Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Simon Johnson on Barclay’s and markets

Simon Johnson at Baseline Scenario

points to basic fraud on the business practices for LIBOR:

The behavior at Barclays has all the hallmarks of fraud, pure and simple – intentional deception for personal gain, causing significant damage to others.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission nailed the detailed mechanics of this deception in plain English in its “Order Instituting Proceedings” (which is also a settlement and series of admissions by Barclays). Most of the compelling quotes from traders involved this scandal come from the Order, but too few commentators seem to have read the full document. Please look at it now, if you have not done so already

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Euro area troubles, banks, and sovereign debt connections

Economist Mark Blyth talks on Europe and rescuing the banks…

See 35 minutes in on context for LIBOR troubles. (70% of the special investment vehicles designed to pump and dump mortgages belong to European not American banks … Euro banks listed their periphery debt as Tier One Capital under Basel.)

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Paul Krugman is Very, Very Wrong

by Mike Kimel

Update …Since this post has gotten a lot of attention, jump here for my
final word
on this topic.

I’m sure I’m missing something here, because Paul Krugman is so often extremely perceptive, but I think here he is very, very wrong. He writes:

The naive (or deliberately misleading) version of Fed policy is the claim that Ben Bernanke is “giving money” to the banks. What it actually does, of course, is buy stuff, usually short-term government debt but nowadays sometimes other stuff. It’s not a gift.

To claim that it’s effectively a gift you have to claim that the prices the Fed is paying are artificially high, or equivalently that interest rates are being pushed artificially low. And you do in fact see assertions to that effect all the time. But if you think about it for even a minute, that claim is truly bizarre.

Um, I dunno. Perhaps on specific day to day operations Ben B. is not giving money to the banks, but things look very different with a 30,000 foot view. (I suspect “the banks” most people mean if they say there are giveaways going on are not all banks but rather a small subset of basket cases.) Remember the toxic asset purchase? When the Fed spends over a trillion bucks paying the face value for securities whose real worth has declined to a fraction of that face value, to me that is both an expansion of the money supply and a give-away to those from whom one “purchases” those assets. There have been any number of similar, er, programs the Fed has run in the last few years which have had the same purpose: injecting money into a small number of entities that made extremely bad lending decisions in ways that specifically avoid making those entities pay any sort of market or reasonable price for that money.

That isn’t the only error in Krugman’s post. He also tells us this:

Furthermore, Fed efforts to do this probably tend on average to hurt, not help, bankers. Banks are largely in the business of borrowing short and lending long; anything that compresses the spread between short rates and long rates is likely to be bad for their profits. And the things the Fed is trying to do are in fact largely about compressing that spread, either by persuading investors that it will keep short rates at zero for a longer time or by going out and buying long-term assets. These are actions you would expect to make bankers angry, not happy — and that’s what has actually happened.

Yes, the Fed is sending a message that it well keep short rates at zero for a while longer. But which short rates and which long rates is Krugman talking about? Because banks can borrow at one rate – the effective federal funds rate, and they loan money to the public at a number of other rates.

I wandered over to FRED, the economic database of the St. Louis Fed and downloaded the Effective Federal Funds rate and the Average 30-Year Mortgage rate, which should be a good representation of a long rate used in loans by banks to the public.

The thirty-year mortgage is first reported on 5/7/1976 and is reported weekly thereafter. The FF tends to be reported a day or two earlier or later depending on the week, holiday schedules, and the like. Here’s what the 30-year Mortgage less the Fed Funds rate looks going back that far:

As is evident from the graph, whatever the Fed has been doing since the recession began in December of 2007, it isn’t compressing the spread between the 30-year mortgage rate and the Fed Funds rate.

Perhaps things might look different if the Fed followed more of a Banco do Brasil model, where the public could borrow directly from the Central Bank. But as things stand, pace Krugman, the Fed’s interventions since the recession began have only increased the spread between the rate at which banks can borrow and the rate at which they can loan out money.

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Obama road tests hopey changey 2.0

Yves Smith spells out her strong opinion of our dilemma nationally for the elections of 2012. This particular arena of regulating banks and non banks and and accountability also takes on a wider symbolic meaning in this election cycle. How this plays out in determining national budget spending priorities through the lens of an explosion of money spent on national and state elections makes for a need for voters to pay close attention to actual issues and to gain some knowledge underlying economic understanding…a complicated task for a potentially interested public. We in Mass. have another election to follow closely through Elizabeth Warren, who has a different take on the issues.

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism has a long post worth a visit to read the whole piece…here is a portion:

…So let’s return to the rebranding of Obama. From the Financial Times:

Barack Obama outlined a plan to toughen penalties against banks that commit fraud in a speech on Tuesday that hardened his attacks on Republicans for “collective amnesia” in backing policies that caused the financial crisis and economic downturn.

Speaking in Osawatomie, Kansas, Mr Obama summoned the spirit of another president, Teddy Roosevelt, who spoke in the same city a century ago about his “new nationalism” and the need for a fairer system that supported the middle class..

Mr Obama was scathing about the banks’ opposition to new financial regulations, saying they were only feared by “financial institutions whose business model is built on breaking the law, cheating consumers or making risky bets that could damage the entire economy”.

“I’ll be calling for legislation that makes [anti-fraud] penalties count – so that firms don’t see punishment for breaking the law as just the price of doing business.”

The misdirection is blindingly obvious. The claim is that the Administration needs new tools to get tough on banks. No, it has plenty of tools, starting with Sarbanes Oxley. As we’ve discussed at length in earlier posts, Sarbox was designed to eliminate the CEO and top brass “know nothing” excuse. And the language for civil and criminal charges is parallel, so a prosecutor could file civil charges, and if successful, could then open up a related criminal case. Sarbox required that top executives (which means at least the CEO and CFO) certify the adequacy of internal controls, and for a big financial firm, that has to include risk controls and position valuation. The fact that the Administration didn’t attempt to go after, for instance, AIG on Sarbox is inexcusable. The “investigation” done by Andrew Ross Sorkin in his Too Big To Fail (Willumstad not having a good handle on the cash bleed, the sudden discovery of a $20 billion hole in the securities lending portfolio, the mysterious “unofficial vault” with billions of dollars of securities in file cabinets) all are proof of an organization with seriously deficient controls.

But more broadly, it’s blindingly obvious this Administration has never had the slightest interest in doing anything more serious than posture. As we wrote in early 2010:

Recall how we got here. Early in 2009, the banking industry was on the ropes. Both the stock and the credit default swaps markets said that many of the big players were at serious risk of failure. Commentators debated whether to nationalize Citibank, Bank of America, and other large, floundering institutions..

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A Brain-Dead "Financial Reporter" at NPR Defines the Problem

Via Doctor Black, who printed the answer but not the question:

PIGNAL: This is actually the second bailout for Dexia. In 2008, it had to be bailed out after exceptionally imprudent investing, including in U.S. subprime mortgages. This time around, it was basically dealing with the legacy of the past, and it was trying to do what it could to get back into safer waters. But with the Eurozone debt crisis in the past year, it basically ran out of time.

SIEGEL: Yeah, that was the past. This is now. And if the 12th most secure bank in Europe just collapsed, does that mean that several more bank collapses are in store? [idiocy emphasized by me]

This is what happens when you try Extend and Pretend while leaving the Management (think Pandit, Moynihan) who screwed up in the first place in charge of the burning building.

Anyone stupid enough to hire Robert Siegel as a “financial reporter” should be defenstrated with all deliberate speed.

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When S != I

As Brad DeLong has noted, Tim Geithner believes it is time for “the economy has now recovered sufficiently for government to begin to make way for private business investment.”  In short, he expects “the private sector” to do the heavy lifting in these joyous times of economic recovery.

Cynics among us—why, yes, that might well include me—would note that the private sector has had to do much of the heavy lifting for the past several quarters, in the face of what is varyingly described as “a precipitous decline in Aggregate Demand” or “a rise in unemployment.” (You say overextended credit, I say bankrupt.)  And that its performance has been, not to put too fine a point on it, exemplary in the face of the constraints presented.

Yes, I’m praising the efforts of the private sector.  Not just because small businesses especially are trying to sustain current levels of production and services in the face of tightened credit and the aforementioned AD decline, but also because they, as LBJ once observed in another context, have been put into the position of trying to run a race when the shackles are just being removed from their ankles.

I blame the banks.

Now you know it’s me.  The problem is, the evidence is on my side.  Recall that the alleged reason we needed to “save” the banks is that they are Financial Intermediaries, taking a slice out of the matching between Investors (Savers, in most economics models) and Capitalists, who borrow to recombine Capital (K) and Labor (L) into a new product that presents a better return than the old one.

Call it “creative destruction.” Call it “capitalism.” Call it “economic growth.”

Let us ignore—though it Abides, like Earth or a steaming pile of elephant dung—that the “intermediaries” were making somewhere between 30 and 40% of the total profits in the U.S. for the past decade. We can (1) pretend that those were all payday lenders, (2) be a “first-best economist” and claim that is the way things should be, or (3) realize it’s a problem and leave addressing it for another time.*

But let us not ignore that capital supply is essential to growth possibilities. With labor abundantly available, the limitation on creating new product is essentially The Big K, and it’s “Main Street” proxy, money.

As noted above, in most models of economic growth, we treat Savings as being equal to Investment.  This makes sense: even when the Financial Intermediaries were making $3 or $4 of every $10, they were reinvesting in better systems, better technology, better analysis, and better methods.  Low Latency leads to High-Frequency Trading (HFT) which leads to…well, let’s be nice and just say “greater firm profits.”  Even if only 50% of those profits are being directly reinvested, they are being reinvested, while the rest produces at worst greater paper investments and at best a higher velocity of money and/or a multiplier (“trickle-down”) effect from increased spending.**

Put your money in a Mutual Fund, it’s Invested. Buy a stock, it’s invested.  Put it in a Demand Deposit Account (what used to be a “Savings” or “Checking” account), and it’s invested (“swept”) by the Financial Intermediary, who gives you a share of the profits in the form of interest.

Not to sound like a broken record, but Excess Reserves put a spanner in that last one.  Don’t believe me, ask economists Bruce Bartlett or Joe Gagnon.  Or just look at a graphic of M2 and what I’m calling “Intermediary Private Investment” (M2 minus the Excess Reserves maintained by Financial Intermediaries).



As Excess Reserves are not Seasonally Adjusted, I used the NSA version of M2.  As noted in my previous post, up until September of 2008,  the Fed did not pay interest on Excess Reserves (or Reserves, for that matter), so that excess reserves were essentially a rounding error—funds kept because of the asymmetric risk-reward of a miscalculation, or “precautionary savings.”  They tended to total about $1-2 Billion on average, rather minor in the context of $7-8 Trillion.***

But once you hit September of 2008, the growth in M2 is more than negated by the growth in Excess Reserves. Indeed, the horizontal line on the graphic above is the level of Intermediary Private Investment in August of 2008—nine months into the “Great Recession.”—isn’t exactly reaching for the skies.  But it’s also significantly higher than the current I, as opposed to S.

(Note that the NSA trend is also downward since the alleged beginning-of-recovery months of June-July, 2009. That the performance has been as good as it has been in such a context is amazing.)

When Savings=Investment, there is potential for growth. When savings go into mattresses—for good reason, especially in the pre-FDIC days—intermediaries cannot do their job so efficiently as the models presume.

What are we to call it when Intermediary Private Investment is significantly less than Savings—when not the people, but the intermediaries themselves, are stuffing money into their own, interest-bearing mattress?

I would suggest “bad economics,” but that term seems too applicable to more general conceits.

*I would rather lose what is left of my eyesight and hearing than take the second position; others, from Scott Sumner explicitly to Brad DeLong implicitly, have significantly variant mileages, which is why there’s a horserace for describing economic policies in the past decade or so. They are winning, while I received several decent paychecks over the time.

**It is left as an exercise whether the “trickle-down” effect is positive or significant.

***Another sign of improved technology is that the growth in reserves decelerates—funds are used more efficiently by the intermediaries—after ca. 1990/1991; the trend moves slightly upward in the Oughts, though that is both relatively minor and possibly due to complications related to the expansion of products offered.


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Economists = Idiots? Part 1829

It was their idea, so it’s no surprise they like paying interest on reserves, even excess reserves:

For quite a while, the Fed was quite happy to have that money on its books. Indeed, the power to pay interest on reserves was considered a key tool to keep control over all the liquidity the Fed pumped into the system during the financial crisis. The Fed wanted to see bank lending increase, but in a controlled fashion, so as not to fan the flames of an inflation surge.

But as worries about the outlook have risen, the game has changed. Some see a move to drive all those reserves into the economy as a key way to produce better economic growth. Markets got to thinking Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke would indicate this as a possible path when he testifies before the Senate Wednesday and the House of Representatives Thursday on the economic and monetary policy outlook.

Economists, however, think ending the interest on reserves policy would be a bad idea.

Right, because the $2,534,722.22 a year paid in interest on $1 Billion in excess reserves is a drop in the bucket for the U.S. Federal deficit.

And because the risk-free rate of return that features in so many economic models should be different for intermediaries (financial institutions) than wealth-creators (businesses).

And because “excess reserves” are money issued by the government which is inflationary because of the multiplier effect of money—which, of course, assumes the money is being invested. (As this money is, in taxing our tax dollars and giving them to Vikram Pandit, Ken Lewis, Lloyd Blankfein, and Jamie Dimon [in descending order of theft; YMMV].)

And, of course, because that $1 Billion that is not being used in the economy would only produce about $5-8 Billion in GDP, which is roughly, what, 50,000 to 80,000 new jobs?

But, of course, banks have better use for the money than potential workers.

[Barclays Capital’s Joseph Abate] noted much of the money that constitutes this giant pile of reserves is “precautionary liquidity.” If banks didn’t get interest from the Fed they would shift those funds into short-term, low-risk markets such as the repo, Treasury bill and agency discount note markets, where the funds are readily accessible in case of need. Put another way, Abate doesn’t see this money getting tied up in bank loans or the other activities that would help increase credit, in turn boosting overall economic momentum. [emphasis mine]

Oh, well, since they’re not going to lend the money anyway, we should have no trouble paying them interest on it. What is The Fed other than a mattress stuffed by tax dollars?

The key phrase is “precautionary liquidity.” If you assume that the recovery started in June or July of last year,* then you would expect “excess reserves” held for “precautionary liquidity” to have declined over time, as the need for “precautions” is reduced as the economy becomes safer. But that hasn’t been the case.

Choose one (or both) from: (1) the banks don’t believe the economy is recovering or (2) the banks are holding assets on their books at higher levels than they know they are worth, and are therefore using “excess reserves” to cover real losses until they can’t any more.

It is unclear whether Abate sees the banks’s unwillingness to be intermediaries as a feature. But at least he knows not everyone is doing it.

Abate buttressed his argument that banks really just want to stay liquid by noting who is holding reserves at the Fed. He said the 25 largest U.S. banks account for just over half of aggregate reserve levels, with three by themselves making up 21% of the reserves.

So the biggest of the Too Big to Fail banks have decided not to act as financial intermediaries, preferring instead to continue feeding from the taxpayer trough (where the $25MM in interest really is a drop in the bucket) and/or pretend that they are more solvent than they really are.

And, according to the Wall Street Journal, economists believe we should continue to pay those banks for misvaluing their assets and refusing to perform their economic function.

The economic theory I learned is that capital is paid its marginal product. The marginal product of those excess reserves is zero, while the required reserves are intended to explicitly provide “precautionary liquidity.”

Unless the TBTF banks are arguing that the Fed’s current Reserve Requirements are too low—a possibility, perhaps, though the FT cites evidence contrariwise—the basis of all economic and financial theory indicates that they should receive no interest on those reserves.

An “economist” who says otherwise is either lying or selling something.

*I would argue—see yesterday’s post—that June 2009 is rather eliminated by the non-recovery of more than half the states’s job markets a full year later.

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Catch-Up Links

I have been a Bad Blogger this week. (As opposed to my usual practice, which seems to be described as Blogging Badly.)

While I intend to continue the New Tradition (think of me as Waylon, without the speed), following are Snow Day Links:

D-Squared was on fire on Wednesday: both Bank Lending Channel and The Foundations of Mathematics and the Roots of Finance are essential.

For all those of you—looking straight at you, o six-footed one—who believe TARP was the right idea to save the economy, here’s another data point: “Overall bank lending in the US economy shrank 7.4% in 2009 — the sharpest drop since 1942.”

James Hamilton looks at Those Other Programs that support the banks without providing any funds to the rest of the economy (though I don’t think he put it that way).

With all the talk of Liquidity needs and Greek bonds, jck at Alea posts an essential chart.

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Heavy Flow (not an iPad post)

Was 2009 a great year to be a bank? The headlines all say so. (The 140 U.S. banks that were closed by the FDIC last year may disagree some.) But, as Isabelle Kaminska of Alphaville notes, very little of the gains posted for last year came from anything related to talent:

Deutsche Bank reported net income of €5bn for the year 2009 on Thursday, compared to a €3.9bn loss in 2008.

This, we would say, is a pretty impressive turnaround in anyone’s business….

Deutsche attributes much of that growth to the successful re-orientation of its business towards customer business and liquid, ‘flow’ products. While it’s not broken out within the results, we’re willing to bet that a large slice of that re-orientation was therefore focused on managing flow emanating from the group’s ever growing synthetic exchange-traded-product and foreign exchange businesses — both of which happen to do very well when spreads are wide, and volatility is high.

When I first started working in the investment side of the banking industry, 20-some years ago, the traders and marketers were especially careful to distinguish themselves from the “retail” side of banking. Indeed, the retail bankers were described as “9-6-3″ people: lend at 9%, take deposits at 6%, and be on the golf course by 3:00.

Now that that same type of effort is producing all those record profits, is it time to decide that the legendary “management skills” of Jimmy Cayne, Vikram Pandit, and Neutron Jack (who turned GE from a products company into a finance company) might not have been all that different from that of a polyester-suited small-town bank manager?

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