I have an article in Online Opinion questioning the dominant narrative of the recent financial crisis and its role in conditioning regulatory responses to the crisis:
Perhaps the most pernicious myth about the crisis is that it was the failure of the US government to rescue Lehman Brothers that precipitated these events. Indeed, it has become common practice to date the crisis from 15 September 2008 when Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail. Yet trouble had been brewing in credit markets for more than 12 months before.
The failure of Lehman Brothers was a trivial event compared to a much bigger but largely ignored financial failure that took place one week before when the two US mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were put into conservatorship by the US government. These Congressionally-mandated, government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) either owned or guaranteed two-thirds of the bad mortgages in the US financial system. They were far more highly leveraged than the private US or European investment banks. They will also ultimately cost US taxpayers more than all the other bail-outs of private financial institutions combined…
The failure of Lehman Brothers was merely a symptom rather than a cause of the crisis and the unwillingness of the US authorities to rescue Lehman was perhaps the one good US policy decision made through this episode. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke conceded as much recently, when he tried to defend the decision as a necessary one, but then undercut his own argument by maintaining that the decision also had disastrous consequences. What Bernanke should have argued was that the winding up of Lehman Brothers was fairly orderly as far as these things go and not a source of major systemic problems in the financial system.
Other contributions in this series can be found here.
Frederic Mishkin is in Australia and will be presenting at the Reserve Bank on Thursday. He was interviewed by Alan Kohler for Inside Business:
ALAN KOHLER: So therefore do you join those who call Ben Bernanke a money printer?
PROFESSOR RICK MISHKIN: No, so… I don’t at all. The purpose here is not to print money and to just not worry about future inflationary consequences.
There is, however, an issue that when you have a balance sheet which is this large - and particularly in long-term assets and even more so in housing assets - the Fed is now involved in the most politicised of all financial markets in the US. The Federal Reserve and also the government has been involved in very large transactions to help the economy and bail outs.
The government’s not going to lose a penny on everything but one - the Fannie and Freddie, a couple [sic] of hundred billion dollars. So again, this is an indication of how crazy some of our policies have been.
Economists didn’t get - we missed a lot of things in this crisis, we got a lot of things wrong. Much to trusting for example of the quality of prudential supervision, which by the way in your country was done much, much better than in many other places, so you know, I don’t know whether you’re just lucky or good but…
Alan Greenspan, writing in International Finance, highlights the role of government activism in undermining economic recovery in the US:
What is most notable in sifting through the variables that might conceivably account for the lacklustre rebound in GDP growth and the persistence of high unemployment is the unusually low level of corporate illiquid long-term fixed asset investment. As a share of corporate liquid cash flow, it is at its lowest level since 1940. This contrasts starkly with the robust recovery in the markets for liquid corporate securities. What, then, accounts for this exceptionally elevated level of illiquidity aversion? I break down the broad potential sources, and analyse them with standard regression techniques. I infer that a minimum of half and possibly as much as three-fourths of the effect can be explained by the shock of vastly greater uncertainties embedded in the competitive, regulatory and financial environments faced by businesses since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, deriving from the surge in government activism.
In my CIS Policy Monograph Bubble Poppers, I was dismissive of the notion that Fed policy had anything to do with the US house price boom and bust of last decade. The Reinharts take this Fed irrelevance proposition much further in a new NBER Working Paper:
We take a close look at the responses of asset markets to changes in the short-term policy interest rate since the founding of the Fed in 1914. Changes in the federal funds rate have no systematic effect on either long-term interest rates or housing prices over nearly a century. Indeed, since the mid-1990s the policy rate had a negative relationship with long-term interest rates. This is consistent with a global view of capital markets where massive cross-border flows shape the availability of domestic credit and asset prices. The evidence casts doubts on arguments that a moderately different monetary policy path might have mattered.
I tried telling the same story to John Taylor once, without much success. Maybe the Reinharts will be more convincing.
Negotiators from the world’s leading economies haggled all night over seemingly technical details regarding how to measure global economic imbalances. They eventually produced a 53-word sentence intended to appease all sides—and open to interpretation by all sides…
All 20 countries must agree on any technical detail for there to be a deal. If one country walks away, no deal.
The key agreement they came up with on Saturday—one sentence in the four-page “communiqué”—essentially says that exchange rates and fiscal and monetary policies will be taken into consideration when determining whether a country’s policies lead to imbalances.
To draft that sentence, officials from the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, China, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil and India were just some of the members who weighed in—at times with much different views—according to several people present. The sentence had one colon, one semi-colon, three commas, and the word “and” appeared six times…
“The way it’s written, the French can say it’s an indicator and the Chinese can say it’s not really,” said one G-20 official after the meetings.
IT WAS mid January and Bill Shorten, the Assistant Treasurer, was in Hong Kong attending an Australian Chamber of Commerce function.
In an address to a relaxed gathering of ‘‘Australians in finance’‘, Shorten told the audience of the importance of financial services, and if anyone had fresh ideas they should approach him in the informal setting.
David Webb, a former director of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, elected on a corporate governance ticket by institutional investors, took up the offer. A well-known activist and retired investment banker, he now devotes much of his time to dealing with corporate governance in Hong Kong.
When Webb’s turn came for a chat, the Englishman told the minister that Australia should consider scrapping the Foreign Investment Review Board as it was an impediment to attracting foreign capital. Other regulators could consider contentious investments, he said.
According to Webb, Shorten said the board was necessary, turning the topic to a looming decision on the takeover of the Australian Securities Exchange by its Singapore counterpart…
But what Shorten said next surprised Webb.
‘‘His attitude about this was … that foreign ownership or a perceived foreign takeover would result in Australian investors being screwed. He didn’t make very cogent arguments to me.’‘
When, in 1998, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission rejected ASX’s bid for the Sydney Futures Exchange, it consigned ASX to a non-independent future. In the seven years it took for the ACCC to finally approve the merger, most of the bigger stock exchanges in our region and some outside it had emulated Australia’s aborted lead. This robbed ASX of a significant first mover advantage, depriving it of scale and scope and an unrepeatable regional leadership position.
There can be no doubt that the 2006 merger of ASX and the Sydney Futures Exchange, when it came, was a huge benefit to both markets and to Australian financial services generally, but it came too late to fully leverage this success internationally.
Government intervention in US housing finance was the cause of the recent financial crisis and yet US policymakers have completely ignored GSE reform in their policy responses. Despite having some of the world’s most sophisticated, deep and liquid capital markets, US policymakers find it hard to conceive a system of housing finance that is not dependent on government support. The AEI has produced a white paper on GSE reform, a theme the AEI has pursued since well before the crisis. Here’s some of what the AEI had to say about the GSEs in 2005:
Congress may be unable to summon the political will necessary for enacting a suitable regulatory framework for these politically powerful entities. The inability of the political process to cope with the power of the GSEs, even after their demonstrable failings in recent years, should be a matter of concern to all Americans. Either Congress controls the GSEs or the GSEs control Congress.
Posen on Monetary Policy Activism and Asset Price Cycles
We have previously linked to Adam Posen’s work critical of suggestions that central banks should adopt an activist approach to managing asset price cycles. Here’s Posen’s talk at last year’s Cato Institute Monetary Policy Conference.
Peter Martin rounds-up opinion in favour of re-appointing Warwick McKibbin to another five-year term on the Reserve Bank Board, including some supportive comment from me.
As Chris Joye notes, there is no reason why Ross Garnaut could not be appointed to one of the other looming vacancies on the Board, allowing both Warwick and Ross to serve concurrently. That would certainly liven-up Board meetings and move the Board closer to an MPC-style model of decision-making. The government should eventually move to separate monetary policy decision-making from the Board, as I argue in this article.
In the UK, the government was brave enough to appoint an American, Adam Posen, to the BoE’s MPC. The logistics of having a foreigner other than a kiwi attending monthly RBA Board meetings would be difficult, and the local media reaction would be nothing short of hysterical, but there is no reason why foreign talent should not be considered. A foreigner would actually be significantly less conflicted as a monetary policy decision-maker than many of the existing external Board members.
While my first foreign pick would be Don Brash, my guess is he would be unwilling to serve under the existing RBA governance model. All the more reason to change it.
The libertarian entrepreneur and hedgie has a thing for New Zealand. One theory:
Thiel is nothing if not an ambitious, long-term thinker, so what’s the big picture here? What could the famously contrarian investor possibly see in a country of 4 million people whose economy is mostly based on agriculture and tourism?
Here’s a thought: maybe Peter Thiel wants to turn New Zealand into the next Silicon Valley. Or maybe even the libertarian utopia of his dreams.
model simulations indicate that the past and projected expansion of the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings since late 2008 will lower the unemployment rate, relative to what it would have been absent the purchases, by 1½ percentage points by 2012. In addition, we find that the asset purchases have probably prevented the U.S. economy from falling into deflation.
Paul Cleary has not done himself any favours beating-up the product of The Australian’s latest FOI request of the Reserve Bank:
The decision to sell 167 tonnes of the bank’s reserves has cost the nation about $5 billion based on today’s soaring price of almost $1400 an ounce…
The RBA’s sales pushed the world gold price down to an 11-year low, returning just $2.4bn for the gold that was sold via a single broker engaged without a tender.
The same amount of gold would be worth about $7.4bn today.
This analysis ignores two inconvenient facts. The gold was sitting on the RBA’s books at the Bretton Woods parity price, so the RBA booked a sizeable profit on the sale even at 1997 prices. The suggested $5 billion ‘loss’ ignores the return on the income producing assets the RBA purchased with the proceeds of the sale. It is likely these assets have underperformed gold recently, but historically, the real returns to gold have been negligible compared to other assets. As one of the world’s biggest producers, Australia is naturally long gold. There is no diversification value in relocating gold from the WA goldfields into vaults under Martin Place.
The 1997 RBA gold sale should give gold bugs pause. As we have noted previously, above ground gold stocks dwarf annual production, so the gold price is best viewed as a stock rather than a flow equilibrium. There is a certain irony in people who fear an over-supply of fiat money taking refuge in an asset in which central banks hold substantial stocks that could be dumped on the market at any time. At least one US think tank has advocated selling the US gold stock of 261.5m ounces to yield a quick and dirty profit for the US Treasury. The RBA was able to offload 167 tonnes without too much difficulty.