needed as well to add some further comfort. We tend to subscribe to John Kay's (2009) notion of redundancy: having comfort in the stability of the financial sector dictates building redundancy into the regulatory and supervisory structures of banking."

With respect to "system-oriented" signals, Schularick was clear where he and his co-author think their research leads:

"These new results from long-run data, if they pass scrutiny, inform the current controversy over macroeconomic policy practices in developed countries. Specifically, the pre-2008 consensus argued that monetary policy should follow a 'rule' based only on output gaps and inflation, but a few dissenters thought that credit aggregates deserved to be watched carefully and incorporated into monetary policy. The influence of the credit view has certainly advanced after the 2008–09 crash, just as respect has waned for the glib assertion that central banks could ignore potential financial bubbles and easily clean up after they burst."

Credit and bank capital—along with sound fiscal policy and a little good luck—do appear to have been key to how well different economies fared during the recent financial crisis. At least that is the conclusion reached in a study by Stephen Cecchetti and his co-authors from the Bank of International Settlements:

"The macroeconomic performance of individual countries varied markedly during the 2007–09 global financial crisis.… Better-performing economies featured a better-capitalised banking sector, a current account surplus, high foreign exchange reserves and low private sector credit-to-GDP. In other words, sound policy decisions and institutions reduced their vulnerability to the financial crisis. But these economies also featured a low level of financial openness and less exposure to US creditors, suggesting that good luck played a part."

As we seek to shore up our financial timber to avoid a repeat of recent history, it is appropriate to remember that, while it is good to be lucky, fortune is probably not arbitrary in choosing where it will shine.


Photo of Dave Altig By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed



April 13, 2011 in Financial System, Money Markets | Permalink

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Banking is one of many oligopolies that are government ignores.

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices." (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776).

What does the American auto industry, the health care industry, wall street firms and the banking industry all have in common; other than they were all on the brink of failure?

These are industries where the production side of the industry is no longer a free market with many producers competing head-to head to earn the business of consumers, or customers, of the industry. Instead each of these industries are controlled by a relatively small number of very large corporations that have transformed these markets into oligopolies.

Adam Smith when he discussed “rational self interest” and competitive markets in his book Wealth of Nations, envisioned many consumers buying goods and services from many producers with everyone looking out for their self-interest. By keeping markets “free”, producers pursue their rational self-interest and this best meets the needs of the consumers and the citizens of our country, who are also looking out for their self-interest. Under this system, what is in the producers self interest is to provide the best product possible to the consumer, while striving to be a low cost producer for their niche.

This consolidation of markets began in the late 1960's early 1970's in the auto industry when it was transformed from a free market to an industry that was controlled by three giant corporations and one union. As this transformation was occurring the auto company's and auto union's self-interest became separated from what the consumer wanted and/or needed. Competition between the companies broke down and this gave an opening for foreign competition to enter our markets and the beginning of the end of the American auto industry as we knew it.

Other industries saw what was happening in the auto industry and saw that government was not objecting so naturally they followed the same path with little concern on any ones part that we were losing our free market system to a more centralized market system of oligopolies. As a result we now have major markets where the producing entities self-interest is not always in line with the self-interest of the consumer. What is in the self-interest of the entities in these industries is to keep the oligopoly alive. Thus the creation of special interests and lobbyists.

These oligopolies have bought the protection of our representatives in Washington and state capitals. I am always baffled by the fact that corporations and unions cannot vote in this country, however they are allowed to buy votes with their contributions.

We lost track of a key ingredient that Adam Smith identified as necessary in order for “rational self interest” to work. There must be many producers. In too many industries, the number of producers has shrunk and the ones remaining have gotten “too big to fail”. This is true in the auto industry, the banking industry, wall street, health care and will soon be true in the computer software industry.

When discussing the health insurance industry proponents for this specific oligopoly site the fact that the bigger the insured pool, the lower insurance premiums can be. However, I submit that this "bigger pool savings" is more than offset by the fact that the rational self-interest of the companies is not totally aligned with the rational self interest of the insured. The insurance industries self-interest is to keep the oligopoly alive. The self-interest of the insured is to have as many insurance companies as possible clawing to get his business and thus ringing out all excessive cost, including unconscionable salaries for top executives, to earn the consumers business.

The liberals are right that regulation is required and conservatives are right that a free market is the best way to meet the needs and wants of our citizens. The common ground is that regulation is essential to make our markets more free. We have too many industries where companies have too much power, their self interest is not aligned with the citizens of this country and they are too big to fail.

It is time that our politicians breakaway from the shackles of oligopolies, special interests groups and lobbyists. Use antitrust legislation to bring back free markets.http://freeourfreemarkets.org

Posted by: sbanicki | April 13, 2011 at 04:31 PM

A very good post, thank you.

Transactions-oriented banking would seem to require a transactions-oriented regulatory tool-kit modeled after what is done in best-of-breed trading houses today: transactions that increase corporate risk get capital charges, and transactions that decrease it get capital credits. Note that this policy is applied to *transactions*. The balance-sheet provides the direction and intensity of the charges, but the charge is applied to the transaction.

While the details are certainly profoundly complicated, it does seem that transactions-oriented capital regulation has the potential to remediate liquidity problems. The expectations of late-entrants into a crowding market will be dampened by the higher capital charges. Momentum-trading will be less profitable. Counter-cyclic trade charges are a correction to the distribution of expectations of return that are proportional to market depth. It will decrease liquidity demand at precisely the time when liquidity is drying up.

If successful this policy allocates the costs of liquidity risk to the late-comers who actually cause the problem, and it protects the capital of the early-adopters who are the innovators in the market.

The downside is that this will tend to slow price competition in financial services. But in an industry that experiences 35% annual decline in profit margins, that might actually be a good thing. Extreme volatility in the profitability of financial services has the potential of rather spectacularly bad outcomes, as we have seen.

Posted by: Alan King | April 17, 2011 at 10:40 AM

Moritz Schularick's comments on "the divergence between credit supply and money supply" are interesting.

But the "divergence" is only the result of an error in measuring money supply, and this in turn is the result of viewing money not as the sum of credit plus currency but as cash balances. The error of viewing money as cash balances is an error common to the Austrians, the monetarists and the Keynesians. So far as I know only one economist has not agreed with this view: Joseph Schumpeter. And unfortunately, Schumpeter did not do any serious work on money.

In an era when currency is only about 50% of M1, a completely new model of money is required, one that views money as credit plus currency, not cash balances.

I have developed a complete model of money as credit but understanding it calls for unlearning a lifetime's thinking of money as cash balances.

In any case the end result, a graph showing what I call Corrected Money Supply from 2001 to 2011 can be viewed at http://www.philipji.com/Mc2001-2011.gif

If the fact that it accurately tracks the rise of money supply until the beginning of 2006 when housing starts ceased to grow, the contraction of money during the recession and its rise to dangerous levels in recent months is interesting, the logic behind the article can be seen at http://www.philipji.com/riddle-of-money/

In the absence of an accurate monetary aggregate any attempt to identify and prevent bubbles is impossible.

Posted by: Philip George | April 17, 2011 at 11:34 AM

I really like this concept. I just want to know as it consists of how many templates. Better-performing economies featured a better-capitalized banking sector, a current account surplus, high foreign exchange reserves and low private sector credit-to-GDP. In other words, sound policy decisions and institutions reduced their vulnerability to the financial crisis. But these economies also featured a low level of financial openness and less exposure to US creditors, suggesting that good luck played a part. Thanks for sharing this great post.

Posted by: home business | April 18, 2011 at 05:09 AM

Great article, short and precise. What bothers me although is the fact that the jury is impressed by a presentation like this. This just proves that the application of law often does not have anything to do with justice, but more so with who's better at presenting. While the details are certainly profoundly complicated, it does seem that transactions-oriented capital regulation has the potential to remediate liquidity problems. The expectations of late-entrants into a crowding market will be dampened by the higher capital charges. Momentum-trading will be less profitable. Counter-cyclic trade charges are a correction to the distribution of expectations of return that are proportional to market depth. It will decrease liquidity demand at precisely the time when liquidity is drying up. What bothers me although is the fact that the jury is impressed by a presentation like this. This just proves that the application of law often does not have anything to do with justice, but more so with "who's better at presenting".

Posted by: Business Plan | April 19, 2011 at 07:45 AM

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