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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Great Recession(4): wholesale banking panic

Eric Falkenstein discusses the ideas of Gary Gorton:
This financial crisis has had two legs: the initial boom and bust in housing prices, primarily in the USA, and the accelerator mechanism that then turned this crisis into a panic, affecting financial institutions almost indiscriminately, and countries furthest away from the USA were among the worst performers.
There is much more there or excerpts of his paper linked to herein:
All bond prices plummeted (spreads rose) during the financial crisis, not just the prices of subprime‐related bonds. These price declines were due to a banking panic in which institutional investors and firms refused to renew sale and repurchase agreements (repo) – short‐term, collateralized, agreements
that the Fed rightly used to count as money. Collateral for repo was, to a large extent, securitized bonds. Firms were forced to sell assets as a result of the banking panic, reducing bond prices and creating losses. There is nothing mysterious or irrational about the panic. There were genuine fears about the locations of subprime risk concentrations among counterparties. This banking system (the “shadow” or “parallel” banking system) ‐‐ repo based on securitization ‐‐ is a genuine banking system, as large as the traditional, regulated and banking system. It is of critical importance to the economy because it is the funding basis for the traditional banking system. Without it, traditional banks will not lend and credit, which is essential for job creation, will not be created.

U.S. financial history is replete with banking crises and the predictable political responses. Most people are unaware of this history, which we are repeating. A basic point of this note is that there is a fundamental, structural, feature of banking, which if not guarded against leads to such crises. Banks create money, which allows the holder to withdraw cash on demand. The problem is not that we have banking; we need banks and banking. And we need this type of bank product. But, as the world grows and changes, this money feature of banking reappears in different forms. The current crisis, far from being unique, is another manifestation of this problem. The problem then is structural.

There was a banking panic, starting August 9, 2007.

The fundamental business of banking creates a vulnerability to panic because the banks’ trading securities are short term and need not be renewed; depositors can withdraw their money. But, panic can be prevented with intelligent policies. What happened in August 2007 involved a different form of bank liability, one unfamiliar to regulators. Regulators and academics were not aware of the size or vulnerability of the new bank liabilities.

In fact, the bank liabilities that we will focus on are actually very old, but have not been quantitatively important historically. The liabilities of interest are sale and repurchase agreements, called the “repo” market. Before the crisis trillions of dollars were traded in the repo market. The market was a very liquid market like another very liquid market, the one where goods are exchanged for checks (demand deposits). Repo and checks are both forms of money. (This is not a controversial statement.) There have always been difficulties creating private money (like demand deposits) and this time around was no different.

The panic in 2007 was not observed by anyone other than those trading or otherwise involved in the capital markets because the repo market does not involve regular people, but firms and institutional investors. So, the panic in 2007 was not like the previous panics in American history (like the Panic of 1907, shown below, or that of 1837, 1857, 1873 and so on) in that it was not a mass run on banks by individual depositors, but instead was a run by firms and institutional investors on financial firms. The fact that the run was not observed by regulators, politicians, the media, or ordinary Americans has made the events particularly hard to understand. It has opened the door to spurious, superficial, and politically expedient “explanations” and demagoguery.

As explained, the Panic of 2007 was not centered on demand deposits, but on the repo market which is not insured. As the economy transforms with growth, banking also changes. But, at a deep level the basic form of the bank liability has the same structure, whether it is private bank notes (issued before the Civil War), demand deposits, or sale and repurchase agreements. Bank liabilities are designed to be safe; they are short term, redeemable, and backed by collateral. But, they have always been vulnerable to mass withdrawals, a panic. This time the panic was in the sale and repurchase market (“repo market”).

...banking panics continued. They continued because demand deposits were vulnerable to panics. Economists and regulators did not figure this out for decades. In fact, when panics due to demand deposits were ended it was not due to the insight of economists, politicians, or regulators. Deposit insurance was not proposed by President Roosevelt; in fact, he opposed it. Bankers opposed it. Economists decried the “moral hazards” that would result from such a policy. Deposit insurance was a populist demand. People wanted the dominant medium of exchange protected. It is not an exaggeration to say that the quiet period in banking from 1934 to 2007, due to deposit insurance, was basically an accident of history.

The fragility of our unit banks prior to deposit insurance made an interesting contrast to the system of Canadian branch banks which were more stable due to greater diversification and generally more restrained lending practices.
The outstanding amount of subprime bonds was not large enough to cause a systemic financial crisis by itself. ... The issue is why all bond prices plummeted. What caused that? ... Outstanding subprime securitization was not large enough by itself to have caused the losses that were experienced. Further, the timing is wrong. Subprime mortgages started to deteriorate in January 2007, eight months before the panic in August.

He is talking here about the early stages of panic before it became full blown in the Fall of 2008.
... Subprime started significantly deteriorating well before the panic... Subprime will play an important role in the story later. But by itself it does not explain the crisis.

Holding loans on the balance sheets of banks is not profitable. This is a fundamental point. This is why the parallel or shadow banking system developed. If an industry is not profitable, the owners exit the industry by not investing; they invest elsewhere. Regulators can make banks do things, like hold more capital, but they cannot prevent exit if banking is not profitable. “Exit” means that the regulated banking sector shrinks, as bank equity holders refuse to invest more equity. Bank regulation determines the size of the regulated banking sector, and that is all. One form of exit is for banks to not hold loans but to sell the loans; securitization is the selling of portfolios of loans. Selling loans – while news to some people—has been going on now for about 30 years without problems.

... No one has produced evidence of any problems with securitization generally; though there are have been many such assertions. The motivation for banks to sell loans is profitability.

The parallel or shadow banking system is essentially how the traditional, regulated, banking system is funded. The two banking systems are intimately connected. This is very important to recognize. It means that without the securitization markets the traditional banking system is not going
to function.

Institutional investors and nonfinancial firms have demands for checking accounts just like you and I do. But, for them there is no safe banking account because deposit insurance is limited. So, where does an institutional investor go to deposit money? ... The answer is that the institutional investor goes to the repo market.

A problem with the new banking system is that it depends on collateral to guarantee the safety of the deposits. But, there are many demands for such collateral. ... The demand for collateral has been largely met by securitization, a 30‐year old innovation that allows for efficient financing of loans. Repo is to a significant degree based on securitized bonds as collateral, a combination called “securitized banking.” The shortage of collateral for repo, derivatives, and clearing/settlement is reminiscent of the shortages of money in early America, which is what led to demand deposit banking.

...There’s another aspect to repo that is important: haircuts. ... Prior to the panic, haircuts on all assets were zero! For now, keep in mind that an increase in the haircuts is a withdrawal from the bank. Massive withdrawals are a banking panic. That’s what happened. Like during the pre‐Federal Reserve panics, there was a shock that by itself was not large, house prices fell. But, the distribution of the risks (where the subprime bonds were, in which firms, and how much) was not known. Here is where subprime plays its role. Elsewhere, I have likened subprime to e‐coli (see Gorton (2009a, 2010)). Millions of pounds of beef might be recalled because the location of a small amount of e‐coli is not known for sure. If the government did not know which ground beef possibly contained the e‐coli, there would be a panic: people would stop eating ground beef. If we all stop eating hamburgers for a month, or a year, it would be a big problem for McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and so on. They would go bankrupt. That’s what happened.

Faced with the task of raising money to meet the withdrawals, firms had to sell assets.

The development of the parallel banking system did not happen overnight. It has been developing for three decades, and especially grew in the 1990s. But bank regulators and academics were not aware of these developments. Regulators did not measure or understand this development. As we have seen, the government does not measure the relevant markets. Academics were not aware of these markets; they did not study these markets. The incentives of regulators and academics did not lead them to look hard and ask questions.

There are some interesting summary points there in conclusion. Also a book based upon the authors earlier papers is mentioned here.

Eric Falkenstein offers a comparison: Gorton vs Lewis
His main evidence that this was a system-wide crisis was that securities backed by autos, credit cards, student loans, and financial companies of varied focus all declined, even though default rates in these other classes were not changing much. A financial crisis is when all finance becomes suspect, created a self-fulling prophesy because the system is always insolvent if there is no confidence in the system.

It's very interesting to think of financial crises, and recessions they cause, this way, as overreactions caused by people not being able to suss out the essence of a crisis in real time. Gorton notes crises occurred regularly in the US (1819, 1837, 1860, 73, 84, 90, 93, 1907, 1914, 1931-33), and every time, people are befuddled. When a a drastic change occurs, such as the change from Free Banking era (1837-62) to the National Banking era, or the creation of the Federal Reserve, after about 10 years they think they have eliminated business cycles. They put in new institutions, but because they don't fully understand the old institution, they fail in totally unappreciated new ways.

Gorton notes that fixes are perhaps futile. Indeed, he has some recommendations, one that the government insure 'approved AAA' paper, to help reduce the risk of a panic, but given their role in the reduction of credit underwriting standards (documented on page 66), it is then likely they would have made the essential mistake worse, because one thing government does not do well is admit mistakes, because they don't have to (unfortunately, no government agency has gone bankrupt).

I would suggest that the US financial system was also insolvent in 1975,1981,1990, and that if you had to mark their books to market, (indeed we had new accounting, FAS 157 that tried to apply market prices to accounting during the crisis), this would basically cause massive dislocations. Why not increase bank capital rates from 4-8%, to 20+%? I don't see a consistent risk premium in financial markets, so the cost is rather low. That is, the market does not require a 6% return premium to bank equity, so one does not need that kind of leveraged return.

Alas, most people will find Gorton a bit too dry, too many references, too much math (there are a handful of algebraic equations). Michael Lewis, in contrast, takes the Gladwellian approach to big problems, which is always well received. Indeed, I have seen him an on TV with several different interviewers discussing his latest book, The Big Short [I expect Russ Roberts at econtalk to interview him and totally agree, notwithstanding the 5 other authors with orthogonal diagnoses he also totally agreed with]. Lewis is considered an expert because he worked on Wall street for 2 years and wrote Liar's Poker, an insider's view of the bluster of rich young men. As anyone who has worked in an industry for a couple decades knows, after only 2 years in the business, the impressions of a kid right out of college, no matter how smart and eloquent the sojourner, are invariably quite naive. ... Ultimately Lewis blames everyone, but especially greedy bankers, and so in a banal sense he is correct.

But Lewis will most assuredly sell more books than Gorton, part of the reason these crises are endogenous.

Stephen Spruiell & Kevin Williamson offer some ideas on shadow banking reform:
The really offensive thing about the bailouts was the prevailing sense of adhocracy — that Congress and the White House and the Treasury and the Fed were more or less making things up as they went along. This bank got rescued, that one didn’t. This firm got a bailout on generous terms, that one got the pillory.

Before we can get our economy fully un-TARPed, un-Fannied, and un-Freddied, we need an FDIC-style resolution authority that can do for the shadow banking system what the FDIC does for banks: police safety and soundness and, when necessary, take troubled institutions into custody and disassemble them in an orderly manner.

The institutions that make up the shadow banking system are a diverse and complicated lot: If traditional banking is a game of checkers, this is 3-D chess on dozens of boards at the same time. It is therefore likely that the regulators will lack the expertise to establish appropriate, timely resolution programs for the complex institutions they are expected to govern. The solution to that problem is found in Columbia finance professor Charles Calomiris’s proposal that every TBTFI — Too Big to Fail Institution — coming under the new agency’s jurisdiction be required to establish and maintain, in advance, its own resolution plan, which would be subject to regulatory approval.

Such a plan — basically, a pre-packaged bankruptcy — would make public detailed information about the distribution of losses in the event of an institutional failure — in other words, who would take how much of a haircut if the bank or fund were to find itself in dire straits. This would be a substantial improvement on the political favor-jockeying that marked the government’s intervention in General Motors, for instance, or the political limbo that saw Lehman doing nothing to save itself while waiting to be rescued by a Washington bailout that never came. The authority’s main job would be to keep up with the resolution plans and, when necessary, to execute them.

Taking a fresh regulatory approach would give us the opportunity to enact some useful reforms at the same time. At present, capital requirements — the amount of equity and other assets financial firms are required to hold in proportion to their lending — are static: X cents in capital for every $1 in, for example, regular mortgage loans. This makes them “pro-cyclical,” meaning that, during booms, banks suddenly find themselves awash in capital as their share prices and the value of their assets climb, with the effect that they can secure a lot more loans with the assets they already have on the books. But the requirements are pro-cyclical on the downside, too: During recessions, declining share and asset prices erode banks’ capital base, hamstringing their operations and making financial contractions even worse. Instead, we should use counter-cyclical capital requirements: During booms, the amount of capital required to back each dollar in lending should increase on a pre-defined schedule, helping to put the brake on financial bubbles and to tamp down irrational exuberance. During downturns, capital requirements should be loosened on a pre-defined schedule, to facilitate lending and to keep banks from going into capital crises for mere accounting reasons. But these counter-cyclical capital requirements should begin from a higher baseline: The shadow banking system exists, in no small part, to skirt traditional capital requirements, and its scanty capital cushions helped make the recent crisis much worse than it had to be.

As always, the devil is in the details. Furthermore, the prepackaged bankruptcy features must be credible. Any framework that might work will require considerable thought and deliberation.

As with some of the matters highlighted in earlier posts in this series, this is getting very little emphasis in the public arena.

Returning to the contributing factors and events relevant to the panic, Reuven Brenner offers:
Confusing the responsibilities of the private markets and the government leads to misguided policies. Some analysts draw the dangerously wrong conclusion that the crisis of 2008 simply was a failure of capitalism. Judge Richard Posner, for example, recently argued that “the key to understanding is that a capitalist economy, while immensely dynamic and productive, is not inherently stable.” Whether a capitalist economy is stable or not might be a worthwhile topic for abstract speculation. But the events of 2008 shed no light on it, since what they actually tell is the story of what happens when governments neglect their responsibilities.

In a well-functioning market, the chances of all the players making the same mistake in the same direction is negligible. But systemic errors—errors in which a plurality of the players all err in the same direction—can and do occur when governments forget what makes a commercial society tick. This can occur suddenly, as in a communist revolution. Or it can occur imperceptibly over years, as during the past decade in the United States. Such governmental neglect of responsibilities prepared the ground for the present day, the worst American financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The financial technology of the past decade created trillions of dollars’ worth of structured bonds—in effect, attempting to do a magic trick by turning the inherently uncertain cash flows of junk bonds into the predictable cash flows of high-grade debt. Subprime mortgages, for example, are a kind of junk bond. Households with insufficient incomes, and often without prospects of securing good ones in the future, were not just granted entry into the market but were also helped (actively, though indirectly, by the mortgage agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) to speculate in housing on an unprecedented scale.

Home-mortgage debt relative to disposable personal income stood stable around 80 percent between 1957 and 2000 but jumped to 140 percent by 2007. The availability of adjustable-rate mortgages at very low interest rates prevailing in the early part of the decade allowed households to carry these much higher debt levels for a while. However, once the Federal Reserve raised the federal-funds rate from 0.5 percent in 2002 to 5.25 percent in 2007, households no longer could pay the higher debt burden. Meanwhile, financial institutions resold about 65 percent of the face value of the mortgages in the form of AAA-rated securities. This means that they sold the other 35 percent to investors who would absorb losses before any losses accrued to the AAA-rated securities.

Individuals and firms thought money-market funds to be reliable substitutes for bank deposits: always available and invested heavily in structured securities as well as corporate commercial paper. Once it became clear that supposedly AAA-rated securities were in fact prone to default, money-market funds faced a run by fearful depositors, and the market for corporate commercial paper crashed as well.

The collapse of the structured securities market in July 2007 led to the collapse of Bear Stearns in March 2008, the failure of the government-sponsored mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and eventually the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008, followed by the bailout of the nation’s largest commercial banks and the reincarnation of the remaining investment banks and of GMAC as bank-like institutions, with access to funds from the Federal Reserve. Capital markets, as we knew them, shut down. And asset prices predictably then crashed. Too many mistakes, too much mispriced debt.

When this happened, there was no alternative but for the government and the Federal Reserve to step in and become a financial intermediary. The intervention was needed because the mistakes suddenly exposed the fragility of the financial institutions’ funding mechanism. To restore it, the government had to insure the counterparty risks.

Whatever the reasons, at first the government did not, and it allowed Lehman Brothers to fail. Then the government suddenly did: Correcting this blunder of letting the edifice of counterparty claims collapse led then to the dramatic expansion of the Federal Reserve balance sheet and the Treasury’s bailing out the banks.

In truth, the government had no choice: Depositors had to be convinced that they were secure. Otherwise, the government would have failed in its responsibility of providing the default-free assets that are the foundation of commercial banking. We would have had a massive run on the system, and the vanishing liquidity would have been much worse than what we experienced. By guaranteeing bank deposits as well as a great deal of bank debt, and by purchasing more than a trillion dollars’ worth of securities, the government prevented a collapse of the financial system. That was not a matter of ideology or politics but of necessity.

The spending and managing powers of the government have limits. If the government abuses its financial power to buy political support and does not restore the eroded responsibilities, it will eventually fail in its function of providing default-free assets. Without such assets, a commercial society cannot exist, no matter what the constitution of the country says. The words would lose their meaning, and the traditional institutions would be much weakened, becoming a mere fa├žade.

Anyone longing for days gone by in the world of banking should be aware:

Consider the savings-and-loan (S&L) debacle of the 1980’s. The crisis, which erupted only two decades ago but seems all but forgotten, was almost entirely the result of a failure of government to regulate effectively. And that was by design. Members of Congress put the protection of their political friends ahead of the interests of the financial system as a whole.

After the disaster of the Great Depression, three types of banks still survived—artifacts of the Democratic party’s Jacksonian antipathy to powerful banks. Commercial banks offered depositors both checking and savings accounts, and made mostly commercial loans. Savings banks offered only savings accounts and specialized in commercial real-estate loans. Savings-and-loan associations (“thrifts”) also offered only savings accounts; their loan portfolios were almost entirely in mortgages for single-family homes.

All this amounted, in effect, to a federally mandated cartel, coddling those already in the banking business and allowing very few new entrants. Between 1945 and 1965, the number of S&L’s remained nearly constant at about 8,000, even as their assets grew more than tenfold from almost $9 billion to over $110 billion. This had something to do with the fact that the rate of interest paid on savings accounts was set by federal law at .25 percent higher than that paid by commercial banks, in order to compensate for the inability of savings banks and S&L’s to offer checking accounts. Savings banks and S&L’s were often called “3-6-3” institutions because they paid 3 percent on deposits, charged 6 percent on loans, and management hit the golf course at 3:00 p.m. on the dot.

These small banks were very well connected. As Democratic Senator David Pryor of Arkansas once explained:

You got to remember that each community has a savings-and-loan; some have two; some have four, and each of them has seven or eight board members. They own the Chevy dealership and the shoe store. And when we saw these people, we said, gosh, these are the people who are building the homes for people, these are the people who represent a dream that has worked in this country.

They were also, of course, the sorts of people whose support politicians most wanted to have—people who donated campaign money and had significant political influence in their localities.

The banking situation remained stable in the two decades after World War II as the Federal Reserve was able to keep interest rates steady and inflation low. But when Lyndon Johnson tried to fund both guns (the Vietnam war) and butter (the Great Society), the cartel began to break down.

If the government’s first priority had been the integrity of the banking system and the safety of deposits, the weakest banks would have been forced to merge with larger, sounder institutions. Most solvent savings banks and S&L’s would then have been transmuted into commercial banks, which were required to have larger amounts of capital and reserves. And some did transmute themselves on their own. But by 1980 there were still well over 4,500 S&L’s in operation, relics of an earlier time.

Why was the integrity of the banking system not the first priority? Part of the reason lay in the highly fragmented nature of the federal regulatory bureaucracy. A host of agencies—including the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and the FSLIC, state banking authorities, and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB)—oversaw the various forms of banks. Each of these agencies was more dedicated to protecting its own turf than to protecting the banking system as a whole.

Adding to the turmoil was the inflation that took off in the late 1960’s. When the low interest rates that banks were permitted to pay failed to keep pace with inflation, depositors started to look elsewhere for a higher return. Many turned to money-market funds, which were regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission rather than by the various banking authorities and were not restricted in the rate of interest they could pay. Money began to flow out of savings accounts and into these new funds, in a process known to banking specialists by the sonorous term “disintermediation.”

There is much more banking and financial history in that article. The key point is that prior financial arrangements were abandoned not for ideological reasons but because they were no longer tenable.

Just to reiterate the point:

There is a widespread but erroneous belief that the financial crisis has its origins in deregulation dating all the way back to the late 1970s. Therefore any steps to restore the pre-Reagan regulatory system are to be welcomed. This is really bad financial history.

... in the more controlled capital markets of the 1970s, borrowers generally paid more for their loans because there was less competition. Lousy managements were protected from corporate raiders. Savers earned negative real interest rates because of high inflation. Deregulation—such as lifting restrictions on the interest rates banks could pay and charge—and financial innovation delivered real benefits for the U.S. economy in the 1980s and '90s.

One last point. Once asset markets like this experience a pricing blackout, conventional attempts to help the economy with any kind of fiscal stimulus are worthless. Visibility, transparency and activity must be restored to those asset markets for the economy to recover. Asset markets are an order of magnitude greater in value compared to annual economic output. So far corporate bond market issuance has recovered nicely. Other areas have shown partial recovery and some very little even with help from available Fed lending facilities. Things are getting better, but there is a long way to go. Of course a war on wealth creation won't help.


erp said...

Howard, excellent and readable account. Thanks. Do you think there's anything in the allegation that the financial collapse was orchestrated to explode just prior to the last election?

Howard said...


Thanks. I tend to stay away from conspiracy theories as a rule. The most suspicious event we have is the reckless behavior of Schumer regarding IndyMac - the height of irresponsibility. He may have hoped that would create more chaos, but don't attribute more knowledge and capability to people than is warranted. Beyond the building signs of financial stress throughout 2007 and 2008 even close observers of the situation didn't quite know what to make of things. Bernanke was seeing inflationary hints in the real economy and what he thought were liquidity problems in the financial sector. What he had no idea about were the concerns related to solvency arising from the toxic assets and how extreme uncertainty about that would translate into a panic. Had he realized that, more extreme steps taken sooner might have prevented the panic. However, the catch-22 is that absent the panic he would have been declared a mad man for taking such actions.

Even very bright and knowledgeable people are far less omniscient than some people would like to believe.

Hey Skipper said...

He may have hoped that would create more chaos, but don't attribute more knowledge and capability to people than is warranted.

Which is another way of saying "do not attribute to malice that which is better explained by stupidity."