Tag Archives: Larry Summers

Larry Summers and Finance

By James Kwak

I think some people didn’t understand the point I was making about the question of whether the government made money on TARP in my earlier post. Summers said, “The government got back substantially more money than it invested.” This is true, at least if you give him some slack on the word “substantially.” The money repaid, including interest on preferred stock and sales of common stock, exceeded the money invested.

My point begins with the observation that, as of late last year, the government had earned an annual return of less than 0.5%. My point itself is that it is silly to evaluate an investment by whether or not it has a positive return in nominal terms. You can only meaningfully evaluate an investment by comparing it to some benchmark. Saying that a nominal return of 0.5% is greater than 0% is meaningless, since the 0% benchmark is meaningless. Most obviously, it doesn’t account for inflation; since inflation has been about 1–2%, the government lost money in real terms.

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Larry Summers Should Keep His Mouth Shut

By James Kwak

Larry Summers is well on his way to rehabilitating his public image as a brilliant intellectual, moving on from his checkered record as president of Harvard University and as President Obama’s chief economic adviser during the first years of the administration. Unfortunately, he can’t resist taking on his critics—and he can’t do it without letting his debating instincts take over.

I was reading his review of House of Debt by Mian and Sufi. Everything seemed reasonable until I got to this passage justifying the steps taken to bail out the financial system:

“The government got back substantially more money than it invested. All of the senior executives who created these big messes were out of their jobs within a year. And stockholders lost 90 per cent or more of their investments in all the institutions that required special treatment by the government.”

I have no doubt that every word in this passage is true in some meaninglessly narrow sense or other. But on the whole it is simply false.

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The Lame “Uncertainty” Defense

By James Kwak

The indefatigable Brad DeLong has devoted his energies to singlehandedly protecting Larry Summers from the Internet (although, he makes pains to say, he likes Janet Yellen almost as much). Although I’m letting most of the Fed chair sideline debate pass me by, DeLong and others have raised one issue that played an important symbolic role in 13 Bankers and, more generally, the historical background to the financial crisis: Brooksley Born’s proposal to think about regulating OTC derivatives in 1998.

For those who don’t know the story, it basically goes like this. Born, as chair of the CFTC, was worried about the risk posed by OTC derivatives, which were effectively unregulated at the time. On May 7, 1998, the CFTC issued a “concept release”  asking for comments about the regulation of OTC derivatives. Summers, then deputy treasury secretary, along with Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, and SEC Chair Arthur Levitt, opposed Born, and they issued their own press release on the same day opposing the CFTC. Over the next several months they successfully blocked the CFTC from regulating OTC derivatives, convincing Congress to stop the CFTC from moving forward, a position that was enshrined in statute in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.

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Toxic Trait To Avoid #1

By James Kwak

I generally refuse to be drawn into the Yellen-Summers horse race because (a) everything that can be said, has been said, (b) I have no original information or insight, and (c) it’s all speculation anyway. But I’m going to comment on one parenthesis in Felix Salmon’s good summary post, since it has broader application:

Summers is, to put it mildly, not good at charming those he considers to be his inferiors, but he’s surprisingly excellent at cultivating people with real power.

In my personal experience, especially in the business world, this is absolutely the worst personality trait you can find in anyone you are thinking of hiring. You see it a lot, especially in senior executives. Unfortunately, at the time of hiring, you only see the ability to manage up—not the inability to treat subordinates decently. By the time you figure it out, you’ve already suffered serious organizational damage. (Thanks to my friend Marcus Ryu for identifying this problem so clearly.)

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Richard Fisher (Federal Reserve Bank Of Dallas): Larry Summers, The G20, And Financial Dementia

By Simon Johnson, co-author of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and The Next Financial Meltdown

Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed, has long been a proponent of serious financial sector reform.  As a former commercial banker, he sees quite clearly that the legislation now headed into “reconciliation” between House and Senate versions amounts to very little.  He also knows that pounding away repeatedly on this theme is the best way to influence his colleagues within the Fed and across the policy community more broadly.

He is now taking his game to a new, higher level.  Couched in the diplomatic language of senior officials, his speech on June 3 to the SW Graduate School of Banking was both a carefully calibrated assault on the administration’s general “softly, softly” approach to the big banks and a direct refutation of arguments put forward by Larry Summers in particular. 

As the title of Mr. Fisher’s speech implies, if the legislation is not real financial reform (and it is not, according to him), then our current policy trajectory amounts to facilitating further rounds of financial dementia. Continue reading

“Most Observers” Do Not Agree With Larry Summers On Banking

 By Simon Johnson

What is the basis for major policy decisions in the United States?  Is it years of careful study, using the concentration of knowledge and expertise for which this country is known and respected around the world?  Or is it some unfounded assertions, backed by no data at all?

At least in terms of the White House policy towards megabanks, it is currently “no discussion of data or facts, please”.

Speaking on the Lehrer NewsHour last week, Larry Summers said, with regard to the Brown-Kaufman SAFE banking act – which would restrict the size of our largest banks (putting them back to where they were a decade or so ago): Continue reading

Larry Summers: “Senator Kaufman is exactly right”

By Simon Johnson, co-author of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and The Next Financial Meltdown

Senator Ted Kaufman (D., DE) has given three blistering speeches recently, individually and collectively cutting to the heart of the financial reform matter: the deregulation of finance has gone too far and big banks now need to be reined in; the continued prevalence of fraud among Wall Street’s biggest bankers; and why the administration’s proposed “resolution authority” would do nothing at all to end the problems associated with Too Big To Fail financial institutions.

You might think no one listens to Senate floor speeches, but you’d be wrong.  Yesterday, on “This Week” (ABC), Jake Tapper asked Larry Summers – head of the White House National Economic Council and key strategist on financial reform – point blank about one of Senator Kaufman’s most important points.

Summers started this part of the interview with a fiery anti-finance industry moment, citing their lobbying spending against financial reform (“$1 million per congressman”) and arguing that the legislation currently before Congress will provide basic consumer protection, more effective regulation, and the ability to handle the failure of large financial firms.  “How can anyone take the position … that we don’t need comprehensive financial reform?”

To which, Jake Tapper responded,

“TAPPER: Some Democrats say it doesn’t go far enough. Here’s Delaware Democrat Ted Kaufman talking about the Dodd bill.”

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Is Larry Summers Getting Tougher?

Financial regulation is currently in no-man’s land, having emerged more or less intact from the House frying pan before facing the gauntlet of the Senate.

To its credit, the Obama administration has in recent weeks taken a firmer position: The excesses of the past decade have to come to an end. This was evident three weeks ago in the new proposals announced by the president to constrain the activities of large banks, which went beyond anything the Treasury Department had proposed last summer.

It was also evident in an interview that Lawrence H. Summers, the president’s chief economic counselor, gave to CNBC on Tuesday. (Ryan Grim has transcribed additional quotations.) Continue reading

Lessons Learned From The 1990s

In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration amassed a great deal of experience fighting financial crises around the world.

Some of the U.S. Treasury’s specific advice was controversial – e.g., pressing Korea to open its capital markets to foreign investors at the height of the crisis – but the broad approach made sense: Fix failing financial systems up-front, because this is the best opportunity to address the underlying problems that helped produce the crisis (e.g., banks taking excessive risks).  If you delay attempts to reform until economic recovery is underway, the banks and other key players are powerful again, real change is harder, and future difficulties await.

In a major retrospective speech to the American Economic Association in 2000, Larry Summers – the primary crisis-fighting strategist – put it this way: Continue reading

Larry Summers on Preventing and Fighting Financial Crises

This fall I am taking a course on the “international financial crisis” taught by Jon Macey and Greg Fleming (yes, the former COO of Merrill Lynch). The first assigned reading is a speech that Larry Summers gave at the AEA in 2000 entitled “International Financial Crises: Causes, Prevention, and Cures,”* summarizing the state of the art in preventing and combating financial crises. It’s based on experiences from emerging market crises in the 1990s, and doesn’t even contain a hint that something similar might happen here; however, few people could fault Summers for making that oversight back in 2000, and I certainly won’t.

Many people, including Simon and me, have discussed the similarities between our recent financial crisis and the emerging market crises of the 1990s, so I’ll be brief. The main similarities are excessive optimism that creates an asset price bubble, a sudden collapse of confidence that causes the rapid withdrawal of money and credit, a liquidity crunch, and rapid de-leveraging that threatens solvency. (We have also argued that there are political similarities, but let’s leave that aside for now.) The biggest difference is that instead of being compounded by flight from the affected country’s currency and government debt, in our case the exact opposite happened; investors fled toward the U.S. dollar and Treasuries, making things easier for us than for, say, Thailand. Also, to a partial extent, the parallel requires an analogy between emerging market countries and United States banks; for example, the issue of bailouts and moral hazard arises in the context of the IMF bailing out Indonesia and in the context of the United States government bailing out Citigroup.

Summers’s speech makes a lot of sense, so I’ll just highlight a few points he makes that I think are particularly instructive given our recent experience. I think these are all excellent points. For each one, I’ll quote from Summers, and then comment on its relevance to our situation.

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Larry Summers, Economic Recovery, And Ben Bernanke

In a memo to Congress on Tuesday, Larry Summers – the head of the White House National Economic Council – laid out his view of where we are and what is likely to happen next in our economic recovery.

His tone was more upbeat than we’ve heard in recent utterances, although he has been heading in this direction for a while – contrast this April speech with this appearance in July.

What is beginning to turn the economy around?  Summers claims great effects from the fiscal stimulus Recovery Act, but much of that money has not yet been spent. 

He also puts weight on “an aggressive effort to tackle the foreclosure crisis.”  There have been sensible steps in that direction, but so far the effects have been decidedly modest.

The main explanation has to be that the administration prevented the financial system from collapsing.  In an economy as large and diverse as that of the United States – with much more government spending than at the time of the Great Depression – as long as the entire provision of credit does not disintegrate, we will recover.

Summers refers to “A Financial Stabilization Plan”, but this is ex post grandiosity.  In fact, the government simply demonstrated unflinching support for all big financial firms as currently constituted.  We the taxpayer effectively guaranteed all these firms debts, unconditionally.  Once the market figured out that the Treasury, Federal Reserve and other officials could pull this off, the panic was over.

But this victory brings also real danger. Continue reading

After Peak Finance: Larry Summers’ Bubble

There are three kinds of “bubbles” -  a term often used loosely when asset prices rise a great deal and then fall sharply, without an obvious corresponding shift in “fundamentals“.

  1. A short-run bubble.  Think about 17th century Dutch Tulip Mania: spectacular, probably disruptive, but not a major reason for the decline of the Netherlands as a global power. 
  2. A distorting bubble.  In this case, the increase in asset prices contributes to a reallocation of resources across sectors.  Think of the Dot-com Bubble: fortunes were made and lost, the collapse was scary to many, and – at the end of the day – you’ve built the Internet and some good companies.
  3. A political bubble.  Here rising asset prices generate resources that can be fed into the political process, through bribes, building politicians’ careers, and lobbying of all kinds.  Bubbles in Emerging Markets often generate resources that impact the political process, sometimes in good ways – but most often in bad ways, which eventually contribute to a collapse.

Larry Summers seems to think we are dealing with the consequences of bubble type #1.  In his speech last week, “the bubble” is a modern deus ex machina – it explains why we have a crisis, but there is no explanation of where this bubble came from, what exactly was bubbling, and what changes this bubble brought to the real economy or to our politics. Continue reading

Jamie Dimon v. Larry Summers

Jamie Dimon has won big.  JP Morgan Chase now stands alone, both in financial position and political clout – including special access to the White House and, as explained in today’s NYT, Rahm Emanuel’s likely attendance at his next board meeting tomorrow. 

Dimon’s semiotics have been brilliant throughout the crisis – it wasn’t his fault, he was forced to take TARP money, and – in phrasing that will make the history books – bankers should not be “vilified”.  But now he has a problem.

Larry Summers forcefully stated Friday that high recent profit levels for big banks (i.e., JPMorgan and Goldman) are based on the support they received and still receive from the government (listen to his answer to the second question, from about the 6:10 to 10:30 mark).  At that level of generality, in a period of financial stabilization and consequent reduction in executive branch discretion, this statement does not threaten Dimon or anyone else.

And Summers’ statement on the dangers of “too big to fail” was “too vague to succeed”.  Dimon saw this one coming and is very much aligned with Tim Geithner on the technocratic fixes that will supposedly take care of this – the mythical “resolution authority”, which will not actually achieve anything because it has no cross-border component, so the next time a major multinational bank (e.g., JP Morgan) fails, the choice again will be “collapse or bailout” (as Summers put it in the same Q&A Friday).  Yes, I know the G20 is supposedly working on this; no, I don’t think they are making progress.

But Summers also drew a line in the sand on consumer protection. Continue reading

Larry Summers’ New Model: Details, Contradictions, And Odd Assumptions

Larry Summers had “lunch with the FT” (p.3 in the Life and Arts section today) – although unfortunately the paper does not report when this happened; a week or two makes quite a difference these days.

Putting this next to his April speech to the IDB, Summers’ view of the way forward has a few problems. Continue reading

Antitrust For Banks? Ask Carl Shapiro

The Department of Justice seems to thinking, at least in principle, about potential antitrust action in and around banking.  Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney spoke about this yesterday, but her exact wording is open to interpretation, “”I have to ask if too big to fail is a failure of antitrust enforcement.”  (The press release was uninformative on this point)

More encouraging was the background briefing given to the New York Times, as seen in this paragraph,

“Ms. Varney is expected to say that the Obama administration will be guided by the view that it was a major mistake during the outset of the Great Depression to relax antitrust enforcement, only to try to catch up and become more vigorous later. She will say the mistake enabled many large companies to engage in pricing, wage and collusive practices that harmed consumers and took years to reverse.”

The thinking among antitrust experts has been that there is not much market power, conventionally defined, in financial services.  But this thinking may change, for at least three reasons. Continue reading