...Archive for September 2008

Eichengreen’s May Day Conjecture

This bit from Barry Eichengreen (ht Mark Thoma) is getting a lot of attention. (See, for example, Dani Rodrik.) Describing the “roots” of the current financial mess, he writes

In the United States, there were two key decisions. The first, in the 1970’s, deregulated commissions paid to stockbrokers… In response, investment banks branched into new businesses like originating and distributing complex derivative securities. They borrowed money and put it to work to sustain their profitability. This gave rise to the first causes of the crisis: the originate-and-distribute model of securitization and the extensive use of leverage.

I want to push back on this a bit. I find it hard to believe that on Wall Street, there were these lucrative side businesses just waiting to be exploited, but investment bankers would have been content to ignore them if they had retained their thick commissions on stock trades. As a historical matter, I’m sure Eichengreen is right that May Day was a spur. But it’s a huge stretch to say that derivatives and originate-to-distribute wouldn’t have been discovered, grown, and grown massively, if only there hadn’t been a competitive squeeze on stockbroker profits.

Eichengreen’s story, taken naively, might lead to the suggestion that we give financial intermediaries cushy sinecures, because, if we don’t, we will have forced the poor dears to get creative and deploy financial weapons of mass destruction that destroy the world!

Financiers will destroy the world however much money you give them (it is never enough), if they have a profitable scheme for doing so and if they are not held back by regulation.

Financiers may also improve the world, in large and important ways, when they find profitable schemes for doing so. We want the financial community to innovate, we just don’t want them to innovate crappily. That means that, yes, we want regulators to have some veto power over their innovations. But a bad response to this crisis would be to suggest that today’s big names be given monopolistic cash cows so they can make lots of money running a museum of Wall Street, circa 1970.

Today’s big names deserve to be ripped apart. They should not be granted plush monopolies. Tomorrow’s big names deserve competition just as much as the next business. More so, actually. Finance should be rife with creative destruction to keep that market discipline vibe going… the “masters of the universe” must always be kept meek and terrified.

Finally, not all “financial innovation” is created alike. Collateralized, cleared, exchange-traded derivatives were a marvelous innovation. Letting poorly collateralized, opaque, nonstandard, eclectically-offset swaps grow into a large-scale financial instrument was idiotic, and was recognizably idiotic (which is why ISDA has had to work so hard and diligently to patch all the idiocies as they showed through the cracks). We desperately need good innovation, tools for intermediation that increase investor discrimination and decrease aggregate credit and counterparty risk. Sure, that’s precisely the opposite of what this decade’s signal innovations were all about. But developing a poison and developing the antidote are both innovation.


The following expands on ideas from a previous post, but is similar in spirit to a wonderful essay by Luigi Zingales (ht Tyler Cowen, Arnold Kling). If you have not read that, please do. I think it is the most important document to have arisen from this debate this far.

Rather than a bail-out, Congress should pass an “ARISE act”. ARISE would stand for Automatic Reorganization of Insolvent Systemically-important Enterprises. It could be very simple.

The Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and subject to judicial review, would declare certain firms systemically important according to criteria specified by the act. Those firms would be subject to a streamlined form of bankruptcy rather than ordinary Chapter 11 reorganization or Chapter 7 liquidation. The Treasury would compile a list of all systemically important firms, not just those considered to be imperiled, so inclusion would not signal any sort of distress. Should a systematically important firm find itself unable to meet its obligations, it would be subject to a very simple reorganization procedure: common and preferred equityholders would be wiped out (but would be given deep out-of-the-money warrants on stock of the restructured firm), a new class of $1 par value common equity would be established, which would replace existing debt claims dollar for dollar, until the resulting firm would be no more than 4x leveraged and can be certified as conservatively solvent and liquid by independent auditors. Junior debt would be swapped for equity before senior debt, and secured debt would become unsecured. All creditors would have the option of exchanging their debt for equity in the new firm. Further, reorganized firms would have the right to pay off unsecured contingent liabilities (including, for example, liabilities under derivative contracts) in stock at par value rather than in cash.

An intended “unanticipated consequence” of this proposal is that it would make the debt of firms that are potentially “systemically important” much more equity-like, long before any hint of financial distress or reorganization (and even before an explicit listing by the Treasury). That would raise the cost of capital for such firms, serving as a kind of a tax on scale and criticality. Leveraged firms that are “too big or interconnected to fail” create negative externalities for markets, taxpayers, and the public at large. Under the ARISE act, lenders would absorb some costs that the general public would otherwise bear, and would charge appropriately for the insurance. Firms that prefer inexpensive debt financing to the strategic options associated with scale can spin-off independently controlled entities as they grow.

Those who claim this would be a radical abrogation of contract should note that it would only be a change in the bankruptcy code, basically a new form of reorganization. Individuals have been subject to many retrospectively applicable changes in bankruptcy law over the years, and property rights have survived. This change would affect a very small fraction of firms (although a much larger fraction of debt, since it would predominantly affect very large firms).

See also: Mark Thoma, Willem Buiter


Okay. Let’s leave no room for ambiguity here. The Treasury’s draft plan for saving the world is breathtakingly awful. It would give the Secretary of the Treasury entirely unchecked discretion over up to 700B dollars. Even that “limit” has a loophole big enough that you could drive a truck through it, so the Secretary could in effect spend up to 1.8T dollars, right up to the newly raised Federal debt ceiling, without further Congressional action. This act would be such a wholesale delegation of the power of the purse that I wonder whether it is even constitutional. Of course, the act explicitly puts the Secretary’s actions beyond any judicial review, so perhaps questions of legality or constitutionality are merely academic. (Paul Campos shares these concerns.)

As Paul Krugman has pointed out, for the plan to help insolvent institutions, the Treasury would have to overpay for these assets. Yves Smith unearths an account that Secretary Paulson has acknowledged this fact in private, although he won’t cop to it on the Sunday talk shows. It is almost old-fashioned to raise questions about whether or not the former Wall Street banker will offer sweetheart deals to his industry (an industry that has harmed the American economy more deeply than most people realize). Just as big lies boldly asserted can trump plausible untruths nervously defended, overt corruption on a massive scale (but “in the public interest”) might leave a lot of naysayers dumbstruck. It becomes the way we do business. Of course, none of Dean Baker’s progressive conditions, none of Brad DeLong’s dealbreakers, not even my plea for a little transparency are incorporated into the proposal.

The oldest technique for the usurpation of power by the executive from the legislative is the manufacture of a state of emergency. That is not to say the present financial crisis is not actually an emergency. But the how the crisis is understood by legislators and the range of options by which it might be addressed have been set by Messrs Paulson and Bernanke. They have presented a single option, one more radical than seemed reasonable even at the height of the depression. (ht Brad DeLong)

It is worth noting that Paulson and Bernanke have thus far proven themselves to be capable technocrats. (Although, as Dean Baker points out, they’ve been awful prognosticators.) There’s a lot to disagree with in how the dynamic duo have handled the torrent of crises that began last August. But they have acted aggressively and creatively, and in their ad hoc interventions so far, they’ve gone to some lengths to create upside for taxpayers and to squeeze miscreants at least a bit. Until reading the text of the Treasury’s proposal and stewing on it overnight, I was inclined not to fight too hard. I saw things as I’m sure legislators see things: Something must be done, a megabailout is disagreeable and imperfect, but it’s something that we can do quickly, and it’s what our experts, whom we trust, recommend. Let’s fiddle at the margins to get it done as best we can.

But the proposed text flipped a switch in my brain. This is not, as Senator Schumer put it, “a good foundation of a plan that can stabilize markets quickly”. It is a raw arrogation of power. My trust, my willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt, has evaporated.

This is overreach. This is bad.

See also… Glenn Greenwald, John Hempton, Sebastian Mallaby, David Merkel, Robert Reich, among many, many others, I am sure.

For a contrary view, check out the always thoughtful knzn. I disagree pretty strongly, but he’s always worth reading.

FD: I am short broad stock indices, which seem to like the prospect of a bailout, so opposing the plan might seem self-interested. But I am longer precious metals and I’m short long-maturity Treasuries. My guess (and of course it is only a guess) is that those positions would do well under the plan.

Update History:
  • 21-Sept-2008, 9:15 p.m. EDT: Removed some ungrammatical excess words, an “on” and a “be do”, doo-be-doo-wah.

Truth & Reconciliation

I am not, on balance, a fan of the proposed megabailout of the financial system. But if it is going to happen, we should require at the very least this — that taxpayers learn immediately what assets they have purchased, from whom, and for how much.

We should tolerate no more of what the Fed did when it bailed out Bear Stearns’ creditors. Maiden Lane LLC sits opaque on the Fed’s balance sheet, hiding an unknowable book of derivatives and a portfolio of assets valued at about $29B, coincidentally almost exactly what the Fed kicked in to purchase them. If we are going to spend roughly a trillion dollars on assets that self-styled masters of the universe failed to value, we ought at least have the opportunity to take a crack at pricing them ourselves, especially once we’ve bought them. It will be essential to form opinions about whether the assets Secretary Paulson will purchase from his former colleagues are fairly priced. The possibility of chummy dealing, the near impossibility of avoiding it, is obvious.

Further, the word confidence keeps coming up, we must restore confidence in the American financial system. It is not enough that we hand over our money, we must hand over our trust as well. Surely, then, if this is a new era of trust, there should be no problem with requiring sellers to disclose at precisely what value the assets for sale had been booked on their financial statements, with criminal penalties for misstatement. We should be able to evaluate, in the light of day, how forthright financial institutions have been in representing their true condition to potential investors and the public-at-large. We may find that some have played things relatively straight, while others survived by sleight-of-hand and exaggeration. The former group will have earned our confidence. The latter will have earned something else.

This is not “a modest proposal”, presented in irony. If we are going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, absolute transparency strikes me as a minimal prudential requirement. They say sunshine is the best disinfectant. I’m afraid there is a lot of rot in our financial system. It’s time to open up the windows wide.

Update History:
  • 20-Sept-2008, 5:30 p.m. EDT: Changed “to require” to “with requiring”.
  • 20-Sept-2008, 5:30 p.m. EDT: Changed “hundreds of trillions” to “hundreds of billions”. Many thanks to commenter Alan Brown!

Congestion pricing for security trades?

So the whole “banning shorts” thing was wearily predictable. The very politically-connected “good” investment banks had a little scare this week. Call it panic selling, call it a bear raid, whatever. Suddenly, it’s illegal to short financials. Go figure.

People like me are appalled. If it’s illegal to short in a “panic”, we ask, why isn’t it illegal to go long during obvious asset price bubbles? If you can tell a panic from a correction, then surely you can tell an asset bubble from a genuine boom, right Mr. Greenspan? Most people were perfectly aware of the housing and tech bubbles in real time. Only economists and idealists get confused.

Whatever. As I said, the whole dialog is tired, obvious, predictable.

But… Much as I’m an unapologetic short, I’m perfectly willing to concede that there’s such thing as irrational momentum selling, just as there is irrational momentum buying. Momentum buying is far more insidious and destructive in the long term, but both are bad. Banning short sales (or, in mirror image, restricting asset purchases to short covering) might help prevent momentum trades, but it’s a lousy way to address the problem. Decapitation is a perfectly effective cure for migraines, but that doesn’t make it good medicine.

Dean Baker frequently suggests a “Tobin tax” on securities trades, which, as reforms go, is not a terrible idea. What if we did put a small transaction tax on taking financial positions? Reduced liquidity means an increased commitment by investors to the underlying economics of their paper. That’s a good thing.

But what if we designed this tax so that, rather than being calculated as a constant fraction of transaction value, it was a function of both value and trading volume, so that it would be more expensive to trade when everyone else is also trading? Maybe it’d cost 0.02% of notional value to trade when daily transaction volume has been within 1 standard deviation of the trailing year’s mean, but the cost would increase as steeply rising function of any abnormal volume?

Such a tax would have lots of nice properties: First, it would be symmetrical, neutral between buyers and sellers. It would not harm transactors bringing new information into the market, since transaction volume would be normal while the information remains closely held. But it would bite transactors who react to widely known news or who pile on to price momentum. That is, “congestion taxing” wouldn’t much damage the information aggregation/price discovery of markets, but would tax the zero-to-negative sum rush into or out of positions once the information work is already done. “Me too” purchases would be expensive, and those that occur would be informative, because they would reflect conviction rather than copycatting. Low-conviction information cascades would be discouraged by a high cost of entry, rather than prevented outright by administrative fiat.

Is this a good idea? It’s Friday night, been a phukked up week, and I’m drinking right now (Kentucky Bourbon Ale, ya gotta try it), so maybe I’m slurring my thoughts. Just thought I’d toss this out into the world, and see where it lands.

Update: Jesse Eisinger has just published a nice column on the Tobin Tax in Portfolio.

Update History:
  • 22-Sept-2008, 9:45 p.m. EDT: Added link to Jesse Eisinger’s column.

To whom and for what?

I am sorry to go all AWOL lately. I’ll try to post something substantative over the weekend. My temporal balance sheet looks a great deal like Lehman’s financials. Plus, despite the generous antidotes provided by Yves Smith, the events of the past few weeks have me twitchy and disoriented, reading obsessively but barely capable of drooling. I think I speak for a lot of us who’ve been on the pessimistic side of the financial blogosphere these last few years in saying I wish we had been wrong. (I wish the mighty who are now falling had paid us some mind, too.)

Today’s big news is the hint of a bail-out to end all bail-outs. I often have mixed feelings about Robert Reich’s commentary, but I commend to you his piece today.

There is no question that we are going to spend a lot of public money to address the current crisis. We have already put a very extraordinary amount at risk. The question we should be asking is not whether or how much, but to whom and for what. The financial crisis we are facing is a symptom of a much larger economic and social crisis. Wall Street is not the source of the pain. On the contrary, the financial sector has been put this decade primarily in the service of hiding, literally of papering over, unsustainable trends in the current account, income distribution, human and physical capital deterioration, and the sectoral composition of the American economy. The conventional wisdom is that this is a financial crisis, and that so far “Main Street” has been largely insulated from the catastrophe. That is rubbish. The cancer is on Main Street, and the tumor has been growing there for years. Wall Street provided drugs to hide the pain and keep us going, palliative but not curative. What is happening now is those drugs are wearing off. The American economy is fundamentally unsound, and has been for some time. We would have noticed sooner, were it not for financial methamphetamine conjured by mad scientists in lower Manhattan from a whirlwind of foreign central bank money.

I think we’ll only get one shot to set things right by throwing a ton of money at the problem, so we’d better think carefully before we throw it at symptoms rather than causes. Trying to figure this out in a week before Congress goes off to reelect itself strikes me as ambitious. Broadly, my view is that if we are going to legislate, Congress should empower regulators to declare systemically important firms insolvent, write off existing common and preferred, fire incumbent management and unilaterally convert debt to equity as far up the capital structure as they need to go until the firms are unambiguously well-capitalized, with little or no public money involved. Going forward, investors should understand that firms that are too big to fail are too big to be debt-financed, and government enforcement of debt claims against such firms will be limited. If economies of scale are real, equityholders should be glad to reap them. Otherwise markets function better anyway when populated by small actors who compete rather than by behemoths who dominate. The government should not subsidize the many negative externalities of scale. Members of the Pigou Club might suggest that bigness should be taxed and diversity subsidized.

As far as the money is concerned, throw it at infrastructure. Increase worker bargaining power by offering Federally funded retraining sabbaticals for any worker over thirty who decides they want to retool. I’d rather see a new WPA than a new RTC. If it is true that during a debt deflation, the government can spend freely without fear of inflation, let’s spend in a way that balances the economy, not in a manner that tries to ratify the imbalances that brought us here in the first place.

There’s no such thing as a choice-free bailout. The government’s largesse will go to some and not to others, and we have to decide. Don’t believe self-styled technocrats who claim that science or the market tells them who deserves the tax- (or inflation-) payers’ dollar. In a bail-out, there are winners and losers, and we get to pick. I think we should focus on a simple goal: Restructuring the economy so that the vast majority of Americans can afford a middle-class lifestyle with very little leverage on household or government balance sheets. That may be a radical suggestion in 2008, but our grandparents would have considered it only common sense.

Update History:
  • 19-Sept-2008, 8:30 a.m. EDT: Minor edits, added a missing “is”, replaced required with involved re public money.