Yes, Virginia. The banks really were bailed out.

I find it really depressing that I have to write this. But it seems I have to write it.

Substantially all of the TARP funds advanced to banks have been paid back, with interest and sometimes even with a profit from sales of warrants. Most of the (much larger) extraordinary liquidity facilities advanced by the Fed have also been wound down without credit losses. So there really was no bailout, right? The banks took loans and paid them back.


Suppose you buy fire insurance from Inflammable Insurance. You pay $1000 for a year of insurance. There is no fire, so you make no claim. Next year, you find a different provider offering a better price, and you switch.

Soon after your relationship has ended, you discover that Inflammable failed to pay any claims at all during the year you were insured, because all customer premiums were diverted to the Cayman Islands and then spent on kiddy porn and Pez. Were you defrauded? Do you have any cause for complaint? After all, ex post your cash flows turned out to be the same as if you had been dealt with fairly.

Of course you have been defrauded. You did not get what you had paid for. You had paid for Inflammable to bear risk on your behalf. It did not do so. The money you paid was simply stolen.

In financial markets, risk-bearing is the ultimate commodity. It is what financial market participants buy and sell. As a financial speculator, I spend exorbitant amounts of money buying out-of-the-money options to limit my downside risk. The vast majority of those options expire worthless, just like the vast majority of fire insurance policies end with no claims paid. If only someone would give me all those options for free, or sell them to me for half the market price, or reimburse the cost of the options that I never end up using, I would be rich. Seriously, given the years I’ve been in this game, I’d be pretty set if I had my option premiums back. It doesn’t seem fair at all that I am confined to a modest middle-class life because I had to buy all this insurance I never used.

Cash is not king in financial markets. Risk is. The government bailed out major banks by assuming the downside risk of major banks when those risks were very large, for minimal compensation. In particular, the government 1) offered regulatory forbearance and tolerated generous valuations; 2) lent to financial institutions at or near risk-free interest rates against sketchy collateral (directly or via guarantee); 3) purchased preferred shares at modest dividend rates under TARP; 4) publicly certified the banks with stress tests and stated “no new Lehmans”. By these actions, the state assumed substantially all of the downside risk of the banking system. The market value of this risk-assumption by the government was more than the entire value of the major banks to their “private shareholders”. On commercial terms, the government paid for and ought to have owned several large banks lock, stock, and barrel. Instead, officials carefully engineered deals to avoid ownership and control.

But still. Everything worked out, right? It turns out that banks didn’t need to use the government’s giant insurance policy. It was just a panic after all!


Suppose my kid’s meth habit got the best of him. He needs to come up with $100K quick or his dealer’s gonna whack him. But he’s a good kid, really! Coulda happened to anyone. So I “lend” him the money, even though he has no visible means of support and the sketchiest loan sharks in town wouldn’t give him the time of day. Now I believe in bootstraps and hard work, individualism and self-reliance. So I tell my son. “Son, you are going to pay me back every penny of that loan. You are going to work it off. I have arranged with one of my golf buddies, a guy who owes me a favor or three, a job that pays $200K a year. You’d better show up every day at 9 a.m. and sit behind that desk, and get me back my money!” And he does! After a year, he’s made me whole. What a good kid.

No bail out, right? He paid me back every penny! Worked it off!

Bullshit. The opportunity I provided him, the $200K job that he would not have received without my intercession, was a huge grant. On the open market, if I were to accept bribes from the highest bidder to wangle the job from my friend, that opportunity would be worth more than the $100K advanced. I paid my son’s loan with my own money. I just obscured the cash flows, so my son and I can pretend and sustain our mutual self-regard and our righteous disdain for the moochers and the hippies and the riff-raff.

After assuming the banking system’s downside risk, the US government engineered a wide variety of favorable circumstances that helped banks “earn” their way back to quasi-health. The government provided famous and obvious transfers like unwinding AIG swaps at 100¢ on the dollar. It forced short-term yields to zero and created an environment in which medium-term interest rates would be capped for several years, granting banks a near-risk-free arbitrage for a while. It emitted trillions in excess reserves on which it continues to pay interest. It forewent investigations and prosecutions that by law it should actively pursue, and settled what enforcement it could not avoid for token fees. Then there are the things conspiracy theorists and cranks like me suspect but cannot prove: that the government and the Fed have been less than aggressive in minimizing their costs when they or entities they control (AIG, Fannie, Freddie) transact with large banks, that they have left money on the table where doing so could be hidden in arcane accounts or justified as ordinary transaction expenses and trading losses. Large banks have enjoyed some rather extraordinary results for allegedly efficient markets, quarters with large trading profits and no or very few losing days. Government housing policy is pretty overtly subject to a constraint that interventions must not provoke loss realizations for banks carrying bad loans at inflated values, or interfere with servicing revenues. (If you think I am overconspiratorial, I’m still waiting for an innocent explanation of this, from 1991.)

Pulling back from a shell game whose details are, by design, labyrinthine, check out the big picture. Since the beginning of the 3rd quarter of 2008 (Lehman quarter), US debt held by the public increased by 84%, from $5.28T to $9.75T (as of the end of Q2 2011). Depending on where you start, the growth rate of publicly held US debt prior to Q3 2008 had been ~8% per year (starting in 1970 or 1980) or ~4.5% (starting in 1990 or 2000). The growth rate since Q3-2008 has been 22.6% per year. The United States has issued between $3T and $4T more debt than would have been predicted by any reasonable estimate prior to the financial crisis. So far.

Hyman Minsky famously described crisis stabilization as a two-step process: First, the state/central-bank steps in as lender of last resort to halt the panic. Then the state must underwrite a program of massive deficit spending in order to “validate” — Minsky’s word — the fragile capital structures and the “innovative” business practices that proliferate during periods of tranquility.

Translating into current buzzwords, when the trouble begins there is a solvency crisis. It is converted into a liquidity crisis ex post by a firehose of net spending by the state. The current crisis has followed Minsky’s script perfectly. Banks’ ability to “pay back” bailouts has depended upon continued regulatory forbearance, tacit expectations of support if shit hits the fan again, and massive government debt issuance which resuscitated assets that would otherwise be worthless.

But who has lost anything from the bailouts? Wasn’t it a win-win? This all sounds very abstract. Where are the transfers?

If the government borrowed or printed a trillion dollars and gave the money to me, would there be any losers? If you don’t think there has been a wealth transfer, if you don’t think ordinary people have lost, please call your Congressperson and ask her to cut me a trillion dollar check. In some abstract sense, this policy of giving me money would push government debt higher. But that is so very vague a cost! I promise I’d do great things with a trillion dollars. My ideas are so much cooler than Goldman Sachs’, despite all the wholesome commercials they are running.

During the run-up to the financial crisis, bank managers, shareholders, and creditors paid themselves hundreds of billions of dollars in dividends, buybacks, bonuses and interest. Had the state intervened less generously, a substantial fraction of those payouts might have been recovered (albeit from different cohorts of stakeholders, as many recipients of past payouts had already taken their money and ran). The market cap of the 19 TARP banks that received more than a billion dollars each in assistance is about 550B dollars today (even after several of those banks’ share prices have collapsed over fears of Eurocontagion). The uninsured debt of those banks is and was a large multiple of their market caps. Had the government resolved the weakest of the banks, writing off equity and haircutting creditors, had it insisted on retaining upside commensurate with the fraction of risk it was bearing on behalf of stronger banks, the taxpayer savings would have run from hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars. We can get into all kinds of arguments over what would have been practical and legal. Regardless of whether the government could or could not have abstained from making the transfers that it made, it did make huge transfers. Bank stakeholders retain hundreds of billions of dollars against taxpayer losses of the same, relative to any scenario in which the government received remotely adequate compensation first for the risk it assumed, and then for quietly moving Heaven and Earth to obscure and (partially) neutralize that risk.

The banks were bailed out. Big time.

Update History:

  • 1-Dec-2011, 7:20 a.m. EST: Light edits: “received more than a billion dollars each in assistance”; “weakest of those the banks”; “that he would not otherwise have received without my intercession,“; “like paying unwinding AIG swaps”; “entities they controls control”
  • 10-Jun-2014, 3:25 p.m. PDT: “He’s He needs to come up with $100K”

Toy models of inequality, negative interest rates, revolutions, and trade deficits

Oddly, the toy model in the appendix of my previous post got a bit of attention. Megan McArdle is unimpressed. In the model, I posit a world in which abundant labor and scarce land yield an unstorable crop in great quantity. But because labor is so abundant (and so the marginal labor unproductive), wages are low and a vast surplus accrues to the landowners, far more than they can possibly consume. I posited that in this economy, the interest rate would be -100%. Laborers would be eager to “borrow” but would have no way to repay. Land owners would lose nothing to “lend”.

McArdle takes issue with this: “[A]t the limits of land scarcity and labor receive approximately all the bread and laborers receive approximately none of it.” She asks why laborers don’t die, but then answers her own question, and poses one for me.

[I]t’s a simplifying model. But…[o]nce you add in complications — the workers do need to eat, which means positive earnings — then it’s not clear you’re still in a model where persistent negative interest rates are possible. Once I am appropriating some subsistence amount of my marginal product, then, well, I can skip dinner today in order to enjoy two dinners tomorrow. Interest rates are positive.

She’s not entirely wrong and not entirely right here. Picking a nit, paying subsistence is not sufficient to generate an inter-worker lending market. You also have to sprinkle in some uncertainty or heterogeneity of circumstance. Identical laborers with identical wages never borrow or lend to one another. That’s a stupid point to a reader, since any realistic world has plenty of heterogeneity and uncertainty. But it’s a crucial point for the model writer, because, in the kind of models I tend to think about, the structure of uncertainties drives the results.

So, let’s posit idiosyncratic shocks to circumstance among our laborers. Then, as McArdle suggests, an inter-worker lending market with positive interest rates might arise. Or it might not. As I’ve sketched the model, land owners are indifferent between i) mocking the peasants’ hunger while bread rots; ii) “giv[ing] their excess bread to charity in return for a nice smile and tip of the hat” (Nick Rowe); or iii) participating in a lending market. If land owners don’t lend, McArdle is right — laborers face positive interest rates. If land owners do lend, we need to know more about laborers’ preferences and circumstances, but the market clearing interest rate might well remain negative -100% because the land owners will have flooded the market with bread. Loan demand will tell the tale:

So, even if the laborers have wages and can lend to one another, it’s perfectly possible for a wall of hot money from the rich to drive interest rates negative. Yay me.

(The shape of the supply curve is exaggerated, but I could use this diagram to summarize my view of the last decade. Pre-crisis, financial alchemists kept us on the high loan demand equilibrium. Post-crisis, effective loan demand has fallen, as people less likely to repay have been rationed out of the market. The result is a new equilibrium at a negative rate.)

My toy model is unsatisfying so long as we don’t understand why, as Nick Rowe wonders, the rich don’t simply give their surplus bread away. Rowe overprojects his own goodwill when he suggests the smiles of peasants would engender certain charity. But we’ve no reason to privilege sadistic withholding or ritualized lending either. Suppose the usual selfish homo economicus. Under what circumstances would the land owners be driven to lend of their own self-interest? It is not enough, as it would be among the peasants, to posit idiosyncratic, symmetric shocks for landlords that leave them sometimes hungry. That would lead to some kind of mutual insurance between lenders — I’ll give you my surplus this period if you give me yours when I have a drought. In order to drive lending to laborers, we need there to be some state of the world in which laborers as a group would have some wealth when landowners are short. If there is even a small probability of such a state, even if both the probability of that state and the expected recovery on loans is small, land owners will lend at negative formal rates rather than give charitably or horde sadistically.

In theory, it is enough to posit kitchen gardens among the peasants whose three-radish harvests are independent of land-owner droughts. That would break the indifference and tip the scale to lending. But it feels like a cheap modeling trick. What kind of shocks could make land owners really prefer lending at an expected loss over other uses?

An obvious possibility is political risk, or in extremis revolution. Suppose there is mobility between peasants and landowners, so that they must sometimes trade places (the king elevates a peasant to a lord, and demotes the old lord to a peasant). If loan contracts might survive the demotions, so that a new lord would honor a debt to his predecessor, that would be a strong reason for land owners to prefer lending over charity or waste, even if the lending rates are negative and the likelihood of demotion is small.

In the modern real world, we don’t have kings and nobles, but we do have billionaires who face some risk of expropriation. After their expected consumption needs are seen to, it is perfectly rational for these investors to accept sharply negative rates on loans whose repayment would resist such misfortune. Unfortunately, billionaires’ recovery of loans to their own nations’ poor might be negatively correlated with revolution. So they should prefer to supply loans externally rather than domestically, even at low or negative interest rates. The increased likelihood of surviving a revolution would offset the cost of any price concession.

This model would predict a positive correlation between within-country inequality and gross capital outflows. If nations are homogeneously unequal and unstable, there might be symmetrical diversification and little net imbalance of flows. But if some nations less unequal or are viewed as unusually reliable loan destinations, they’d experience net inflows. Price-insensitive capital flows would engender trade deficits, as risk-averse foreign elites accept low returns from safe countries despite much better returns elsewhere on a conventionally risk-adjusted basis. To very wealthy investors, the correlation structure of tail risk would be the primary driver of investment behavior, far outweighing questions of price.

Paul Krugman argues that if there’s a savings glut exerting a downward pull on US real interest rates, it must be driven by foreign saving rather than domestic inequality, as net saving by US households was on a secular decline prior to the current crisis. I’d need more evidence, because, as Kevin Drum points out, low net household saving could include accelerating saving by the very wealthy masked by debt-financed consumption of the less affluent. Domestic inequality may yet be an important part of the story. But I agree with Krugman that price insensitive foreign capital has been the clearest source of interest rate gravity. The secular decline in US real interest rates since the 1980s has been matched by a secular deterioration in the US balance of payments. Ben Bernanke’s famous 2005 speech on a “global savings glut” was all about foreign capital inflows. As a long-time Brad Setser groupie, I would never downplay the scale or role of financial imbalance in reshaping the world economy.

But financial imbalance is at least in part an inequality story, and may be only the tip of an iceberg of gross cross-border capital flows from sources willing to pay for insurance or other goods rather than seek return in units of consumption. The supply of capital, like any other good, reflects the opportunity cost of its providers. The quantities we observe are effects more than causes. For a Chinese government purchasing development and domestic stability, or a Saudi prince exchanging appreciating oil for depreciating London bank deposits, or an American oligarch overpaying for apartments in far flung countries, the opportunity cost of capital has little to do with units of CPI foregone. As the marginal supplier of capital, domestically and internationally, comes to look less like an individual balancing present vs future consumption and more like a billionaire or a state, models of capital allocation that focus on investors seeking “real return” fade into irrelevance.

I don’t think we have any sense of how a “market economy” behaves under this form of capital allocation. Unfortunately, I think we are a long way down the road towards finding out. Even wealth allegedly invested on behalf of modest savers is increasingly centralized and managed by agents whose choices are dominated by professional trends, regulatory safe harbors, and front-loaded asymmetric payouts. It’s a brave new world, unless we find some way to restore investment decisionmaking to people whose trade-offs of current for uncertain future wealth more closely resemble those faced by ordinary, nonsatiated consumers.

The negative unnatural rate of interest

David Andolfatto points out that US five-year real interest rates are now negative. Nick Rowe discusses the possibility that the so-called “natural” real interest rate could be negative, referring us to Frances Woolley’s discussion of the drag demographics might exert on real returns. (I’ll respond to Rowe and Woolley specifically in a little appendix to this post, but I want to start more generally.)

When we observe negative real rates, they are often attributed to something abnormal. Perhaps it is “depression economics” which has driven interest rates underground, or, as Andolfatto rather charitably considers, a misguided tax and regulatory regime.

I think this aberrationist view is quite wrong. I don’t think you can make sense of the last decade without understanding that the so-called real interest rate has been trying to fall through zero for years. Only tireless innovation by the men and women of Wall Street prevented negative rates long before the traumas of 2008. A deep cause of the financial crisis was a simple expectation: That lenders ought to earn a “decent” real, risk-free yield even while a variety of trends — skyrocketing incomes for the 0.1%, the professionalization of investing, leverage-induced risk aversion, China — were creating Ben Bernanke’s famous savings glut. The market response to a global savings glut ought to have been sharply negative real interest rates for low risk savers. But as a society, we resent and resist that capitalist outcome. It is well and good for markets to drive the price of undifferentiated labor asymptotically towards zero. But God forbid that “savers” not be paid for supplying a factor that turns out not to be scarce. Instead, an alphabet soup of financial innovations was conjured to transform bad lending into demand for low risk money, and thereby support its price. Now those innovations have failed, and the fact of negative real interest rates is plainly before us. But we are still, desperately, resisting it.

There is no such thing as a “natural” anything in economics. Economic behavior is human artifact and artifice. When economists call anything “natural” — the natural rate of interest, or of unemployment — you should recall Joan Robinson’s famous quip:

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.

The word natural is always used to hide the constructed context in which an outcome occurs, to disguise human institutions as immutable facts and thereby exclude them from controversy. What was the “natural” real rate of interest in 2006? According to TIPS yields, 5-year real interest rates were about 2.5%. But those rates were observed under the institutional context of a structured finance boom which transformed a lot of loose credit into allegedly risk-free lending demand. Was that rate “artificial” then? Today those same rates are -1%. Is this “natural”?

Ultimately, the words are meaningless. The level of interest rates that prevails in the market will be the result of a mix of institutional choices and economic circumstances. For now, we are in a bit of a pickle, because if we are “conservative” — if we stick with familiar institutional arrangements — we end up with outcomes that are violently disagreeable to our cultural prejudices. In social terms, a negative real rate of interest means that prudence is a cost, not a virtue. Caution is a greater vice than spending what you have and hoping for the best. Savers must be punished for their thrift.

In a sense, this is perfectly “natural”. Current spenders assume risks of future deprivation that current savers are unwilling to accept. Why shouldn’t spenders be paid to bear that burden? Transforming present resources into future wealth is uncertain and difficult work. Savers’ expectation of a positive real interest rate amounts to a demand for time travel cheaper-than-free. Why should such unreason be accommodated? The sense of entitlement carried by savers in our society would put any welfare queen to shame.

So, are negative real rates the way to go? Should we just tell savers exactly what we tell laborers? The price of the factor you supply has fallen. This is capitalism, quit whining and deal with it!

Maybe. But maybe not. In theory, a sufficiently negative rate of interest could restore a full employment, noninflationary equilibrium. I think that’s the market monetarist solution.

But it might not work out so well. Debt is a particular and problematic institution. If savers must pay borrowers for the privilege of carrying forward wealth, it matters in the real world whom they pay and how well those people do their jobs. Borrowers can always default, even after they have contracted loans at negative interest rates. If we try to restrict lending to only very creditworthy borrowers, we’ll find that real interest rates have to fall sharply negative to induce spending by people who would otherwise be inclined to save. If we allow more liberal credit standards, we’ll observe higher notional interest rates, but only as prelude to widespread defaults. We’ve seen that movie and it isn’t entertaining.

Ideally, a special class of borrowers, entrepreneurs, would invest borrowed funds in projects precisely designed to meet savers’ future consumption requirements. But in a sufficiently unequal society, the marginal saver may have vastly more wealth than is necessary to endow her own future consumption (including proximate bequests). There may be lots of ways to turn today’s resources into “future wealth” in a general sense, but goods and services in excess of what today’s lenders will be able to consume or reinvest in future periods are worthless to the people who set the price of money. The marginal productivity of investment may remain high technologically even as its marginal productivity to existing lenders turns sharply negative. (More accurately, both the marginal present and future dollar may have no consumption value to a lender, but in a accounting terms the value of a present dollar is fixed, while the relative value of a future dollar is flexible as long as there is inflation or some other means of circumventing the nominal zero bound.) It is the marginal productivity of investment to existing lenders that sets a floor beneath market interest rates. If we posit satiable consumption and sufficient inequality, market interest rates can approach -100% even while technologically fruitful projects go unfunded, because the projects would be of benefit only to people with little to offer the marginal lender.

The horizons of the future are broad, and lenders can invest in speculative future consumption like traveling to outer space rather than throw away money on nonproductive, low risk projects. People who seem now to have little to offer potential lenders might come up with new goods and services that savers will desire in the future. But debt is not the right instrument to fund speculative outlays, most of which will not be repaid. It would be an answer to the problem of negative real interest rates, if today’s risk-averse lenders would finance an exuberance of uncertain ventures. The majority would fail, but rare successes might be more valuable to lenders than certain negative returns on risk-free loans. This would require big changes on the part of current lenders and the institutions through which their funds are channeled. Rather than regulate a risk-free interest rate or scalar cost of capital, we’d need to find ways to encourage exploration, idiosyncratic judgment calls, and equity finance. It is foolish to presume that negative real interest rates alone will inspire a golden age of speculative investing.

If we rely too heavily on negative real interest rates to spur the economic activity, my prediction is that we will see a lot of false dawns and social strife. Savers of modest means are harmed and outraged by low market interest rates and use the political system to try to raise them. Regardless of macro models or market outcomes, we have a cultural bias against negative real rates. We hold prudence dearer than profligacy. We don’t work to teach our children to spend their allowances. We work to teach them to save. More people are willing to spend incautiously than are able to husband savings carefully. If we were to cast away the norm that saving is praiseworthy and spending decadent, rather than getting contingent, market-price-regulated spending/savings behavior, we might end up with a culture incapable of saving. We want most people to face a positive real interest rate, not because that is the price that equilibrates a market, but because positive real interest rates reward behavior we wish to uphold as a virtuous.

Our current negative real interest rates are not an aberration, but a product of longstanding and continuing trends. However, since neither those trends nor the negative rates are conducive a decent and prosperous society, it is foolish to refer to them as “natural”. We need to alter the circumstances under which full-employment requires that lenders pay borrowers to spend. We need to reshape “nature” until the new natural rate is positive. We need to understand the circumstances that lead investors to accept negative real returns rather than finance new ventures. We have to think about issues like income and wealth inequality, the structure of labor markets, institutional investor incentives, financial risk-aversion and deleveraging. We need to transform existing institutions, or invent new ones.

Appendix: Persistently negative real interest rates might have many causes. Nick Rowe and Frances Woolley tell stories that are essentially technological: Suppose we can bake a lot of bread today, but no so much bread thirty years from now. But we’ll need bread thirty years from now, and bread cannot be stored. Then no matter what we do with our surplus of bread, no matter who consumes and who saves, we’ll end up with a shortfall of bread in the future. Whatever we try to save, we’ll not recover. Institutional innovation can’t help us out very much, other than to arrange an allocation future pain.

But technological incapacity is not the only possible cause of negative real interest rates, nor I think the relevant cause at the moment. Unequal distribution can drive interest rates negative as well.

Suppose that land to grow wheat is scarce but labor to farm and bake it into bread is abundant. Land-owners and laborers are paid their marginal products, which at the limits of land scarcity and labor abundance means that land-owners receive approximately all the bread and laborers receive approximately none of it. Suppose that people prefer a bite of bread now to a bite of bread later, but that in each period, no individual can eat more than twice what their share of total output would be if total output were evenly divided. Land owners at full gluttony can eat no more than a small fraction of potential output, and they cannot store the surplus. Technology and population are stable, but land owners face negative real interest rate. There are laborers who would be glad to borrow the surplus bread, but they have no capacity to repay. The real interest rate on the bread lending market would be -100%.

In this economy, if a government were to tax land owners in every period and redistribute total production by lottery, so that each individual receives a per capita share of production in expectation, but variable amounts in practice, a wheat lending market would arise in which people receiving lower-than-average shares borrow from lend to people receiving greater than average shares at a positive real interest rate determined by agents’ time preference. Technology and population remain perfectly stable, but positive real interest rates arise as a function of institutional choices.

To be clear, I don’t think that the bread economy I’ve described is a remotely useful model of our actual economy, or that stochastically equal redistribution is remotely desirable public policy. But in response to Rowe and Woolley, while it is certainly true that technological limits can force real interest rates negative, it does not follow that observed negative real interest rates reflect technological limits. Observed interest rates are a function of distributions and institutions as well as technology, and it is perfectly possible that institutional innovation could cure observed negative real rates, if in fact we want them to be cured.

Update History:

  • 8-Nov-2011, 2:25 p.m. EST: Changed “loose lending” to “loose credit” to avoid repetition of the world “lending”.
  • 11-Nov-2011, 1:35 a.m. EST: With respect to who borrows from whom. See scratch-and-update in second to last paragraph. Many thanks to commenter ferd for pointing out the error.

Expectations can be frustrated

As the previous post suggests, I support targeting an NGDP path. I think an NGDP path target is superior in nearly every respect to an inflation target, and so would represent a clear improvement over current practice. [1]

But, unlike the “market monetarists”, I do not believe that central banks can sustainably track their target, whether NGDP or inflation, given the set of tools currently at their disposal. If those tools are (misguidedly) expanded to permit central banks to lend more freely or purchase a wider range of debt instruments, “success” might prove counterproductive. Although Scott Sumner and Bill Woolsey and Matt Rognlie hate the idea, I think we need to add direct-to-household “helicopter drops” to our menu of instruments. Ultimately, I have a different theory of depressions than the market monetarists do.

Self-fulfilling expectations lie at the heart of the market monetarist theory. A depression occurs when people come to believe that income will be scarce relative to prior expectations and debts. They nervously scale back expenditures and hoard cash, fulfilling their expectations of income scarcity. However, if everybody could suddenly be made to believe that income would be plentiful, everyone would spend freely and fulfill the expectations of plenty. The world is a much more pleasant place under the second set of expectations than the first. And to switch between the two scenarios, all that is required is persuasion. The market-monetarist central bank is nothing more than a great persuader: when “shocks happen”, it persuades us all to maintain our optimism about the path of nominal income. As long as we all keep the faith, our faith will be rewarded. This is not a religion, but a Nash equilibrium.

If the market monetarists’ theory of depressions is correct, then their position is correct. They are famously vague and prickly on the question of what instruments or “concrete steps” central banks will use to achieve their objective. That is because it doesn’t matter one bit, as long as those instruments are persuasive. Whether police wield pistols or tanks or tear gas or nightsticks to keep the peace really doesn’t matter, as long as their choice is sufficiently intimidating that people are deterred from resisting their authority. We only care about the weapon they’ve chosen when deterrence has failed and they are forced to act. Then we are faced with damage from the violence required to sustain their credibility. Even then, if we are certain they will restore order quickly and that incidents of disorder will be rare, we might not worry so much over means. But if conditions are such that lawlessness will not be deterred, there will be no general peace but frequent mêlées on the streets, then it matters very much how the police fight their battles. We start to ask whether the medicine is better than the side effects, whether police tactics are well tailored to improve the underlying conditions and restore a durable peace.

I have a Minsky/Mankiw theory of depressions. The economy is divided into two kinds of people, spenders and savers. Perhaps some people lack impulse control and have bad character, while others are patient and provident. Perhaps structural inequality renders some people hungry but cash-constrained, while others have income in excess of satiable consumption. Let’s put those questions aside and just posit two different and reasonably stable groups of people. Variation in aggregate expenditure is due mostly to changes in the behavior of the spenders. Savers spend at a relatively constant rate and save the rest. Spenders spend whatever they can earn or borrow, which varies with the level of wages, the cost of servicing debt they’ve accrued in the past, and the availability of new credit.

In this world, a central bank that targets something — NGDP, inflation, whatever — doesn’t regulate behavior via expectations. Instead, the central bank regulates access to credit and wages. When the economy is “overheating”, the central bank raises interest rates to increase debt servicing costs, tightens credit standards to diminish new borrowing, and if absolutely necessary squeezes so hard that a recession reduces spenders’ wages via unemployment. When the economy is below potential, the central bank reduces interest rates and relaxes credit standards, encouraging spenders to borrow and leaving them with higher wages net of interest payments.

This is a pretty good gig, it works pretty well, especially when the marginal dollar of expenditure is borrowed and easily regulated by the central bank. But if there are lower bounds on interest rates and credit standards, the scheme is not indefinitely sustainable. Even when spenders hold consistent, reasonably optimistic expectations about the economy, it becomes continually more difficult to persuade them to maintain their level of spending. The cost of debt service grows as their indebtedness grows, reducing their ability to spend. New borrowing becomes more difficult as wages are dwarfed by liabilities. Individuals become more nervous that some blip in their complicated lives will leave them unable to meet their obligations. In order to hold expenditure constant, interest rates must fall, credit standards must loosen, the value of spenders’ one consumption good that survives as pledgeable collateral — their homes — must be made to rise. Stabilizing expenditure requires continual easing. Any sort of lower bound provokes a “Minsky moment”, as expenditures that can no longer be sustained unexpectedly contract, rendering maxed-out spenders unable to service their debts.

All of this is just a theory, but I think it fits the facts better than a theory that takes stable demand and depression as arbitrary “sunspot” equilibria, selected by expectations. If the demand-stable “great moderation” had been an equilibrium, one might expect parameters like interest rates and aggregate indebtedness to be stable or to mean-revert around their long-term values. They were not. Interest rates were in secular decline throughout the period, and the indebtedness of some households to others was consistently rising as a fraction of GDP. Credit standards declined.

If my theory is right, absent significant structural change, attempting to restore demand merely by shocking expectations would be like trying to defibrillate a corpse. Yes, NGDP expectations absolutely did collapse over the course of 2008, but that was not due to a transient shock but a secular change which made the prior stabilization regime untenable. The housing collapse and credit crisis made it impossible to sustain expenditure by loosening credit standards. That left interest rates as the only tool by which to encourage spenders, but the zero nominal bound and rising credit spreads rendered that lever insufficient. Since 2008, whenever expectations have begun to perk up — and they have, several times — yet another “shock” has come along and returned us to pessimism (“OMG, Europe!”). Eventually you have to wonder whether there isn’t something more than arbitrary about these negative expectations.

The market monetarists might retort that a sufficiently determined central bank, if given license to lend and purchase assets as it sees fit, can always meet a nominal spending target, and therefore can always set expectations of nominal demand. That may be true. But in the context of an economy structurally resistant to increasing expenditure, expectations of stable nominal income become equivalent to expectations of continual central bank expansion. NGDP expectations can be maintained, if and only if the central bank demonstrates its willingness to continually intervene.

If intervention will be frequent and chronic, precisely what instruments the central bank intends to use becomes a matter of great public concern, rather than a technocratic detail best left to professionals. Central banks may significantly shape patterns of consumption and investment by choosing to whom they are willing to lend and on what terms. They may pick winners and losers, not for a brief Paul Volcker Chuck Norris moment but for the indefinite future.

So, I am all for targeting an NGDP path. I think it’s a great idea, and have more nice things to say about it. I hope the market monetarists are right, that merely by announcing an NGDP target and showing resolve in a one-time wrestling match with skeptics, central banks can restore a high-demand equilibrium. But if we adopt an NGDP target and are serious about it, there is significant risk that we will be committing to chronic intervention. The market monetarists owe us a more serious conversation than they’ve offered so far about how monetary policy would be conducted if resetting expectations turns out not to be enough. Would the interventions they propose be fair, if pursued cumulatively over many years? Would they be wise? Would they help resolve the structural problems that have rendered it so difficult to sustain demand, or would they exacerbate those problems?

[1] Yes, the US Federal Reserve has its murky triple mandate. But in practice tracking a tacit inflation target seems to dominate. Other central banks are at least explicit in their poor choice of a target.

Update History:

  • 29-Oct-2011, 7:10 p.m. EDT: Changed “a more durable peace” to “a durable peace”. “there is a significant risk” to “there is significant risk”.

The moral case for NGDP targeting

The last few weeks have seen high-profile endorsements of having the Federal Reserve target a nominal GDP path. (See Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Jan Hatzius and colleagues at Goldman Sachs.) This is a huge victory for the “market monetarists”, a group that includes Scott Sumner, Nick Rowe, David Beckworth, Josh Hendrickson, Bill Woolsey, Marcus Nunes, Niklas Blanchard, David Glasner, Kantoos, and Lars Christensen. Sumner in particular deserves congratulations. He has been on a mission from God for several years now, and has worked tirelessly to persuade us all that central banks should target NGDP, and that they have to ability to do so even after interest rates fall to zero.

I have reservations about the market monetarists’ project. I’m not certain that the Fed has the tools to meet an NGDP target, or if it does have the tools, that the costs of deploying them to establish its credibility are supportable. Moreover, I don’t think that the market monetarists have sufficiently thought through the consequences of success, in accounting terms, if they restrict themselves to lending to the private sector (or, equivalently, purchasing debt instruments from the private sector). The market monetarists have grown in parallel with another fringe monetary theory, MMT. The two groups don’t consider themselves aligned, but I think they are two sides of the same coin. It would be great if they would combine their insights — the market monetarists with their NGDP-targeting central bank, the MMT-ers with their concern for balance sheet health and their understanding that transfers-to-be-taxed deleverage private sector balance sheets while advances-to-be-repaid do not.

But such quibbles are for another time. Here I want to join the market monetarists’ happy dance, and point out several moral benefits of NGDP targeting.

  • The most plain moral benefit of NGDP targeting is that it is activist. Relative to the status quo, it demands a serious effort to combat the miseries of depression. This is a big improvement over our current strategy, which is to shrug off and rationalize mass deprivation and idleness.

  • A second moral benefit is that under (successful) NGDP targeting, any depressions that occur will be inflationary depressions. Ideally, we’ll find that once we stabilize the path of NGDP, the business cycle is conquered and there will be no more depressions ever again. But that probably won’t happen. If depressions occur even while the NGDP path is stabilized, then they will reflect some failure of supply or technology. Our aggregate investment choices will have proved misguided, or we will have encountered insuperable obstacles to carrying wealth forward in time. It is creditors, not debtors, whom we must hold accountable for patterns of aggregate investment. There always have been and always will be foolish or predatory borrowers willing to accept loans that they will not repay. We rely upon discriminating creditors to ensure that funds and resources will be placed in hands that will use them well. Creditors allocate capital by selecting the worthy from innumerable unworthy petitioners. An economic downturn reflects a failure of selection by creditors as a group. It is essential, if we want the high-quality real investment in good times, that creditors bear losses when they allocate funds poorly. When creditors in aggregate have misjudged, we must have some means of imposing losses without the logistical hell of endless bankruptcies. Our least disruptive means of doing so is via inflation.

    I do not relish inflation for its own sake, or advocate punishing creditors because they are rich and the tall poppies must be cut. But if, despite NGDP stabilization, real GDP cannot be sustained, someone has to bear real losses. There are only two choices: current producers can be taxed in order to make creditors whole in real terms, or past claims can be devalued so that losses are borne at least in part by creditors. In my view, the latter is the only moral choice, and the only choice that creates incentives for investors to maximize real-economic return rather than, say, hide behind guaranteed debt and press politicians to ensure the purchasing power of that debt is sustained regardless of the cost to aggregate wealth. (Sumner makes a similar point in his excellent National Affairs piece.)

    Note that NGDP targeting doesn’t prevent the honorable Austrian remedy to credit misallocation: having creditors individually to bear losses via default and/or bankruptcy of borrowers. When it is possible to equitize or liquidate particular claims quickly and without creating terrible costs for the rest of the economy, we should do so. Every completed restructuring promotes real activity by reducing valuation uncertainty and debt overhang, and so reduces the degree to which an NGDP targeting central bank will need to tolerate inflation and spread losses to creditors generally. We should try internalize the costs of credit decisions via default and bankruptcy as much as possible, as doing so keeps investment incentives sharp. (On a stable NGDP path, we don’t have to worry so much that loans that should have been good turned bad because of a scarcity of aggregate income.) But whether it is particular bad lenders who suffer or creditors in aggregate, current producers should not be forced to bail out the bad or unlucky investment decisions of earlier claimants.

  • In fact, NGDP targeting, despite the stench of sugar-high money games that Austrians perceive in it, might actually increase our ability to impose losses on foolish creditors via default and bankruptcy. This would pay a huge moral dividend, in terms of our ability to avoid the unfairness of arbitrary bail-outs. Both Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner have suggested to me that if we had sufficiently aggressive monetary stabilization, we could avoid acquiescing to “emergency” rescues that flamboyantly reward bad actors, because allowing bad actors to collapse would no longer threaten the rest of us. Rajiv Sethi has made a similar point:

    The main justification for these extraordinary measures in support of the financial sector was that perfectly solvent firms in the non-financial sector would have been crippled by the freezing of the commercial paper market. But as Dean Baker has consistently argued, had the Fed’s intervention in the commercial paper market been more timely and vigorous, it might been unnecessary to provide unconditional transfers to insolvent financial intermediaries. While I do not subscribe to Baker’s view that Ben Bernanke “deliberately misled” Congress in order to gain approval for TARP, his main point still stands: if the Fed can increase credit availability to non-financial businesses and households by direct purchases of commercial paper, than why is any financial institution too big to fail?

    Perhaps we ought to think of “liquidationism” and stimulus as complementary rather than pin them to bitterly opposed camps. The palliative of stimulus might enable the medicine of consequences to work its pain without killing the rest of us. Obviously, fiscal and monetary interventions can be used to bail out failing incumbents, and as a matter of political economy, we might find ourselves unable to prevent this misuse. But precommitting to aggressive macro stabilization via tools that don’t discriminate in favor of particular firms or sectors might allow for more liquidation of bad claims than pretending we will be laissez-faire when the consequences of nonintervention would prove catastrophic.

  • In constrast to an inflation-targeting central bank, an NGDP-targeting central bank need not distort the division of income between capital and labor. Under current practice, the Fed tends to encourage asset price inflation but worries frenetically over any growth in unit labor costs, or, equivalently, labor’s share of income. Labor share of income has been collapsing since about 1970. I don’t mean to claim that the Fed has caused the collapse of labor share: globalization, automation, and deunionization would have put pressure on wages regardless of Fed action. But the credibility of the Fed’s consumer-inflation targeting regime is closely tied to moderation of wage growth. Managers, union leaders, and policymakers know that bargains whose effect would be to increase labor share might provoke contractionary monetary policy and even recession. This undoubtedly has had some effect. I don’t want to overattribute, but it seems more than coincidental that Rubinism and Clintonesque hypersensitivity to bond-market concerns arose after George H.W. Bush’s reelection was thought to have been crippled by cautious monetary policy and the jobless recovery it engendered. I think many labor-sympathetic observers view the Federal Reserve as an organization which tilts the scales against workers in subtle and unaccountable ways. I know that I do.

    An NGDP-targeting central bank trying to contract would be indifferent between restraining wage and capital income. Wage income growth puts more pressure on consumer prices than capital income growth, but under NGDP targeting it’s all nominal income. In practice, devils live in details, and how the Fed actually works to achieve its target might or might not be neutral. But labor has a better shot of being treated equitably under an NGDP-targeting regime than under an inflation target that is inherently threatened by wage growth.

It’s a bit ironic that the “market monetarists” are gaining prominence at the same time as “End the Fed” is a rallying cry of social movements across the political spectrum. It is a mistake to associate “End the Fed” solely with Ron Paul’s unpersuasive sound-money fetish. (Unpersuasive, because the Fed over its history has preserved the purchasing power of a dollar held in any financial instrument other than a mattress.) Many Americans, including me, feel a strong antipathy towards the Fed, not because of it has debauched the currency, but because we believe that it has played favorites in the economy and in politics, usually in the shadows but brazenly over the course of the financial crisis. We think the Fed behaves immorally and unfairly. An NGDP-targeting Fed could be a better Fed, in a moral as well as technocratic sense. I wish the market monetarists luck in trying to make it so.

Update History:

  • 25-Oct-2011, 3:30 a.m. EDT: Changed “Clintonesque hypersensitivity to deficits and bond-market concerns” to “Clintonesque hypersensitivity to bond-market concerns” in order to make an awkward sentence slightly less awkward.
  • 25-Oct-2011, 4:30 a.m. EDT: Changed “a loan” to “loans” to match plural subjects…
  • 25-Oct-2011, 11:45 p.m. EDT: Corrected misattribution of Sumner article to “Nation Interest”. The piece appeared in “National Affairs”. Many thanks to commenter Matt for calling attention to the error!

IOR caps: a new instrument of monetary policy?

As the MMT-ers emphasize, in aggregate bank lending is almost never reserve-constrained. Unless a central bank is willing to tolerate arbitrarily high interest rates, it must be willing supply reserves in response to increasing demand.

However, to point out that the banking system is not reserve constrained does not imply that individual banks are not reserve constrained. Macro types tend to assume there is an interest rate and an interbank market to which any bank can turn for reserves at the policy interest rate. But that’s simply not true, at least in the United States. Most banks do not regularly borrow at all on interbank markets, or at the central bank discount window. [1] The largest banks have ready access to interbank loans and use them to finance substantial portions of their balance sheets. But small banks do not. This is understandable. Borrowing in the “Federal Funds market” occurs via bilateral unsecured loan contracts. Small banks are perfectly comfortable lending to large, implicitly backstopped banks. But banks large and small are reluctant to make cheap unsecured loans to the Bank of Palookaville, whose exposure to the local Cadillac dealer is hard to evaluate from a distance. So small banks tend to amass precautionary stashes of reserves and lend them overnight to big banks, who may borrow at will. Prior to the financial crisis, the net reserve position of the largest 20% of US banks was negative. All of these banks’ reserves and then some were borrowed on the interbank market. That has changed since the Federal Reserve has flooded the banking system with cash, but small banks continue to devote a larger fraction of their balance sheets than large banks to reserves and near-reserves. While large banks happily rely upon central-bank guaranteed liquidity, small banks maintain buffers in case that abundance fails to trickle down. Aggregate lending cannot be reserve constrained, but lending by small banks may well be.

If small bank lending is reserve constrained, then policies that redirect flows of reserves from larger banks to smaller banks might be expansionary. At the margin, Bank of Palookaville is more likely to fund a loan if its reserve stockpile is well above what it requires for self-insurance. As the stockpile dwindles, a small bank’s cost of lending must include an increasing charge for the bank’s liquidity risk. There is evidence for this. In an influential paper, Kashyap and Stein famously documented a “bank lending channel” of monetary policy that operates predominantly through smaller banks.

But how could a central bank oppose the general tendency of reserves to flow from smaller to larger banks? Once the Fed buys an asset or makes a loan, the reserves are “out there”, no longer under its control. In the past, affecting patterns of reserve flow might have been difficult. But now the Fed pays interest on reserves, on terms that are entirely at its discretion. Suppose that the Fed were to cap, in absolute dollars, the quantity of reserves on which it is willing to pay interest to any single bank. Then banks with “too many” reserves would look to shed the excess, an unremunerated asset they need to finance. They might reduce the interest they pay (or raise the fees they charge) to depositors, which, at the margin, would cause funds to flow to banks whose reserve level is below the cap. Alternatively, reserve-heavy banks might lend their excess directly to smaller banks. This would allow the two banks would split the interest payment that would otherwise have been foregone, while reversing the usual direction of reserve flow in the interbank market. In either case, smaller banks might find any liquidity constraints they face substantially reduced.

The level at which reserve remuneration is capped would become a new instrument of monetary policy. The most contractionary setting would be where we are now, with no cap at all and the vast majority of excess reserves held by the largest banks. A hyperexpansionary policy would determine the cap by dividing the total quantity of excess reserves by the nearly 7000 US banks, unleashing forces of arbitrage that would inflate the balance sheet of every Podunk bank. Between these two poles there are infinite gradations, a tunable instrument of monetary policy.

Beyond the important but sterile dimension of “contraction” vs. “expansion”, there are other reasons to like this idea. Banking activity in the United States is quantitatively dominated by a small number of very large banks for whom the absence of reserve constraint is a competitive advantage. Reducing or eliminating the reserve constraint faced by small banks would even up the playing field. From a Hayekian perspective, status quo banking has devolved from an enterprise in which dispersed decisionmakers compete for advantage based on context-specific information towards a notionally private form of central planning, a Soviet backed by a few giant data-crunching hierarchies. If your inner Hayek is strong, you should applaud increasing the ability of small bankers to lend to people they know and projects they understand, while bearing much more of the risk than employees of large banks would. Smaller banks lend disproportionately to small and medium-sized enterprises, so if you think small entrepreneurs are at the heart of the economy, shifting activity towards smaller banks should help. Finally, small banks are not too big to fail. If we can’t break up the TBTF banks (I still hope we can), perhaps we can slowly deflate them by creating incentives for activity to migrate elsewhere.

Capping interest on reserves might or might not prove helpful. Quantitatively, I don’t think we have a sense of how much more lending would occur if small banks, like large banks, faced no liquidity constraint. On one hand, “the 99%” of banks currently account for only 22% of activity (measured by balance sheet size) and the smallest 90% of banks account for less than 8%. You can argue that with numbers like these, smaller banks just can’t make a difference. On the other hand, finance flows fast and the hyperconcentration of banking may prove reversible. An IOR cap has no financial cost, can be implemented at will, and would be expansionary at the margin however large or small the effect. Perhaps it is worth a try.

[1] According to bank call reports (June, 2011), only about 40% of US banks borrow funds from the interbank or repo markets. Both the fraction of banks that use interbank finance at all and the degree to which banks finance their assets in the interbank market strongly correlates with size. As of the most recent reports, 71% of banks in the largest size decile reported using some interbank or repo finance, which financed more than 4% of these banks’ balance sheets. Only 6% of banks in the smallest size decile reported any interbank or repo funding at all. Of these few small banks that do borrow reserves, interbank and repo finance accounts for only 2% of their funding. Prior to the financial crisis (September 2006), banks in the top decile relied on interbank and repo markets to fund roughly 9% of their (gigantic) balance sheets, while the smallest decile (all banks) received less than 1% of its funding from these markets.

Call reports are end-of-quarter snapshots, and so will undercount banks that transiently tap the interbank market to cover sporadic reserve shortfalls. But that would be true across deciles, and wouldn’t alter the lower frequency structure of interbank funding.

The lump of unfairness fallacy

Note: rootless_e asks over Twitter that I “please put in some explicit indication that TARP was [enacted under] Bush/Paulson because many people don’t recall”. I am glad to do so. I bring up TARP to illustrate a policy error, not to pin that error on Barack Obama.

Ezra Klein is a wonderful writer, but I don’t love his retrospective on the financial crisis. (Kevin Drum and Brad DeLong do.) The account is far too sympathetic. The Obama administration’s response to the crisis was visibly poor in real time. Klein shrugs off the error as though it were inevitable, predestined. It was not. The administration screwed up, and they screwed up in a deeply toxic way. They defined “politically possible” to mean acceptable to powerful incumbents, and then restricted their policy advocacy to the realm of that possible. The administration could have chosen to fight for policies that would have been effective and fair rather than placate groups whose interests were opposed to good policy. They might not have succeeded, but even so, as Mike Koncazal puts it, they would have lost well. We would be better off with good policy options untried but still on the table than where we are now, with policy itself — monetary, fiscal, whatever — discredited as both ineffective and faintly corrupt.

There is a lot in Klein’s piece that I could react to, but I want to highlight one point that is particularly misguided:

But when talking about what might have worked on a massive, economy-wide scale — that is to say, what might have made this time different — you’re talking about something more drastic. You’re talking about getting rid of the debt. To do that, somebody has to pay it, or somebody has to take the loss on it.

The most politically appealing plans are the ones that force the banks to eat the debt, or at least appear to do so. “Cramdown,” in which judges simply reduce the principal owed by underwater homeowners, works this way. But any plan that leads to massive debt forgiveness would blow a massive hole in the banks. The worry would move from “What do we do about all this housing debt?” to “What do we do about all these failing banks?” And we know what we do about failing banks amid a recession: We bail them out to keep the credit markets from freezing up. There was no appetite for a second Lehman Brothers in late 2009.

Which means that the ultimate question was how much housing debt the American taxpayer was willing to shoulder. Whether that debt came in the form of nationalizing the banks and taking the bad assets off their books — a policy the administration estimated could cost taxpayers a trillion dollars — or simply paying off the debt directly was more of a political question than an economic one. And it wasn’t a political question anyone really knew how to answer.

On first blush, there are few groups more sympathetic than underwater homeowners or foreclosed families. They remain so until about two seconds after their neighbors are asked to pay their mortgages. Recall that Rick Santelli’s famous CNBC rant wasn’t about big government or high taxes or creeping socialism. It was about a modest program the White House was proposing to help certain homeowners restructure their mortgages. It had Santelli screaming bloody murder… If you believe Santelli’s rant kicked off the tea party, then that’s what the tea party was originally about: forgiving housing debt.

This all sounds very hard-nosed. There were debts. There were economic losses, such that the debts could not be serviced at initially agreed terms. The consequences of leaving those unserviceable debts in place — frozen household spending, bankruptcy courts and litigation, blown up banks — were intolerable. Therefore, the losses were going to have to be socialized, borne by taxpayers, one way or another. Ultimately, in this view, it is all a matter of dollars and cents. The taxpayer is going to eat the loss, so what’s the best sugar to make the medicine go down?

But human affairs are not about dollars and cents. Santelli’s rant and the tea party it kind-of inspired were not borne of a financial calculation — “Oh my God! My tax bill is going to be $600 higher if we refinance underwater mortgages!” Santelli’s rant, quite legitimately, reflected a fairness concern. The core political issue has never been the quantity of debt the government would incur to mitigate the crisis. It was and remains the fairness of the transfers all that debt would finance. A fact of human affairs that proved unfortunately consequential during the crisis is that people perceive injustice more powerfully on a personal scale than at an institutional level. Bailing out the dude next door who cashed out home equity to build a Jacuzzi is a crime. Bailing out the “financial system” is just a statistic. So the anger Santelli channeled led to economically stupid bail-outs of intermediaries rather than end-debtors.

Once you understand that the problem is a fairness issue rather than a dollars-and-cents issue, the policy space grows wider. Holding constant the level of expenditure, one can make bail-outs more or less fair by the degree to which you demand sacrifice from the people you are bailing out. TARP was deeply stupid not because it meant socializing risks and costs created by bankers. TARP was terrible public policy because it socialized risks and costs while demanding almost no sacrifice at all from the people most responsible for those risks. The alternative to TARP was never “let the banks fail, and see how the bankruptcy system deals with it.” The alternative would have been to inject public capital (socialize risks and costs!) while also haircutting creditors, writing-off equityholders, firing management, and aggressively investigating past behavior. It was not the money that made TARP unpopular. It was the unfairness. And the unfairness was not at all necessary to resolve the financial problem.

If the Obama administration, or any administration, decided to encourage principal writedowns by having the government simply cover half the loss, that would be unfair. The Rick Santellis of the world might object more than I would, but that would be to my discredit more than theirs. Fairness should never be a policy afterthought. Widely adhered norms of fair play are among the most valuable public goods a society can hold. A large part of why the financial crisis has been so corrosive is that people understand that major financial institutions violated these norms and got away with it, which leaves all of us uncertain about what our own standards of behavior should be and what we can reasonably expect from others. When policy wonks, however well meaning, treat fairness as a public relations matter, they are corroding social infrastructure that is more important than the particular problems they mean to fix.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to craft good economic policy without doing violence to widely shared norms of fairness. See, for example, Ashwin Parameswaran’s “simple policy program“. On a less grand-scale, you’ll find that very few fairness concerns arise if underwater borrowers enjoy principal writedowns in the context of bankruptcy. Such “cramdowns” are consistent with a widely shared social norm, that society will grant (and creditors must fund) some relief from past poor choices to individuals who go through a costly and somewhat shameful legal process. Including mortgages and student loans in that uncontroversial bargain will piss-off bankers who wish to avoid responsibility for bad credit decisions. But it won’t provoke a revolution in Peoria.

The Obama administration campaigned on “cramdowns”, but ultimately decided not to push them. I wonder why? Perhaps Ezra Klein will explain how research by Reinhart and Rogoff shows that this too was inevitable.

Update History:

  • 9-Oct-2011, 1:25 a.m. EDT: Changed a “poor credit decisions” to a “bad credit decisions” to avoid repetition.
  • 10-Oct-2011, 1:35 a.m. EDT: Added note re enactment of TARP under Bush in response to rootless_e’s request.

An echo

I write, or at least I start to write, lots more blog posts than I ever publish. The paragraph below is from a post I began over the summer during the debt ceiling fracas. Intellectually, I did not consider gratuitous default on US debt to be wise policy. But throughout the period, I felt a strange sympathy for the people who were, very clearly, gunning for default. I was trying to articulate why.

For some reason, today seems like a good day to publish this.

I no longer trust my own government to be the provider of a civilized society. No government is perfect or without corruptions. But in 2007, I thought I lived in a remarkably well-governed nation that had gone off-kilter under a small and mean administration. In 2011, I view my government as the sharp edge of an entrenched kleptocracy, engaged in ever more expansive schemes of surveillance and arrogating powers of ever less restrained brutality. At a visceral level, I dislike President Obama more than I have disliked any politician in my lifetime, not because he is objectively worse than most of the others — he is not — but because he disproved my hypothesis that we are a country with basically good institutions brought low by poor quality leadership. Whenever I hear the President speak and am impressed by the quality of his intellect, by his instinct towards diplomacy and finding common ground and rising above petty struggles, I despair more deeply. Not just because a leader of high quality failed to restore passably clean and beneficient government. It is worse than that. The kleptocracy has harnassed this man’s most admirable qualities and made them a powerful weapon for its own ends. He has rebranded as “moderate”, “adult”, “reasonable”, practices such as unaccountable assassination lists and Orwellian nonhostilities. He has demostrated that the way grown-ups get things done in Washington is by continually paying off thieves in suits. Perhaps it is unfair to blame Barack Obama for all this. Maybe he has done the very best a person could do under our present institutions. But then it is not unfair to detest the institutions, to wish to see them clipped, contained, or starved.

FD: I am not an innocent. To my discredit, from September 11 until Abu Ghraib, I was a fellow traveler of the Bush administration, and actively supported the Iraq war.

The long bond does the limbo

Yields on long-term US bonds have been falling like a rock since August. On the demand side, there’s no great mystery to this. Stock markets have done poorly, which tends to support Treasuries as a “flight to safety” asset. Other “safe havens” have looked wobbly. European debt in general has been tarnished by the sovereign financial crisis. The Swiss Central Bank just made violently clear its discomfort with flight-to-safety investment flows. Gold and silver’s prices have seemed “bubblicious” for some time, and have duly lived up and down to that characterization by crashing. Only the US Treasury remains willing and able to bear the “exorbitant burden”, in Michael Pettis’ coinage, of providing sanctuary to refugee capital.

The latest collapse in long-term yields followed the announcement by the Federal Reserve of an “Operation Twist” intervention, under which it will sell short-term US debt and purchase long-term debt. At first blush, it is obvious why this might drive down long-term bond yields. Holding all else constant, if the Fed enters the long bond market as a large-scale buyer, it seems natural that it would bid up prices and push down yields on long-term bonds. But this account is unsatisfying. First, “operation twist” had been widely anticipated by market participants, so why the sudden earthquake? More importantly, “holding all else constant” is a ridiculous assumption when thinking about “operation twist”.

US Treasury bonds are issued by the US Treasury, which pays a great deal of attention to the structure of its liabilities, and has been working to lengthen their maturity. (See the discussion in this presentation, which is rather extraordinary in its candor, ht Bond Girl.) The US Treasury is the beneficial owner of the Federal Reserve. The Fed’s profits and losses eventually flow to the Treasury. If the Treasury wishes to manage its liability structure in order to manage future costs and risks, it will consolidate the Fed’s portfolio with its own as it targets a maturity structure. If the Fed sells short maturity and buys long maturity bonds, a rational Treasury will issue more long bonds and fewer short bonds than it otherwise would. (As indeed it has, see Jim Hamilton.) The central bank may “act last”, in Tyler Cowen’s quip, in the sense that monetary policy shifts can be made on a much higher frequency than acts of Congress that alter fiscal policy. But the Treasury issues and redeems debt continually. The Fed has no institutional advantage over the Treasury in determining the maturity structure of US debt. Unless there is a secret “Fed / Treasury” accord, the Treasury wins this fight. And Treasury seems resolute (and wise, in my opinion) in its intention to lengthen the maturity of its liabilities.

So I think “operation twist” is a side-show, perhaps a clever marketing scheme coordinated between the Fed and Treasury to help the US get high prices for the long-term debt it wants to issue. A more fundamental factor is the scale of issuance. And that has been interesting.

Over the first three quarters of 2011 (through last week), the net issuance of Treasury debt to the public has been very small, once you take into account purchases by the Fed. The US government has run a large deficit. In round numbers, total US debt increased by $700B over the period. Yet there was only a $40B increase in US Treasury debt to nongovernment entities. The rest of the deficit was financed by the Fed, which purchased roughly $440B of Treasury debt; by the Treasury itself, which spent down deposits it had at the Fed (as part of the crisis-related “supplementary financing program”) by about $200B; and ~$20B by other “intragovernment” lenders (like Social Security). The Federal government ran a sizable deficit, yet almost no net new issuance found its way to the public. Instead, most of the new debt was monetized as part of QE2. And interest rates, long-term as well as short-term, are lower than they’ve ever been.

One theory of long-term interest rates is, I think, definitively refuted. This is the joint hypothesis that 1) long-term real rates include a mostly stable real yield plus a premium for expected inflation; and 2) expected inflation is a function of the growth of the monetary base. If you believe in a stable real yield, then you’ve got to concede that investors’ now expect deflation despite an explosion of the monetary base.

The facts strike me as consistent with two different views. In one account, long rates are pinned by arbitrage to the expected path of short-rates plus a risk premium, and market participants have become increasingly certain that nominal interest rates will be very low for a very extended period. In a second account, important clienteles of investors do not consider money issued by the Fed and debt issued by the Treasury, particularly long-term debt, to be close substitutes. These investors have basically been starved of new Treasury supply, and so have bid up bond prices, in order to draw supply from the inventory of investors less wedded to maturity. [*]

These two stories are not contradictory: they might both be true to some degree. But they have different implications. Under the arbitrage-pinned expectations account, the only thing that could cause long yields to rise are changes in the expected path of short yields (or the uncertainty surrounding that expectation). Expected short yields might increase because of good economic news, or they might increase because the Fed is expected to fight inflationary pressures even in the absence of good news. Under the flow-to-clienteles story, yields would be expected to rise as Treasury issuance to the non-Fed public increases in the absence of quantitative easing, regardless of any change in economic outlook.

Expectations or flow? We still don’t know. But we might have a natural experiment pretty soon, as the net, unmonetized issue of Treasury securities to the public ramps back up after a restrained nine months.

Update: Browsing around, I’ve just noticed a headline very similar to mine on a Reuters article published Friday: “Operation Twist to make Treasuries do limbo”, by Emily Fitter. My apologies to Ms. Fitter or her headline writer for unintentionally stealing the line.


[*] Note: long maturity bond clienteles have had some net new supply, as the Treasury has been lengthening the maturity of its existing indebtedness via the Treasury’s operation anti-twist. But there would be substantially more supply, if the Treasury had been issuing more debt.

FD: I have a longstanding short futures position in 30-year Treasuries, which I maintain both as a portfolio diversifier and for speculative reasons. I frequently purchase hedges against large adverse moves, which have been helpful lately.

Update History:

  • 26-Sep-2011, 3:55 a.m. EDT: Added bold update, apology re similar Reuters headline.
  • 27-Sep-2011, 2:40 a.m. EDT: Changed “nongovernmental institutions” to “to nongovernmental entities”. Changed “in the Treasury’s operation anti-twist” to “via the Treasury’s operation anti-twist”.

Rogue traders and stated-income borrowers

The financial scandal du jour is a $2 billion dollar loss at UBS blamed on a “rogue trader”. You’d think the whole “rogue trader” problem would have been solved by giant, sophisticated investment banks. After all, it was way back in 1995 that Nick Leeson brought down a 233 year-old global institution. Since then we’ve had John Rusnak at my hometown bank, Jérôme Kerviel at Société Générale, and others.

Kid Dynamite, a former trader himself, notes that “losing $2B without anyone knowing about it is much harder than you think“. To generate a $2 billion dollar loss in a short period, a trading position has to be gargantuan. Some dude on a trading desk can’t just put on that kind of trade. He’d have to get buy-in from superiors and risk managers, which probably means making up justifications or falsifying hedged positions. Derivatives trades require collateral posting, and securities trades settle in cash. You’d think the bean counters would take note when large sums come and go through the accounts. Perhaps these “rogue traders” are supergeniuses who reroute the accounting ledgers through the lavatory plumbing at the exact critical moment. Otherwise you’d think that detecting unauthorized positions of $10B-ish would be the sort of thing that masters of the universe would be capable of doing.

This is the Green Room has a delightfully wry take on the affair:

The revelation that yet another rogue trader has been pulling the levers at a major bank…makes me wonder about all the rogue traders we’re not hearing about — the ones who aren’t big, stupid or aggressive enough to get caught… Perhaps banks should start reporting “income from rogue trading” in their financial statements. It would seem naive to presume that it isn’t contributing to the bottom line.

It is a commonplace now to talk about troubled banks’ incentives to “gamble for redemption”. It has also become cliché to talk about how traders’ asymmetrical incentives encourage risk taking: If we take a big risk and make a lot of money, we get huge bonuses. If it doesn’t work out, worst case scenario is we lose our jobs. Of course, regulators discourage gambling for redemption, at least in theory. And all else equal, nobody wants to lose their job, not to mention the deferred compensation that is supposed to discourage this sort of thing. Still, there is a sense in which the bank “wants” big risks to be taken, as do a variety of employees with exposure to the upside in their bonuses. But it would be better if the risks were taken in some manner that, if things go south, no one could be blamed. Well, almost no one.

I am reminded of a wonderful post by Tanta at Calculated Risk, on stated-income loans:

I have said before that stated income is a way of letting borrowers be underwriters, instead of making lenders be underwriters… What the stated income lenders are doing is getting themselves off the hook by encouraging borrowers to make misrepresentations. That is, they’re taking risky loans, but instead of doing so with eyes open and docs on the table, they’re putting their customers at risk of prosecution while producing aggregate data that appears to show that there is minimal risk in what they’re doing. This practice is not only unsafe and unsound, it’s contemptible.

We use the term “bagholder” all the time, and it seems to me we’ve forgotten where that metaphor comes from. It didn’t used to be considered acceptable to find some naive rube you could manipulate into holding the bag when the cops showed up, while the seasoned robbers scarpered. I’m really amazed by all these self-employed folks who keep popping up in our comments to defend stated income lending. It is a way for you to get a loan on terms that mean you potentially face prosecution if something goes wrong. Your enthusiasm for taking this risk is making a lot of marginal lenders happy, because you’re helping them hide the true risk in their loan portfolios from auditors, examiners, and counterparties. You aren’t getting those stated income loans because lenders like to do business with entrepreneurs, “the backbone of America.” You’re not getting an “exception” from a lender who puts it in writing and takes the responsibility for its own decision. You’re getting stated income loans because you’re willing to be the bagholder.

Maybe “rogue traders” aren’t devious supergeniuses after all. Maybe they’re just the stated-income borrowers of high finance, people willing to indemnify their quietly enthusiastic “victims” by being the one to tell a lie.