Moral hazard

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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Sources of Finance: Internal versus External

It ought not be surprising that borrowing can be difficult. In good times, households usually can obtain financing to purchase a house or car. But these loans are secured with collateral that is easy to resell. Even so, some measures suggest that it is currently more difficult than under “normal” conditions to obtain mortgage finance (see the Urban Institute’s Housing Credit Availability Index on page 16).

With firms, credit has been rising significantly in recent years—across advanced and emerging economies alike (see the BIS measures through 2017 here). Yet, commercial borrowers, especially small and medium sized enterprises, complain loudly when they feel that their ability to succeed is being hampered by overly cautious lenders. And, since lenders often find it difficult to both assess a business’s prospects and to monitor effort once a loan is made, aside from periods of euphoria borrowing can be quite difficult.

As we discuss in our primers on adverse selection and moral hazard, information asymmetries make external funding—either through equity or debt—expensive. And, while the entire financial system is designed to reduce these costs, they are still quite high….

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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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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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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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Moral Hazard: A Primer

The term moral hazard originated in the insurance business. It was a reference to the need for insurers to assess the integrity of their customers. When modern economists got ahold of the term, the meaning changed. Instead of making judgments about a person’s character, the focus shifted to incentives. For example, a fire insurance policy might limit the motivation to install sprinklers while a generous automobile insurance policy might encourage reckless driving. Then there is Kenneth Arrow’s original example of moral hazard: health insurance fosters overtreatment by doctors. Employment arrangements suffer from moral hazard, too: will you shirk unpleasant tasks at work if you’re sure to receive your paycheck anyway?

Moral hazard arises when we cannot costlessly observe people’s actions and so cannot judge (without costly monitoring) whether a poor outcome reflects poor fortune or poor effort. Like its close relative, adverse selection, moral hazard arises because two parties to a transaction have different information. This information asymmetry manifests itself in two ways. Where adverse selection is about hidden attributes, affecting a transaction before it occurs, moral hazard is about hidden actions that have an impact after making an arrangement.

In this post, we provide a brief introduction to the concept of moral hazard, focusing on how various aspects of the financial system are designed to mitigate the challenges it causes....

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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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Improving U.S. Healthcare and Coverage

We see health as a basic human right. Every society should provide medical care for its citizens at the level it can afford. And, while the United States has made some progress in improving access to care, the results do not justify the costs. So, while we agree with President Trump’s statement that the U.S. health care system should be cheaper, better and universal, the question is how to get there.

In this post, we start by setting the stage: where matters stand today and why they are unacceptable. This leads us to the real question: where can and should we go? As economists, we are genuinely partial to market-based solutions that allow individuals to make tradeoffs between quality and price, while competition pushes suppliers to contain costs. But, in the case of health care, we are skeptical that such a solution can be made workable. This leads us to propose a gradual lowering of the age at which people become eligible for Medicare, while promoting supplier competition....

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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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Too Big to Fail: MetLife v. FSOC

Last week, a Federal District Court overturned the Financial Stability Oversight Council’s (FSOC) designation of MetLife—the nation’s largest insurer by assets—as a systemically important financial intermediary (SIFI). Until the Court unseals this decision, we won’t know why. If the ruling is based on narrow grounds that the FSOC can readily address, it will have little impact on long-run prospects for U.S. financial stability.

However, if the Court has materially raised the hurdle to SIFI designation—and if its ruling holds up on appeal—“too big to fail” nonbanks could again loom large in future financial crises, making them both more likely and more damaging...

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