Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism and Accrued Interest have both taken very measured views of the Fed's new Term Auction Facility, which gets its big start on Monday. As Smith puts it, TAF is the "discount window with no stigma and another pricing mechanism". He also notes that the Fed's novel device looks just like the same old auctions the ECB has been using as a monetary policy tool for years, and observes pessimistically that "the gap between non-dollar Libor and the ECB's target rate is higher than the spread between Libor and Fed funds. Not a good sign." (Bloomberg reports that Friday's markets shared Smith's skepticism.) Accrued Interest, responding to my ravings, suggests that TAF is no more a "bail-out" than any other lending at the discount window.
Yves Smith and Accrued Interest are two of the finest financial bloggers out there. If you are dallying here without having read every word they've written, your priorities are out of whack. Nevertheless, both are missing a forest of difference among trees of similarity. To call TAF the discount window without the stigma is like calling a person a corpse that is not dead.
In theory, TAF and the discount window are quite similar. In practice, it never mattered what the discount window was, because it was so little used. TAF is the discount window remastered. It is designed to be used, in quantities heretofore inconceivable. James Hamiltion, in an excellent discussion of the facility, shows a graph of historical direct lending by the Fed. Thanks to TAF, the graph through December 2007 will show a spike so tall you'd need a screen three times as tall as a typical monitor just to accommodate. Prior to TAF, the Fed had no effective tool for getting funds to banks in trouble, since loans at the Federal Funds rate are only available to banks that other banks trust, and borrowing at the discount window is expensive, financially and reputationally. With TAF, the Fed can lend directly to the sketchiest banks, and on very generous terms, without spooking depositors. As the ECB's experience suggests, this funding mechanism can made quite routine. Some commentators view TAF as a temporary means of addressing end-of-year liquidity issues, but I suspect that TAF will be an active part of the Fed's monetary policy arsenal for the foreseeable future.
If TAF is so similar to the ECB's facility, why should it matter? After all, the ECB hasn't succeeded at calming European interbank markets, yet. But, in the words of the maestro (Eric Clapton), "It's in the way that you use it." In order to reduce interbank spreads, central banks have to (1) auction money in quantities sufficient to ensure that the "market price" is quite close to the interbank rate policymakers view as healthy; (2) accept a wide variety of bank assets as collateral, and place high valuations on those assets relative to the market bid; and (3) credibly signal that it is willing and able to continue these policies in perpetuity, or until the crisis is abated, whichever comes first. Point (1) immediately drops the cost of borrowing by troubled banks to "ordinary" levels. However, this alone will not immediately reduce spreads on loans are still made between banks. Private banks will still fear counterparty defaults even if the central bank is blasé. Interbank spreads might even widen, as lenders view failure to anticipate and secure adequate funding at auction as a sign of trouble. Point (2), over time, will remedy this. Easy lending against a broad panoply of assets helps ensure that banks have the capacity to bid for all the funding they need. At the same time (as Yves Smith was quick to point out), the price at which assets are accepted as collateral suggests a floor for accounting valuations, helping to assure counterparties that borrowers won't be thrown into crisis by a sudden write-down. Again, the effect here won't be immediate — as long as collateral values and market bids are divergent, there will be valuation uncertainty. But, that's where point (3) comes into play. There's an arbitrage between exchange value and long-maturity collateral value. If the traders view collateral values as stable, eventually market bids will rise to approach the central-bank set asset prices.
This medicine will take time to work. Central banks will have to establish credible expectations of continued support. Don't expect "forward looking markets" to reprice spreads until central bankers establish a track record. The ECB is not auctioning enough money yet, but it will. I suspect that, despite Europe's institutional head start, it will be Bernanke's radical Fed that shows the way.
Many commentators view TAF as an odd, desperate attempt by the Fed to do something, or to seem to do something, in a desperate situation. That is not my view. I think the Fed is acting quite deliberately here, that it is working out of a playbook that the Chairman developed and described years ago. I am optimistic that the Fed's approach, if pursued tenaciously, can succeed in undoing the widespread perception of risk and instability in the banking system.
Of course, "optimistic" is not quite the right word here, because I oppose the whole enterprise. All the talk about moral hazard and burning houses misses the point. The financial sector has underwritten gargantuan misallocations of real resources in the United States, and profited handsomely from doing so. The cost of these errors is not just a matter of homes foreclosed, or a period of commercial turbulence and unemployment. We face the prospect of a serious decline in living standards, increased danger of conflict between large powers (which hopefully, but not certainly, will be confined to the economic sphere), and the possibility of social instability of a kind we've not witnessed for decades. There are actors in this drama who "deserve" to be punished, under a nineteenth century view of moral hazard. But that is not why we should endure rather than resist a painful restructuring of the financial sector. If we could let bygones be bygones and move on, that'd be great. But the reason for institutional accountability in any setting is not to shame and punish, but to create the conditions under which future actors will not misbehave. Contra Nouriel Roubini, the real economy cannot be "bailed out". It must be built and repaired via the wise application of present scarce goods and services, rather than salved with promises of future goods and services. We require a financial sector capable of aggregating widely dispersed information into wise choices regarding the use of present resources. We absolutely do not have such a financial sector right now. Which is why the very expensive financial sector that we do have should be let go.
Existing players, including the Fed, won't see it this way. The Fed will lend to support collateral values at levels higher than conventional valuations would merit. They will work with financial institutions to roll over loans as necessary, even against decaying collateral, rebundling assets to maintain some veneer of plausibility when underlying cash flows develop poorly over time. The proud titans of Wall Street can and probably will be bailed out. The rest of us are not so lucky.
- 17-Dec-2007, 3:42 p.m. EST: Cleaned up / reworded third paragraph quite a bit.