Expand transfers, not credit

I have a little secret. Please don’t tell anyone. I am glad that the banks, for all the hundreds of billions of dollars we are giving them, are not lending. That is not because I want banks to improve the quality of their balance sheets. On the contrary, I don’t want banks at all, at least not banks anything like what we’ve had. I don’t want to “use all of our resources to preserve the strength of our banking institutions“. Since we have already bought and paid for our nation’s banking institutions, we are within our rights to, um, transition them to a different business model. Let’s do that.

But credit is the lifeblood of a capitalist economy, right? I keep hearing that line. It’s a dumb line.

Credit, also known as debt, is one of several arrangements by which a party with the power to command resources but lacking aptitude or interest in managing a productive enterprise delegates wealth to another party who is capable of creating value but unable to command sufficient resources. You would be forgiven for not noticing, given how habitually we misuse credit, but supplying credit is really just a subspecies of the practice that used to be called “investing”. There are a variety of other arrangements that serve the same economic function. Perhaps you have heard the terms like “common stock” and “cumulative preferred equity”? In fact, credit is to investing what heroin is to painkillers: Unusually appealing, in a certain way. Hard to kick once you’re on it. Almost certain to, um, cause problems, eventually. Our overall goal ought not be to kickstart the credit economy, but to kick the habit and move towards financing arrangements that are more equity-like than debt-like. That’s going to be hard to do, because historically, we’ve subsidized the hell out of debt financing, especially bank credit, and alternatives are underdeveloped. But with the exception of war, no still-practiced human institution provokes catastrophe as regularly or as grandly as the misuse of debt. We ought to phase out banks as we’ve known them since before Bagehot’s time, and move to a regime of what are lately referred to as “narrow banks” (banks that lend only to the government that issues the currency of their deposits). We should encourage the development fine-grained equity markets and local-market investment funds to replace bank financing.

The rush to ramp up “consumer credit” is particularly dumb. Usually, financial investing involves funding wealth generating projects in exchange for a share of the anticipated wealth. Consumer credit funds current consumption in exchange for a share of, um, what exactly?

In theory, there’s a good answer: consumer credit funds current consumption in exchange for a share of anticipated future wealth that is believed to be endowed already. Economists talk about consumption smoothing, how it may be optimal for a consumer whose income is volatile to borrow during periods of low income and repay (or save) during periods of high income in order to maintain a constant standard of living. That’s very well in models where consumers know the true distribution of their future income, where the spread between borrowing and lending interest rates is not very large, and where consumer preferences are time-consistent. In practice, none of these conditions hold even approximately. As we are learning, the future is a very uncertain place. Consumers, like Wall Street quants, may inadequately extrapolate the distribution of their future income from recent observations. They have no access to the true distribution. The interest rates consumers pay for unsecured credit (think credit card rates) are often several times what they receive on money they save. In the world as it is, consumers ought to borrow only to counter severe downward shocks to income, pay off borrowings quickly, and build buffers of precautionary savings, since the cost of dissaving is much less then the cost of borrowing. (You lose 4% interest on your CD, rather than paying 12% interest on your credit card.)

Some consumers behave this way, but very many do not, suggesting that consumers are myopic, overvaluing consumption today in a manner that they themselves will come to regret in the future. If consumers are myopic, if self-today has different preferences than self-tomorrow, then whether taking on credit is a good idea is beyond the comfort zone of positive economics. Credit availability creates winners (self-today) and losers (self-tomorrow), while interest payments reduce the size of the overall pie available to the time series of selves. In the way that economists suggest “free trade” to be good — winners, losers, gains overall — myopic consumers imply that the absense of a credit constraint is bad. Thank goodness the banks aren’t lending!

There are obvious wrinkles and objections — What about credit for cars, or home mortgages, or education? The analysis changes when the borrowing is exchanging one pre-existing long-term liability for another. (We are born short basic shelter, and, in much of America at least, short a cheap car as well.) Education can be viewed as an ordinary, wealth generating investment project that in theory could be equity rather than debt financed, but that might be too tricky in practice. It’s not my intention to suggest that consumer credit is always bad, only to defend the commonplace notion that for many people and under many circumstances, even loans that will be never be defaulted can be positively harmful, and as a matter of policy we should not be exhorting banks to issue or consumers to accept credit.

But if we let consumer credit contract, and if investment demand is derived from consumption demand, doesn’t that spell macroeconomic disaster? There is an alternative. It is called “transfers”. What’s good about credit from a simple Keynesian perspective isn’t that loans get repaid tomorrow, but that they get spent today. If what consumers would do with funds would be better for the economy than what banks are doing with funds, we ought to stop the massive transfers of funds from buyers of government debt to banks, and transfer the funds directly to consumers. If you think that Americans consume too much, and that we need to grit our teeth and endure a “reduction in our standard of living”, fine. I disagree, strongly, but at least you’re consistent. Then the government shouldn’t transfer to anyone, banks shouldn’t be encouraged to lend, consumption, investment, and GDP should be allowed to fall until we find a new level. I think that’s foolishly pessimistic, though. Americans may need to change the mix of our consumption, but overall I think our standard of living is not only supportable, but improvable, and that our goal should be to get the rest of the world to live as well as we do, rather than to reconcile ourselves with some pseudomoral poverty. The world is full of human want, which we should strive to meet by working to increase our capacity to produce. Problems arise when want and purchasing power are misaligned. We can improve that by redistributing some of the purchasing power from those with lesser to those with greater use for current consumption. If that sounds Commie to you, note that is precisely the function that consumer credit traditionally serves, just without all the residual claims, a large fraction of which will prove to be illusory (at least in real terms). That is, transfers are just a more honest way of doing precisely what a credit expansion does, except without the trauma that comes from learning that much of the money lent to fund current consumption will never be repaid.

I’m trying to come up with a reasonable opposing view, a case for pushing consumer credit but opposing transfers. Perhaps you can help, because I just can’t do it. One might argue on philosophical grounds against coercive transfers, but coercive transfers are a precondition of restarting bank lending, and we’ve already made transfers to banks on such a scale that banning them now would be like robbing a jewelry store, then piously arguing future looters should be shot. One might argue that bank lending is “smarter” than public transfers would be, that the patterns of consumption and investment that result from private sector credit allocation will lead to superior productive capacity and more sustainable patterns of consumption than direct transfers. Given the awful quality of aggregate investment this decade and the volatility now faced by consumers who were recently credit flush but who under any reasonable lending standard must now be credit constrained, it is hard to be enthusiastic about the special wisdom of bank-mediated credit allocation.

Of course, once we start redistributing purchasing power, there’s the thorny question of who gets what. I have an answer to that, it is my new mantra. Transfer flat. Cut checks to every adult in the economy of interest, regardless of whether they pay taxes or have a job. Flat transfers are easy to understand and they pass the smell test for “fair”. As an income source unrelated to work, flat transfers increase workers’ bargaining power with employers by reducing the cost of refusing a raw deal. (Supplementary income is a better means of enhancing labor bargaining power than unionization, which serves the same purpose but may limit the flexibility and efficiency of production.) Finally, flat transfers align purchasing power in the economy with the problem that we want markets to solve — We want an economy that serves some people dramatically more than others, in order to preserve incentives to produce and excel. But we also want an economy that meets every person’s basic needs, even those of people who are unable or unwilling to offer marketable goods or services. We won’t let people starve, so why not fund a basic income, however miserly, rather than relying on an inefficient social services bureaucracy or taxing the virtuous by relying on charity?

Tax Pigou and progressive. Transfer flat. Encourage equity. Contain the banks.

Compete to give, give to compete

‘Tis better to give than to receive.

A nice sentiment, surely. But is it good economics? My takeaway from China’s experience is that it is, or it can be. There are lots of ways to spin China’s policy of limiting the appreciation of its currency in order to promote export-led capital formation and growth. One story is simply that the policy amounted to a export subsidy: Purchasing power was withdrawn from Chinese workers and transferred to dollar and euro spending foreign consumers.

It’s unmistakable that the policy “worked”, in some sense. China’s growth, along with the scale and pace of change in that country, have been remarkable.

I’ve mulled over the question of subsidy before. Simple economic reasoning suggests that subsidies harm the subsidizers and help the subsidizees. Yet nations often do subsidize their exports, overtly and covertly. Instead of welcoming cheap goods with open arms, the recipients of the subsidized merchandise usually complain, and sometimes slap on “anti-dumping” tariffs to keep cheap goods from being too cheap. Economists often tsk-tsk at all this, blaming both the subsidies and the tariffs on rent-seeking politically connected manufacturers. It’s all “protectionism”, they say.

A fair review of the history of “protectionism” would be much more mixed than the economic mainstream would like us to believe, with their stories of comparative advantage and expanding production possibility frontiers. (Thankfully, economists like Dani Rodrik and Paul Krugman weave more nuanced tales, but still “protectionism” rates somewhere just below coprophagia on the economic profession’s list of distasteful things.) In some times and places, trade barriers have served to isolate and impoverish people. In other times and places, tariffs have protected infant industries that grew into powerhouses in countries (like the United States) that otherwise might have remained agricultural backwaters. That said, I think we should avoid tariffs, not in deference to economic pseudoscience, but because they are stultifying. Intercourse across borders is a per se good. A mixed-up, intermingling world is better than one made up of insulated national tribes. We should avoid tariffs not because of their adverse economic consequences, but despite their potential economic benefits.

But subsidy is a different story. Export subsidies do not diminish international commerce, they, um, subsidize it. From a libertarian perspective, there is a strong case against tariffs. Trade restrictions prevent free people across borders from interacting as they wish. But subsidies restrict no one. Sure, libertarians might complain of the wealth expropriated to fund the subsidy, but that critique applies to nearly all functions of modern government. Until we abolish public schools and the NIH, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have export subsidies.

The more serious case against subsidies is that they are “distortionary”. But for even the most ham-handed sort of subsidies, where governments favor particular firms or industries, it is not at all clear that this is so. Investment is not a “distortion”, even though it involves accepting an up-front cost. When local governments offer tax abatements, free infrastructure, and other perqs to attract economic activity, there’s a clear payoff from taxpayers to particular private parties. Yet sometimes these inducements do pay for themselves, in financial terms as growth increases the long-term tax base by more than the upfront costs, and in nonfinancial terms as residents reap direct and indirect benefits from prosperity of place. Sure, governments make poor investments sometimes, whether corruptly or out of innocent miscalculation. Firm managers also make bad investments, and sometimes their motivations in doing so are not aligned with the welfare of shareholders. Sometimes firms are large, and capable of investing on a scale that deters potentially superior upstarts from entering a market. But we don’t prohibit corporate investment as “distortionary”. In both the public and private sector, restricting investment implies preventing potentially welfare-enhancing projects from taking root. Subsidies, when they are not a form of corruption, are a form of investment. We should be very careful in designing public subsidies to private parties, since the potential for crooked dealing is obvious. But forbidding subsidy outright is prima facie welfare destructive. Preventing governments from internalizing the external benefits their communities would receive from economic development would itself be “distortionary”. (I dislike the language of optimality and distortion favored by economists. But when in Rome…)

The example of the United States is often held up as a model of a free-trade zone, as a reducto ad absurdiam. If protectionism is such a good idea, asks some supercilious hypothetical interlocutor, why shouldn’t we have tariffs between Tennessee and Alabama? Of course we don’t, and shouldn’t. But Tennessee and Alabama can and do compete in bidding wars with firms deciding where they ought to put their factories. The “free trade” that has worked so well among the 50 United States is actually a trade regime involving ubiquitous and competitive subsidies. Maybe that’s not a flaw, but a feature.

At this moment, there’s a fear that “Smoot-Hawley”, “beggar-thy-neighbor” protectionism will take hold, condemning us to a depression more harmful than the one we already face. If insufficient aggregate demand is the problem, then competitive tariffs are a negative sum game: They not only confine demand within borders, but they eliminate demand that would otherwise exist for goods and services that could be provided internationally. So, the fear of tariffs is not misplaced.

But competitive export subsidies are a different thing entirely. If the people from whom funds are borrowed or taxed would otherwise have saved, then export subsidies can increase effective aggregate demand. A trade war in which the nations of the world strive to outgive one another in order to help support their own industries would amount to a collaborative global stimulus. Angloamerican economists are tuttutting over how “surplus countries” aren’t doing their part in stimulating domestic consumption. Instead, export-heavy nations are stimulating consumption elsewhere, by stepping up their export subsidies. If China wants to support American consumption, then why shouldn’t America support Chinese consumption? Rather than digging holes again and filling them back in again, why not give the world’s “bottom billion” perishable gift cards redeemable for US goods and services, and let the jobs follow?

I don’t think this is only a matter of “depression economics“. It really is better to give than to receive, even in good times. But it is impolite to give but then refuse the gifts of others. And it is best to be up front about what you are doing. Making “loans” that are unlikely to be repaid is the worst form of giving. Everyone ends up unhappy when the inevitable comes to pass.

I started with the example of China, and I’ll end with it. A year or two ago, China looked unstoppable, but suddenly conventional wisdom is that chickens are coming home to roost. China has subsidized exports, but its subsidy has been synthetic, implicit and deniable, and therein lies its problem. As Brad Setser has described for years, in order to maintain a “crawling” currency peg, China’s central bank has been forced to purchase US dollar assets on which it must expect an eventual loss in real terms. China’s subsidy to foreign consumers has been hidden in this overpayment. China’s policy of giving worked very well for it, but executing that policy by pretending to lend rather than to give has put the nation in a bind. The technocrats responsible for China’s huge currency reserves must continually expand their losses by purchasing more dollars to keep the value of the dollar high and hide the costs of subsidies already granted. If they do not, the exposure of large financial losses might create a firestorm of domestic outrage. China’s central bank might be able to hide reserve losses by engineering a large domestic inflation, so that its US dollar portfolio does not lose value in nominal terms. In either case, even though the development gains were almost certainly worth the financial cost of China’s export support, China’s leaders face a problem since they pretended there was no subsidy when in fact the subsidy was very large.

It would have been better for China as well as for its trade partners (who face traumatic currency devaluations) if its policies had involved explicit, sustainable, and broad-based subsidies to foreign consumers. Explicit subsidies paid over time are more politically palatable than sharp losses suddenly revealed. China’s covert, financial-engineered subsidies relied upon complex chains of financial intermediation, which eventually could not withstand the stress. China is still trying to subsidize, but lending to the US Treasury no longer translates to increased consumption by American consumers. China’s approach to subsidy contributed to instability in the financial arrangements of its customers, which has unsurprisingly boomeranged, creating economic instability in China.

Here is my proposal for the WTO. I know it will be greeted enthusiastically. Explicit export subsidies in the form of time-limited direct-to-consumer vouchers redeemable towards substantially all of a country’s domestically produced goods and services should be deemed permissible, and the inevitable bureaucracy should be created to quibble over the terms of the institutionalized subsidy. Nations may choose to opt out of the program, but if they wish to offer subsidies, they must accept all other nations’ subsidies. (Nations may accept subsidies without offering them, though.) Each subsidizing nation then sets an annual lump-sum amount, which is distributed in the form of equal-valued vouchers to adults in all participating nations worldwide. (Goverments that cannot brook direct-to-consumer payments would be excluded both from offering or accepting subsidies under the program.) Vouchers would be transferrable, but redeemable only by non-residents of the issuing country, for delivery outside of the issuing country. (Yes, for electronically deliverable services that might be hard to enforce. But that’s what we have bureaucracies for.) In particular, subsidy vouchers could be bought and sold on organized exchanges, so that recipients who need food more than imports could sell them, for example to entrepreneurs hoping to purchase foreign capital goods at a discount.

I know this will grate on some of my “free-trade” luvin’ readers, but please compare this proposal with the actual status quo rather than hypothetical optimization problem. Governments will subsidize, sometime corruptly, sometimes mistakenly, and sometimes because it is a good idea that they do so. This scheme does not directly address narrowly tailored subsidies (e.g. US farm subsidies), but it does provide an alternative and “less distorting” means by which nations can broadly support their tradable industries while picking winners and losers as little as possible. It will also provide an alternative to the current practice of synthetic subsidy via currency and financial market intervention, which has led us to the brink of depression and dramatically increased the likelihood of serious conflict, economic or otherwise, between major powers. Since governments will always subsidize, we should try to devise and institutionalize least-harmful-means by which governments can do what they will (and sometimes should) do. This proposal avoids government picking of winners and losers, encouraging governments to subsidize tradables very broadly defined but let markets fill in the details. It prevents governments from targeting and undermining tradables production in particular countries. It avoids the obscenity of the current decade, wherein the mechanics by which export subsides were arranged meant that the wealth transfer went primarily towards the consumption of the already wealthy (owners of real estate or financial assets). The aggregate demand required to mobilize China might have been generated by entrepreneurs building factories in Africa rather than homeowners buying lawn furniture in America. Also, the structure of the proposed subsidy means that poor countries can choose to accept it as a form of foreign aid whose direct-to-consumer requirement might limit corrupt misuse, and whose breadth renders the subsidy less harmful to domestic producers than, say, dumping underpriced grains onto the market in the name of charity.

I think this is a pretty good idea. Tell me why I am wrong.

Good morning 2009

I cannot believe it is 2009. I’ve made it to about 1978 on my own personal to-do list. I’m running just a little bit behind.

Time comes at you like a freight train, but it is bad form not to smile and wave as it screeches by. So here’s to 2009, which I am told is the number of the current year.

Some pundits now suggest it was obvious that 2008 would collapse suddenly into 2009. 2008 was not sustainable, they say. It was a bubble, and as a matter of simple arithmetic, 2009 was sure to follow. It was inevitable, they say, like a Kondratieff winter.

Readers of Interfluidity are not so gullible as to fall for that kind of rear-view forecasting. It was always improbable that 2009 would attach itself to any year present or past. After all, 1984 is eternally the number of a dystopian future, and logically the present can be no later than the future. We have not found babies on Jupiter, an event that would be past in any year subsequent to 2001. Sure, strictly speaking, this kind of reasoning should have ruled out 2008 too. But what are the odds that a rent in the fabric of Keynes-Einstein space-time would endure for half a femtosecond, let alone for a whole ‘nother year? No. The smart money expected a correction back to 1931, or 1974, or 1982. 2009 wasn’t even in the running. But here we are. Anybody got a road map?

Who knows. Maybe this peculiar dimension will turn out not to be so bad. Here’s hoping. May it be all sparkly and strange for you. Perhaps we will encounter a benevolent and impossibly advanced alien race, and then discover at the last moment that the comm-screen through which we speak with them is actually a mirror.


I want to take a moment to thank Interfluidity‘s commenters, who continually amaze me. This is one of those websites where the quality of comments almost always exceeds that of the headline posts. I’m off in some sunny place right now. I just had a read of the comments attached to my previous, kind of crappy post. Wow. Amazing. Thank you.

Krugman’s “hangover theory”, revisited.

I’m trying to write something hard, and failing. I’ll keep trying. But this is easy, and I cannot resist. Paul Krugman is once again attacking “hangover theorists”, the idea that booms of a certain kind inevitably beget recessions. I do not buy the traditional Austrian story of hangovers — that misallocations and depletions of capital (including human capital) necessarily take time to undo. But I think that now and in his original piece, Krugman is far too quick in his dismissal of the idea that there must be something about some booms that makes subsequent recessions pretty hard to avoid. Krugmans writes that “[a] recession happens when, for whatever reason, a large part of the private sector tries to increase its cash reserves at the same time.” It is rather surprising, isn’t it, that “whatever reason” almost always happens subsequent to years of unusual prosperity? Choose your poison — if you don’t like the Austrians, go with Hyman Minsky — but if we don’t acknowledge the relationship between some kinds of booms and the bad times that follow, we’ll have a hard time preventing those bad times.

Krugman is absolutely correct to inveigh against the “morality play” that sometimes seeps into the Austrian rhetoric surrounding recessions. Personally, I think morality play deserves a much larger place in economics than it currently has, but a fable in which masses of innocents suffer to absolve the sins of the reckless wealthy is hardly moral. The “hangover theory” is best described as an immorality play, which we are watching unfold before our eyes this every moment as financial assets are relentlessly supported while the value of a pair of hands is let to plummet.

However, recessions and depressions do follow booms, and there are reasons for that. Austrians have their vices, but a vice of Keynesians is to underestimate the role of information. Krugman points out that the hangover theory…

doesn’t explain why there isn’t mass unemployment when bubbles are growing as well as shrinking — why didn’t we need high unemployment elsewhere to get those people into the nail-pounding-in-Nevada business?

The obvious answer is that when there is a boom, entrepreneurs know into what sector resources must be reallocated, and pull already employed workers from existing jobs into the new big thing. During a bust, from a God’s eye view, the same process must occur: resources must be shifted out of some sectors and into others. But entrepreneurs are only human. They do not know to where resources might be productively employed, only that they cannot be productively employed where they are. This is the asymmetry, I think, that explains mass unemployment during busts.

Krugman also points out that the hangover theory…

doesn’t explain why recessions reduce unemployment across the board, not just in industries that were bloated by a bubble.

I think that this gets to the point about why it is that only certain kinds of booms lead to great and terrible busts. Industries rise and fall all the time, in good times as well as bad. In the 1980s, there was a great boom in the recording industry owing to the advent of compact discs. The boom eventually went bust, but mass unemployment did not ensue. Hangovers result not from booms in and of themselves, but from booms which result in unhealthy concentration of the aggregate investment portfolio. US capital, viewed as a whole, was overly concentrated in housing and construction this decade. China’s capital has been overly concentrated in exports and construction. Traditional portfolio theory views the menu of investments as fixed, and suggests that investors diversify among them. But in the aggregate, there is only one portfolio extant at any point in time. The art of “macro portfolio theory” is to control the evolution of that portfolio so that it remains reasonably efficient. The easy answers don’t work: Micro portfolio choices don’t necessarily compose into a dynamically sane macro portfolio. We have reason to be skeptical of very heavy-handed industrial policy. So we have work to do.

I’ll end with an intuition: I think that there’s a trade-off between microlevel diversification and macro-efficiency. Barry Bosworth warned that “diversification devalues knowledge”. One reason that micro portfolio choices fail to compose is because it is often sensible for investors to “buy the market”. Every individual has a unique information set, and ideally we would want all that decentralized knowledge “priced into the market” independently of the judgments of others. However, each individual knows that her own information is profoundly uncertain and incomplete, and that the market represents an aggregation of the judgments of millions of others. So, as passive-investment types have been telling us for more than a decade, it may be optimal for individuals to ignore their own information and defer to the judgement of the market-ex-me. (This is a kind of “information cascade“.) But, each person who defers to the market increases the concentration of investment decision making, and decreases the breath of information that is priced into the market. If the aggregate portfolio is disproportionately by the decisions of a relatively small group of people, there is no reason to suspect its quality would be better than that decided upon by a bureaucracy of planners. There is reason to suspect, in fact, that it would be worse, because at least the planners know they should at least pretend to serve a broad public interest, while private decisionmakers might quite legitimately think they’re just trying to get a piece of next year’s bonus pool.

In sum, I think there is a tension between micro diversification and macro diversification. If we want to maintain a well-diversified aggregate portfolio, it may be necessary to restrict the degree to which the portfolio of firms and individuals can be diversified. This implies forcing individuals to bear more risk than they would otherwise choose, in order to reduce systemic risk. We might be better off by letting individuals shed risk via some form of social insurance while forcing investment choices to be sharp, than by encouraging people to blur the information they present in their portfolio choices in order to diversify and hedge.

Fedthink

James Hamilton has an excellent post on the Federal Reserve and its changing balance sheet today. If you haven’t been following this stuff obsessively, it’s probably the single best primer to get up to speed.

To my mind, there are three signal facts about the brave new balance sheet:

  1. The size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet has ballooned, more than doubling over a period of three months. If we take the FOMC at its word for it, it’s not going to shrink anytime soon. Given new programs already announced, we should expect the Fed’s balance sheet to continue to grow.
  2. On the asset side, only a small fraction of the Fed’s holdings are now US Treasury securities. Excluding securities lent to dealers, just 12.5% of the Fed’s assets are Treasuries. The Fed has expanded the scope of its lending, from depository institutions, to primary dealers, to money-market funds and commercial paper issuers, to issuers of asset and mortgage backed securities, and very soon to private investment funds that invest in asset-backed securities. The Fed also periodically lends to support firms in, um, special circumstances, such as JPM/Bear and more recently AIG.
  3. On the liability side, the Federal Reserve has dramatically increased the degree to which it funds its activities with zero-maturity bank reserves, upon which it is now paying interest.

The Federal Funds rate is now effectively zero. We have hit the so-called “zero bound”.

There are many ways of trying to make sense of all this. One broad-brush view is that for all its radicalism, the Fed is just a thermostat. As the private sector delevered, the Fed had to lever up (McCulley). As foreign central banks shift their portfolio from agencies to Treasuries, the Fed has to shift its portfolio from Treasuries to agencies (Setser). More broadly, as the private financial sector has become unwilling to issue short-term, liquid liabilities against long-term illiquid assets, the Fed has had to do so to avoid a disorderly collapse of asset prices (see Kling). One might imagine a canoe carrying a wild beast (that would be our “rational” private markets). The beast writhes and bends, and the Fed must throw its weight in the opposite direction to force the tipping craft upright despite all the upheaval.

“Stability” — price stability, financial stability — are to my mind like “liquidity“: qualities widely considered virtues that are often actually vices. Nevertheless, the Fed pursues these goals, and in the immediate term, the thermostat analogy works pretty well. I don’t doubt that we’d have tipped into steep deflation, outright collapse of core financial institutions and an in-the-streets economic crisis without the Fed’s extraordinary measures. Had the Fed not played thermostat from 2001-2003, perhaps the beast would have been chastened by a mild dunking, and today’s heroics might have been less inevitable. But it was stability über alles then, when the bubble first tried to burst, and now we are where we are.

So, thanks to the Fed, things are better than they might have been. But I think there is as much to squirm about than to celebrate in how the Fed has comported itself.

On the asset side, as has been widely noted, the Fed has been taking on extraordinary levels of credit risk. We do not know against precisely what collateral the Fed is extending its trillions in loans, and how conservatively that collateral is being valued. We wish Bloomberg luck in their lawsuit. (ht CR, Alea).

We do know that the Fed is becoming ever more brazen about its risk-taking. When the Fed made a non-recourse loan in connection with the collapse of Bear Stearns, Chairman Bernanke was summoned by Congress to discuss the unusual move. A non-recourse loan is economically something between lending and purchasing. The Fed has the authority to lend to whomever it pleases under “unusual and exigent” circumstances, but it is not empowered to spend outright what are in the end US taxpayer dollars. Anticipating objections, Dr. Bernanke was very careful during the Bear debacle to ensure that since the taxpayer would “own” most of the downside, it would also capture the upside. Still, he was called to account for what was widely understood to be an unusual move of very questionable legality. But now, under TALF, the Fed will extend non-recourse loans to just about anyone. The Fed will assume much of the downside, while private investors capture the upside. In my view, it is not quite legal for the Fed to extend non-recourse loans, and the practice should be curtailed. Non-recourse loans should be approved by Congress and executed by the Treasury department. The recipients of loans from the Federal Reserve should be bankrupt before taxpayers take losses. Remember, the Fed is an an unelected technocracy “cognitively captured” (as Willem Buiter puts it) by the sector it purports to regulate. Yes, Congress sucks. But the Fed sucks too, and the rule of law does matter.

For all of that, it is the liability side of the Fed’s balance sheet that is most interesting. The Fed is financing its gargantuan balance sheet expansion by conjuring unsterilized bank reserves. A year ago, there were less than $18B of reserves deposited at the Fed. Today there are $800B. A year ago the Fed wasn’t paying interest on bank reserves. Today it is.

Interest rates are, for the moment, excruciatingly low. But a subsidy to the banking system, once put into place, will be quite hard to dislodge. So, let’s imagine that the Fed will pay interest on bank reserves in perpetuity, that it will pay such interest at or near the risk-free short-term interest rate, and that the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet is more or less permanent. How large a subsidy to the banking system do the interest payments on reserves represent? Some problems are arithmetically challenging, but not this one. The present value of a perpetual stream of market-rate interest payments is precisely the amount of the principal. Therefore, the present value of the Fed’s de facto commitment to pay interest to banks on $800B of freshly created reserves is $800B. We fought and wailed and gnashed our teeth over potentially overpaying for TARP assets. Meanwhile, we are quietly allowing the Fed give away, as a direct, literal subsidy, more than the entire $700B that Paulson was allowed to play with. Note there is no question about this being an “investment”: The interest payments that the Fed is now making to banks on its suddenly expanded balance sheet are not loans. The banks owe taxpayers absolutely nothing in return for this windfall.

Now the bankers will object, as they always do. Bankers have forever cried that they are required to hold reserves at the Fed, that to be forced to lend their cash interest-free to the central bank is a hidden tax. I hope we all understand by now that the pronouncements of the banking industry are about as reliable as a monthly statement from Bernie Madoff. The reserves in the banking system are created by the Fed, and the quantity outstanding is now enough to cover banks’ regulatory and settlement needs many times over. This is not in any sense “their” money. It is money the Fed printed in order to pursue its own objectives. The banks have no right whatsoever to earn interest on this money, and absolutely do not merit an $800B subsidy. Further, the core rationale for paying interest on reserves has disappeared entirely. Originally, the Fed wanted the power to pay interest on reserves so that it could expand its balance sheet to pursue “stability” goals without stoking inflation by letting the short-term interest rate fall to zero. Now the short-term interest rate has fallen to zero, and the dominant concern is that we are in a “liquidity trap”. Yet we are still paying the banks 25 basis points to hold this freshly created money at the Fed. James Hamilton, towards the end of his piece, points out that this is counterproductive. I want to point out that it is also obscene.

Now I have to admit that, personally, I feel a bit caught out, bent out of shape, gypped, by the whole paying-interest-on-reserves thing. A long while back, I argued against giving the Fed this power, because I knew they would abuse it. During the TARP debate, I did a one-eighty. At least the Fed, I reasoned, would only lend taxpayer money. If we took losses, the institutions that shoved them onto us would go down first. Paulson clearly wanted to assume bank liabilities outright by overpaying for toxic assets. Having the Fed lend taxpayer money seemed like a better deal than letting Paulson give it away. The cost of paying interest on reserves, when I had written about it previously, was about only $11B in present value terms, insignificant in the grand scheme of things. (By the end of September, when I flipped, reserves had already grown to $100B… but I missed that.) Now we have the worst of all worlds: Not only has our corrupt, dysfunctional banking system won the small subsidy it has long lobbied for, but the size of that subsidy has grown by almost 8000%. The Fed is no longer lending only to financial institutions that would have to go under before taxpayers eat their losses. Under TALF, the Fed will lend to anyone who owns the kind of securities whose prices the Fed wants support. The borrowers will take the upside, while taxpayers eat the downside. (Does anybody know what kind of leverage the Fed will support under TALF? I’ve looked, but haven’t found.) The non-recourse lending that was extraordinary and barely legal when Bear went down is now the new normal, except that the Fed no longer bothers to ensure an upside for taxpayers. By institutionalizing non-recourse lending, the Fed has arrogated the power to do everything the original TARP would have done, except without the opportunity for people like me to write Congress in anger.

Despite all this, I am becoming rather Zen about the Federal Reserve lately. I have some sympathy: They are dancing to a tune that they no longer call, struggling to keep pace with an accelerating beat. The Bernanke Fed is clever and inventive, delightful as spectator sport. So many trillions of dollars have been spent or committed or guaranteed, that the amounts have gone meaningless. I think that the current financial system and the Fed itself are quite doomed, and I’m less inclined to get bent out of shape by the particular ordering of the death throes. There will be a great crisis. Hopefully it will only be a financial crisis. I’d prefer it to be an inflationary rather than a sharp deflationary crisis, both because I think that a great inflation would be less destructive, and because that’s the way my own portfolio tilts. So really, I should root for the Fed. Let the printing presses turn and the helicopters fly, but please don’t confiscate my gold.

Since the current Fed loves bold and unorthodox action, I thought I’d end this with a (sort of) constructive suggestion. As the composition of the monetary base changes from mostly currency in circulation to largely electronic reserves, the zero-bound on nominal interest rates can be made to disappear. How? Simple: Rather than paying interest on reserves, the Fed can tax them. If banks were taxed daily on their reserves, banks would compete to minimize their holdings, and interbank lending rates would go negative. With a high enough tax, banks could be made desperate to lend, even though in aggregate the banking system has no choice but to hold the reserves. Presumably, banks would pass costs to depositors by eliminating interest on deposits, increasing fees, and ceasing to offer term CDs. Money in the bank would go from what everyone wants to something nobody can afford to hold. People would strive to minimize transactional balances, and invest any savings in money markets or stocks or bonds, anything not subject to the tax. (This is similar in spirit to a suggestion by Arnold Kling.)

Of course there would be tricky consequences: Gresham’s law would kick in, as people would hoard physical cash to avoid the tax. Coins and bills would cease to be used for exchange, but would be held as stores of value. That would introduce some friction into small transactions: we’d end up using debit cards to buy candy bars, accelerating our transition to a cashless economy. But electronic money would be legal tender, and the appreciation of paper money would be no more relevant to the overall price level than the fact that older “wheat pennies” are worth much more than 1¢. With a sufficiently large electronic monetary base, there need be no zero-bound on nominal interest rates, and we can use “conventional” monetary policy to fight deflation by letting nominal rates go negative. I laugh in the maw of your liquidity trap.


FD: Long precious metals, short 30-yr Treasuries (youch!).

“Overcapacity”

One of the funniest words in the lexicon of business is “overcapacity”.

Here’s Bloomberg:

China’s economic slowdown is deepening, with overcapacity in almost all industries, and won’t bottom out until after the first quarter of next year, two senior officials said today.

Think about that: “overcapacity in almost all industries”. Perhaps we exist in a more enlightened world than I ever imagined. I’ve always thought that human want for material goods was basically unlimited. Apparently not! We have enough, not just here in the once gluttonous U.S. of A., but everywhere. All of the nearly seven billion humans of planet Earth have no use for anything more than they already have. Subsistence farmers in Africa prefer to live as they do, because it plays charmingly in National Geographic. If you offered them 10 million Yuan and a shopping trip, they’d shyly refuse.

The world does not now, and never has had, a general problem with “overcapacity”. It might be sensible to talk about overcapacity with respect to a particular good or service in a particular setting. Maybe five Starbucks Cafes really are too many for one city block. But as a macroeconomic phenomenon, overcapacity is bullshit. Capacity can be misaligned — there might be too many sock factories for too few shoe factories. But there can be no general overcapacity, only underutilization.

We, collectively, have not figured out a means of addressing an incompatibility between the incentives by which we encourage production and the means by which we distribute it. Human effort is driven by positional as much as material incentives: We measure ourselves against one another. Two centuries ago, a person could be rich with no running water, electricity, or internet person. But wealth was still wealth, and people worked just as hard to be rich then as now. But since wealth is positional, people’s desire for wealth may far exceed their intention or ability to consume. When great wealth is earned by contributing to production, this leads to a surplus, which seems like a good thing, but creates the “problem” of excess capacity. The obvious solution is to redistribute claims on production, so that those with unmet wants make use of the excess. But doing so reduces the differences in station that inspire Herculean efforts to produce, and provokes conflicts over who gets what.

The macroeconomic stories of this decade have all been about squaring this circle: Rather than redistributing claims outright, we adopted the fiction of trading present goods for future claims. The ambitious grew wealthy by accumulating claims on the future of the less ambitious, in exchange for which the less ambitious (and sometimes very distant) consumed present production, and demanded more. Entrepreneurs could measure their position against their fellows by the quantity of their claims. Others could consume in proportion to their ability to manufacture claims that entrepreneurs would accept, that is, they could consume what they could borrow. But high quality claims on future wealth are in reality very scarce. An economic system that depends upon ever expanding claims on the future in order to provide current incentives to produce can not be stable. Once the “wealthy” learn that many of their claims are worthless, the system falls apart. The less-wealthy have no means of consuming, as new claims are shunned. Owners of capital gain nothing but bear costs for maintaining productive infrastructure. “Excess capacity” appears.

There is no iron law of economics, no physics of resource constraints, that prevents us from using all the productive capacity we have ever developed. Our problem is distributional and organizational: How can we match potential consumers with capacity (broadly defined) in a way that maximizes current well-being, and that offers sufficient information and incentives to inspire and direct future production? That’s not an easy problem. In fact, it’s a deep problem, philosophically and ethically, the substance of which is mostly neglected or assumed away by modern economics. Nevertheless, it is the real problem, not “overcapacity”. The world still needs more, and better. We should be careful of what we destroy because, for the moment, it seems “uneconomic”.

Update History:
  • 13-Dec-2008, 2:50 p.m. EST: I’ve fixed some poor writing in the paragraph on positional incentives and bit about using future claims as a fudge to redistribute present consumption. The rest of the poor writing remains unchanged.

Expenditure vs investment — thinking clearly

I like this little graphic that’s been making the rounds, courtesy of Voltage Creative, hat-tip nonSense, Simoleon Sense, Paul Kedrosky.

Paul Kedrosky is a reasonable fellow, and takes care to note that the numbers “are in current dollars, and all treat expenditures and investments as equivalent.” Kevin Drum is even more reasonable:

This stuff has gotten completely out of hand, with “estimates” of the bailout these days ranging from $3 trillion to $7 trillion even though the vast bulk of this sum comes in the form of loan guarantees, lending facilities, and capital injections. The government will almost certainly end up spending a lot of money rescuing the financial system (I wouldn’t be surprised if the final tab comes to $1 trillion over five years, maybe $2 trillion at the outside), but it’s not $7 trillion or anything close to it. People really need to stop throwing around these numbers as if the bailout is comparable to World War II or something. That’s not reality based, folks.

But reasonable and right are sometimes different, and this graphic helps to think it through. We have some idea what we paid for, for example, with the $851,000,000,000 for NASA. We bought space shuttles, satellite systems, a moon shot, planetary probes, a lot of research and development, some air bases and research facilities.

What are we buying when the government purchases mortgage-backed securities, or buys preferred shares of banks that can only pay if a portfolio of real-estate loans does not totally sour? We are buying “paper”, right?

No. We are not buying paper. Ironically, the pejorative term “paper” hides what we are actually doing in a way that is overflattering. All of the iffy securities that are weighing down the banking system represents money already spent on real projects or consumption. When the government purchases a security, it is taking the place of the party that originally fronted money for that expenditure. Every penny of government “investment” is retroactive expenditure on housing, real-estate, consumer credit, whatever.

If a government were to borrow funds in order to build a new stadium, we’d call that an “expenditure”, even if we fully expect use fees and incremental tax revenues to eventually turn a profit for the fisc. Politicians supporting the project would call it an “investment”, quite justifiably. But the project would still count as government spending.

If a private party builds the same stadium, and then is reimbursed by the government in exchange for rights to future revenue, that doesn’t change the economic substance of the transaction at all. But in the second case, the government would buy “paper” — it would enter into a contract trading current government funds for future revenues. That “security” doesn’t make the transaction any more or less an investment than if the government had purchased the stadium itself.

So, in economic substance, the government is currently spending through a financial time machine on the exurban subdivisions and auto loans of several years past. We are retroactively turning in the entire mid-decade “boom” into a gigantic Keynesian stimulus project. Apparently that stimulus was not so successful, since we are likely to enact a brand new massive stimulus very soon. To be fair, it should be easier to design a good stimulus program in the present tense — financial time machines are persnickety things. But the expenditures we are planning to undertake and the “investments” we are making via the universal bail-out are not so different in kind.

I hope that the infrastructure we build next year turns out to be a wise investment, both in financial and use-value terms. It might be, but just because we hope to recoup the cost, we won’t pretend that no money was actually spent. We’ll call the whole thing an expenditure, even though that will probably overstate the ultimate burden. But if a power grid counts as an expenditure on government books, so should a security derived from a mortgage or credit card loan made two years ago. You can argue that the latter are more likely to pay-in-full than the former. Or you can easily argue the opposite, given the prices that the government is paying for its financial investments relative to private-sector bids. But you can’t claim that securities are “investments” while a power grid, or NASA, or even World War II are mere “expenditures”. (It does not seem unlikely that the US government earned has earned more in tax and other revenues over the years having entered WWII than it would if it had not, perhaps by a large enough margin to justify the financial costs of the war.)

Figures of 7 or 8 trillion dollars recently bandied about by the Communists at Bloomberg are overstated, since they do not distinguish between expenditures and guarantees, which are contingent liabilities. The government’s contingent liabilities aren’t usually counted as spending until the contingency has been triggered. But the amount of money already spent or committed on “financial investments” to date is more than $3 trillion dollars, and it is perfectly right to call that government spending on the financial bail-out.

The scale of the largely unlegislated current government program to save the financial system is breathtaking and quite unprecedented. Taxpayers might be made whole, in financial terms, or might reap sufficient dividends in terms of suffering avoided to justify the program. But don’t let anyone convince you that the scale of this intervention is “overstated” because it is all “investment”. NASA and the Marshall Plan were investments too, and pretty good ones.

Sadness

Tanta has died. It is all over the wires. It is in the New York Times.

She was a wonderful writer, an amazing analyst, teacher of aspiring ubernerds, a delightful, tart wit. She will be terribly missed.

I am struck, for the second time in just a few months, by the odd intimacy of this medium. The newspapers are full of joyful and terrible tidings. Celebrities die. It washes over me.

When Paul Krugman won his Nobel, I was oddly euphoric. I’ve never met the man, or even corresponded with him, but he felt like somebody I know, somebody I talk to, because he participates so actively in this endless sprawled-out conversation that I’m involved in. You sometimes see these images of website clustering, how neighborhoods form, cyberglobs of dense interlinkage. When Krugman won a Nobel, it felt like a kid from my neighborhood had hit the big time, and I was proud.

I’ve never met or corresponded with Tanta, though I have long been a fan. But this doesn’t feel like the death of a distant celebrity. The intimacy of the medium cuts both ways.

Tanta came out of nowhere and contributed greatly to the public understanding of housing economics. She described the mortgage industry in amazing detail, without ever being dry or dull. (Is that even possible?) A quirky, brilliant voice has disappeared. Her silence will be loud in the cacophony.

I am sad.

Should “bad” financial contracts be banned?

Despite all that’s gone down over the last few years, I’m an enthusiast of “financial innovation”. I think it essential that we remake our financial system into something so different from what it has been that we would hardly recognize it. Doing so will require a lot of innovation.

But there’s no question that the current financial crisis was abetted and largely enabled by many of the “innovations” that became ubiquitous in the financial sector earlier this decade — CDOs, SIVs, (arguably) CDSs, etc. To square the circle, I resorted to an old cop-out: the revolution hasn’t been tried. There’s good innovation and there’s bad innovation. The stuff that didn’t work was the bad stuff. Lame as that may be, it is what I think, and I did try to put some flesh on how we could distinguish good from bad going forward. Then Dani Rodrik came back with some fair questions:

OK, now that we have collectively gotten over our finance fetishism, and are willing to accept that some innovations can be bad, what does this mean for regulatory and supervisory approaches?

For example, it is one thing to say that good innovations are those that are transparent, and another to figure out how policy sorts out the degree of transparency of innovations and how policy makers treat innovations of different kinds. Does this line of thinking imply that some degree of paternalism in regulation is unavoidable (“no, you cannot issue this particular complicated derivative!”)

I think we need to discriminate here between the structural and substantive terms of financial instruments. A contract is “structurally” transparent if, conditional on any set of observable real economic outcomes, it is clear what cash flows are compelled of all parties. A contract is “substantively” transparent if the economic outcomes that determine the cash flows are themselves susceptible to analysis. A mortgage-backed security, for example, might be structurally transparent but substantively opaque: Knowing the performance of the bundled mortgages, it might be easy to calculate the cash flows payable to all tranches. But as a practical matter, it might be impossible to estimate the performance of a thousands of heterogeneous loans in a volatile housing market. Common stock is arguably both structurally and substantively opaque: Even if one knows with certainty the long-term performance of a firm, the cash flows due a stockholder can be difficult to predict. And the future performance of a firm is itself very hard to estimate.

I think a strong case can be made for regulatory promotion of structural transparency. Contracts can be made arbitrarily complex, and there is little reason to think that skill at crafting and understanding challenging legal documents overlaps with peoples’ ability to evaluate economic risks and outcomes. It would be useful to have standardized contracts so that those not expert in the law of finance can participate in financial markets without fear of getting screwed because their lawyers missed something. Also, I think regulators have a legitimate interest in ensuring that investors do not accept contingent liabilities foreseeably beyond their capacity to pay. To do so, regulators must be able to estimate the liabilities that counterparties could be called upon to bear. The potential extent of those liabilities should be evaluable without a lot of analysis or guesswork.

That said, I don’t think the best approach would be to forbid nonstandard contracts. Instead, regulators could “bless” certain contractual forms as well-defined, while creating penalties for those who offer contracts that are structurally opaque or that serve to hide embedded leverage. Parties who have good reason to deviate from very standard contracts would have the ability to do so, but would risk of being punished if those instruments are deemed to have violated standards of clarity. In other words, instead of eliminating “bad” contracts, regulators should take on the role of organizations like ISDA and proactively define “good” contracts that meet needs they identify by monitoring “exotics” that gain prominence in the market. Unlike ISDA, however, regulators’ primary mandate would be to ensure that the contracts they bless are well thought out from the public’s perspective: that “catastrophic success” of those contracts would not create fragile networks of counterparties or other hazards. “Blessed” contracts might well include obligations to periodically report contract valuations notional and net, and collateralization to a public registrar. They would rely upon collateral much more than counterparty for security (to restrict embedded leverage), and provide for standardized means of termination or novation, to prevent the emergence of economically useless but systemically hazardous multilaterally offset positions. They might work proactively to encourage the formation of centrally cleared exchanges, to permit counterparty neutrality with less collateral or risk of early termination, as new forms of contract grow popular.

The case for regulatory promotion of substantive transparency is much weaker. Economic problems that appear inscrutable to distant regulators might in fact be quite tractable to those “in the know”. (Pace Arnold Kling and Richard Serlin, it’s important to point out that when I take “transparency” as desirable, I am not suggesting that people should be compelled to reveal hard-won information without compensation. People who can predict economic outcomes should be paid for doing so. But contracts should generally be structured so that the relationship between economic outcomes and contract cash flows is clear. How much “inefficiency” is desirable, meaning how slowly contract prices should respond to information revelation, creating opportunities for the informed to profit, is a complicated question. We need to balance the interests of uninformed investors, whose capital may be required for large projects, and information workers, who need incentives to evaluate competing projects.)

Suppose a group of people learned that, in the near future, there would be an incredible economic need for COBOL programmers, and looked for a way to monetize this. Noting that former COBOL programmers are much more creditworthy than their FICOs suggest, they might wish to buy up the loans of this dispersed, obscure population. Knowledgeable individuals would not want to buy up individual loans: instead they would want diversified exposure to the pool of COBOL programmer loans, since individual circumstances vary widely. Our cabal only knows that on average COBOL programmer loans are underpriced.

So, our insiders should hire up some financial engineers, and construct an asset-backed security containing a pool of consumer loans to COBOL geeks. They could each take diversified shares of the pool, with some assurance of having bought undervalued assets. Once the ABS is established and divvied up, they would have every incentive to reveal their information, explain to the world why COBOL is the next big thing (and how their ABS was structured), and sell to the world at fair-ish value for a quick profit.

This chain of events is informationally idyllic: Knowledgable people are compensated for revealing hard-won information, and economic assets become more accurately priced, which should feed forward into better decision-making. But if regulators are empowered to evaluate the “substantive transparency” of investment contracts, they would certainly have nixed an ABS made up of loans to an eclectically selected population of individuals without justification. Up-front revelation of the justification to regulators, however, might leak and allow a larger player to buy up the whole pool, eliminating the opportunity.

Also, consider common stocks. No rational regulator concerned with substantive transparency would approve of common stock, if it were a novel investment vehicle. It guarantees no cashflows whatever, its “control rights” are so weak for most purchasers that representations thereof should be viewed as fraudulent. Empirically common stock behavior is very weakly coupled to the performance and health of the firms that stocks fund. The only instrument in wide use more substantatively opaque than common stock is fiat money.

I think common stock is a deeply imperfect instrument, one that we should work to improve upon and eventually replace. But, there’s little question that over the several hundred years between the invention of joint stock companies and the advent of information-technology that might make more fine-grained claims practicable, common stock served a useful purpose, both in terms of pooling capital and risk, and promoting information discovery and revelation.

Still, much of our current catastrophe was caused by investors investing overeagerly in securities whose structures were clear enough, but the economic substance of which they were entirely incapable of evaluating. Rather than banning such securities, we should turn our attention to understanding why they did this. A lot of very opaque securities (both substantively and structurally) were invented, sure. But how did they vault from idiosyncratic experimentation to widespread implementation? This had to do with the structure of financial intermediation, and it is there that I believe that regulatory energy should be focused, rather than on evaluating the terms of contracts.

Flawed financial instruments only become policy issues when people responsible for investment on a significant scale decide that what they don’t know won’t hurt them. This can happen by virtue of fads and fashion, the madness of crowds: consider internet stocks, or blind faith in diversification and “stocks for the long run”. But most poor investment, in dollar-weighted terms, is not taken by foolish individuals placing their own money. Bankers and institutional investors are on the one hand granted the power to control investment on a very large scale, and on the other hand make consistently awful choices. Delegated money, rather than trading off return and safety, often trades return for safe-harbor. Absurd contracts that appear to offer high returns are very attractive to money managers of all stripes, if they offer a veneer of safety and “prudence”, or better yet, if they become conventional.

Getting regulators in the habit of banning some classes of contracts (or worse, requiring them to approve novel contracts) would have the perverse effect of certifying the instruments that are permitted. A better approach would be to eliminate safe-harbor for intermediaries by insisting that they be substantially invested in the funds they manage, and on the hook — financially, not just reputationally — for losses as well as gains. (Obviously, we should eliminate safe-harbor that derives from rating agency certifications or statistical risk models. But that won’t be sufficient — professionals will always manufacture “best practices” and find safety in numbers, or hide behind consultations with experts and representations by prestigious sources.)

Fundamentally, the agency problems associated with financial intermediation are deep, and it will take a lot of reform — and innovation — to find good solutions. Regulation to promote structural clarity in investment contracts and manage leverage and counterparty risk may help limit the damage, but won’t be nearly enough. I think we need a fairly wholesale restructuring of financial intermediation, one that limits the scale and leverage of intermediaries, segregates transactional balances and noninformational savings from informational risk investment, and ensures that those who do manage large quantities of wealth land in penury or in prison before the taxpayers are on the hook to make private losses whole. But having regulators review and restrict the substantive terms of financial contracts strikes me as a bad idea.

Apology to commenters

The last couple of posts have generated some very high quality comments, many of which I’m still itching to respond to. I usually try to participate in comment threads. I very much enjoy the conversations, and learn a great deal from the give and take. But my participation has been limited and will probably continue to be so, at least for the next couple of months.

I do read every word (and usually follow the links too). And I very much appreciate your taking the time to read, and to write.

It’s actually a bit silly for me to apologize for my nonparticipation, though. I’d only bring down the level. I’m honored that you choose to chatter here.