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

“A Process That Only We Fully Understand”

By James Kwak

Bernie Sanders’s “audit the Fed” amendment, which expands the ability of the Government Accountability Office to review Federal Reserve operations, seems to be gaining some momentum. Opponents, including the Obama administration and Fed chair Ben Bernanke, are mounting a defensive effort. There are two main arguments that I have heard.

The first is that publicizing which banks take advantage of Fed lending facilities will stigmatize those banks and could increase panic in the midst of a financial crisis. I’m not particularly convinced by this argument, since most supporters of the amendment are fine with releasing such information with a delay. Section 1152(a)(2) of the amendment eliminates the provision in 31 U.S.C. 714(b) that shields from audit monetary policy decision-making and financial transactions by Federal Reserve banks, but replaces it with this:

“Audits of the Federal Reserve Board and Federal reserve banks shall not include unreleased transcripts or minutes of meetings of the Board of Governors or of the Federal Open Market Committee. To the extent that an audit deals with individual market actions, records related to such actions shall only be released by the Comptroller General after 180 days have elapsed following the effective date of such actions.”

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The Importance of Donald Kohn*

By James Kwak

Donald Kohn recently announced that he is resigning as vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, after forty years in the Federal Reserve system, most of it in Washington. Articles about Kohn have generally been positive, like this one in The Wall Street Journal. The picture you get is of a dedicated, competent civil servant who has been a crucial player, primarily behind the scenes, in the operation of the Fed.

It’s a bit interesting that Kohn is generally getting the soft touch given that he was the right-hand man of both Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke. Here are some passages from the WSJ article:

“‘Don was my first mentor at the Fed,’ Mr. Greenspan says. Mr. Kohn told Mr. Greenspan how to run his first Federal Open Market Committee meeting, the forum at which the Fed sets interest rates. He became one of Mr. Greenspan’s closest advisers and defender of Mr. Greenspan’s policies.”

“Mr. Kohn has spent the past 18 months helping to remake the central bank on the fly as Chairman Ben Bernanke’s loyal No. 2 and primary troubleshooter.”

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Fed Chair as Confidence Man

I’m not the one saying it–that would be Robert Samuelson, columnist for Newsweek and the Washington Post. The sole point of Samuelson’s recent opinion piece is that Ben Bernanke’s job is to increase confidence.

Like much but not all error, there is a grain of truth to this point. Thanks to John Maynard Keynes (whom Samuelson cites), George Akerlof, Robert Shiller, and any number of economics experiments, we know that confidence has an effect on behavior and hence on the economy. Too much overconfidence can fuel a bubble and too much pessimism can exacerbate a slowdown.

But to leap from there to the conclusion that the job of the chair of the Federal Reserve is to increase confidence–”Ben Bernanke has, or ought to have, a very simple agenda: improve confidence”–is just silly.

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Paul Krugman for Fed Chair: “Crazy”

Paul Krugman says that Simon’s idea that he should be chair of the Fed is “crazy.” Krugman’s point is either that he wouldn’t be confirmed or that he wouldn’t be able to bring the Open Market Committee along. Maybe he’s right about the former; a Republican filibuster does seem reasonably likely.

I don’t think he’s right about the latter; or, more precisely, I don’t think it matters. The FOMC is, on paper, a democratic body: they vote. There is a tradition that the votes are generally unanimous because of the perceived importance of demonstrating consensus. I don’t know how old this tradition is; it was certainly in place under Greenspan. But everyone knows that the members of the FOMC disagree about many things; that’s why the various bank president members go around giving speeches objecting (not in so many words) to the FOMC’s decisions. Given that we all know there are debates involved, how important is this fiction of consensus?

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My Last Post on Ben Bernanke

His confirmation, that is. I summarized most of my position in Foreign Policy, which asked me to lay out the anti-confirmation argument. My reasons overlap with Simon’s but are not identical–I think Simon worries about cheap money and asset bubbles more than I do. I was originally not particularly motivated by the anti-Bernanke campaign, because I didn’t think Obama would appoint anyone better, but as Russ pointed out, whether Bernanke should be confirmed and what the alternative is are two separate questions.

Whom would I pick? I certainly don’t know the candidates well enough to make a good choice. But the first thing I would say is that the Federal Reserve chair does not need to be Superman. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors is a board, and while the chair is important, he or she should really be the first among equals. You want someone who will push the Board in a certain direction, but the chair can draw on the experience and skills of the other board members and the staff, who are technically very competent. The idea that the chair must be Superman seems to be a product of the Greenspan era, and we project it back onto Volcker because of his success in fighting inflation in the early 1980s. And it’s a bad idea, just like searching for a savior CEO. In this context, I think it’s limiting to insist that the nominee have experience on the board, or have government experience, or be a prominent academic, or anything in particular.

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Bernanke, Manager

There’s a platitude repeated by most CEOs that their main job is not anything so mundane as making decisions, but “mentoring and supporting people” or something like that. Most of the CEOs who repeat this are mediocre at best at mentoring or supporting people, since the key people for any CEO are not the people who work for him or her, but the members of the board of directors. But the truism that is still true is that when you are head of a large organization, you can’t do everything yourself, and your real impact is made through the people you hire, promote, and don’t fire.

In October, Ben Bernanke named Patrick Parkinson director of the Division of Bank Supervision and Regulation. Who is Patrick Parkinson?

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No to Bernanke

The American Economics Association is meeting in Atlanta, where Simon says it is frigid. I went to an early-January conference in Atlanta once. There was a quarter-inch of snow, the roads turned to ice, and everything closed. All flights were canceled, so I and some friends ended up taking the train to Washington, DC, which had gotten two feet of snow, and eventually to New York.

Paul Krugman’s speaking notes are here. Ben Bernanke’s are here.

Bernanke’s speech is largely a defense of the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy in the past decade, and therefore of the old Greenspan Doctrine dating back to the 1996 “irrational exuberance” speech–the idea that monetary policy is not the right tool for fighting bubbles. The Fed has gotten a lot of criticism saying that cheap money earlier this decade created the housing bubble, and I think it certainly played a role.

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Fed Chest-Thumping for Beginners

I generally avoid writing about monetary policy, since every economics course I’ve taken since college has been a micro course, and besides Simon is a macroeconomist, among other things. But since just about everyone in my RSS feed has been linking to Tim Duy’s recent article on the Fed, I thought I would try to put in context for all of us who don’t understand Fed-speak.

Duy takes as his starting point a series of statements by Fed governors and bank presidents indicating “hawkishness,” which in central banker jargon means caring primarily about inflation, not economic growth. (“Doves” are those who care more about economic growth and jobs, although, just like in the national security context, no one likes to be known as a dove. This itself is a disturbing use of language, since it implicitly justifies beating up on poor people, but let’s leave that for another day.)

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