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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Central Bank Independence: Growing Threats

The median FOMC participant forecasts that the Committee will raise the target range for the federal funds rate three times this year. That is, by the end of 2017, the range will be 1.25 to 1.50 percent. Assuming the FOMC follows through, this will be the first time in a decade that the policy rate has risen by 75 basis points in a year. It is natural to ask what sort of criticism the central bank will face and whether its independence will be threatened.

Our concerns arise from statements made by President-elect Trump during the campaign, as well as from legislative proposals made by various Republican members of Congress and from Fed criticism from those likely to influence the incoming Administration’s policies....

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China's Awkward Exchange Rate Regime: an Update

As 2016 draws to a close, it’s natural to look back over the year’s posts. With all the swirling concerns about China-U.S. relations—including the selection of the protectionist co-author of Death by China to head a new White House National Trade Council—we wondered whether our February doubts about China’s exchange rate regime remain intact.

The answer is yes, but for reasons radically inconsistent with President-elect Trump’s promise to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Like any country with a fixed exchange rate, China’s central bank intervenes actively to maintain its (evolving) currency target. But, for the past two years, the People’s Bank has been intervening to prevent (or at least to slow), rather than promote, the depreciation of its currency versus the dollar. That is, the RMB remains overvalued compared to what it would be in the absence of official intervention.

And, despite secretive instincts of China's authorities, the evidence is there for all to see....

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Why a gold standard is a very bad idea

The extraordinary monetary easing engineered by central banks in the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis has fueled criticism of discretionary policy that has taken two forms. The first calls for the Federal Reserve to develop a policy rule and to assess policy relative to a specified reference rule. The second aims for a return to the gold standard (see here and here) to promote price and financial stability. We wrote about policy rules recently. In this post, we explain why a restoration of the gold standard is a profoundly bad idea.

Let’s start with the key conceptual issues. In his 2012 lecture Origins and Mission of the Federal Reserve, then-Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke identifies four fundamental problems with the gold standard:...

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Dodd-Frank, the CHOICE Act and Small Banks

Critics of the Dodd-Frank Act argue that the new regulatory regime has weakened small banks (see, for example, Peirce, Robinson, and Stratmann). This criticism is echoed in the Financial CHOICE Act—proposed by House Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling—that would largely scrap the current oversight of large systemic intermediaries in part to reduce the regulatory burden on “community financial institutions” (those with fewer than $10 billion in assets).

We share the goal of ensuring that regulation is cost effective for small banks that pose no threat to the financial system. However, we do not believe that the Dodd-Frank oversight regime of the largest, interconnected, complex intermediaries is a principal driver of the challenges facing most small banks.

Instead, we note that the decline of small banks has been going on for more than 30 years, decades before the Dodd-Frank Act became law in 2010...

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Better capitalized banks lend more and lend better

Many people seem to think that when authorities increase capital requirements, banks lend less. The advocates of this view go on to argue that, since credit is essential for economic growth, we should not impose overly tough constraints on banks. Put another way, a number of people believe that we have gone too far in making the financial system safe and the cost is lower growth and employment.

Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin appears to share the view that financial regulation has restrained the supply of credit: in a recent interview, he is quoted as saying “The number one problem with Dodd-Frank is that it’s way too complicated and cuts back lending.” One interpretation of this is that Secretary-designate Mnuchin will support proposals like House Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling’s Financial CHOICE Act to allow banks to opt for a simple capital standard as an alternative to strict regulatory scrutiny.

Our reaction to this is three-fold. First, for most banks, which are very small and pose little threat to the financial system, a shift toward simpler capital requirements—so long as they are high enough—may be both effective and efficient; for the largest, most systemic intermediaries, higher capital requirements should still be accompanied by strict oversight. Second, we see no evidence that higher bank capital is associated with lower lending. In fact, quite the opposite. Third, given that the 2007-09 financial crisis was the result of too much borrowing—and that over-borrowing is a leading indicator of financial crises—it follows that not all reductions in lending are bad. We take each of these points in turn...


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Ending Too Big to Fail

More than six years after the Dodd-Frank Act passed in July 2010, the controversy over how to end “too big to fail” (TBTF) remains a key focus of financial reform. Indeed, TBTF—which led to the troubling bailouts of financial behemoths in the crisis of 2007-2009—is still one of the biggest challenges in reducing the probability and severity of financial crises. By focusing on the largest, most complex, most interconnected financial intermediaries, Dodd-Frank gave officials a range of crisis prevention and management tools. These include the power to designate specific institutions as systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs), a broadening of Fed supervision, the authority to impose stress tests and living wills, and (with the FDIC’s “Orderly Liquidation Authority”) the ability to facilitate the resolution of a troubled SIFI. But, while Dodd-Frank has likely made the U.S. financial system safer than it was, it does not go far enough in reducing the risk of financial crises or in ensuring credibility of the resolution mechanism (see our earlier commentary here, here and here). It also is exceedingly complex.

Against this background, we welcome the work of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and their recently announced Minneapolis Plan to End Too Big to Fail (the Plan). While the Plan raises issues that require further consideration—including the potential for regulatory arbitrage and the calibration of the tools on which it relies—it is straightforward, based on sound principles, and focuses on cost-effective tools. In this sense, the Plan represents a big step forward...

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Policy rules

Monetary economists like rules. Traditionally, they worry that policymakers will sacrifice the long-term benefits of price stability for the more immediate gratification of higher growth. Realizing how hard it is to resist temptation, politicians have delegated monetary policy to a central bank that is independent, but subject to a mandate that constrains their discretion. This institutional setup helped lower inflation in the advanced economies from a median exceeding 10 percent in the late 1970s and early 1980s to about 2 percent by the late 1990s.

But, convinced that overly accommodative financial conditions in the first few years of the century spurred the credit accumulation that fed the 2007-09 financial crisis, there is a push to constrain central banks further by requiring that they publish and account for their actions with reference to a simple policy rule...

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Monetary Policy and Financial Stability

In June 2015, a committee of Federal Reserve Bank Presidents conducted a “macroprudential tabletop exercise”—a kind of wargame—to determine what tools to use should risks to financial stability arise in an environment when growth and inflation are stable. The conventional wisdom—widely supported in policy pronouncements and in a range of academic studies—is that the appropriate tools are prudential (capital and liquidity requirements, stress tests, margin requirements, supervisory guidance and the like). Yet, in the exercise, the policymakers found these tools more unwieldy and less effective than anticipated. As a result, “monetary policy came more quickly to the fore as a financial stability tool than might have been thought.”

This naturally leads us to ask whether there are circumstances when central bankers should employ monetary policy tools to address financial stability concerns. Making the case for or against use of monetary policy to secure financial stability is usually based on assessing the costs and benefits of a policy that "leans against the wind" (LAW) of financial imbalances...

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A Primer on Securities Lending

Securities lending (SL) is one of the less-well-publicized shadow banking activities. Like repurchase agreements (repo) and asset-backed commercial paper, SL can be a source of very short-term wholesale funding, allowing a shadow bank to engage in the kind of liquidity, maturity and credit transformation that banks do. And, like other short-term funding sources, it can suddenly dry up, making it a source of systemic risk. When funding evaporates, fire sales and a credit crunch follow.

Indeed, SL played a supporting role in the 2007-09 financial crisis, being partly responsible for the collapse of the large insurance company AIG when the market seized in September 2008 (see chart). While SL has not garnered the attention of capital and liquidity regulation or central clearing, or even repo markets, it is still worth understanding what securities lending is and the risks it poses. That is the purpose of this post...

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Bank of Japan at the Policy Frontier

Since Governor Haruhiko Kuroda took office in March 2013, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) has been the most aggressively expansionary advanced-economy central bank. Its announcement last month of a “new framework for strengthening monetary easing”—coming only six months after introducing negative policy rates—distances it even further from the pack.

That a central bank is willing to assess its performance transparently and to consider new approaches to achieving its key goals is something we have come to expect. While it’s much too early to tell whether the latest BoJ innovations will be more successful, there is reason to be skeptical. No less important, the new approach involves risks to the central bank and to financial market stability that may not be fully appreciated. Given the difficulties that other advanced-economy central banks seem to be having in raising inflation and inflation expectations, how the BoJ fares is of interest far beyond Japan.

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Policy and Measurement

Policy, especially monetary policy, is about numbers. Is inflation close to target? How fast is the economy growing? What fraction of the workforce is employed?  And, what is the relationship between the policymakers’ tools and their objectives? Answering all of these questions requires measuring a broad array of economic indicators, with consumer prices high on the list. In this post, we discuss some of the pitfalls in measuring prices.

Price indices of the sort that we use today have been around since the late 19th century. In the United States, near the end of World War I, the National Industrial Conference Board starting constructing and publishing a cost-of-living index. This work was eventually taken over by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Over the past century, the theory of price indexes (see, for example, here and here) and the means of measurement have both moved forward substantially.

With the advent of inflation targeting, price indices have taken on a new prominence. If monetary policymakers are going to focus on controlling inflation—setting numerical targets for which they are then held accountable—then the construction of the price index itself becomes an issue. What is included and how can become critical to the way policy is conducted and to the achievement of the stated objective, namely price stability....

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Rewriting the textbook: covered interest parity

For decades, textbooks on international economics and finance built a part of their scaffolding on the foundation of a relationship called covered interest parity (CIP). CIP postulates that, in a world of free capital flows, currency-hedged returns on equivalent-risk assets will equalize across countries. For example, the return to investing in a 1-year U.S. Treasury bill will equal the return to purchasing euros, investing the proceeds in a 1-year German Government liability, and purchasing a contract guaranteeing the future euro/dollar exchange rate at which the euros will be converted back to dollars a year later. In practice, the CIP relationship was such a reliable feature of international fixed-income markets that for decades one could think of banks operating a nearly costless CIP machine to perform what many viewed as a riskless arbitrage.

Then, one day, the CIP machine broke down. It first stopped working in the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2009, when counterparty and liquidity risks both skyrocketed, raising the possibility of defaults and losses in executing the trades necessary. That is, CIP was not a riskless arbitrage.

As a wave of recent research highlights, the conventional, pre-crisis model of the CIP machine remains impaired even as the counterparty and liquidity risks that characterized the GFC have receded....

 

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Clinton versus Trump on Financial Regulation

Will the U.S. Presidential election have an impact on financial regulation? The answer depends on who becomes President, the priorities of the winner, and the inclinations of the Congress. That said, we thought it would be useful to examine what the candidates say they will do. To summarize, we find Republican nominee Trump’s call to “dismantle Dodd-Frank” deeply troubling. By comparison, our differences with Democratic nominee Clinton are relatively minor.

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How risky are the big U.S. banks?

Readers of this blog know that we are great fans of the Stern Volatility Lab’s estimates of systemic risk. Like many observers, including leading regulators, we find market-value rather than book-value measures of bank equity more useful for timely monitoring of systemic risk created by individual intermediaries. Equity prices are available in real time, rapidly incorporate bank-specific and economy-wide information, and are forward-looking. This makes them particularly helpful in assessing the impact of big events, like this summer’s Brexit referendum (see our earlier post).

So, based as it is on market indicators of bank risk, not surprisingly we share the recent assessment of Sarin and Summers (expressed in their September 2016 Brookings paper) that the increase of book capital in the banking system since the financial crisis ought not give rise to regulatory complacency. We have argued repeatedly for raising capital requirements (see, for example, here) and, like those authors, believe that we need mechanisms for the virtually automatic recapitalization of banks in a crisis (see here). 

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Transparent stress tests?

This month, the Committee on Capital Market Regulation (CCMR) published a paper criticizing the procedures the Federal Reserve uses in conducting its stress tests. The claim is that, in its annual Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR), the Fed is violating the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 (APA). The CCMR’s proposed solution is more transparency. As big fans of both stress tests and transparency in general, and of the CCAR in particular, we find this legal challenge very troubling.

We believe that making the stress tests more transparent in the ways that the CCMR suggests would make them much less effective. This would do serious damage to financial stability policy and (ultimately) increase the likelihood of another crisis... 

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Reforming mutual funds: a proposal to improve financial market resilience

U.S. capital markets are the deepest and broadest in the world, fortifying the country’s financial system and making its assets both liquid and attractive. A major part of this capital market advantage is due to the role played by mutual funds, which provide retail investors with a low-cost means of diversifying risk while earning a market return on their savings.

However, a growing class of mutual funds—those that hold mostly illiquid assets—appear to be a potential source of systemic risk. In this post we explain why, and then go on to suggest a change that is simple to implement and might mitigate the problem.

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Inflation and Fiscal Policy

Why is it proving so difficult to raise inflation? For generations after World War II, this was not something that worried economists. Yet, today, even as central banks lower policy rates close to zero (or below) and expand their balance sheets beyond what anyone previously imagined possible (see chart), inflation remains stubbornly below target in most of the advanced world.

Nowhere is this problem more profound than in Japan, where mild deflation was the norm for nearly two decades and where inflation still remains well shy of the Bank of Japan’s 2% target. Even as monetary policymakers expanded the central bank’s balance sheet by nearly one-third of GDP and nudged its policy rate slightly below zero, consumer price inflation (as measured by our preferred trend measure, the 10% trimmed mean) has slipped from 0.9% to 0.1% over the two years to July 2016...

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Saving for retirement

The biggest question facing anyone considering retirement is financial: are my savings sufficient to provide for my lifestyle for the rest of my life? For the fortunate among us, the answer is yes. But for a large fraction of the population, the answer is likely no.

The typical U.S. household has few retirement savings. The National Institute on Retirement Security reports that the median for near-retirement households is $12,000, while that for all households is only $3,000. Most people are relying on government social security to meet their retirement needs.

There are many reasons for this. One is the reduction in the fraction of employers offering any retirement plan at all, and another is the shift away from defined-benefit (DB) and toward defined-contribution (DC) pension plans. The result is that many individuals face risks that they are not equipped to bear, and many households need to save substantially more than they would have had these changes not occurred....

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