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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.
By Dave Altig
senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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May 13, 2010
Regulatory reform via resolution: Maybe not sufficient, certainly necessary
This macroblog post is the first of several that will feature the Atlanta Fed's 2010 Financial Markets Conference. Please return for additional information.
On Tuesday and Wednesday the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta hosted its annual Financial Markets Conference, titled this year Up From the Ashes: The Financial System After the Crisis. Much of the first day was devoted to conversations about rating agencies and their role in the economy, for better and worse. The second day was absorbed by the issues of too-big-to-fail, macroprudential regulation, and regulatory reform.
One theme that ran throughout the second day's conversations related to the two aspects of regulatory reform highlighted by Chairman Bernanke in his recent congressional testimony on lessons from the failure of Lehman Brothers:
"The Lehman failure provides at least two important lessons. First, we must eliminate the gaps in our financial regulatory framework that allow large, complex, interconnected firms like Lehman to operate without robust consolidated supervision… Second, to avoid having to choose in the future between bailing out a failing, systemically critical firm or allowing its disorderly bankruptcy, we need a new resolution regime, analogous to that already established for failing banks."
Though those two aspects of reform are in no way mutually exclusive, there is, I think, a tendency to lean to one or the other as the first most important contributor to avoiding a repeat of our recent travails. To put it in slightly different terms, there are those that would place greatest emphasis on reducing the probability of systemically important failures and those that would put greatest emphasis on containing the damage when a systemically important failure occurs.
"…the best chance for durable reform is to start with the assumption that failure will happen and construct a strategy for dealing with it when it does…
"In a world with the capacity for rapid innovation, rule-writers have a tendency to perpetually fight the last war…
"I am not arguing that … the 'Volcker rule,' derivative exchanges, trading restrictions, or any of the specific regulatory reform proposals in play are necessarily bad ideas. I am arguing that we should assume that, no matter what proposed safeguards are put in place, failure of some systemically important institution will ultimately occur—somewhere, somehow. And that means priority has to be given to the development of resolution procedures for institutions that are otherwise too big to fail."
At our conference this week, University of Florida professor Mark Flannery expressed concerns that, placed in an international context, a truly robust resolution process for failed institutions may be tough to construct:
"In principle, a non-bankruptcy reorganization channel for SIFIs [systemically important financial institutions] makes a lot of sense. But the complexity of SIFIs' organizational structures introduces some serious problems. Not only do SIFIs operate with a bewildering array of subsidiaries… but they generally operate in many countries. Without very close coordination of resolution decisions across jurisdictions, a U.S. government reorganization would likely set off a scramble for assets of the sort that bankruptcy is meant to avoid. Rapid asset sales could generate downward price spirals… with systemically detrimental effects. Second, supervisors would have to assure that SIFIs maintain the proper sort and quantity of haircut-able liabilities outstanding. Once a firm has been identified as systemically important, this may be a relatively straightforward requirement to impose, but there remains the danger that 'shadow' institutions will become systemically important, before they are properly regulated. (This is not a danger unique to the question of resolution.)
"I conclude that the international coordination required to make prompt resolution feasible for SIFIs is a long way off, if it can be achieved at all."
Not an encouraging note, and the point is very well taken. Flannery concludes that we would be better served by focusing on changes that lie on the "avoiding failure" end of the reform spectrum: standardized derivative contracts, tying supervisory oversight to objective market-based metrics on the health of SIFIs, limitations on risky activities, and higher capital standards.
As I noted above, I am certainly not hostile to these ideas, and the answer to the question "should reform strategies be rules-based or resolution-based?" is surely "all of the above." But even if it will take a long time to develop better resolution procedures to address the types of problems that emerged in the past several years, I strongly argue that development of such procedures are necessary for the long-term, and work on these procedures should begin. And here, I have a relatively modest proposal, returning to my remarks:
"…there is a pretty obvious way to vet proposals that are offered. We have a couple of real-world case studies—Bear Stearns, Lehman, AIG. One test for any proposed resolution process would be to illustrate how that plan would have been implemented in each of those cases. This set of experiments can't be started too soon, and I think should move it to the top of our reform priorities."
Whether it be the specific provisions of reform bills winding their way through Congress or the "living will" idea championed this week by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, I think we would do well to let the stress testing of those proposals begin.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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May 11, 2010
Return of the swap lines
As the European Union jumped into crisis resolution mode with both feet and the European Central Bank (ECB) responded to the "exceptional circumstances" with measures to address severe tensions in financial markets, the Federal Reserve has made its own contribution to global economic stability by announcing the reestablishment of temporary U.S. dollar swap facilities with the ECB, Bank of Canada, Bank of England, Swiss National Bank, and (later) the Bank of Japan.
Swap lines are not new tools for central banks. In fact, we covered the basics of swap arrangements in September 2008, explaining the rationale at that time for the facilities thus:
"An underlying aspect of a currency swap is that banks (and businesses) around the world have assets and liabilities not only in their home currency, but also in dollars. Thus, banks in England need funding in U.S. dollars as well as in pounds.
"However, banks recently have been reluctant to lend to one another. Some observers believe this reluctance relates to uncertainty about the assets that other banks have on their balance sheets or because a bank might be uncertain about its own short-term cash needs. Whatever the cause, this reluctance in the interbank market has pushed up the premium for short-term U.S. dollar funding and has been evident in a sharp escalation in LIBOR rates.
"The currency swap lines were designed to inject liquidity, which can help bring rates down."
Yesterday's online edition of The Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics blog makes note of a more recent, and very nice, primer from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, co-authored by Michael Fleming and Nicholas Klagge. The Fleming-Klagge article describes a Libor-based measure of stress that was particularly acute in nondollar countries during the worst of the crisis that began in 2007.
"Because foreign banks secure much of their dollar funding through interbank loans, they can expect to face greater funding pressures during times of market stress. One way to measure such pressures involves examining the individual borrowing rates of the sixteen banks that make up the Libor survey 'panel.' The difference between the average borrowing rate of the panel's thirteen non-U.S. banks and the average borrowing rate of its three U.S. banks provides a rough proxy for the increased difficulty foreign banks face in trying to borrow dollars."
Did the currency swaps help bring this spread down? Here's a little informal evidence:
That's not proof, but it is not too hard to see why the New York Fed article would conclude with this answer to the WSJ's answer to the question "Did it Work?":
"Early evidence suggests that the swap lines were successful in smoothing disruptions in overseas dollar funding markets. Swap line announcements and operations were associated with improved conditions in these markets: Although measures of dollar funding pressures remained high throughout the crisis period, they tended to moderate following large increases in dollars lent under the swap line program. Moreover, the sharp decline in swap line usage as the crisis ebbed suggests that the pricing of funds offered through swap lines gave institutions an incentive to return to private sources of funding as market conditions improved."
You can find more information about the Federal Reserve's previous swap facilities here.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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April 29, 2010
Consumer credit: More than meets the eye
A lot has been made (here, for a recent example) of the idea that banks have shown a surprising amount of reluctance to extend credit and to start making loans again. Indeed, the Fed's consumer credit report, which shows the aggregate amount of credit extended to individuals (excluding loans secured by real estate), has been on a steady downward trend since the fall of 2008.
Importantly, that report also provides a breakdown that shows how much credit the different types of institutions hold on their books. Commercial banks, which are the single largest category, accounted for about a third of the total stock in consumer credit in 2009. The two other largest categories—finance companies and securitized assets—accounted for a combined 45 percent. While commercial banks have been the biggest source of credit, they have not been the biggest direct source of the decline.
The chart above highlights a somewhat divergent pattern among the big three credit holders. This pattern mainly indicates that credit from finance companies and securitized assets has been on a relatively steady decline since the fall of 2008 while credit from commercial banks has shown more of a leveling off. These details highlight a potential misconception that commercial banks are the primary driver behind the recent reduction in credit going to consumers (however, lending surveys certainly indicate that standards for credit have tightened).
To put a scale on these declines, the aggregate measure of consumer credit has declined by a total of 5.7 percent since its peak in December 2008 through February 2010. Over this same time period, credit from finance companies and securitizations declined by 16.2 percent and 12.4 percent, respectively, while commercial bank credit declined by 5.5 percent. Admittedly, securitization and off-balance sheet financing are a big part of banks' activity as they facilitate consumers' access to credit. The decline in securitized assets might not be that surprising given that the market started to freeze in 2007 and deteriorated further in 2008 as many investors fled the market. Including banks' securitized assets that are off the balance sheet would show a steeper decline in banks' holdings of consumer credit.
A significant factor in evaluating consumer credit is the pace of charge-offs, which can overstate the decline in underlying loan activity (charge-offs are loans that are not expected to be paid back and are removed from the books). Some (here and here) have made the point that the declines in credit card debt, for example, reflect increasing rates of charge-offs rather than consumers paying down their balances.
How much are charge-offs affecting the consumer credit data? Unfortunately, the Fed's consumer credit statistics don't include charge-offs. However, we can look at a different dataset that includes quarterly data on charge-offs for commercial banks to get an approximation. We can think of the change in consumer loan balances roughly as new loans minus loans repaid minus net loans charged off:
Change in Consumer Loans = [New Loans – Loan Repayments] – Net Charge-Offs
Adding net charge-offs to the change in consumer loans should give a cleaner estimate of underlying loan activity:
If the adjusted series is negative, loan repayments should be greater than new loans extended, which would lend support to the idea that loans are declining because consumers are paying down their debt balances. If the adjusted series is positive, new loans extended should be greater than loan repayments and adds support to the hypothesis that part of the decline in the as-reported loans data is from banks removing the debt from their books because of doubtful collection. Both the as-reported and adjusted consumer loan series are plotted here:
Notably, year-over-year growth in consumer loans adjusted for charge-offs has remained positive, which contrasts the negative growth in the as-reported series. That is, the net growth in new loans and loan repayments shows a positive (albeit slowing) growth rate once charge-offs are factored in. Over 2009, this estimate of charge-offs totaled about $27 billion while banks' average consumer loan balances declined by about $25 billion. Thus, a significant portion of the recent decline in consumer loan balances is the result of charge-offs.
Nevertheless, in an expanding economy, little or no credit growth implies a declining share of consumption financed through credit. Adjusting consumer loans for charge-offs suggests that the degree of consumer deleveraging across nonmortgage debt is somewhat less substantial than indicated by the headline numbers.
All in all, the consumer credit picture is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface. A more detailed look suggests that banks haven't cut their consumer loan portfolios as drastically as sometimes assumed. The large run-up in charge-offs has also masked the underlying dynamics for loan creation and repayment. Factoring in charge-offs provides some evidence that a nontrivial part of consumer deleveraging is coming through charge-offs.
By Michael Hammill, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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April 06, 2010
Breaking up big banks: As usual, benefits come with a side of costs
Probably the least controversial proposition among an otherwise very controversial set of propositions on which financial reform proposals are based is that institutions deemed "too big to fail" (TBTF) are a real problem. As Fed Chairman Bernanke declared not too long ago:
As the crisis has shown, one of the greatest threats to the diversity and efficiency of our financial system is the pernicious problem of financial institutions that are deemed "too big to fail."
The next question, of course, is how to deal with that threat. At this point the debate gets contentious. One popular suggestion for dealing with the TBTF problem is to just make sure that no bank is "too big." Two scholars leading that charge are Simon Johnson and
James Kwak (who are among other things the proprietors at The Baseline Scenario blog). They make their case in the New York Times' Economix feature:
Since last fall, many leading central bankers including Mervyn King, Paul Volcker, Richard Fisher and Thomas Hoenig have come out in favor of either breaking up large banks or constraining their activities in ways that reduce taxpayers' exposure to potential failures. Senators Bernard Sanders and Ted Kaufman have also called for cutting large banks down to a size where they no longer pose a systemic threat to the financial system and the economy.
…We think that increased capital requirements are an important and valuable step toward ensuring a safer financial system. We just don't think they are enough. Nor are they the central issue…
We think the better solution is the "dumber" one: avoid having banks that are too big (or too complex) to fail in the first place.
Paul Krugman has noted one big potential problem with this line of attack:
As I argued in my last column, while the problem of "too big to fail" has gotten most of the attention—and while big banks deserve all the opprobrium they're getting—the core problem with our financial system isn't the size of the largest financial institutions. It is, instead, the fact that the current system doesn't limit risky behavior by "shadow banks," institutions—like Lehman Brothers—that carry out banking functions, that are perfectly capable of creating a banking crisis, but, because they issue debt rather than taking deposits, face minimal oversight.
In addition to that observation—which is the basis of calls for a systemic regulator that spans the financial system, and not just specific classes of financial institutions—there is another, very basic, economic question: Why are banks big?
To that question, there seems to be an answer: We have big banks because there are efficiencies associated with getting bigger—economies of scale. David Wheelock and Paul Wilson, of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and Clemson University, respectively, sum up what they and other economists know about economies of scale in banking:
…our findings are consistent with other recent studies that find evidence of significant scale economies for large bank holding companies, as well as with the view that industry consolidation has been driven, at least in part, by scale economies. Further, our results have implications for policies intended to limit the size of banks to ensure competitive markets, to reduce the number of banks deemed "too-big-to-fail," or for other purposes. Although there may be benefits to imposing limits on the size of banks, our research points out potential costs of such intervention.
Writing at the National Review Online, the Cato Institute's Arnold Kling acknowledges the efficiency angle, and then dismisses it:
There's a long debate to be had about the maximum size to which a bank should be allowed to grow, and about how to go about breaking up banks that become too large. But I want to focus instead on the general objections to large banks.
The question can be examined from three perspectives. First, how much economic efficiency would be sacrificed by limiting the size of financial institutions? Second, how would such a policy affect systemic risk? Third, what would be the political economy of limiting banks' size?
It is the political economy that most concerns me…
If we had a free market in banking, very large banks would constitute evidence that there are commensurate economies of scale in the industry. But the reality is that our present large financial institutions probably owe their scale more to government policy than to economic advantages associated with their vast size.
I added the emphasis to the "probably" qualifier.
The Wheelock-Wilson evidence does not disprove the Kling assertion, as the estimates of scale economies are obtained using banks' cost structures, which certainly are impacted by the nature of government policy. But if economies of scale are in some way intrinsic to at least some aspects of banking—and not just political economy artifacts—the costs of placing restrictions on bank size could introduce risks that go beyond reducing the efficiency of the targeted financial institutions. If some banks are large for good economic reasons, the forces that move them to become big would likely emerge with force in the shadow banking system, exacerbating the very problem noted by Krugman.
I think it bears noting that the argument for something like constraining the size of particular banks implicitly assumes that it is not possible, for reasons that are either technical or political, to actually let failing large institutions fail. Maybe it is so, as Robert Reich asserts in a Huffington Post item today. And maybe it is in fact the case that big is not beautiful when it comes to financial institutions. But in evaluating the benefits of busting up the big guys, we shouldn't lose sight of the possibility that this is also a strategy that could carry very real costs.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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March 05, 2010
In the beginning, there was a lender of last resort
Steven Pearlstein, business columnist for the Washington Post, asks and answers the question "should the Fed stay out of the bank supervision business?"
"As the Senate begins to focus on how to fix financial regulation, one of the remaining unresolved issues is what role the Federal Reserve should have in supervising banks.
"The correct answer? None at all."
One of the centerpieces of the Pearlstein argument is this:
"The reality is that the Fed's primary focus is and will always be on monetary policy. Bank supervision will continue, as it has been, as a secondary activity that not only receives less attention from the top but will be sacrificed at those rare but crucial moments when the two missions might conflict. Indeed, by arguing that the Fed needs the insights gleaned from bank supervision to be more effective in making monetary policy, the Fed essentially acknowledges this hierarchy in its priorities. Bank supervision is important enough that it ought to be somebody else's top priority."
If you might allow me a moment of personal indulgence, there was a time when I had some sympathy with the sentiment that the "Fed's primary focus is and always will be on monetary policy." I, of course, knew the story of the creation of the Fed, motivated by the need to provide an elastic currency to avoid disruptive fluctuations in prices and a lender of last resort to stop liquidity stress from becoming a full-blown financial crisis. But that was a story from the past. The modern world began in 1935 with the statutory creation of the Federal Open Market Committee, which would eventually evolve, with its central bank brethren in the rest of the world, into the institution described by Pearlstein as being primarily focused on monetary policy.
I felt that way until Sept. 11, 2001. On an average day in the week ending Sept. 5 of that year, the Federal Reserve extended $21 million in discount loans to banks, a reasonably representative volume. On Sept. 12, discount loans amounted to over $45 billion. As a result, the U.S. financial system did not collapse.
The horrible circumstances of 9/11 have been thankfully unique, but there is a case to be made for the proposition that the most important role of the central bank in the recent financial crisis was not in the realm of traditional monetary policy but in the exercise of variations on the lender-of-last-resort function. In fact, in times of acute financial stress, this role must always be so. Witness this remark by Alan Greenspan on Oct. 20, 1987:
"… in a crisis environment, I suspect we shouldn't really focus on longer-term policy questions until we get beyond this immediate period of chaos."
Which brings us to the question of the Fed's role in bank supervision. More precisely, it brings us to comments from Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, who delivered remarks on Wednesday to the New York Association for Business Economics:
"… the Fed must play a central role in a defense structure designed to prevent or manage future crises. My key argument is the indivisibility of monetary authority, the lender-of-last-resort role, and a substantial direct role in bank supervision. Only the Fed can act as lender of last resort because only the monetary authority can print money in an emergency. To make sound decisions, the lender of last resort needs intimate hard and qualitative knowledge of individual financial institutions, their connectedness to counterparties, and the capacity of management.
"There is sentiment in Washington that would separate these tightly linked functions that are so critical in responding to a financial crisis. Removing the central bank from a supervision role designed to provide totally current, firsthand knowledge and information will weaken defenses against recurrence of financial instability. Flawed defenses could be calamitous in a future we cannot see."
If this advice goes unheeded, I fear we might discover its wisdom in the worst possible circumstances.By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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February 19, 2010
Should the Fed stay in regulation?
One of the central issues in the postcrisis effort to reform our regulatory infrastructure is who should do the regulating. The answer to some in Congress is none of the above:
"… under consideration is a consolidated bank regulator, one aide [to Alabama Senator Richard Shelby] said. The idea is supported by [Connecticut Senator Christopher] Dodd, who proposed eliminating the Office of Thrift Supervision and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and moving their powers, along with the bank-supervision powers of the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., to the new agency.
"Negotiators are still deciding how to monitor firms for systemic risk, including how to define and measure it, what authorities to give a regulator and which agency is best suited to get the power, a Shelby aide said."
As reported in The New York Times:
"The Senate and the Obama administration are nearing agreement on forming a council of regulators, led by the Treasury secretary, to identify systemic risk to the nation's financial system, officials said Wednesday…"
Though the idea of a council to provide regulatory and supervisory oversight is still contentious (the Times article offers multiple opinions from Federal Reserve officials) the formation of a council is not necessarily the same thing as removing the central bank from boots-on-the-ground, or operational, supervisory responsibility. In other words, there is still the question of how to monitor systemic risk and which agency is best suited to get the power.
Earlier this week I made note of a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) paper by Olivier Blanchard, Giovanni Dell'Aricca, and Paulo Mauro, taking some issue with the proposal that central banks consider raising their long-run inflation objectives. Though that part of the paper seemed to attract almost all of the attention in the media and blogosphere, the discussion in the IMF article expanded well beyond that inflation target issue. Included among the many proposals of Blanchard et al. was this, on systemic risk regulation and the role of the central bank:
"If one accepts the notion that, together, monetary policy and regulation provide a large set of cyclical tools, this raises the issue of how coordination is achieved between the monetary and the regulatory authorities, or whether the central bank should be in charge of both.
"The increasing trend toward separation of the two may well have to be reversed. Central banks are an obvious candidate as macroprudential regulators. They are ideally positioned to monitor macroeconomic developments, and in several countries they already regulate the banks. 'Communication' debacles during the crisis (for example on the occasion of the bailout of Northern Rock) point to the problems involved in coordinating the actions of two separate agencies. And the potential implications of monetary policy decisions for leverage and risk taking also favor the centralization of macroprudential responsibilities within the central bank."
Consistent with the even-handedness of the Blanchard et al. paper, the authors did not come to this conclusion without noting the legitimate issues of those who would separate regulatory authority from the central bank:
"Against this solution, two arguments were given in the past against giving such power to the central bank. The first was that the central bank would take a 'softer' stance against inflation, since interest rate hikes may have a detrimental effect on bank balance sheets. The second was that the central bank would have a more complex mandate, and thus be less easily accountable. Both arguments have merit and, at a minimum, imply a need for further transparency if the central bank is given responsibility for regulation."
But, they conclude:
I wonder, then: Would a regulatory council of which the Federal Reserve is a member, combined with operational supervisory responsibilities housed within the central bank, be a tolerably good response to Blanchard's and his colleagues' admonitions?
"The alternative, that is, separate monetary and regulatory authorities, seems worse."
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and director of research at the Atlanta Fed
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December 23, 2009
Change the bathwater, keep the baby
What have we learned from the experience of the last two years? The Wall Street Journal offers up one discouraging conclusion:
"For much of the past century, America has served as the global model for the power of free markets to generate prosperity…
"In the 2000s, though, the U.S. quickly went from being the beacon of capitalism to a showcase for some of its flaws…
"But one thing is certain: America's success or failure over the next decade will go a long way toward defining what the world's next economic model will be."
One of the article's implied alternatives for the world's next economic model seems a bit of a stretch:
"The troubles in the U.S. stand in sharp contrast to the relative success of other countries, notably China. With a system that is at best quasi-capitalist, China's economic output per person grew an inflation-adjusted 141% over the decade, and hardly paused for the global crisis, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund. That compares with 9% growth in the U.S. over the same period."
Let's put that comparison to rest right away:
The theory of economic growth is rich, interesting, and somewhat unsettled, but it stands to reason that emerging economies, where the fruit hangs low, can for a time grow much faster than advanced, fully developed countries. Furthermore, I find it reasonable to assume that, contrary to representing an alternative economic model, the Chinese experience over the past decade is itself evidence that even incomplete movements in the direction of free markets can pay large dividends. But even if you doubt that interpretation, the gap between the material circumstances of the average American and Chinese citizen is so large as to make comparisons about the success of the respective economic models premature by several decades.
In fact, the picture above nicely illustrates what I believe is a more on-the-mark observation in the WSJ article:
"At least twice in the past century, the U.S. has re-emerged from deep crises to reinvent capitalism. In the 1930s, the Depression compelled Franklin Roosevelt to introduce Social Security, deposit insurance and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
"After the brutal stagflation of the 1970s and early 1980s, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker demonstrated the ability of an independent central bank to get prices under control, ushering in an age in which powerful, largely autonomous central banks became the norm throughout the developed world."
So what, then, is the alternative model waiting in the wings to replace the current one? It's not given a name, but the features are clear in the article:
"Policy makers' focus now, though, is on the financial sector that failed so spectacularly. Progress has been slow, and key pieces are missing, but the contours of a new system are taking shape. Banks will face stricter limits on their use of borrowed money, or 'leverage,' to boost returns. The Fed will keep a closer eye on markets during booms, and possibly step in to curb excessive risk-taking—a U-turn from its previous policy of mopping up after bubbles burst.
"Such changes would amount to a grand bargain: Give up some of the growth and dynamism of the U.S. economy for a safer, more equitable brand of capitalism—one that could avoid the kind of busts that turned the 2000s into such a disaster."
OK, but here is the central question: How can we be sure that the "new system" will be an improvement on the one it replaces? Some of the most significant failures of the last couple of years occurred in highly regulated industries. So the absence of regulation is not really at issue, but rather what kind of regulation we will have, and how it will be implemented. And there is the obvious point that regulatory change is not really reform if it undermines a system's existing strength. Some of the reform proposals on the table, for example, have the potential to seriously compromise "the ability of an independent central bank to get prices under control," the very feature of our current system that the article identifies as an historical source of resilience.
I worry about a regulatory change that commences from the proposition that we must "give up some of the growth and dynamism of the U.S. economy for a safer, more equitable brand of capitalism." In their introduction to a comprehensive set of reform proposals from New York University's Stern School of Business, professors Viral Acharya and Matthew Richardson have this to say:
"There are many cracks in the financial system, some of which we now know, others no doubt we will discover down the road.… A common theme of our proposals notes that fixing all the cracks will shore up the financial house but at great cost. Instead, by fixing a few major ones, the foundation can be stabilized, the financial structure rebuilt, and innovation and markets can once again flourish."
One of those major cracks is the "too-big-to-fail" distortion. Is it important to remember that too-big-to-fail is itself a creation of regulation, not markets? I think so.
By David Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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December 08, 2009
Another rescue plan comes in below the original price tag
Though the tab to taxpayers could still be substantial when all is said and done, it now appears the taxpayer cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) will be substantially lower than was thought not too long ago:
"The Obama administration expects the cost of the Troubled Asset Relief Program to be $200 billion less than projected, helping to reduce the size of the budget deficit, a Treasury Department official said yesterday.
"The administration forecast in August that the TARP would ultimately cost $341 billion, once banks had repaid the government for capital injections and other investments. Congress authorized $700 billion for the program in October 2008."
There is precedent for such good news. Travel back for a moment to the formation and operation of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), the agency formed to purchase and sell the "toxic assets" of failed financial institutions following the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. As noted in a postmortem by Timothy Curry and Lynn Shibut of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the cost projections for the RTC ballooned in the early days of its operations:
"Reflecting the increased number of failures and costs per failure, the official Treasury and RTC projections of the cost of the RTC resolutions rose from $50 billion in August 1989 to a range of $100 billion to $160 billion at the height of the crisis peak in June 1991..."
In the end, however, the outcome, though higher than the very first projections, came in well below the figures suggested by the worst case scenario:
"As of December 31, 1999, the RTC losses for resolving the 747 failed thrifts taken over between January 1, 1989, and June 30, 1995, amounted to an estimated $82.7 billion, of which the public sector accounted for $75.6 billion, or 91 percent, and the private sector accounted for $7.1 billion, or 9 percent."
While people may debate the approaches taken, it is heartening to see evidence that TARP, like the RTC before it, is ultimately costing considerably less than estimated.
By David Altig, senior vice president and research director of the Atlanta Fed
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November 12, 2009
Small businesses, small banks, big problems?
In a speech on Tuesday, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart drew some connections between the current commercial real estate (CRE) problems and the prospects for a small business-led recovery.
The starting point was an observation made in an earlier macroblog post that identified the important role small businesses have traditionally played in job creation in the economy and how they had been disproportionately negatively affected in this recession.
What are the connections between CRE and small business? An obvious direct link running from small businesses to CRE is that small businesses are an important source of demand for many types of commercial space. A link from CRE to small businesses is that CRE problems in banks could potentially affect credit availability for small businesses.
The problems currently facing the CRE industry have been building for some time for both property owners and the holders of CRE debt:
- The income generated by nonresidential/nonowner-occupied CRE has generally been falling as vacancy rates on commercial space rose, and capitalization rates–the ratio of income to valuation–have climbed sharply.
- The decline in CRE valuations has created a significant amount of "rollover risk" when CRE loans and mortgages mature and need to be refinanced (about $340 billion in CRE debt is estimated to mature in 2010 and 2011). At the same time, delinquency rates on CRE loans have been increasing sharply, especially for CRE lending for residential construction and development purposes.
Small business lending
Banks have already responded to the generally weakened economic conditions and reduced creditworthiness of borrowers by raising credit standards for all types of lending, including commercial loans, credit cards, and home equity. But there is a risk that additional bank problems, such as the realization of substantial CRE losses, could further constrain bank lending right at the time when credit is needed to support economic growth.
President Lockhart draws the connection between further bank problems and the prospects for small business-led recovery by observing that small businesses depend significantly on the banking sector as a source of financing. (A 2003 Federal Reserve survey of financial services used by small business showed over 50 percent of small businesses had a credit line or bank loan. In addition about half of small businesses use a personal or business credit card.)
The dependence of small businesses on banks is particularly problematic if the banks facing the most severe CRE problems also are a significant source of loans to small businesses.
It turns out that much of the CRE exposure is concentrated among the set of 6,880 or so smaller banking institutions (banks with total assets under $10 billion). Based on the June 2009 Bank Call Report data, these banks represented 20 percent of total commercial bank assets in the United States but hold almost half of the CRE loans.
It seems reasonable to assume that the banks with high exposure to CRE (say, those with CRE exposure as measured by a CRE loan book that is more than three times their tier one capital) are likely to take a conservative approach toward additional loan growth. The bad news is that the banks with the highest CRE exposure also account for about 40 percent of all commercial loans under $1 million–the types of loans most likely used by small businesses.
It is important to recognize that this analysis does not automatically imply small businesses will not be able to get needed funding when demand increases. For instance, even if banks with high CRE exposure are unable to expand lending as demand increases, it is possible that other banks that are less constrained will be able to step in to provide the needed financing. Also, small businesses depend a lot on other sources of financing, such as credit cards, and the large card issuers tend to have low CRE exposure.
Today, the number one challenge for small businesses remains poor sales rather than access to credit. But tomorrow, it will be important that small businesses also have access to funding if they are going to play their traditional role as an engine of growth.
By John Robertson, a vice president in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
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