Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Other Voices – January 5, 2009

  • IMF study links lobbying by US banks to high-risk lending, guardian.co.uk (Jan 4). Three IMF economists conclude that extensive lobbying and political contributions by financial institutions were highly correlated with naughty behavior in the mortgage markets:
    The paper, written by a trio of high-profile IMF economists, established that firms who spend more on buying access to politicians are more likely to engage in risky securitisation of their loan books, have faster-growing mortgage loan portfolios as well as poorer share performance and larger loan defaults.

    The landmark paper will increase pressure on US politicians to regulate the mortgage industry, which Washington insiders say has so far been immune from meaningful financial reform in the aftermath of the bank crisis.

    Highlighting 33 pieces of federal legislation that would have tamed predatory lending or introduced more responsible banking but were the target of intense lobbying, the IMF found that the efforts by banks to resist the legislation overwhelmingly succeeded.

    "Our analysis suggests that the political influence of the financial industry can be a source of systemic risk," Deniz Igan, Prachi Mishra and Thierry Tressel wrote in their conclusion. "Therefore, it provides some support to the view that the prevention of future crises might require weakening political influence of the financial industry or closer monitoring of lobbying activities to understand better the incentives behind it."
    More evidence from the archives of the Department for the Obvious Department on the capacity of directed influence and money to piss in the policy well. Is it time to reevaluate campaign contributions and directed lobbying as "protected speech" yet?

  • Fannie, Freddie, and the New Red and Blue, Matt Taibbi (Jan 4). The scourge of vampire squiditude and plutocracy everywhere sets his frame a little wider. In it, he comes to the conclusion, inter alia, that: 1) everyone was to blame for the financial crisis; 2) our entire socioeconomic system is endemically if not irretrievably corrupt; and 3) the mainstream media is incapable of interpreting these events and problems outside the lens of Red State–Blue State politics.
    To me all of these people were equally guilty of making bad decisions to benefit themselves in the here and now at the expense of the whole in the future. When it comes to bubbles, It Takes a Village ...
    My prediction? Taibbi will rapidly tire of a fight in which there are so many combatants—many of whom, unlike Goldman Sachs, will have no compunction about fighting back without restraint. He will retire to the country and write clever hatchet jobs about despicable people and institutions who, because they do not gaze back when you look in the mirror, are much easier and far more entertaining for his readers to hate.
  • Thursday, December 17, 2009

    The Devil Is in the Details

    Mike Konczal at Rortybomb disagrees with Economics of Contempt's recent post in these pages about the proper regulatory structure for derivatives trading:
    To put it a different way, opponents of full financial reform are saying that the a few concentrated market players can be trusted to not manipulate the clearinghouses at exactly the same moment as a few concentrated market players are being investigated by the Department of Justice for manipulating the clearinghouses. Change we can believe in!

    I know what the retort is. “Mike, you know that po-po is always fucking with a working man who is just trying to hustle some (financial) product on the corner to feed his kids.” I’m sympathetic to critiques of “po-po” myself. But this was the point of the recent Slate piece on the Lynch Amendment; giving the largest players a legal ability to sit together in the same room and make rules for trading and clearing swaps at the same exact moment they are being investigated for a conspiracy to do that is a terrible idea.

    Even better, Mike is not content just to hurl brickbats and criticism. He explains in an accompanying post exactly what it is he is looking for in derivatives trading reform:

    Let’s define some terms. Many people are comfortable forcing OTC derivatives to be forced into clearing (though I don’t think the author above does). I like that, but I and others worried about financial reform want to see more. Let’s talk about exchanges versus clearing. Now as opposed to the FT article, I’m not saying everything needs to be forced onto an exchange proper. There are plenty of great innovations going on in the swap execution facility (SEF) world. What I am worried about is that the swap execution facility will move away from a formal “trading facility” definition towards a vague nebulous definition of whatever people can get away with.

    So what are the features that I want to see? I want to see pre-trade price transparency. I want a facility where multiple parties can see and execute on offers from other parties. A facility that collects the prices at which multiple parties would be willing to trade a a moment in time, and update those prices as time passes.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009

    “Wake Up, Gentlemen”

    [This post originally appeared at The Baseline Scenario on December 15, 2009. It is reproduced here in its entirety with the kind permission of the author.]

    The guiding myth underpinning the reconstruction of our dangerous banking system is: Financial innovation as-we-know-it is valuable and must be preserved. Anyone opposed to this approach is a populist, with or without a pitchfork.

    Single-handedly, Paul Volcker has exploded this myth. Responding to a Wall Street insiders‘ Future of Finance “report“, he was quoted in the WSJ yesterday as saying: “Wake up gentlemen. I can only say that your response is inadequate.”

    Volcker has three main points, with which we whole-heartedly agree:
    1. “[Financial engineering] moves around the rents in the financial system, but not only this, as it seems to have vastly increased them.”
    2. “I have found very little evidence that vast amounts of innovation in financial markets in recent years have had a visible effect on the productivity of the economy”
    and most important:
    3. “I am probably going to win in the end”.
    Volcker wants tough constraints on banks and their activities, separating the payments system – which must be protected and therefore tightly regulated – from other “extraneous” functions, which includes trading and managing money.

    This is entirely reasonable – although we can surely argue about details, including whether a very large “regulated” bank would be able to escape the limits placed on its behavior and whether a very large “trading” bank could (without running the payments system) still cause massive damage.

    But how can Mr. Volcker possibly prevail? Even President Obama was reduced, yesterday, to asking the banks nicely to lend more to small business – against which Jamie Dimon will presumably respond that such firms either (a) are not creditworthy (so give us a subsidy if you want such loans) or (b) don’t want to borrow (so give them a subsidy). (Some of the bankers, it seems, didn’t even try hard to attend – they just called it in.)

    The reason for Volcker’s confidence in his victory is simple - he is moving the consensus. It’s not radicals against reasonable bankers. It’s the dean of American banking, with a bigger and better reputation than any other economic policymaker alive – and with a lot of people at his back – saying, very simply: Enough.

    He says it plainly, he increasingly says it publicly, and he now says it often. He waited, on the sidelines, for his moment. And this is it.

    Paul Volcker wants to stop the financial system before it blows up again. And when he persuades you – and people like you – he will win. You can help – tell everyone you know to read what Paul Volcker is saying and to pass it on.

    By Simon Johnson

    The Lynch Amendment: Bizarre and Confused

    [This post originally appeared at Economics of Contempt on December 15, 2009. It is reproduced here in its entirety with the kind permission of the author.]

    The Lynch amendment has to be one of the most bizarre pieces of legislation relating to derivatives I've ever seen—and that's saying something. Really, the amendment is just illogical. Introduced by Rep. Stephen Lynch, the amendment prohibits swap dealers and "major swap participants" from owning more than 20%, collectively, of a derivatives clearinghouse. Here's how Rep. Lynch justified his amendment on the House floor:
    [T]he problem is—and in my view, this is a huge problem with the bill—the bill would allow these same big banks to purchase the clearinghouses that are being created to police the big banks in their derivatives trading. The big banks would be allowed to own and control the clearinghouses and to set the rules for how their own derivatives deals are handled. My amendment would prevent those big banks and major swap participants, like AIG, from taking over the police station—these new clearinghouses.
    This makes absolutely no sense. Rep. Lynch appears to be deeply confused about both clearinghouses and the derivatives market. Unfortunately, the Lynch amendment has been cheered on by the blogosphere, which now reliably swoons at any mention of hurting "Wall Street," seemingly without regard for the merits of the proposal.

    Honestly, what do supporters of the Lynch amendment think clearinghouses are? The purpose of a clearinghouse is risk mutualization. If one clearing member defaults on a cleared contract, the other members—via the clearinghouse—will pick up the tab. That's why the clearinghouse, as the central counterparty (CCP), interposes itself between counterparties to contracts cleared through the clearinghouse, serving as the buyer to every seller and the seller to every buyer. The whole purpose of this set-up is to put all the clearing members on the hook for one clearing member's default. (If after applying a defaulting member's margin account, the money the other clearing members have contributed to the clearinghouse's guaranty fund still isn't sufficient to cover the losses from a member's default, the clearinghouse can generally force the other clearing members to make one-time contributions to cover the remaining losses.)

    Monday, December 14, 2009

    A Few Things Worth Considering

    From one of the more underrated political philosophers and students of human nature of our time:
    Governments, if they endure, always tend increasingly toward aristocratic forms. No government in history has been known to evade this pattern. And as the aristocracy develops, government tends more and more to act exclusively in the interests of the ruling class — whether that class be hereditary royalty, oligarchs of financial empires, or entrenched bureaucracy.

    * *

    Good government never depends upon laws, but upon the personal qualities of those who govern. The machinery of government is always subordinate to the will of those who administer that machinery. The most important element of government, therefore, is the method of choosing leaders.

    * *

    What you of the CHOAM directorate seem unable to understand is that you seldom find real loyalties in commerce ... Men must want to do things of their own innermost drives. People, not commercial organisations or chains of command, are what make great civilizations work, every civilization depends upon the quality of the individuals it produces. If you overorganize humans, over-legalize them, suppress their urge to greatness — they cannot work and their civilization collapses.

    — Frank Herbert, Children of Dune

    All laws and regulations are only as good as the people who create, interpret, and implement them. Given the dominant strains of careerism, materialism, and narcissism among our current socioeconomic elites, this observation falls squarely on the side of those who counsel cynicism and despair.

    In the long run, the biggest challenge we face is not writing new laws and regulations, but rather choosing better leaders. We might approach this project first by figuring out how to raise better humans.

    Ah, if only it were that easy ...

    © 2009 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

    [This post originally appeared at The Epicurean Dealmaker on December 14, 2009. It is reproduced here in its entirety.]

    Friday, December 11, 2009

    Finreg I: Bank capital and original sin

    [This post originally appeared at interfluidity on December 11, 2009. It is reproduced here in its entirety.]

    I have always flattered myself that I would someday die either in prison or with a rope around my neck. So I was excited when The Epicurean Dealmaker invited me to write about financial regulation and crosspost at a site called The New Decembrists. But my views on the topic have grown both more vehement and more distant from the terms of the current debate (such as it is), and I'm having a hard time expressing myself. So I'll ask readers' indulgence, go slowly, and start from the beginning. This will be the first long post of a series.

    Banks are not financial intermediaries. Their role is not, as the storybooks pretend, to serve as a nexus between savers with capital and entrepreneurs in need of capital for economically valuable projects. Savers do transfer funds to banks, and banks do transfer funds to borrowers. But transfers of funds are related to the provision of capital like nightfall is related to lovemaking. Passion and moonlight are often found together, yes, and there are reasons for that. But the two are very distinct phenomena. They are connected more by coincidence than essence.

    The essence of capital provision is bearing economic risk. The flow of funds is like the flow of urine: important, even essential, as one learns when the prostate malfunctions. But "liquidity", as they say, takes care of itself when the body is healthy. In financial arrangements, whenever capital is amply provided — whenever there is a party clearly both willing and able to bear the risks of an enterprise — there is no trouble getting cash from people who can be certain of its repayment. Always when people claim there is a dearth of "liquidity", they are really pointing to an absence of capital and expressing disagreement with potential funders about the risks of a venture. Before the Fed swooped in to provide, 2007-vintage CDOs were "illiquid" because the private parties asked to make markets in them or lend against them perceived those activities as horribly risky at the prices their owners desired. There was never an absence of money. There was an absence of willingness to bear risk, an absence of capital for very questionable projects.

    No economic risk is borne by insured bank depositors. We have recently learned that very little economic risk is borne by the allegedly uninsured creditors of large banks, and even equityholders — preferred and common — have much of the risk of ownership blunted for them in a crisis by terrified governments. The vast, vast majority of bank capital is therefore provided by the state. Prior to last September, uninsured creditors of US banks were providing some capital. Though they relied upon and profited from a "too big to fail" option when buying bonds of megabanks, there was some uncertainty about whether the government would come ultimately come through. So creditors bore some risk. During the crisis, private creditors wanted out of bearing any of the risk of large banks. Banks were illiquid because private parties viewed them as very probably insolvent, and were unsure that the state would save them.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    For Every Action ...

    [This post originally appeared at The Epicurean Dealmaker on December 10, 2009. It is reproduced here in its entirety.]

    Christopher Columbus: "Hello there, hello there. Heh, heh. Ahh ... We white men. Other side of ocean. My name ... Chris-to-pher Co-lum-bus."
    Indian chief: "Oh? You over here on a Fulbright?"
    Christopher Columbus: "Hah? Uh, no, no. I'm over here on an Isabella, as a matter of fact. Which reminds me: I wanna take a few of you guys back with me in the boat to prove I discovered you."
    Indian chief: "What you mean, discover us? We discover you."
    Christopher Columbus: "You discovered us?"
    Indian chief: "Certainly. We discover you on beach here. Is all how you look at it."
    Christopher Columbus: "Ah, I never thought of that."

    — "Columbus Discovers America," Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Vol. 1: The Early Years

    It looks like Alistair Darling is going to have a quiet Christmas.

    The UK finance minister unveiled a nasty Christmas surprise for bankers in the City yesterday: a 50%, non-deductible tax on discretionary bonuses in excess of £25,000 (or $41,000), to be levied against their employers' net income. This scurrilous government attack against chalk stripe suits, Soho strip clubs, and London property values landed with a sickening thud in Old Blighty. Many a banker's wife summarily cancelled their holiday plans and started contacting real estate agents in Geneva.

    Today, Nicolas Sarkozy of France had the unmitigated gall (Unmitigated Gaul?) to pile on with a parallel policy proposal for his country's budget and an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, co-authored with famously dyspeptic Scot Gordon Brown. The fact that France agrees with the UK and is proposing a similar policy is proof positive that either La Republique has been secretly taken over by a stunted Englishman pretending to be French or the UK's Labour government is so desperate to retain power that it's turning Gaullist. Probably both.

    In any event, the policy—as do all new tax policies at the end of the day—has triggered a desperate surge of scurrying about by bankers and banks, as they attempt to discover ways out of the trap. Their prospects do not look good.

    London contacts report senior investment bankers stacked three deep on the pavement outside advisory boutiques' offices this morning, banging on the custom paneled mahogany doors to get entrance for interviews. One Vice President remarked he hadn't seen that many bespoke suits in one place since he stumbled into Gieves and Hawkes' basement storeroom on Saville Row by mistake. I predict independent UK advisors will quintuple their headcount by Christmas.