Category: Beginners

Regulatory Capital Arbitrage for Beginners

For a complete list of Beginners articles, see Financial Crisis for Beginners.

Arnold Kling helpfully pointed out a 2000 paper on regulatory capital arbitrage by David Jones, an economist at the Fed. In his post, Kling said, “In retrospect, this is a bit like watching a movie in which a jailer becomes sympathetic to a prisoner, when we know that the prisoner is eventually going to escape and go on a crime spree.” Having finally read the paper, I have little to add in the way of analysis. But I thought it provided a useful basis for a discussion of what regulatory capital arbitrage (RCA) is and why it is a helpful way of thinking about the financial crisis.

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Foreclosures and Modifications for Beginners

On last week’s This American Life, Chris Arnold of NPR did a good segment on loan servicers and why they do or do not modify loans for delinquent borrowers (starting around the 10-minute mark). There isn’t a lot that avid readers won’t know already; the central message is that it would be better for everyone involved – including lenders and investors – if more loans were modified. It also doesn’t address the legal issues created by collateralized debt obligations where the tranches have different priorities. But if you’re confused about the basics, it’s worth listening to.

Still, there were a couple things that were new or interesting to me:

  •  Scott Simon, a managing director at PIMCO (the world’s biggest bond fund manager), said that he thinks loan servicers should be modifying more mortgages; that seems like a pretty clear vote from the investor side.
  • The segment brings up the issue of computer systems, which is something I hadn’t thought of but should have. Apparently, most if not all of the big, bank-owned servicers don’t have computer systems (software) that can estimate the net present value of a foreclosure as opposed to a modification, taking into account zip code-specific repair costs, broker’s fees on the sale, closing costs, foreclosure-specific legal costs, and expected sale proceeds. Big-company information technology is something I know well, and I can say with a high degree of confidence that if they started designing these things in 2007, they won’t be done until sometime next year at the earliest, and there’s a good chance they won’t work, and even if they do they will have difficulty handling the load. On the other hand, one good product manager and ten good developers in Silicon Valley could probably build something better in about 12-18 months. I sure hope the fate of the economy doesn’t depend on custom homegrown software.

By James Kwak

Option Pricing for Beginners

For a complete list of Beginners articles, see Financial Crisis for Beginners.

I’ve had two posts so far on the terms under which Treasury sold back to Old National the warrants on Old National stock that Treasury got in exchange for its TARP investment, so I thought it was time for an introduction to warrant/option pricing.

The warrants received by Treasury give Treasury the right to buy common stock in the issuing bank under predefined terms. Buying the stock is called exercising the warrant. The warrant specifies how many shares Treasury can buy; the price that it must pay to buy them (the exercise price); and the term of the warrant, meaning how long Treasury has to decide whether or not it wants to exercise the warrant. If Treasury never exercises the warrant, then it expires and nothing happens. For our purposes, a warrant is the same as a call option; there are some differences I will ignore, which are outlined here.

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More Bank Balance Sheets for Beginners

If you read this blog and listen to Planet Money, you may have had enough of this topic, but Calculated Risk pitched in with two posts on liquidity and solvency crises, complete with graphical balance sheet illustrations. He does a better job than I have of conceptually illustrating the workings of the various bank bailout plans that have been offered. 

This is his assessment of the current strategy:

The Geithner approach is to keep injecting capital into the banks to cover the losses. This is known as the “Zombie” bank approach. . . .

Although the bank is balance sheet insolvent, the bank will never be business insolvent [unable to pay its debts as they come due] because the government will continue to provide money to cover losses.

If only a small percentage of financial assets are held by zombie banks, then this approach will probably work. These banks will be crippled, but the other banks can meet the financing needs of the economy.

I should note that CR does not say the entire banking system is insolvent, or that any banks in particular are insolvent.

The posts are from late April but I missed them, probably because they were on my birthday.

By James Kwak

Microsoft: Just Another Company

Earlier this week, Microsoft issued long-term debt for the first time in its history, selling $3.75 billion of  5-, 10-, and 30-year bonds. From a corporate finance perspective, I guess this makes sense, since it got to lock in historically low borrowing rates. Treasuries are low, and Microsoft paid only about one percentage point more than the U.S. government, which makes sense since it does have over $20 billion in cash, no other long-term debt, and – let’s not forget – a virtual monopoly on computer operating systems and basic desktop software. (In some ways, Microsoft looks like a safer place to lend mone than the U.S. Treasury, except for the ability of the latter to print its own money.) But it’s still a little sad.

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Stress Tests for Beginners

The big news on the banking front this week will be the public release of the stress test results, currently scheduled for Thursday (originally it was supposed to be today). Over at The Hearing, I wrote an overview post recapping the context for the stress tests and the current dilemma the administration faces: whether to keep quiet about the details, and risk undermining the credibility of the exercise, or whether to release signficant bank-specific information, and risk undermining the reputation of certain weak banks. 

There is nothing wrong with the concept of the stress tests, and arguably regulators should have been doing them constantly as the crisis worsened, so that this particular iteration would not create such a political challenge. The idea is that not only do you want to know how much capital a bank has right now, but you want to know how much capital it will have left if the economy continues to get worse. If you did this analysis in a way that was credible with the market, it would go a long way toward restoring confidence in the financial system, since the current lack of confidence is based on people’s not trusting the information they are getting.

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GDP Growth Rates for Beginners

For a complete list of Beginners articles, see Financial Crisis for Beginners.

My post about French sociology got a wide range of comments, ranging from “Without a doubt, your best post yet” to “Reading this post made me think, for the first time, of ignoring Baseline Scenario from now on,” which I guess indicates we have a wide range of readers. In any case, for today I’m returning to something much more mundane: GDP growth rates. Like many Beginners articles, this one starts out with some basics, and then gets (a little) more interesting, but its main goal is to help you decipher the news that you already read.

To a casual reader, yesterday’s GDP announcement was that Gross Domestic Product (an aggregate measure of economic activity) fell by 6.1% or, more precisely, at an annual rate of 6.1%. What does this mean?

For those of you who have never visited the BEA website, this is what the raw numbers look like. (They give you  columns B and E, I calculated the rest.) Note that this is all in 2000 dollars, so inflation has been taken out.


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Why Pay Tuition?

One of our goals here at The Baseline Scenario is to explain basic economics, finance, and business concepts and how they apply to the things you read about in the newspaper. I think I’m pretty good at this. But if you prefer video and diagrams, I may have found something much better (thanks to a reader suggestion).

Salman Khan has created dozens of YouTube videos covering the basics of banking, finance, and the credit crisis. (There is also a series on the Geithner Plan that doesn’t seem to be on the main index page yet.) I’ve only watched a few, but they are very clear and from what I can see everything looks accurate.

But what’s really exciting is that he also has many, many more videos on math – from pre-algebra through linear algebra and differential equations – and physics. My wife and I watched the one on the chain rule and implicit differentiation and she gave it two thumbs up. (My wife is an economics and statistics professor.) So the next time you – or your child – needs to derive the quadratic formula, just head on over to his web site. Hours and hours of fun.

By James Kwak

Financial Innovation for Beginners

(For a complete list of Beginners articles, see Financial Crisis for Beginners.)

Kevin Drum pointed me to Ryan Avent’s insightful review of Ben Bernanke’s recent speech on financial innovation. (How’s that for the Internets in action?) Bernanke’s brief was simple: to defend financial innovation in general while acknowledging that at the margin it can be counterproductive and may need to be more closely regulated. “I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the 1970s,” he said in a line that was clearly supposed to make his point. Unfortunately for Bernanke, Avent was listening closely. His rejoinder:

neither could Bernanke point to a truly helpful piece of financial innovation developed after that decade. His examples of successful financial products? Credit cards, for one, which date from the 1950s. Policies facilitating the flow of credit to lower income borrowers was another, for which he credited the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. And, of course, securitization and the secondary mortgage markets developed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in…the 1970s.

With one exception:

Tasked with defending deregulation as a source of financial innovation, Bernanke reached for subprime lending.

This helped at least partially crystallize some thoughts I have had floating around about financial innovation for a while.

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Inflation Expectations for Beginners

For a complete list of Beginners articles, see Financial Crisis for Beginners.

Only a few years ago, the accepted remedy for a recession was for the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates – namely, the Federal funds rate. Now, however, the economy has been stuck in recession for over fifteen months and the Federal funds rate has spent the last several months at zero. (The Fed funds rate cannot ordinarily be negative, because one bank won’t lend $100 to another bank and accept less than $100 in return; it always has the option of just holding onto its $100.) As a result, the Fed has resorted to other policy tools, most notably large-scale purchases of agency and Treasury securities, funded by creating money. (Here’s James Hamilton’s analysis.)

As the Fed’s monetary policy plays a more prominent role in the response to the economic crisis, there will be more talk of inflation or, more accurately, inflation expectations. While inflation is what affects the purchasing power of the money in your wallet, inflation expectations are what affect people’s behavior in ways that have a long-term economic impact. Take the case of wage negotiations, for example: a union that believes inflation will average 5% over the life of a contract will demand higher wage increases than a union that believes inflation will average only 1%. Once those higher wages are built into the contract, the employer is forced to raise prices in order to cover those wage increases, and inflation begins to ripple through the economy.

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Structured Finance for Beginners

For a complete list of Beginners posts, see Financial Crisis for Beginners.

This is more of an advanced beginners topic – I already covered CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) in my first Beginners article – but I imagine that most of our readers are already familiar with structured products. At least, many people know that first a bunch of securities are pooled together, and then they are “sliced and diced,” in the common media parlance I find incredibly annoying. But Joshua Coval, Jakub Jurek, and Erik Stafford have a new paper, “The Economics of Structured Finance,” which does a brilliantly clear job of describing what these securities are and why they were so widely misunderstood, with the results we all know.

The paper is 27 pages long, not counting references, tables, and figures, and if you are comfortable with probabilities and follow it carefully you can understand everything in it. I will provide a summary to whet your appetite. I am not going to use numerical examples because the examples they use throughout their paper are so good.

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Exploding Cars for Beginners

Mark Thoma does a nice job comparing government purchases, public-private partnerships, and nationalization, and gets the concluding paragraph exactly right. It won’t help you through the complexities of whatever Geithner will announce in the morning, but it explains the basic concepts.

Financial Crisis Macroeconomics for Beginners

(For a complete list of Beginners posts, see Financial Crisis for Beginners.)

If you want to get caught up on the financial and economic crisis in a hurry (and get a quick refresher on first-year macroeconomics), Charles Jones has a drafted a new chapter on the crisis for his macroeconomics textbook. (If you’ve already read all of our Beginners posts, though, hopefully you won’t need to get caught up.) It’s 43 pages long (not very many words per page, though) and includes a relatively standard account of how the crisis came about (with a focus on the U.S. housing bubble), the impact on the real economy, and the thinking behind monetary policy, the fiscal stimulus, and the main proposals to fix the banking system. (Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t say which proposal – buying toxic assets, recapitalization, or reorganization – he recommends.) There is a discussion of what the crisis looks like in IS-LM terms – the main change from the standard version being the jump in the risk premium, which undermines the Fed’s ability to reduce effective interest rates. He also discusses the “zero bound” on nominal interest rates, in case you were wondering what that meant.

I think there should be a lot more on the crisis outside the U.S., for two reasons: first, it’s hitting harder in most other countries; and second, with so many countries being affected in so many different ways (Eastern Europe bubbles collapsing, China and Japan losing demand for exports, Russia hit by falling commodity prices, Iceland crashing under a hypertrophied banking sector), there would be lots to write about.

Jones even closes with a note of optimism:

Whatever happens in the coming years, it is worth remembering a key fact about the Great Depression, in evidence on the cover of the macroeconomics textbook . . . Even something as earth-shaking as the Great Depression essentially left the long-run GDP of the United States largely unaffected.

Update: I meant, but forgot, to add that Jones does not attempt to address the question of whether macroeconomics as a field needs to be revised in the light of the crisis. Mark Thoma has several posts on this question: a few are here, here, and here.

Nationalization for Beginners

“Nationalization” has been the word of the last month, with support not only from the usual suspects, but from Lindsey Graham, Alan Greenspan, and (to some degree, although they won’t say the word) Richard Shelby and John McCain. However, different people ascribe different meanings to this word; in particular, opponents like to define nationalization as the government taking over every bank permanently and turning banking into a government service.

As I see it, there are at least five different meanings of nationalization.

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Bad Banks on This American Life This Weekend

For public radio fans, Simon is on this weekend’s episode of This American Life, “Bad Bank,” with Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg of Planet Money, explaining what happened to our banking system. Regular readers of this blog will already know most of what they cover, and some of it comes from episodes of Planet Money you may already have heard (including the “ransom noteconversation). But if your friends and relatives are not quite as up to speed as you are, feel free to recommend this episode. (It’s the third TAL episode to focus entirely on the economic crisis; the others are listed on our Beginners page.)

TAL plays at different times on public radio affiliates this weekend. Starting Sunday night or Monday, the free online stream will be available from the TAL page. And if you subscribe to their podcast, you’ll get the episode Sunday night or Monday.

In my opinion, TAL is the best show available in any medium anywhere, so I recommend listening to them even when they’re not talking about the economy.