Neel Kashkari and the Minneapolis Plan to End Too Big to Fail

Neel Kashkari has been President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis since January 1, 2016. Prior to that, he was brought over from Goldman Sachs to be Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Stability from October 2008 to May 2009. His job was to hand out money to the banks as bailout.

I believe the first time first time he was mentioned at this blog was right after he was appointed to give away our money:

The bail-out will succeed only, repeat, only in the sense that the US succeeded in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 when Simone Ledeen and the rest of the Heritage interns were running around the country handing out trash bags full of money and giving Halliburton money for services it would never begin to render. There will be less yabbering of silly catchphrases like “but what about all the schools that were painted?” this time around, though, because the schools will be exploding when GW is no longer in office. To be extremely precise, this is what I think the success will look like: shady, undeserving characters will be enriched, young versions of the idiots who got us into the mess will launch successful careers (can you say “Kashkari”?), and the promised benefits to the American public, the schmucks footing the bill, will never materialize.

From memory, not only is that the first time I mentioned Mr. Kashkari, it is also the most complementary I have been toward him yet. But now, Mr. Kashkari is back with a new scheme to reduce the likelihood of a meltdown.

Kashkari provides this slide as a summary of his plan:

Figure 1 - The Minneapolis Plan

Figure 1  (click on the slide to embiggen)

Accompanying the slide is this platitude which also functions as a fly in the ointment:

We cannot make the risk zero, and safety isn’t free. Regulations can make the financial system safer, but they come with costs of potentially slower economic growth. Ultimately, the public has to decide how much safety they want in order to protect society from future financial crises and what price they are willing to pay for that safety.

Because Kashkari is a political creature who won’t speak clearly, to get an understanding of what the vegetables he wants us to eat taste like we go to the full plan:

We measure the cost of higher capital requirements in terms of lost GDP due to tighter lending conditions. This calculation requires a number of steps. We trace the impact of higher capital requirements to lower bank return on equity (ROE) and then to higher loan rates. Higher loan rates slow economic growth by restricting borrowing. As noted above, this approach closely follows the BIS.

And the banks agree:

The Financial Services Forum that represents U.S. financial services companies cautioned that implementing the recommendations would stymie the economy. “For those looking to accelerate economic growth and job creation, tripling bank capital levels — already double from pre-crisis levels — will make it much harder to meet those goals,” the forum’s spokeswoman, Laena Fallon, said by e-mail.

So, to summarize the negative side of this proposal: more stringent regulatory requirements –> higher interest rates –> less borrowing –> slower growth in GDP.

I recognize that this is gospel in the banking and regulatory community, and its been many moons since I thought of myself as an economist, but this seems pretty daft to me. Or rather, it seems like regulatory capture speaking. Consider for a moment this seemingly unrelated graph:

Figure 2 - The Fed Funds Rate and the Bank Prime Rate

Figure 2.

Note that the bank prime rate (orange line on the graph) is almost perfectly correlated with the fed funds rate (blue line on the graph) which is set by the Federal Reserve Bank. The difference between the two lines is shown in the gray bars. Do you see the large, sustained increase in that difference between the pre-Crisis period and the present that is due to the large increase in capital requirements we’ve already seen? No? Well, that’s because it didn’t happen. This notion that increased capital requirements raises the interest rates that banks charge their customers makes perfect sense in theory, but it stubbornly refuses to actually be true in the real world.

However, let’s assume this time things will be different. Let’s assume that unlike what we’ve seen so far, this time increased capital requirements do lead to a big sustained increase in the bank prime rate. Say for the sake of this post that the requirements effectively doubles the difference between the fed funds rate and the bank prime rate, permanently. What changes?

Well, if the Fed decided, at that point, that it wanted to raise or lower the interest rates charged by banks, it would do what it currently does in the same situation, namely change the federal funds rate. If anything changes at all, maybe, just maybe it will do so at the lower bound. And if there were some evidence that the Fed knows what its doing when the Fed Funds rate is near the lower bound, I admit that would be a concern.

So there’s no downside to this plan, at least as far as I can see.  Of course, the plan is just the tame one we’ve already enacted, but with a bit more in the way of a bite and, courtesy of Mr. Kashkari, a more extravagant soundtrack.  The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has a good sized research team. Kashkari could have asked any of them of to explain how the Fed Funds rate works, or about the relationship between the Fed Funds rate and the rates charged by banks. But failing upwards requires ignorance.  The higher up you are, the more ignorance is required. It is clear Mr. Kashkari has further to rise.

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