Showing posts with label economic theory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label economic theory. Show all posts

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Macroprudential Liquidity Stress Testing in FSAPs for Systemically Important Financial Systems

Author/Editor: Andreas A. Jobst ; Christian Schmieder ; Li Lian Ong

Summary:Bank liquidity stress testing, which has become de rigueur following the costly lessons of the global financial crisis, remains underdeveloped compared to solvency stress testing. The ability to adequately identify, model and assess the impact of liquidity shocks, which are infrequent but can have a severe impact on affected banks and financial systems, is complicated not only by data limitations but also by interactions among multiple factors. This paper provides a conceptual overview of liquidity stress testing approaches for banks and discusses their implementation by IMF staff in the Financial Sector Assessment Program (FSAP) for countries with systemically important financial sectors over the last six years.

Series:Working Paper No. 17/102
Publication Date: May 1, 2017
ISBN/ISSN: 9781475597240/1018-5941
Stock No: WPIEA2017102
Pages: 56

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Great Recession Blame Game - Banks took the heat, but it was Washington that propped up subprime debt and then stymied recovery

The Great Recession Blame Game

Banks took the heat, but it was Washington that propped up subprime debt and then stymied recovery.

By Phil Gramm and Michael Solon
WSJ, April 15, 2016 6:09 p.m. ET

When the subprime crisis broke in the 2008 presidential election year, there was little chance for a serious discussion of its root causes. Candidate Barack Obama weaponized the crisis by blaming greedy bankers, unleashed when financial regulations were “simply dismantled.” He would go on to blame them for taking “huge, reckless risks in pursuit of quick profits and massive bonuses.”
That mistaken diagnosis was the justification for the Dodd-Frank Act and the stifling regulations that shackled the financial system, stunted the recovery and diminished the American dream.

In fact, when the crisis struck, banks were better capitalized and less leveraged than they had been in the previous 30 years. The FDIC’s reported capital-to-asset ratio for insured commercial banks in 2007 was 10.2%—76% higher than it was in 1978. Federal Reserve data on all insured financial institutions show the capital-to-asset ratio was 10.3% in 2007, almost double its 1984 level, and the biggest banks doubled their capitalization ratios. On Sept. 30, 2008, the month Lehman failed, the FDIC found that 98% of all FDIC institutions with 99% of all bank assets were “well capitalized,” and only 43 smaller institutions were undercapitalized.

In addition, U.S. banks were by far the best-capitalized banks in the world. While the collapse of 31 million subprime mortgages fractured financial capital, the banking system in the 30 years before 2007 would have fared even worse under such massive stress.

Virtually all of the undercapitalization, overleveraging and “reckless risks” flowed from government policies and institutions. Federal regulators followed international banking standards that treated most subprime-mortgage-backed securities as low-risk, with lower capital requirements that gave banks the incentive to hold them. Government quotas forced Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to hold ever larger volumes of subprime mortgages, and politicians rolled the dice by letting them operate with a leverage ratio of 75 to one—compared with Lehman’s leverage ratio of 29 to one.

Regulators also eroded the safety of the financial system by pressuring banks to make subprime loans in order to increase homeownership. After eight years of vilification and government extortion of bank assets, often for carrying out government mandates, it is increasingly clear that banks were more scapegoats than villains in the subprime crisis.

Similarly, the charge that banks had been deregulated before the crisis is a myth. From 1980 to 2007 four major banking laws—the Competitive Equality Banking Act (1987), the Financial Institutions, Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (1989), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act (1991), and Sarbanes-Oxley (2002)—undeniably increased bank regulations and reporting requirements. The charge that financial regulation had been dismantled rests almost solely on the disputed effects of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA).

Prior to GLBA, the decades-old Glass-Steagall Act prohibited deposit-taking, commercial banks from engaging in securities trading. GLBA, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, allowed highly regulated financial-services holding companies to compete in banking, insurance and the securities business. But each activity was still required to operate separately and remained subject to the regulations and capital requirements that existed before GLBA. A bank operating within a holding company was still subject to Glass-Steagall (which was not repealed by GLBA)—but Glass-Steagall never banned banks from holding mortgages or mortgage-backed securities in the first place.

GLBA loosened federal regulations only in the narrow sense that it promoted more competition across financial services and lowered prices. When he signed the law, President Clinton said that “removal of barriers to competition will enhance the stability of our financial system, diversify their product offerings and thus their sources of revenue.” The financial crisis proved his point. Financial institutions that had used GLBA provisions to diversify fared better than those that didn’t.

Mr. Clinton has always insisted that “there is not a single solitary example that [GLBA] had anything to do with the financial crisis,” a conclusion that has never been refuted. When asked by the New York Times in 2012, Sen. Elizabeth Warren agreed that the financial crisis would not have been avoided had GLBA never been adopted. And President Obama effectively exonerated GLBA from any culpability in the financial crisis when, with massive majorities in both Houses of Congress, he chose not to repeal GLBA. In fact, Dodd-Frank expanded GLBA by using its holding-company structure to impose new regulations on systemically important financial institutions.

Another myth of the financial crisis is that the bailout was required because some banks were too big to fail. Had the government’s massive injection of capital—the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP—been only about bailing out too-big-to-fail financial institutions, at most a dozen institutions might have received aid. Instead, 954 financial institutions received assistance, with more than half the money going to small banks.

Many of the largest banks did not want or need aid—and Lehman’s collapse was not a case of a too-big-to-fail institution spreading the crisis. The entire financial sector was already poisoned by the same subprime assets that felled Lehman. The subprime bailout occurred because the U.S. financial sector was, and always should be, too important to be allowed to fail.

Consider that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, bailing out the depositors of insolvent S&Ls in the 1980s on net cost taxpayers $258 billion in real 2009 dollars. By contrast, of the $245 billion disbursed by TARP to banks, 67% was repaid within 14 months, 81% within two years and the final totals show that taxpayers earned $24 billion on the banking component of TARP. The rapid and complete payback of TARP funds by banks strongly suggests that the financial crisis was more a liquidity crisis than a solvency crisis.

What turned the subprime crisis and ensuing recession into the “Great Recession” was not a failure of policies that addressed the financial crisis. Instead, it was the failure of subsequent economic policies that impeded the recovery.

The subprime crisis was largely the product of government policy to promote housing ownership and regulators who chose to promote that social policy over their traditional mission of guaranteeing safety and soundness. But blaming the financial crisis on reckless bankers and deregulation made it possible for the Obama administration to seize effective control of the financial system and put government bureaucrats in the corporate boardrooms of many of the most significant U.S. banks and insurance companies.

Suffocating under Dodd-Frank’s “enhanced supervision,” banks now focus on passing stress tests, writing living wills, parking capital at the Federal Reserve, and knowing their regulators better than they know their customers. But their ability to help the U.S. economy turn dreams into businesses and jobs has suffered.

In postwar America, it took on average just 2 1/4 years to regain in each succeeding recovery all of the real per capita income that had been lost in the previous recession. At the current rate of the Obama recovery, it will take six more years, 14 years in all, for the average American just to earn back what he lost in the last recession. Mr. Obama’s policies in banking, health care, power generation, the Internet and so much else have Europeanized America and American exceptionalism has waned—sadly proving that collectivism does not work any better in America than it has ever worked anywhere else.

Mr. Gramm, a former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Solon is a partner of US Policy Metrics.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

A New Tool for Avoiding Big-Bank Failures: ‘Chapter 14.’ By Emily C. Kapur and John B. Taylor

A New Tool for Avoiding Big-Bank Failures: ‘Chapter 14.’ By Emily C. Kapur and John B. Taylor

Bernie Sanders is right, Dodd-Frank doesn’t work, but his solution is wrong. Here’s what would work.

WSJ, Mar 11, 2016

For months Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has been telling Americans that the government must “break up the banks” because they are “too big to fail.” This is the wrong role for government, but Sen. Sanders and others on both sides of the aisle have a point. The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial law, which was supposed to end too big to fail, has not.

Dodd-Frank gave the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. authority to take over and oversee the reorganization of so-called systemically important financial institutions whose failure could pose a risk to the economy. But no one can be sure the FDIC will follow its resolution strategy, which leads many to believe Dodd-Frank will be bypassed in a crisis.

Reflecting on his own experience as overseer of the U.S. Treasury’s bailout program in 2008-09, Neel Kashkari, now president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, says government officials are once again likely to bail out big banks and their creditors rather than “trigger many trillions of additional costs to society.”

The solution is not to break up the banks or turn them into public utilities. Instead, we should do what Dodd-Frank failed to do: Make big-bank failures feasible without tanking the economy by writing a process to do so into the bankruptcy code through a new amendment—a “chapter 14.”

Chapter 14 would impose losses on shareholders and creditors while preventing the collapse of one firm from spreading to others. It could be initiated by the lead regulatory agency and would begin with an over-the-weekend bankruptcy hearing before a pre-selected U.S. district judge. After the hearing, the court would convert the bank’s eligible long-term debt into equity, reorganizing the bankrupt bank’s balance sheet without restructuring its operations.

A new non-bankrupt company, owned by the bankruptcy estate (the temporary legal owner of a failed company’s assets and property), would assume the recapitalized balance sheet of the failed bank, including all obligations to its short-term creditors. But the failed bank’s shareholders and long-term bondholders would have claims only against the estate, not the new company.

The new firm would take over the bank’s business and be led by the bankruptcy estate’s chosen private-sector managers. With regulations requiring minimum long-term debt levels, the new firm would be solvent. The bankruptcy would be entirely contained, both because the new bank would keep operating and paying its debts, and because losses would be allocated entirely to the old bank’s shareholders and long-term bondholders.

An examination by one of us (Emily Kapur) of previously unexplored discovery and court documents from Lehman Brothers’ September 2008 bankruptcy shows that chapter 14 would have worked especially well for that firm, without adverse effects on the financial system.

Here is how Lehman under chapter 14 would have played out. The process would start with a single, brief hearing for the parent company to facilitate the creation of a new recapitalized company—a hearing in which the judge would have minimal discretion. By contrast, Lehman’s actual bankruptcy involved dozens of complex proceedings in the U.S. and abroad, creating huge uncertainty and making it impossible for even part of the firm to remain in business.

When Lehman went under it had $20 billion of book equity and $96 billion of long-term debt, while its perceived losses were around $54 billion. If the costs of a chapter 14 proceeding amounted to an additional (and conservative) $10 billion, then the new company would be well capitalized with around $52 billion of equity.

The new parent company would take over Lehman’s subsidiaries, all of which would continue in business, outside of bankruptcy. And the new company would honor all obligations to short-term creditors, such as repurchase agreement and commercial paper lenders.

The result: Short-term creditors would have no reason to run on the bank before the bankruptcy proceeding, knowing they would be protected. And they would have no reason to run afterward, because the new firm would be solvent.

Without a run, Lehman would have $30 billion more liquidity after resolution than it had in 2008, easing subsequent operational challenges. In the broader marketplace, money-market funds would have no reason to curtail lending to corporations, hedge funds would not flee so readily from prime brokers, and investment banks would be less likely to turn to the government for financing.

Eventually, the new company would make a public stock offering to value the bankruptcy estate’s ownership interest, and the estate would distribute its assets according to statutory priority rules. If the valuation came in at $52 billion, Lehman shareholders would be wiped out, as they were in 2008. Long-term debtholders, with $96 billion in claims, would recover 54 cents on the dollar, more than the 37 cents they did receive. All other creditors—the large majority—would be paid in full at maturity.

Other reforms, such as higher capital requirements, may yet be needed to reduce risk and lessen the chance of financial failure. But that is no reason to wait on bankruptcy reform. A bill along the lines of the chapter 14 that we advocate passed the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 11. Two versions await action in the Senate. Let’s end too big to fail, once and for all.
Ms. Kapur is an attorney and economics Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University. Mr. Taylor, a professor of economics at Stanford, co-edited “Making Failure Feasible” (Hoover, 2015) with Kenneth Scott and Thomas Jackson, which includes Ms. Kapur’s study.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Fed: shortcomings in policies & procedures, insufficient model testing & incomplete structures & information flows for proper oversight

The Fed Is Stressed Out. A WSJ Editorial
What if a bank had the same problem the regulators have?Wall Street Journal, Nov 28, 2015

Almost nobody in Washington cares, and most of the financial media haven’t noticed. But the inspector general’s office at the Federal Reserve recently reported the disturbing results of an internal investigation. Last December the central bank internally identified “fundamental weaknesses in key areas” related to the Fed’s own governance of the stress testing it conducts of financial firms.

The Fed’s stress tests theoretically judge whether the country’s largest banks can withstand economic downturns. So the Fed identifying a problem with its own management of the stress tests is akin to an energy company noticing that something is not right at one of its nuclear reactors.

According to the inspector general, “The governance review findings include, among other items, a shortcoming in policies and procedures, insufficient model testing” and “incomplete structures and information flows to ensure proper oversight of model risk management.” These Fed models are essentially a black box to the public, so there’s no way to tell from the outside how large a problem this is.

The Fed’s ability to construct and maintain financial and economic models is much more than a subject of intellectual curiosity. Given that Fed-approved models at the heart of the so-called Basel capital standards proved to be spectacularly wrong in the run-up to the last financial crisis, the new report is more reason to wonder why anyone should expect them to be more accurate the next time.

The Fed’s IG adds that last year’s internal review “notes that similar findings identified at institutions supervised by the Federal Reserve have typically been characterized as matters requiring immediate attention or as matters requiring attention.”

That’s for sure. Receiving a “matters requiring immediate attention” letter from the Fed is a big deal at a bank. The Journal reported last year that after the Fed used this language in a letter to Credit Suisse castigating the bank’s work in the market for leveraged loans, the bank chose not to participate in the financing of several buy-out deals.

But it’s hard to tell if anything will come from this report that seems to have fallen deep in a Beltway forest. The IG office’s report says that the Fed is taking a number of steps to correct its shortcomings, and that the Fed’s reform plans “appear to be responsive to our recommendations.”

The Fed wields enormous power with little democratic accountability and transparency. This was tolerable when the Fed’s main job was monetary, but its vast new regulatory authority requires more scrutiny. Congress should add the Fed’s stressed-out standards for stress tests to its oversight list.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Daniel Schuchman's review of Harry G. Frankfurt's On Inequality

Beggar Thy Neighbor. By Daniel Schuchman
Daniel Schuchman's review of Harry G. Frankfurt's On Inequality (Princeton, 102 pages, $14.95)
Wall Street Journal, Oct 09, 2015

In a 2005 best seller, Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton philosophy professor, explored the often complex nature of popular false ideas. “On Bulls—” examined outright lies, ambiguous forms of obfuscation and the not-always-transparent intentions of those who promote them. Now, in “On Inequality,” Mr. Frankfurt eviscerates one of the shibboleths of our time: that economic inequality—in his definition, “the possession by some of more money than others”—is the most urgent issue confronting society. This idea, he believes, suffers from logical and moral errors of the highest order.

The fixation on equality, as a moral ideal in and of itself, is critically flawed, according to the professor. It holds that justice is determined by one person’s position relative to another, not his absolute well-being. Therefore the logic of egalitarianism can lead to perverse outcomes, he argues. Most egregiously, income inequality could be eliminated very effectively “by making everyone equally poor.” And while the lowest economic stratum of society is always associated with abject poverty, this need not be the case. Mr. Frankfurt imagines instances where those “who are doing considerably worse than others may nonetheless be doing rather well.” This possibility—as with contemporary America’s wide inequalities among relatively prosperous people—undermines the coherence of a philosophy mandating equality.

Mr. Frankfurt acknowledges that “among morally conscientious individuals, appeals in behalf of equality often have very considerable emotional or rhetorical power.” The motivations for pursuing equality may be well-meaning but they are profoundly misguided and contribute to “the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.”

The idea that equality in itself is a paramount goal, Mr. Frankfurt argues, alienates people from their own characters and life aspirations. The amount of wealth possessed by others does not bear on “what is needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself.” The incessant egalitarian comparison of one against another subordinates each individual’s goals to “those that are imposed on them by the conditions in which others happen to live.” Thus, individuals are led to apply an arbitrary relative standard that does not “respect” their authentic selves.

If his literalist critique of egalitarianism is often compelling, Mr. Frankfurt’s own philosophy has more in common with such thinking than is first apparent. For Mr. Frankfurt, the imperative of justice is to alleviate poverty and improve lives, not to make people equal. He does not, however, think that it is morally adequate merely to provide people with a safety net. Instead, he argues for an ideal of “sufficiency.”

By sufficiency Mr. Frankfurt means enough economic resources for every individual to be reasonably satisfied with his circumstances, assuming that the individual’s satisfaction need not be disturbed by others having more. While more money might be welcome, it would not “alter his attitude toward his life, or the degree of his contentment with it.” The achievement of economic and personal contentment by everyone is Mr. Frankfurt’s priority. In fact, his principle of sufficiency is so ambitious it demands that lack of money should never be the cause of anything “distressing or unsatisfying” in anyone’s life.

What’s the harm of such a desirable, if unrealistic goal? The author declares that inequality is “morally disturbing” only when his standard of sufficiency is not achieved. His just society would, in effect, mandate a universal entitlement to a lifestyle that has been attained only by a minuscule fraction of humans in all history. Mr. Frankfurt recognizes such reasoning may bring us full circle: “The most feasible approach” to universal sufficiency may well be policies that, in practice, differ little from those advocated in the “pursuit of equality.”

In passing, the author notes another argument against egalitarianism, the “dangerous conflict between equality and liberty.” He is referring to the notion that leaving people free to choose their work and what goods and services they consume will always lead to an unequal distribution of income. To impose any preconceived economic distribution will, as the philosopher Robert Nozick argued, involves “continuous interference in people’s lives.” Like egalitarianism, Mr. Frankfurt’s ideal of “sufficiency” would hold property rights and economic liberty hostage to his utopian vision.

Such schemes, Nozick argued, see economic assets as having arrived on earth fully formed, like “manna from heaven,” with no consideration of their human origin. Mr. Frankfurt also presumes that one person’s wealth must be the reason others don’t have a “sufficient” amount to be blissfully carefree; he condemns the “excessively affluent” who have “extracted” too much from the nation. This leaves a would-be philosopher-king the task of divvying up loot as he chooses.

On the surface, “On Inequality” is a provocative challenge to a prevailing orthodoxy. But as the author’s earlier book showed, appearances can deceive. When Thomas Piketty, in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” says that most wealth is rooted in theft or is arbitrary, or when Mr. Frankfurt’s former Princeton colleague Paul Krugman says the “rich” are “undeserving,” they are not (just) making the case for equality. By arguing that wealth accumulation is inherently unjust, they lay a moral groundwork for confiscation of property. Similarly, Mr. Frankfurt accuses the affluent of “gluttony”—a sentiment about which there appears to be unanimity in that temple of tenured sufficiency, the Princeton faculty club. The author claims to be motivated by respect for personal autonomy and fulfillment. By ignoring economic liberty, he reveals he is not.

Mr. Shuchman is a fund manager in New York.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Five Bedrock Principles for Investors. By Morgan Housel

Brilliance isn’t the only key to Warren Buffett’s investing success. See rule No. 5.

The U.S. economy shrank last quarter. The Federal Reserve is widely expected to begin raising interest rates later this year. U.S. stocks are expensive by many measures. Greece’s national finances remain fragile. Oh, and election season already is under way in the U.S.

Investors who are tempted to sell risky assets and flee to safety don’t have to look far for justification.

If you are one of them, ponder this: Most of what matters in investing involves bedrock principles, not current events.

Here are five principles every investor should keep in mind:

1. Diversification is how you limit the risk of losses in an uncertain world.
If, 30 years ago, a visitor from the future had said that the Soviet Union had collapsed, Japan’s stock market had stagnated for a quarter century, China had become a superpower and North Dakota had helped turn the U.S. into a fast-growing source of crude oil, few would have believed it.

The next 30 years will be just as surprising.

Diversification among different assets can be frustrating. It requires, at every point in time, owning some unpopular assets.

Why would I want to own European stocks if its economy is such a mess? Why should I buy bonds if interest rates are so low?

The appropriate answer is, “Because the future will play out in ways you or your adviser can’t possibly comprehend.”

Owning a little bit of everything is a bet on humility, which the history of investing shows is a valuable trait.

2. You are your own worst enemy.

The biggest risk investors face isn’t a recession, a bear market, the Federal Reserve or their least favorite political party.

It is their own emotions and biases, and the destructive behaviors they cause.

You can be the best stock picker in the world, capable of finding tomorrow’s winning businesses before anyone else. But if you panic and sell during the next bear market, none of it will matter.

You can be armed with an M.B.A. and have 40 years before retirement to let your savings compound into a fortune. But if you have a gambling mentality and you day-trade penny stocks, your outlook seems dismal.

You can be a mathematical genius, building the most sophisticated stock-market forecasting models. But if you don’t understand the limits of your intelligence, you are on your way to disaster.

There aren’t many iron rules of investing, but one of them is that no amount of brain power can compensate for behavioral errors. Figure out what mistakes you are prone to make and embrace strategies that limit the risk.

3. There is a price to pay.

The stock market has historically offered stellar long-term returns, far better than cash or bonds.

But there is a cost. The price of admission to earn high long-term returns in stocks is a ceaseless torrent of unpredictable outcomes, senseless volatility and unexpected downturns.

If you can stick with your investments through the rough spots, you don’t actually pay this bill; it is a mental surcharge. But it is very real. Not everyone is willing to pay it, which is why there is opportunity for those who are.

There is an understandable desire to forecast what the market will do in the short run. But the reason stocks offer superior long-term returns is precisely because we can’t forecast what they will do in the short run.

4. When in doubt, choose the investment with the lowest fee.

As a group, investors’ profits always will equal the overall market’s returns minus all fees and expenses.

Below-average fees, therefore, offer one of your best shots at earning above-average results.

A talented fund manager can be worth a higher fee, mind you. But enduring outperformance is one of the most elusive investing skills.

According to Vanguard Group, which has championed low-cost investing products, more than 80% of actively managed U.S. stock funds underperformed a low-cost index fund in the 10 years through December. It is far more common for a fund manager to charge excess fees than to deliver excess performance.

There are no promises in investing. The best you can do is put the odds in your favor. And the evidence is overwhelming: The lower the costs, the more the odds tip in your favor.

5. Time is the most powerful force in investing.

Eighty-four year old Warren Buffett’s current net worth is around $73 billion, nearly all of which is in Berkshire Hathaway stock. Berkshire’s stock has risen 24-fold since 1990.

Do the math, and some $70 billion of Mr. Buffett’s $73 billion fortune was accumulated around or after his 60th birthday.

Mr. Buffett is, of course, a phenomenal investor whose talents few will replicate. But the real key to his wealth is that he has been a phenomenal investor for two-thirds of a century.

Wealth grows exponentially—a little at first, then slightly more, and then in a hurry for those who stick around the longest.

That lesson—that time, patience and endurance pay off—is something us mortals can learn from, particularly younger workers just starting to save for retirement.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Citigroup ATM - Jack Lew and Tim Geithner escape mention in the bank settlement.

The Citigroup ATM, WSJ Editorial
Jack Lew and Tim Geithner escape mention in the bank settlement.The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2014 7:37 p.m. ET

The Department of Justice isn't known for a sense of humor. But on Monday it announced a civil settlement with Citigroup over failed mortgage investments that covers almost exactly the period when current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew oversaw divisions at Citi that presided over failed mortgage investments. Now, that's funny.

Though Justice, five states and the FDIC are prying $7 billion from the bank for allegedly misleading investors, there's no mention in the settlement of clawing back even a nickel of Mr. Lew's compensation. We also see no sanction for former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who allowed Citi to build colossal mortgage risks outside its balance sheet while overseeing the bank as president of the New York Federal Reserve.

The settlement says Citi's alleged misdeeds began in 2006, the year Mr. Lew joined the bank, and the agreement covers conduct "prior to January 1, 2009." That was shortly before Mr. Lew left to work for President Obama and two weeks before Mr. Lew received $944,518 from Citi in "salary, payout for vested restricted stock," and "discretionary cash compensation for work performed in 2008," according to a 2010 federal disclosure report. That was also the year Citi began receiving taxpayer bailouts of $45 billion in cash, plus hundreds of billions more in taxpayer guarantees.

While Attorney General Eric Holder is forgiving toward his Obama cabinet colleagues, he seems to believe that some housing transactions can never be forgiven. The $7 billion settlement includes the same collateralized debt obligation for which the bank already agreed to pay $285 million in a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Justice settlement also includes a long list of potential charges not covered by the agreement, so prosecutors can continue to raid the Citi ATM.

Citi offers in return what looks like a blanket agreement not to sue the government over any aspect of the case, and waives its right to defend itself "based in whole or in part on a contention that, under the Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, or under the Excessive Fines Clause in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, this Agreement bars a remedy sought in such criminal prosecution or administrative action." We hold no brief for Citi, which has been rescued three times by the feds. But what kind of government demands the right to exact repeated punishments for the same offense?

The bank's real punishment should have been failure, as former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair and we argued at the time. Instead, the regulators kept Citi alive with taxpayer money far beyond what it provided most other banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Keeping it alive means they can now use Citi as a political target when it's convenient to claim they're tough on banks.

And speaking of that $7 billion, good luck finding a justification for it in the settlement agreement. The number seems to have been pulled out of thin air since it's unrelated to Citi's mortgage-securities market share or any other metric we can see beyond having media impact.

If this sounds cynical, readers should consult the Justice Department's own leaks to the press about how the Citi deal went down. Last month the feds were prepared to bring charges against the bank, but the necessities of public relations intervened.

According to the Journal, "News had leaked that afternoon, June 17, that the U.S. had captured Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a key suspect in the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi in 2012. Justice Department officials didn't want the announcement of the suit against Citigroup—and its accompanying litany of alleged misdeeds related to mortgage-backed securities—to be overshadowed by questions about the Benghazi suspect and U.S. policy on detainees. Citigroup, which didn't want to raise its offer again and had been preparing to be sued, never again heard the threat of a suit."

This week's settlement includes $4 billion for the Treasury, roughly $500 million for the states and FDIC, and $2.5 billion for mortgage borrowers. That last category has become a fixture of recent government mortgage settlements, even though the premise of this case involves harm done to bond investors, not mortgage borrowers.

But the Obama Administration's references to the needs of Benghazi PR remind us that it could be worse. At least Mr. Holder isn't blaming the Geithner and Lew failures on a video.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Our Financial Crisis Amnesia - Remember the S&L crisis? Nobody else does either. And we'll soon forget about 2008 too

Our Financial Crisis Amnesia. By Alex J. Pollock
Remember the S&L crisis? Nobody else does either. And we'll soon forget about 2008 too.WSJ, July 9, 2014 6:50 p.m. ET

It is now five years since the end of the most recent U.S. financial crisis of 2007-09. Stocks have made record highs, junk bonds and leveraged loans have boomed, house prices have risen, and already there are cries for lower credit standards on mortgages to "increase access."

Meanwhile, in vivid contrast to the Swiss central bank, which marks its investments to market, the Federal Reserve has designed its own regulatory accounting so that it will never have to recognize any losses on its $4 trillion portfolio of long-term bonds and mortgage securities.

Who remembers that such "special" accounting is exactly what the Federal Home Loan Bank Board designed in the 1980s to hide losses in savings and loans? Who remembers that there even was a Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which for its manifold financial sins was abolished in 1989?

It is 25 years since 1989. Who remembers how severe the multiple financial crises of the 1980s were?

The government of Mexico defaulted on its loans in 1982 and set off a global debt crisis. The Federal Reserve's double-digit interest rates had rendered insolvent the aggregate savings and loan industry, until then the principal supplier of mortgage credit. The oil bubble collapsed with enormous losses.

Between 1982 and 1992, a disastrous 2,270 U.S. depository institutions failed. That is an average of more than 200 failures a year or four a week over a decade. From speaking to a great many audiences about financial crises, I can testify that virtually no one knows this.

In the wake of the housing bust, I was occasionally asked, "Will we learn the lessons of this crisis?" "We will indeed," I would reply, "and we will remember them for at least four or five years." In 2007 as the first wave of panic was under way, I heard a senior international economist opine in deep, solemn tones, "What we have learned from this crisis is the importance of liquidity risk." "Yes," I said, "that's what we learn from every crisis."

The political reactions to the 1980s included the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989, the FDIC Improvement Act of 1991, and the very ironically titled GSE Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992. Anybody remember the theories behind those acts?

After depositors in savings and loan associations were bailed out to the tune of $150 billion (the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation having gone belly up), then-Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady pronounced that the great legislative point was "never again." Never, that is, until the Mexican debt crisis of 1994, the Asian debt crisis of 1997, and the Long-Term Capital Management crisis of 1998, all very exciting at the time.

And who remembers the Great Recession (so called by a prominent economist of the time) in 1973-75, the huge real-estate bust and New York City's insolvency crisis? That was the decade before the 1980s.

Viewing financial crises over several centuries, the great economic historian Charles Kindleberger concluded that they occur on average about once a decade. Similarly, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker wittily observed that "about every 10 years, we have the biggest crisis in 50 years."

What is it about a decade or so? It seems that is long enough for memories to fade in the human group mind, as they are overlaid with happier recent experiences and replaced with optimistic new theories.

Speaking in 2013, Paul Tucker, the former deputy governor for financial stability of the Bank of England—a man who has thought long and hard about the macro risks of financial systems—stated, "It will be a while before confidence in the system is restored." But how long is "a while"? I'd say less than a decade.

Mr. Tucker went on to proclaim, "Never again should confidence be so blind." Ah yes, "never again." If Mr. Tucker's statement is meant as moral suasion, it's all right. But if meant as a prediction, don't bet on it.

Former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, for all his daydream of the government as financial Platonic guardian, knows this. As he writes in "Stress Test," his recent memoir: "Experts always have clever reasons why the boom they are enjoying will avoid the disastrous patterns of the past—until it doesn't." He predicts: "There will be a next crisis, despite all we did."

Right. But when? On the historical average, 2009 + 10 = 2019. Five more years is plenty of time for forgetting.

Mr. Pollock is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and was president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago 1991-2004.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

China moves to free-market pricing for pharmaceuticals, after price controls led to quality problems & shortages

China Scraps Price Caps on Low-Cost Drugs. By Laurie Burkitt
Move Comes After Some Manufacturers Cut Corners on Production
Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2014 1:15 a.m.


China will scrap caps on retail prices for low-cost medicine and is moving toward free-market pricing for pharmaceuticals, after price controls led to drug quality problems and shortages in the country.

The move could be a welcome one for global pharmaceutical companies, which have been under scrutiny in China since last year for their sales and marketing practices.

The world's most populous country is the third-largest pharmaceutical market, behind the U.S. and Japan, according to data from consulting firm McKinsey & Co., but Beijing has used price caps and other measures to keep medical care affordable.

Price caps will be lifted for 280 medicines made by Western drug companies and 250 Chinese patent drugs, the National Development and Reform Commission, China's economic planning body, said Thursday. The move will affect prices on drugs such as antibiotics, painkillers and vitamins, it said.

The statement said local governments will have until July 1 to unveil details of the plan. In China, local authorities have broad oversight over how drugs are distributed to local hospitals.

Aiming to keep prices low, some manufacturers cut corners on production, exposing consumers to safety risks, said Helen Chen, a Shanghai-based partner and director of L.E.K. Consulting. Many also closed production, creating shortages of low-cost drugs such as thyroid medication.

"It means the [commission] recognizes that forcing prices down and focusing purely on price does sacrifice drug safety, quality and availability," said Ms. Chen.

Several drug makers, including GlaxoSmithKline PLC, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. Spokeswomen for Sanofi and Pfizer Inc. said that because implementation of the new policy is unclear, it is too early to understand how it will affect their business in China.

The industry was dealt a blow last summer when Chinese authorities accused Glaxo of bribing doctors, hospitals and local officials to increase sales of their drugs. The U.K. company has said some of its employees may have violated Chinese law.

The central government, which began overhauling the country's health-care system in 2009, has until now largely favored pricing caps and has encouraged provincial governments to cut health-care costs and prices. Regulators phased out five years ago premium pricing for a list of "essential drugs" to be available in hospitals.

Chinese leaders want health care to be more accessible and affordable, but there have been unintended consequences in attempting to ensure the lowest prices on drugs. For instance, many pharmaceutical companies registered to sell the thyroid medication Tapazole have halted production in recent years after pricing restrictions squeezed out profits, experts say, creating a shortage. Chinese patients with hyperthyroidism struggled to find the drug and many suffered with increased anxiety, muscle weakness and sleep disorder, according to local media reports.

In 2012, some drug-capsule manufacturers were found to be using industrial gelatin to cut production costs. The industrial gelatin contained the chemical chromium, which can be carcinogenic with frequent exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Manufacturers have attempted to save costs, and doing that has meant using lower-quality ingredients," said Ms. Chen.

The pricing reversal won't necessarily alleviate pricing pressure for these drugs, experts say. To get drugs into hospitals, companies must compete in a tendering process at the provincial level, said Justin Wang, also a partner at L.E.K. "It's still unclear how the provinces will react to this new national list," Mr. Wang said.

If provinces don't change their current system, price will remain a key competitive factor for drug makers, said Franck Le Deu, a partner at McKinsey's China division.

"The bottom line is that there may be more safety and more pricing transparency, but the focus intensifies on creating more innovative drugs," Mr. Le Deu said.

  —Liyan Qi contributed to this article.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Daniel Schuman's Thomas Piketty Revives Marx for the 21st Century

Thomas Piketty reviu Marx per al segle XXI. By Daniel Shuchman
Wall Street Journal, Apr 21, 2014

Translated by Un Liberal Recalcitrant from Thomas Piketty Revives Marx for the 21st Century, below.

Thomas Piketty li agrada el capitalisme, ja que assigna eficientment els recursos. Però ell no li agrada com es distribueix la renda. No, pensa que pràcticament és una il·legitimitat moral qualsevol acumulació de riquesa, i és una qüestió de justícia que aquesta desigualtat pot radicar en la nostra economia. La manera de fer això és eliminar les rendes altes i reduir la riquesa existent a través d'impostos.

"El capital al segle XXI" és una densa exploració de Thomas Piketty en la història dels salaris i de la riquesa en els últims tres segles. Presenta un desgavell de dades sobre la distribució dels ingressos en molts països, provant de demostrar que la desigualtat ha augmentat dràsticament en les últimes dècades i que aviat tornarà a ser pitjor. Independentment de si un està convençut per les dades del Sr Piketty  -i hi ha raons per a l'escepticisme, donat el cas de les pròpies advertències de l'autor i pel fet que moltes estadístiques es basen en mostres molt limitades dels registres de l'impost sobre béns de dubtosa extrapolació- en última instància aquest és un fet de poca importància. Conseqüentment aquest llibre no és tant un treball d'anàlisi econòmica com el d’una norma ideològica estranya.

Professor de l'Escola d'Economia de París, el Sr Piketty creu que només la productivitat dels treballadors de baixos ingressos pot ser mesurada de forma objectiva. Ell postula que quan un treball és replicable, com el d’un "treballador de la línia de muntatge o el d’un cambrer de menjar ràpid",  es pot mesurar de forma relativament fàcil el valor aportat per cada treballador. Per tant, aquests treballadors tenen dret al que guanyen. Ell troba que la productivitat de les persones amb alts ingressos ´rd més difícil de mesurar i creu que els seus salaris es troben en el final de la "gran mesura arbitrària".  Són el reflex d'una "construcció ideològica" més del mèrit.

Segons Piketty, els sous altíssims per "supermanagers" corporatius ha estat la major font d'augment de la desigualtat, i aquests executius només poden haver arribat a la seva recompensa gràcies a la sort o falles en el govern corporatiu. Es requereix només una mirada ocasional a aquest diari per confirmar això. No obstant, l'autor creu que cap CEO podria mai justificar el seu salari en funció del rendiment. Ell no diu que qualsevol professional –atletes, metges, professors d'economia, que venen llibres electrònics per 21,99$ de marge amb cost zero per còpia- tingui dret a majors ingressos perquè no vol "gaudir de la construcció d'una jerarquia moral de la riquesa".

Ell admet que els empresaris són "absolutament indispensables" per al desenvolupament econòmic, però el seu èxit, també, està generalment contaminat. Mentre que alguns tenen èxit gràcies al "treball per part del veritable emprenedor," altres tenen senzillament sort o aconsegueixen l’èxit a través del "robatori descarat". Fins i tot seria el cas de les fortunes fetes del treball empresarial que evolucionen ràpidament cap a una "concentració excessiva i duradora del capital". Això és una injustícia d'auto-reforç, perquè "la propietat a vegades comença amb el robatori, i el retorn arbitrari sobre el capital pot perpetuar fàcilment el delicte inicial. "De fet tot el llibre incorpora com a una hostilitat gairebé medieval la idea de que el capital financer tingui un retorn o benefici.

El Sr Piketty creu que com més rica es torna una societat, més gent va a la recerca de la millor posició social relativa, condicionant més desigualtat. Rememora les atemporals autoritats econòmiques com Jane Austen i Honoré de Balzac en la cartografia del nostre futur. Al llarg del llibre es divaga amb les maquinacions inadequades, perseguint de personatges de novel·les com "Sentit i sensibilitat", i obsessivament, amb el calculador "Papà Goriot": Són els fruits del treball dur superiors a les intencions per casar-se i aconseguir una fortuna? Si no és així, "per què treballar, i per què comportar-se moralment bé?"

Mentre que els executius corporatius dels Estats Units són la seva “bèstia especial”, el Sr Piketty també està profundament preocupat per les desenes de milions de persones treballadores -un grup que ell anomena despectivament "petits rendistes"- que els seus ingressos els col·loca molt lluny de l’u per cent, però que encara tenen estalvis, comptes de jubilació i altres actius. Considera que aquest gran grup demogràfic es farà més gran i que el seu creixement de riquesa es transmetrà mitjançant les herències, essent això "una forma bastant preocupant de desigualtat". Es lamenta del difícil que és "corregir" tot això perquè es tracta d'un ampli segment de la població, no una petita elit, més fàcilment “satanitzable” .

Llavors, què cal fer ? El Sr Piketty insta a constituir una taxa impositiva del 80 % en els ingressos a partir del 500.000$ o 1 milió. "Això no és per recaptar diners per a l'educació o per augmentar les prestacions d'atur.  Contràriament, no ho espera d’un impost d'aquest tipus perquè el seu propòsit és, simplement, "posar fi a aquest tipus d'ingressos”. També serà necessari imposar una taxa -del 50/60%- sobre els ingressos més baixos, com els de 200.000$. Afegeix també ha ha d'haver un impost a la riquesa anual de fins el 10 % sobre les fortunes més grans i una càrrega fiscal, d'una sola vegada, de fins el 20% sobre els nivells de riquesa més baixos. Ell, alegrement, ens assegura que res d'això reduiria el creixement econòmic, la productivitat, l'emprenedoria o la innovació.

No és que el creixement i la millora no estigui en la ment del senyor Piketty,  sin´ó que es tracta com un assumpte econòmic i com un mitjà per a una major justícia distributiva. S'assumeix que l'economia és estàtica i de suma zero; si l'ingrés d'un grup de població augmenta, un altre necessàriament ha d’empobrir-se. Ell veu la igualtat de resultats com la finalitat última i exclusivament per al seu propi bé. Objectius -tals alternatives com la maximització de la riquesa general de la societat o l'augment de la llibertat econòmica o la recerca de la major igualtat possible d'oportunitats o fins i tot, com en la filosofia de John Rawls, el que garanteix que el benestar dels més desfavorits es maximitza -són ni mínimament esmentats.

No hi ha dubte que la pobresa, la desocupació i la desigualtat d'oportunitats són els principals reptes per a les societats capitalistes, i els diversos graus de la sort, el treball dur, la mandra i el mèrit són inherents a la humanitat. El Sr Piketty no és el primer visionari utòpic. Cita, per exemple, "l’experiment soviètic" que va permetre a l'home llançar "les seves cadenes juntament amb el jou de la riquesa acumulada." En el seu relat, només va portar el desastre humà perquè les societats necessiten mercats i propietat privada per tenir una economia que funcioni. Ell diu que les seves solucions ofereixen una "resposta menys violenta i més eficient per l'etern problema del capital privat i del seu benefici. En lloc d'Austen i Balzac, el professor hauria de llegir "Rebel·lió a la Granja” i "Darkness at Noon".

Shuchman és un gestor de fons de Nova York que escriu sovint sobre el dret i l'economia.

Thomas Piketty Revives Marx for the 21st Century. By Daniel Schuman
An 80% tax rate on incomes above $500,000 is not meant to bring in money for education or benefits, but 'to put an end to such incomes.'
Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2014 7:18 p.m. ET

Thomas Piketty likes capitalism because it efficiently allocates resources. But he does not like how it allocates income. There is, he thinks, a moral illegitimacy to virtually any accumulation of wealth, and it is a matter of justice that such inequality be eradicated in our economy. The way to do this is to eliminate high incomes and to reduce existing wealth through taxation.

"Capital in the Twenty-First Century" is Mr. Piketty's dense exploration of the history of wages and wealth over the past three centuries. He presents a blizzard of data about income distribution in many countries, claiming to show that inequality has widened dramatically in recent decades and will soon get dangerously worse. Whether or not one is convinced by Mr. Piketty's data—and there are reasons for skepticism, given the author's own caveats and the fact that many early statistics are based on extremely limited samples of estate tax records and dubious extrapolation—is ultimately of little consequence. For this book is less a work of economic analysis than a bizarre ideological screed.

A professor at the Paris School of Economics, Mr. Piketty believes that only the productivity of low-wage workers can be measured objectively. He posits that when a job is replicable, like an "assembly line worker or fast-food server," it is relatively easy to measure the value contributed by each worker. These workers are therefore entitled to what they earn. He finds the productivity of high-income earners harder to measure and believes their wages are in the end "largely arbitrary." They reflect an "ideological construct" more than merit.

Soaring pay for corporate "supermanagers" has been the largest source of increased inequality, according to Mr. Piketty, and these executives can only have attained their rewards through luck or flaws in corporate governance. It requires only an occasional glance at this newspaper to confirm that this can be the case. But the author believes that no CEO could ever justify his or her pay based on performance. He doesn't say whether any occupation—athletes? physicians? economics professors who sell zero-marginal-cost e-books for $21.99 a copy?—is entitled to higher earnings because he does not wish to "indulge in constructing a moral hierarchy of wealth."

He does admit that entrepreneurs are "absolutely indispensable" for economic development, but their success, too, is usually tainted. While some succeed thanks to "true entrepreneurial labor," some are simply lucky or succeed through "outright theft." Even the fortunes made from entrepreneurial labor, moreover, quickly evolve into an "excessive and lasting concentration of capital." This is a self-reinforcing injustice because "property sometimes begins with theft, and the arbitrary return on capital can easily perpetuate the initial crime." Indeed laced throughout the book is an almost medieval hostility to the notion that financial capital earns a return.

Mr. Piketty believes that the wealthier a society becomes, the more people will claw for the best relative social station and the more inequality will ensue. He turns to those timeless economic authorities Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac in mapping our future. Throughout the book, he importunately digresses with the dowry-chasing machinations of characters in novels like "Sense and Sensibility" and " Père Goriot. " He is obsessed with the following calculus: Are the fruits of working hard greater than those attainable by marrying into a top fortune? If not, "why work? And why behave morally at all?"

While America's corporate executives are his special bête noire, Mr. Piketty is also deeply troubled by the tens of millions of working people—a group he disparagingly calls "petits rentiers"—whose income puts them nowhere near the "one percent" but who still have savings, retirement accounts and other assets. That this very large demographic group will get larger, grow wealthier and pass on assets via inheritance is "a fairly disturbing form of inequality." He laments that it is difficult to "correct" because it involves a broad segment of the population, not a small elite that is easily demonized.

So what is to be done? Mr. Piketty urges an 80% tax rate on incomes starting at "$500,000 or $1 million." This is not to raise money for education or to increase unemployment benefits. Quite the contrary, he does not expect such a tax to bring in much revenue, because its purpose is simply "to put an end to such incomes." It will also be necessary to impose a 50%-60% tax rate on incomes as low as $200,000 to develop "the meager US social state." There must be an annual wealth tax as high as 10% on the largest fortunes and a one-time assessment as high as 20% on much lower levels of existing wealth. He breezily assures us that none of this would reduce economic growth, productivity, entrepreneurship or innovation.

Not that enhancing growth is much on Mr. Piketty's mind, either as an economic matter or as a means to greater distributive justice. He assumes that the economy is static and zero-sum; if the income of one population group increases, another one must necessarily have been impoverished. He views equality of outcome as the ultimate end and solely for its own sake. Alternative objectives—such as maximizing the overall wealth of society or increasing economic liberty or seeking the greatest possible equality of opportunity or even, as in the philosophy of John Rawls, ensuring that the welfare of the least well-off is maximized—are scarcely mentioned.

There is no doubt that poverty, unemployment and unequal opportunity are major challenges for capitalist societies, and varying degrees of luck, hard work, sloth and merit are inherent in human affairs. Mr. Piketty is not the first utopian visionary. He cites, for instance, the "Soviet experiment" that allowed man to throw "off his chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth." In his telling, it only led to human disaster because societies need markets and private property to have a functioning economy. He says that his solutions provide a "less violent and more efficient response to the eternal problem of private capital and its return." Instead of Austen and Balzac, the professor ought to read "Animal Farm" and "Darkness at Noon."

Mr. Shuchman is a New York fund manager who often writes on law and economics.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Responsible Way to Rein in Super-Fast Trading - by Gary Cohn

The Responsible Way to Rein in Super-Fast Trading. By Gary Cohn
At Goldman Sachs, we would back these measures to limit the risk and instability that technology gains brought.
WSJ, March 20, 2014 8:05 p.m. ET

Equity-market structure in the U.S. has made important advances over the past 20 years, promoting greater transparency and liquidity. Three powerful forces have been at work: technology, regulation and competition. The result has been narrower spreads, faster execution and lower overall explicit costs to trading stocks.

With the overwhelming majority of transactions now done over multiple electronic markets each with its own rule books, the equity-market structure is increasingly fragmented and complex. The risks associated with this fragmentation and complexity are amplified by the dramatic increase in the speed of execution and trading communications.

In the U.S., there are 13 public exchanges and nearly 50 alternative trading systems. Regulation NMS (National Market System), adopted in 2007, requires that market participants route their orders to the exchange that displays the best public price at any given time. This has increased both the number of linkages in the market and the speed at which transactions are done. The Securities and Exchange Commission has correctly called for an "assessment of whether market structure rules have kept pace with, among other things, changes in trading technology and practices."

In the past year alone, multiple technology failures have occurred in the equities markets, with a severe impact on the markets' ability to operate. Even though industry groups have met after the market disruptions to discuss responses, there has not been enough progress. Execution venues are decentralized and unable to agree on common rules. While an industry-based solution is preferable, some issues cannot be addressed by market forces alone and require a regulatory response. Innovation is critical to a healthy and competitive market structure, but not at the cost of introducing substantial risk.

Regulators and industry participants, including asset managers, broker-dealers, exchanges and trading firms, have all put forth ideas and reforms. We agree with a number of their concerns and propose the following four principles:

• First, the equity market needs a stronger safety net of controls to reduce the magnitude and frequency of disruptions. A fragmented trading landscape, increasingly sophisticated routing algorithms, constant software updates and an explosion in electronic-order instructions have made markets more susceptible to technology failures and their consequences.

We propose that all exchanges adopt a stringent set of uniform, SEC-mandated execution controls to reduce errors. In addition to limit-up, limit-down rules that prevent trades from occurring outside a specified price band, pre-trade price and volume limits should be implemented to block problematic orders from entering the market. Mechanisms should also be introduced to halt a firm's, market maker's or other entity's trading when an established threshold is breached, thus minimizing the uncontrolled accumulation of trades.

• Second: Create incentives to reduce excessive market instability. The economic model of the exchanges, as shaped by regulation, is oriented around market volume. Volume generates price discovery and liquidity, which are clearly beneficial. But the industry must recognize how certain activities related to volume can place stress on a market infrastructure ill-equipped to deal with it.

Electronic-order instructions connect the objectives of buyers and sellers to actions on exchanges. These transaction messages direct the placement, cancellation and correction of orders, and in recent years they have skyrocketed. In the 2010 "flash crash," a spike in the volume of these messages exacerbated volatility, overwhelming the market's infrastructure.

According to industry analysis, since 2005 the flow of these order instructions sent through U.S. stock exchanges has increased more than 1000%, yet trade volume has increased by only 50%. One consequence of the enormous growth in order-message traffic is that increasingly the quote that an investor sees isn't the price he or she can transact, as orders often get canceled at lightning-quick speeds.

Currently there is no cost to market participants who generate excessive order-message traffic. One idea would be to consider if regulatory fees applied on the basis of extreme message traffic—rather than executions alone—are appropriate and would enhance the underlying strength and resiliency of the system. Regulators in Canada and Australia have adopted this approach.

• Third: Public market data should be disseminated to all market participants simultaneously. Exchanges currently disseminate prices and transaction data to the SEC-sanctioned distributor for all investors, but exchanges may also send this information directly to private subscribers. While the data leave the exchange simultaneously, the public data are delayed because they go through the intermediary's processing infrastructure. The public aggregator should release information to all market participants at the same time.

Removing the possibility of differentiated channels for market data also reduces incentives that favor investment in the speed of one channel over the stability and resiliency of another. Instability creates and compounds market disruptions. Stable and accurate market data is one of the most important elements of market safety; it is the backbone of the market that must weather the most extreme periods.

• Fourth: Give clearing members more tools to limit risk. A central clearing house with strong operational and financial integrity can reduce credit risk, increase liquidity and enhance transparency through enforced margin requirements and verified and recorded trades. But because clearing members extend credit, the associated risks must be recognized. Tools like pre-trade credit checks and being able to monitor positions and credit on an intraday basis are essential. Clearing firms use various tools like margin and capital adequacy to manage their risk, but exchanges should also provide uniform mechanisms for clearers to set credit limits and to revoke a client's ability to trade immediately upon request, when necessary.

U.S. markets today are the deepest, most liquid in the world and serve an indispensable role in allocating capital. That means the companies that have the greatest potential to innovate and grow will get the capital they need to create jobs, build new industries and ensure a vibrant economy. Investors have benefited significantly from technology and innovation, but the speed and complexity at which our markets operate aren't being matched with the operational and control environment to support them.

Mr. Cohn is president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Shedding Some Light on Shadow Banking - Don't let a vaguely sinister label for this useful financing prompt harmful regulations

Shedding Some Light on Shadow Banking. By Tony James
Don't let a vaguely sinister label for this useful financing prompt harmful regulations.
WSJ, Mar 04, 2014

The term "shadow banking" is one of those Orwellian terms that can undermine critical thought. It has a negative, vaguely sinister connotation about a source of financing that is an essential and desirable part of the financial system. As discussion about the regulation of nonbank entities begins in earnest, it's time to clear the air about what these institutions are and how they operate.

Shadow banking—or more accurately, market-based financing—is simply the provision of capital by loans or investments to some companies by other companies that are not banks. Examples include insurance companies, credit investment funds, hedge funds, private-equity funds, and broker dealers. These institutions do not operate in the dark. Market-based finance in the U.S. amounts to trillions of dollars and is significantly larger than the country's entire banking system.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has correctly noted the role of shadow banking in "diversifying the sources of financing of our economies in a sustainable way." For example, traditional bank financing is not always available for many small- and medium-size companies. Market-based financing has fueled the creation of companies (and thousands of jobs) in many industries. It has rescued companies on the edge of bankruptcy and saved the jobs associated with them. And market-based financing has built warehouses, manufacturing plants and hotels, such as the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences in downtown New York City, when traditional banks could not, or would not, provide capital.

Large banks concentrate risk in relatively few hands, which can pose a risk to the economic system. That is not the case for market-based financing. Risks are safely dispersed across many sophisticated investors who can readily absorb any potential losses. Unlike traditional banks, market-based funds do not borrow from the Federal Reserve, nor do they rely on government-guaranteed deposits. Substantially all their capital comes from well-advised institutional investors who know what they are getting into, and understand the associated risks. Bank depositors (and taxpayers) on the other hand, do not typically know what a bank's investments are or how risky they may be.

Typically, market-based funds also lack the elements that are sources of systemic instability, including high leverage and interdependence. Each investment within a fund is independent and not cross-collateralized or supporting a common debt structure. Losses in any one fund are without recourse to any other fund or to the manager of the capital.

In addition, investors in many market-based funds, including credit investment funds, hedge funds and private-equity funds often cannot instantly withdraw their capital, unlike depositors in banks. Large, sudden withdrawals can lead to runs on the bank or force "fire sales" of assets. With stable, in-place capital, these funds can provide a critical source of liquidity to trading markets in times of turmoil.

Of course, some regulation may be appropriate for nonbank entities that present bank-like risks to financial stability or that lend to consumers. But let's not forget that it was the regulated entities that were the source of almost all the systemic risk in the financial crisis.

Regulations are far from a panacea and would need to be carefully constructed to ensure that the enormous economic benefits of market-based financing are not lost through inappropriate and stifling regulatory policies established for large, deposit-taking banks.

While banks in the U.S. are better capitalized and much safer today than before the financial crisis, market-based financing—shadow banking, if you prefer—still brings enormous economic advantages to a wide range of businesses and employees, and fills a real gap in the market.

In Europe, where banks are less well capitalized, the need for market-based financing is even more critical. As the G-20's Financial Stability Board noted in its policy framework last August, market-based financing creates "competition in financial markets that may lead to innovation, efficient credit allocation and cost reduction."

It is critical that any misunderstanding of the shadow banking system does not result in regulations that undermine the many thousands of companies and jobs that need market-based financing to survive and grow.

Mr. James is president and chief operating officer of Blackstone, a global investment and advisory firm.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Diversify Europe's Financial Grid. By Alberto Gallo

Diversify Europe's Financial Grid. By Alberto Gallo
Euro-zone lenders hold assets worth more than €30 trillion, three times the output of the euro area.
WSJ, Feb 20, 2014

European banks remain vulnerable to another financial crisis. Capital buffers are too small, creditor bail-ins too low and emergency resolution mechanisms still inadequate to insulate governments from losses that could arise from a system-wide failure. In short, we need a new formula for financial stability.

A banking crisis today would still cost European sovereigns between 2% and 10% of GDP. The final bill would depend on many factors, the size of the initial loss being only one. Others include how much is mitigated by the banks' own capital reserves, by pre-existing government backstops and by any money that can be recouped by bailing-in bondholders.

The size of a country's banking system is also critical. By that measure, Europe's banks remain too big to fail.

Euro-zone lenders have shrunk their balance sheets by a total of €4.4 trillion since the second quarter of 2012, but still hold assets worth more than €30 trillion, according to the European Central Bank. That's three times the output of the euro area and far outstrips the U.S., where bank assets are less than GDP.

And if European banks are too big, they're also still undercapitalized. Capital is adequate relative to risk-weighted assets, against which "capital ratios" are measured, but falls short as a proportion of the banks' total asset base and of potential losses.

To make their capital ratios look better, many banks have reduced their risk-weighted assets over the past few years, often by "optimizing" their internal risk models. More than one-third of European banks now have less than 30% risk-weighted assets over total (RWA), some as low as 20%. This means a bank's "10% capital ratio" is effectively equal to €2 of capital for every €100 of assets (20% RWA times 10% equals €2). That's too low, especially for systemic banks whose balance sheets are as large as a country's GDP.

Regulators recognize the issue and are trying to introduce an absolute floor on capital: the Basel committee's 3% leverage ratio prescribes a minimum €3 of capital over assets. But even this would not have helped troubled banks such as Dexia or Anglo Irish, which lost the equivalent of 4% and 20% of their assets during the 2008-09 crisis, respectively.

We estimate that to stand on their own feet, banks need a leverage ratio of about 5.8% of capital over assets. This is consistent with the approach of Swiss and U.S. regulators, who recommend a 6% leverage ratio. It means euro-zone banks would need to raise an additional €492 billion of capital—more than six times the €80 billion that the European Banking Authority says they raised in 2013.

Another solution would be to increase bail-in requirements or state backstops. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble recently proposed speeding up the formation of Europe's Single Resolution Fund, a bank-financed pool of money planned to help wrap up or restructure failing banks. But the proposed €55 billion that would be available in the fund pales in comparison to the potential losses generated by bank failures, even if a bail-in were to be implemented first. We estimate the fund could help one large or two mid-sized institutions withstand failure, at best.

These backstops are also very difficult to put into action—the decision to restructure or resolve a bank has to pass through national committees, the European Commission, the Single-Resolution Mechanism (whose fine-print is still being drafted), and various other boards. Not a weekend job.

Regulators need a more comprehensive approach to making banks safe. It must encompass the total size of capital reserves, the size and structure of banking systems, and rules that can efficiently bail-in bondholders. Regulators are moving in the right direction, but they have not gone far enough.

Ultimately, I believe that Europe will be free from the threat of failing banks only once it has a smaller banking system and a more diversified supply of credit.

Think of credit like an energy grid: In Europe, 80% to 90% of the energy comes from banks—the coal or nuclear plants of the system. If something goes wrong with them, the costs will be high, the collateral effects toxic, and the damage could take years to clean up.

We need more "renewable energy" in the form of non-bank sources of credit. That means bonds, securitizations, and lending from insurance companies and asset managers. Only then will Europe be free from its banks.

Mr. Gallo is the head of macro-credit research at the Royal Bank of Scotland. The views expressed are his own.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How Dodd-Frank Doubles Down on 'Too Big to Fail'

How Dodd-Frank Doubles Down on 'Too Big to Fail'
Two major flaws mean that the act doesn't address problems that led to the financial crisis of 2008. 
By Charles W. Calomiris And Allan H. Meltzer WSJ, Feb. 12, 2014 6:44 p.m. ET

The Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, mandated hundreds of major regulations to control bank risk-taking, with the aim of preventing a repeat of the taxpayer bailouts of "too big to fail" financial institutions. These regulations are on top of many rules adopted after the 2008 financial crisis to make banks more secure. Yet at a Senate hearing in January, Elizabeth Warren asked a bipartisan panel of four economists (including Allan Meltzer ) whether the Dodd-Frank Act would end the problem of too-big-to-fail banks. Every one answered no.

Dodd-Frank's approach to regulating bank risk has two major flaws. First, its standards and rules require regulatory enforcement instead of giving bankers strong incentives to maintain safety and soundness of their own institutions. Second, the regulatory framework attempts to prevent any individual bank from failing, instead of preventing the collapse of the payments and credit systems.

The principal danger to the banking system arises when fear and uncertainty about the value of bank assets induces the widespread refusal by banks to accept each other's short-term debts. Such refusals can lead to a collapse of the interbank payments system, a dramatic contraction of bank credit, and a general loss in confidence by consumers and businesses—all of which can have dire economic consequences. The proper goal is thus to make the banking system sufficiently resilient so that no single failure can result in a general collapse.

Part of the current confusion over regulatory means and ends reflects a mistaken understanding of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. The collapse of interbank credit in September 2008 was not the automatic consequence of Lehman's failure.
Rather, it resulted from a widespread market perception that many large banks were at significant risk of failing. This perception didn't develop overnight. It had evolved steadily and visibly over more than two years, while regulators and politicians did nothing.

Citibank's equity-to-assets ratio, measured in market value—the best single comprehensive measure of a bank's financial strength—fell steadily from about 13% in April 2006 to about 3% by September 2008. And that low value reflected an even lower perception of fundamental asset worth, because the 3% market value included the value of an expected bailout. Lehman's collapse was simply the match in the tinder box. If other banks had been sufficiently safe and sound at the time of Lehman's demise, then the financial system would not have been brought to its knees by a single failure.

To ensure systemwide resiliency, most of Dodd-Frank's regulations should be replaced by measures requiring large, systemically important banks to increase their capacity to deal with losses. The first step would be to substantially raise the minimum ratio of the book value of their equity relative to the book value of their assets.

The Brown-Vitter bill now before Congress (the Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act) would raise that minimum ratio to 15%, roughly a threefold increase from current levels. Although reasonable people can disagree about the optimal minimum ratio—one could argue that a 10% ratio would be adequate in the presence of additional safeguards—15% is not an arbitrary number.

At the onset of the Great Depression, large New York City banks all maintained more than 15% of their assets in equity, and none of them succumbed to the worst banking system shocks in U.S. history from 1929 to 1932. The losses suffered by major banks in the recent crisis would not have wiped out their equity if it had been equal to 15% of their assets.

Bankers and their supervisors often find it mutually convenient to understate expected loan losses and thereby overstate equity values. The problem is magnified when equity requirements are expressed relative to "risk-weighted assets," allowing regulators to permit banks' models to underestimate their risks.

This is not a hypothetical issue. In December 2008, when Citi was effectively insolvent, and the market's valuation of its equity correctly reflected that fact, the bank's accounts showed a risk-based capital ratio of 11.8% and a risk-based Tier 1 capital ratio (meant to include only high-quality, equity-like capital) of about 7%. Moreover, factors such as a drop in bank fee income can affect the actual value of a bank's equity, regardless of the riskiness of its loans.

For these reasons, large banks' book equity requirements need to be buttressed by other measures. One is a minimum requirement that banks maintain cash reserves (New York City banks during the Depression maintained cash reserves in excess of 25%). Cash held at the central bank provides protection against default risk similar to equity capital, but it has the advantage of being observable and incapable of being fudged by esoteric risk-modeling.

Several researchers have suggested a variety of ways to supplement simple equity and cash requirements with creative contractual devices that would give bankers strong incentives to make sure that they maintain adequate capital. In the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance (2013), Charles Calomiris and Richard Herring propose debt that converts to equity whenever the market value ratio of a bank's equity is below 9% for more than 90 days. Since the conversion would significantly dilute the value of the stock held by pre-existing shareholders, a bank CEO will have a big incentive to avoid it.

There is plenty of room to debate the details, but the essential reform is to place responsibility for absorbing a bank's losses on banks and their owners. Dodd-Frank institutionalizes too-big-to-fail protection by explicitly permitting bailouts via a "resolution authority" provision at the discretion of government authorities, financed by taxes on surviving banks—and by taxpayers should these bank taxes be insufficient. That provision should be repealed and replaced by clear rules that can't be gamed by bank managers.
Mr. Calomiris is the co-author (with Stephen Haber ) of "Fragile By Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit" (Princeton, 2014). Mr. Meltzer is the author of "Why Capitalism?" (Oxford, 2012). They co-direct (with Kenneth Scott ) the new program on Regulation and the Rule of Law at the Hoover Institution.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Volcker Ambiguity - The triumph of political discretion over financial clarity

The Volcker Ambiguity. WSJ Editorial 
The triumph of political discretion over financial clarity.
Wall Street Journal, Updated Dec. 11, 2013 3:52 p.m. ET

Just in time for Christmas, financial regulators have come down the chimney with a sackful of billable hours for securities lawyers. Truly a gift that keeps on giving, the Volcker Rule adopted on Tuesday by five federal agencies will create a limitless supply of ambiguity and the need for experienced counsel.

We supported former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker's simple idea: Don't let federally insured banks gamble in the securities markets. Taxpayers shouldn't be forced to stand behind Wall Street trading desks. What we can't support is the "Volcker Rule" that was first distorted in the 2010 Dodd-Frank law and has now been grinded and twisted into 71 pages of text plus 882 more pages of explanation after three years of agency sausage-making.

The general idea is to prevent "proprietary trading," in which a bank makes trades not at a customer's request but simply for its own account. Or at least some trades. The rule's new trading restrictions do not apply when Wall Street giants are trading debt issued by the U.S. government, state and local governments, government-created mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and in some circumstances foreign governments and even local or regional foreign governments.

You'll notice a pattern here. Like so many recent financial regulations, the Volcker Rule offers banks and investors big incentives to lend money to governments rather than private businesses. One Wall Street objection to the Volcker Rule has been that it will reduce liquidity in America's capital markets. And fear of a lack of liquidity in the market for government debt—especially Treasurys and European sovereign debt—is precisely the reason politicians and regulators have gone to such lengths to exempt government bonds from Volcker. Maybe Wall Street has a point.

What we don't know about the new rule are important details that will only become clear over time. At least that's according to Commissioner Daniel Gallagher of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who dissented on Tuesday along with fellow Republican appointees Michael Piwowar of the SEC and Scott O'Malia of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Mr. Gallagher said the vote occurred in "contradiction of our procedural rules for voting on major rule releases, including the longstanding guideline that Commissioners should be given thirty days to review a draft before a vote." He added, "Not until five days ago did we have anything even resembling a voting draft, giving us less than a week to review the nearly one thousand pages of the adopting rule. In short, under intense pressure to meet an utterly artificial, wholly political end-of-year deadline, this Commission is effectively being told that we have to vote for the final rule so we can find out what's in it."

Lawyers will certainly find plenty of opportunities for judgment calls that will generate all those billable hours. Banks are still allowed to make markets in securities and to underwrite the issuance of new stocks and bonds, all of which often requires them to hold securities in anticipation of customer demand.

Banks also retain some ability to hedge—to make trades for the purpose of offsetting other risks that they've taken on for clients. The work required to define the difference between legal market-making, underwriting and hedging on the one hand and illegal proprietary trading on the other will now be ample enough to spark a new building boom at downtown D.C. law offices.

Rest assured banks will find loopholes. And rest assured some of the Volcker rule-writers will find private job opportunities to help with that loophole search once they decide to lay down the burdens of government service.

The long, convoluted Volcker process and result illustrate the central problem of Dodd-Frank: the belief that regulators given ever more discretion to craft ever more complicated regulations will yield a safer financial system. The Bank of England's Andrew Haldane and Vasileios Madouros have shown the opposite is true. The complexity of banking rules before the crisis failed to prevent catastrophic risks and made the job of addressing the crisis harder by obscuring the true condition of giant banks.

Especially with banking regulation, simple rules that are difficult for lobbyists and bankers to game are likely to work far better. Bankers would know what to expect and couldn't cry ambiguity if they crossed a line. And regulators would be far more likely to spy violations. The danger with this Volcker Complexity is that we'll get litigation, investing loopholes, and greater financial costs, but not a safer system.

Friday, December 6, 2013

New meat regulations could spark a trade war with Canada and Mexico and will raise costs

This Label Will Raise the Cost of Your Steak. By Scott George and Randy Spronk
New meat regulations could spark a trade war with Canada and Mexico.
Wall Street Journal, Dec. 5, 2013 6:42 p.m. ET

Right before Thanksgiving, while Congress was on break, federal meat labeling regulations took effect that could result in Americans paying higher prices on everything from beef and pork to apples and maple syrup. While legislators, as part of the continuing farm bill negotiations, are considering a fix to the Country of Origin Labeling (Cool) statute, the regulations implementing it went into effect Nov. 23.

The new Cool rules require more detailed labels on meat derived from animals born outside the United States. Labels must now list the country in which livestock were born, raised and slaughtered. For example, a package of rib-eye steak might be labeled: "Born in Canada, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States."

The previous Cool rules required less detailed labeling, such as "Product of Canada and the United States." Ironically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the new rules in May in an effort to improve the previous Cool rules, which the World Trade Organization last year ruled discriminated against Canada, Mexico and other U.S. trading partners.

Not surprisingly, Canada and Mexico are also fighting the new, more stringent rules at the WTO. Should the trade organization rule in their favor, our North American neighbors will likely retaliate against U.S. products through tariffs that will limit U.S. exports and kill American jobs. Canada, the second-largest export market for U.S. agricultural products, valued in 2012 at $20.6 billion, already has a preliminary retaliation list that includes fresh pork and beef, bakery goods, rice, apples, wine, maple syrup and furniture.

U.S. cattle ranchers and hog farmers who purchase livestock from Canada or Mexico will be affected by those retaliatory tariffs in a number of ways. Most crucially to those of us in the industry, the duties will prompt U.S. beef and pork exports to fall while American farmers and ranchers who import animals will see significant cost increases.

Alpha 3 Cattle Company in Amarillo, Texas, for example, imports roughly 38,000 feeder cattle a year from Mexico. When the original Cool law took effect in 2009, meat packers, fearing consumers would be less inclined to buy meat labeled "Product of Mexico and the United States" and incurring added costs to label mixed-origin meat, discounted Alpha 3's Mexican-origin animals by $35 a head. That alone cost Alpha 3 more than $1 million.

Under the new Cool regulations, the company expects the discount to be even higher, or for packing plants to stop processing Mexican-born cattle altogether. Why? Because under the new regulations those animals—and the meat from them—now need to be tracked, verified and segregated from U.S.-born cattle. (The 2009 law allowed co-mingling of animals.)

A Michigan hog farmer who gets most of his feeder pigs from Canada, and who took a financial hit when the labeling law took effect in 2009, has been told by the packing plant to which he sends his animals that he'll have a 10-hour window each week to get his Canadian-born hogs to market. That will be nearly impossible to accomplish—it's 32 truckloads—and it will be extremely costly.

That's because the new regulations will force the packing plant to shut down the lines processing U.S.-born hogs and switch to processing Canadian-born ones—which spend five of their six months in the U.S.—so that pork cuts can be tracked, labeled and kept separate. That's a logistical headache and a huge expense for the plant, which will likely pay the hog farmer less for his Canadian-born hogs and charge consumers more for the meat from those animals.

So why is the U.S. risking trade retaliation and prohibitive cost increases on American producers and consumers of meat? Groups that support Cool, such as the U.S. Cattlemen's Association and the Consumer Federation of America, think U.S. consumers will buy American if they see a "Product of the United States" label. But since the 2009 law went into effect, the USDA says there's been little effect on demand for U.S. meat, and that consumers buy primarily based on taste and price. Most Americans know, even if their legislators don't, that all meat products, regardless of their country of origin, must pass the same USDA safety regulations.

When the Cool proposal was first debated in Congress, the U.S. meat industry said it would be a costly program with little if any benefit to consumers. The USDA estimated it would cost $2.5 billion to implement and nearly $212 million annually over 10 years to maintain.

With our North American neighbors set to impose tariffs on dozens of U.S. products, livestock producers and meat packers facing greater costs and American consumers ultimately bearing higher prices, it appears that assessment was an understatement.

Mr. George is a cattleman from Cody, Wyo., and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Mr. Spronk is a hog farmer from Edgerton, Minn., and president of the National Pork Producers Council.