Tag Archives: Federal Reserve

Skew

By James Kwak

There is a common phenomenon in legal disputes over the value of something, be it a company, a piece of land, or a person’s expected lifetime earnings. Each side hires an “expert” who produces an estimate based on some kind of model. And miraculously, every single time, the expert for the party that wants a higher number comes up with a high number, while the expert for the party that wants a lower number comes up with a low number. No one is surprised by this.

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve posted the results of the latest periodic bank stress tests mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act. For these tests, the Fed comes up with various scenarios of how things could go badly in the economy, and the goal is to see how banks’ income statements and balance sheets would respond. The key metrics are the banks’ capital ratios; the goal is to identify if, in bad states of the world, the banks would still remain solvent. If not, the banks won’t be allowed to do things that reduce their capital ratios today, like paying dividends or buying back stock.

For the most part, the results look pretty good: capital levels even under the severely adverse scenario should remain above the levels reached during the 2008–2009 crisis. (Of course, there are several huge caveats here. You have to believe: first, that the scenarios are sufficiently pessimistic; second, that the banks’ current financials are accurately represented; third, that the model is sensible; and fourth, that the capital levels set by current law are high enough.)

But there’s something else going on here. As part of the stress testing routine, each bank is supposed to do its own simulation of how it would respond to the scenarios specified by the Fed, using its own internal model. And—surprise, surprise!—the banks virtually uniformly predict that they will do better than the Fed.

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If the Fed Knows Banks Are Too Big, Why Doesn’t It Make Them Smaller?

By James Kwak

The Federal Reserve is serious—about something.

On May 2, The Wall Street Journal reported that regulators were pushing to require “very large banks to hold higher levels of capital,” including minimum levels of unsecured long-term debt, as part of an effort “to force banks to shrink voluntarily by making it expensive and onerous to be big and complex.” The article quoted Fed Governor Jeremy Stein, who said, “If after some time it has not delivered much of a change in the size and complexity of the largest of banks, one might conclude that the implicit tax was too small, and should be ratcheted up” (emphasis added). 

A few days later, Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo said roughly the same thing (emphasis added):

“‘The important question is not whether capital requirements for large banking firms need to be stronger than those included in Basel III and the agreement on capital surcharges, but how to make them so,’ said Mr. Tarullo, adding later that even with those measures in place it ‘would leave more too-big-to-fail risk than I think is prudent.‘”

Tarullo recommended higher capital requirements and long-term debt requirements for systemically risky financial institutions.

Last week, Governor of Governors Ben Bernanke quoted from the same talking points (emphasis added):

“Mr. Bernanke said the Fed could push banks to maintain a higher leverage ratio, hold certain types of debt favored by regulators, or other steps to give the largest firms a ‘strong incentive to reduce their size, complexity, interconnectedness.’

“The Fed chairman acknowledged growing concerns that some financial companies remain so big and complex the government would have to step in to prevent their collapse and said more needs to be done to eliminate that risk.”

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Restoring The Legitimacy Of The Federal Reserve

By Simon Johnson

The Federal Reserve has a legitimacy problem. Fortunately, a potential policy shift is available that offers both the right thing for the Fed to do and a way to please sensible people on both sides of the political spectrum: raise capital requirements for megabanks.

As the election season progresses, Republican politicians are increasingly criticizing the monetary policy of Ben Bernanke and his colleagues on the grounds that they are exceeding their authority, particularly by buying assets and trying to lower interest rates in what is known as “quantitative easing.”

There is growing concern in Republican circles that the Fed is tipping the election toward President Obama, and Mitt Romney repeated unambiguously in August that he would not reappoint Mr. Bernanke (a Republican originally appointed by President George W. Bush).

At the same time, a significant number of people on the left of American politics are concerned about how the Fed acted in the period leading up to the crisis of 2008 – blaming it for a significant failure of regulation and supervision – and about how much support it currently provides to big banks. Continue reading

The Federal Reserve And The Libor Scandal

By Simon Johnson

On June 1, 2008, Timothy F. Geithner – then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York – sent an e-mail to Mervyn A. King and Paul Tucker, then respectively governor and executive director of markets at the Bank of England. In his note, Mr. Geithner transmitted recommendations (dated May 27, 2008) from the New York Fed’s “Markets and Research and Statistics Groups” regarding “Recommendations for Enhancing the Credibility of Libor,” the London Interbank Offered Rate.

The recommendations accurately summarized the problems with procedures surrounding the construction of Libor – the most important reference interest rate in the world – and proposed some sensible alternative approaches.

This New York Fed memo stands out as a model of clear thinking about the deep governance problems that allowed Libor to become rigged.

At the same time, the timing and content of the memo raises troubling questions regarding the Fed’s own involvement in the Libor scandal – both then and now. Continue reading

Jamie Dimon And The Legitimacy Of The Federal Reserve System

By Simon Johnson

There are two diametrically opposed views of how the largest financial companies in our economy operate. On the one hand, there are those like Charles Ferguson, director of the Academy Award-winning documentary “Inside Job” and author of the new book, “Predator Nation.” Mr. Ferguson takes the view that greed and immorality now prevail to an excessive degree at the heart of Wall Street.

Academics and other experts have become corrupted, the responsible regulators have been intellectually captured, and law enforcement officials refuse to act – despite the accumulation of evidence before their eyes.

“Inside Job” was gripping and emotional; “Predator Nation” contains many more specific details and evidence, as this excerpt dealing with academics (one Republican and one Democrat) makes clear.

The second view is that the people in charge of large banks and bank holding companies have done nothing wrong. To see this view in action, look no further than this week’s debate about whether Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, should resign from the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The New York Fed oversees his organization, including assessing whether it is taking dangerous risks, so there are reasonable questions about whether this creates a potential conflict of interest. Continue reading

Ben Bernanke Doesn’t Get the Message

By James Kwak

I was on vacation last week (far from Jackson Hole) when Ben Bernanke gave his widely anticipated speech. The media (see the Times, for example) seemed to focus mainly on his criticisms of the political branches and economic policymaking, which were accurate enough. But in my opinion, Bernanke drew the wrong lessons from those observations.

He was very clear that the problem today is unemployment, not inflation:

“Recent data have indicated that economic growth during the first half of this year was considerably slower than the Federal Open Market Committee had been expecting, and that temporary factors can account for only a portion of the economic weakness that we have observed. Consequently, although we expect a moderate recovery to continue and indeed to strengthen over time, the Committee has marked down its outlook for the likely pace of growth over coming quarters. With commodity prices and other import prices moderating and with longer-term inflation expectations remaining stable, we expect inflation to settle, over coming quarters, at levels at or below the rate of 2 percent, or a bit less, that most Committee participants view as being consistent with our dual mandate.”

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After The Recession: What Next For the Fed?

By Simon Johnson

The Federal Reserve was created in 1913 to help limit the impact of financial panics. It took a while for the Fed to achieve that goal, but after World War II – with a great deal of help from other parts of the federal government – the Fed hit its stride. Today the Fed has not only lost that touch but, given the way our political and financial system currently operates, its own policies exacerbate the cycle of overexuberance and incautious lending that will bring on the next major crisis (and presumably another severe recession).

Sudden loss of confidence in the financial system was not uncommon toward the end of the 19th century, and while the private sector was able to stave off complete disaster largely by itself, the tide turned in 1907. In that instance J.P. Morgan could stand firm only because, behind the scenes, his team received a large loan from the United States Treasury (on this formative episode, see The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned From the Market’s Perfect Storm by Robert F. Bruner and Sean D. Carr). Leaders of the banking system realized they needed help moving forward, and there was general agreement that the widespread collapse of financial intermediaries was not in the broader social interest. The question of the day naturally became: How much government oversight would bankers have to accept in return for the creation of a modern central bank? Continue reading