Category Archives: Commentary

Insurance Companies and Systemic Risk

By James Kwak

The systemic risk posed by insurance companies is something that I’ve never been entirely clear about. I know it’s an enormous issue for large insurers who want to avoid additional oversight by the Federal Reserve. I’m well aware of the usual defense, which is that insurers are not subject to bank runs because their obligations are, in large measure, pre-funded by policyholder premiums, and policyholders must pay a price in order to stop paying premiums. But this has never seemed entirely convincing to me, because some insurers are enormous players in the financial markets, and the nature of systemic risk seems to be that it can arise in unusual places.

So I find very helpful Dan and Steven Schwarcz’s new paper discussing the ins and outs of systemic risk and insurance. Because it’s written for a law review audience, it covers all the basics, so you can follow it even if you know little about insurance. They cover the usual arguments for why insurers do not pose a threat to the financial system, but then posit a number of reasons for why they could pose such a threat.

A big reason is that insurers make up a large proportion of the buy side, especially for particular markets—owning, for example, one-third of all investment-grade bonds. Furthermore, insurers tend to concentrate their purchases within certain types of securities that provide them with regulatory benefits (sound familiar?)—such as the structured products that promised higher yield while providing the investment-grade ratings that insurers needed. The big fear is that large numbers of insurers could be forced to dump similar securities at the same time, causing prices to fall and harming other types of financial institutions. This may seem unlikely, since insurers only have to make cash payouts when insurable events occur (houses burn down, people die). But insurers have to meet capital requirements just like banks, so falling asset values will require them to adjust their balance sheets.

Another major problem is that it’s not clear that insurers are prepared for those insurable events. For example, insurers are not prepared for a global pandemic, just like they weren’t prepared for large-scale terrorist attacks prior to September 11, 2001.

Finally (and I’m skipping several factors), it’s possible that entire segments of the insurance industry are under-reserving for certain types of risks. This stems from the usual cause: companies compete for market share, and the way to win share is to charge lower prices, and the way to charge lower prices is to underestimate risk. This is all good in the short term, resulting in larger bonuses, and bad in the long term, when the risk actually materializes. Yet it seems that insurance regulators are shifting to “a process of principles-based reserving (‘PBR’), which would grant insurers substantial discretion to set their own reserves based on internal models of their future exposures.” For even a casual observer of the last financial crisis, this sounds like the system is taking on a large amount of model risk and regulatory competency risk, and we know how that story ended last time.

Schwarcz and Schwarcz conclude that the federal government should play a larger role in monitoring systemic risk in the insurance industry, which will make them just about the least popular people in most insurance circles. Given the downside risks, though, it seems like pretending that there’s no reason to worry about insurers is not a good long-term strategy.

 

It Keeps Getting Better

By James Kwak

Remember when Steve Schwarzman said that taxing carried interest was “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939″? Or when Lloyd Blankfein said he was doing “God’s work”? Apparently, titans of finance can’t stop themselves from giving good copy. The latest is in Max Abelson’s Bloomberg article in Bloomberg on Wall Street’s search for a Republican presidential candidate who will wave their flag: low individual taxes and a rollback of financial regulation. John Taft, U.S. CEO of RBC Wealth Management, “likened his fear for the country to ‘hiding under my desk during air-raid drills because of the Cuban missile crisis,’ when ‘literally the future of humanity hung in the balance,’” before beginning a suggestion, “If I were God.”

More seriously, the financial sector expects to be able to choose the next Republican presidential nominee. In the words of one political strategist, with Chris Christie on the rocks, “The establishment is now looking for another favorite. . . . And by the establishment, I mean Wall Street.” At the moment, the big money is desperate enough to be looking at fringe candidates like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio (although what they most long for is the third coming of Bush). Basically, there are huge piles of cash looking for a friendly political home, and the level of hysteria is likely to surpass what we saw in 2012. We should at least get some entertaining quotes out of it.

Good Times for Capital

By James Kwak

Last week, the Wall Street Journal highlighted a Federal Reserve report on total household net worth. Surprise! Americans are richer than ever before, both in nominal and real terms.

At the same time, though, wealth inequality is increasing from its already Gilded Era levels. The main factor behind increasing household net worth over the past year was the rising stock market (followed far behind by rising housing prices). These obviously only help you if you own stocks—not if, say, you never had enough money to buy stocks, or you had to cash out your 401(k) in 2009 because you were laid off. Put another way, rising asset values help you if you are a supplier of capital more than a supplier of labor.

Is there anything we can do about this? The conventional wisdom from the political center all the way out to the right fringe is that we shouldn’t tinker too much with the wealth distribution—otherwise people won’t work as hard, which is bad for everyone. But perhaps it isn’t true.

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Posturing from Weakness

By James Kwak

President Obama’s 2015 budget proposes a number of tax increases that will mainly affect the rich. They include:

  • Limiting the tax savings on deductions to 28 percent of the deduction amount (and applying this limit to exclusions as well, such as the one for employer-provided health benefits)
  • Requiring a minimum 30% income tax on income less charitable contributions, which is intended to limit the benefit of tax preferences on capital gains and qualified dividends
  • Reducing the estate tax exemption from $5.34 million to $3.5 million and raising the estate tax rate from 40% to 45%
  • Eliminating tax preferences for retirement accounts once someone’s account balance is enough to fund a $200,000 annuity in retirement (simplifying slightly)

These are all good things, given the size of the projected national debt and the urgent needs elsewhere in society. But, of course, they have no chance of actually happening.

If President Obama really wanted these outcomes, there was a way to get them. He could have let the Bush tax cuts expire for good a year ago, making high taxes on the rich a reality. Then, a year later, he could have proposed a middle-class tax cut and dared the Republicans to block it in an election year. (He could also have traded a reduction in the top marginal rate—from the 39.6% that would have resulted, not counting the 3.8% Medicare tax—for the reforms he is now proposing.)

But no. Instead, he locked in low marginal rates, including low rates on dividends, that cannot be budged so long as Republicans have 41 votes in the Senate. And today he’s left waving a “roadmap” that has no chance of becoming reality.

Ukrainian Chess

By Peter Boone and Simon Johnson

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev on Tuesday.  The Obama administration is feeling real pressure from across the political spectrum to “do something”, but the US has no military options and little by way of meaningful financial assistance it can offer to Ukraine.  The $1 billion in loan guarantees offered today by Mr. Kerry means very little.

Millions of people have a great deal to lose if the situation gets out of control, and the Russian leadership is behaving in an unpredictable manner.  The sharp drop in the Russian stock market index on Monday morning, alongside an emergency hike in interest rates by the Central Bank, demonstrates that Russia’s financial elite was also caught completely off guard.

Mr. Kerry can and has made threats, but it would be better to join the Europeans in helping to calm the situation.  There is a completely reasonable and peaceful path to a solution available, but only if everyone wants to avoid a major conflict. Continue reading

Résumé Put Hall of Fame

By James Kwak

Before 2006, people used to talk about the Greenspan put: the idea that, should the going get rough in the markets, Chairman Al would bail everybody out. But there’s something even better than having the Federal Reserve watching your back. It’s the résumé put.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Vikram Pandit, former CEO of Citigroup, is starting a new firm called TGG which will . . . well, it’s not entirely clear. In one email, they claim “a novel approach to address the challenges that large complex organizations face in compliance, fraud, corruption, and culture and reputation.” (That’s the standard marketing tactic of describing what benefits you will provide without mentioning what you actually do.) Now, Pandit certainly has experience in a large, complex organization with compliance, fraud, corruption, culture, and reputation problems. Citigroup checks pretty much every box. But is it experience you would want to pay for?

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Random Variation

By James Kwak

As I previously wrote on this blog, one of my professors at Yale, Ian Ayres, asked his class on empirical law and economics if we could think of any issue on which we had changed our mind because of an empirical study. For most people, it’s hard. We like to think that we form our views based on evidence, but in fact we view the evidence selectively to confirm our preexisting views.

I used to believe that no one could beat the market: in other words, that anyone who did beat the market was solely the beneficiary of random variation (a winner in Burton Malkiel’s coin-tossing tournament). I no longer believe this. I’ve seen too many studies that indicate that the distribution of risk-adjusted returns cannot be explained by dumb luck alone; most of the unexplained outcomes are at the negative end of the distribution, but there are also too many at the positive end. Besides, it makes sense: the idea that markets perfectly incorporate all available information sounds too much like magic to be true.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone who beats the market is actually good at what he does, even if that person gets a $100 million annual bonus. That person would be Andy Hall, the commodities trader who stirred up controversy when he apparently earned a $100 million bonus at Citigroup—in 2008, of all years. (That was a year with huge volatility in the commodities markets.)

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“Telling a lie does not make you guilty of a federal crime”

By James Kwak

That’s what Jesse Litvak’s lawyer said at the start of his trial earlier today. And technically speaking, it’s true. If you’re trying to sell a bond to a client, and during the course of the conversation you say you can bench press 250 pounds when you can only bench 150, that’s not a federal crime. But if you lie about a material aspect of the bond and the client relies on your lie in buying the bond, that’s another story.

Litvak’s case is (barely) in the news because it has a financial crisis connection; some of the buy-side clients he is alleged to have defrauded were investment funds financed by the infamous Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) set up in 2009 using TARP money, and hence one of the counts against Litvak is TARP-related fraud. But it bears on a much more widespread, and much more important feature of over-the-counter (OTC) securities markets.

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Not the Problem

By James Kwak

Nicholas Kristof’s ill-conceived diatribe against the supposed self-marginalization of academics has come in for a fair amount of criticism, notably from Corey Robin. The most obvious problem with Kristof’s argument assertion is that anywhere you look in the policy sphere, you can’t help stumbling over academics left and right. Macroeconomics is an obvious one, but there many others. Take education, for example, where anyone pushing for any conceivable policy change can wave a fistful of academic papers in your face.

It’s easy to multiply examples of academics doing policy work or even occupying policy positions. The bigger question, and the less obvious problem with Kristof’s opinion, is whether more of us would do any good for the world.

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Unequal Justice

By James Kwak

If I write about a legal matter on this blog, it usually involves battalions of attorneys on each side, months of motions, briefs, and hearings, and legal fees easily mounting into the millions of dollars. That’s how our legal system works if, say, you lie to your investors about a synthetic CDO and the SEC decides to go after you—even if it’s a civil, not a criminal matter.

But most legal matters in this country don’t operate that way, even if you face the threat of prison time (or juvenile detention), and all the collateral consequences that entails (ineligibility for public housing, student loans, and many public sector jobs, to name a few). Theoretically, the Constitution guarantees you the services of an attorney if you are accused of a felony (Gideon v. Wainwright), misdemeanor that creates the risk of jail time (Argersinger v. Hamlin), or a juvenile offense that could result in confinement (In re Gault). The problem is that this requires state and counties to pay for attorneys for poor defendants, which is just about the lowest priority for many state legislatures, especially those controlled by conservatives.

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If the Alabama Medicaid Eligibility Ceiling is $2,832 for a Family of Two . . .

By James Kwak

. . . (source), and Medicaid is more than one-third of Alabama’s budget (same source), what is Alabama doing with all the Medicaid money it gets from the federal government?

That’s the Whole Point

By James Kwak

The Wall Street Journal reports that the federal financial regulators may yet again carve a  loophole in the Volcker Rule. This time, the issue is whether banks subject to the rule’s proprietary trading prohibitions can hold collateralized loan obligations (CLOs)—structured products engineered out of commercial loans, just like good old collateralized debt obligations were engineered out of residential mortgage-backed securities during the last boom.

The reason to prohibit positions in CLOs obvious: it was portfolios of similarly complex, opaque, risky, and illiquid securities that torpedoed Bear Stearns, Lehman, Citigroup, and other megabanks during the financial crisis. The counterargument is one we’ve heard many times before: If banks are forced to sell their CLOs, they will have to do so at a discount, which will “have a material negative impact to our capital base,” in the words of one banker.

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Why We Have a Debt Problem, Part 23

By James Kwak

So, we have eleven aircraft carrier groups. No other country in the world has more than one. Everyone who has looked at the issue has agreed that we could do with fewer than eleven while still achieving our national security goals: Bush/Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and think tanks on the left and the right.

But apparently we can’t retire even one–even though we would save not just the annual operating costs, but most of the $4.7 billion it will cost to refurbish over the next five years. Instead, the Obama Administration has promised the Pentagon that it can simply have more money and not comply with the spending limits set in the 2011 debt ceiling agreement (and modified by Murray-Ryan).

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The Prosecution That Isn’t Happening

By James Kwak

People keep asking why no senior executive has gone to jail for the misdeeds that produced the financial crisis—and cost the United States more than $6 trillion, or $50,000 per household, in lost economic output. The usual answers are that no one did anything wrong (oh, come on) or, more realistically, that it’s too hard to convict individuals in complex financial fraud cases.

At the same time, however, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York—the district that includes Wall Street—has amassed a 79-0 record in insider trading cases, including yesterday’s jury verdict against Mathew Martoma, a trader at the hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors. In Martoma’s case, he obtained confidential information about a clinical trial for a drug being manufactured by two pharmaceutical companies and, according to the jury, convinced his boss, Steven Cohen, to unload the firm’s positions in those two stocks.

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Missing the Point

By James Kwak

The Basel Committee’s recent decision to change the definition of the leverage ratio is bad news for two reasons.

There’s the obvious: A smaller denominator means less capital. The leverage ratio requirement says, in principle, that banks must have capital equal to at least X% of their total unweighted assets, where “assets” is supposed to include anything they hold that could fall in value. Take some bank that has some amount Y of traditional assets and other things that could fall in value, like derivatives positions. Then it has to have capital equal to X * Y / 100. If we take the exact same bank but decide to call Y some smaller number, say Z, then it can get bay with less capital. Less capital = more risk.

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