Insolvency is philosophy, illiquidity is fact

Take a look at a snippet of GM’s last-quarter balance sheet (courtesy of Yahoo! Finance). It’s the part that contains what accountants quaintly call “Shareholder Equity”:

Yes, the accounting value of the firm’s equity is negative 41.7 billion dollars. Now, answer me this. Is GM insolvent?

There is no definitive answer. It’s a philosophical question, a matter of opinion. The market says GM’s equity is worth $15B dollars. All we can say with any confidence is that GM is liquid, it has not yet failed to pay its bills, it is capable of borrowing to finance its operational needs despite a balance sheet with no vital signs. The patient walks and breathes, so it is not dead. Somehow.

There is a meme going around the blogosphere, and now the mainstream-press-o-sphere, that the Fed is helpless in the current crisis because the problem is one of solvency, not liquidity. Here’s Paul Krugman (hat tip Mark Thoma):

In past financial crises… the Fed has been able to wave its magic wand and make market turmoil disappear. But this time the magic isn’t working… Why not? Because the problem with the markets isn’t just a lack of liquidity — there’s also a fundamental problem of solvency.

Here, here, Dr. Krugman. And you too, Dr. Roubini. And Michael Shedlock. And Kevin Drum. I agree with you all. From the tiny legal entities known as asset-backed securities, way up through to a couple of large money center banks, there are a lot of entities out there which, by my Victorian standards, are simply insolvent. But by those standards, GM oughtn’t be able to fog a mirror, let alone borrow money from people. It’s the living dead, a zombie, to use a term fashionable when discussing Japan but never, ever appropriate to the hypercapitalist U.S. of A.

Can a determined central bank “wave its magic wand” and make insolvent entities solvent? I have no idea. But I do know this. A central bank can keep almost anything liquid for a long, long time. And as far as financial markets are concerned, only liquidity matters. The little theory called solvency is only relevant to the degree that it predicts liquidity, or illiquidity. Central banks can undo that relationship, if they wish to. Perhaps they wish to.

I have no idea how “aggressive” the U.S. Federal Reserve will become in trying to resolve the present crisis in credit markets. There are in norms of accounting, regulatory frameworks, laws, that might constrain it. But, central bankers have been remarkably candid in describing their willingness to circumvent these constraints in a crisis. (See here or here for examples.) With the new Term Auction Facility, the US Fed has just given itself a tool by which it can ensure the liquidity of “insolvent” assets, at prices the bank itself determines, indefinitely. Some commentators (e.g. Yves Smith) have wondered how a temporary facility, loans with a fixed term of one month, can make much difference one way or another in the liquidity of assets. The answer, of course, is that they can be rolled over (via new auctions, which are already announced for January, or by other means). The same logic that impels the initial extension of credit suggests that loans will be rolled over, must be rolled over, for as long as “crisis” continues. The Fed has bent over backwards to help out financial institutions. Once it has direct loans to those institutions on its balance sheet, it will own their problems in a way it has not until now. Will the Fed pull the plug and demand payment of a bank that says it cannot pay? Will it force a bankruptcy, as private creditors might, if the bank was in default? Is that even conceivable? The day that happens to a bank of any scale is the day you can be sure the credit crisis is no more.

I’m going to end with a bit of a cheap shot, because really, nothing is beneath me. Remember this?

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality… That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Worrying about “insolvency” is a defect of the reality-based community. For everyone else, all that matters is the price at which assets can be sold or borrowed against. The Fed can set that price, if it acts with sufficient, um, determination. Analyzing underlying cash flows is for pansies.

The latest financial innovation cooked up by the banking system might be described as “postmodern pricing”, whereby the exchange/collateral value of assets is intentionally unmoored from quaint ideas like “true” or “fundamental” value. All for the benefit of struggling homeowners and hard-working ordinary Americans, of course. If you are among the macroeconomic mainstream that has nodded along with Fed interventions to support “liquidity”, but you find this brave new world troubling, well, good. Better late than never, and you are welcome among us. Expect to be mocked. Bear it with pride.

Update History:
  • 14-Dec-2007, 5:39 p.m. EST: Replaced the awkward “I want you to take a look at…” with just “Take a look at…”
  • 14-Dec-2007, 6:15 p.m. EST: Cleaned up some wordiness (unnecessary “thus far”), added some wordiness (“help” to “help out”), inserted a missing verb to be.

TAF is a really, really big deal

I haven’t time to write properly, I am caught between a million things. But when I woke up to the Federal Reserve’s press release about the TAF, my jaw dropped. It was one of those moments when the world shook, everything was the same, but everything had changed. So, when I step into the blogosphere to read comments like “solid first step“, I feel compelled to spew some first impressions.

  1. If you think (as I believe most Fed policymakers do) that the goal of monetary policy in reacting to the current financial crisis is to make it go away, this plan is brilliant.

  2. Under traditional discount window borrowing, the best the Fed could do is offer funds at a “penalty” or “premium” and hope that banks borrow, despite a longstanding market perception that direct borrowing from the Fed is a sign of weakness. Now, the Fed has turned the tables. It will set precisely how much money it will lend ($40B just in the next cople of weeks!), and let banks bid on how much they are willing to pay for the use of that money. The scale of this program is immense. Typically direct borrowings from the Fed are under $1B. It was a big deal in August when in a clearly orchestrated and coordinated move, 4 big banks were persuaded to temporarily borrow $2B total, in an attempt to diminish the “stigma”. This is the Federal Reserve saying, “No more pussyfooting around. You will borrow, and not $1 or $2 billion, but $40B, now!”

  3. I agree with several commentators (Felix Salmon, Calculated Risk) that the Bair/Paulson Plan, whatever it is, is not a bailout. But this, this is a bailout,. Nearly all government bailouts take the form of subsidized loans, extending credit at low rates to counterparties or against collateral for which the market would have demanded a high premium. That is precisely what the TAF will do. The Fed’s press release claims, of course, that loans will only be available to “sound” banks, and that they will be “fully collateralized”. But no one who can get the same deal from private markets will use this facility. The need for the program arises because private markets are skeptical about the soundness of counterparties and the quality of the assets they have to offer as collateral. The Fed hints at this when it mentions the “wide variety of collateral” that can be used to secure loans. You can bet that whatever it is private lenders are eschewing will be pledged as collateral to the Fed under TAF. The Fed is going to bear private risk that the market refuses to. That is a bailout.

  4. The rate at which funds are lent could turn out to be be an interesting number, but probably won’t. This rate will be bounded within a narrow range. It can’t go much lower than the expected Federal Funds rate over the term of the loan (there would otherwise be an arbitrage for very creditworthy banks — borrow TAF, lend Federal Funds). Presuming consistent standards for collateral and creditworthiness, it can’t go higher than the ordinary discount rate (since banks would just go to the discount window directly rather than bid in an overpriced TAF program). In theory, the TAF rate could tell us something about the state of the credit markets. If it is close to the Federal Funds rate, it would mean that few parties are experiencing problems borrowing cash against their assets, while if the TAF rate were near the discount rate, that would signal credit market, um, turbulence. But interpretation of this number is going to be made complicated by the scale of monies being offered. To lend 40B cash fast, the Fed may well have to offer the money at near the Federal Funds rate, because the particpation of very creditworthy banks will be required to get rid of the dough. But less creditworthy banks will be participating as well, and, in a single-price auction, these banks will enjoy the low interest rates effectively set by large-bank bidding. So, it is likely that the TAF rate will be very close to the expected Federal Funds rate, but that noncreditworthy borrowers pledging iffy collateral will gain the capacity to borrow at that rate. The effective discount window “penalty” will drop to about zero, even though the formal discount premium will stay at 50 bps.

There’s much more to say about all this. (Systemic implications? will it be effective against the crisis? what’s the role and meaning of the “global coordination” aspect to all this? etc., etc.) I have a meeting. Very blogospherically, I’m going to hit send and go without even a proofread. Please forgive my enthusiasm, and any errors that might come with.

Update: Of great significance to the workings of the international financial system… I’m Steve! A couple of very fine bloggers have linked to this post, referring to me as Randy. [Both fixed now! Thanks!] I include my middle name in my punditizing to distinguish myself from a more famous Steve Waldman who most emphatically is not me! Also, my last name has just one ‘n’, and I should not be confused with the much smarter and better looking Robert Waldmann, who is blessed with two letters ‘n’. Finally, I’d like to clarify a bit that my “enthusiasm” for the TAF plan, and my suggestion that it is “brilliant”, should be understood in very narrow terms. From the perspective of policymakers whose goal is to put out a fire while minimizing changes the existing structure, I do think the TAF is a stroke of brilliance, although it may lead to some hard choices down the line (more later). But I want to emphasize, that perspective is not my own. I believe that capital markets and the global financial system are in quite urgent need of reform. I don’t support palliative measures unless attached to credible reasons to believe that they will put us on a path to change, rather than extend a quite awful status quo. So I don’t “like” the Term Auction Facility. But I do admire its cleverness.

Update 2: Note Felix Salmon’s comments (with the help of Alea’s jck) on discount window collateral.

Update History:
  • 12-Dec-2007, 6:32 p.m. EST: Added two “update” paragraphs, moved scare-quotes from discount window to penalty, where they belong.
  • 12-Dec-2007, 7:25 p.m. EST: I’ve messed around with some wording and misspellings in the updates.
  • 12-Dec-2007, 11:10 p.m. EST: Added “Both fixed now. Thanks!” to the first update. Also, added a missing “the”, and replaced an extra “the” with a “to”.

Salmon vs. Salmon on the Bair/Paulson relief plan

The news du jour is a quickening of interest in an idea originally mooted by the FDIC’s Sheila Bair, now adopted by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, that would freeze resets wholesale for certain classes of struggling mortgages. The Victorians among us, cluck and tutt at, yes, the moral hazard and perverse incentives implied by this sort of plan. Fortunately, no one ever listens to us.

Elizabeth Warren offers up a combination of pragmatic and Victorian concerns, among which are that “lawsuits will fly thick and fast, enriching the lawyers and tangling up the homeowners.” Felix Salmon argues not, but he’s mistaken, and he himself explained why. Besides teasing Felix, understanding this issue sheds light on why this plan could be an important tool in resolving the current credit crunch. Big hint: It ain’t (primarily) about helping homeowners.

Here’s Felix, today:

Most loan modifications actually increase the total amount of money that the investors stand to receive. In this case, it’s conceivable that… bondholders might get a bit less money than they would otherwise. But that’s a really hard calculation to make, and unless you can make that calculation with some certainty, it’s going to be very hard for you to show damages. Let’s assume that an investor in an RMBS tranche can compellingly show losses of say 5 cents on the dollar as a result of the Paulson plan. (We’re talking about the difference, remember, between the present value of what that investor will now receive and the present value of what that investor would receive were the plan not in place.) Given the size of individual RMBS tranches, and the number of investors they were sold to, that investor probably has no more than about $20 million invested in the tranche. Which means that he’d be suing for $1 million. Not worth it… What if he put a class action together, and got all the owners of that tranche to sue? Well, maybe the tranche was $50 million in total. We’re still only talking $2.5 million in damages here.

Now, here’s Felix with the answer, on Friday:

In reality, it’s almost certain that some bondholders would benefit from this scheme, while others would lose out.

Suppose it is true that, on-average, cashflows to the whole class of affected securities changes very little under the workout, that the savings to investors from avoiding defaults roughly balances the cost of the reduced income stream. Consider what this workout does to the certainty of cashflows for any particular MBS pool. Prior to the workout, under a low-default scenario cashflows are very high, while under a high default scenario they are very low. In the “good case”, the senior tranches get paid, but so do the tranches a few levels down. In the bad case, the junior tranches lose everything, and the senior tranches lose some fraction of their value. For valuation purposes, the marginal junior tranches now resemble at-the-money call options, valuable when outcomes are volatile, worthless when they are certain.

And what would the Bair/Paulson plan do? It would increase the certainty of the cash flows, to a level where, on average, senior tranches would be made whole, but marginal tranches would lose out. In other words, even if the effect on total cashflows in the aggregate is very small, the Paulson plan would wipe out the option value of tranches at the margin. Holders of these tranches won’t take a 5% haircut, but a 100% haircut off the tranch’s current value. You betcha they’ll sue if they have any hope of relief. [*]

On the other hand, holders of senior debt will be made whole with much greater certainty. The proposal effectively represents a transfer of wealth from junior to senior trancheholders. Which gets us to its clever systemic implications.

The current credit crunch stems not from the absolute scale of writedowns, but from the distribution of the losses. Highly leveraged entities with very little capacity to bear risk, who thought they were holding “supersenior” (but yield enhanced!) securities, are facing catastrophic unexpected losses. If those losses could be shifted to investors with a greater capacity to bear risk, the systemic implications would diminish towards the absolute scale of the losses, that is, towards insignificance.

Less senior trancheholders are being asked to take a hit, because they can, to save other investors who can’t afford their losses. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. You’ve gotta love capitalism.

[*] To understand this better, recall that the total world of securitized mortgages is divided into distinct pools, each of which (simplifying some) backs a security, which is then subdivided into tranches. Without the Bair/Paulson plan, some of these pools would do well enough to pay the senior tranches and a few junior tranches, while other pools would do poorly, wiping out the junior tranches and forcing the senior tranches to take a haircut. Under the proposal, all of our stylized-just-at-the-margin junior tranches get wiped out, while all the senior tranches are made whole. Prior to the payment streams actually developing, we can’t know which pools would pay-off junior tranches and which wouldn’t, so all these tranches currently have some value, like a lottery ticket. That value would be wiped out under the plan. Note that some junior-tranche investors may have done due-diligence on the quality of credits in the underlying pool (or relied exclusively upon unusually high-quality packagers), and these investors might expect with high probability that the “good scenario” would unfold. Under the Bair/Paulson scheme, these investors would be wiped out anyway, and therefore penalized for their efforts (due diligence is expensive), unless you believe that it’s possible (and equitable) for those executing the plan to separate those who can and can’t afford a reset with very high precision.

Update History:
  • 03-Dec-2007, 3:18 p.m. EST: Added update in second Felix quote…
  • 03-Dec-2007, 6:25 p.m. EST: Took out second sentence of second Felix quote, which is better.

The “Fed Put” and moral hazard

On Friday, St. Louis Fed President William Poole gave a speech called “Market Bailouts and the Fed Put” (hat tip Calculated Risk). Poole discusses “whether Federal Reserve policy responses to financial market developments should be regarded as ‘bailing out’ market participants and creating moral hazard by doing so.” Unsurprisingly, Poole thinks not.

How many investors today measure the value of a bond by the likelihood that it will continue to pay interest “under the acid test of depression”? How many investors today maintain portfolios robust against the possibility of inflation of the magnitude experienced in the 1970s or deflation of the magnitude experienced in the early 1930s? The answer, I believe, is “not many.”

The fact that few investors worry about extreme economic instability is a benefit of sound monetary policy and not a cost; changes in investor practice are conducive to higher productivity growth. The same is true for changes in household and firm behavior reflecting the greatly reduced risk of economic depression or even severe recession of the magnitude of 1981-82. If we did not believe that economic stability is good for the economy and for society, why would a stable price level and high employment be monetary policy goals? Just as a deductible changes behavior of insurance policyholders, so also does economic stability change investor behavior.

In other words, investors do take risks they would not have taken absent the “insurance” implicit the Fed’s stabilization policy. But this is not moral hazard. Rather, it is precisely the point of the policy.

Note the sly rhetorical maneuver in Poole’s last sentence, where he likens the change of behavior induced by the Fed interventions to those induced by an insurance policy deductible. A deductible, of course, encourages the insured to limit their risk-taking, to combat moral hazard, while Poole is claiming the Fed’s behavior increases risk-taking, albeit in manner that he claims is beneficial and should not be called moral hazard. Likening the two makes Fed policy seem conservative or prudential, despite Poole’s admission that its effect is to encourage risk taking.

Putting that aside, Poole is right to note that an increased level of risk-taking due to insurance does not in and of itself imply moral hazard. Insurance is crucial to an entrepreneurial economy precisely because operating a business often entails risks that are simply too great for the entrepreneur to bear alone. If there were no liability insurance, workers comp insurance, property insurance, etc., many small businesses would never come to be, and the best of those small businesses would never become engines of creation and growth that enrich us all. Insurance exists precisely to allow people to take risks they would not otherwise take. That is not moral hazard. It’s the insurance business’ core function, and not something insurers discourage at all.

Insurers call behavior “moral hazard” not when people take on risks that they otherwise would not have taken, but when they take on risks greater than those that were priced into their policy. A well-designed insurance policy does not permit an entrepreneur to escape the costs of their risk-taking. It simply alters the distribution of those costs: Instead of experiencing rare but catastrophically large costs, the insured bears the full expected cost of her behavior, but in the form of regular, predictable payments. Ideally, insurance puts a price on risk, and internalizes the cost of risk-taking, so that actors can rationally choose which risks are worth taking, and which are not.

To the degree what the Fed does is offer insurance to firms and investors, it is inherently creating moral hazard, because those actors are not paying an appropriate premium for the insurance. Homo economicus, when insured at a premium that bears no relationship his behavior, will maximize risk-taking, since the cost of risks gone bad will be borne by others, while the take from gambles that succeed will be his to keep. Among the fully insured, prudence is idiocy. In a competitive environment, the prudent will simply fail to survive. Eventually, the aggregate costs of other people’s bad risks become too large for the insurer to bear, and then no one survives. Overinsuring private risk creates systemic risk.

Now Poole claims that this kind of thing is not happening, that whatever it is the Fed does, it does not bail out those who take on bad risks:

Federal Reserve policy that yields greater stability has not and will not protect from loss those who invest in failed strategies, financial or otherwise. Investors and entrepreneurs have as much incentive as they ever had to manage risk appropriately. What they do not have to deal with is macroeconomic risk of the magnitude experienced all too often in the past.

Obviously, Poole is right at a certain level. Firms and investors lose money every day. The Fed does not sit behind each and every actor in economy, absorbing every loss while smiling on private gains. But no critic of the Fed has ever suggested any such thing. The Fed’s propensity to intervene in a crisis reduces the private costs of certain kinds of risk-taking, but does not eliminate those costs. To continue with an insurance analogy, the Fed is like an insurer that collects no premiums, but unpredictably pays out only 20% of all claims. To risk-averse actors, that’s like no insurance at all. But to financially strong, risk-neutral (or leveraged, risk-loving) investors, the “Fed put” reduces the average cost of failure substantially. This leads to a broad underpricing of risk, or an overpricing of assets.

“Overpriced assets” sounds anodyne, even benign. That’s wrong. When assets are overpriced, real resources are destroyed. Real people sacrifice real goods and services to some enterprise that is likely to produce less than the value of the goods and services originally sacrificed. If monetary policy shifts so that the investors come out whole in financial terms, that doesn’t alter the fact of real economic destruction. It simply socializes the costs. Monetary policy and microeconomic outcomes sit far from one another, and the trail of tears evaporates quickly. Perhaps, as Alan Greenspan suggests, we owe the new home development ghost-towns appearing across the country to a post-Cold-War peace dividend. But I think the Fed, and, more broadly, the broken US financial sector had a great deal to do with the tremendous misallocation of real resources that was the late housing boom.

It’s common and easy to criticize the Fed. When histories are written about the hard times ahead, I don’t think the Fed will be the central villain of the piece. There are so many deep flaws in the American and global financial system, so many absurd institutions, shortsighted, foolish, and corrupt players, I think the Fed is more likely to be viewed as inept cheerleader than central protagonist. But Poole’s speech is a defense of cheerleading.

It is the job of financial markets to price alternative uses for scarce resources, which is almost entirely about pricing risk. But in the short run, it is always tempting to hide risk, rather than to price it. When financial alchemists tout diversification and securitization as magic bullets, they are hiding risk rather than pricing it. When, as Poole notes, the wizards of the 1980s sold “portfolio insurance” prior to the 1987 crash, they were hiding risk rather than pricing it. When loan “originators” rely upon FICO scores and stated income to produce assets they quickly flip, they are hiding risk rather than pricing it. When the Fed intervenes to stabilize the US financial system despite Wall Street’s increasingly poor stewardship of the nation’s real economy, it is hiding risk rather than allowing risk to be priced. Unpleasant events in financial markets aren’t to be tolerated because they “punish speculators”, but because financial markets must accurately reflect the state of the real economy in order to allocate resources properly. The longer risk is hidden, rather than priced, the greater the pain when the consequences of poor choices can no longer be ignored. We will have to face that pain eventually, despite the fact that it is least well-off who will bear the brunt of it, rather than the bankers, traders, and dealmakers who got us here. Hopefully the hard times will be short, and we will have a chance to do better next time.

Update: For a more enthusiastic reading of Poole’s remarks, try Mark Thoma. Also, Stephen Cecchetti has published an essay which, while not referring to Poole’s speech directly, makes almost precisely the same points. An earlier essay by Cecchetti in favor of contract standardization and clearinghouse-based trading (frequently highlighted by Yves Smith) was wonderful. But on the question of central banks and “moral hazard”, I can’t quite agree with either of these good professors.

Update History:

The Fed’s policy space is not one-dimensional

It’s easy right now to view the Fed as trapped. If the Fed fails to lower rates, asset prices will continue to collapse, the housing crisis will worsen, and the broad economy will suffer. If the Fed does lower rates, capital flight from the US will continue, gold, commodities, and foriegn currencies will surge, and weakness of the dollar will eventually translate into a dangerous inflation. The Fed is damned if it lowers, damned if it raises, and damned if it does nothing at all. In the usual cliché, the Fed is “in a box”.

But the Fed has more options than “raise or lower”. Let’s go back to Bernanke’s famous 2002 speech about deflation. Note that the root of the current crisis is deflation, though of a particular kind, a deflation in the value of certain financial assets. If all the terrible paper Wall Street has been producing over the past few years really had been as solid as their boosters and the rating agencies claimed, we’d have no crisis today to fuss about. A collapse in the value of supposedly “ultrasafe” assets held by parties with little capacity to take risk or bear losses is at the heart of the today’s financial mayhem. Whatever its deeper roots, the proximate cause of the crisis is a deflation.

Here’s Dr. Bernanke:

[T]hat deflation is always reversible under a fiat money system follows from basic economic reasoning… [T]he U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. By increasing the number of U.S. dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the U.S. government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services, which is equivalent to raising the prices in dollars of those goods and services… Normally, money is injected into the economy through asset purchases by the Federal Reserve. To stimulate aggregate spending when short-term interest rates have reached zero, the Fed must expand the scale of its asset purchases or, possibly, expand the menu of assets that it buys.

Unlike some central banks, and barring changes to current law, the Fed is relatively restricted in its ability to buy private securities directly. However, the Fed does have broad powers to lend to the private sector indirectly via banks, through the discount window. Therefore a second policy option, complementary to operating in the markets for Treasury and agency debt, would be for the Fed to offer fixed-term loans to banks at low or zero interest, with a wide range of private assets (including, among others, corporate bonds, commercial paper, bank loans, and mortgages) deemed eligible as collateral. For example, the Fed might make 90-day or 180-day zero-interest loans to banks, taking corporate commercial paper of the same maturity as collateral. Pursued aggressively, such a program could significantly reduce liquidity and term premiums on the assets used as collateral.

The first thing to note here is the candor and prescience of Dr. Bernanke’s remarks. The future Fed chairman is describing very unconventional monetary policy options, and discussing how the central bank could, in a time of crisis, circumvent regulatory obstacles designed to constrain bank behavior. And obviously, these turned out to be more than mere musings. Bernanke’s first response to the present crisis was to try to lend indirectly to holders of struggling collateral via the discount window.

Suppose that the Fed were not restricted in the sorts of assets it could buy. What might the Fed do about the present crisis? Consider the obvious. The Fed could bail out holders of the compromised paper. It could determine a “fair long-term value” for all those struggling RMBSs and CDOs, something less than par but much higher than the market bid, and purchase securities outright with freshly printed money. You might think that a cash bail-out would be inflationary, and “ceteris paribus”, it certainly would be. But “ceteris paribus” doesn’t hold here. By strategically choosing which assets to buy, the Fed could mitigate the harm that higher interest rates would otherwise do to the financial sector. Becoming the “bagholder of last resort”, the Fed would purchase the freedom to raise interest rates without provoking a “nonlinearity” (knzn‘s delightful euphemism for a meltdown). The Fed would have its cake and eat it too. It would promote full employment by stopping a dangerous financial crisis in its tracks. It would promote price stability by hiking interest rates to support the purchasing power (and FX value, and commodity value) of the dollar.

There would be some danger that, even with the banks bailed out, interest rate hikes would slow the economy. But that hazard is unusually small now, because the binding constraint on lending is not the Fed-set interest rate, but concerns about creditworthiness and quality of collateral. The larger the credit spread is, the less of an effect changes in core rates have upon behavior. Raising rates certainly won’t help homeowners struggling with their mortgages, for example. But it won’t hurt homeowners who have no hope of refinancing affordably anyway. There will always be someone caught at the margin. But in macro terms, a bad situation would be made very little worse by a moderate rate hike, if the financial sector could withstand it.

In reality, the Fed is not permitted to buy up dodgy CDOs outright. But as Bernanke has suggested, lending on sufficiently easy terms can approximate a purchase. Bernanke’s initial try at using the discount window to fight the structured-credit deflation didn’t work. But it was not a very radical attempt. So long as there is a “penalty spread” between the federal funds rate and the discount rate, any use of the discount window signals a lack of confidence by other banks and is reputationally costly. Suppose the Fed were to offer to lend against specific sorts of collateral at a negative spread to Federal Funds. Then all banks would have a clear financial incentive to take advantage, regardless of the quality of their own portfolio. Banks holding the privileged collateral might claim their assets are performing beautifully, but that it would be foolish not to take advantage of the Fed’s subsidy. Lining up at the discount window would suddenly become shrewd rather than shameful.

Of course, this might not work. Markets might be spooked rather than reassured, a l&agrave the Northern Rock fiasco. And even if it would work, I don’t advocate any of it. I don’t mean to be a “liquidationist“. But piling moral hazard on top of moral hazard, making ever lighter the consequences of poor choices by people whose choices are consequential for all the rest of us, strikes me as a bad way to encourage quality decision-making.

Nevertheless, if financials and asset prices continue to struggle, while commodities spike and the dollar falls, expect the unexpected from the Federal Reserve. Ben Bernanke has devoted his career to thinking about how a central bank might forestall financial catastrophe. He will not confine his options to “quarter point or half a point, up or down”.

Update History:
  • 11-Nov-2007, 2:00 p.m. EST: Removed an excess “but”. Changed “expected the unexpected” to “expect the unexpected”. Oops.

GM — Holy negative accounting equity, Batman!

Apparently GM is going to take a $39 billion dollar writedown of deferred tax assets this quarter. Wow.

The phrase “deferred tax assets” is one of many powerful hexes the accounting profession has invented over the years. Recitation of the words before ordinary mortals causes eyes to glaze and specks of spittle to appear at corners of the mouth. For an explanation, see the end of this post.

Anyway, as all the overnight press on the matter is careful to emphasize, these are non-cash charges, and they could be reversed if GM becomes profitable soon. Nothing to look at here, just move along. It’s an accounting thing, you wouldn’t understand.

But here’s an accounting thing for you. Check out GM’s top-level balance sheet last quarter (the quarter ending Jun-07). Look at the line called “Total stockholder equity”. Yes, it really does say negative 3.5 billion dollars.

Suppose GM offsets the writedown of tax assets with $9B of gains elsewhere, so that the net charge is, um, only $30B. (For example, they’re expected to report a gain of $5B on their sale of Allison Transmission.) A $30B net charge would bring GM’s accounting equity down to negative 33 billion dollars.

Is that a record? What’s the maximum negative accounting equity ever reported by a going concern? Or, consider this: GM is not a penny stock. The market imputes a lot of real value to those claims worth negative dollars on its balance sheet. GM’s market cap as of yesterday was about $20.5B. That’s a positive number. GM’s stock price fell after-hours on announcement of the charge by about 3%. So, incorporating (at least partially) the new information, the market imputes about positive $19.9B of value to roughly negative 30 billion dollars worth of book assets. There’s a nice fifty-billion dollar spread between market and book value. If GM could keep that spread, but bring its book value up to positive a billion, it would look like an incredible growth company, with a market to book ratio of 50 times! Google looks cheap by comparison.

Now, there are serious problems with accounting equity as a measure of value. GM is an old company. Perhaps it owns a lot of real assets that were purchased decades ago and are still valued on its books at 1940s cost. Could be. But it takes a lot of adjustments to get out of a hole $30B deep.

An interesting factoid from the WSJ. GM’s total net income for 1996 through 2004 totaled $34 billion dollars, less than is disappearing in tomorrow’s accounting “poof”.

Here’s a question: What percentage of GM’s market valuation do you think is based on a market-perceived “too big to fail” guarantee by the US government?

For those who want to know, “deferred tax assets” arise when firms recognize expenses before they are allowed to take a tax deduction for those expenses. Let’s say a large New York bank decides some of its assets are worth 10B less than originally thought, and writes those assets down on its balance sheet. If the bank pays a 35% tax rate, 3.5B of that “loss” should eventually be absorbed by the government in the form of reduced tax payments. But companies don’t get to pay fewer taxes whenever they change their estimate of the value of an asset. The bank gets a cash write-off on its taxes only when the assets are actually sold and the firm realizes a loss. In the meantime, the firm recognizes a 3.5B “tax asset”, the value of the future tax savings it expects. This is all perfectly legitimate — writing down the assets without recognizing the expected tax-savings would badly overstate costs. But sometimes a firm’s estimate of future tax savings turns out to be wrong. Say the bank is forced to sell the impaired assets when it is already losing money. Then there is no immediate tax savings, because the bank wouldn’t have paid taxes that year anyway. The firm may still be able to “carryforward” the loss, and recover some of the tax savings. Or it may not. Tax laws are complicated.

GM had previously estimated that it had $39B in future tax write-offs coming to it. Its accountants now think the company might never get the chance to use them. Though this is not a cash charge, it is not a good omen either. Firms realize tax assets when they are profitable enough to have a large tax bill to take deductions from. GM is basically announcing that it’s unsure it will earn enough money to be able to take advantage of its pent-up tax offsets before they expire. Tax asset writedowns are insult-to-injury kind of events. Firms get hit with the accounting charge when, and precisely because, they can’t make enough money to have a tax liability to escape from.

Tax asset writedowns might also be a signal of distress, indicating that a firm lacks the flexibility to time its loss realizations advantageously. Tax laws are complicated, and sometimes tax benefits expire regardless of what a firm does. One mustn’t draw conclusions. Still, it does make you wonder.

FD: I have no direct position in GM, but I am short the Dow.

Update History:
  • 07-Nov-2007, 11:33 a.m. EST: Changed “tax asset write-offs” to “tax asset writedowns”, since I use “tax write-offs” and the mix is confusing. Changes “to big to fail” to “too big to fail”.

Bricking someone else’s iPhone is a crime

Suppose, accurately, that I am a small software developer. Suppose I write a shareware application that includes a click-through license that states, ordinarily enough, that if you wish to use my application for longer than a 15-day trial, you must pay me. Suppose, ordinarily enough, my application periodically checks for updates, notifying users and offering to install the updates when they become available.

Now suppose that in the click-through installation process, I include a message, in bold text even, that says “Warning: If you’ve been using this application for longer than the 15-day trial period and have not entered a license key, installing this update may cause your hard drive to be erased!” And, suppose the update does just that.

I would be in jail. Not in a month, or a week, but yesterday. What I’d done would be considered equivalent to distributing a malicious virus. The click-through “authorization” wouldn’t be worth the electrons they were written on. In the computer crime world, “social engineering” — getting people to let one into a system to do bad things, rather than breaking in by technical means — is the norm, and it is illegal. When an e-mail virus begs you to run a malicious attachment, it is not the virus that kills your computer, but you, by double-clicking. After all, you ought to have known better, right? We still put the pimply teenager or smoky mafia don who sent the thing in jail, if we can find him. If there were a click-through warning, just prior to the swiss-cheesing of your computer, disclaiming liability and saying the program “may be harmful”? We’d still put the perp in jail.

Now if Apple has done what they appear to have done — if they have broken other people’s palmtop computers permanently as payback for having violated the terms of a license agreement — they have committed a crime. Sure, Apple made those iPhones, and they forced people to sign up to certain terms before selling them. But once they were sold, they were other peoples’ property. And whatever remedies Apple may have had against customers who violated the non-negotiable contracts they signed onto when purchasing the phone, those remedies did not include destruction of customer property without any adjudication by an impartial arbitrator. A click-through warning of the type every computer user, um, clicks through hundreds of time a year does not affect the criminality of Apple’s action.

If it was, in fact, a technical necessity that resolving customer issues on the iPhone required doing things that would break unlocked or modified iPhones, that would be a different situation. Apple would not be off the hook, but it would have some toothpicks to stand on. But I think that’s unlikely. At the very least, Apple’s update could have checked for incompatible changes to the iPhone and refreshed to initial state prior to applying the update. Apple didn’t brick people’s iPhones because it couldn’t help it. It bricked people’s iPhones because Apple is playing a “cat and mouse” game with customers who “think different”, who like to play with the gadgets they buy. (Bricolage is an especially apt term here.) Apple decided to play hard, and dropped the digital equivalent of a horse’s head on the beds of first-adopters who dared cross them, in order to deter future customers from using their device in a manner other than that prescribed for them.

This is criminal behavior, regardless of any violation of license terms by the victims of the crime. It’s illegal for Muscles to come by and cut your thumb off, even if you really do owe Da Boss some money. It’s illegal for Apple to gain entrance to your property under the pretense of improving it and then purposefully wreck the place because it found you were doing something you said you wouldn’t do there. A boldface sentence in a click-through agreement doesn’t change that.

I should say, this is not a personal gripe. I don’t own an iPhone, or an iBrick. (I did just buy an iPhone for my sister, but she’s unlikely to do anything with it that Uncle Steve would disapprove of.) I have been a rabidly enthusiastic consumer of Apple products since my parents bought the family an Apple ][+ in 1980. Just within my immediate family, there are at least 9 Mac laptops, largely as a result of my love of the platform and enthiusiasm for Apple’s products. Jobs and Woz have been heroes of mine since I was a kid. I know Steve Jobs is a tyrant. I even support that, when it comes to product development, running his company. Jobs can fire whoever he wants for not conforming to his remarkable vision of how Apple products ought to be. But he cannot purposefully destroy my stuff for the same offense.

I hope Apple is not simply sued, but prosecuted under criminal statutes for what they’ve done. Anything less means that big corporations live under different laws than pimply teenagers and small software developers.

It is getting so hard to find the good guys these days.

Update History:
  • 01-Oct-2007, 1:50 a.m. EDT: Dropped the word “electronic”, which was redundant with “digital” in the context of a horse’s head. Respelled “heros”. Changed “impartial third party” to “impartial arbitrator”. Redundancy is redundant.
  • 01-Oct-2007, 4:00 a.m. EDT: Replaced a vague “their” with “Apple’s”. Replaced one repeated use of the word “warning” with “message”. Removed some wordiness (“of the violation”).

Gabriel Mihalache — Streets are places too?

If Canada is divisible, then Quebec is divisible. If Quebec is divisible, then Montreal is divisible.

Gabriel Mihalache tries to pull the old reducto ad absurdam on my contention that nations are places, and the implication that quality-of-place considerations might lead to deviations from the traditional case for free trade. He writes:

Why not ask… if localities can benefit from these deals, this industrial policy—to quote another skeptic—then why not apply the same idea to streets, town squares, and beyond? — Maybe we should have a sort of street prefect, with his own budget, ready to subsidize business start-ups on his street?

Why allow for free movement between 1st Avenue and 5th Avenue? Maybe 1st Avenue could benefit from some regulation or from offering subsidies? Why not?

To which I answer enthusiastically, “why not indeed!” Shopping malls are places too. Shopping mall developers often want big-name retailers as “anchor stores”, so they offer national chains great deals on rent, and sometimes sweeten the deal with cash. This might seem economically foolish, at first glance. But the subsidy turns out to be small compared with the increased certainty that the mall will attract customers, and the higher rents boutiques will pay to sit between popular behemoths.

Malls are hardly a unique example. Most commercial real-estate owners will offer discounts to tenants they consider particularly “desirable”, whose presence will in some hard-to-pin way increases the value of the property they have on offer.

People who live who live on nice streets often spend a great deal of money to maintain the exteriors of their homes, the quality of their lawns and gardens, etc. Part of this one can chalk-up to “consumption” — people take pleasure in having a nice spaces. But a lot of this represents a kind of informally coordinated public investment, enforced by social norms. The value of properties is contingent in part on the niceness of the street, and everyone is expected to do their part. Some neighborhoods are developed as mini nanny states, with coercive regulations one must adhere to as a homeowner in order to ensure that residents don’t shirk in maintaining (often uninspiring) “standards”. Neighborhoods organized as condominiums have the power to tax and spend to maintain and enhance the quality of space. Lots of people are pleased to submit to all this. (I don’t necessarily endorse these neighborhoods. The uptight, snooty ones make me go “ew”. But hey, it’s the free market in action!)


Maybe, but exactly like free trade, these deals have winners and losers (who, just as with free trade, won’t get compensated). Also, there’s the issue of the “relevant moral community”. (Do poor Chinese children enter into your welfare judgments?… and the like.)

Basically, this boils down to choosing between two patterns of winners and losers, which is a political choice. You can show, maybe, that with an utilitarian “social welfare” function, the “development deal” is preferable. But that’s a big “maybe”. And it’s still politics, so it’s not a matter of knowing something that the economists don’t.

I won’t argue much with this, except to note that, just as with free trade, enhancements of place may create winners and losers, but large overall gains. Many shopping malls could not survive without subsidized anchors. Boutique owners might be unhappy to subsidize the rent of retailers with much deeper pockets than themselves, and some potential renters might be so pissed off they refuse to rent. Still, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a large overall gain from the subsidy.

A condominium association might decide that common spaces need to be repainted annually, and fees will be increased to cover the expense. Some homeowners undoubtedly will consider the fresher halls to be worth less than the money they pay out. Given heterogenous and uncertain utility functions, one objector’s sheer misery might be enough to outweigh any gains to other tenants. But, under ordinary assumptions, if the vast majority enthusiastically support the change, we usually presume overall gains. The case for overall gains is at least as clear as in the argument for free trade.

Of course, if leadership of the condominium association has been hijacked by unrepresentative busy-bodies, or by a board member whose kid brother is a painter, large overall losses might result. But the possibility of agency problems oughtn’t prevent us from considering potentially welfare-enhancing subsidies. Both action and inaction are potentially flawed choices. In the real world, we do our best to control agency costs, but we still make decisions.

I do want to emphasize that I am playing with ideas here, and not quite endorsing the idea of legitimizing state subsidy as a normal part of international trade. It’s a surprisingly interesting idea, and one can make the case for it in very “orthodox” terms. (If one does so, one finds that what is destructive of overall welfare is to abstain from subsidizing!) But the agency problems are, to say the least, daunting.

Regardless, people like Don Boudreaux who want to argue for traditional free trade based on the example of trade within the United States need to grapple with the historical fact of ubiquitous subsidy. And I’m not just playing when I suggest that any model of trade that looks only at gains and losses to individuals without considering quality of place is simply inadequate as a basis for policy.

Bear Stearns: What happened to the assets?

Interfluidity still has unfinished business with Felix Salmon, but that will have to wait. Usually we take great pleasure in disagreeing with Felix, but today he makes one point that is unassailable: Bear Stearns Needs English Lessons. The firm sent out a letter to its unlucky investors that managed to communicate almost nothing. Shorter Bear Stearns (my paraphrase): “You have lost all, or nearly all, of your money. But do entrust your wealth with us in the future. Ordinarily we don’t stiff our clients quite so badly. Besides, we hired some new guy, so everything is better now.”

If I were an investor, I might wish to console myself with some of the lurid details. In particular, I’d want to know what happened to the assets I used to own. To whom were they sold, under what circumstances, at what price? Were assets liquidated in arms-length transactions, or are fund managers still holding assets but reporting losses based on estimated valuations? How were the claims of creditors settled? Did the funds repay their debts in cash? Did creditors confiscate and liquidate assets, or in some kind of workout, did creditors accept collateral in lieu of repayment?

If creditors did accept repayment-in-kind, under present circumstances that might not be an arms-length transaction. (After all, the asset managers and creditors likely have continuing relationships unrelated to the two funds, and a shared interest in avoiding perceptions of conflict or disorder in the market.) As an investor in one of the funds, I’d want to know how much debt was extinguished for each of the assets surrendered, that is, what sort of valuations were implicit in the workout, and how they were arrived at. If the assets were not in fact auctioned, perhaps creditors paid less in terms of debt forgiven than the assets were in fact worth. Perhaps Bear’s interest in putting an embarrassing incident behind it without causing turmoil in a fragile market led it to drive less-than-a-hard bargain with creditors, who were after all in an exploitably poor bargaining position. Were fund managers gentlemanly among Wall Street colleagues, or fierce on behalf of their investors? I’d want to know.

If there was any repayment-in-kind, I’d also want to know about that if I had a position in one of the banks that were lenders to the funds. Perhaps Bear did drive a hard bargain, and my bank was forced to extinguish too much debt for the privilege of owning iffy securities. Perhaps my bank decided that accepting questionable collateral as full repayment was better than forcing the bankruptcy of the funds, because no matter what, the collateral was all it could hope to get, and calling it “repayment-in-full” avoided the embarrassment and potential loss of confidence associated with having been defaulted upon. In this case, risks and potentially outright losses have been transferred from the troubled fund to my bank, which may force a write-down of bank assets in the future. I would want to know.

Does anybody know these details? Thus far, all the reportage I’ve seen conveys very little more than Bear conveyed in its letter to investors. Which is to say, practically nothing at all.

William Polley on free trade among the 50 states

I’ve been hung up (unfortunately not hung over) for the last few days, and I’ve pent up a list of short comments I can’t wait to get of my chest. Here’s the first one…

William Polley understands that what happens between the 50 United States deviates significantly from an economists ideal of free trade, and that economists who wish to argue for international free trade by virtue of an American success story need to deal with this fact. Polley writes:

…Here in the U.S., the framers of the constitution were smart enough to establish the fledgling country as a customs union and monetary union. This was in order to form a more perfect political union that that Articles of Confederation was unable to deliver.

Unfortunately, this does not stop the states and localities from pursuing other policies (wooing multinational factories, establishing tax-increment financing districts, etc.) that do with a series of knife cuts a bit of what a tariff would do with a hatchet blow.

…Tennessee would not do itself any favors by unilaterally abstaining from offering incentives to companies to locate there. But reducing state level competition of that sort would benefit everyone.

I’m not sure I agree with that last point. States and localities may well gain from the deals they make to encourage development. Overall gains attributed by economists to “undistorted” free trade still involve winners and losers, and it is perfectly rational for localities likely to lose (and unlikely, in the usual dodge, to be “compensated by winners”) to try to change the game. Taking Don Boudreaux‘s original point to heart, I do think the sausage factory of trade among the 50 US states has worked reasonably well. So rather than arguing from a model that the system of subsidy-by-locality should be dismantled, I’m inclined to keep an open mind about whether politicians responsible for quality of place might not know something missed by economists, whose models often lack recognizable notions of place entirely.