Financial stability

Qualifying for the Fed

Monetary economists of nearly all persuasions are overwhelming in their condemnation of President Trump’s desire to appoint Stephen Moore and Herman Cain to vacant seats on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. The full-throated case for a high-quality Board offered by Greg Mankiw—former Chief of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush—is just one compelling example.

Rather than review President Trump’s picks, in this post we enumerate the key qualities that we believe make a person well suited to serve on the Board. Before getting to any details, we should emphasize our strongly held view that there is no simple prescription—in law or practice―for what makes a successful Federal Reserve Governor. Furthermore, no single person combines all the characteristics needed to make for a successful Board. For that, diversity in thought, preferences, frameworks, decision-making, and experience is essential.

With the benefits of diversity in mind, we highlight three common characteristics that we consider vital for anyone to be an effective Governor (or Reserve Bank President). These are: a deep respect for the Fed’s legal mandate; a clear understanding of an analytic framework that makes policy choices reasonably predictable and effective; and an open-mindedness combined with humility that tempers the application of that framework….

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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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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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Banks and Money, Or Watch out What You Wish For

On 10 June 2008, a large majority of voters in Switzerland rejected a proposal that all commercial bank demand deposits be held at the central bank. This Vollgeld referendum was another incarnation of the justifiable public revulsion to financial crises and the bailouts that inevitably accompany them. Vollgeld proponents claimed that a system in which the central bank is the sole issuer of “money” will be more stable.

Serious people debated the wisdom of this proposal. One of Switzerland’s premier monetary economists, Philippe Bacchetta, wrote passionately in opposition. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, argued in favor. And Swiss National Bank Chairman Thomas Jordan discussed the many dangers in detail.

It should come as no surprise that, had we had been among the Swiss voters, we would have voted “no.” In our view, the Vollgeld (sovereign money) initiative combined aspects of narrow banking with those of retail central bank digital currency. We see these as misguided, distorting the credit allocation mechanism and more likely to reduce than improve financial stability (see here and here). In the remainder of this post, we explain why….

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Basel's Refined Capital Requirements

After nearly a decade of negotiations, last month, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision completed the Basel III post-crisis reforms to capital regulation. The final standards include refinements to: credit risk measurement and the computation of risk-weighted assets; the calculation of off-balance-sheet exposures and of the requirements to address operational risk; and the leverage ratio requirement for global systemically important banks (G-SIBs).

In this post, we focus on revisions to the way in which banks compute risk-weighted assets. To foreshadow our conclusion: the new approach adds unnecessarily to regulatory complexity. If the concern is that current risk-based requirements result in insufficient capital, it would be better simply to raise the requirements.

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Free Riding in Finance: A Primer

Many features of our financial system—institutions like banks and insurance companies, as well as the configuration of securities markets—are a consequence of legal conventions (the rules about property rights and taxes) and the costs associated with obtaining and verifying information. When we teach money and banking, three concepts are key to understanding the structure of finance: adverse selection, moral hazard, and free riding. The first two arise from asymmetric information, either before (adverse selection) or after (moral hazard) making a financial arrangement (see our earlier primers here and here).

This primer is about the third concept: free riding. Free riding is tied to the concept of a public good, so we start there. Then, we offer three examples where free riding plays a key role in the organization of finance: credit ratings; schemes like the Madoff scandal; and efforts to secure financial stability more broadly....

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Why the central bank should be a leading supervisor

Should central banks be a leading supervisor, including supervising systemically important institutions? This is a question that members of the U.S. Congress periodically raise.  Our answer is unequivocally yes. As the lender of last resort, as the monetary policy authority, and as the organization responsible for overseeing the health and stability of the overall financial system—what we could call a systemic regulator—the central bank needs to be a leading supervisor....

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The Other Trilemma: Governing Global Finance

Courses in international economics usually introduce students to the impossible trinity, also known as the trilemma of open-economy macroeconomics: namely, that a fixed exchange rate, free cross-border capital flows, and discretionary monetary policy are incompatible. Why? Because, in the presence of free capital flows under a fixed exchange rate, private currency preferences (rather than policymakers) determine the size of the central bank balance sheet and hence the domestic interest rate. We’ve highlighted this problem several times in analyzing China’s evolving exchange rate regime (see here and here).

While many students learn that a country can only have two of the three elements of the open-economy trilemma, few learn that there also exists a financial trilemma. That is, financial stability, cross-border financial integration, and national financial policies are incompatible as well. The logic behind this second trilemma is that increases in financial integration reduce the incentives for national policymakers to act in ways that preserve financial stability globally. Put differently, as the benefits from financial stability policies spread beyond borders, the willingness to bear the costs of stabilizing the system at the national level decline. This has the important implication that, if we are to sustain increasing financial integration, then we will need greater international coordination among national financial regulators (see here, or for a much broader case for international economic governance, see Rodrik)....

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China: Deleveraging is Hard to Do

For the first time in nearly three decades, Moody’s recently downgraded the long-term sovereign debt of China, lowering its rating from Aa3 to A1. As is frequently true in such cases, the adjustment was overdue. Since China’s massive fiscal stimulus in 2008, the government has experienced a surge in contingent liabilities, as its (implicit and explicit) guarantees fueled an extraordinary credit boom that continues today.

While the need to foster financial discipline is obvious, the process will be precarious. Ning Zhu, the author of China’s Guaranteed Bubble, has compared the scaling back of state guarantees to defusing a bomb. China’s guarantees have distorted incentives and risk taking for so many years that stepping back and allowing market forces to operate will inevitably impose large, unanticipated losses on many people and businesses. Financial history is replete with failed policy efforts to address credit-fueled asset price booms, such as the current one in China’s real estate. There is no safe mechanism for economy-wide deleveraging.

China’s policymakers are clearly aware of the dangers they face and are making serious efforts to address them. This year, authorities have initiated a new crackdown aimed at reducing the systemic risks that have been stoked by the credit boom. This post focuses on that policy effort, including the background causes and what will be needed (aside from good fortune) to make it work....

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How to Ensure the Crisis Provision of Safe Assets

Changes in financial regulation are having a profound impact on the demand for safe assets—assets with a fixed nominal value that may be converted at all times without loss into the means of payment. Not only is demand for safe assets on the rise, but the ability of the private sector to produce them is being constrained by new rules that limit the extent and nature of things like securitizations.

So far, the fallout from increased demand and constrained supply looks reasonably benign. But for several years now, broad financial conditions have been very calm, with measures of financial volatility and stress at or near long-term lows. What will happen when the financial system comes under stress again? What if there is a drop in risk tolerance (or a surge in risk awareness) and a flight to safety that causes a jump in the demand for safe assets or a plunge in the supply? Or, as in 2008, what will happen if both materialize at the same time? We need to be ready.

As we will explain in more detail, central banks in advanced economies can satisfy the heightened need for safe assets under stress (as well as the precautionary demand in normal times) by offering commercial banks committed lines of credit for a fee against collateral, as the central banks in Australia and South Africa currently do. In our view, this mechanism for ensuring sufficient supply of safe assets in a crisis has important advantages compared to one in which the central bank operates perpetually—in good times and bad—with a very large balance sheet.

To see how this would work, we start with an explanation of post-crisis liquidity regulation....

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Liquidity Transformation and Open-end Funds

In the aftermath of Britain’s July 2016 vote to exit the European Union, six U.K. open-end property funds with nearly £15 billion in assets suspended redemptions. These funds had routinely engaged in an extreme version of liquidity transformation: offering investors the ability to convert their shares into cash daily on demand, while holding highly illiquid commercial properties. Fortunately, the overall sector was small, and its post-referendum disruption neither spilled over broadly to funds holding other assets, nor prompted a wave of fire sales that might have undermined the balance sheets of leveraged intermediaries. Nevertheless, the episode was of sufficient concern that the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is now reviewing its “regulatory approach to open-ended funds that invest in illiquid assets” (see here).

The FCA is not alone in its concerns. Other regulators have been looking closely at risks associated with the liquidity transformation performed by open-end funds. And, interest in the official sector has been accompanied by a wave of academic research on liquidity management in open-end funds that generally buttresses the regulators’ concerns. In this piece, we briefly highlight the work of the regulators, summarize the research, and finally reprise our proposal to convert open-end funds into exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

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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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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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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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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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The World of ETFs

The first U.S. exchange-traded fund (ETF)—the SPY based on the S&P500—began trading in 1993. Since then, the number of such funds has grown dramatically, so that by mid-2016 there were more than 1,600 ETFs on U.S. exchanges valued at roughly $2.2 trillion. This means that ETFs are now roughly one-sixth the size of open-end mutual funds. And, with this ETF growth has come a broadening in their scope and character. Today, there are ETFs that include less liquid assets such as corporate bonds and emerging market equities, and there are funds that provide inverse or leveraged exposure to the underlying assets.

Given these trends, it is no surprise that ETFs have attracted regulators’ attention (see, for example, here and here). Should they be concerned? Is this a consumer protection issue? Do ETFs contribute to systemic risk? Or, is their design stabilizing? Might financial stability even be served by the conversion of all open-end mutual funds into ETFs? ...

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Spillovers, spillbacks and policy coordination

Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan’s recent plea for increased coordination is merely the latest protest by emerging-market economy (EME) policymakers about the spillovers from advanced-economy (AE) monetary policy. Such complaints have been common since AE central banks first implemented unconventional policies in 2008. The most famous was Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega’s September 2010 remark that “We’re in the midst of an international currency war.

The targets of these comments—policymakers in Europe, Japan and the United States—responded that the world would be better off if their economies grew. A deeper recession in the advanced world was surely in no one’s interest. Extraordinary monetary policy easing was therefore justified by both domestic and global concerns. U.S. and European policymakers further defended their actions by saying that their mandate was to promote price stability and sustainable growth domestically, which required taking account of the external impact of their policies only insofar as they then fed back onto their own economies. That is, while spillovers per se were not their responsibility, spillbacks were.

Debates over the potential benefits from international policy coordination have a long history...

 

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