Everyone is writing a Lehman anniversary post these days, and ours is up as our weekly Washington Post column. Our topic is the many forms of moral hazard involved in the banking business these days – for employees, shareholders, and creditors – and whether or not the proposed regulatory reforms will be up to the task of dealing with the problem.
By James Kwak
According to Reuters, the Federal Reserve recently got a stay of a federal district court’s order that the Fed must reveal details about which banks accessed its emergency loan programs during the financial crisis. The arguments on each side are pretty straightforward. Bloomberg, the plaintiff, is arguing that the public has a right to know where their taxpayer money,* via the Federal Reserve, is going. The Fed is arguing that if it reveals the names, that could trigger a run on those banks, because customers will worry about their solvency; it is also arguing that revealing names now will make banks less willing to access emergency lending programs in the future, taking away an important tool in a financial crisis.
I find both of the Fed’s arguments weak.
This guest post is contributed by StatsGuy, one of our regular commenters. I invited him to write the post in response to this comment, but regular readers are sure to have read many of his other contributions. There is a lot here, so I recommend making a cup of tea or coffee before starting to read.
In September, the first Baseline Scenario entered the scene with a frightening portrait of the world economy that focused on systemic risk, self-fulfilling speculative credit runs, and a massive liquidity shock that could rapidly travel globally and cause contagion even in places where economic fundamentals were strong.
Baseline identified the Fed’s response to Lehman as a “dramatic and damaging reversal of policy”, and offered major recommendations that focused on four basic efforts: FDIC insurance, a credible US backstop to major institutions, stimulus (combined with recapitalizing banks), and a housing stabilization plan.
Moral hazard was acknowledged, but not given center stage, with the following conclusion: “In a short-term crisis of this nature, moral hazard is not the preeminent concern. But we also agree that, in designing the financial system that emerges from the current situation, we should work from the premise that moral hazard will be important in regulated financial institutions.”
Over time, and as the crisis has passed from an acute to a chronic phase, the focus of Baseline has increasingly shifted toward the problem of “Too Big To Fail”. The arguments behind this narrative are laid out in several places: Big and Small; What Next for Banks; Atlantic Article.
Tyler Cowen, co-author of a prominent independent economics blog, has an article in The New York Times explaining “Why Creditors Should Suffer, Too.”
What the banking system needs is creditors who monitor risk and cut their exposure when that risk is too high. Unlike regulators, creditors and counterparties know the details of a deal and have their own money on the line.
But in both the bailouts and in the new proposals [for financial regulation], the government is effectively neutralizing creditors as a force for financial safety.
I couldn’t agree more (except for the bit about the regulatory proposals, and that’s just because I haven’t read them closely). We need creditors who will pull their money or demand tougher terms from financial institutions that are doing things that are either too risky or just plain stupid; that’s theoretically a more efficient and cheaper enforcement mechanism than regulatory bodies.
A week ago, Simon wrote his “Confusion, Tunneling, and Looting” post, which argued that the confusion created by crises helps the powerful and well-positioned siphon assets out of institutions and out of the government. The revelations that much of the AIG bailout money has gone straight to its large bank counterparties in the form of collateral could fall under this heading.
The looting theme has gone mainstream, with David Leonhardt in The New York Times. I think Leonhardt’s article is good, but it describes looting (taking advantage of implicit government guarantees to take excessive risks) as a cause of the mess we are now in – and as something we’ll need to worry about in preventing crises in the future. But, as Simon argued, it’s also something to worry about right now. As long as the Too Big To Fail doctrine holds, the banks’ implicit government guarantee is more explicit than it ever has been. So whatever perverse incentives helped bring on the crisis are even stronger today.
As Daniel Henninger noted in the Journal today, moral hazard is hot right now. This is the stick that commentators of all political affiliations use to beat the Fannie/Freddie bailout, the Paulson rescue plan, any proposal to restructure mortgages, or any other government action that has the effect of protecting someone from his bad decisions.
The concept of moral hazard originated in the insurance industry, and describes the problem that people who are well insured are more likely to take unwise risks. (For example, if you have comprehensive insurance on your car with no deductible, you may not bother locking the doors.) In the current context, the argument is that if the government bails out financial institutions by taking troubled assets off their hands, they will not have an incentive to be more careful in the future. In this usage, moral hazard becomes suspiciously similar to moral indignation pure and simple: many people feel instinctively that banks that took excessive risks deserve to go bankrupt, and the bankers who made lots of money on the way up should lose their jobs. (These people often also believe that homeowners who can’t pay their mortgages should lose their houses).
The problem of moral hazard is real. And moral hazard should be taken into account when designing any rescue packages and, more importantly, when the time comes to rewrite the regulation of the financial sector. But there are several reasons why it should not be allowed to simply veto any government action.
- Moral hazard is most important in a repeated or continuous context. When you buy an insurance policy at the beginning of the year, you know if you are fully covered, or if you will be responsible for some proportion of the losses you incur, and you behave accordingly. It applies less clearly to retrospective bailouts like the current plan, where it is not clear that a similar situation will ever arise again. For example, perhaps one of the behaviors we want to discourage is leverage ratios of 30 to 1, like those at Bear Stearns and Lehman. Well, there are no more investment banks, and commercial banks have much lower leverage limits. Besides, there is another way to discourage undesirable behavior: regulation.
- As Martin Wolf argued in the FT in the long-gone days of the Fannie/Freddie bailout, the moral-hazard argument to punish the shareholders has the perverse effect of discouraging private capital. Given widespread fears that many banks are undercapitalized, it would be a good thing if they could raise capital in the private markets rather than from the government, like Goldman Sachs did with Warren Buffett. But if the government is planning to take the moral high ground and let banks collapse, then no one will step up with the capital.
- Most importantly, there is something fundamentally illogical about the moral hazard argument. If we bail out the banks now, it goes, then they will behave in harmful ways in the future. But right now we are facing the greatest danger to the financial system since the Great Depression. What future harm are we worried about that is more serious than the potential harm we are facing right now?
“While I find helping these banks highly distasteful, moral hazard concerns should be put aside temporarily when the whole short term credit system is close to a complete collapse.” Those words were written by no less a free-market advocate than Nobel Laureate Gary Becker.