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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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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Resolution Regimes for Central Clearing Parties

Clean water and electric power are essential for modern life. In the same way, the financial infrastructure is the foundation for our economic system. Most of us take all three of these, water, electricity and finance, for granted, assuming they will operate through thick and thin.

As engineers know well, a system’s resilience depends critically on the design of its infrastructure. Recently, we discussed the chaos created by the October 1987 stock market crash, noting the problems associated with the mechanisms for trading and clearing of derivatives. Here, we take off where that discussion left off and elaborate on the challenge of designing a safe derivatives trading system―safe, that is, in the sense that it does not contribute to systemic risk.

Today’s infrastructure is significantly different from that of 1987. In the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis, authorities in the advanced economies committed to overhaul over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives markets. The goal is to replace bilateral OTC trading with a central clearing party (CCP) that is the buyer to every seller and the seller to every buyer....

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Black Monday: 30 Years After

On Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 22.6 percent, nearly twice the next largest drop—the 12.8 percent Great Crash on October 28, 1929, that heralded the Great Depression.

What stands out is not the scale of the decline—it is far smaller than the 90 percent peak-to-trough drop of the early 1930s—but its extraordinary speed. A range of financial market and institutional dislocations accompanied this rapid plunge, threatening not just stocks and related instruments (domestically and globally), but also the U.S. supply of credit and the payments system. As a result, Black Monday has been labeled “the first contemporary global financial crisis.” And, a new book—A First-Class Catastrophe—narrates the tense human drama that it created for market and government officials. A movie seems sure to follow.

Our reading of history suggests that it was only with a great dose of serendipity that we escaped catastrophe in 1987. Knowing that fortune usually favors the well prepared, the near-collapse on Black Monday prompted market participants, regulators, the lender of last resort, and legislators to fortify the financial system.

In this post, we review key aspects of the 1987 crash and discuss subsequent steps taken to improve the resilience of the financial system. We also highlight a key lingering vulnerability: we still have no mechanism for managing the insolvency of critical payment, clearing and settlement (PCS) institutions....

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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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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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China's stock market boom and bust

Ask a well-educated person which country boasts the largest equity market and you’ll usually get the right answer: the United States. Ask which country has the second largest market and you’re likely to get a range of answers: Japan? Britain? Germany?

The answer is China. In terms of annual trading volume, China's equity market has been #2 since 2009. Measured by total market capitalization, it has been #2 for seven of the past nine years....

Why should this matter now? First, because it highlights the extraordinary spread of market-based finance in a country led for more than 65 years by its communist party.... Second, because the growth in Chinese equity markets comes with sizable risks. Recent experience drives home this point....

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