Posts tagged: federal reserve

In Fed We Trust

Via Robert A. Eisenbeis and Ellis Tallman of Cumberland Advisors:

David Wessel’s book, In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke’s War on the Great Panic, is the definitive chronicle of the 2007-2009 financial crisis, but it is much more.  The book gives us an inside view of how policy making took place in response to the striking events. Wessel provides insights into the key players and decision makers, and conveys a very real sense of what they were thinking as those events unfolded.  In doing so, however, his account triggers serious questions about the Treasury/Federal Reserve decision-making process.  Here, we emphasize three serious flaws in the policy-making process that Wessel describes: the consistent lack of a plan and short-time horizon of the decisions, the insularity of the decision makers, and the apparent disregard for FOMC information-security rules governing meetings and associated documents.  We conclude by noting some oversights in Wessel’s account of the Great Depression and the Panic of 1907.

Lack of a Plan

The insider’s view of the policy making is the unabashed strength of this book, and Wessel provides an extensive chronology of how the crisis unfolded.  It is not a pretty picture.  His most telling observation is that the principals seem to have lurched from event to event without a plan, even after it should have been apparent that one was needed.

The discussions among key participants – namely Chairman Bernanke, Secretary Paulson, then-president Geithner, and Governors Kohn and Warsh – seem rushed, from Wessel’s descriptions of them.  The policy discussions tended to focus on short-term problems, pushing off potential longer-run consequences of the policy responses as a matter of expediency.  The sense is that the participants expected each decision to be sufficient to return markets to normalcy; but of course, they were not.  The ad hoc, short-term nature of policy process, as described in the book, carried with it the risk that not all decisions would be good and would carry with them unintended consequences.  For example, the problems of exiting from many of the policies are now significant and have yet to be addressed.

Wessel alleges that the policy makers continually underestimated the crisis and that there was no long-range planning undertaken from the time that the crisis initially erupted.  This should come as no surprise to anyone reading closely the financial press throughout the crisis, and yet it remains disappointing.  It is important to note that not all the decisions had the time constraints that surrounded the issue of the Lehman failure in the fall of 2008.  That event was preceded by almost a year of financial turmoil, serial reports of losses, failures or mortgage related institutions, and market disruptions that should have signaled to policy makers that something serious was at hand and that they weren’t simply facing a short-term liquidity problem.

By now, it is apparent that the crisis was misdiagnosed as a liquidity problem when in fact it was a solvency crisis.  Funds didn’t suddenly dry up and markets did not stop functioning because there were no funds available.  Rather, because of the trail of losses and preceding events, financial markets finally became wary of the solvency of key counterparties, as the Bear Stearns episode clearly demonstrated.  This was long before the problems in Lehman Brothers emerged.  Market participants’ concerns, as subsequent events proved, were well-founded.  It took policy makers too long to recognize the capital deficiencies relative to the risk exposures of major primary dealers, which then left them with insufficient time to design resolution plans.  Most of the largest financial institutions – both domestic and international – proved to have inadequate capital.  Some failed, and many were bailed out by their respective governments.

Wessel’s description of the decision-making process reminds one of a perpetual Chinese fire drill rather than a considered, analytic approach to the problems as they unfolded over time.  The latter implies a systematic plan, and the former implies a sequence of ad hoc responses to unrelated shocks. Even if an initial plan proved inadequate, the experience would have permitted corrections as events evolved.  And lacking a plan, it is harder to see if and when a decision was wrong.

Delegated and Concentrated Decision Making

The second issue that emerges from Wessel’s account is the insular and concentrated nature of the decision-making process, which excluded many members of the Board of Governors and FOMC.  Three governors and the president of the NY Fed apparently took on the decision-making responsibility for the central bank in the midst of the crisis. From the narrative, it seems as if this core group effectively froze out the remaining two members of the Board and FOMC members from both decision making and access to key real-time information.

Why did it happen?  Under what authority did this happen?  One plausible answer is that the core group felt that the existing structure was too cumbersome to effectively coordinate policy among so many principals, and so they simply exploited a loophole in the law governing open and closed meetings of government agencies.  Let us explain.  Normally, there are seven members of the Board of Governors, so that a gathering of four would constitute a majority and could officially make decisions.  According to the 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act, which sets out the rules meetings of  federal governmental agencies, official Federal Reserve Board meetings in which policies are considered must be announced in advance and,  at a minimum, an agenda must be provided,.  For this reason, only three governors can get together in the same room without it constituting a “meeting”  and invoking the provisions of the Sunshine Act.   But during the entire crisis there have only been five governors on the Board, with two vacancies.  (David Kotok has written extensively on this issue in previous commentaries.)  Thus, the gathering of the three governors in the meetings that Wessel describes meant that while not technically meeting the legal requirement for a meeting, the three de facto constituted a majority of the sitting governors and could actually make decisions.  Coordinating policy with the entire FOMC would have been more cumbersome and likely would have also required that a written transcript be prepared.  It could be that the core principals felt that a smaller group would make decisions more quickly, and the sense of such a desire for quick decisions comes across in the narrative.  Nevertheless, one can’t help but feel that it might have been beneficial to have been able to tap the broader experience and expertise of the Federal Reserve Bank presidents, especially since so many of the key principals making the crucial decisions were relatively new to their jobs.

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Origins of the Federal Reserve

Via Mises.org:

The Federal Reserve Act of December 23, 1913, was part and parcel of the wave of Progressive legislation on local, state, and federal levels of government that began about 1900. Progressivism was a bipartisan movement that, in the course of the first two decades of the 20th century, transformed the American economy and society from one of roughly laissez-faire to one of centralized statism.

Until the 1960s, historians had established the myth that Progressivism was a virtual uprising of workers and farmers who, guided by a new generation of altruistic experts and intellectuals, surmounted fierce big business opposition in order to curb, regulate, and control what had been a system of accelerating monopoly in the late 19th century. A generation of research and scholarship, however, has now exploded that myth for all parts of the American polity, and it has become all too clear that the truth is the reverse of this well-worn fable.

In contrast, what actually happened was that business became increasingly competitive during the late 19th century, and that various big-business interests, led by the powerful financial house of J. P. Morgan and Company, tried desperately to establish successful cartels on the free market. The first wave of such cartels was in the first large-scale business — railroads. In every case, the attempt to increase profits — by cutting sales with a quota system — and thereby to raise prices or rates, collapsed quickly from internal competition within the cartel and from external competition by new competitors eager to undercut the cartel.

During the 1890s, in the new field of large-scale industrial corporations, big-business interests tried to establish high prices and reduced production via mergers, and again, in every case, the merger collapsed from the winds of new competition. In both sets of cartel attempts, J. P. Morgan and Company had taken the lead, and in both sets of cases, the market, hampered though it was by high protective, tariff walls, managed to nullify these attempts at voluntary cartelization.

It then became clear to these big-business interests that the only way to establish a cartelized economy, an economy that would ensure their continued economic dominance and high profits, would be to use the powers of government to establish and maintain cartels by coercion, in other words, to transform the economy from roughly laissez-faire to centralized, coordinated statism. But how could the American people, steeped in a long tradition of fierce opposition to government-imposed monopoly, go along with this program? How could the public’s consent to the New Order be engineered?

Fortunately for the cartelists, a solution to this vexing problem lay at hand. Monopoly could be put over in the name of opposition to monopoly! In that way, using the rhetoric beloved by Americans, the form of the political economy could be maintained, while the content could be totally reversed.

Monopoly had always been defined, in the popular parlance and among economists, as “grants of exclusive privilege” by the government. It was now simply redefined as “big business” or business competitive practices, such as price-cutting, so that regulatory commissions, from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to state insurance commissions, were lobbied for and staffed with big-business men from the regulated industry, all done in the name of curbing “big-business monopoly” on the free market.

In that way, the regulatory commissions could subsidize, restrict, and cartelize in the name of “opposing monopoly,” as well as promoting the general welfare and national security. Once again, it was railroad monopoly that paved the way.

For this intellectual shell game, the cartelists needed the support of the nation’s intellectuals, the class of professional opinion molders in society. The Morgans needed a smokescreen of ideology, setting forth the rationale and the apologetics for the New Order. Again, fortunately for them, the intellectuals were ready and eager for the new alliance.

The enormous growth of intellectuals, academics, social scientists, technocrats, engineers, social workers, physicians, and occupational “guilds” of all types in the late 19th century led most of these groups to organize for a far greater share of the pie than they could possibly achieve on the free market. These intellectuals needed the State to license, restrict, and cartelize their occupations, so as to raise the incomes for the fortunate people already in these fields.

In return for their serving as apologists for the new statism, the State was prepared to offer not only cartelized occupations, but also ever-increasing and cushier jobs in the bureaucracy to plan and propagandize for the newly statized society. And the intellectuals were ready for it, having learned in graduate schools in Germany the glories of statism and organicist socialism, of a harmonious “middle way” between dog-eat-dog laissez-faire on the one hand and proletarian Marxism on the other. Big government, staffed by intellectuals and technocrats, steered by big business, and aided by unions organizing a subservient labor force, would impose a cooperative commonwealth for the alleged benefit of all.

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Don’t Fear the Inflation, Goldman Says

Via FT Alphaville:

Goldman Sachs is putting an end to the deflation vs inflation debate, once and for all!

In a 30-page research note out on Wednesday, the bank comes down firmly on the side of (moderate) deflation in the near-term.

Here, GS analyst Andrew Tilton says, is why:

  • Inflation is already low, with the core CPI down to 1.4% on a year-overyear basis and the overall CPI in deflation territory.
  • Excess capacity in the economy is huge, probably at least 6% of GDP and possibly at its highest level since the Great Depression.
  • Spare capacity is likely to persist for years [see below table]. While the financial crisis and recession probably have reduced the economy’s production capacity somewhat, we do not see strong evidence for persistently lower growth of capacity going forward. Even if we assume substantially above-trend real GDP growth of, say, 5% per year, it will take more than three years to get back to equilibrium in the labor market and two in the manufacturing sector. Our own assumptions of a somewhat slower recovery suggest it could well take more than five years to reach equilibrium in the labor market and nearly as long in housing.
  • Monetary policy is arguably too tight despite a near-zero funds rate and unconventional easing. Our own calculations using estimated Taylor rule parameters, as well as those in recent research from the San Francisco Fed, point to an `appropriate’ funds rate of -5% or below.
  • The default path of current policy is for removal of stimulus. Fed asset purchase programs are scheduled to end within the next several months and its balance sheet will begin to shrink after that point, while the growth impact of fiscal stimulus is already peaking.

Nevertheless, Goldman’s Tilton gets why investors are worried about inflation, and the bank itself is not oblivious to the possibility, given the massive unconventional fiscal and monetary policies undertaken by the Federal Reserve. In fact, Tilton says, there are a few inflationary warnings signs investors should be looking out for.

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Bill Gross Bets On Deflation

Via Bloomberg:

Bill Gross, who runs the world’s biggest bond fund at Pacific Investment Management Co., said he’s been buying longer maturity Treasuries in recent weeks as protection against deflation.

“There has been significant flattening on the long end of the curve,” Gross said in an interview from Newport Beach, California, with Bloomberg Radio. “This reflects the re- emergence of deflationary fears. The U.S. is at the center of de-levering as opposed to accelerating growth.”

Gross had said during the midst of the credit crunch that Treasuries offered little value as investors seeking a refuge from turmoil in global financial markets drove yields to record lows in December. He boosted the $177.5 billion Total Return Fund’s investment in government-related bonds to 44 percent of assets, the most since August 2004, from 25 percent in July, according data released earlier this month on Pimco’s Web site. The fund cut mortgage debt to 38 percent from 47 percent.

…Officials at Pimco have forecast a “new normal” in the global economy that will include heightened government regulation, lower consumption and slower growth. The economy will likely expand at a 2 percent to 3 percent rate going forward, Gross said.

The world’s largest economy shrank at a 1.2 percent annual rate from April to June, more than the originally reported 1 percent contraction, according to a Bloomberg News survey before the Commerce Department’s Sept. 30 report. The jobless rate climbed to 9.8 percent this month, from 9.7 percent in August, according to a separate Bloomberg survey before the Labor Department reports figures on Oct. 2.

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Fed Growth Effort May Be Undermined by ‘Tight’ Credit

Via Bloomberg:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s efforts to stoke a U.S. economic recovery may be undermined by the central bank’s other goal of restoring the banking system to health.

The Federal Open Market Committee, at the conclusion tomorrow of a two-day meeting, will probably maintain its assessment that “tight” bank credit is impeding growth, said economists including former Fed Governor Lyle Gramley. Lending contracted for five straight weeks through Sept. 9, a drop that in part reflects Fed orders to banks to raise more capital and toughen lending standards, analysts say.

A failure to restore the flow of bank credit carries the risk that the economic recovery will be slower than the Fed anticipates, or even that the U.S. lapses into another recession, economists say. That would make it more likely the Fed will keep its main interest rate close to zero for a longer period.

————

“Even though from a technical perspective the recession is very likely over at this point, it’s still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time,” Bernanke said in response to a question after a speech in Washington. Fed officials in June predicted that GDP will expand 2.1 percent to 3.3 percent next year after shrinking 1.5 percent to 1 percent this year, according to the central tendency of their forecasts.

Banks have plenty of reasons to hold back on lending, analysts say.

Americans fell behind on their mortgage payments at a record pace in the second quarter, with delinquencies rising to 9.24 percent, according to an August report by the Mortgage Bankers Association.

“Consumers aren’t necessarily that creditworthy a proposition right now,” said John Ryding, chief economist and founder of RDQ Economics LLC in New York.

Falling values of commercial real estate are also a problem for banks, with an “uncertain degree of losses” to come, said Ryding, a former Fed researcher. Loans made for commercial property will probably sour and lenders will need to raise more capital to cover credit losses, Mike Mayo, a banking analyst at CLSA Ltd., said today at a conference in Hong Kong.

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The Hypocrisy of the Fed

Paul La Monica has a great article in CNNMoney.com regarding the Fed’s two-faced view on risk:

Are there any mirrors in the headquarters of the Federal Reserve? If so, I think it’s time for Ben Bernanke and his colleagues to look into one.

The Fed, according to a Wall Street Journal report Friday, is said to be considering a plan that would allow regulators to closely monitor and even change the pay practices at financial firms in order to make sure that these companies aren’t encouraging excessive risk-taking.

Considering that the mess that we find ourselves in is partly due to big banks and insurance firms failing to recognize the many subprime warning signs in order to satisfy Wall Street’s myopic focus on quarterly profits, reining in bonuses and other compensation tied to stock performance may not sound like a bad idea.

But riddle me this Bat-readers: Isn’t it more than a tad hypocritical for the Fed to be trying to tell banks that too much risk is a bad thing?

After all, the Fed has kept its key overnight bank lending rate near 0% since December and has shown no indication that it will raise this rate anytime soon.

And the Fed has pumped trillions of dollars into the financial system through a variety of programs in order to try and get banks to loan more again. The business of lending is inherently risky. So what kind of message is the Fed trying to send here?

…It’s hypocritical plain and simple. Isn’t all this cheap money designed to push banks to take on more risks? The Fed wants to slap banks on the wrist for paying its employees too much because that might encourage them to get reckless. But at the same time, the Fed is tempting banks to lapse into bad habits with what may be an overly accommodative monetary policy.

This is the equivalent of your doctor telling you that he wants to approve every meal you eat for the next few months so you don’t gain a lot of weight — while handing you coupons for McDonald’s and Krispy Kreme on your way out of the office.

Read the full article here

Ron Paul: End the Fed

Ron Paul Q&A: Audit the Fed, Then End It

The WSJ has a great interview with Ron Paul regarding the Federal Reserve. Below are some highlights:

What would a world without the Fed look like?

You’d go back to the day that if you wanted to borrow money to build a house, somebody would’ve had to save some money. You wouldn’t have zero savings and all the credit in the world. That’s just a total distortion of capitalism. Capital comes from savings. The part you don’t use for everyday living which you have left over, you reinvest and you save or you loan it out. We were living with something absolutely bizarre that had nothing to do with capitalism. We had no savings whatsoever yet there was all the credit in the world.

So without the Fed, there wouldn’t be as much credit.

Yeah, it would be different. If you were selling me a car and the car was worth $10,000 and I didn’t want to pay cash, you could take credit from me. You’ve got to have something to measure it by. What is a dollar? We don’t even know what a dollar is. There’s no definition for a dollar. There’s never been a time in law that said a Federal Reserve note is a dollar. That’s the basic flaw. There’s no definition for money. We’ve built a worldwide economy on a measuring rod that varies every single day. That’s why it was fragile, and that’s why it collapsed. There was no soundness to it. So that’s why you have to have a stable unit of account.

If you live in a primitive society, you’d trade goods. And if you wanted to advance, then you would trade a universal good, which would be a coin. But we’ve become sophisticated and smart and say, ‘Oh, you don’t have to go through that. We’ll just print the money. And we’ll trust the government not to print too much, and distribute it fairly.’ That’s often just a total farce. People are realizing that it is.

Do you think the Fed will be abolished during your career?

I always thought the day would come… This economy is going to get worse and this dollar is going to get a lot worse. It’ll take care of itself. My real goal is educating people to the nature of money so that when this system fails, that they’ll know what to do and not just say ‘Well, we need a better manager.’

Read the full interview here

Further reading: Two must-read books by Ron Paul: End the Fed and The Revolution: A Manifesto

Taleb: We Still Have the Same Disease

Nassim Taleb did an interview with the Globe And Mail. You can always count on it being interesting with Mr. Taleb. Below are some highlights:

Central bankers have no clue. In the first place, the financial crisis was not a black swan. It was perfectly predictable. They ignored the phenomenal buildup in leverage since 1980. They acted like airline pilots who’d never heard of hurricanes.

After finishing The Black Swan, I realized there was a cancer. The cancer was a huge buildup of risk-taking based on the lack of understanding of reality. The second problem is the hidden risk with new financial products. And the third is the interdependence among financial institutions.

…Today we still have the same amount of debt, but it belongs to governments. Normally debt would get destroyed and turn to air. Debt is a mistake between lender and borrower, and both should suffer. But the government is socializing all these losses by transforming them into liabilities for your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What is the effect? The doctor has shown up and relieved the patient’s symptoms – and transformed the tumour into a metastatic tumour. We still have the same disease. We still have too much debt, too many big banks, too much state sponsorship of risk-taking. And now we have six million more Americans who are unemployed – a lot more than that if you count hidden unemployment.

…Ben Bernanke saved nothing! He shouldn’t be allowed in Washington. He’s like a doctor who misses the metastatic tumour and says the patient is doing very well. The first thing I would tell Chinese officials is, how can you buy U.S. bonds as long as Larry Summers is there? He’s a textbook case of overconfidence. Look what happened to Harvard’s finances. They took a lot of risk they didn’t understand, and it was a disaster. That’s the Larry Summers mentality.

Read the full interview here

Janet Yellen’s Superb Speech

Ask and you shall receive. Here’s your double dose of Rosie for the evening. From today’s daily letter:

San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen delivered a superb speech last night that really resonated with us — a true reality check for a stock market which has galloped ahead by 54% from the lows, purely on a record eight point expansion of the P/E multiple. The move in equity valuation suggests that stock market investors are anticipating 4% real GDP growth in the coming year. Janet Yellen has proven to be one of the more astute economic forecasters at the Federal Reserve and so we thought it prudent to re-print part of her sermon.

First, the good news

“I’m happy to report that the downturn has probably now run its course. This summer likely marked the end of the recession and the economy should expand in the second half of this year.”

A slow motion recovery lies ahead

“But I regret to say that I expect the recovery to be tepid. What’s more, the gradual expansion gathering steam will remain vulnerable to shocks. The financial system has improved but is not yet back to normal. It still holds hazards that could derail a fragile recovery. Even if the economy grows as I expect, things won’t feel very good for some time to come. In particular, the unemployment rate will remain elevated for a few more years, meaning hardship for millions of workers. Moreover, the slack in the economy, demonstrated by high unemployment and low utilization of industrial capacity, threatens to push inflation lower at a time when it is already below the level that, in the view of most members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) best promotes the Fed’s dual mandate for full employment and price stability.”

Sorry, but the credit crisis is not over

“Unfortunately, more credit losses are in store even as the economy improves and overall financial conditions ease. Certainly, households remain stressed. In the face of high and rising unemployment, delinquencies and foreclosures are showing no sign of turning around. The delinquency rate on adjustable-rate mortgages is now up to about 18 percent, and, on fixed-rate loans, it’s about 6 percent. Delinquencies on both types of loans have increased sharply over the past year and are still rising. This trend is consistent across other major loan categories, and is affecting high- and low-quality borrowers alike. Even recent-vintage loans are experiencing rising delinquency rates …

…As I said, financial conditions are better, but not back to normal. And the likelihood of continuing losses by financial institutions will add new fuel to the credit crunch. In particular, small and medium-size banks could experience damaging losses on commercial real estate loans. Thus far, the largest losses have been on loans for construction and land development. Going forward, however, rising loan losses on other commercial real estate lending is likely because property values are falling, office vacancy rates are rising, and credit remains tight or nonexistent for those many property owners that will need to refinance mortgages over the next few years. Financial contagion from this sector is one of the most important threats to recovery.”

Severe consumer headwinds

“The chances are slim for a robust rebound in consumer spending, which represents around 70 percent of economic activity. Of course, consumers are getting a boost from the fiscal stimulus package. But this program is temporary. Over the long term, consumers face daunting issues of their own. In fact, it’s easy to draw a comparison between the financial state of households and that of financial institutions. For years prior to the recession, households went on a spending spree. This occurred during a period that economists call the “Great Moderation,” about two decades when recessions were infrequent and mild, and inflation was low and stable. Credit became ever easier to get and consumers took advantage of this to borrow and buy. Stock and home prices rose year after year, giving households additional wherewithal to keep spending. In this culture of consumption, the personal saving rate fell from around 10 percent in the mid-1980s to 1½ percent or lower in recent years. At the same time, households took on larger proportions of debt. From 1960 to the mid-1980s, debt represented a manageable 65 percent of disposable income. Since then, it has risen steadily, with a notable acceleration in the last economic expansion. By 2008, it had doubled to about 130 percent of income.

It may well be that we are witnessing the start of a new era for consumers following the traumatic financial blows they have endured. The destruction of their nest eggs caused by falling house and stock prices is prompting them to rebuild savings. The personal saving rate is finally on the rise, averaging almost 4½ percent so far this year. While certainly sensible from the standpoint of individual households, this retreat from debt-fueled consumption could reduce the growth rate of consumer spending for years. An increase in saving should ultimately support the economy’s capacity to produce and grow by channeling resources from consumption to investment. And higher investment is the key to greater productivity and faster growth in living standards. But the transition could be painful if subpar growth in consumer spending holds back the pace of economic recovery.”

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Credit Rating Agencies Took “Bribes” for Higher Ratings

Alternative title: How the Fed Contributes to Crises

Hat tip to Washington’s Blog for bringing this story to my attention. Morningstar Advisor posted a great piece back in June when they held a conversation with Ed Kane, Martin Mayer, and Walker Todd–three people who have great depth and experience in understanding the plumbing, history, and effects of the regulatory infrastructure of our financial markets. Below are some highlights:

[Finance professor Ed] Kane: One has to remember that these are profit-making institutions. Issuers will would pay more money for a good rating than a bad one, and issuers are very clear what kind of ratings they want. This is a straight-forward way to pay bribes without ever violating the law, it appears, and the credit rating organizations do not take formal responsibility for their incompetence or negligence.

[Prolific financial journalist, Brookings Institution scholar, and the author of more than 30 books on financial market issues Martin] Mayer: One of the untold scandals of this country is that our museums are stuffed with fake old masters because the people who authenticated paintings for the Mellons and Morgans of this world were paid a percentage of the price for the authentication. If they said it was no good, they got a few hundred bucks. If they said it was great, they got $100,000. Same story in the credit-rating organizations.

[Former Federal Reserve attorney and economist Walker] Todd: Right. They also drop the ball. I’ve been around failing banks and financial crises since 1974, and the rating agencies have dropped the ball almost every time. They were always at best late to the party.

Mayer: John Heimann [former comptroller of the currency] used to say that the function of the ratings agency is to go on the battlefield after the battle is over and shoot the wounded.

Read the whole Morningstar discussion after the jump…

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