Regulatory Discretion and Asset Prices

The Federal Reserve’s annual stress test is the de facto capital planning regime for the largest U.S. banks. Not surprisingly, it comes under frequent attack from bank CEOs who argue, as Jamie Dimon recently did, that “banks have too much capital…and more of that capital can be safely used to finance the economy” (see page 22 here). From their perspective, this makes sense. Bank shareholders, who the CEOs represent, benefit from the upside in good times, but do not bear the full costs when the financial system falters. As readers of this blog know, we’ve argued frequently that capital requirements should be raised further in order to better align banks’ private incentives with those of society (see, for example, here and here).

A more compelling criticism of central bank stress tests focuses on their discretionary character. To the extent feasible, central banks should minimize their interference in the allocation of resources by private intermediaries, allowing them to direct lending to those projects deemed to be the most productive.

But the painful lessons that have come from large asset price swings and high concentrations of risk provide a strong case for the kind of limited discretion that the Fed uses in formulating its stress tests. This blog post highlights why it makes sense for regulators to use this year's stress test exercise to learn how well the largest U.S. intermediaries would fare if the recent commercial real estate price boom were to turn into a bust....

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Walmart and Banking: It's Time to Reconsider

Guest post by Professor Lawrence J. White, NYU Stern School of Business

Overshadowed by the media attention to the proposed repeal of Obamacare, the House Financial Services Committee recently approved substantial changes in financial regulation. The House of Representatives may soon consider the proposed bill—the Financial CHOICE Act—which would make major changes in the Dodd-Frank Act.

However, when financial regulation is being discussed, there is a large elephant that isn’t in the room, but really should be: Walmart. Starting in the mid-1990s, Walmart made two separate efforts to enter banking in the United States, but was repelled both times. After its second effort was rebuffed in 2007, Walmart gave up this effort in the United States (but has since entered banking in Canada and in Mexico).

One question to ask might be, “Why should Walmart be allowed to enter banking?” But a more relevant question would be, “Why shouldn’t Walmart be allowed to enter banking?” ….

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Would Italy be better off without the euro?

With Sunday’s election of President Emmanuel Macron, voters confirmed that France remains a bedrock of the euro area, buttressing the region’s financial markets. But political risks to the euro have not disappeared. In coming months, concerns probably will turn to Italy, where the leader of one popular party has called for a referendum on leaving the euro area, and where parliamentary elections must be held before 20 May 2018.

From an economic perspective, Italy stands on a knife-edge. The economy is smaller and less productive than it was in 2001, while government debt has jumped by 30 percent. As long as interest rates remain low, and the government continues to run a primary budget surplus, the situation is only mildly unsustainable (with the debt/GDP ratio creeping higher). But even a small problem at home or abroad could drive funding costs higher and expose Italy’s precarious state.

Would independent Italian monetary policy, controlled by the Banca d’Italia in Rome, be sufficient to bring Italy back from the precipice and promote economic growth? We doubt it. In the long run, the most effective way to ensure debt sustainability is to implement growth-enhancing structural reforms. Nothing about Italy’s membership in the monetary union prevents this. The problem is a lack of political will...

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Ending Too Big to Fail: Resolution Edition

The failure of Lehman on September 15, 2008, signaled the most intense phase of the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, fueling a run on a broad array of intermediaries. Following Congress’ approval of TARP funding that was used mostly to recapitalize U.S. financial firms, the mantra of U.S. regulators became “…we will not pull a Lehman” (Financial Crisis Inquiry Report, page 380). Thereafter, to ensure that another large institution did not fail, policymakers chose bailouts to contain the crisis. As a result, today we still have intermediaries that are too big to fail.  

The autumn 2008 experience convinced many observers of the need for a robust resolution regime in which financial behemoths could be re-organized quickly without risk of contagion or crisis. The question was, and remains, how to do it. Dodd-Frank provided a two-pronged answer: the FDIC would first rely on the bankruptcy code (Title I), and second, on a resolution temporarily funded (if necessary) by government resources (Title II). The second piece is commonly known as Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), which is funded by the Orderly Liquidation Fund (OLF).

In response to dissatisfaction with parts of this solution, Congress and the President are working on refinements. Last month, the House passed a bipartisan revision of the bankruptcy code (Financial Institutions Bankruptcy Act, or FIBA) that would expedite the resolution of adequately structured intermediaries. And, on April 21, President Trump ordered a Treasury review of OLA, expressing concern that the OLF authorization to use government funds “may encourage excessive risk taking by creditors, counterparties, and shareholders of financial companies.”

This post considers FIBA and how it fits in with the existing Dodd-Frank resolution mechanism....

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Understanding Business Dynamism

For at least the past 30 years, the rate of U.S. business formation has been falling and the average age of existing firms has been rising. Since 2000, two other things have happened: productivity growth has slowed, while many skilled jobs have disappeared. Startups are thought be a key source of innovation in the economy and of net job creation. At the same time, as Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction suggests, the death of old firms is a critical part of the renewal process. So, the declining trend of entry and exit has people worried that U.S. business dynamism is ebbing (see our earlier post).

How concerned should we be? To be completely honest, we don’t really know; at least, not yet. But the answer is important, because it can help orient the U.S. economic policy framework to support the creation of successful businesses that generate high-quality jobs. In this post, we summarize some new research aimed at helping us understand what the decline in business formation really means. Does it signal a fall in the number of successful firms that contribute substantially to business value added, productivity, and employment? Or, is it a decline in the formation of firms that never exceed a tiny scale and have little impact on the broader economy?

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Revisiting Market Liquidity: The Case of U.S. Corporate Bonds

Prior to the financial crisis of 2007-2009, many people took market liquidity for granted. So, when the ability to convert assets into cash eroded, the issue became one of survival for some intermediaries. Today, both investors and regulators are focusing on “the ability to rapidly execute sizable securities transactions at a low cost and with a limited price impact” (see Fischer). And there has been an intense debate about whether post-crisis regulations themselves have diminished the supply of liquidity (see our earlier post)...

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The Fed's Balance Sheet and the Stance of Monetary Policy

U.S. monetary policy is tightening, as everyone who pays even the slightest attention to the financial news knows. But when and how?  Here, the discussion is focused on two complementary aspects of Federal Reserve policy: interest rates and the balance sheet. The first of these concerns policy of the old-style conventional type. The second is about the consequences of quantitative easing. At $4.23 trillion, more than 5 times the 2007 level, the size of securities holdings raises a series of questions: When will the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) start to shrink its balance sheet?  How will they do it? How far will they go?  And, most importantly, what will be the consequences for the stance of monetary policy?

On the first two―when and how―the minutes of the March 14-15, 2017 FOMC meeting provide the answers: later this year, the FOMC expects to instruct the open market operations staff at the New York Fed to stop reinvesting the proceeds from maturing securities. Consistent with the policy normalization principles published in September 2014, there is no hint that they will actively sell securities.

The key uncertainty is how far they will go. At this stage, there is little indication of a consensus on how big or small the balance sheet should be at the end of the process. Even if this uncertainty is clarified, however, any additional impact from balance sheet policy on the stance of policy probably will be limited....

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The case for a higher inflation target gets stronger

For several years, economists and policymakers have been debating the wisdom of raising the inflation target. Today, roughly two-thirds of global GDP is produced in countries that are either de jure or de facto inflation targeters (see our earlier post). In most advanced economies, the target is (close to) 2 percent. Is 2 percent enough?

Advocates of raising the target believe that central banks need greater headroom to use conventional interest rate policy in battling business cycle downturns. More specifically, the case for a higher target is based on a desire to reduce the frequency and duration of zero-policy-rate episodes, avoiding the now well-known problems with unconventional policies (including balance sheet expansions that may prove difficult to reverse) and the limited scope for reducing policy rates below zero.

We have been reticent to endorse a higher inflation target. In our view, the most important counterargument is the enormous investment that central banks have made in making the 2-percent inflation target credible. Yet, several lines of empirical research recently have combined to boost the case for raising the target….

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The Fed's successful tightening

No one should be surprised that the Fed is tightening monetary policy and expects to tighten significantly further over coming years. Unemployment is less than 5 percent, consistent with normal use of resources. Inflation is approaching the FOMC’s 2 percent objective. And policy rates remain below what simple guides would suggest as normal.

A key issue facing policymakers today is whether the Fed’s new operational framework is working effectively to tighten financial conditions without creating unnecessary volatility. While the FOMC’s actions are occurring in a familiar macroeconomic environment, the legacy of the crisis makes raising rates anything but routine. The key difference is the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. Unlike past episodes, when commercial bank reserves were relatively scarce, today they are abundant.

This difference—reflecting a balance sheet that is over four times its pre-crisis level—creates technical challenges for the Fed. The traditional approach of using modest open-market operations (through repurchase agreements of a few billion dollars) to control the federal funds rate—became ineffective as reserves grew abundant. This meant developing an entirely new operational framework. The good news is that—up to now—the challenges of policy setting with abundant reserves have been very clearly met. While this may seem mundane, it is no small achievement. Much like plumbing, had the Fed’s new system failed, everyone would have noticed. At the same time, there are still challenges to face, so we’re not completely out of the woods....

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Regulating Wall Street: The Financial CHOICE Act and Systemic Risk

With the shift in power in Washington, among other things, the people newly in charge are taking aim at financial sector regulation. High on their agenda is repeal of much of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, the most far-reaching financial regulatory reform since the 1930s. The prime objective of Dodd-Frank is to prevent a wholesale collapse of financial intermediation and the widespread damage that comes with it. That is, the new regulatory framework seeks to reduce systemic risk, by which we mean that it lowers the likelihood that the financial system will become undercapitalized and vulnerable in a manner that threatens the economy as a whole.

The Financial CHOICE Act proposed last year by the House Financial Services Committee is the most prominent proposal to ease various regulatory burdens imposed by Dodd-Frank. The CHOICE Act is complex, containing provisions that would alter many aspects of Dodd-Frank, including capital requirements, stress tests, resolution mechanisms, and more. This month, more than a dozen faculty of the NYU Stern School of Business (including one of us) and the NYU School of Law published a comprehensive study contrasting the differences between the CHOICE Act and Dodd-Frank.

Regulating Wall Street: CHOICE Act vs. Dodd-Frank considers the impact both on financial safety and on efficiency. In some cases, the CHOICE Act would slash inefficient regulation in a manner that would not foster systemic risk. At the same time, the book highlights the key flaw of the CHOICE Actthe failure to address systemic risk properly....

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Improving U.S. Healthcare and Coverage

We see health as a basic human right. Every society should provide medical care for its citizens at the level it can afford. And, while the United States has made some progress in improving access to care, the results do not justify the costs. So, while we agree with President Trump’s statement that the U.S. health care system should be cheaper, better and universal, the question is how to get there.

In this post, we start by setting the stage: where matters stand today and why they are unacceptable. This leads us to the real question: where can and should we go? As economists, we are genuinely partial to market-based solutions that allow individuals to make tradeoffs between quality and price, while competition pushes suppliers to contain costs. But, in the case of health care, we are skeptical that such a solution can be made workable. This leads us to propose a gradual lowering of the age at which people become eligible for Medicare, while promoting supplier competition....

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The Fed's Price Stability Achievement

Over the past decade, critics of all stripes have assailed Federal Reserve monetary policy. At one end of the spectrum, some argued that the Fed’s expansionary balance sheet policy risked currency debasement and high inflation. While some of these critics sought merely to influence ongoing policy, others called for replacing the Fed altogether, and restoring the Gold Standard. And then there were those promoting oversight over monetary policy operations that would significantly curtail central bank independence.

At the other end, a different set of critics worried about outright deflation: according to monthly averages from Google Trends, since 2004, U.S. searches for deflation were twice as frequent as those for hyperinflation. Some economists called for a higher inflation target. Squarely in the second camp, officials inside the Federal Reserve System developed deflation probability trackers like this one (here is another from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta).

These diverse perspectives form the backdrop to this year's report for the U.S Monetary Policy Forum (USMPF) that we co-authored with Michael Feroli, Peter Hooper and Anil Kashyap. In that paper, we document that the trend in U.S. inflation has been remarkably low and stable since the early 1990s....

 

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Inconvenient Facts

When governments don’t like the numbers their statisticians report, they have two options. They can modify their policies with the aim of changing the trajectory of the economy. Or, they can push to change the data to conform to what they would like to see. In countries with trustworthy leaders, those who understand the value of objective facts, we see the former. In places where leaders think that facts are a matter of opinion, we all-too-often see the latter. Finding some economic facts inconvenient, President Trump’s inclination appears to be to change the data, not his policies.

Two recent news reports have been particularly troubling, one having to do with trade statistics and the other concerning growth forecasts....

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Liquidity Transformation and Open-end Funds

In the aftermath of Britain’s July 2016 vote to exit the European Union, six U.K. open-end property funds with nearly £15 billion in assets suspended redemptions. These funds had routinely engaged in an extreme version of liquidity transformation: offering investors the ability to convert their shares into cash daily on demand, while holding highly illiquid commercial properties. Fortunately, the overall sector was small, and its post-referendum disruption neither spilled over broadly to funds holding other assets, nor prompted a wave of fire sales that might have undermined the balance sheets of leveraged intermediaries. Nevertheless, the episode was of sufficient concern that the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is now reviewing its “regulatory approach to open-ended funds that invest in illiquid assets” (see here).

The FCA is not alone in its concerns. Other regulators have been looking closely at risks associated with the liquidity transformation performed by open-end funds. And, interest in the official sector has been accompanied by a wave of academic research on liquidity management in open-end funds that generally buttresses the regulators’ concerns. In this piece, we briefly highlight the work of the regulators, summarize the research, and finally reprise our proposal to convert open-end funds into exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

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The Future of the Euro

In 2012, the ECB faced down a mortal threat to the euro: fears of redenomination (the re-introduction of domestic currencies) were feeding a run away from banks in the geographic periphery of the euro area and into German banks. Since President Mario Draghi spoke in London that July, the ECB has done things that once seemed unimaginable, helping to support the euro and secure price stability.

So far, it has been enough. But can the ECB really do “whatever it takes”? Ultimately, monetary stability requires political support. Without fiscal cooperation, no central bank can maintain the value of its currency. In a monetary union, stability also requires a modicum of cooperation among governments.

Recent developments in France have revived concerns about redenomination risk and the future of the euro....

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An Open Letter to Congressman Patrick McHenry

Dear Vice Chair McHenry,

We find your January 31 letter to Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen both misleading and misguided.

It is in the best interest of U.S. citizens and our financial system that the Federal Reserve (and all the other U.S. regulators) continue to participate actively in international financial-standard-setting bodies. The Congress has many opportunities to hold the Fed accountable for its regulatory actions, which are very transparent. We hope that the new U.S. Administration will support the Fed’s efforts to promote a safe and efficient global financial system.

Your letter is filled with false assumptions and assertions....

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When Government Misguides

Governments play favorites. They promote residential construction by making mortgages tax deductible. They encourage ethanol production by subsidizing corn. They boost sales of electric cars by offering tax rebates. These political favors usually diminish, rather than increase, aggregate income. They’re about distribution, not production.

With the ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency, U.S. government intervention has taken a particularly troubling turn. Not only has he threatened companies planning to produce their products outside of the United States, but he has appointed strident free-trade opponents (ranging from China-bashing Peter Navarro to trade-litigator Robert Lighthizer) to key positions in his administration. In his first week in office, President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and moved to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). His representatives also have threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico (and other countries). In what seems like the blink of an eye, these actions have sacrificed the valuable U.S. reputation–earned over seven decades since President Truman—as a trustworthy leader in the global fight for open, competitive markets.

Historically, government guidance of the economy has come in many forms...

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What Bitcoin Has Become

We are now in the ninth year of Bitcoin, the first coins (or “Genesis Block”) having been mined (that is, awarded for solving a computational problem) on January 3, 2009. Yet, Bitcoin has clearly failed to meet the grandiose aims of its advocates. Unlike conventional money, it is not widely used as a means of exchange. And, despite claims that its independence of government would make it a stable store of value, it remains anything but.

Instead, the evidence we can find hints that its primary use is to evade capital controls (or, possibly, as an alternative store of value in a repressed financial system). The greatest achievement associated with Bitcoin is not the currency itself, but the blockchain—the distributed ledger technology underlying it—that is now being widely explored in the hopes of slashing costs and improving services in finance and a range of other activities (see our earlier post).

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GDP-linked Bonds: A Primer

Gross government debt in advanced economies has surpassed 105% of GDP, up from less than 75% a decade ago. Some countries with especially large debts—including Greece (177%), Italy (133%) and Portugal (129%)—are viewed not only as a risk to the countries themselves, but to others as well. As a result, policymakers and economists have been looking for ways to make it easier to manage these heavier debt burdens.

One prominent suggestion is that countries should issue GDP-linked bonds that tie the size of debt payments to their economy's well-being. We find this idea attractive, and see the expanding discussion of the viability of GDP-linked bonds both warranted and useful (see here and here). However, the practical issues associated with GDP data revision remain a formidable obstacle to the broad issuance and acceptance of these instruments....

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Thoughts on Proposed Corporate Tax Reform

With a Republican government intent on major changes in fiscal policy, it’s useful to start thinking about the fundamentals of taxing and spending. The analysis below focuses narrowly on the House-proposed tax reform (pages 24-29) for large firms – what is commonly known as the corporate tax.

Let’s start with a few general points regarding objectives and methods. Our primary goal here is to consider how to raise revenues efficiently, not how to spend or distribute them. So, whatever one might believe regarding the desirable scale of the government safety net or the supply of public goods, that is beyond our immediate focus. Instead we ask how to minimize the negative impact of taxes on economic growth for a given revenue target.

Beyond our focus on efficiency, we also consider the distributional impact of a tax....

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