Photo Credit: elycefeliz

Photo Credit: elycefeliz || Duck, it’s a financial crisis! ūüėČ

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Should a credit¬†analyst care about financial¬†leverage? ¬†Of course, the amount and types of financial claims against a firm are material to the ability of a firm to avoid defaulting on its debts. ¬†What about operating leverage? ¬†Should the credit¬†analyst care? ¬†Of course, if a firm has high fixed costs and low variable costs (high operating leverage), its financial position is less stable than that of a company that has low fixed costs and high variable costs. ¬†Changes in demand don’t affect a firm as much if they have low operating leverage.

That might be fine for industrials and utilities, but what about financials? ¬†Aren’t financials different? ¬†Yes, financials are different as far as operating leverage goes because for financial companies, operating leverage is the degree of credit risk that financials take on in their assets. Different types of lending have different propensities for loss, both in terms of likelihood and severity, which are usually correlated.

A simple example would be two groups of corporate bonds — ¬†one can argue over new classes of bond¬†ratings, but on average, lower rated corporate bonds default more frequently than higher rated bonds, and when they default, the losses are typically greater on the lower rated bonds.

As such the amount of operating risk, that is, unlevered credit risk, is material to the riskiness of financial companies.

Credit analysis gets done on financial companies by many parties: the rating agencies, private credit analysts, and implicitly by financial regulators.  They all do the same sorts of analyses using similar underlying theory, though the details vary.

Regulators typically codify their analyses through what they call risk-based capital. ¬†Given all of the risks a financial institution takes — credit, asset-liability mismatch, and other liability risks, how much capital does a financial institution need in order to stay solvent? ¬†Along with this usually also comes cash flow testing to make sure that¬†the financial companies can withstand runs on their capital structure.

When done in a rigorous way, this lowers the probability and severity of financial failures, including the remote possibility that taxpayers could be tagged in a crisis to cover losses.  In the life insurance industry, actuaries have worked together with regulators to put together a fair system that is hard to game, and as such, few life and P&C insurance companies went under during the financial crisis.  (Note: AIG went under due to its derivative subsidiary and that they messed with securities lending agreements.  The only failures in life and P&C insurance were small.)

Banks have risk-based capital standards, but they are less well-designed than those of the US insurance industry, and for the big banks they are more flexible than those for insurers. ¬†If I were regulating banks, I would get a small army of actuaries to study bank solvency, and craft regulations together with a single banking regulator that covers all depositary financials (or, state regulators like in insurance which would be better) using methods similar to those for the insurance industry. ¬†Then every five years or so, adjust the regulations because as they get used, problems appear. ¬†After a while, the methods would work well. ¬†Oh, I left one thing out — all banks would have a valuation actuary reporting to the board and the regulators who would do the cash flow testing and the risk-based capital calculations. ¬†Their positions would be funded with a very small portion of money that currently goes to the FDIC.

This would be a very good system for avoiding excessive financial risk.  Dreaming aside, I write this this evening because there are other dreamers proposing a radically simple system for regulating banks which would allow them to write business with no constraint at all with respect to credit risk.  All banks would face a simple 10% leverage ratio regardless of how risky their loan books are.  This would in the short run constrain the big banks because they would need to raise capital levels, though after that happened, they would probably write riskier loans to get their return on equity back to where it was.

My main point here is that you don’t want to incent banks to write a lot of risky loans. ¬†It would be better for banks to put aside the right amount of capital versus varying classes of risk, and size the amount of capital such that it is not prohibitive to the banking system.

As such, a simple leverage ratio will not cut it.  Thinking people and their politicians should reject the current proposal being put out by the Republicans and instead embrace a more successful regulatory system manned by intelligent and reasonably risk-averse actuaries.

Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich || A bridge described in fiction to bridge me to the counterfactual argument of this post

Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich || A bridge described in fiction to bridge me to the counterfactual argument of this post

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I received an email from a longtime reader:

 

David, here is a (possibly useless) thought experiment.

In 2005, PIMCO’s Paul McCulley was begging Ben Bernanke to halt the on- going quarter-point raises in the Fed Funds rate at 3.5 percent. I forget his exact reasoning, but he clearly thought that the financial markets couldnot accommodate short-term rates above 3.5 percent without substantial disruptions.

Suppose that Bernanke had listened to McCulley and capped the Fed Funds rate at 3.5 percent until it was clear how the markets would fare at that level. Would that alone have been sufficient to postpone or even avert the housing crisis? Or would it have made the crash even worse?

According to FRED, the Funds rate reached 3.5 percent in August 2005, and as we know housing prices nationally peaked about one year later, just as the Funds rate was topping out at 5.25 percent. Question is, did the additional 1.75 percent of increases serve to tip the housing market into decline, or was the collapse inevitable with or without the last seven quarter-point raises?

Any thoughts?

Here was my response:

I proposed the same thing at RealMoney, except I think I said 4%.  My idea was to stop at a yield curve with a modestly positive slope.  It might have postponed the crisis, and maaaaybe allowed banks and GSEs to slowly eat up all of the bad loan underwriting.

I had Googlebots tracking housing activity daily, and August 2015 was when sales activity peaked.¬† I announced it tentatively at RealMoney, and confirmed it two months later.¬† From data I was tracking, housing prices flatlined and started heading down in 2006.¬† The damage was probably done by 2005 — maybe the right level for Fed funds would have been 3%.

The trouble is, hedge funds and other entities were taking risk every which way, and a mindset had overwhelmed the markets such that we had the correlation crisis in May 2005, and other bits of bizarre behavior.  Things would have blown up eventually.  Speculative frenzy rarely cools down without the bear phase of the credit cycle showing up.

So, much as it would have been worth a try, it probably wouldn’t have worked.¬† The housing stock was already overvalued and overleveraged.¬† But it might have taken longer to pop, and it might not have been as severe.

But now for the fun question.¬† Is the Fed trying to do something like that now?¬† Are they so afraid of popping any sort of asset bubble that they have to be extra ginger in raising rates?¬† It seems any market “burp” takes rate rises off the table for a few months.

I don’t know.¬† I do know that the FOMC has only 1% of tightening to play with before the yield curve gets flat.¬† Also, obvious speculation is limited right now.¬† There is a lot that is overvalued, but there is no frenzy… unless you want to call nonfinancial corporation and government borrowing a frenzy.

Thanks for writing.

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The FOMC is Afraid of its own Shadow

If I were the Fed, I would end the useless jabbering that they do.  I would also end the quarterly forecasts and press conference. I would also end publishing the statement and the minutes, and let people read the transcripts five years later. We would go back to the pre-Greenspan years, when monetary policy was managed better.   Before I did that I would say:

The Fed has three responsibilities: controlling inflation, promoting full employment, and regulating the solvency of the banking system. ¬†We are not responsible for the health and well-being of financial markets. ¬†The ‘Greenspan Put’ is ended.

We will act to limit speculation within the banks, such that market volatility will have minimal impact on them.  We want our pursuit of limited inflation and full employment to not be hindered by looking over our shoulder at the boogeyman that could affect the banking system.  To that end, please realize that we will not care if significant entities lose money, including countries that may get whipped around by our pursuit of monetary policy in a way that benefits the American people.

We are not here as guarantors of prosperity for speculators. ¬†Really, we’re not here to guarantee anything except pursue a stable-ish price level, and to the weak extent that monetary policy can do so, aid full employment.

We hope you understand this. ¬†We do not intend to use our “lender of last resort” authority again, and will manage bank solvency in a way to avoid this. ¬†We may get called ‘spoilsports’ by the banks that we regulate, but in the end we are best served as a nation if solvency concerns dominate over the profitability of the banking industry.

As it is, the present FOMC fears acting because it might derail the recovery or spark a bear market in risky assets.  Going beyond the mandate of the Fed has led to bad results in the past.  It will continue to do so in the future.

The best way for the Fed to maintain its independence is to act independently and responsibly. ¬†Don’t listen to outside influences, particularly when hard things need to be done. ¬†Be the adult in the room, and tell the children that the medicine that you give them is for their good. ¬†Recessions are good, because they clear away bad uses of capital from the ecosystem, and make room for new more productive ideas to use the capital instead.

As it is, the Fed is afraid of its own shadow, and will not take any hard actions. ¬†That will either end with inflation, or an asset bubble that eventually affects the banks. ¬†A central bank like that does not follow its mandate does not deserve its independence. ¬†So Fed, if you won’t act for our long-term good, will you act to preserve your existence in your¬†present form?

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Before I write this evening, I would like to point out¬†what is going on with Horsehead Holdings [ZINCQ]. ¬†There was an article in the New York Times on it recently. ¬†It’s an interesting situation where an equity committee exists in a bankruptcy, largely because the management team looks like it is not trying to maximize the value of the bankruptcy estate, but is perhaps instead trying to sell the company off to creditors cheaply in an effort to receive a benefit later from the new owners. ¬†Worth a look, because if the equity committee wins, it will be unusual, and if the debtors win, it very well may take value that legitimately belonged to the equity.

That said, I don’t have a strong opinion because I don’t have enough data. ¬†But I will be watching.

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I received a letter from a reader yesterday on a related topic from my most recent article.  Here it is:

Hi David,

First of all, it’s nice to find you (and Ed Yardeni and Mohamed El-Erian) working when most analysts seem to be at the beach. That said, a question:

In early ’09, as you will recall, the big banks were begging for relief from mark-to-market accounting for their holdings of mortgage-backed securities, on the grounds that these securities weren’t trading at all.

“Ridiculous!” said Jeremy Grantham. “Put 2 percent of your holding out to auction and you will learn its market value quick enough.”

At the time, I thought Grantham had a fair point. Now I’m not so sure.

What was your view on that issue? John Hussman has said repeatedly that it was the FASB’s relaxation of the mark-to-market rules that set off the dramatic resurgence in stock prices that we have seen (and which he deplores).

Was the FASB’s change of policy warranted, under the circumstances?

And should the mark-to-market rule now be restored?

Here was my reply:

Hi,

I wrote a lot about this at the time.  I remain in favor of mark-to-market accounting.  The companies that got into trouble from the effects of mark-to-market accounting had engaged in sloppy risk management practices, and got caught with their pants down.

The difficulty that most of the complaining companies had was a mix of liquid liabilities requiring prompt payment, and relatively illiquid assets that would be difficult to sell.¬† It was the classic asset-liability mismatch — long illiquid assets financed by short liquid liabilities.¬† Looks like genius during the bull phase.¬† Toxic during the bear phase.

On Grantham’s comments: my comments Saturday night are pertinent here for two reasons — anyone selling illiquid CDO tranches, subordinated mortgage bonds, etc., immediately prior to the crisis would find two things: 1) the bids were non-existent or really poor, and 2) if the trade did take place, it would be at levels that reset the pricing grid for that area of the market a LOT lower, leaving the remaining securities looking worse, and a diminution of GAAP equity.

(As an aside, the diminution of GAAP equity might affect the ability to do secondary IPOs of stock at attractive prices, but in itself it did not affect solvency of most financial firms, because statutory accounting allowed for investments to held at amortized cost.  As such the firms could be economically insolvent, but not regulatorily insolvent unless they ran out of cash, or their short-term lending lines of credit got pulled.)

Anyway, this piece is a summary of my thoughts, and provides links to other things I wrote during that era:¬†Fair Value Accounting ‚ÄĒ It Is What It Is

The regulators were pretty lenient with most of the companies involved — the creditors weren’t.¬† They enforced margin agreements, and pulled discretionary credit lines.

I’m not of Hussman’s opinion that relaxation of the mark-to-market rules had ANY effect on stock prices.¬† In general, GAAP accounting rules don’t affect stock prices, because they don’t affect free cash flow, unless the GAAP rules are embedded in credit covenants.¬† Statutory accounting does affect free cash flow, and can affect the prices of stocks.

Those are my opinions, for what they are worth.

Sincerely,

David

June 2016July 2016Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in April indicates that the pace of improvement in the labor market has slowed while growth in economic activity appears to have picked up.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that the labor market strengthened and that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate rate.FOMC shades GDP down and employment up, which is the opposite of last time.
Although the unemployment rate has declined, job gains have diminished.Job gains were strong in June following weak growth in May. On balance, payrolls and other labor market indicators point to some increase in labor utilization in recent months. Sentence moved up in the statement.  Expresses less confidence in the labor market.
Growth in household spending has strengthened. Since the beginning of the year, the housing sector has continued to improve and the drag from net exports appears to have lessened, but business fixed investment has been soft.Household spending has been growing strongly but business fixed investment has been soft.Drops comments on the housing sector and net exports.
Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.No change.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation declined; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; most survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.No change.  TIPS are showing higher inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 1.65%, up 0.18% from March.  Undid the significant move from earlier in 2016.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the ‚Äústatutory mandate,‚ÄĚ it is to excuse bad policy.
The Committee currently expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will strengthen.The Committee currently expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will strengthen.No change.
Inflation is expected to remain low in the near term, in part because of earlier declines in energy prices, but to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.Inflation is expected to remain low in the near term, in part because of earlier declines in energy prices, but to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of past declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.No change. CPI is at +1.1% now, yoy.
The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.Near-term risks to the economic outlook have diminished. The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.No change.
Against this backdrop, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent.Against this backdrop, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent.No change.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.No change.  They don’t get that policy direction, not position, is what makes policy accommodative or restrictive.  Think of monetary policy as a drug for which a tolerance gets built up.
In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.No change.
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.  Gives the FOMC flexibility in decision-making, because they really don’t know what matters, and whether they can truly do anything with monetary policy.
In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal. The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal. The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.No change.  Says that they will go slowly, and react to new data.  Big surprises, those.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.No change.¬† Says it will keep reinvesting maturing proceeds of agency debt and MBS, which blunts any tightening.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Esther L. George; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Back to a small dissent.
 Voting against the action was Esther L. George, who preferred at this meeting to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 to 3/4 percent.Our favorite dissenter returns.

 

Comments

  • This statement was a nothing-burger.
  • Policy continues to stall, as the economy muddles along.
  • But policy should be tighter. Savers deserve returns, and that would be good for the economy.
  • The changes for the FOMC‚Äôs view are that labor indicators are stronger, and GDP and household spending are weaker.
  • Equities and bonds rise a little. Commodity prices rise and the dollar falls.¬† Everything is a little looser.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.
  • The key variables on Fed Policy are capacity utilization, labor market indicators, inflation trends, and inflation expectations. As a result, the FOMC ain‚Äôt moving rates up much, absent much higher inflation, or a US Dollar crisis.

Caption from the WSJ: Regulators don‚Äôt think it is the place of Congress to second guess how they size up securities. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said recently that legislation would ‚Äúinterfere with our supervisory judgments.‚ÄĚ PHOTO: BAO DANDAN/ZUMA PRESS

PHOTO CREDIT: BAO DANDAN/ZUMA PRESS

March 2016April 2016Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace despite the global economic and financial developments of recent months. Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in March indicates that labor market conditions have improved further even as growth in economic activity appears to have slowed. FOMC shades GDP down and employment up.
Household spending has been increasing at a moderate rate, and the housing sector has improved further; however, business fixed investment and net exports have been soft.Growth in household spending has moderated, although households’ real income has risen at a solid rate and consumer sentiment remains high. Since the beginning of the year, the housing sector has improved further but business fixed investment and net exports have been soft.Shades down household spending.
A range of recent indicators, including strong job gains, points to additional strengthening of the labor market.A range of recent indicators, including strong job gains, points to additional strengthening of the labor market.No change.
Inflation picked up in recent months; however, it continued to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting earlier declines in energy prices and falling prices of non-energy imports.Shades energy prices up, and prices of non-energy imports down.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.No change.  TIPS are showing higher inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 1.73%, up 0.08% from March.  Significant move since February 2016.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the ‚Äústatutory mandate,‚ÄĚ it is to excuse bad policy.
The Committee currently expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will continue to strengthen.The Committee currently expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will continue to strengthen.No change.
However, global economic and financial developments continue to pose risks.They moved this down two sentences, sort of, as global markets are calmer.
Inflation is expected to remain low in the near term, in part because of earlier declines in energy prices, but to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.Inflation is expected to remain low in the near term, in part because of earlier declines in energy prices, but to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.No change. CPI is at +0.9% now, yoy.

Shades inflation down in the short run due to energy prices.

The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.The Committee continues to closely monitor inflation indicators and global economic and financial developments.Adds in monitoring of global economics and finance.
Against this backdrop, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent.Against this backdrop, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent.No change.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.No change.  They don’t get that policy direction, not position, is what makes policy accommodative or restrictive.
In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.No change.
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.  Gives the FOMC flexibility in decision-making, because they really don’t know what matters, and whether they can truly do anything with monetary policy.
In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal. The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal. The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.No change.  Says that they will go slowly, and react to new data.  Big surprises, those.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.No change.¬† Says it will keep reinvesting maturing proceeds of agency debt and MBS, which blunts any tightening.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.No change. Not quite unanimous.
Voting against the action was Esther L. George, who preferred at this meeting to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 to 3/4 percent.Voting against the action was Esther L. George, who preferred at this meeting to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/2 to 3/4 percent.One lonely voice that can think past the current consensus of neoclassical economists.

Comments

  • Policy continues to stall, as the economy muddles along.
  • But policy should be tighter. Savers deserve returns, and that would be good for the economy.
  • The changes for the FOMC‚Äôs view are that labor indicators are stronger, and GDP and household spending are weaker.
  • Equities rise and bonds rise. Commodity prices flat and the dollar falls.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.
  • The key variables on Fed Policy are capacity utilization, labor market indicators, inflation trends, and inflation expectations. As a result, the FOMC ain‚Äôt moving rates up much, absent much higher inflation, or a US Dollar crisis.

Photo Credit: thecrazysquirrel

Photo Credit: thecrazysquirrel

Before I start tonight, I just wanted to mention that I was on South Korean radio a few days ago, on the main English-speaking station, talking about Helicopter Money. ¬†If you want listen to it or download it as a podcast, you can get it here. ¬†It’s a little less than 11 minutes long.

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The bravery of Steve Kandarian and the executives at MetLife is a testimony to something I have grown to believe.  Frequently the government acts without a significant legal basis, and bullies companies into compliance.  If a company is willing to spend the resources, often the government will lose, when the laws are unduly vague or even wrongheaded.

This was true also in a number of the allegations made by Eliot Spitzer. ¬†Lots of parties gave in because the press was negative, but those that fought him generally won. ¬†Another tough-minded man, Maurice Raymond “Hank” Greenberg pushed back and won. ¬†So did some¬†others that were unfairly charged.

MetLife won its case against the¬†Financial Stability Oversight Council [FSOC] in US District Court. ¬†The government will likely appeal the case, but though I have been a bit of a lone voice here, I continue to believe that MetLife will prevail. ¬†Here’s my quick summary as to why:

  • The FSOC’s case largely relies on the false idea that being big is enough to be a systemic risk.
  • Systemic risk is a mix of liquidity of liabilities, illiquidity of assets, credit risk, leverage, contagion, and lack of diversity of profit sources.
  • Liquidity of liabilities is the most important factor — in order to get a “run on the bank” there has to be a call on cash. ¬†Life insurers have long liability structures, and it is very difficult for there to be a run. ¬†People would have to forfeit a lot of value to run.
  • Contrast that with banks that use repo markets, and have short liability structures (w/deposit insurance, which is a help). ¬†Add in margining at the investment banks…
  • The only life insurers that suffered “runs” in the last 30 years wrote lots of short-term GICs. ¬†No one does that anymore.
  • Life insurers invest a lot of their money in relatively liquid corporates, and lesser amounts in illiquid mortgages. ¬†Banks are the reverse.
  • Leverage at life insurers is typically lower than that of banks.
  • Insurers make money off of non-financial factors like mortality & morbidity. ¬†Banks run a monoculture of purely financial risk. ¬†(Okay, increasingly many of them make money off of “free” checking, and then kill their sloppy depositors who overdraw their accounts… as I said to one of my kids, “Hey, your best friend “XXX bank” sent you a love note thanking you for the generous gift you gave them.”)
  • That makes contagion risk larger for banks than life insurers — banks often have more investments across the financial sector than insurers do.
  • Life insurers tend to be simpler institutions than banks. ¬†There is less too-clever-for-your-own-good risk.
  • State regulators are less co-opted than Federal regulators. ¬†They also employ actuaries to analyze actuaries. ¬†(At least the better and larger states do.)
  • Finally, life insurers do more strenuous tests of solvency and risk. ¬†They test solvency for decades, not years. ¬†They have actuaries who are bound by an ethics code — the quants at the banks have no such codes, and no responsibility to the regulators. ¬†The actuaries with regulatory responsibility serve two masters, and though I had my doubts when the appointed actuary statutes came into being, it has worked well. ¬†The problems of the early ’90s did not recur. ¬†The insurance industry generally eschewed non-senior RMBS, CMBS and ABS¬†in the mid-2000s, while the banks loved the yieldy illiquid beasties, and lost as a result.

Anyway, that’s my summary case. ¬†I haven’t always been a fan of the industry that I was raised in, but the life insurers learned from their past errors, and as a result, made it through the financial crisis very well, unlike the banks.

PS — there are some things I worry about at life insurers, like LTC and secondary guarantees, but I doubt the FSOC could figure out how big those are as an issue. ¬†A few companies are affected, and I’m not invested in them. ¬†Also, those risks aren’t systemic.

Full disclosure: long ENH NWLI BRK/B GTS RGA AIZ KCLI and MET

Photo Credit: Gerard Van der Leun || Personally, I would not have wanted my name on that law

Photo Credit: Gerard Van der Leun || Personally, I would not have wanted my name on that law

 

This should be short. ¬†If you want more, you can read my old piece, “Who Dares Oppose a Boom?

Laws are only as good as those that enforce them.  There was no lack of power in the hands of regulators prior to the financial crisis.  There was a lack of willingness to use the power given, because regulators were discouraged by those above them from using the powers that they could use.  That included both political appointees to high-level positions in the bureaucracy and Congressmen.

The real risk today is not that the laws are inadequate. ¬†Dodd-Frank has its flaws, and I didn’t like handing so many things over to committees, but with respect to banks, it is better than what we had previously. ¬†The risk is that regulators will once again not use the powers that they have, and be lax in enforcement.

I’ve argued before that state regulation of insurance is far superior to¬†federal banking regulation. ¬†There are several reasons for this:

  • Small-mindedness is good in regulation. ¬†Protect the downside, let the regulated suffer.
  • Actuaries have an ethics code. ¬†Their equivalent inside banks do not. ¬†Regulators do not. ¬†(Chartered Financial Analysts also have an ethics code, as an aside…)
  • It’s harder to corrupt 50 states than one federal regulator, particularly if you can choose that federal regulator.

Now, the next big problem may not be in the finance sector… I tend to think that we will see a major developed nation go through a crisis of its finances as the next crisis. ¬†But if there is a significant financial crisis, it will be because the regulators did not do their jobs, whether under outside pressure or not.

Caption from the WSJ: Regulators don‚Äôt think it is the place of Congress to second guess how they size up securities. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said recently that legislation would ‚Äúinterfere with our supervisory judgments.‚ÄĚ PHOTO: BAO DANDAN/ZUMA PRESS

Caption from the WSJ: Regulators don‚Äôt think it is the place of Congress to second guess how they size up securities. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said recently that legislation would ‚Äúinterfere with our supervisory judgments.‚ÄĚ PHOTO: BAO DANDAN/ZUMA PRESS

Catch the caption from the WSJ for the above picture:

Regulators don‚Äôt think it is the place of Congress to second guess how they size up securities. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said recently that legislation would ‚Äúinterfere with our supervisory judgments.‚ÄĚ

Regulators are not required by the Constitution, but Congress, perverse as it is, is the body closest to the people, getting put up for election regularly. ¬† Of course Congress should oversee financial regulation and monetary policy from¬†an unelected Federal Reserve. ¬†That’s their job.

I’m not saying that the Congressmen themselves understand these things well enough to do anything — but that’s true of most laws, etc. ¬†If the Federal Reserve says they are experts on these matters, past bad results notwithstanding, Congress can get people who are experts as well to aid them in their decisions on laws and regulations.

The above is not my main point, though. ¬†I have a specific example to draw on: municipal bonds. ¬†As the Wall Street Journal headline says, are they “Safe or Hard to Sell?” ¬†For financial regulation, that’s the wrong question, because this should be an asset-liability management problem. ¬†Banks should be buying assets and making loans that fit the structure of their liabilities. ¬†How long are the CDs? ¬†How sticky are the deposits and the savings accounts?

If the maturities of the munis match the liabilities of the bank, they will pay out at the time that the bank needs liquidity to pay those who place money with them.  This is the same as it would be for any bond or loan.

If a bank, insurance company, or any financial institution relies on secondary market liquidity in order to protect its solvency, it has a flawed strategy.  That means any market panic can ruin them.  They need table stability, not bicycle stability.  A table will stand, while a bicycle has to keep moving to stay upright.

What’s that you say? ¬†We need banks to do maturity transformation so that long dated projects can be cheaply funded by short-term savers. ¬†Sorry, that’s what leads to financial crises, and creates the run on liquidity when the value of long dated assets falls, and savers want their money back. ¬†Let long dated assets that want debt financing be financed by REITs, pension plans, endowments, long-tail casualty insurers, and life insurers. ¬†Banks should invest short, and use the swap market t aid their asset liability needs.

Thus, there is no need for the Fed to be worrying about muni market liquidity.  The problem is one of asset-liability matching.  Once that is settled, banks can make intelligent decisions about what credit risk to take versus their liabilities.

In many ways, our regulators learned the wrong lessons in the recent crisis, and as such, they meddle where they don’t need to, while neglecting the real problems.

But given the strength of the banking lobby, is that any surprise?

Photo Credit: Friends of the Earth International || Note: the above is just a photo to illustrate a point. I do not endorse debt cancellation under most coircumstances

Photo Credit: Friends of the Earth International || Note: the above is just a photo to illustrate a point. I do not endorse debt cancellation under most circumstances.  I do support debt-for-equity swaps to delever the system.

Debt, debt, debt…¬†debt is kind of like a snowflakes. ¬†A single snowflake is a pretty star, but one quintillion of them is a horrendous mess. ¬†In the same way, most individual debts are reasonable and justifiable, but when debt becomes a pervasive part of the economic system, the second order effects kick in:

  • As fixed claims grow relative to equity claims, the economy becomes less flexible, because many are counting on the debts for which they are creditors to be paid back at par.
  • Economies that are heavily indebted grow slower.
  • Central banks following untested and dubious theories like QE and negative interests rates try help matters, but end up making things worse. ¬†(Gold would be an improvement. ¬†Just regulate the solvency of banks tightly, which was not¬†done in cases where¬†the gold standard failed.)
  • Political unrest leads to dubious populism, and demands for debt cancellation, and a variety of other quack economic cures.
  • The most solvent governments find high demand for their long debt. ¬†Long-dated claims raise in value as inflation falls along with monetary velocity.

Thus the mess. ¬†Bloomberg had an article on the topic recently, where it tried to ask whether and where there might be a crisis. ¬†I’ve argued in the last year that we shouldn’t have a major crisis in the US over domestic debts. ¬†There are a few areas that look bad:

  • Student loans
  • Agriculture loans
  • Corporate debts to speculative grade companies that are negatively affected by falling crude oil and commodity prices.
  • Maybe some auto loans?

But those don’t add up to a debt market in trouble as when residential mortgages were on the rocks.

But what of other nations and their debts, public and private?

Tough question.

That said, the answer is akin to that for a corporation with a tweak or two. ¬†It’s not the total amount of indebtedness versus assets or income that is the main issue, it is whether the debts can continue to be rolled over or not. ¬†A smaller amount of debt can be a much larger problem than a bigger amount that is longer. (point 2 below)

Take a step back.  With countries there are a variety of factors that would make skeptical about their financial health:

  • Large increases in indebtedness
  • Large amounts of short-term debt
  • Large amounts of foreign currency-denominated liabilities (also true of the entire Eurozone — you don’t control the value of what you will pay back)
  • A fixed, or pseudo-fixed exchange rate (versus floating)
  • A weak economy, and
  • Debt and/or debt service to GDP ratios are high

The first point is important because whatever class of debt increases the most rapidly is usually the best candidate for credit troubles. ¬†Debt that is issued rapidly rarely gets put to good uses, and those that buy it usually aren’t doing their homework.

Under ordinary circumstances, this would implicate China, but the Chinese government probably has enough resources to cover their next credit crisis. ¬†That won’t be true forever, though, and China needs to take steps to make their banking system sound, such that it never generates losses that an individual bank can’t handle. ¬†Personally, I doubt that it will get there, because members of the Party use the banking system for their own benefit.

Points 3, 4, and 6 deal with borrowers compromising on terms in order to borrow. ¬†They are stretching, and accepting¬†terms not adjustable in favor of the debtor, or can be adjusted against the debtor. ¬† If you control your own currency, these problems are modified, because of the option to print currency to pay off debt, and inflate problems away. (Which creates other problems…)

By pseudo-fixed interest rates, I take into account countries that as neo-mercantilists make policy to benefit their exporters at the cost of their importers and consumers.  These countries fight changes in the exchange rate, even though the exchange rate may technically float.

Point 5 simply says that there is insufficient growth to absorb the increases in debt.  Economies growing strongly rarely default.

Conclusion?

My view is this: the next major credit crisis will be an international one, and will involve governments that can’t pay on their debts. ¬†It won’t include the US, the UK, and certainly not Canada. ¬†It probably won’t involve China. ¬†Weak parts of the Eurozone and Japan are possibilities, along with a number of emerging markets.

And, as an aside, if¬†this happens, people will lose faith in central banks as being able to control everything. ¬†I think the central banks and national treasuries will find themselves hard pressed to find agreement at that time. ¬†QE and negative interest rates might be controllable in a domestic setting, but in an international framework, other nations might finally say, “Why would I want to get paid back in that weak currency?” ¬†(And what holds that back now is that virtually all of the world’s currencies except gold are involved in competitive devaluation to some extent.)

My advice is this: be careful with your international holdings. ¬†The world may be peaceful right now, and everyone may be getting along, but that might not last. ¬†Diversification is a good idea, but don’t forget that there is no place like home, unless the crisis is in your home.

December 2015January 2016Comments
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in October suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace.Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December suggests that labor market conditions improved further even as economic growth slowed late last year.Shades up labor conditions.  Shades down economic growth.
Household spending and business fixed investment have been increasing at solid rates in recent months, and the housing sector has improved further; however, net exports have been soft.Household spending and business fixed investment have been increasing at moderate rates in recent months, and the housing sector has improved further; however, net exports have been soft and inventory investment slowed.Shades household spending down.
A range of recent labor market indicators, including ongoing job gains and declining unemployment, shows further improvement and confirms that underutilization of labor resources has diminished appreciably since early this year. A range of recent labor market indicators, including strong job gains, points to some additional decline in underutilization of labor resources.Shades labor employment up.
Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.Inflation has continued to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run objective, partly reflecting declines in energy prices and in prices of non-energy imports.No change.
Market-based measures of inflation compensation remain low; some survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations have edged down.Market-based measures of inflation compensation declined further; survey-based measures of longer-term inflation expectations are little changed, on balance, in recent months.Shades current and forward inflation down.  TIPS are showing lower inflation expectations since the last meeting. 5y forward 5y inflation implied from TIPS is near 1.53%, down 0.18% from September.
Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability.No change. Any time they mention the ‚Äústatutory mandate,‚ÄĚ it is to excuse bad policy.
The Committee currently expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will continue to expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will continue to strengthen.The Committee currently expects that, with gradual adjustments in the stance of monetary policy, economic activity will expand at a moderate pace and labor market indicators will continue to strengthen.Shifts language to reflect moving from easing to tightening.
Overall, taking into account domestic and international developments, the Committee sees the risks to the outlook for both economic activity and the labor market as balanced. Sentence dropped.
Inflation is expected to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.Inflation is expected to remain low in the near term, in part because of the further declines in energy prices, but to rise to 2 percent over the medium term as the transitory effects of declines in energy and import prices dissipate and the labor market strengthens further.CPI is at +0.7% now, yoy.

Shades inflation down in the short run due to energy prices.

The Committee continues to monitor inflation developments closely.The Committee is closely monitoring global economic and financial developments and is assessing their implications for the labor market and inflation, and for the balance of risks to the outlook.Says that they watch every economic indicator only for their likely impact on labor employment and inflation.
The Committee judges that there has been considerable improvement in labor market conditions this year, and it is reasonably confident that inflation will rise, over the medium term, to its 2 percent objective. Dropped sentence.
Given the economic outlook, and recognizing the time it takes for policy actions to affect future economic outcomes, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1/4 to 1/2 percent.Given the economic outlook, the Committee decided to maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 1/4 to 1/2 percent.No real change.
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative after this increase, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting further improvement in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.No real change.  They don’t get that policy direction, not position, is what makes policy accommodative or restrictive.
In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.In determining the timing and size of future adjustments to the target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess realized and expected economic conditions relative to its objectives of maximum employment and 2 percent inflation.No change.
This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.No change.  Gives the FOMC flexibility in decision-making, because they really don’t know what matters, and whether they can truly do anything with monetary policy.
In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal. The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.In light of the current shortfall of inflation from 2 percent, the Committee will carefully monitor actual and expected progress toward its inflation goal. The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.No change.  Says that they will go slowly, and react to new data.  Big surprises, those.
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction, and it anticipates doing so until normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under way. This policy, by keeping the Committee’s holdings of longer-term securities at sizable levels, should help maintain accommodative financial conditions.Says it will keep reinvesting maturing proceeds of agency debt and MBS, which blunts any tightening.
Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; Charles L. Evans; Stanley Fischer; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Jerome H. Powell; Daniel K. Tarullo; and John C. Williams.Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Janet L. Yellen, Chair; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Lael Brainard; James Bullard; Stanley Fischer; Esther L. George; Loretta J. Mester; Jerome H. Powell; Eric Rosengren; and Daniel K. Tarullo.Changing of the guard of regional Fed Presidents, making them ever so slightly more hawkish, and having no effect on policy.

Comments

  • Policy stalls, as their view of the economy catches up with reality.
  • The changes for the FOMC is that labor indicators are stronger, and GDP weaker.
  • Equities fall and bonds rise. Commodity prices rise and the dollar falls.¬† Maybe some expected a bigger move.
  • The FOMC says that any future change to policy is contingent on almost everything.
  • The key variables on Fed Policy are capacity utilization, labor market indicators, inflation trends, and inflation expectations. As a result, the FOMC ain‚Äôt moving rates up much, absent much higher inflation, or a US Dollar crisis.