Fed Policy

by Jerry O’Driscoll

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell testified to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. It was the semi-annual testimony mandated by the Humphrey–Hawkins Act.  Powell’s testimony was anodyne. He repeated and reiterated the Fed’s planned policy moves with respect to interest rates, and added suitable caveats on economic growth, inflation, and tariffs. Trade policy is a new factor for Fed policymakers. Continue reading

China’s Great Wall of Debt, Dinny McMahon, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp.

by Edward Chancellor*

China’s economy has long defied the doom-mongers. In place of their ominous critique, a more constructive view of economic management in the People’s Republic has surfaced. Beijing, we are told, has found the right balance between state and market forces, and is best positioned to exploit exciting new technologies, such as big data and artificial intelligence. Politically fractured and economically sclerotic Western nations can only look on in envy.

Dinny McMahon, a former financial journalist and mandarin speaker who spent many years reporting on the Middle Kingdom, doesn’t buy this line. In his view, China’s economy has spent years locked in continuous stimulus mode, accumulating bad debts and generating great economic imbalances along the way. This is not an original thesis. But it’s a welcome reality check on the current China hype. Of the many books that have observed the fragility and contradictions of China’s economic model, “China’s Great Wall of Debt” is the best. McMahon writes well, has a fine eye for detail and finds original stories to illustrate his argument.

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Two Cheers for Placebo-Regulation

by Andreas Hoffmann and Sebastian Müller

The financial crisis of 2007 eroded the public confidence in financial markets. Many people have come to believe that only the government can guarantee the stability of financial markets. Responding to increased public demand, politicians from across the political spectrum support additional “macroprudential regulation”. However, little is known about the consequences of the newly proposed regulatory efforts. When politicians fear unforeseen consequences of regulation, they might turn to Placebo-regulation, which is some regulation that merely provides a warm glow for the general public. Given the widespread belief in the need for government regulation, we suggest that such Placebo-regulation may be a good option. Market distortions are avoided. But confidence in financial markets might be restored.

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The Japanese Shinkin Banks Turn Away from the Regional Economy

by Taiki Murai and Gunther Schnabl

Similar to the credit unions in the US, the goal of the Japanese Shinkin banks is the promotion of the sound development of the regional economy. The members of these non-profit cooperatives are small- and medium-sized enterprises as well as natural persons from the respective regions of Japan. The Shinkin banks manage deposits, perform banking operations and make loans. Until the Japanese bubble economy burst in the early 1990s, they were the backbone of the regional economy in Japan. Since then, however, the business model has been gradually changing, driven by the Bank of Japan. The upshot is that the Shinkin banks’ business activities have been gradually turning away from the regions and, therefore, their original aim.

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Inflation Is Not Measured Correctly

by Gunther Schnabl*

The European Central Bank (ECB) continues buying securities. By the end of 2017, the balance sheet is expected to have further grown by about 800 billion euros. This corresponds to a growth rate of 20 percent per year, while real growth of the euro area is expected to be only 1.5 percent. Despite this tremendous monetary expansion, euro area inflation remains below the two percent target. This raises the question of whether the quantity equation, which Mark Blaug called “the oldest surviving theory in economics,” is still valid.

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The Bank of Japan Creates a State-Led Monopolistic Banking System

by Taiki Murai and Gunther Schnabl[*]

In the second half of the 1980s, 13 Japanese city banks climbed into the group of the world’s largest banks, boosted by a domestic speculation boom. With the bursting of the Japanese financial “bubble” in the early 1990s, a gradual decline followed. Since then, the Japanese city banks have been driven by Japanese monetary policy into a concentration process, which has produced new giants without increasing efficiency. Continue reading

Two Tales of Unintended Consequences of Monetary Policy – Tale 1

by Nicolás Cachanosky and Andreas Hoffmann

Even when a policy is successful in achieving its desired ends, we have to consider its unintended and unforeseen consequences, resulting from cumulative market adjustments to policy changes that make it hard to judge the overall outcome of a policy in our complex economy. The Federal Reserve and European Central Bank’s monetary policy responses to the 2008 financial crisis offer two tales of major unintended consequences. This post discusses unintended outcomes of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s crisis policies. In our next post, we address ECB policies.

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The Venezuelan Crisis and the Political Costs of Reforms

by Pablo Duarte*

Venezuela is in deep political and economic crisis. According to Reuters – quoting a leaked document from the Venezuelan Central Bank – output fell 19% and prices increased 800% during 2016. Even though the “Socialism of the 21st Century”, the political program initiated by former President Hugo Chavez, has been losing support in other countries, in Venezuela it is still alive. The government has responded to people’s discontent with violence rather than with economic reforms. One reason for the reluctance to reform can be that the government would have to assume high political costs if it wanted to solve the current economic crisis.

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Are we all Debt Liquidationists now? … No!

by Andreas Hoffmann

A growing number of economists suggest that governments in highly indebted countries should consider liquidating debt via financial repression. In other words, they want governments to intervene in financial markets and push government borrowing costs below the rate of inflation to erode the real value of debt. In a previous post, I argued that financial repression is dangerous and a drag on growth. This post explains why we can be hopeful that, despite a rise in popularity, the debt liquidationists will not succeed in putting their ideas to work. Debt liquidation via financial repression would necessitate far-reaching regulation or drastic measures, both of which seem unlikely in the US.

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Beware of Financial Repression

by Andreas Hoffmann

Government debt levels in many advanced economies, especially in Southern Europe, in the US and in Japan, have reached peacetime records. People are worried and rightly so: C. Reinhart and K. Rogoff have provided evidence that elevated debt-to-GDP ratios may contribute to stagnation or even debt crises. As austerity policies are unpopular with voters and growth remains rather sluggish, Reinhart and Rogoff suggest that governments might have to consider other options to reduce debt-to-GDP ratios. Debt should be liquidated via financial repression. It’s how governments typically dealt with high levels of debt in history, they say. This time is not different.

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The Revival of State Banking in Europe

by Alexander Fink[1] and Andreas Hoffmann[2]

Since 2009, the role of government in banking has increased substantially in Europe. This is, first, a consequence of capital injections or bailouts of private banks (for instance Dexia in Belgium, Royal Bank of Scotland in the UK, Hypo Real Estate and Commerzbank in Germany, Fortis in the Benelux, ABN Amro in the Netherlands, or Allied Irish Bank in Ireland). Second, the ECB has taken on a more dominant role in financial markets. And third, low-interest rates and mounting EU regulation seem to discourage private bank lending. Whereas private banks de-leverage and roll back their portfolios in the absence of great opportunities, so-called development banks substantially gain market share. This is odd and worrisome at the same time.

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The Blanchard Danger

by Roger Koppl

Oliver Blanchard tells us “Where Danger Lurks”  in the macro-finance world.

The big theme is nonlinearity, which is a profoundly conservative move: DSGE modeling is just fine and we don’t need to rethink it at all. We just need to add in some nonlinearities. Blanchard does not tell how to calibrate a model with extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. But if the system is chaotic, it is also unpredictable, so how can you pretend to merely add nonlinearities to DSGE models?  It seems like a pretty direct contradiction to me. I mean, you can have the model in a trivial sense, of course. But calibration is an empty exercise that will not let you look around corners.

Blanchard’s second main message is alarming: We do need theoretical innovation, however, in measuring systemic risk. In the modern network literature on financial markets and cascades, one key point is risk externality. My portfolio choice makes your portfolio riskier. We need two things to fix this market failure. First, we need Pigou taxes, which cannot be calculated unless everyone tells the regulator his portfolio so that it can measure systemic risk and calculate a separate Pigou tax for each financial institution. Second, we need to reduce systemic risk. (“[S]teps must be taken to reduce risk and increase distance” from the “dark corners” of the macro-finance system.) In the network literature I suspect Blanchard is alluding to, this is to be done (at least in some of the articles) by having the regulator directly control the portfolios of financial institutions. (Names include: Acharya 2009; Beale et al. 2011; Caccioli et al. 2011; Gai, Haldane,and Kapadia 2011; Haldane and May 2011; and Yellen 2009, 2011)

I take a rather different view of both economic theory and the crisis in my recent IEA Hobart paper From Crisis to Confidence: Macroeconomics after the Crash.

Overall, Blanchard’s message is meant to be reassuring: We the smart macro-finance experts have now got the message on nonlinearities. So no further need to worry, we’ve got the situation in hand. To keep the system out of the “dark corners,” however, we will need more discretionary authority. You don’t mind trading off a bit of financial freedom for greater financial safety do you?

The Euro: a Step Toward the Gold Standard?

by Andreas Hoffmann (University of Leipzig)

In a recent piece Jesus Huerta de Soto (2012) argues that the euro is a proxy for the gold standard. He draws several analogies between the euro and the classical gold standard (1880-1912). Like when “going on gold” European governments gave up monetary sovereignty by introducing the euro. Like the classical gold standard the common currency forces reforms upon countries that are in crisis because governments cannot manipulate the exchange rate and inflate away debt. Therefore, to limit state power and to encourage e.g. labor market reforms he views the euro as second best to the gold standard from a free market perspective. Therefore, we should defend it. He finds that it is a step toward the re-establishment of the classical gold standard.

There has been much criticism of the piece that mainly addresses the inflationary bias of the ECB. I actually agree with much of it. In particular, imperfect currency areas have the potential to restrict monetary nationalism. This can be welcomed just as customs unions that allow for free trade (at least in restricted areas). But I have some trouble with De Soto’s conclusions and the view that adhering to the euro (as did adhering to gold) gives an extra impetus for market reform – in spite of the mentioned e.g. labor market reforms in Spain. Continue reading

Government Revenues from Low-Interest Rate Policies

by Andreas Hoffmann and Holger Zemanek*

Over the last two years Carmen Reinhart and Belen Sbrancia have published a series of papers on financial repression and its historical role in financing government debt. They show that throughout the Bretton Woods period governments in many advanced economies repressed financial markets to liquidate the high levels of debt that had been accumulated by the end of World War II.

During this period, low policy rates reduced debt servicing costs. Financial repression raised the attractiveness of government bonds relative to other investments. Inflation liquidated government debt. The authors report an annual debt liquidation effect for, e.g., the US and UK government debt of about 3 – 4 percent of GDP (Reinhart and Sbrancia 2011).

Today government debt levels in many countries are comparable to those after the Second World War II! After all, good politicians do not need a World War. There are plenty of other ways to spend. But in the light of the European debt crisis, governments are feeling the need to correct the spending-revenue misalignments in order to make debt-service sustainable. Continue reading

Money and Government

by Jerry O’Driscoll  

The 30th annual Cato monetary conference was held in Washington, D.C. on November 15th. The theme was “Money, Markets, and Government: The Next 30 Years.” It was heavily attended in Cato’s new state-of-the-art Hayek auditorium. Jim Dorn has ably directed it over its entire history.

Because of the conference’s breadth and depth, I can only provide some highlights.

Vernon Smith gave a brilliant Keynote Address on the history of bubbles. It was rich in slides, which filled the giant screen in the auditorium. It was a tour de force, and I look forward to seeing it in the Proceedings. Continue reading

Hundred Years of Bailouts

by Chidem Kurdas

After all that’s been said and written about financial crises, it is rare to come across useful insights.  Financing Failure. A Century of Bailouts by Vern McKinley documents a major continuity with past policy making. He shows that policies intended to prop up failing companies are nothing new—the same basic pattern has recurred time and again.

But there is one notable change: the bailouts grew ever larger and the agencies concerned with them ever more numerous. Anyone thinking about recent crises and future prospects would do well to keep these points in mind.  Continue reading

Remember Those Oil Speculators?

by Chidem Kurdas

Less than two months ago, President Obama claimed that speculators were (or at least might be) artificially driving up the price of oil—a notion that some politician or pundit  brings up every time gasoline looks expensive. The idea fades when the market changes direction. Thus in recent weeks, economies worldwide took a turn for the worse and the price of oil came down a notch. Continue reading

Euro Crisis from Long Perspective

by Chidem Kurdas

The European crisis, in progress for years and still showing no sign of resolution, is largely the result of elite hubris. To create the euro and ram it down the throats of populations that, left to their druthers, would have stayed with their old currencies—this was a massive, top-down social engineering project. Continue reading

Krugman on Banks and Romney

by Chidem Kurdas

Regulation advocates seem to regard the JP Morgan loss as the best thing since sliced bread. Thus Paul Krugman gleefully bawls out Mitt Romney for refusing to see it as a sign for greater government intervention.

Krugman repeats the by now well-known argument on banks, as a riff on “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The Jimmy Stewart character makes “a risky bet on some complex financial instrument,” loses the money and causes his bank to collapse. The moral: banks should not be allowed to take on much risk because “they put the whole economy in jeopardy” and “shouldn’t be allowed to run wild, since they are in effect gambling with taxpayers’ money.”

The fact is, banks make money by taking risk. That’s always been the business model. Even Bailey Building and Loan in “It’s a Wonderful Life” makes risky home loans—one might think of them as subprime. Continue reading

Bank Hedges and Social Justice

by  Chidem Kurdas

To hedge or not to hedge? That’s the question for many an endeavor. Farmers hedge by selling their harvest ahead of time. Building managers hedge by locking in a price for heating oil or natural gas—last year many got it wrong, blindsided by the decline in the price of gas. Most hedges we don’t hear much about.

Until last week, the most infamous hedge was the set of complex trades put on by Goldman Sachs as protection against losses in mortgage securities in the property bust. Financially this worked and Goldman Sachs escaped the 2008 crisis relatively unscathed. Thereupon it became an object of loathing and mockery in the media, inspiring calls for higher taxes and greater regulation.

Now we have the failed trades with resultant loss of $2-$3 billion at JP Morgan Chase. This also inspired calls for greater regulation, in particular of bank trading, which appears to be offensive whether it makes money or loses money. Continue reading

Should Banks Just Buy Treasuries?

by Chidem Kurdas

There’s a widespread impression that the $2 billion-plus trading loss JP Morgan Chase announced a few days ago strengthens the case for more regulation of banks.  Below  Jerry O’ Driscoll makes this argument more thoughtfully than I’ve seen any where else.

Two basic facts are worth remembering.

Fact number one is that in 2010 Congress passed the gigantic Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, which is being translated to thousands of specific rules by coteries of government bureaucrats. The Volcker rule against bank proprietary trading is the least of it. There are numerous new rules. None of these could have prevented the JP Morgan loss or even moderated it, as best I can tell. Continue reading

The JP Morgan Caper

by Jerry O’Driscoll   

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., one of the nation’s leading banks, revealed that a London trader racked up trading losses reportedly amounting to $2.3 billion over a 15-day period. The losses averaged over $150 million per day, sometimes hitting $200 million daily. The bank states the trades were done to hedge existing risks.

How did this happen and what are the lessons? The two questions are related.

It appears the individual traded on the basis of observed relationships among various derivative indices. The relationships broke down. Such a breakdown has been at the heart of a number of spectacular financial collapses, notably that of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 and a number during the financial meltdown of 2007-08.

In short, there is nothing new in what happened. Yet financial institutions permit their traders to make the same kind of dangerous bets. In a Cato Policy Analysis, Kevin Dowd and three co-authors examined some of the technical problems with standard risk models utilized by banks.  It is an exhaustive analysis and I commend it to those interested. The analysis goes to the question of how these losses happened.

Now to the lessons. Continue reading

Big Bank Breakup or Tea Party?

by Chidem Kurdas

We’ve been going back and forth on the economics of too-big-to-fail banks but paying less attention to the politics. The most recent ThinkMarkets broadside on banks is Jerry O’Driscoll’s post on the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas annual report.

In part of the report, the Dallas Fed’s director of research Harvey Rosenblum argues that the new Dodd-Frank regulations are insufficient to deal with the threat posed by too-big-to-fail banks and therefore these need to be broken into smaller entities. He and the bank’s president, Richard Fisher, made a similar point in a Wall Street Journal column.  Some other Fed officials have espoused the position as well.  Continue reading

Too Big to Fail – Again

by Jerry O’Driscoll  

The issue of banks viewed as too big to fail has been taken up several times on this site. In its Annual Report, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has weighed in on the topic with an essay on “Choosing the Road to Prosperity: Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now.”

 It is authored by Harvey Rosenblum, the bank’s Director of Research. Since Richard Fisher, the bank’s president, signed off on the annual report, one presumes he endorses the substance of the essay.

It is a very hard-hitting piece, arguing that “the vitality of our capitalist system and the long-run prosperity it produces hang in the balance.” It explains why TBTF is “a perversion of capitalism,” which undermines faith in markets. Rosenblum quotes Allan Meltzer on point: “Capitalism without failure is like religion without sin.”

The essay spares no sacred cows and, among other things, charges that the “the Fed kept interest rates too low for too long” in the 2000s. That directly contradicts the stated position of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. I assume there is much grinding of teeth over the essay in Washington, D.C. The essay details how government support is the source of the gigantism in banking today, and debunks the idea that efficiencies and financial innovation are the reason why, since the early 1970s, the share of banking assets belonging to the five largest banks has grown from 17 percent to 52 percent of the total. These financial institutions expand in size to capture the government support available only to the largest banks.

The essay notes that “commercial banks holding roughly one-third of the assets in the banking system did essentially fail, surviving only with extraordinary government assistance.” As noted elsewhere, “a bailout is a failure, just with a different label.” Amazingly, the report even identifies two of the failed institutions – Citigroup and Bank of America (albeit in a footnote).

It’s a lengthy essay and I recommend it to everyone interested in the issue.