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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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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Ensuring Stress Tests Remain Effective

Last month, the Federal Reserve Board published proposed refinements to its annual Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR) exercise—the supervisory stress test that evaluates the capital adequacy of the largest U.S. banks (34 in the 2017 test). In our view, the Federal Reserve has an effective framework for carrying out these all-important stress tests. Having started in 2011, the Fed is now embarking on only the seventh CCAR exercise. That means that everyone is still learning how to best structure and execute the tests. The December proposals are clearly in this spirit.

With this same goal in mind, we make the following proposals for enhancing the stress tests and preserving their effectiveness:

---  Change the scenarios more aggressively and unexpectedly, continuing to disclose them only after banks’ exposures are fixed.
---  Introduce an experimental scenario (that will not be used in “grading” the bank’s relative performance or capital plans) to assess the implications of events outside of historical experience and to probe for weaknesses in the system.
---  As a way to evaluate banks’ internal models, require publication of loss rates or risk-weighted assets for the same hypothetical portfolios for which the Fed is disclosing its estimates.
---  Stick with the annual CCAR cycle....

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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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The Fed's successful tightening

No one should be surprised that the Fed is tightening monetary policy and expects to tighten significantly further over coming years. Unemployment is less than 5 percent, consistent with normal use of resources. Inflation is approaching the FOMC’s 2 percent objective. And policy rates remain below what simple guides would suggest as normal.

A key issue facing policymakers today is whether the Fed’s new operational framework is working effectively to tighten financial conditions without creating unnecessary volatility. While the FOMC’s actions are occurring in a familiar macroeconomic environment, the legacy of the crisis makes raising rates anything but routine. The key difference is the size of the Fed’s balance sheet. Unlike past episodes, when commercial bank reserves were relatively scarce, today they are abundant.

This difference—reflecting a balance sheet that is over four times its pre-crisis level—creates technical challenges for the Fed. The traditional approach of using modest open-market operations (through repurchase agreements of a few billion dollars) to control the federal funds rate—became ineffective as reserves grew abundant. This meant developing an entirely new operational framework. The good news is that—up to now—the challenges of policy setting with abundant reserves have been very clearly met. While this may seem mundane, it is no small achievement. Much like plumbing, had the Fed’s new system failed, everyone would have noticed. At the same time, there are still challenges to face, so we’re not completely out of the woods....

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GSEs: Reforms at the Margin

To borrow a phrase, a crisis as deep as the 2007-2008 collapse of U.S. housing finance is a terrible thing to waste. Yet, nearly eight years after investors shunned their debt, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac remain in federal conservatorship. And there is no end in sight to the government’s dominant role in housing finance: securitizations by the GSEs and federal agencies still accounted for nearly 70% of originations in 2015 (with qualifying loan-to-value ratios as high as 97%).  Despite this extensive government intervention in mortgage finance, the U.S. home ownership rate fell to 63.6% last year, its lowest level since 1966.

To say that U.S. housing finance is both inefficient and risky seems a dramatic understatement... 

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The Scandal is What's Legal

If you haven’t seen The Big Short, you should. The acting is superb and the story enlightening: a few brilliant outcasts each discover just how big the holes are that eventually bury the U.S. financial system in the crisis of 2007-2009. If you’re like most people we know, you’ll walk away delighted by the movie and disturbed by the reality it captures. [Full disclosure: one of us joined a panel organized by the film’s economic consultant to view and discuss it with the director.]

But we're not film critics, The moviealong with some misleading criticismprompts us to clarify what we view as the prime causes of the financial crisis. The financial corruption depicted in the movie is deeply troubling (we've written about fraud and conflicts of interest in finance here and here). But what made the U.S. financial system so fragile a decade ago, and what made the crisis so deep, were practices that were completely legal. The scandal is that we still haven't addressed these properly....


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How the Fed will tighten

Before the financial crisis, tightening monetary policy was straightforward. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) would announce a rise in the target for the federal funds rate in the overnight interbank lending market, and the open market desk would implement it with a small reduction in the quantity of reserves in the banking system.

Matters are no longer so simple. The unconventional policies designed first to avert a financial and economic collapse, and then to spur growth and employment, have left the banking system with reserves that are so abundant that it would be impossible to tighten policy in the conventional manner.

So, as the FOMC moves to "normalize" monetary policy after years of extraordinary accommodation, how, precisely, will the Fed tighten monetary policy? ...

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Rolling the dice, again

The headline on Reuters at Mon Oct 20, 2014 6:05pm EDT read “U.S. regulator targeting lower down payments on mortgages.” At first, we thought perhaps the headline was from 2004, not 2014. After the financial crisis of 2007-2009, it seemed inconceivable that U.S. authorities would again put some of the largest U.S. intermediaries – or the taxpayers who provide for them – at risk of failure. Sadly, we were wrong...

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How securitization really works

In the winter of 1997, musician David Bowie issued $55 million worth of bonds backed by royalty revenue from 287 songs he had written and recorded before 1990. The bonds had a 10-year maturity, a Moody’s A3 rating, and a 7.9% interest rate (at the time, the 10-year Treasury yield was around 6.5%, so the spread was relatively modest). “Bowie bonds” were no accident: by the late 1990s, the U.S. financial system had evolved to the point where virtually any payment stream could be securitized.

The success of U.S. securitization – as an alternative to bank finance – is a key factor behind the current push of euro-area authorities to increase securitization...
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