...Archive for March 2010

A different perspective on interest rates

In the endless debates over stimulus and deficits, more “dovish” commentators frequently point out that debt markets appear sanguine about US borrowing. Despite some recent upward jitters, the Federal Government currently pays less than 4% to borrow for 10 years, and under 5% to borrow for 30 years. Those are bargain rates in historical terms, the argument goes, so investors must not be terribly concerned about inflation or default or any other bogeyman of “deficit terrorists”.

To make the point, Paul Krugman recently published a graph very similar to this one:

Since the financial crisis began, the US government’s cost of long-term borrowing has dramatically fallen, not risen. If we graph a longer series of 10-year Treasury yields, the case looks even more compelling. The United States government can borrow very, very cheaply relative to its historical experience.

However, there is another way to think about those rates. The US government’s cost of long-term borrowing can be decomposed into a short-term rate plus a term premium which investors demand to cover the interest-rate and inflation risks of holding long-term bonds. The short-term rate is substantially a function of monetary policy: the Federal Reserve sets an overnight rate that very short-term Treasury rates must generally follow. Since the Federal Reserve has reduced its policy rate to historic lows, the short-term anchor of Treasury borrowing costs has mechanically fallen. But this drop is a function of monetary policy only. It tells us nothing about the market’s concern or lack thereof with the risks of holding Treasuries.

But the term premium (or “steepness of the yield curve”) is a market outcome (except while the Fed is engaged in “quantitative easing”). How do things look when we graph the term premium since the crisis began?

The graph below shows the conventional barometer of the term premium, the 2-year / 10-year spread (blue), and a longer measure, the spread between the yield on 3-month T-bills and 30-year Treasury bonds (red), since the beginning of the financial crisis:

Since the financial crisis began, the market determined part of the Treasury’s cost of borrowing has steadily risen, except for a brief, sharp flight to safety around the fall of 2008. Investors have been demanding greater compensation for bearing interest rate and inflation risk, but that has been masked by the monetary-policy induced drop in short-term rates.

Taking a longer view, we can see that the current term premium is at, but has not exceeded, a historical extreme:

Note: There’s a gap in the 30-year rate series, probably because it became impossible to compute a “constant maturity” 30-year Treasury yield during the period when the Treasury stopped issuing 30-year bonds.

The present term premium is quite similar to those that vexed President Clinton during the heyday of the “bond vigilantes”. A glass half full story says that, despite all the stresses of the financial crisis and the sharp spike in Treasury issuance, the term premium has not become unmoored from its historical range. A glass half empty story says that the term premium is toying with the boundary of that range, and could break loose in an instant. I have no idea which tale is truer.

My politics on the deficit are centrist to dovish. I think that deficit spending is always an option, and that the Federal Government should absolutely spend on forward-looking, high-return investment projects. I also favor generous “safety net” benefits and would like to see a guaranteed income program in the United States. However, the only form of “stimulus” I support is very broad based transfers (e.g. I would support a payroll tax subsidy). I agree with many left-ish commentators that the deficits we’ve experienced are more an effect than a cause of our economic problems, and will take care of themselves if we create a strong economy and a broadly legitimate political system (neither of which I think we have right now). A nation as large and wealthy in natural resources and human capital as the United States need never be constrained by the vicissitudes of financial markets, if its government is capable of mobilizing its citizens’ risk-bearing capacity on behalf of the polity. [*]

But whatever my politics, I think there is a fair probability that the US will experience the thrilling uncertainty that attends a loss of confidence in its currency and debt. The argument that “markets don’t seem troubled by our deficits” is less persuasive than it first appears.

Full disclosure: Although my views are sincerely held, sincerity is cheap. Perhaps I am just talking my book! I am one of those people long gold and short Treasuries (although I am not a proponent of the gold standard).

[*] Remember, economic capital has nothing to do with money. Supplying capital is nothing more or less than assuming the burden of economic risks. Where do you think China’s ever-expanding capital base comes from, when it has been the world’s largest exporter of financial capital? China’s citizens assume great risk, in the form of below-world-market wages and social safety benefits, in exchange for the promise of a wealthier and more powerful nation. To some degree that capital is extracted involuntarily, but China’s government has had remarkable success at maintaining legitimacy and the consent of the governed despite the extraordinary costs citizens have borne in the service of an uncertain future. So far, citizens have seen consistent returns on their investment: the big question is how China fares in a persistent “bear market”, when it comes to seem as though much of their sacrifice has been wasted or stolen.

In defense of incivility

Hooh, boy.

There’s a nice spat a-brewing between two people I hardly know, but nevertheless consider friends. The Epicurean Dealmaker offered some thoughts on financial reform, and in particular “resolution authority”. Yves Smith took exception. TED took exception to her exception taking. I suspect the sparks have just begun.

Me, I’m a lovah not a fightah, so I’ll split the difference. TED is right that constructive ambiguity and discretionary power are prerequisite to an effective, non-public-raping resolution regime. But Yves is right to take him to task for leaving things there, because whatever gets writ in the ex post memoirs, there are predictable and repeatedly observed incentive problems that prevent regulators from using discretionary authority until it’s too late (and then they whine to stenographers about how powerless they were). Read Michael Pomerleano and Andrew Sheng, or watch Richard Carnell, or check out l’il ol me. To be fair to TED, I know he is cognizant of these incentives; elsewhere he has offered ideas on how to change them. (See e.g. his reformist manifesto. I believe TED has also proposed adopting the Singapore model, conjuring an extraordinarily well-paid, independent regulatory caste that would be structurally resistant to capture and could recruit talent competitive with Wall Street’s finest. But I can’t find that link.)

TED is right on here:

Ms. Smith appears to advocate “root and branch reform” of the system, which makes her, by definition, more radical than me. As befits my nature as an investment banker, I am a pragmatist and an incrementalist. I think the prospect of true root and branch reform of the domestic financial system—not to mention the global one with which it is inseparably interconnected—is such a vast and daunting task to undertake in our current sociopolitical environment as to be unlikely at best. Notwithstanding the theoretical attractions of radical reform—which I personally would favor, by the way—I would much rather cobble together a partially effective, imperfect resolution authority today than wait the ten or twenty years serious reform might take… Sympathetic or not, however, I would also like to caution Ms. Smith. Like many radical reformers, I suspect she would be surprised how little common ground she has with other would-be radical reformers. It is always a revelation to discover, as revolutionaries always have, just how little agreement you have with your peers when it comes to deciding just exactly which roots and branches of the ancien régime need to be trimmed.

As, um, a proponent of root-and-branch reform, these are the questions that keep me up at night. For the record, I think we will end up with root-and-branch reform, but I fear we’ll get it hard and painful following a much more serious crisis that we have already failed to avert. I think the Great Financial “Panic” of 2008 has shrunk into another LTCM or Enron, a moment we will someday look back upon and wonder why we failed to deal with problems that were so fucking obvious, but for now all we hear is “It worked!” I’m a middle-aged Jewish guy who thinks and writes about finance, makes much of his living as a speculator, and avoids honest work. The tail risk I worry about is that I’ll get to see the sort of financial reform I advocate from a wonderful vantage high atop a lamppost.

But that is precisely why I want to take issue with TED here:

Like many other econobloggers opining on the state of affairs in the world of finance, Ms. Smith has gotten into the nasty habit of using the term “banksters” to refer to members of the financial services industry. (It is in the title of yet another post of hers today.) The overarching metaphor behind this coinage—which, I emphasize again, is neither original nor limited to Ms. Smith—is that commercial bankers, investment bankers, insurance company employees, and presumably everyone else in the financial industry are uniformly engaged in a vast, intentional, and irredeemably criminal enterprise. Ms. Smith reinforces this metaphor often, including in the post dissected herein (with the crack of “financiers [looting] taxpayers”), and implicitly in the title of her new book, ECONNED.

Now, I am all for the charms of expedient exaggeration. (Although mine tend to be limited to sarcastic and humorous uses, rather than bitter and humorless character assassination.) It can be funny, and it can emphasize important points. But uniformly and universally excoriating millions of people who work in finance as gangsters, thieves, looters, and con men is just fucking dumb. It’s like saying all management consultants are morons, or everyone from Iowa is a hick. While there certainly must be examples of moronic management consultants and hayseed Iowans among the myriad constituents of each of those groups, no honest or intelligent person would believe all of them are that way. Why, then, do so many bloggers writing today tar the entire finance industry with the same tired, thoughtless old brush?

These casual, unthinking insults would not bother me if I did not think they lower and coarsen the important conversation we are having in society and the blogosphere about financial reform. Sure, investment banking has its fair share of crooks, but we are no different than the rest of society. Some of us, closer to the top and more successful, perhaps, probably do have a more highly developed sense of entitlement and aggressiveness than your average bear. But we are not criminals. We work the system, hard, to advance our own and our families’ personal and professional interests, but 99.9% of us are not out to rape and pillage the commonfolk of their daily bread. To think otherwise is just plain stupid.

I myself don’t use the term “banksters”. And I sympathize with TED. I like financial industry professionals, personally. I enjoy meeting bankers. They are usually smart, interested in the arcane crap I’m interested in, and assholes of the sort that I enjoy sparring with. Bankers are great fun, and they are not bad people.

But we are who we are collectively as well as individually. Large organizations can and do evolve to do evil things while isolating people individually from illegal or morally uncomfortable acts. That capacity can confer tremendous advantages over smaller, more personal and accountable, collectives. It’s harsh, but we don’t get a pass just because the particular lever we are paid to pull only shifts a cog in a vast machine whose overall function we don’t control. As moral agents, it is not enough to follow the law and let pecuniary incentives guide us. We have to take responsibility for the behavior of the collectives to which we belong.

We are all dirty. Seven years ago I supported a war that has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and that has not achieved any of the positive ends I thought it would achieve. That was a moral error I’m not sure I deserve to have survived, and I’m a terrible hypocrite, because I don’t live like Mother Theresa to atone, but carry on as a comfortable American. I won’t point a finger at anyone and claim moral superiority.

But I am responsible, and it’s important that I know I am responsible. We all have an obligation, not to self-flagellate like monks, but to be aware of the systems in which we are situated, and to work a bit, at the margin, to correct them. Obviously, so long as there are badly skewed incentives, a bit at the margin won’t be enough. I won’t hold a grudge against some mid-level banker who put together crap CDOs because everyone was doing it, and who knew housing would collapse?, and it was very lucrative. But neither will I abstain from using words like “fraud” and “looting” to describe organized practices which, innocuous act by innocuous act, do in fact serve to extract wealth from many and distribute it to a well-organized, well-placed few. And if you work in the industry and that makes you uncomfortable, it should make you uncomfortable, even if your accuser is a hypocrite and morally reprehensible himself. We can and should make better rules and fix perverse incentives in the financial system. But we won’t be able to design a game so perfect that self-interested amoral agents plus an invisible hand ensure decent outcomes. We need industry participants to take responsibility for the organizations and practices in which they participate, and to take an active, serious role in policing those practices. That will require a cultural shift, an understanding that actions that are legal and profitable can be illegitimate and disreputable, and should be avoided even if competitors will profit from your scruples. If context makes that impossible, if behaving well implies that you’ll be fired or your firm will go bust, you (like Chuck Prince!) must try to alter that context.

Calling out misdeeds by hard names helps. Words like “looting”, “theft”, “fraud”, and “scam” are fair descriptions of a lot of common practices, even if some of the perpetrators worked 18 hour days putting together pages 120 through 237 of mind-numbing prospecti and meant only to earn a living.

Yves and TED and I all derive sustenance, one way or another, from the financial industry. Many, perhaps most, people with significant savings in the US, nearly all workers whose pension will support a financially comfortable retirement, are beneficiaries of practices that involved shifting wealth from others to us by means of questionable legitimacy. Many of us profited from asset bubbles; we extracted rewards from price signals that harmed the real economy rather than guiding smart decisions. This is not just about “them”. It is about us. We, the savers, the affluent, educated, hard-working “core” of American society have become thieves, or at best unwitting beneficiaries of theft. We ought to be uncivil to ourselves for that, and we ought to be trying to ensure it never happens again. Both Yves and TED are doing a good job, doing more than their parts to make sense of what’s happened and agitate for something better. But as for the people watering down derivatives reform, defending bank gigantism, shoving the CFPA into a cubicle six sub-basements beneath Ben Bernanke’s ass, well, I’m glad as hell to have people like Yves calling them out as “banksters”.

Rooseveltian reflections

Wednesday morning, I attended a Roosevelt Institute conference, on the theme “Make Markets Be Markets“. It was an enjoyable affair, with a bunch of smart, well-known speakers saying things I broadly agree with, mostly on financial reform. A wrinkle I had not really expected was how frequently, and rather charmingly, the name of the gentleman after whom the Institute is named would be invoked. FDR, and the 1930s generally, were very much with us that morning.

I have much to spout on the subject of financial reform; I am several posts in arrears on that. But by the end of the conference, I was fascinating myself with a little thought experiment.

Suppose the good guys win. Better yet, suppose they had never lost. Suppose banks had never ventured beyond conservatively prudent lending; that there had been no housing, internet, or credit bubble. Forlorn cul-de-sacs surrounded by mouldering homes were never cut from the Arizona desert. Webvan and pets.com were rejected straight off by investors rather than soaring against all reason then dying in an unreasonably sudden collapse.

In a world without bubbles and, let’s not mince words, in a world without fraud in substance if not in law, would we, or how could we, have enjoyed two decades of near “full employment” and apparent growth? Without all the internet companies that were forseeably destined to fail, without all the housing construction, without all the spending by employees whom we know now and should have known then were not actually participating in economic production, without all the spending by people feeling rich on stock or housing gains that would eventually collapse in their or someone else’s arms, what kind of economy would we have built?

These are not questions that answer themselves. They are unknowable counterfactuals.

But we do know something about the 1930s. In 1930, Keynes famously proclaimed “we have magneto trouble”, with the implication that the then incipient depression was due to a kind of remediable, technical failure. Less famously, Keynes was wrong. The post-war economy that finally put paid to the Great Depression was an economy different in kind from that of the go-go 1920s. One piece of that was financial sector reform: there were the securities acts and the FDIC and an astonishing forty years without major banking crises. But there was also a new age of mass production and mass unionization in the US (the so-called “Fordist era“), and the vast existential project of reconstruction in Europe. The Bretton Woods system fixed exchange rates and was intended explicitly to prevent the sort of unbalanced international capital flows that preceded the Great Depression. The postwar United States had an agricultural sector that was largely centrally planned, Fannie Mae and Social Security, and especially the Wagner Act which put the coercive power of the state behind exclusionary labor cartels, but which more than any other single thing made possible mass affluence based on income rather than credit. These were radical, inconceivable changes, combining “socialist” central-planning and redistribution with “fascist” collusion between the state and large corporations in support of national aims. Keynes was right, of course, that the “resources of nature and men’s devices [were] just as fertile and productive” in 1945 as they had been in 1929. But the “delicate machine” we had “blundered in control of” was replaced, not repaired. The new model mixed the technologies of the original gizmo with very novel and foreign elements in a design influenced both by the history of the Depression and an emerging great-power conflict. (See this excellent piece by the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal.)

It is entirely unclear that, absent these changes, the US economy would have “recovered”, even with financial sector reform and the deleveraging of household balance sheets. Sure, depressions never last forever, but it is plausible that the US would have fallen into a spiral of booms and busts and class warfare absent the political choices that defined the postwar economy. And note that they were political choices — a “free market” never would have delivered and sustained for decades a pervasively unionized workforce. They were, for better and for worse, the work of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I don’t mean to underplay the importance of financial sector reform. A continually malfunctioning financial sector has brought the American economy to underappreciated ruin and left us with an overhang of unfulfillable promises that may engender conflict for decades. Further, the financial sector has generated the rump of a crony capitalist class which threatens to set us on the Argentine path. We have to fix the financial sector.

But we cannot fix the financial sector without addressing the problems and contradictions which we depend upon financiers to paper over. This never was just a financial crisis. It was, and is, an economic and political crisis, and we are only a very short way down the path towards resolving it.

p.s. While I do favor restrictions on international capital flows, I don’t favor (I’m actually quite hostile to) unionization as a means of delivering widespread affluence. I am not arguing that we should rehearse the political bargains of the mid-20th century. I am arguing that we had better come up with new bargains, that excising the tumors of parasitic finance is necessary but nowhere near sufficient to getting us out of the trouble we’re in.