Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The credit raters lose their oligopoly

One Cheer for Barney Frank. WSJ Editorial
The credit raters lose their oligopoly.
WSJ, Dec 23, 2009

The House-passed rewrite of financial regulation is a disappointment for investors and taxpayers. But one portion of the bill represents significant reform—and a vast improvement from an early draft we described in October.

Congressmen Barney Frank and Paul Kanjorski (D., Pa.) have produced legislation that would likely end the credit-ratings racket enjoyed by Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch. During the housing bubble, these government-anointed judges of credit risk slapped their triple-A ratings on billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities. The consequences for investors were catastrophic.

The Frank-Kanjorski provision that recently passed the House not only eliminates all laws that require the use of these "Nationally Recognized Statistical Ratings Organizations." The bill also instructs all the major financial regulators to remove such requirements from their rules. This is a subtle but enormously important change from the October draft, because most of the federal edicts that guaranteed profits for S&P and the gang were contained in agency rules, not laws.

The House-passed bill also repeals an exemption that credit-raters have enjoyed from the Securities and Exchange Commission's Regulation Fair Disclosure. No longer will they have access to corporate information that is denied to average investors.

Also removed from the bill was a bizarre "joint liability" scheme in which all the credit raters would be responsible for each other's work, so that a bad report by Fitch could be grounds for a lawsuit against Moody's. Unable to restrain themselves entirely from bestowing gifts upon trial lawyers, House Democrats have instead increased liability for the raters on their own work.

The Senate should avoid such public display of affection toward the plaintiffs bar but embrace the House language that strikes at the heart of the ratings cartel. Obliterating investor requirements to use credit-ratings agencies would amount to major reform all by itself. Perhaps the House and Senate should simply agree on that, pass a bill now, and then start over with a new mission for regulatory reform: break up the too big to fail racket.

Jackson Toby's "The Lowering of Higher Education in America"

On Campus, Unprepared. By BEN WILDAVSKY
Colleges are filled with unserious students learning too little. What should be done?
WSJ, Dec 23, 2009

When President Barack Obama announced earlier this year that the U.S. should aim to have the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, he was staking out an ambitious but hardly a maverick goal. It is widely recognized, by Republicans and Democrats alike, that the gap between the earnings of high-school graduates and college graduates has become a chasm in recent decades. More college graduates would mean more prosperity for individuals—and for the nation, too. Bowing to this logic, governments around the world—from China and India to the Middle East—are trying to boost college attendance for their knowledge-hungry populations.

As Mr. Obama's goal suggests, there is plenty of room for improvement in the U.S. While nearly seven in 10 high-school graduates go on directly to two- or four-year colleges (up from 49% in 1972), many students are poorly prepared for college and end up taking remedial courses. And huge numbers fail to graduate. Reformers believe, not without reason, that such problems can be solved in part by improved high-school preparation and better college instruction. But is it possible that aiming to increase the number of American college graduates is actually a fool's errand?

A few skeptics think so. Most prominent among them is Charles Murray, who in "Real Education" (2008) argued that most young people are just not smart enough to go to college and should be encouraged to take other paths instead, especially vocational training. Now comes Jackson Toby with "The Lowering of Higher Education in America," a provocative variation on Mr. Murray's theme.

Mr. Toby draws on social-science data as well as personal experience—he taught sociology at Rutgers University for 50 years before retiring a few years ago—to decry the intellectual conditions that prevail on the American campus. Sidestepping the matter of students' innate abilities, he blames low academic standards mostly on the easy availability of financial aid to undergraduates who are unqualified for college-level coursework.

Early on, Mr. Toby concedes that education has become the country's "main economic escalator." But he is alarmed at how few students are prepared to meet even the minimal demands of a real college education. He faults lax college-admission standards that give high schools little incentive to push their students harder. Too many undergrads can't write with minimal competence or understand basic cultural references. Students often take silly, politicized courses. And they feel entitled to inflated grades: Mr. Toby reports that one of his students spewed obscenities at him for ending the young man's straight-A record.

Perhaps this kind of experience accounts for Mr. Toby's seeming bitterness toward unserious students, whom he calls "unprepared, half-asleep catatonics who drift in late and leave early." Most undergrads, Mr. Toby suggests, enjoy a steady diet of extracurricular hedonism while skating through their coursework (though it's unclear how this claim jibes with his complaints about low graduation rates).

Worst of all, he says, students have been misled about the value of their degrees. Yes, a bachelor of arts degree commands a wage premium, but less because of a graduate's acquired knowledge than because of the signal that his degree sends to employers about the abilities that got him into college and about a variety of soft skills, such as reliability and problem-solving capacity. Graduates in undemanding majors—in the humanities, for example, or most of the social sciences—are unlikely to earn what their more studious counterparts in, say, engineering can. They are thus disproportionately likely to be saddled with debt and prone to default, Mr. Toby argues. He claims that this pattern amounts to the kind of unsound lending that led to our recent credit crisis—one that he darkly suggests may soon be repeated in higher education. He believes that today's "promiscuous" system of college grants and loans—which, at the federal level, is based largely on financial need—ought to be retooled to focus on academic merit.

But his platform is less radical than his book's subtitle promises ("Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance"). He acknowledges that quite a few states already have merit-based aid. And in a concession to political reality he would continue the federal Pell Grant program, which focuses on need alone. Mr. Toby's main proposal, then, is to require good grades and test scores from those seeking federal student loans. This requirement, he believes, would improve incentives for academic performance and mitigate the inevitable trade-off between widening access to college and maintaining educational standards.

Strangely, Mr. Toby does not address the biggest objection to merit aid, which is that it usually subsidizes middle- and upper-income students who would go to college anyway. By contrast, need-based aid often provides make-or-break help to low-income applicants: Without grants and student loans, they would probably not go to college at all.

Mr. Toby sees reduced college opportunities as the price of keeping under-prepared students off campus. But that is one trade-off we should not make, especially when a college degree carries so much value in the marketplace. Our vast and varied college system, to its credit, enrolls all sorts of students. Mr. Toby delineates the system's manifold shortcomings, which badly need to be remedied. And to be sure, academic merit deserves a place in our financial aid system. But the indisputable benefits of college ought to be spread more widely, not less.

Mr. Wildavsky, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, is the author of "The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World," to be published next spring.

Sometimes the good guys do commit 'war crimes'

The Real Rules of War. By WARREN KOZAK
Sometimes the good guys do commit 'war crimes.'
WSJ, Dec 23, 2009

Five years ago, a particularly gruesome image made its way to our television screens from the war in Iraq. Four U.S. civilian contractors working in Fallujah were ambushed and killed by al Qaeda. Their bodies were burned, then dragged through the streets. Two of the charred bodies were hung from the Euphrates Bridge and left dangling.

This barbaric act left an impression that our military did not forget: In a special operation earlier this year, Navy SEALs captured the mastermind of that attack, Ahmed Hashim Abed. But after he was taken into custody in September, Abed claimed he was punched by his captors. He showed a fat lip to prove it. Three of the SEALS are now awaiting a courts-martial on charges ranging from assault to dereliction of duty and making false statements.

This incident and its twisted irony takes me back to an oddly serene setting many years ago. When I was in college, I joined my parents on a trip to retrace my father's wartime experience in Europe. We drove from France, through Holland and Belgium and on to Germany—the same route he had taken with the U.S. Army in 1944-45. At a field outside the Belgian town of Malmedy, we got out of our rented car where my father described something I had never heard before.

During the Battle of the Bulge, in the bleak December of 1944, the Germans had quickly overrun the American lines. They took thousands of prisoners as they pushed through in a last chance gamble to turn the war around. One unit, part of the First SS Panzer Division, had captured over a hundred GIs. They were moving fast, and they didn't care to be burdened by prisoners. So the SS troops put the American soldiers in that field and mowed them down with machine guns.

Around 90 Americans were killed in that barrage. The Germans then walked through the tangle of bodies, shooting those who were still alive in the back of the head. The few that survived were brought to where my father was located in the nearby town of Liege where word of the massacre quickly spread.

My father was never a talker. And in spite of the fact that we were on a trip to look at his past, he didn't open up much, or couldn't. When I asked him what the reaction was among the U.S. troops, he answered without emotion: "We didn't take prisoners for two weeks." I immediately understood what he meant, and had the sense not to press the issue any further. I just looked out at the field, now green and peaceful on a beautiful summer day, and realized he was looking at the same field and seeing something quite different.

In the weeks following the Malmedy massacre, U.S. troops clearly broke the rules of the Geneva Conventions. Justified or not, they were technically guilty of war crimes.

My guess is that the American correspondents imbedded with those troops knew all about this and chose not to report it. So did their officers. They understood the gravity of the war, as well as the absolute importance of its outcome. And they understood that disclosing this information might ultimately help the enemy. In other words, they used common sense. Was the U.S. a lesser country because these GIs weren't arrested? Was the Constitution jeopardized? Somehow it survived.

You don't have to dig too deep to understand that war brings out behavior in people that they would never demonstrate in normal life. In Paul Fussell's moving memoir, "The Boys' Crusade," the former infantryman relates a story about the liberation of Dachau. There were about 120 SS guards who had been captured by the Americans. Even though the Germans were being held at gunpoint, they still had the arrogance—or epic stupidity—to continue to heap verbal abuse and threats on the inmates. Their American guards, thoroughly disgusted by what they had already witnessed in the camp, had seen enough and opened fire on the SS. Some of the remaining SS guards were handed over to the inmates who tore them limb from limb. Another war crime? No doubt. Justified? It depends on your point of view. But before you weigh in, realize that you didn't walk through the camp. You didn't smell it. You didn't witness the obscene horror of the Nazis.

Rules of war are important. They are something to strive for as they separate us from our distant ancestors. But when only one side follows these rules, they no longer elevate us. They create a very unlevel field and more than a little frustration. It is equally bizarre for any of us to judge someone's behavior in war by the rules we follow in our very peaceful universe. We sit in homes that are air-conditioned in the summer and warmed in the winter. We have more than enough food in our bellies and we get enough sleep. The stress in our lives won't ever match the stress of battle. Can we honestly begin to decide if a soldier acted in compliance with rules that work perfectly well on Main Street but not, say, in Malmedy or Fallujah?

In his book, Mr. Fussell probably sums up the feelings of many soldiers when he quotes a British captain, John Tonkin, who experienced a great deal of the war. "I have always felt," Capt. Tonkin said, "that the Geneva Convention is a dangerous piece of stupidity, because it leads people to believe that war can be civilized. It can't."

Mr. Kozak is the author of "LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay" (Regnery, 2009).

Time for a Climate Change Plan B

Time for a Climate Change Plan B. By NIGEL LAWSON

The world's political leaders, not least President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are in a state of severe, almost clinical, denial. While acknowledging that the outcome of the United Nations climate-change conference in Copenhagen fell short of their demand for a legally binding, enforceable and verifiable global agreement on emissions reductions by developed and developing countries alike, they insist that what has been achieved is a breakthrough and a decisive step forward.

Just one more heave, just one more venue for the great climate-change traveling circus—Mexico City next year—and the job will be done.

Or so we are told. It is, of course, the purest nonsense. The only breakthrough was the political coup for China and India in concluding the anodyne communiqué with the United States behind closed doors, with Brazil and South Africa allowed in the room and Europe left to languish in the cold outside.

Far from achieving a major step forward, Copenhagen—predictably—achieved precisely nothing. The nearest thing to a commitment was the promise by the developed world to pay the developing world $30 billion of "climate aid" over the next three years, rising to $100 billion a year from 2020. Not only is that (perhaps fortunately) not legally binding, but there is no agreement whatsoever about which countries it will go to, in which amounts, and on what conditions.

The reasons for the complete and utter failure of Copenhagen are both fundamental and irresolvable. The first is that the economic cost of decarbonizing the world's economies is massive, and of at least the same order of magnitude as any benefits it may conceivably bring in terms of a cooler world in the next century.

The reason we use carbon-based energy is not the political power of the oil lobby or the coal industry. It is because it is far and away the cheapest source of energy at the present time and is likely to remain so, not forever, but for the foreseeable future.

Switching to much more expensive energy may be acceptable to us in the developed world (although I see no present evidence of this). But in the developing world, including the rapidly developing nations such as China and India, there are still tens if not hundreds of millions of people suffering from acute poverty, and from the consequences of such poverty, in the shape of malnutrition, preventable disease and premature death.

The overriding priority for the developing world has to be the fastest feasible rate of economic development, which means, inter alia, using the cheapest available source of energy: carbon energy.

Moreover, the argument that they should make this economic and human sacrifice to benefit future generations 100 years and more hence is all the less compelling, given that these future generations will, despite any problems caused by warming, be many times better off than the people of the developing world are today.

Or, at least, that is the assumption on which the climate scientists' warming projections are based. It is projected economic growth that determines projected carbon emissions, and projected carbon emissions that (according to the somewhat conjectural computer models on which they rely) determine projected warming (according to the same models).

All this overlaps with the second of the two fundamental reasons why Copenhagen failed, and why Mexico City (if our leaders insist on continuing this futile charade) will fail, too. That is the problem of burden-sharing, and in particular how much of the economic cost of decarbonization should be borne by the developed world, which accounts for the bulk of past emissions, and how much by the faster-growing developing world, which will account for the bulk of future emissions.

The 2006 Stern Review, quite the shoddiest pseudo-scientific and pseudo-economic document any British Government has ever produced, claims the overall burden is very small. If that were so, the problem of how to share the burden would be readily overcome—as indeed occurred with the phasing out of chorofluorocarbons (CFCs) under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. But the true cost of decarbonization is massive, and the distribution of the burden an insoluble problem.

Moreover, any assessment of the impact of any future warming that may occur is inevitably highly conjectural, depending as it does not only on the uncertainties of climate science but also on the uncertainties of future technological development. So what we are talking about is risk.

Not that the risk is all one way. The risk of a 1930s-style outbreak of protectionism—if the developed world were to abjure cheap energy and faced enhanced competition from China and other rapidly industrializing countries that declined to do so—is probably greater than any risk from warming.

But even without that, there is not even a theoretical (let alone a practical) basis for a global agreement on burden-sharing, since, so far as the risk of global warming is concerned (and probably in other areas too) risk aversion is not uniform throughout the world. Not only do different cultures embody very different degrees of risk aversion, but in general the richer countries will tend to be more risk-averse than the poorer countries, if only because we have more to lose.

The time has come to abandon the Kyoto-style folly that reached its apotheosis in Copenhagen last week, and move to plan B.

And the outlines of a credible plan B are clear. First and foremost, we must do what mankind has always done, and adapt to whatever changes in temperature may in the future arise.

This enables us to pocket the benefits of any warming (and there are many) while reducing the costs. None of the projected costs are new phenomena, but the possible exacerbation of problems our climate already throws at us. Addressing these problems directly is many times more cost-effective than anything discussed at Copenhagen. And adaptation does not require a global agreement, although we may well need to help the very poorest countries (not China) to adapt.

Beyond adaptation, plan B should involve a relatively modest, increased government investment in technological research and development—in energy, in adaptation and in geoengineering.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the Copenhagen debacle, it is not going to be easy to get our leaders to move to plan B. There is no doubt that calling a halt to the high-profile climate-change traveling circus risks causing a severe conference-deprivation trauma among the participants. If there has to be a small public investment in counseling, it would be money well spent.

Lord Lawson was U.K. chancellor of the exchequer in the Thatcher government from 1983 to 1989. He is the author of "An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming" (Overlook Duckworth, paperback 2009), and is chairman of the recently formed Global Warming Policy Foundation (www.thegwpf.org).

The risk of relying on reputational capital: a case study of the 2007 failure of New Century Financial

The risk of relying on reputational capital: a case study of the 2007 failure of New Century Financial, by Allen B Frankel

BIS Working Papers No 294, December 2009


The quality of newly originated subprime mortgages had been visibly deteriorating for some time before the window for such loans was shut in 2007. Nevertheless, a bankruptcy court's directed ex post examination of New Century Financial, one of the largest originators of subprime mortgages, discovered no change, over time, in how that firm went about its business. This paper employs the court examiner's findings in a critical review of the procedures used by various agents involved in the origination and securitisation of subprime mortgages. A contribution of this paper is its elaboration of the choices and incentives faced by the various types of institutions involved in those linked processes of origination and securitisation. It highlights the limited roles played by the originators of subprime loans in screening borrowers and in bearing losses on defective loans that had been sold to securitisers of pooled loan packages (ie, mortgage-backed securities). It also illustrates the willingness of the management of those institutions that became key players in that market to put their reputations with fixed-income investor clients in jeopardy. What is perplexing is that such risk exposures were accepted by investing firms that had the wherewithal and knowledge to appreciate the overall paucity of due diligence in the loan origination processes. This observation, in turn, points to the conclusion that the subprime episode is a case in which reputational capital, a presumptively effective motivator of market discipline, was not an effective incentive device.

JEL Classification Numbers: G10, G20, G30

Keywords: mortgage originators, reputational capital, securitisation

Industry views: Five Troubling Aspects of the Copenhagen Accord

Five Troubling Aspects of the Copenhagen Accord

IER, December 21, 2009

Even though the climate change PR machines are spinning away in the aftermath of Copenhagen’s COP 15, a few of the Copenhagen Accord’s more troubling consequences are not getting the attention they deserve.

Senator McCain called “the agreement to take note of the accord” reached by the United States and a handful of developed nations a “nothing burger.” Senator Kerry, on the other hand, believes the accord is important and called China’s participation “the most critical thing” to ensuring Senate passage of the national energy tax, even though few observers believe China will actually do anything to curtail their growing use of carbon-based energy. Meanwhile, the question of whether the outcome in Denmark was enough to advance international efforts to control emissions can best be summarized by Henry Derwent, president of the Geneva-based International Emissions Trading Association, who noted that the climate talks were a “step backward” in terms of a signal that will support carbon prices.

While the Copenhagen Accord does not represent a major change from the status quo, there are a few troubling aspects of the U.S. effort in Copenhagen worth noting.

First, U.S. negotiators opposed efforts from China and India to ban the use of border tariffs on energy-intensive exports. That means the U.S. actively fought to leave the prospect of Smoot-Hawley-type trade wars on the table for Senate cap-and-trade negotiators. The United States has benefited greatly from free trade; now the U.S. government is opposing free trade.

Second, unlike China and other developing countries, the U.S. will allow “international consultations and analysis” of our greenhouse gas emissions. It is not clear how intrusive these international consultations will be, but with millions of sources of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s hard to believe that they won’t in some way encroach on U.S. sovereignty.

Third, the U.S.’s commitment to hand over billions of dollars a year in taxpayer money was a premature gesture that will only serve as the new floor for developing nations in the next round of international talks. Why would nations in the third world operate under this agreement if they can now see that the starting point for COP 16’s bargaining talks is $30 billion?

Fourth, we must consider the sheer size of the U.S. delegation; press accounts reveal that in addition to the President, five cabinet officials, four other high ranking officials, one czar, over thirty Members of Congress and a host of staff attended all or part of the conference. The United States spent millions to send a small army to Copenhagen to forge a non-binding “accord” that very few Americans view as a priority.

Finally, contrary to Senator Kerry’s hopes, China’s willingness to sit at a non-binding negotiating table will not ease the pain a national energy rationing cap-and-trade tax will cause for American families and is certainly not a sufficient gesture to justify its passage.

Ultimately, Copenhagen will have no impact on the outcome of the cap-and-trade legislation moving through Congress. As we have just seen in the health care debate, Senate passage of this increasingly unpopular measure will depend on how much taxpayer money Majority Leader Reid is willing to give away to his fence-sitting colleagues to reach the 60 votes necessary to move this bill forward.