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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Time Consistency: A Primer

The problem of time consistency is one of the most profound in social science. With applications in areas ranging from economic policy to counterterrorism, it arises whenever the effectiveness of a policy today depends on the credibility of the commitment to implement that policy in the future.

For simplicity, we will define a time consistent policy as one where a future policymaker lacks the opportunity or the incentive to renege. Conversely, a policy lacks time consistency when a future policymaker has both the means and the motivation to break the commitment.

In this post, we describe the conceptual origins of time consistency. To emphasize its broad importance, we provide three economic examples—in monetary policy, prudential regulation, and tax policy—where the impact of the idea is especially notable....

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Money Funds -- The Empire Strikes Back?

Shortly after Lehman failed in 2008, investors began to flee from money market mutual funds (MMMFs). To halt the run, the U.S. Treasury guaranteed all $3.8 trillion in outstanding MMMF liabilities. That rescue created enduring moral hazard: the expectation that a future crisis will lead to another bailout.

Aside from their legal form as mutual funds, MMMFs functioned much like banks engaged in the transformation of liquidity, credit and (to some extent) maturity. Similar to banks that redeem deposits at face value, they promised investors a fixed share value of $1 (a “buck”) on demand. Unlike depositories, however, MMMFs had no capital, no deposit insurance, and—at least officially—no access to the lender of last resort. So, when the Reserve Primary Fund “broke the buck” (by failing to redeem at the $1 par value) in September 2008, MMMF investors panicked.

Somewhat surprisingly, it took until 2014 for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to resolve political conflicts and introduce significant rule changes for MMMFs (see our earlier posts here and here). The SEC now requires that institutional prime MMMFs—which (like Reserve Primary) frequently invest in short-term corporate liabilities—operate like other mutual funds with a floating net asset value (NAV). The same rule applies to institutional municipal MMMFs. Retail MMMFs, as well as those investing in federal government (and agency) securities, are exempt.

In light of a recent legislative proposal to water it down, in this post we review the impact of the SEC’s 2014 reform. To highlight our conclusions: (1) it did not go far enough to reduce run risk; (2) aside from temporary dislocations, it has not raised nonfinancial sector funding costs by more than would be accounted for by reducing the implicit taxpayer guarantee for MMMFs; and (3) reversing the floating-NAV requirement would weaken the safety of the U.S. financial system....

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Resolution Regimes for Central Clearing Parties

Clean water and electric power are essential for modern life. In the same way, the financial infrastructure is the foundation for our economic system. Most of us take all three of these, water, electricity and finance, for granted, assuming they will operate through thick and thin.

As engineers know well, a system’s resilience depends critically on the design of its infrastructure. Recently, we discussed the chaos created by the October 1987 stock market crash, noting the problems associated with the mechanisms for trading and clearing of derivatives. Here, we take off where that discussion left off and elaborate on the challenge of designing a safe derivatives trading system―safe, that is, in the sense that it does not contribute to systemic risk.

Today’s infrastructure is significantly different from that of 1987. In the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis, authorities in the advanced economies committed to overhaul over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives markets. The goal is to replace bilateral OTC trading with a central clearing party (CCP) that is the buyer to every seller and the seller to every buyer....

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The China Debate

China’s rapid credit expansion is worrying. Will Chinese policymakers be able to contain the growth of credit without undermining economic growth and without triggering a banking or currency crisis? Aside from the consequences of Brexit, this is probably the most important issue facing global policymakers and investors today.

As it turns out, there are powerful arguments on both sides. The positives—high national savings and returns to investment, combined with the government’s broad tools for intervention—must be measured against a set of negatives—growing loan losses, the spread of shadow banking, large capital outflows, falling investment returns, and declining confidence in the government’s financial policy management. Against this complex background, it is no wonder that concerns and uncertainty are both high. What one can say confidently remains conditional:  things are very likely to end badly if the credit buildup continues amid slowing economic growth...

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