Improving resilience: banks and non-bank intermediaries

Debt causes fragility. When banks lack equity funding, even a small adverse shock can put the financial system at risk. Fire sales can undermine the supply of credit to healthy firms, precipitating a decline in economic activity. The failure of key institutions can threaten the payments system. Authorities naturally respond by increasing required levels of equity finance, ensuring that intermediaries can weather severe conditions without damaging others.

Readers of this blog know that we are strong supporters of higher capital requirements: if forced to pick a number, we might choose a leverage ratio requirement in the range of 15% of total exposure (see here), roughly twice recent levels for the largest U.S. banks. But as socially desirable as high levels of equity finance might be, the fact is that they are privately costly. As a result, rather than limit threats to the financial system, higher capital requirements for banks have the potential to shift risky activities beyond the regulatory perimeter into non-bank intermediaries (see, for example here).

Has the increase of capital requirements since the financial crisis pushed risk-taking beyond the regulated banking system? So far, the answer is no. However, in some jurisdictions, especially the United States, the framework for containing systemic risk arising from non-bank financial institutions remains inadequate….

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Common Ownership: Back to Basics

Do diversified investment vehicles―especially index funds―diminish competitive pressures in concentrated industries? There is an active (and contentious) debate among researchers, policymakers and practitioners about the costs and benefits of such “common ownership.”

In addition to a rapidly growing number of industry-level studies—looking at airlines (here and here), banking (here and here) and ready-to-eat cereals (Backus, Conlon and Sinkinson, forthcoming), or at broad groups of industries—other researchers have sought to link common ownership to macroeconomic phenomena, like the weakness of post-crisis investment. And, in response to anti-competitive claims, legal scholars propose using antitrust law to limit the holdings of institutional investors in oligopolistic industries. Against this background, competition authorities in Europe and the United States are taking the debate seriously (see, for example, the FTC hearing held in December at the NYU School of Law).

Our own view is that the discussion remains at a very early stage, and that it is likely to take years to resolve whether CO, especially through index-tracking mutual and exchange-traded funds, meets the cost-benefit test (for a skeptical view of CO, see here). Importantly, even if CO does reduce competitive pressures, we currently know far too little to about the scale or scope to identify remedies that would be most effective and least disruptive. Furthermore, should the case for broad-based anti-competitive effects become compelling, any response will need to consider the welfare trade-off between the very large consumer benefits arising from broad index funds and the consumer costs associated with a loss of competition in selected oligopolistic industries.

Against this background, we welcome two new papers (here and here) by Backus, Conlon and Sinkinson (BCS) that review the literature, provide new data to characterize the evolving pattern of share ownership, and suggest a back-to-basics approach for testing the CO hypothesis in specific industries. We hope that their work will spur a wave of CO research that will help us weigh the increasingly animated claims and counter-claims. In the remainder of this post, we highlight a few of the lessons from this recent research….

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FOMC Communication: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Following their January 2019 meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) came in for intense criticism. Instead of a truculent President complaining about tightening, this time it was financial market participants grumbling about a sudden accommodative shift. In December 2018, Fed policymakers’ suggested that, if the economy and market conditions evolved as expected, they probably would raise interest rates further in 2019. Faced with changes in the outlook, six weeks later they altered the message, suggesting that going forward, monetary easing and tightening were almost equally likely.

We find the resulting outcry difficult to fathom. The FOMC’s perceptions of the outlook may have been incorrect in December, in January, or both. There are myriad ways for economic and market forecasts to go wrong. But, to secure their long-run objectives of stable prices and maximum sustainable employment, isn’t it sometimes necessary for policymakers to change direction, and when they do, to explain why?

The point is that the recent turmoil arises at least in part from the Fed’s high level of transparency. In this post, we summarize the evolution of Federal Reserve communication policy over the past 30 years, and discuss the importance and likely impact of these changes. While transparency is far from a panacea, we conclude that the evolution has been useful for making policy more effective and sustainable, and remains critical for accountability and democratic legitimacy….

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China: Mao Strikes Back

China is now a top-rank, market-moving source of daily news. It is not only the world’s second largest economy, but over the past decade, it accounted for nearly thirty percent of global economic growth. No wonder stories about a slowdown in China and trade conflict with the United States send shudders through financial markets. As conditions are worsening, uncertainty has jumped to record levels in China and elsewhere.

In the near term, if China and U.S. trade negotiators can come to an agreement avoiding a further hike of U.S. tariffs, some of this heightened uncertainty may fade. But a more persistent source of risk arises from China’s medium- and long-term growth prospects. While the country has sustained 6%-plus growth since 1991, in recent years it has done so by increasing investment per unit of growth. The prominence of these diminishing returns from incremental capital outlays lead many informed observers to conclude that a further medium-term deceleration is inevitable. Worries about the sharp increase in nonfinancial corporate debt over the past decade, and the lack of transparency regarding the risks in China’s financial system, only serve to compound this pessimism.

Given these circumstances, Nicholas Lardy’s excellent new book, The State Strikes Back, could hardly arrive at a better moment. Using careful analysis to challenge common hypotheses, Dr. Lardy takes a close look at the principal factors affecting China’s longer-run growth prospects. Ultimately, he is hopeful, but realistic: China could sustain its recent pace of growth for an extended period—or grow even faster—but only if the government is willing to return to its earlier commitment to serious reforms that favor market, rather than state, allocation of resources. So far, despite the prominent market advocacy in its 2013 “policy blueprint”—the first under President Xi Jinping’s leadership (see the opening citation)—the Xi government has shifted in precisely the opposite direction.

In the remainder of this post, we explore Lardy’s conclusion that China’s growth potential remains high. On the key issues of substance, his logic is compelling. A combination of the opportunities generated by convergence to advanced-economy productivity levels, continued improvements in competition and trade, and a renewed shift toward the private allocation of resources—especially through changes in the structure of both state-owned enterprises and the financial system—points to the possibility of a return to higher growth. Nevertheless, we find ourselves somewhat less hopeful. Even if China’s government were to make fundamental economic reform its top priority, in our view the odds favor a further slowdown over the next decade….

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Antitrust and the Financial Sector

Antitrust has again become a hot topic in U.S. policy discourse. There are lots of contributing reasons:  Online firms have grown large and ever more important in many individuals’ lives. Media references to “Big Oil”, “Big Pharma”, “Big Tech”, etc., have become more common. The Obama Council of Economic Advisers issued a 2016 report that highlighted rising seller concentration—and related concerns about rising market power—in many sectors of the U.S. economy. These concerns have been echoed by The Economist and by a number of academic and “think tank” studies. There have been efforts to link this increasing size and concentration to wage stagnation and worsening income distribution.

The term “monopoly” is heard far more frequently today than was true even a decade ago.

Antitrust is one of the major policy tools in the United States—along with direct regulation—designed to address monopoly and more generally the exercise of market power. For the financial sector, regulation of various kinds generally overshadows antitrust. But even for the financial sector, antitrust plays an important role: indeed, in June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court decided an important antitrust case that involved American Express’s relationship with the merchants that accept its payment card.

So, let’s first review some basics about antitrust. We’ll next describe the recent trends in company sizes and seller concentration. And we will then move on to the relevance of antitrust for the financial sector….

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Bad Precedent

Recent reports that President Trump wanted to fire Board Chairman Powell in response to Federal Reserve interest rate hikes are unprecedented. Denials from senior officials―Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Hassett―have even less credibility than would a statement (or tweet) from the President himself. We find this entire discussion extremely disheartening and surely damaging to economic policy and the credibility of the Federal Reserve. As former Chair Yellen has stated, the risk is that people lose “confidence in the Fed, in the basis for its actions and its responsiveness to its mandate” (see here, time mark: 18:51).

To be sure, there is some debate over whether the President can fire the Fed Chair, other than “for cause.” We are not lawyers, but thoughtful people such as Peter Conti-Brown suggest that the answer is yes. Against this background, we view President Trump’s actions (and reported wishes) as the most serious threat to Fed independence since the Treasury-Fed accord of March 1951….

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Navigating in Cloudy Skies

Stargazers hate clouds. Even modest levels of humidity and wind make it hard to “see” the wonders of the night sky. Very few places on our planet have consistently clear, dark skies.

Central bankers face a similar, albeit earthly, challenge. Even the simplest economic models require estimation of unobservable factors; something that generates considerable uncertainty. As Vice Chairman Clarida recently explained, the Fed depends on new data not only to assess the current state of the U.S. economy, but also to pin down the factors that drive a wide range of models that guide policymakers’ decisions.

In this post, we highlight how the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC’s) views of two of those “starry” guides—the natural rates of interest (r*) and unemployment (u*)—have evolved in recent years. Like sailors under a cloudy sky, central bankers may need to shift course when the clouds part, revealing that they incorrectly estimated these economic stars. The uncertainty resulting from unavoidable imprecision not only affects policy setting, but also complicates policymakers’ communication, which is one of the keys to making policy effective….

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E Pluribus Unum: single vs. multiple point of entry resolution

Addressing the calamity posed by the failure of large, global financial intermediaries has been high on the post-crisis regulatory reform agenda. When Lehman Brothers―a $600 billion entity―failed, it took heroic efforts by the world’s central bankers to prevent a financial meltdown. The lesson is that a robust resolution regime is a critical element of a resilient financial system.

Experts have been hard at work implementing a new mechanism so that the largest banks can continue operation, or be wound down in an orderly fashion, without resorting to taxpayer solvency support and without putting other parts of the financial system in danger. To enhance market discipline, the shareholders that own an entity and the bondholders that lent to it must face the consequences of poor performance.

How can we ensure that healthy operating subsidiaries of G-SIBs continue to serve their customers even during resolution? Authorities have proposed a solution that takes two forms: “single point of entry (SPOE)” and “multiple point of entry (MPOE).” A key difference between these two resolution methods is that the former allows for cross-subsidiary sharing of loss-absorbing capital and cross-jurisdictional transfers during resolution, while the latter does not. The purpose of this post is to describe SPOE and MPOE. We highlight both the relative efficiency of SPOE and the requirements for its sustainability: namely, adequate shared resources, an appropriate legal framework and a credible commitment among national resolution authorities to cooperate….

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From Basel to the Volcker Rule: A FinReg Glossary

Over the past century, an alphabet soup of agencies and rules overseeing and guiding domestic and cross-border finance has emerged. The wave of regulation following the 2007-09 crisis added to the complexity of this framework. With that in mind, we have developed this glossary to help students and teachers navigate through the maze. In addition to brief descriptions of each regulatory body or notion, links to other resources provide additional background and insight. We expect to update the glossary occasionally, broadening its coverage and pruning obsolete entries.

Items shown in italics appear as stand-alone entries in the glossary….

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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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