Time consistency

Bad Precedent

Recent reports that President Trump wanted to fire Board Chairman Powell in response to Federal Reserve interest rate hikes are unprecedented. Denials from senior officials―Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Hassett―have even less credibility than would a statement (or tweet) from the President himself. We find this entire discussion extremely disheartening and surely damaging to economic policy and the credibility of the Federal Reserve. As former Chair Yellen has stated, the risk is that people lose “confidence in the Fed, in the basis for its actions and its responsiveness to its mandate” (see here, time mark: 18:51).

To be sure, there is some debate over whether the President can fire the Fed Chair, other than “for cause.” We are not lawyers, but thoughtful people such as Peter Conti-Brown suggest that the answer is yes. Against this background, we view President Trump’s actions (and reported wishes) as the most serious threat to Fed independence since the Treasury-Fed accord of March 1951….

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Trump v. Fed

Last month, interrupting decades of presidential self-restraint, President Trump openly criticized the Federal Reserve. Given the President’s penchant for dismissing valuable institutions, it is hard to be surprised. Perhaps more surprising is the high quality of his appointments to the Board of Governors. Against that background, the limited financial market reaction to the President’s comments suggests that investors are reasonably focused on the selection of qualified academics and individuals with valuable policy and business experience, rather than a few early-morning words of reproof.

Nevertheless, the President’s comments are seriously disturbing and—were they to become routine—risk undermining the significant benefits that Federal Reserve independence brings. Importantly, the criticism occurred despite sustained strength in the economy and financial markets, and despite the stimulative monetary and fiscal policies in place….

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Making Unelected Power Legitimate

Through what administrative means should a democratic society in an advanced economy implement regulation? In practice, democratic governments opt for a variety of solutions to this challenge. Historically, these approaches earned their legitimacy by allocating power to elected officials who make the laws or directly oversee their agents.

Increasingly, however, governments have chosen to implement policy through agencies with varying degrees of independence from both the legislature and the executive. Under what circumstances does it make sense in a democracy to delegate powers to the unelected officials of independent agencies (IA) who are shielded from political influence? How should those powers be allocated to ensure both legitimacy and sustainability?

These are the critical issues that Paul Tucker addresses in his ambitious and broad-ranging book, Unelected Power. In addition to suggesting areas where delegation has gone too far, Tucker highlights others—such as the maintenance of financial resilience (FR)—where agencies may be insufficiently shielded from political influence to ensure effective governance. His analysis raises important questions about the regulatory framework in the United States.

In this post, we discuss Tucker’s principles for delegating authority to an IA. A key premise—that we share with Tucker—is that better governance can help substitute where simple policy rules are insufficient for optimal decisions….

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Understanding Bank Capital: A Primer

Over the past 40 years, U.S. capital markets have grown much faster than banks, so that banks’ share of credit to the private nonfinancial sector has dropped from 55% to 34% (see BIS statistics here).  Nevertheless, banks remain a critical part of the financial system. They operate the payments system, supply credit, and serve as agents and catalysts for a wide range of other financial transactions. As a result, their well-being remains a key concern. A resilient banking system is, above all, one that has sufficient capital to weather the loan defaults and declines in asset values that will inevitably come.

In this primer, we explain the nature of bank capital, highlighting its role as a form of self-insurance providing both a buffer against unforeseen losses and an incentive to manage risk-taking. We describe some of the challenges in measuring capital and briefly discuss a range of approaches for setting capital requirements. While we do not know the optimal level of capital that banks (or other intermediaries) should be required to hold, we suggest a practical approach for setting requirements that would promote the safety of the financial system without diminishing its efficiency....

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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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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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China's Awkward Exchange Rate Regime: an Update

As 2016 draws to a close, it’s natural to look back over the year’s posts. With all the swirling concerns about China-U.S. relations—including the selection of the protectionist co-author of Death by China to head a new White House National Trade Council—we wondered whether our February doubts about China’s exchange rate regime remain intact.

The answer is yes, but for reasons radically inconsistent with President-elect Trump’s promise to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Like any country with a fixed exchange rate, China’s central bank intervenes actively to maintain its (evolving) currency target. But, for the past two years, the People’s Bank has been intervening to prevent (or at least to slow), rather than promote, the depreciation of its currency versus the dollar. That is, the RMB remains overvalued compared to what it would be in the absence of official intervention.

And, despite secretive instincts of China's authorities, the evidence is there for all to see....

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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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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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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 Map is the Message: Regional Feds versus Euro-area NCBs

Some time ago, we wrote about how the Fed and the ECB’s governance and communication were converging. Our focus was on the policy, governance and communications framework, including the 2% inflation objective, the voting rotation, post-meeting press conference, prompt publication of meeting minutes, and the like.

But important differences are built into the legal design of these two systems. Perhaps the most important one is the contrasting roles of the regional Federal Reserve Banks and that of the National Central Banks (NCBs)...

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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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China's Awkward Exchange Rate Regime

A recent op-ed in a major Chinese English-language newspaper, The People’s Daily, asserts that George Soros “has declared ‘war’ on China, claiming he had sold short Asian currencies.” For those who observed firms like those of Mr. Soros profiting from the collapse of the British pound in 1992, a speculative attack on China’s currency, the RMB, merits close attention.

There are surely parallels to that earlier episode where Soros' firm is reputed to have made $1 billion in a couple of days. Yet, it would be difficult to overlook the enormous differences. Perhaps most important, the United Kingdom was committed to maintaining the free flow of capital across its borders. This is in stark contrast to China, where policymakers have been tightening capital controls in recent months....

 

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A Primer on Central Bank Independence

Central bank independence is controversial. It requires the delegation of powerful authority to a group of unelected officials. In a democracy, this anomaly naturally raises questions of legitimacy. It also raises fears of the concentration of power in the hands of a select few.

An independent central bank is a device to overcome the problem of time consistency: the concern that policymakers will renege in the future on a policy promise made today ....

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A Swiss Lesson in Time (Consistency)

You can set your watch by the Swiss trains. They are the envy of the world in many ways. Everyone believes that the trains will run on time because they do.

Credibility is at the core of central banking as well. When a credible central banker speaks, households, businesses, and governments listen. And, because they expect the banker to do what she says, their response – measured in terms of how much they work, save, and invest – will reinforce the outcome policymakers seek.

But credibility is tough to earn and – as the Swiss National Bank (SNB) recently learned when it ended a three-year commitment to prevent a rise in the franc versus the euro – easy to lose....

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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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Time-varying Capital Requirements: Rules vs. Discretion (again)

Among its numerous, innovations Basel III proposes that national authorities use countercyclical capital buffers to temper booms in credit growth and asset prices. [...]

Will it work? Is such a system either practical or desirable? Our view is that regardless of how theoretically attractive, making such time-varying capital regulation discretionary is unlikely to work in practice. Rules would serve us all much better.
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Narrow Banks Won't Stop Bank Runs

Every financial crisis leads to a new call to restrict the activities of banks. One frequent response is to call for “narrow banks.” That is, change the legal and regulatory framework in a way that severely limits the assets that traditional deposit-taking banks can hold. One approach would require that all liabilities that are demandable at par be held in the form of deposits at the central bank. That is, accounts that can be withdrawn without notice and have fixed net asset value would face a 100% reserve requirement. The Depression-era “Chicago Plan” had this approach in mind.
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