Wall Street’s Crisis, More Bubble Wrap Than Balloon

I keep hearing that the credit bubble has popped. But since there is a lot of popping going on, it’s time to shift the metaphor from a balloon to bubble wrap.

Perception:

  • The recent Wall Street crisis is attributable to deregulation and greed.

Economic Reality:

  • Greed – If an unusually large number of airplanes crash during a given week, do you blame gravity? No. Greed, like gravity, is a constant. It can’t explain why the number of crashes is higher than usual.
  • Deregulation – There has been no deregulation in the last decade. On the contrary, we’ve had a strengthening of the Community Reinvestment Act, which has encouraged banks to make mortgage loans to borrowers who previously would have been rejected as non-creditworthy. And we’ve had the imposition of Basel II capital requirements, which have encouraged banks to game the accounting system through quasi-off-balance-sheet vehicles, unhelpfully reducing balance sheet transparency.

That very point was made in the NY Times by economist Tyler Cowen:

There is a misconception that President Bush’s years in office have been characterized by a hands-off approach to regulation. In large part, this myth stems from the rhetoric of the president and his appointees, who have emphasized the costly burdens that regulation places on business.

But the reality has been very different: continuing heavy regulation, with a growing loss of accountability and effectiveness. That’s dysfunctional governance, not laissez-faire.

For a better perspective, we should always turn to the editorial page of the WSJ – all articles referenced in this post are copied in full at end of post:

We’re happy to report that the world didn’t end yesterday, though sometimes it was hard to tell. A major Wall Street banking house filed for bankruptcy, the taxpayers didn’t come to the rescue, and financial markets lurched but didn’t crash. Amid the current panic, this is a salutary lesson that our fate is in our own hands and that a deeper downturn is far from inevitable.

The immediate priority is to calm markets and prevent a crash, and to do so it helps to recall how we got here. We are not living through some “crisis of capitalism,” unless policy blunders make it so. Nor is this largely the fault of the Bush Administration, as Barack Obama claims, or of some lack of regulation, as John McCain asserts. These politically convenient riffs do nothing to reassure the public.

The current panic is the ugly aftermath of the credit mania that took flight in the middle years of this decade.

For a slightly different perspective, economist Jeremy Siegel:

We can argue about who was responsible for the overleveraging of the financial industry and the poor to nonexistent credit standards that prevailed in real estate. Certainly the regulatory agencies, including the Federal Reserve, should have sounded a warning. But the lion’s share of the blame must go to the heads of the financial firms that issued and held these flawed credit instruments and then, in many cases, “doubled down” by buying more when their price was falling.

Overleveraging has been the cause of many past financial crises, and will undoubtedly be the cause of those in the future. It was the cause of the 1998 blowup of Long Term Capital Management, where the Fed also intervened to prevent a crisis. Then two years later the tech and Internet boom burst.

A Possible Solution, again from the WSJ, with an assist from Paul Volcker:

Which leads us to suggest another Resolution Trust Corp. as one more tool to calm financial markets. The first RTC helped to buy, stabilize and liquidate troubled assets amid the savings and loan mess of the late 1980s. Then it blessedly went out of business. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker endorsed an RTC II yesterday in a speech in Naples, Florida, and we suspect the idea will gain more traction. He said he “reluctantly” embraced the idea for “dealing with the market breakdown, breaking the logjam of mortgages and other assets of uncertain value [and] restoring a sense of reasonable valuation and market confidence.”


—————————————————————————————
WSJ Editorial
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
SEPTEMBER 16, 2008

Surviving the Panic

We’re happy to report that the world didn’t end yesterday, though sometimes it was hard to tell. A major Wall Street banking house filed for bankruptcy, the taxpayers didn’t come to the rescue, and financial markets lurched but didn’t crash. Amid the current panic, this is a salutary lesson that our fate is in our own hands and that a deeper downturn is far from inevitable.

The immediate priority is to calm markets and prevent a crash, and to do so it helps to recall how we got here. We are not living through some “crisis of capitalism,” unless policy blunders make it so. Nor is this largely the fault of the Bush Administration, as Barack Obama claims, or of some lack of regulation, as John McCain asserts. These politically convenient riffs do nothing to reassure the public.

The current panic is the ugly aftermath of the credit mania that took flight in the middle years of this decade. As students of economic historian Charles Kindleberger know (“Panics, Manias, and Crashes”), financial manias throughout history have shared one trait: the excessive expansion of credit. This bubble was no different.

The Federal Reserve kept interest rates too low for too long, creating a subsidy for debt and a global commodity price spike. The excess liquidity and capital flows this spurred became the fuel for the wizards on Wall Street and in mortgage-finance who created new financial instruments that in turn fueled the housing bubble. As long as it lasted, nearly everyone inhaled the euphoria of rising asset prices and soaring profits. Normal risk assessment gave way to the excesses that always attend manias.

Enter the panic stage, or the great deleveraging that began some 13 months ago. Fear now trumps greed, while the short-seller and cash are kings. The core of our financial problem, as Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said yesterday, is that these mortgage instruments are underpinned by real-estate assets whose value keeps declining. Until home prices stabilize, no one knows how large the losses will be. Thus no one is sure which financial companies are truly endangered, or how many.

Amid this turmoil and uncertainty, the challenge for policy makers is twofold: Protect the overall financial system from the fallout of individual bank failures, and protect the larger economy from recession caused by financial distress. They each require different policy levers.

On the finance side, there has already been much progress, albeit not enough. The banking system is reforming itself right before our eyes, without the advice of Congress or new regulation. The days of banks running with leverage at 30 or 40 to 1 are over. The companies that took those risks have either failed (Bear Stearns, Lehman) or been absorbed by others (Merrill Lynch, Countrywide). The SIVs, CDOs and other exotic creatures have been put back on balance sheets, losses have been taken, and new capital has been raised to absorb those losses. We are moving to a sturdier system.

On that score, Lehman’s bankruptcy filing is another sign of progress. The Treasury and Fed have signaled they can say no. While Lehman’s failure has spooked markets, the lesson that a storied investment house can fail without a federal rescue is its own crash course in risk management. The weekend decision by a group of major banks to establish a common fund to borrow against is also hopeful. The banks, which each anted up $7 billion to be part of this private lending fund, realize that acting in concert can serve their self-interest — a lesson that J.P. Morgan would have applauded in the Panic of 1907.

And yet the financial system will remain fragile as long as asset values keep declining. More major bank failures are a certainty, including some very large ones. That means more Sunday soap operas like this month’s, with all of the anxiety that inspires among the public. The longer these melodramas continue, the greater the risk of a recession.

Which leads us to suggest another Resolution Trust Corp. as one more tool to calm financial markets. The first RTC helped to buy, stabilize and liquidate troubled assets amid the savings and loan mess of the late 1980s. Then it blessedly went out of business. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker endorsed an RTC II yesterday in a speech in Naples, Florida, and we suspect the idea will gain more traction. He said he “reluctantly” embraced the idea for “dealing with the market breakdown, breaking the logjam of mortgages and other assets of uncertain value [and] restoring a sense of reasonable valuation and market confidence.”

Yes, this would require a Congressional appropriation, and in that sense it would cost taxpayers. But by now it should be clear that some taxpayer money is going to be needed, if only to pay off insured depositors at failing banks. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has already said it may need to borrow from its Treasury line of credit, and that’s based on what could be optimistic estimates about home prices.

The taxpayer is also currently at risk through the Fed, which has become ever more creative with its use of the discount window. Its new lending facilities have been necessary amid this crisis, but they have also meant that the Fed is accepting ever-dodgier paper as collateral. Over the weekend it agreed to take non-investment grade paper. The danger is that all of this will put the Fed’s own balance sheet at risk — which would mean even bigger trouble. Better to put this bad mortgage paper on the Treasury side of the federal balance sheet.

Meanwhile, a new RTC would provide a buyer for securities for which there is no market, set a floor under the market, hold the securities until markets stabilize, and liquidate them in an orderly fashion, perhaps at a profit. Failed institutions and managers would not be bailed out. There’s always a risk that the politicians will meddle, which is one reason for the Bush Administration to do this now so it can insist on enough political insulation.

As for the larger economy, the last 13 months are a guide to what not to do. The Fed recklessly cut interest rates, while Congress and the White House dropped “rebate” checks from helicopters. The rate cuts ignited another oil and commodity spike that walloped middle-class consumers, while the rebates did nothing to change incentives or lift investment.

We hope the Fed heeds this lesson and holds firm on rates today. Yesterday it injected $70 billion in liquidity to stabilize the fed fund rate at its peg of 2%, as it should in a crisis. But that money can be withdrawn over time as the crisis eases. Meanwhile, a more cautious monetary policy overall will help the dollar, which in turn will mean lower oil prices and more capital flows to the U.S.

What the economy really needs is a big pro-growth tax cut, the kind that will restore confidence and risk-taking. This is an opportunity for both candidates, but especially for Mr. McCain. Instead of focusing on an extension of the Bush tax cuts, the Arizonan should offer his own tax cut to revive capital markets and prevent a recession. Democrats will claim he’s helping “the rich,” but our guess is that every American who owns a 401(k) will figure he’s one of those “rich.”

One great lesson of past panics is that they needn’t become crashes, if policy makers make the right decisions. Thirteen months into this crisis, the best choices are the same as they were last August: energetic emergency plumbing to protect the financial system, steady monetary policy to defend the dollar, and a tax cut to spur growth. It’s also the kind of agenda — and leadership — that could win an election.
—————————————————————————————
WSJ – SEPTEMBER 16, 2008
The Resilience of American Finance
By JEREMY J. SIEGEL

The turmoil in the financial markets will reorganize the financial landscape. But this does not mean the financial industry will shrink dramatically. In fact the current crisis could well lead to an increase in the demand for financial services, as the world grapples with the need for new financial instruments, new risk management techniques, and the increasing complexity of the financial world.

There is no doubt that some of the most hallowed names in the industry, such as Bear Stearns, Merrill, Lehman and others will disappear as separate entities. Their demise was caused by bad risk management, and a failure to understand the high risks of an overheated real-estate market, the root cause of our current problems.

We can argue about who was responsible for the overleveraging of the financial industry and the poor to nonexistent credit standards that prevailed in real estate. Certainly the regulatory agencies, including the Federal Reserve, should have sounded a warning. But the lion’s share of the blame must go to the heads of the financial firms that issued and held these flawed credit instruments and then, in many cases, “doubled down” by buying more when their price was falling.

Overleveraging has been the cause of many past financial crises, and will undoubtedly be the cause of those in the future. It was the cause of the 1998 blowup of Long Term Capital Management, where the Fed also intervened to prevent a crisis. Then two years later the tech and Internet boom burst. If banks would have been allowed to buy on leverage these stocks during the bubble, they would have been in even more trouble than now.

But few were willing to admit that subprime real-estate loans could be as risky as stocks. It was just too profitable to issue these mortgages. So eyes were closed and the money kept pouring in. Groupthink prevailed. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, it is much easier for a man to fail conventionally than to stand against the crowd and speak the truth.

There is no doubt in my mind that if we didn’t have a proactive Federal Reserve and deposit insurance, we would have been following the same course as we did in the 1930s, when the bursting of the stock bubble and fear of loan defaults led to thousands of bank failures and ushered in the Great Depression.

That will not happen this time. The rapid provisions of liquidity by the Fed will prevent any full scale downturn. In fact, I take it as a mark of confidence in our financial system that the Fed did not feel compelled to bail out Lehman Brothers as they did last March when they folded Bear Stearns into J.P. Morgan. Certainly politics played a role in this election year, as critics (and some Congressmen) criticized the government for bailing out the big boys, while letting homeowners twist in the wind.

Despite the recent turmoil, there is good evidence that the worst is over, especially for the commercial banks with access to Federal Reserve credit. Despite yesterday’s severe sell-off, most are significantly higher than their July 15 low, and some such as Wells Fargo and UBS are up over 50%.

Nevertheless, the current crisis will change the financial landscape. Certainly Bear, Merrill, Lehman and others will disappear as separate corporate entitles. But other institutions, specifically the commercial banks that absorb these firms, and who have direct access to Federal Reserve credit, will become larger.

The demand for financial services will in no way disappear as the automobile pushed out the horse and buggy a century ago. Although unemployment on Wall Street will undoubtedly rise, many workers will be reabsorbed elsewhere in the industry. The current financial crisis calls out for new products and services as well as more, not less, information about what is safe and profitable in the future environment.

It is easy to be pessimistic about the future of financial services in the current climate. But objective facts indicate that the future demand for these services will be high. Looking beyond past losses, the demand for financial services, especially internationally, has been strong. The growth of the developing countries, combined with the aging in the developed countries, will lead to huge international capital flows that will be facilitated by new and existing financial intermediaries.

It is shocking that firms that withstood the Great Depression are now failing in what economists might not even call a recession. But their failure was not caused by lack of demand for their services. It was caused by management’s unwillingness to understand and face the risks of the investments they made. The names of the players will change, but the future growth of the financial services industry is assured.

Mr. Siegel, a professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, is the author of “Stocks for the Long Run,” now in its 4th edition from McGraw-Hill.
—————————————————————————
New York Times
September 14, 2008
Economic View
Too Few Regulations? No, Just Ineffective Ones
By TYLER COWEN

THERE is a misconception that President Bush’s years in office have been characterized by a hands-off approach to regulation. In large part, this myth stems from the rhetoric of the president and his appointees, who have emphasized the costly burdens that regulation places on business.

But the reality has been very different: continuing heavy regulation, with a growing loss of accountability and effectiveness. That’s dysfunctional governance, not laissez-faire.

When it comes to financial regulation, for example, until the crisis of the last few months, the administration did little to alter a regulatory structure that was built over many decades. Banks continue to be governed by a hodgepodge of rules and agencies including the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the international Basel accords on capital standards, state authorities, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Publicly traded banks, like other corporations, are subject to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

And legislation that has been on the books for years — like the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and the Community Reinvestment Act — helped to encourage the proliferation of high-risk mortgage loans. Perhaps the biggest long-term distortion in the housing market came from the tax code: the longstanding deduction for mortgage interest, which encouraged overinvestment in real estate.

In short, there was plenty of regulation — yet much of it made the problem worse. These laws and institutions should have reined in bank risk while encouraging financial transparency, but did not. This deficiency — not a conscientious laissez-faire policy — is where the Bush administration went wrong.

It would be unfair, however, to blame the Republicans alone for these regulatory failures. The Democrats have a long history of uncritically favoring expansion of homeownership, which contributed to the excesses at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the humbled mortgage giants.

The privatization of Fannie Mae dates back to the Johnson administration, which wanted to get the agency’s debt off its books. But now, of course, the government is on the hook for the agency’s debt. As late as this spring, Congressional Democrats were pushing for weaker capital requirements for the mortgage agencies. The regulatory reality was that few politicians were willing to exchange short-term economic gains — namely, higher rates of homeownership — for protection against longer-term financial risks.

Still, the Bush administration’s many critiques of regulation are belied by the numbers, which demonstrate a strong interest in continued and, indeed, expanded regulation. This is the lesson of a recent study, “Regulatory Agency Spending Reaches New Height,” by Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and Melinda Warren, director of the Weidenbaum Center Forum at Washington University. (Disclosure: Ms. de Rugy’s participation in this study was under my supervision.) For the proposed 2009 fiscal budget, spending by regulatory agencies is to grow by 6.4 percent, similar to the growth rate for last year, and continuing a long-term expansionary trend.

For the regulatory category of finance and banking, inflation-adjusted expenditures have risen 43.5 percent from 1990 to 2008. It is not unusual for the Federal Register to publish 70,000 or more pages of new regulations each year.

In other words, financial regulation has produced a lot of laws and a lot of spending but poor priorities and little success in using the most important laws to head off a disaster. The pattern is reminiscent of how legislators often seem more interested in building new highways — which are highly visible projects — than in maintaining old ones.

The biggest financial deregulation in recent times has been an implicit one — namely, that hedge funds and many new exotic financial instruments have grown in importance but have remained largely unregulated. To be sure, these institutions contributed to the severity of the Bear Stearns crisis and to the related global credit crisis. But it’s not obvious that the less regulated financial sector performed any worse than the highly regulated housing and bank mortgage lending sectors, including, of course, the government-sponsored mortgage agencies.

In other words, the regulation that we have didn’t work very well.

There are two ways to view this history. First, with the benefit of hindsight, one could argue that we needed only a stronger political will to regulate every corner of finance and avert a crisis.

Under the second view, which I prefer, regulators will never be in a position to accurately evaluate or second-guess many of the most important market transactions. In finance, trillions of dollars change hands, market players are very sophisticated, and much of the activity takes place outside the United States — or easily could.

Under these circumstances, the real issue is setting strong regulatory priorities to prevent outright fraud and to encourage market transparency, given that government scrutiny will never be universal or even close to it. Identifying underregulated sectors in hindsight isn’t a useful guide for what to do the next time.

Both presidential candidates have endorsed regulatory reform, but they have yet to signal that it will become a priority. That isn’t surprising. Fixing these problems may seem a very abstract way of helping the average citizen, and it will certainly require taking on special interests. It’s easier to tell voters that the regulators have taken care of last year’s problem, even if that accomplishes nothing for the future.

In the meantime, if you hear a call for more regulation, without a clear explanation of why regulation failed in the past, beware. The odds are that we’ll get additional regulation but with even less accountability and even less focus on solving our very real economic problems.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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