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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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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An Open Letter to the Honorable Randal K. Quarles

Dear Mr. Quarles,

Congratulations on your nomination as the first Vice Chairman for Supervision on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. We are pleased that President Trump has chosen someone so qualified, and we are equally pleased that you are willing to serve.

Assuming everything goes according to plan, you will be assuming your position just as we mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the global financial crisis. As a direct consequence of numerous reforms, the U.S. financial system—both institutions and markets—is meaningfully stronger than it was in 2007. Among many other things, today banks finance a larger portion of their lending with equity, devote more of their portfolios to high-quality, liquid assets, and clear a large fraction of derivatives through central counterparties.

That said, in our view, the system is not yet strong enough. In your new role, it will be your job to continue to fortify the financial system to make it sufficiently resilient.

With that task in mind, we humbly propose some key agenda items for the first few years of your term in office. We divide our suggestions into five broad categories (admittedly with significant overlap): capital and communications, stress testing, too big to fail, resolution, and regulation by economic function....

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The Treasury's Missed Opportunity

Last week, the U.S. Treasury published the first of four reports designed to implement the seven core principles for regulating the U.S. financial system announced in President Trump’s Executive Order 13772 (February 3, 2017).

Seven years after the passage of Dodd-Frank, it’s entirely appropriate to take stock of the changes it wrought, whether they have been effective, and whether in certain cases they went too far or in others not far enough. President Trump’s stated principles provide an attractive basis for making the financial system both more cost-effective and safer. And much of the Treasury report focuses on welcome proposals to reduce the unwarranted compliance burden imposed by a range of regulations and supervisory actions on small and medium-sized depositories that—if adequately capitalized—pose no threat to the financial system. We hope these will be viewed universally as “motherhood and apple pie.”

Unfortunately, at least when considering the largest banks, our conclusion is that adopting the Treasury’s recommendations would sacrifice resilience to achieve cost reductions, yet with little prospect for boosting economic growth. Put simply, implementation of the Treasury plan would reduce regulation of the most systemic intermediaries, and in so doing, unacceptably reduce the resilience of the U.S. financial system....

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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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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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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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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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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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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 the Fed tightened

Back in August, we explained the mechanics of how the Fed can tighten policy in today’s world of abundant bank reserves. Now that the first policy tightening under the new framework is behind us, we can review how the Fed did it, if there were any surprises, and what trials still lie ahead.

So far, the new process has been extraordinarily smooth – a tribute to planning by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and to years of testing by the Market Desk of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY). But it’s still very early in the game, so uncertainties and challenges surely remain.

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Bank resilience: yet another missed opportunity

Along with enormous misery, the financial crisis brought an opportunity for long-needed reform. At the top of the list was the clear need for more bank capital. To ensure resilience of the financial system, and protect the public purse, banks’ owners had to have much more skin in the game. That is, potential losses to equity holders had to go way up.

Unfortunately, the 2010 Basel III agreement missed this rare opportunity to make the financial system safe. And now, with the publication of the standards for what has come to be known as total loss-absorbing capacity (TLAC), the disappointment continues to grow. To understand why, we need to step back and address the big question for bank capital: how much is enough...?

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Living Wills or Phoenix Plans: Making sure banks can rise from their ashes

Wills are for when you die. Living wills guide your affairs when you lose the capacity to act. We’re all mortal and fragile – not just people, but firms and banks, too. The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 requires systemic intermediaries (and many others) to create “living wills” to guide their orderly resolution in bad times.

In August, these Dodd-Frank living wills made front-page business news when the FDIC and the Fed rejected those submitted by the biggest banks as inadequate. That should come as no surprise. In their current form, we doubt that living wills would do much to secure financial stability...

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