U.S. Monetary Policy Spillovers

Do changes in U.S. dollar interest rates have a material impact on financial conditions elsewhere in the world? The answer is a resounding yes (see the paper one of us presented at this month’s IMF Annual Research Conference). When the Federal Reserve eases, the result is a dramatic increase in financial system leverage in other countries. Not only that, but the impact is larger than that of domestic policy changes.

The outsized cross-border impact of U.S. monetary policy creates obvious challenges for policymakers abroad aiming to maintain financial stability. Governments in the countries most affected have few options to limit the risks created by cyclical changes in dollar interest rates. The available mix of prudential measures includes more stringent capital requirements, limits on foreign currency liabilities, and restrictions on cross-border capital flows. The alternative of trying to counter U.S. monetary stimulus through higher policy interest rates abroad may backfire….

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Taking the **Sock** out of FSOC

In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2009, the U.S. Congress created the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC – pronounced “F-Sock”)—a panel of the heads of the U.S. regulatory agencies—“to identify risks to the financial stability of the United States”; “to promote market discipline” by eliminating expectations of government bailouts; and “to respond to emerging threats” to financial stability.

Despite these complex and critical objectives, the law limited FSOC’s authority to the designation of: (1) specific nonbanks as systemically important financial intermediaries (SIFIs), and; (2) critical payments, clearance and settlement firms as financial market utilities (FMUs). Nonbank SIFIs are then supervised by the Federal Reserve, which imposes stricter scrutiny on them (as it does for large banks), while FMUs are jointly overseen by the Fed and the relevant market regulators.

At the peak of its activity in 2013-14, the FSOC designated four nonbanks as SIFIs: AIG, GE Capital, MetLife, and Prudential Insurance. Following the Council’s October 16 rescission of the Prudential designation, there are no longer any nonbank SIFIs. Not only that, but by making a future designation highly unlikely, Treasury and FSOC have undermined the deterrence effect of the FSOC’s SIFI authority. In short, by taking the sock out of FSOC, recent actions seriously weaken the post-crisis apparatus for securing U.S. (and global) financial stability. In the remainder of this post we review the Treasury’s revised approach to SIFI designation in the context of the Prudential rescission….

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Negative Nominal Interest Rates and Banking

The financial crisis of 2007-2009 taught us many lessons about monetary policy. Most importantly, we learned that when financial systems are impaired, central banks can backstop both illiquid institutions and illiquid markets. Actively lending to solvent intermediaries against a broad range of collateral, purchasing assets other than those issued by sovereigns, and expanding their balance sheets can limit disruptions to the real economy while preserving price stability.

We also learned that nominal interest rates can be negative, at least somewhat. But in reducing interest rates below zero―as has happened in Denmark, Hungary, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and the Euro Area―policymakers face concerns about whether their actions will have the desired expansionary effect (see here). At positive interest rates, when central bankers ease, they influence the real economy in part by expanding banks’ willingness and ability to lend. Does this bank lending channel work as well when interest rates are negative?

Why should there be any sort of asymmetry at zero? Banks run a spread business: they care about the difference between the interest rate they charge on their loans and the one they pay on their deposits, not the level of rates per se. In practice, however, zero matters because banks are loathe to lower their deposit rates below zero….

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Assessing Housing Risk

Housing debt typically is on the short list of key sources of risk in modern financial systems and economies. The reasons are simple: there is plenty of it; it often sits on the balance sheets of leveraged intermediaries, creating a large common exposure; as collateralized debt, its value is sensitive to the fluctuations of housing prices (which are volatile and correlated with the business cycle), resulting in a large undiversifiable risk; and, changes in housing leverage (based on market value) influence the economy through their impact on both household spending and the financial system (see, for example, Mian and Sufi).

In this post, we discuss ways to assess housing risk—that is, the risk that house price declines could result (as they did in the financial crisis) in negative equity for many homeowners. Absent an income shock—say, from illness or job loss—negative equity need not lead to delinquency (let alone default), but it sharply raises that likelihood at the same time that it can depress spending. As it turns out, housing leverage by itself is not a terribly useful leading indicator: it can appear low merely because housing prices are unsustainably high, or high because housing prices are temporarily low. That alone provides a powerful argument for regular stress-testing of housing leverage. And, because housing markets tend to be highly localized—with substantial geographic differences in both the level and the volatility of prices—it is essential that testing be at the local level….

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Inflation and Price Measurement: A Primer

People use a variety of statistics to gauge how the economy is doing. It is fairly straightforward to measure nominal GDP, so the challenge of estimating real economic growth arises from the need for accurate measures of prices. Price measurement also is key for inflation-targeting central bankers, who need a number as a guide and for public accountability. To be credible, that number must be based on an index constructed using established scientific methods.

Reflecting a set of well-known (and nearly insurmountable) difficulties, measured inflation has an upward bias. That is, the inflation numbers that statistical agencies report are consistently higher than the theoretical construct we would like to compute. As a consequence of this upward bias in inflation measurement, our estimates of growth in real output and real incomes are systematically too low.

The big question today is whether the bias in inflation measurement, and hence the bias in the measurement of growth, has increased in recent years. As Martin Feldstein describes in detail, the answer to this question is important, as it affects how we collectively view long-run progress. If published statistics show sluggish real growth, as well as slow growth in real wages and incomes, then people may be unduly pessimistic. A worsening bias would add to that pessimism.

In practice, however, careful recent analysis suggests that inflation measurement bias has not changed much since the early 2000s….

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FEMA for Finance

Modern financial systems are inherently vulnerable. The conversion of savings into investment—a basic function of finance—involves substantial risk. Creditors often demand liquid, short-term, low-risk assets; and borrowers typically wish to finance projects that take time to generate their uncertain returns. Intermediaries that bridge this gap—transforming liquidity, maturity and credit between their assets and liabilities—are subject to runs should risk-averse savers come to doubt the market value of their assets.

The modern financial system is vulnerable in a myriad of other ways as well. For example, if hackers were to suddenly render a key identification technology untrustworthy, it could disable the payments system, bringing a broad swath of economic activity to an abrupt halt. Similarly, the financial infrastructure that implements most transactions—ranging from retail payments to the clearing and settlement of securities and derivatives trades—typically relies on a few enormous hubs that are irreplaceable in the short run. Economies of scale and scope mean that such financial market utilities (FMUs) make transactions cheap, but they also concentrate risk: even their temporary disruption could be catastrophic. (One of our worst nightmares is a cyber-attack that disables the computer and power grid on which our financial system and economy are built.)

With these concerns in mind, we welcome our friend Kathryn Judge’s innovative proposal for a financial “Guarantor of Last Resort”—or emergency guarantee authority (EGA)—as a mechanism for containing financial crises. In this post, we discuss the promise and the pitfalls of Judge’s proposal. Our conclusion is that an EGA would be an excellent tool for managing the fallout from dire threats originating outside the financial system—cyber-terrorism or outright war come to mind. In such circumstances, we see an EGA as a complement to existing conventional efforts at enhancing financial system resilience.

However, the potential for the industry to game an EGA, as well as the very real possibility that politicians will see it as a substitute for rigorous capital and liquidity requirements, make us cautious about its broader applicability. At least initially, this leads us to conclude that the bar for invoking an EGA should be set very high—higher than Judge suggests….

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Illuminating GDP

Satellites are great. It is hard to imagine living without them. GPS navigation is just the tip of the iceberg. Taking advantage of the immense amounts of information collected over decades, scientists have been using satellite imagery to study a broad array of questions, ranging from agricultural land use to the impact of climate change to the geographic constraints on cities (see here for a recent survey).

One of the most well-known economic applications of satellite imagery is to use night-time illumination to enhance the accuracy of various reported measures of economic activity. For example, national statisticians in countries with poor information collection systems can employ information from satellites to improve the quality of their nationwide economic data (see here). Even where governments have relatively high-quality statistics at a national level, it remains difficult and costly to determine local or regional levels of activity. For example, while production may occur in one jurisdiction, the income generated may be reported in another. At a sufficiently high resolution, satellite tracking of night-time light emissions can help address this question (see here).

But satellite imagery is not just an additional source of information on economic activity, it is also a neutral one that is less prone to manipulation than standard accounting data. This makes it is possible to use information on night-time light to monitor the accuracy of official statistics. And, as we suggest later, the willingness of observers to apply a “satellite correction” could nudge countries to improve their own data reporting systems in line with recognized international standards….

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What Should the Fed Own?

The Federal Reserve began to consider just how far its balance sheet consolidation should go well before the tapering actually began nearly a year ago. Earlier staff analyses pointed to a gradual runoff of long-term debt that could take years to reduce Fed assets to a new long-run equilibrium. More recently, market observers have speculated about an early end to consolidation that would result in a higher steady-state level.

Yet, as a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights, policymakers and analysts have devoted less attention to the mix of assets that the Fed should select once the balance sheet shrinks to its long-run equilibrium and policymakers allow it to expand slowly—say, in line with the increase of demand for currency.

In this post, we argue that the Fed should aim in normal times—when the economy is expanding and absent any financial strains—for a portfolio that has minimal liquidity, maturity and credit risk. In practical terms, this means that their portfolio should be composed largely of Treasury bills and short-term notes, with an average maturity that is very short….

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Financial Crisis: The Endgame

Ten years ago this month, the run on Lehman Brothers kicked off the third and final phase of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2009. In two earlier posts (here and here), we describe the prior phases of the crisis. The first began on August 9, 2007, when BNP Paribas suspended redemptions from three mutual funds invested in U.S. subprime debt, kicking off a global scramble for safe, liquid assets. And the second started seven months later when, in response to the March 2008 run on Bear Stearns, the Fed provided liquidity directly to nonbanks for the first time since the Great Depression, completing its crisis-driven evolution into an effective lender of last resort to solvent, but illiquid intermediaries.

The most intense period of the crisis began with the failure of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. Credit dried up; not just uncollateralized lending, but short-term lending backed by investment-grade collateral as well. In mid-September, measures of financial stress spiked far above levels seen before or since (see here and here). And, the spillover to the real economy was rapid and dramatic, with the U.S. economy plunging that autumn at the fastest pace since quarterly reporting began in 1947.

In our view, three, interrelated policy responses proved critical in arresting the crisis and promoting recovery. First was the Fed’s aggressive monetary stimulus: after Lehman, within its mandate, the Fed did “whatever it took” to end the crisis. Second was the use of taxpayer resources—authorized by Congress—to recapitalize the U.S. financial system. And third, was the exceptional disclosure mechanism introduced by the Federal Reserve in early 2009—the first round of macroprudential stress tests known as the Supervisory Capital Assessment Program (SCAP)—that neutralized the worst fears about U.S. banks.

In this post, we begin with a bit of background, highlighting the aggregate capital shortfall of the U.S. financial system as the source of the crisis. We then turn to the policy response. Because we have discussed unconventional monetary policy in some detail in previous posts (here and here), our focus here is on the stress tests (combined with recapitalization) as a central means for restoring confidence in the financial system….

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Sources of Finance: Internal versus External

It ought not be surprising that borrowing can be difficult. In good times, households usually can obtain financing to purchase a house or car. But these loans are secured with collateral that is easy to resell. Even so, some measures suggest that it is currently more difficult than under “normal” conditions to obtain mortgage finance (see the Urban Institute’s Housing Credit Availability Index on page 16).

With firms, credit has been rising significantly in recent years—across advanced and emerging economies alike (see the BIS measures through 2017 here). Yet, commercial borrowers, especially small and medium sized enterprises, complain loudly when they feel that their ability to succeed is being hampered by overly cautious lenders. And, since lenders often find it difficult to both assess a business’s prospects and to monitor effort once a loan is made, aside from periods of euphoria borrowing can be quite difficult.

As we discuss in our primers on adverse selection and moral hazard, information asymmetries make external funding—either through equity or debt—expensive. And, while the entire financial system is designed to reduce these costs, they are still quite high….

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Trump v. Fed

Last month, interrupting decades of presidential self-restraint, President Trump openly criticized the Federal Reserve. Given the President’s penchant for dismissing valuable institutions, it is hard to be surprised. Perhaps more surprising is the high quality of his appointments to the Board of Governors. Against that background, the limited financial market reaction to the President’s comments suggests that investors are reasonably focused on the selection of qualified academics and individuals with valuable policy and business experience, rather than a few early-morning words of reproof.

Nevertheless, the President’s comments are seriously disturbing and—were they to become routine—risk undermining the significant benefits that Federal Reserve independence brings. Importantly, the criticism occurred despite sustained strength in the economy and financial markets, and despite the stimulative monetary and fiscal policies in place….

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GDP: One size no longer fits all

Even the most casual reader of financial and economic news knows that the speed of economic growth matters. Businesses―manufacturers, service providers, and retailers, among others―need to know so that they can decide how much to invest in new production facilities, how many people to employ, and what to stock on their shelves. Fiscal policymakers need to know so that they can estimate government revenue and expenditure. And monetary policymakers need to know so that they can adjust their policies in an effort to ensure low, stable inflation and strong, stable, and balance growth.

But, does it make sense for all of these people―firms, households and governments―to focus on fresh estimates of GDP? How much attention should we pay to any new number? That is, when the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) announces that their initial estimate of growth for the quarter just ended is 2% or 3% or (as it was last week) 4%, what should we think?

While GDP was once a key cyclical indicator, its value has declined substantially. In this post, we highlight three reasons: timeliness, seasonal adjustment and revisions. Not surprisingly, in the era of big data, those who need information on growth are increasingly turning to more timely indicators customized to their needs….

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Bank Capital and Stress Tests: The Foundation of a Thriving Economy

We submitted this statement to the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit of the Committee on Financial Services of the U.S. House of Representatives for its hearing on July 17, 2018.

We appreciate the opportunity to submit the following statement on the occasion of the hearing entitled “Examining Capital Regimes for Financial Institutions.” We welcome the Subcommittee’s further examination of the existing regulatory approach for prudentially regulated financial institutions.

We are academic experts in financial regulation with extensive knowledge of the financial industry. Our experience includes working with private sector financial institutions, government agencies and international organizations. In our view, a strong and resilient financial system is an essential foundation of a thriving economy. The welfare of every modern society depends on it. The bedrock of this foundation is that banks’ capital buffers are sufficient to withstand significant stress without recourse to public funds. Furthermore, it is our considered view that the benefits of raising U.S. capital requirements from their current modest levels clearly outweigh the costs.

To explain this conclusion, we start with a definition of bank capital, including a discussion of its importance as a mechanism for self-insurance. We then turn to capital regulation and a discussion of stress testing….

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Cyber Instability

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, they also attacked the U.S. financial system. In addition to destroying critical financial infrastructure, the collapse of the twin towers closed the New York Stock Exchange and disrupted the payments system that links U.S. intermediaries, threatening to shut down banks, ATM machines and credit card operations across the country. Only extraordinary intervention by the Federal Reserve kept the system afloat (see, for example, Rosengren).

We have long argued that financial stability is a vital common resource (see here). As ECB Board member Cœuré suggests in the opening quote, the same applies to financial cybersecurity—the protection of financial information and communications technologies (ICT) and their associated networks from failures and attacks. The events of 9/11 and their aftermath dramatically highlighted the link between stability and cybersecurity. Moreover, because our financial system is so deeply reliant on ICT and on large, global networks, these two objectives are more closely linked than ever before: ensuring one means guarding the other.  

In this post, we highlight the pervasiveness of cyberthreats as a source of operational risk in finance. Consistent with the Presidential Policy Directive 21 and a recent Presidential Executive Order aimed at strengthening cybersecurity, the U.S. government has designated financial services infrastructure as critical to national and economic security (see here). Nevertheless, numerous challenges—ranging from the availability of reliable data to the ever-changing nature of the attacks themselves—make the goal of safeguarding financial ICT networks very difficult. To be effective, cybersecurity efforts require mechanisms for preventing successful attacks, limiting their impact, and promoting quick, reliable recovery. Reducing vulnerability and contagion while boosting cyberresilience is a very tall order….

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Fiscal Sustainability: A Primer

Nobody likes taxes, so public spending frequently exceeds revenues, leading governments to borrow. These budget deficits are a flow that add to the stock of debt. Since the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, public debt in a number of advanced economies has surged. In the United States. the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently projected that―in the absence of policy changes―federal debt held by the public is headed for record highs (as a ratio to GDP) in coming decades.

Importantly, there is a real (inflation-adjusted) limit to how much public debt a government can issue (see Sargent and Wallace). Beyond that limit, the consequences are outright default or, if the debt is in domestic currency bonds that the central bank acquires, inflation that erodes its real value leading to a partial default.

Ultimately, debt sustainability requires that a country’s ratio of public debt to GDP stabilize. Otherwise, debt eventually will rise above the real limit and trigger default or inflation. In this note, we derive and interpret a simple debt-sustainability condition. The condition states that the government primary surplus―the excess of government revenues over noninterest spending—must be at least as large as the stock of outstanding sovereign debt times the difference between the nominal interest rate the government has to pay and the rate of growth of nominal GDP. If it is not, then the ratio of debt to GDP will explode….

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Inflation Policy

Inflation in the United States remains at levels that most people don’t really notice. Overall, the consumer price index rose 2.8 percent from May 2017 to May 2018. And, when you look at core measures, the trend is still below 2 percent.

With inflation and inflation expectations still so benign, it is no wonder that despite solid economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years the Federal Open Market Committee continues to act quite gradually (see their June 2018 statement). Inflation could well turn up in the near term—perhaps by more than the policymakers expect. But, for reasons that we will explain, if we were on the FOMC, we would stay the planned course: remain vigilant, but certainly not panic.

We start with a look at the data. What we see is that trend inflation has stayed reasonably close to the Fed’s medium-term target of 2 percent for the past two decades. There have been occasional deviations, like the temporary rise in 2008 and again in 2011, but overall, the path is remarkably stable….

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