Category Archives: External perspectives

“All You Need for a Financial Crisis . . .

By James Kwak

. . . are excess optimism and Citibank.”

That’s a saying that someone, probably Simon, repeated to me a few years ago. Crash of 1929, Latin American debt crisis, early 1990s real estate crash (OK, that wasn’t a financial crisis, just a crisis for Citibank), Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998, and, of course, the biggie of 2007–2009: anywhere you look, there’s Citi. Sometimes they’re just in the middle of the profit-seeking pack, but sometimes they play a leading role: for example, the Citicorp-Travelers merger was the final nail in the coffin of the Glass-Steagall Act and the immediate motivation for Gramm-Leach-Bliley.

Citigroup is also the poster child for one of the key problems with our megabanks: the fact that they are too big to manage and, on top of that, the usual mechanisms that are supposed to ensure half-decent management don’t work. Around 2009, if you were to describe the leading characters in the TBTF parade, they were JPMorgan, the last man standing (not so much anymore); Goldman, the sharks who bet on the collapse; Bank of America, the ego-driven empire-builder; and Citi, the incompetent (“I’m still dancing”) fools.

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The Wall Street Takeover, Part 2

By James Kwak

Five years later, and things seem marginally better in some areas (the CFPB exists), significantly worse in others (LIBOR, money laundering, London Whale, etc.). There has been some debate recently about whether we have a safer financial system today than before Lehman collapsed. But the fundamental issue, as Simon and I discussed in 13 Bankers, is whether our political system will put the interests of society at large ahead of the interests of large financial institutions. On that score, there is little to be encouraged about.

In 2002, Art Wilmarth wrote a mammoth (262 pages) article titled “The Transformation of the U.S. Financial Services Industry, 1975–2000.” In that article, he identified many of the key trends in the financial sector—consolidation, deregulation, breakdown of Glass-Steagall, complex products, increased risk-taking—that would not only produce a financial crisis but make it so destabilizing for the economy later in the decade. Now he has written a shorter (164 pages) article, “Turning a Blind Eye: Why Washington Keeps Giving into Wall Street,” on the key question: why our government doesn’t do anything about it, even after the financial crisis.

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The Costs of “Good” Economics

By James Kwak

If there is a central argument to 13 Bankers, it is that politics matters. The financial crisis was the result of a long-term transformation of the financial sector and its place in the overall economy, and that transformation occurred because of—and contributed to—a shift in the political balance of power.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of Why Nations Fail, take up this theme on a much broader scale in their recent article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “Economics Versus Politics: Pitfalls of Policy Advice,” burnishing their reputations as two of the most subversive thinkers around. People have always known that economics and politics are related: that economic power produces political power and that political institutions constrain economic policy choices. Still, however, at least for the past several decades, the universal assumption has been that good economic policy is always good policy, full stop: for example, that it is always good to eliminate market failures.

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New Research in Financial Regulation

By James Kwak

Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of interesting research being done in the area of financial institutions, systemic risk, and regulatory reform. Last week I had the pleasure of attending a workshop for junior law professors held by the Insurance Law Center of the UConn Law School, where I am a professor. The workshop featured a long list of provocative and weighty papers at various stages of completion. Here I just want to point out a few that are fully drafted and available on SSRN.

Robert Weber presented what should be the canonical paper on stress testing as applied to financial institutions, which has been going on for a while but became front-page news in 2009, during the financial crisis. He traces the history of stress testing back to its engineering roots in Renaissance Italy with, perhaps unsurprisingly, Leonardo da Vinci. Weber is critical of box-checking stress testing, but argues that stress testing  can be useful as a way of encouraging or inducing bank executives and risk managers to more closely investigate their assumptions and beliefs and ultimately create a “morality of quantitative skepticism.”

Gallons of ink have been spilled over the Orderly Resolution Authority established in Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act, generally over whether and how it would be used in a crisis. In 13 Bankers, Simon and I expressed skepticism that it would be used, for practical and political reasons. Joshua Mitts’s paper takes the novel approach of looking at how OLA affects managerial incentives in the pre-crisis period, arguing that it encourages bank executives to design their firms in such a way as to maximize the chance of a taxpayer bailout. This would lead them to increase their exposure to other large financial institutions and to increase the correlation of their asset portfolios with those of other large firms.

Mehrsa Baradaran takes a historical view in her paper, which is about the social contract between banks and society as expressed through banking regulation. She begins with the Hamilton-Jefferson debates over banks (which is also where we began 13 Bankers) and covers the history of banking regulation (or non-regulation) up to the 1930s, which represented the most thorough codification of the social contract: the government needs banks, but banks also need the government. The past few decades, however, have seen an erosion of this social contract, giving banks the benefits of government sponsorship and support without the obligations necessary to ensure that they serve societal ends. Baradaran argues that banking regulation should incorporate a robust public benefit test to ensure that banks are in fact helping households, the economy, and society at large.

There are other interesting papers that are sure to come out of this workshop. One small side benefit of the financial crisis has certainly been the increased attention to the financial sector and the risks it presents to the rest of us.

“Gut Instinct Doesn’t Matter”

By James Kwak

I’m no fan of the genre of CEO interviews published in the Sunday Times. But this past Sunday’s CEO-of-the-week column featured Marcus Ryu, a good friend and someone I’ve worked with at three different companies.

Marcus is not only very smart and someone who really knows what it’s like to build a company from the ground up, but he’s also someone who has thought very hard about what it takes to succeed as a company and what a company needs in its CEO. Unlike many CEOs, he doesn’t believe in gut instinct or the magical ability to judge character. He believes that success in business is hard and, as I’ve heard him say many times, there never is a day when suddenly everything becomes easy. If you are or want to be a CEO someday, I recommend it.

Michael Lewis!

By James Kwak

On the title page of my copy of The Big Short, in black ink, it says:

“For James Kwak

With admiration”

And then a scrawl that I take to be Michael Lewis’s signature. (Christopher Lydon got the book signed for me, since Lewis was on his radio show a few days before I was.) It may be the only book I’ve ever bothered to get autographed.

So I was especially happy to read that Lewis also wants to break up the big banks (hat tip Ezra Klein):

“Along with the other too-big-to-fail firms, Goldman needs to be busted up into smaller pieces. The ultimate goal should be to create institutions so dull and easy to understand that, when a young man who works for one of them walks into a publisher’s office and offers to write up his experiences, the publisher looks at him blankly and asks, ‘Why would anyone want to read that?'”

When Simon and I made that the centerpiece of the last chapter of 13 Bankers, I thought our chances were slim. When we wrote, in the epilogue to the paperback edition, that a proposal to do exactly that had been voted down, 61 to 33, in the Senate, I thought they had changed from slim to none. It’s still a long shot, but the issue hasn’t died, and if anything is getting more attention now, what with people like George Osborne threatening to break up banks if they don’t reform themselves. Perhaps it isn’t impossible.

Another Perspective on Bad Software

By James Kwak

Last summer, Lawrence Baxter wrote these two posts about the toxic combination of bad software—actually, software in general, since no software system is perfect—and too-big-to-fail banks. Baxter knows whereof he speaks, as he was previously a technology executive at a very large bank. Here’s what he has to say about it:

I don’t care what a CIO or even a CEO might say:  if they claim that they can eliminate the real risk of such missteps, they just don’t know what they are talking about no matter how good they are.  And if such missteps are inevitable, then we simply cannot avoid the question whether the dangers posed by large, complex financial institutions and systems could outweigh their benefits.

Think about that the next time you hear some CEO talking about his company’s state-of-the-art technology.