Tag Archive for 'Hank Paulson'

An information-based approach to understanding why America let Lehman Brothers collapse but saved everyone afterwards

In addition to his previous comments on the bailouts [25 Aug27 Aug28 Aug], which I highlighted here, Tyler Cowen has added a fourth post [2 Sep]:

I side with Bernanke because an economy can withstand only so much major bank insolvency at once. Lots of major banks were levered up 30-1 or so. Their assets fell in value more than a modest amount and then they were insolvent, sometimes grossly so. (A three percent decline in asset values already puts you into insolvency range.) If AIG had gone into bankruptcy court, some major banks would have been even more insolvent. Or if Frannie securities had been allowed to find their non-bailout values. My guess is that at least 15 out of the top 20 U.S. banks would have been flat-out insolvent if, starting at the time of Bear Stearns, all we had done was loose monetary policy and no other bailouts. Subsequent contagion effects, and the shut down of short-term repo markets, and a run on money market funds, would have made even more financial institutions insolvent. The world as we know it then becomes very dire, both for credit reasons and deflation reasons (yes you can print up currency to keep measured M up and running but the economy still collapses). So we needed not just emergency lending but also resource transfers to banks, basically to put them back into the range of possible solvency.

I really like to see Tyler’s evolving attitudes here.  It lets me know that mere grad students are allowed to not be sure of themselves. 🙂  In any event, let me present my latest thoughts on the bailouts:

Imagine being Bernanke/Paulson two days before Lehman Brothers went down:  you know they’re going to go down if you don’t bail them out and you know that to bail them out creates moral hazard problems (i.e. increases the likelihood of a repeat of the entire mess in another 10 years).  You don’t know how close to the edge everyone else is, nor how large an effect a Lehman collapse will have on everyone else in the short-run (thanks, in no small part, to the fact that all those derivatives were sold over-the-counter), but you’re nevertheless almost certain that Lehman Brothers are not important enough to take down the whole planet.

In that situation, I think of the decision to let Lehman Brothers go down as an experiment to allow estimation of the system’s interconnectedness.  Suppose you’ve got a structural model of the U.S. financial system as a whole, but no empirical basis for calibrating it.  Normally you might estimate the deep parameters from micro models, but when derivatives were exempted from regulation in the 2000 Commodities Futures Modernization Act, in addition to letting firms do what they wanted with derivatives you also gave up having information about what they were doing.  So instead, what you need is a macro shock that you can fully identify so that at least you can pull out the reduced-form parameters.  Letting Lehman go was the perfect opportunity for that shock.

I’m not saying that Bernanke had an actual model that he wanted to calibrate (although if he didn’t, I really hope he has one now), but he will certainly have had a mental model.  I don’t even mean to suggest that this was the reasoning behind letting Lehman go.  That would be one hell of a (semi) natural experiment and a pretty reckless way to gather the information.  Nevertheless, the information gained is tremendously valuable, both in itself and to society as a whole because it is now, at least in part, public information.

To some extent, I feel like the ideal overall response to the crisis from the Fed and Treasury would have been to let everyone fail a little bit, but that isn’t possible — you can’t let an institution become a little bit bankrupt in the same way that you can’t be just a little bit pregnant.  To me, the best real-world alternative was to let one or two institutions die to put the frighteners on everyone and discover the degree of interconnectedness of the system and then save the rest, with the nature and scale of the subsequent bailouts being determined by the reaction to the first couple going down.  I would only really throw criticism at the manner of the saving of the rest (especially the secrecy) and even then I would be hesitant because:

(a) it was all terribly political and at that point the last thing Bernanke needed was a financially-illiterate representative pushing his or her reelection-centred agenda every step of the way (we don’t let people into a hospital emergency room when the doctor isn’t yet sure of what’s wrong with the patient);

(b) perhaps the calibration afforded by the collapse of Lehman Brothers convinced Bernanke-the-physician that short-term secrecy was necessay to “stop the bleeding” (although that doesn’t necessarily imply that long-term secrecy is warranted); and

(c) there was still inherent (i.e. Knightian) uncertainty in what was coming next on a day-to-day basis.

The (latest) bailout of Bank of America

Bank of America is being handed a butt-load of cash:

Bank of America will on Friday receive $20bn in fresh capital from the US government and a guarantee on most of a further $118bn of potential losses on toxic assets.

The emergency bail-out will help to cushion the blow from a deteriorating balance sheet at Merrill Lynch, the brokerage BoA acquired earlier this month.
The package is on top of the $25bn BoA received from Tarp funds last October, and underscores the depth of the financial difficulties affecting the world’s leading banks.

At this point, BofA has received US$45 billion in hard cash and – more importantly, to my mind – a guarantee against US$118 billion of CDOs and related assets that they hold, many of them from their takeover of Merrill Lynch.

I don’t really want to get into whether bailouts in general are worthwhile, or if this one in particular is worthwhile. What I want to rant about is the nature of this bailout and in particular, that guarantee.  It’s been done in a manner highly similar to the one given to Citigroup last year, so my criticism applies to that one as well.

Here is the joint Press Release from the US Federal Reserve, the US Treasury Department and the FDIC.

Here [pdf] is the term sheet for the deal with Bank of America.

The guarantee is against a pool of assets broken down as:

  • US$37 billion worth of cash assets
  • US$81 billion worth of derivatives (i.e. CDOs and other “troubled” assets)

Profits and losses for the pool will be treated as a whole. The fact that one third of the pool is cash (and cash equivalents) will have been insisted upon by the US government because they will almost surely generate at least a minor profit that will offset losses in the derivatives.

In the event of losses on the pool as a whole, BofA will take the first US$10 billion of losses; the US Government will take the next US$10 billion of losses; and any losses beyond that will be split 90/10: the US government will take 90% of them. That gives a theoretical maximum that the US government might be liable for as 10 + 90%*(118-20) = US$98.2 billion.  In all likelihood, though, the cash assets will hold or increase their value, so the maximum that the US government can realistically be imagined to be liable for is 10 + 90%*(81-20) = US$64.9 billion.

But kicker is this: There was no easy way for them to arrive at that number of $81 billion. The market for cash is massively liquid (prices are available because trades are occurring), so it is easy to value the cash assets. The market for CDOs, on the other hand, is (at least for the moment and for many of them, forever) gone. Unless I’m mistaken, there are no prices available to use in valuing them. Even if there were still a market, CDOs were always traded over-the- counter, meaning that details of prices and volumes were secret.

Instead, the figure of US$81 billion is “based on valuations agreed between [BoA] and the US [Government]” (that’s from the term sheet).

I want to see details of how they valued them.

When TARP was first envisaged and it was suggested that a reverse auction might take place, the rationale was for “price discovery” to take place. The idea – which is still a good one, even if reverse auctions are a bad way to achieve it – is that since nobody knows what the CDOs are really worth, confusion and fear reign and the market drys up. Since nobody can properly value banks’ assets, nobody can tell whether those banks are solvent or not.

The generalised inability to value CDOs remains, and will continue to remain, a core issue in the financial crisis.

Suppose that the true value of BoA’s CDOs is US$51 billion. At some point, we will collectively realise that fact. The market will become (at least semi-)liquid again and the prices will, at least approximately, reflect that value. But since the BoA and US government had agreed that they were worth US$81 billion, it will technically look like a $30 billion loss and so will trigger the US government handing $19 billion (= 10 + 90%*(30-20)) to BoA and unlike the $45 billion in direct capital injection, the government will get nothing in return for that money.

Therefore, BofA had an enormous incentive to game the US government. No matter what they privately believed that their CDOs were worth, they would want to convince the Treasury that they were actually worth much more.

The US government isn’t entirely stupid, mind you. That’s why the first $10 billion in losses accrue to BoA. That means that for the money-for-nothing situation to occur, the agreed-upon valuation would need to be out by over $10 billion. On other hand, that means that instead of telling a little white lie, BoA has an incentive to tell a huge whopper of a bald-faced lie in convincing the Treasury.

That is why I want to see details on how they valued them.

Felix Salmon thinks that both Citigroup and Bank of America should be nationalised:

[N]either institution is capable of surviving in its present form much longer. [Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner] should embrace the inevitable and just nationalize the two banks.

[T]his isn’t a bank run: Citi and BofA aren’t suffering from liquidity problems. They have all the liquidity they need, thanks to the Fed. The problem is one of solvency: the equity markets simply don’t believe that the banks’ assets are worth more than their liabilities.

The problem being, as I explained above, that nobody knows what the assets are really worth and the market is simply assuming the worst as a precautionary measure.

I’m not yet convinced that they should be fully nationalised. I just don’t think that the government should put itself in a situation where it promises to give them money for nothing in the event that their private valuation turns out to be too high (i.e. the market is correct in believing that they’re worth bugger-all).

Barry Ritholtz wants to know why the heads of Citi and BoA are still there:

Like Citi, the B of A monies are a terrible deal for the taxpayer — not a lot of bang for the buck, and leaving the same people who created the mess in charge.

Organ transplant medicine understands certain truths: You do not give a healthy liver to a raging alcoholic, as they will only destroy the organ via their disease/bad judgment/lifestyle.

In this, I agree with him entirely.

Bush does the right thing

The US$700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, otherwise known as the mother of all pork, did have one redeeming feature:  It came in tranches.  The first US$350 billion were directly accessible (some of it needed a signature from the president), but the last US$350 billion needs congressional approval.  With just 10 weeks to go in his Presidency and every company big enough to hire a lobbiest bashing on the doors for a piece of the action, George W. Bush has done the right thing:  He’s deciced to not ask for the last 350.  If soon-to-be-President Obama wants to tap it, it’s up to him.

The Bush administration told congressional aides it won’t ask lawmakers to release $350 billion remaining as part of the $700 billion U.S. financial- rescue package, people familiar with the matter said.

The Treasury Department has committed $290 billion, or about 83 percent of the total allocated so far in a program Congress enacted last month to inject capital into a wide spectrum of banks and American International Group Inc. The U.S. invested $125 billion in nine major banks, including Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. and plans to buy an additional $125 billion in preferred shares of smaller lenders.

Paulson told the Wall Street Journal today he is unlikely to use what remains of the package, estimated at $410 billion, unless a need arises.

“I’m not going to be looking to start up new things unless they’re necessary, unless they make great sense,” Paulson said. “I want to preserve the firepower, the flexibility we have now and those that come after us will have.”

Update: I don’t mean to suggest that the money shouldn’t be spent. Maybe it should. Professor Krugman, for one, might argue that it ought to be spent as part of a stimulus package. I just think that it’s correct for Bush to pass on deciding how to spend it. His moral authority as an economic leader was gone some time ago. Paulson’s flip-flopping, even if what he has moved to is the better plan, demonstrates the same for him. America will – I suspect – benefit from being forced to take a breather in their cries for help. Let the new team think about the whole mess carefully and then take up the responsibility handed to them.

Another update: The anonymous authors at Free Exchange aren’t so sure it’s a good idea:

It is, in effect, calling time-out on the rescue until Barack Obama is sworn in, and even then there will be a delay while funds are requested and authorised. Meanwhile, Congress has all but decided not to pursue a stimulus bill during the lame duck session. The legislature is taking up discussions on an automaker bail-out, but given resistance to a rescue among Republicans and conservative Democrats, it seems clear that any bill signed into law during the lame duck will be quite weak.

Now, Ben Bernanke will remain on duty right through the inauguration. There’s still an executive branch, and there are still plenty of international policy makers working to stabilise the global financial system. But in a very real sense, America is going to coast on its current economic policies for the next two (and in practice, three) months. I’m not sure this is a good idea, particularly given the critical nature of the holiday shopping season. By all accounts, consumers are locking up their piggy banks at the moment. A disastrous shopping season will probably mean a wave of post-holiday failures among retailers, which will, in turn, mean lay-offs (as well as pain for exporters to America).

Yes, it’s only three months, but three months is a long time for people and businesses struggling to pay bills. And if the economic situation deteriorates over that span, then the government may well feel pressured to pass a much larger and more expensive stimulus package in the spring.

I’m not convinced.  I do note that, as Paul Krugman points out, it’s difficult to have too large a fiscal stimulus in this environment.  I also think that we might benefit from backing off a little bit and abandoning the idea that America and the world at large can somehow escape the recession.  It needs to sink in.

The Baltic Dry Index and the information value of markets

I have some questions about on the Baltic Dry Index (a rough guide to the price of moving dry goods by sea – more detail available here):

Are US policy-makers panicking?

With respect to fiscal policy, I suspect that the stimulus package will help, but believe – like every other political cynic – that the package is being undertaken principally so that candidates in this year’s congressional, senate and presidential elections can be seen to be acting.  I am not at all surprised that debate over the precise structure of the package never really rose above the blogosphere, since although that is of enormous significance in how effective it will be, it is of near utter insignificance from the point of view of being seen to act.  I find myself agreeing both with Paul Krugman, who points out that only a third of the money will go to people likely to be liquidity-constrained and with Megan McArdle, who (here, here, here, here and here) argues that if you’re going to give aid to the poor of America, doing it via food stamps is, to say the least, less than ideal.

On the topic of monetary policy, I will prefix my thoughts with the following four points:

  • The decision makers at the US Federal Reserve are almost certainly smarter than I am (or, indeed, my audience is)
  • They certainly have more experience than I do
  • They certainly put more effort into thinking about this stuff than I do
  • They certainly have access to more timely and higher quality data than I do

As I see it, there are three different concerns:  whether (and if so, how) monetary policy can help in this scenario; whether the Fed’s actions come with added risks; and whether the timing of the Fed’s actions were appropriate.

First up, we have concerns over whether monetary policy will have any positive effect at all.  Paul Krugman (U. Princeton) worries:

Here’s what normally happens in a recession: the Fed cuts rates, housing demand picks up, and the economy recovers.  But this time the source of the economy’s problems is a bursting housing bubble. Home prices are still way out of line with fundamentals … how much can the Fed really do to help the economy?

By way of arguing for a a fiscal package, Robert Reich (U.C. Berkley) has a related concern:

[A] Fed rate cut won’t stimulate the economy. That’s because lending institutions, fearing their portfolios are far riskier than they assumed several months ago, won’t lend lots more just because the Fed lowers interest rates. Average consumers are already so deep in debt — record levels of mortgage debt, bank debt, and credit-card debt — they can’t borrow much more, anyway.

Menzie Chinn (U. Wisconsin) looks at these and other worries by going back to the textbook channels through which monetary policy works, concluding:

In answer to the question of which sector can fulfill the role previously filled by housing, I would say the only candidate is net exports. The decline in the Fed Funds rate has led to a depreciation of the dollar. In the future, net exports will be higher than they otherwise would be. However, the behavior of net exports, unlike other components of aggregate demand, depends substantially on what happens in other economies. If policy rates decline in the UK, the euro area, and elsewhere, additional declines of the dollar might not occur. (And as I’ve pointed out before, if rest-of-world GDP growth declines (as seems likely [2]), then net exports might decline even with a weakened dollar).

I think the main point is that the decreases in interest rates, working through the traditional channels, will have a positive impact on components of aggregate demand. With respect to the credit view channels, the impact on lending is going to be quite muted, I think, given the supply of credit is likely to be limited. In fact, I suspect monetary policy will only be mitigating the negative effects of slowing growth and a reduction of perceived asset values working their way through the system.

James Hamilton (U.C. San Diego) is more sanguine, arguing that:

[I]t is hard to imagine that the latest actions by the Fed would fail to have a stimulatory effect.

[A]lthough interest rates respond immediately to the anticipation of any change from the Fed, it takes a considerable amount of time for this to show up in something like new home sales, due to the substantial time lags involved for most people’s home-purchasing decisions … According to the historical correlations, we would expect the biggest effects of the January interest rate cuts to show up in home sales this April.

[The scale of any effect is unknown, though.] Tightening lending standards rather than the interest rate have in my opinion been the biggest explanation for why home sales continued to deteriorate after January 2007 … The effect of rising unemployment and expectations of falling house prices on housing demand is another big and potentially very important unknown.

Going further, Martin Wolf at the FT worries that the Fed may be doing too much, that they the recent cuts in interest rates may serve only to renew or exacerbate the problems that caused the current crisis in the first place.

[P]essimists argue that the combination of declining asset prices (particularly house prices) with household overindebtedness and a fragile banking system means that monetary policy is, in the celebrated words of John Maynard Keynes, like “pushing on a string”. It may not be quite that bad. But, on its own, monetary policy will not act swiftly unless employed on a dramatic scale. The case for fiscal action looks strong.

Yet, in current US circumstances, monetary loosening should have some expansionary effects: it will encourage refinancing of home mortgages; it will weaken the exchange rate, thereby improving net exports; it will, above all, strengthen the health of banking institutions, by giving them cheap government loans.

This brings us to the biggest question: what are the risks? Unfortunately, they are large. One is indefinite continuation of an excessively low rate of US national saving. Others are a loss of confidence in the US currency and much higher inflation.Yet another is a further round of the very asset bubbles and credit expansion that created the present crisis. After all, the financial fragility used to justify current Fed actions is, in large part, the direct result of past Fed efforts at the risk management Mr Mishkin extols.

Moreover, the risks are not just domestic. If the US authorities succeed in reigniting domestic demand, this is likely to reverse the decline in the current account deficit. It will surely reduce the pressure on other countries to change the exchange rate, fiscal, monetary and structural policies that have forced the US to absorb most of the rest of the world’s huge surplus savings.

I find it impossible to look at what the US is now trying to do without feeling severely torn. If it succeeds it will renew and, at worst, exacerbate the fragility, both domestic and international, that triggered the turmoil. If it fails, the US and, perhaps, much of the rest of the world could well suffer a prolonged period of economic weakness. This is hardly a pleasant choice. But that it is indeed the choice shows how weakened the world economy and particularly the financial system has become.

In reaction at the FT’s hosted blog, Christopher Carroll (Johns Hopkins U.) argues:

This situation provides a more than sufficient rationale for the Fed’s dramatic actions: Deflation combined with a debt crisis make a toxic combination, because as prices fall, real debt rises. This point was amply illustrated in Japan, where deflation amplified both the number of zombies and the degree of zombification (among the initial stock of the undead). It was also the basis of Irving Fisher’s theory of what made the Great Depression great, and has clear echoes in the macroeconomic literature on the “financial accelerator” pioneered by none other than Ben Bernanke (along with a few other authors who have pursued more respectable careers).

In this context, the risk of an extra year or two of an extra point or two of inflation (if the deflation jitters prove unwarranted and the subprime crisis proves transitory) seems a gamble well worth taking.

Martin Wolf then replied:

[W]hat the Bernanke Fed seems to be trying to halt (with enthusiastic assistance from Congress and the president) is a natural and necessary adjustment, as Ricardo Hausmann argued in the FT on January 31st. I agree that this adjustment must not be too brutal. I agree, too, that both a steep recession and deflation should be avoided. I agree, finally, that market adjustments must not be frozen, as happened in Japan. But I disagree that the US confronts a huge threat of deflation from which the Fed must rescue the economy at all costs. What I fear it is doing, instead, is bailing out the banking system and so trying to reignite the credit cycle, with the consequent dangers of a flight from the dollar, considerably higher inflation and much more bad lending ahead.

Which leaves us with the third concern, over the timing of the rate cuts.  The first of them, of 75 basis points, was the largest single cut in a quarter century.  The fact that it came from an out-of-schedule meeting makes it almost unprecedented.  When we add the fact that the world was in the middle of a broad share sell-off – exacerbated, it turns out, by the winding out of US$75 billion of bets by Societe General – it definitely has the appearance of a panicked decision.  Adding the 50bp cut eight days later made for an enormous 1.25 percentage point drop in rates in a fraction over a week.

So what’s my take?  Well …

1) The Fed is not as independent as central banks in other countries are.  Greg Mankiw may not like it, but the fact is that both Congress and the Whitehouse actively seek to influence monetary policy in the United States.  This photograph of Ben Bernanke (chairman of the US Federal Reserve), Christopher Dodd (chairman of the US senate’s banking committee) and Hank Paulson (US Treasury secretary) from mid-August 2007 is typical:


As Martin Wolf noted at the time:

This showed Mr Bernanke as a performer in a political circus. Mr Dodd even announced Mr Bernanke’s policies: the latter had, said Mr Dodd, told him he would use “all the tools ” at his disposal to contain market turmoil and prevent it from damaging the economy. The Fed has its orders: save Main Street and rescue Wall Street.  Such panic-driven politicisation is almost certain to lead to both overreaction and the creation of bad precedents.

2) The Fed is mandated to keep both inflation and unemployment low.  By comparison, the other major central banks are only required to focus on inflation.  When they do look at unemployment, it plays lexicographic second fiddle to keeping inflation in check.  At the Fed, they are compelled to take unemployment into account at the same time as looking at inflation.

3) The banking and finance system is central to the real economy.  Without a ready supply of credit to worthy and profitable ventures, economic growth would slow dramatically, if not cease altogether.  Although it creates a clear moral hazard when bankers’ pay is not aligned with real economic outcomes, this – combined with the first two points – implies that the so-called “Bernanke put” is probably, to some extent, real.

4) The latest GDP numbers and IMF forecasts were released in between the two rate cuts.   I have nothing to back this up, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to discover that the Fed gets (or got) a preview of those numbers.  Seeing that markets were already tanking, knowing that the reports would send them tumbling further, perhaps believing that they might already be in a recession, almost certainly fearing that the negative news, if released before the Fed had acted, might send risk premia skywards again and recognising that what they needed was a massive cut of at least 100bp, perhaps the Fed concluded that the best policy was to split the cut over two meeting, making a smaller but still unusually large cut before the reports were released to ensure that they didn’t trigger more credit-crunchiness and a second one after in notional “response.”

My point is this:  Which would seem more like a panicked response?  The way that things did pan out, or a global stock market melt-down that took several more days to settle, followed by the markets being hit with surprisingly negative reports from the IMF on the global economy and the BEA on the US economy, and then a 125 b.p. drop in a single sitting by the Fed?