...Archive for April 2008

The size of the Fed’s balance sheet limits the scale of the public’s losses

Yves Smith points us to a couple of pieces discussing the Fed’s “balance sheet constraint”, the notion that the central bank may run out of treasury securities to exchange, whether temporarily or permanently, for the questionable securities held by private banks. This asset swap has emerged as the Fed’s core response to the current crisis, and is the essence of what James Hamilton referred to as monetary policy on the asset side of the balance sheet. In an excellent summary, Greg Ip describes the various options the Fed would have if it were to run low on Treasuries.

Fundamentally, the Fed would have two options: It could increase the size of its balance sheet by issuing cash, which would require sacrificing its target Federal Funds rate target and letting that rate drop to zero. This option is referred to in the trade as “quantitative easing”, but that’s just a fancy term for printing money and tolerating any inflation that results. Alternatively, the Fed could expand its balance sheet by borrowing from someone else — from the US Treasury, from banks with excess cash, or from the public directly. This would permit the Fed to increase the scale of its asset swaps without sacrificing its ability to conduct ordinary monetary policy.

If you want to understand the details, do read Ip’s piece. The Fed’s “balance sheet constraint” is not a hard limit. The Fed can circumvent it. But that doesn’t mean that the size of the Fed’s balance sheet is not important. Consider this, from Ip (emphasis mine):

The easiest would be to ask Treasury to issue more debt than it needs to fund government operations. As investors pay for the bonds, their cash moves from bank reserve accounts at the Fed to Treasury accounts at the Fed. The Treasury would allow the money to remain there, rather than disbursing it or shifting it to commercial banks who, unlike the Fed, pay interest. Because the shift of cash out of reserve accounts leads to a shortage of reserves, it puts upward pressure on the federal funds rate. To offset that, the Fed would enter the open market and purchase Treasurys (or some other asset), replenishing banks’ reserve accounts. The net result is that the Fed’s assets and liabilities have both grown but reserves and the federal funds rate are unaffected. This wouldn’t cost Treasury anything so long as it doesn’t bump up against the statutory debt limit. The loss of interest on its cash deposits at the Fed would be roughly offset by the additional income the Fed pays Treasury each year from the interest on its bond holdings.

It’s only true that this operation doesn’t cost the Treasury anything if what the Fed buys with the excess cash pays as much as the Treasury’s cost of borrowing, and there is no loss of principal. But if the Fed uses the cash (directly or indirectly) to buy or lend against market-shunned securities, then the Treasury is only made whole if those securities perform, or the loans against them are repaid. If the market is irrationally shunning these securities, then the Treasury will eventually break even. But if the securities turn out to be worth less than what the Fed lends or pays, taxpayers might be forced to eat the loss.

Fundamentally, the Fed’s balance sheet constraint is and should be a political constraint. The size of the Fed’s balance sheet defines how much capital taxpayers and holders of currency are making available to the Fed to do whatever it is it’s doing. Whether Fed’s balance sheet should be expanded is an investment decision — should the public throw more money at the project that the Fed is undertaking? There’s a real downside — losses by the Fed will eventually be borne either by taxpayers or by owners of dollar denominated assets (which means especially workers with little bargaining power, whose wages are negotiated in nominal dollars and would not rise with inflation). But bearing those risks may be less damaging than the harm that would result from turmoil in the financial system if the Fed loses its capacity to act.

I don’t know whether expanding the Fed’s balance sheet is a good idea, if it comes to that. There are risks and benefits associated with the Fed’s proposed use of funds, and reasonable people can come to very different judgements. What I do know is that a decision to expand the Fed’s balance sheet ought not be treated as technocratic monetary policy. However funds are raised, their repayment would be guaranteed, so all downside risk would be borne by the public. Expanding the Fed’s balance sheet would represent a sizable investment of the public’s wealth, and the public ought have as much say over that decision as over any other investment of public money.

Update: Now here’s some creative thinking! These so called “reverse MBS swaps”, under which the Fed would refill their stock of Treasuries by swapping back iffy securities wrapped with a Fed guarantee, would have no direct balance-sheet impact whatsoever, and if repeated would provide the Fed with a potentially infinite supply of Treasury securities to swap! Of course, the proposal is simply a scheme to create off-balance-sheet liabilities in order to evade what might be on-balance-sheet limits. Wow.

I frequently marvel about how, in order to respond to the credit crisis, the Fed as well FHLB, Fannie, and Freddie, are doing precisely what got private actors into their messes in the first place. Off-balance-sheet liabilities are a logical next step.

(This was reported in Greg Ip’s piece, but somehow I didn’t grok the implications until reading Lou Crandall’s description , “[The reverse MBS swap] is sufficiently exotic that it might sidestep some of the traditional legal issues.” That kind of line is a spur to really think things through!)

Update History:
  • 6-Apr-2008, 4:20 p.m. EDT: Added update re “reverse MBS swaps”.

Central banks are dangerous

I really thought that Michael Shedlock was overstating the case:

The government/quasi-government body most responsible for creating this mess (the Fed), will attempt a big power grab, purportedly to fix whatever problems it creates. The bigger the mess it creates, the more power it will attempt to grab. Over time this leads to dangerously concentrated power into the hands of those who have already proven they do not know what they are doing…

Don’t expect the Fed to learn from past mistakes. Instead, expect the Fed to repeat them with bigger and bigger doses of exactly what created the initial problem…

The Fed simply does not care whether its actions are illegal or not. The Fed is operating under the principle that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. And forgiveness is just another means to the desired power grab it is seeking.

But then I read this piece, by Robert Shiller (hat tip Yves Smith), and all of a sudden I’m frightened. It’s one thing when Hank Paulson proposes turning the Fed into the macroeconomy’s philosopher king. Paulson will be gone in a blink of an eye. But Robert Shiller is an increasingly influential economist. He’s already got Mark Thoma signed up for the plan. These guys are smart, they matter, and they will continue to matter next January. So let’s think about this very, very carefully.

Shiller points out that…

In recent years, central banks have not always managed macro confidence magnificently. The Fed failed to identify the twin bubbles of the last decade — in the stock market and in real estate — and we have to hope that the Fed and its global counterparts will do better in the future. Central banks are the only active practitioners of the art of stabilizing macro confidence, and they are all we have to rely on.

He’s right on both counts. For now, central banks are all we have to prevent a catastrophic unwinding of our unstable financial system. But they had everything to do with getting us here. It’s not just the Fed, with its famous “serial bubble-blowing”, its cheering on of any novelty as beneficial innovation, its absolute refusal to peer into the magical sausage factory that Wall Street had become. The problem with central banks is much bigger than that. If you haven’t been obsessing over every word Brad Setser has written for the past several years, you owe yourself an education. A growing “official sector” has largely defined the global macroeconomy in the first years of this millenium. In the USA, Japan, China, Europe, central banks have indeed been “active practitioners of the art of stabilizing macro confidence”. For most of those years, it seemed like they were succeeding. They were never succeeding. Call it what you want, call it “Bretton Woods II”, call it “financial imbalance” or a “global savings glut” or “exorbitant privilege”. Each central bank, while trying to stabilize its own bit of the world, found itself with little choice but to support and expand unsustainable financial flows on a scale so massive they have reshaped the composition of every major economy on the planet. As Herb Stein told us, what cannot go on forever won’t. “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated.” Remember that? The music may have stopped already for Citibank, but it’s still playing for the USA. The record is just beginning to skip.

The Federal Reserve can keep every major US bank and investment house on life support for as long as it wants to. The “credit crunch” can be made to disappear in an instant, if we are willing to pay sufficient ransom to hostage-takers. But what the US economy produces is no longer well matched to what Americans consume, and we are structurally unprepared to generate tradables, goods or services, in quantity adequate to cover the difference. The Fed’s magic wand will be of no use if manufacturers in Asia and oil producers in the Gulf stop giving us stuff for free, using central-bank financial alchemy to hide their generosity.

Things may turn out okay. We’ve already begun to “adjust”, and knock on wood, we’ll manage a worldwide reequilibriation before things get too ugly. But it’ll be a close call. That financial alchemy by central banks is the ultimate source of skyrocketing inflation in China and the Gulf states, and an ominous sign that Stein’s Law is beginning to bite. We may yet escape, but we have been drawn very close to something very dangerous, to a genuine crisis of scarcity in the United States and a catastrophic failure of Say’s Law in China, to mass unemployment, social instability, and fingers and missiles pointed in both directions across the Pacific. This is serious stuff. And central banks are largely to blame.

Private, profit-seeking actors would not have generated the corrosive financial flows that have characterized this millennium. “Financial imbalance”, a euphemism for real resource misallocation, would have quickly been corrected, had Wall Street and the City of London not learned that the official sector could be their best customer. Less politically-independent monetary authorities could have leaned against unsustainable financing. A bit of capital-account protectionism might not have been bad policy for the United States during this period, but a central bank blind to obvious “facts on the ground”, accountable only to an economic orthodoxy, did not even consider such a thing.

As readers of this blog know, I’m not a laissez-faire, the-private-sector-is-always-right kind of guy. I like to think about the “information architecture of the financial system”. That leads me to dislike actors large enough to unilaterally move markets, especially when their motives might not be aligned with wise resource allocation. I dislike large private banks, and think they should be broken into itty-bitty pieces or turned into safe, regulated utilities. For the same reason, I dislike central banks. They have the power to act consequentially, but they do not have, and cannot have, the information or the wisdom to always be right. And when they are wrong, the consequences are devastating.

So, what to do? For now, we have no choice but to “use the army we have”. Our long-term plan, though, ought not be to canonize central banks, but to render them obsolete. It won’t be easy. The usual “sound money” trope, reviving the gold standard, is not a good idea. Much as it is suddenly out of fashion, we will need some “financial innovation” to build a new monetary architecture. Just because we’ve had a glut of snake-oil on the market recently doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as penicillin. We’ll have to do a better job of distinguishing novel idiocies from good ideas. But we will need the good ideas. We can and should liberate money from the bankers, central and otherwise.

Update History:
  • 6-Apr-2008, 9:45 p.m. EDT: Replaced “manager” with “manage”, ‘cuz I wanted a verb there.

Counterparty of last resort? Yes, but…

It’s official. The LLC that the Fed and J.P. Morgan recently formed to manage $30B Bear Stearns assets has taken over a portfolio of derivative positions along with those assets. Those positions involve both rights to receive and obligations to pay whose value may depend upon both circumstance and counterparty quality. Of course, if liabilities associated with those positions ever exceed the value of the LLCs assets, the limited liablity company could declare bankruptcy, so in theory, the Fed’s maximum exposure is $29B. But, if, out of reputational concern or to promote systemic stability, the Fed would inject capital rather than let the LLC default, then the Fed has indeed become a counterparty of last resort. However, the derivative positions are all claimed to be hedges related to the LLC’s “cash assets”. So, I guess the word of the day is basis risk.

Timothy Geithner’s speech yesterday amounts to the clearest narrative and strongest defense we’ve seen from an insider regarding the Fed’s management of the Bear Stearns crisis. (Hat tip Felix Salmon, Calculated Risk.) We learn that the assets effectively acquired by the Fed from Bear Stearns are

investment grade securities (i.e. securities rated BBB- or higher by at least one of the three principal credit rating agencies and no lower than that by the others) and residential or commercial mortgage loans classified as ‘performing’. All of the assets are current as to principal and interest (as of March 14, 2008).

However, these “cash assets” are bundled with “related hedges”. What are these hedges? It’s not stated explicitly, but the “Summary of Terms and Conditions” regarding the formation of the LLC, published with the speech, includes the following language:

[Bear Stearns] will sell to [the new LLC]… the assets identified by JPMC, the NY Fed and the Asset Manager as described on Schedule A hereto (the “Scheduled Collateral Pool”), together with the hedges identified by JPMC, the NY Fed and the Asset Manager [BlackRock] as described on Schedule B hereto (the “Related Hedges”) and including the Pre-Closing Date Proceeds Amount. For the avoidance of doubt, the Related Hedges include the amount that the Borrower [the new LLC] would have to pay to, or the amount that the Borrower would receive from, the applicable counterparty if the Borrower had entered into an identical transaction on March 14, 2008 based on the Bear Stearns marks as of such date (the “Transfer Value”), as well as all accumulated mark to market gains or losses thereafter and any cash proceeds as a result of Related Hedges’ being unwound.

[The new LLC] will assume as an economic matter the obligations under the Related Hedges and receive the benefits thereof by entering into a total return swap with the [Bear Stearns], such total return swap having an initial fair value as of the Closing Date equal to the fair value of the Related Hedges as of the Closing Date. The Controlling Party (as defined below) [the NY Fed] shall have the right to make all determinations related to the underlying hedges (e.g., whether and when to terminate) that are subject to the total return swap. At the request of the NY Fed, the Seller will use its commercially reasonable efforts to replace the total return swap with direct hedges with underlying counterparties through novation.

In English, Bear Stearns is selling various securities to an LLC controlled and largely financed by the Fed, but it is also transferring (“as an economic matter”) a portfolio of derivatives that are characterized as hedges of those assets. (In practice, these derivatives may be bilateral contracts not easily transferable to the Fed’s LLC, so the LLC and Bear are establishing a new contract, a total return swap, under which the LLC reimburses Bear for whatever is owed, and Bear forwards to the LLC whatever is earned, on positions that can’t be replaced with direct contracts.)

Specific information about the securities and the portfolio of derivatives has not been revealed. The schedules on which they are listed are not public. They could be credit default swaps on which the Bear Stearns had acted solely as protection buyer, which would be pretty benign. (These are like insurance contracts — the very worst that could happen is the LLC pays a regular premium, but when some of its bonds catch fire and disappear the insurer fails to pay up.) But lots of instruments could arguably qualify as a “related hedge”, some of which would be much riskier.

I would like to know general types and notional values of the LLC’s contracts, as well as the current exposures, gross and net. I know. I’d like a pony, too. Still I can’t see why the Fed should withhold this information other than potentially “bad optics”. Is this really a set of well tailored hedges to the cash assets described? How much counterparty risk has the Fed taken on?

There are some other interesting tidbits in Geithner’s speech. Geithner claims that, when the Bear crisis broke on Thursday, March 13, the Fed agreed to “extend an overnight non-recourse loan through the discount window to JPMorgan Chase, so that JPMorgan Chase could then ‘on-lend’ that money to Bear Stearns.” That differs from contemporaneous statements, which announced “a secured loan facility for an initial period of up to 28 days allowing Bear Stearns to access liquidity as needed.” The difference is important, as one of the big puzzles of the Bear collapse was why the firm, which had survived its public brush with bankruptcy by end-of-day March 14, suddenly had to be sold by Sunday evening. Most of us thought the crisis had been stabilized and the firm had 28 days to resolve it. (Bear insiders too: “We thought they gave us 28 days. Then they gave us 24 hours.”)

Another curiosity is this:

The assets [to be taken over by the Fed’s LLC] were reviewed by the Federal Reserve and its advisor, BlackRock Financial Management. The assets were not individually selected by JPMorgan Chase or Bear Stearns.

Does this give you any comfort? I guess it depends what you think the Fed wanted to do here, and what you think it ought to have done. Did the Fed cherry-pick relatively good assets and hedges, to protect taxpayers? Or did it knowingly take the riskiest assets that it could within its broad-outline criteria, intentionally making itself a risk absorber of last resort to forestall future crises? It may be a while before we know, if ever.

Update History:
  • 4-Apr-2008, 12:50 a.m. EDT: Removed a superfluous “that”, changed a “could” to a “would”.

The moral hazard of creditors

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard published a column this morning suggesting that the U.S may adopt the so called “Nordic model” of nationalizing insolvent banks. The piece has drawn a lot of blogospheric comment. [ Scurvon, Naked Capitalism, Financial Armageddon, Curious Capitalist, Across the Curve ].

You would think that moral hazard fetishists like me would applaud. The “Nordic model” is a very tough approach. When regulators deem a bank insolvent, they nationalize it outright, wipe out the equity holders, and unceremoniously can the incumbent management. That is harsh, as it should be. Managers who steward significant enterprises to ruin should not be rewarded, and stockholders, who earn high returns as compensation for risk, should be held accountable when they err by placing their money in the hands of gamblers.

But what you are hearing from me is the sound of one hand clapping. (Finally, an answer to that riddle!) An automatic policy that wipes out equity but makes all creditors whole creates a perverse incentive. It suggests that anyone investing in a bank should structure their investment as debt to capture the implicit guarantee. But highly leveraged balance sheets are a source of the brittleness that leads to banking crises in the first place! Our policy preference should be for equity rather than debt financing, as less leveraged firms respond much more flexibly to adverse shocks. Regulation can address this to a certain degree, but unless bank finances are kept very, very simple, probably not so much. Clever minds can come up with all kinds of contingent liability arrangements that would evade regulated balance-sheet ratios while serving as debt financing, even if “special purpose entities” are banned.

Since debt can substitute for equity, killing common stockholders while making whole even junior creditors amounts to a loophole by which lazy investors can shirk their duty of market discipline. It’s not easy to learn which firms are genuinely worthy of ones trust, but that work is precisely what investors get paid for when they earn better-than-risk-free returns. Bondholders, counterparties in derivatives transactions, and other creditors are supposed to assess the credit risk of the firms with whom they entrust money, just as stockholders evaluate business risks. Letting bank creditors enjoy high-returns effectively risk-free creates an obvious arbitrage: short Treasuries and lend as much as you can to any firm that is too big to fail!

There is one and only one class of creditors to whom we have, as a matter of public policy, agreed to make whole under all circumstances. Those are small depositors, and they should bear no risk or inconvenience whatsoever should a bank run aground. All other creditors knowingly assume credit risk when lending to banks, and should be forced to bear some downside when a bank goes south. Admittedly, reducing this theory to practice is walking a knife’s edge. The goal of nationalizations and bail-outs is to keep the financial system functioning smoothly. Too harsh a policy towards creditors might provoke self-defeating runs at the first whiff of trouble.

Can this circle can be squared? Probably. Creditors who try to accelerate replayment in advance of a firm’s insolvency can have the funds clawed back under the doctrine of preferential payments. Regulators can make clear that recently withdrawn funds will be pursued aggressively, in order to treat all creditors equitably. It makes less sense to stage a run on the bank if you know that the bank will come right back and stage a run on you. Creditors will hate all this. They will fume. Creditors are supposed to hate insolvencies. That’s the point. They should have thought about the risks ahead of time, and better supervised the firms they were lending to.

That said, creditors obviously oughtn’t be wiped out entirely like shareholders. The point here is to remind the market that on the liability side of a balance sheet lies a continuum of risk, not a bright line between junk and safety. The financial world does require a superhero, but not the Fed-on-steroids of the Paulson proposal. We want the bond vigilantes back. It’s probably sufficient to wipe out the equityholders (both common and preferred, there’s no basis to discriminate if the bank is genuinely insolvent) and let creditors suffer some delay and uncertainty prior to repayment, perhaps with a small haircut inversely proportional to seniority of claims if public funds need to be deployed.

Writing this stuff makes me feel mean, nasty, cruel, low. Isn’t it enough to take a pound of flesh from stockholders? Must we go after the creditors too? But remember, the creditors are mostly getting bailed out here, by you and me, the taxpayers. A bit of inconvenience and frayed nerves in the service of an important policy goal is not so much to ask in exchange. And there are few public policy goals more important in the financial world than getting more equity and less debt on corporate balance sheets, and encouraging all classes of investors to exercise a lot more adult supervision over the firms that they fund.

Update: See Dean Baker, who offers a similar view, more plainly and clearly expressed.

Update History:
  • 4-Apr-2008, 1:20 a.m. EDT: Added update re the Dean Baker post.