Warning: More Bank Bailouts Possible

One area I haven’t commented on much is the ongoing European “debt crisis”.  The Greek debt crisis is a part of it, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  The roots are much deeper.  One reason I haven’t commented is because it’s fairly complex and requires a lot of background explanation which I haven’t had time to write.  Nonetheless, it’s something worth mentioning.  In particular because it’s likely to mean more big bank bailouts.

In short, the crisis involves the way the Euro currency zone is constructed.  Countries that use the Euro have surrendered their sovereignty on monetary policy – that’s now the purview of the European Central Bank (ECB).  This means that government debt levels do matter for countries in the Euro.  They can default because they don’t have control over their own currency.  The U.S., Japan, UK, Canada, Australia, and others can’t default because they control their own central bank and currency.  But Euro countries can.  In the case of Greece and Ireland this means a high likelihood of default.  When the global economy crashed three years ago, it sent the economies of most countries down.  This raised the debt-to-GDP level by reducing the denominator, the GDP number.  But a country in a recession needs to increase government spending and deficits to stimulate growth.  Instead, the construction of the Euro agreement and pressures from the ECB forced these countries to pursue an austerity-based policy of cutting government programs.  But the cutting of government spending has only worsened the recession and shrunk their GDP even more, reducing tax collections.  It’s made default more likely.

In the Greek case, default appears inevitable.  The question is how much of a loss do bondholders take and when.  Therein lies a problem.  The people who own the Greek debt are largely big French and German banks. These banks themselves aren’t exactly robust.   If Greece defaults at a level that will actually help Greece find it’s way out instead of simply delaying the crisis, then these banks will likely take very heavy losses.  The losses are large enough to jeopardize the solvency of the banks themselves.  So Greek default also means figuring out how to recapitalize these big banks.  These are so-called “too big to fail banks”.

Currently there are negotiations going on about how to structure a  Greek default, simultaneously prop up the Euro banks, and stop a possible contagion effect from spreading to Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Belgium.  But there have been negotiations over this crisis for nearly two years now with much successs.  The German and French leaders have promised a comprehensive solution later this week. It was supposed to be today, but it’s been delayed to mid-week.

What does that have to do with the U.S.?  Nobody really knows.  The devil is in the details.  At first pass, big U.S. banks aren’t supposed to have much exposure to Greek debt, so they shouldn’t be endangered by a large Greek default.  But, the big U.S. banks like Citi, JP Morgan Chase, BofA, and Goldman Sachs have large stakes in the big Euro banks.  A failed Euro bank could have repercussions.  Of greater concern are derivatives, particularly Credit Default Swaps. The U.S. banks, particularly Goldman are known to have been active in selling these derivatives.  Since the derivative markets and positions are largely secret and non-transparent (a failure of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform bill), we don’t know if a Greek default will trigger significant liabilities for these banks.

In separate news, Bank of America, is on a death-watch by some analysts.  Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism clues us in:

If you have any doubt that Bank of America is in trouble, this development should settle it. I’m late to this important story broken this morning by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg, but both Bill Black (who I interviewed just now) and I see this as a desperate (or at the very best, remarkably inept) move by Bank of America’s management.

The short form via Bloomberg:

Bank of America Corp. (BAC), hit by a credit downgrade last month, has moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a subsidiary flush with insured deposits, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation…

Bank of America’s holding company — the parent of both the retail bank and the Merrill Lynch securities unit — held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June, according to data compiled by the OCC. About $53 trillion, or 71 percent, were within Bank of America NA, according to the data, which represent the notional values of the trades.

That compares with JPMorgan’s deposit-taking entity, JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, which contained 99 percent of the New York-based firm’s $79 trillion of notional derivatives, the OCC data show.

Now you would expect this move to be driven by adverse selection, that it, that BofA would move its WORST derivatives, that is, the ones that were riskiest or otherwise had high collateral posting requirements, to the sub. Bill Black confirmed that even though the details were sketchy, this is precisely what took place.

Part of BofA’s problems, well, actually a very large part of it’s problems stem from the loose and possibly illegal banking practices at Countrywide Mortgage which it took over in 2008.  Yves updates us on this here.

Bottom-line on all this:  expect more big bank bailouts of some kind in coming months.  It might only be big Euro banks.  It might only involve Bank of America.  But there’s significant,if less than probable, chance that we’ll have to see another round of bank bailouts.

US Government Bond Market & Interest Rate Watch – No Signs of Worry Over Deficits, Inflation, or Default

Just a quickie to bring your attention to this, yesterday’s close on the U.S. Government bond market as reported by Google Finance. Note the 10 year bond – less than 2%.

Bond Maturity Yield (effective interest rate) change in points(percent)
3 Month 0.01% 0.00 (0.00%)
6 Month 0.04% +0.01 (33.33%)
2 Year 0.19% +0.01 (5.56%)
5 Year 0.86% 0.00 (0.00%)
10 Year 1.99% -0.07 (-3.40%)
30 Year 3.30% -0.11 (-3.23%)

Why does this matter?

There’s two reasons.  First, the politicians and economists who have been opposed to stimulus efforts, either deficit spending increases or monetary stimulus, have been screaming for well over three years now that  these policies were “reckless” and going to lead to inflation.  Some of the more shrill have been seeing “hyperinflation just around the corner”.  They’ve been saying this for a long time but the inflation and hyperinflation simply aren’t happening.  Why?  Well they’ve argued this because they subscribe to economic theories such as quantity theory of money, crowding out, efficient markets, and a whole host of other neo-classical/neo-liberal theories.  These are the same people that claim Keynesian or post-Keynesian or Modern Monetary Theory is totally wrong.  But the data disagree.  These same critics were the ones pushing Washington to cut the budget and not raise the debt-ceiling limit.  They put concerns about the deficit ahead of concerns about jobs or growth rates despite having over 9% unemployment and over 16% slack in the system. They’re wrong. The data and investors in markets are showing them wrong.  Bond buyers aren’t worried about the U.S. becoming another Greece because they know it’s not possible.  Instead the big money is worried about the lack of economic growth and the potential for banking failures in Europe, and that leads them to want to park their money in the safest thing around: U.S. bonds.

The second reason is because these rates are so low, it’s foolish for the government to not borrow more money and invest it in the country’s future. Readers of this blog and my students should know that the U.S. government is not like a household and doesn’t  face the same budget constraints.  But even if you do believe that, why wouldn’t you borrow money at less than 2% and invest it in projects like infrastructure, innovation, and education that bring a rate of return well above that?  There’s no evidence that the private sector is doing any of this investing and the nation has plenty of idle capacity and idle workers that the private sector has shown it won’t hire.  Why shouldn’t a rational government borrow and invest in growing future GDP?  There’s no reason not to as long as you are sincerely committed to economic growth.

If we consider the real rate of interest (the nominal or face rate of interest minus the expected inflation rate) we get pretty much 0%.  The money is being offered to the government essentially for free, yet opponents of stimulus don’t want to borrow it. Proof of this is that TIPS bonds, which are a variety of U.S. government bond where the interest payments and principle is indexed for inflation, are trading with a negative interest rate these days.  The ironic part is that the very people opposed to government borrowing in this environment are often the same people who claim government should act more like a business.  Any rational business that had profitable investment opportunities and also had access to borrow at essentially 0% would rush to say “where do I sign to borrow?”

Debt-Ceiling: An Absurd, Unnecessary Law

The debt-ceiling circus in Washington continues as I write this.  The Republicans seem bound and determined to ruin the “full faith and credit” of the United States, while President Obama is frustrated that the Republicans won’t accept his deals to cut Social Security and Medicare.  None of this is necessary.  We don’t need a debt ceiling.  It’s absurd. It’s counterproductive.  It’s self-destructive.

James Surowiecki of The New Yorker writes (emphasis is mine):

The truth is that the United States doesn’t need, and shouldn’t have, a debt ceiling. Every other democratic country, with the exception of Denmark, does fine without one. There’s no debt limit in the Constitution. And, if Congress really wants to hold down government debt, it already has a way to do so that doesn’t risk economic chaos—namely, the annual budgeting process. The only reason we need to lift the debt ceiling, after all, is to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, we’ll face an absurd scenario in which Congress will have ordered the President to execute two laws that are flatly at odds with each other. If he obeys the debt ceiling, he cannot spend the money that Congress has told him to spend, which is why most government functions will be shut down. Yet if he spends the money as Congress has authorized him to he’ll end up violating the debt ceiling.

As it happens, the debt ceiling, which was adopted in 1917, did have a purpose once—it was a way for Congress to keep the President accountable. Congress used to exercise only loose control over the government budget, and the President was able to borrow money and spend money with little legislative oversight. But this hasn’t been the case since 1974; Congress now passes comprehensive budget resolutions that detail exactly how the government will tax and spend, and the Treasury Department borrows only the money that Congress allows it to. (It’s why TARP, for instance, required Congress to pass a law authorizing the Treasury to act.) This makes the debt ceiling an anachronism. These days, the debt limit actually makes the President less accountable to Congress, not more: if the ceiling isn’t raised, it’s President Obama who will be deciding which bills get paid and which don’t, with no say from Congress.

What happens if they don’t vote to raise the debt ceiling? Nobody knows.  There’s lots of scenarios.  It all depends on how crowds of people react and how those same crowds think the others in the crowd will react.  It’s unpredictable.  Interest rates might go up, they might go down, they might stay put.  Two things are for sure, though.  There will be lots of trading and uncertainty in financial markets with increased volatility.  And more important, if a default translates into the government actually spending significantly less money next month than now, then GDP is for sure going down.  Any government spending cut of greater than 10% immediately puts us back into recession – maybe even less.

So what’s really going on?  Well both the Republicans in Congress and President Obama are trying to accomplish non-budget goals that they can’t do by normal means.  Both are trying to radically scale back aspects of government that are too popular to do head-on.  They’re trying to cut Social Security, cut Medicare, raise the age on Medicare, change Obama’s healthcare plan, and other things that polls show are very popular.  So they’re trying to do it under cover of “having to for the debt”.  Except that they don’t have to do it.  The debt-ceiling law is totally unnecessary and contrived.

This Is No Movie Folks. It’s Real and It’s Scary.

I don’t enjoy scary movies. Never have.  I also don’t enjoy scary “amusement” park rides.*  I know I’m kind of a fluke in our U.S. culture this way.  I just find that there’s enough excitement, thrills, and fright in the real world if you just open your eyes.

An example of real world things to be scared of is the current debate  childish tantrum in Washington over increasing the debt limit. I’ll admit I haven’t taken it seriously until now.  A couple months ago I called it Kabuki Theatre of the Absurd. The law itself, the debt “ceiling” law, is absurd.  It is also redundant. Raising the debt ceiling should be a like sending a form letter.  Routine. Perfunctory. The law should be simply done away with. If Congress doesn’t want to borrow more money then the time and place to make that point constitutionally is when the budget is adopted.

The Republicans and Tea Party types were unable to accomplish their goals of gutting Social Security, Medicare, and other programs when the budget bill was debated last March-April.  They simply didn’t have the political support and they couldn’t agree on just who to cut.  So instead of doing the constitutional thing and either win more elections and gain seats (they actually lost a special election in May because of their plans to cut Social Security), or waiting until the next budget for next year, they’re trying to accomplish their goals under a subterfuge.  It’s not about the debt. It’s not about the deficit.  If it were about debt, deficits, and “fiscal responsibility”, then closing tax loopholes for high-income folks like hedge fund managers and the commodity speculators that drive up oil prices would be an option.  But the Republicans and Tea Partiers have expressly stated that even closing a tax loophole is unacceptable.  Only spending cuts are acceptable.  So the truth is it’s not about “fiscal responsibility”.  It’s about eliminating government programs that people want as the New York Times explains today (possible paywall on link).

So back to the debate tantrums being thrown in Washington. I still expect there to be a last-minute deal when powerful folks on Wall Street give the call to their friends in D.C. and tell ‘em to knock it off and do it. In the meantime, the Republicans, Tea Party types, and Obama administration are playing a game of chicken.  Except that this is a bit different from movie versions of chicken.  Jeff Frankels provides an excellent analysis. The problem is three-fold: it’s not movie fantasy – it’s real, the folks in the Republican car aren’t rational and are fighting among themselves, and when these cars go over the cliff there’s a good chance they take our entire economy with them. Quoting Jeff:

In the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean and a teenage rival race two cars to the edge of a cliff in a game of chicken.  Both intend to jump out at the last moment.  But the other guy miscalculates, and goes over the cliff with the car.

This is the game that is being played out in Washington this month over the debt ceiling.  The chance is at least 1/4 that the result will be similarly disastrous.

The game is not symmetric.  The Republicans are the ones who are miscalculating.   Evidently they are confident of prevailing:  they rejected the President’s offer, even though he was willing to cut entitlement programs.

The situation is complicated because there are a number of different people crammed into the Republican car.    There is one guy who is obsessed with the theory that, come August 3, the federal government could retain its top credit rating if it continued to service its debt by ceasing payment on its other bills.  But this would mean failing to honor legal obligations that have already been incurred (paying suppliers for paper clips that have already been bought, paying soldiers their wages for last month’s service, sending social security recipients their checks, etc.).  This is like observing that the cliff is not a 90 degree drop-off, but only 110 degrees.   It doesn’t matter: the car would still go crashing into the ocean far below.   The government’s credit would still be downgraded and global investors would still demand higher interest rates to hold US treasuries, probably on a long-term basis.

There are other guys (and gals) in the car who are even more delusional.   They are dead set on a policy of immediately eliminating the budget deficit (e.g., those opposed to raising the debt ceiling no matter what, or those campaigning for a balanced budget amendment), and doing it primarily by cutting nondefense discretionary spending.  This is literally impossible, arithmetically.  But they honestly don’t know this.   It is as if they were insisting that the car can fly.   Sometimes it can be a good bargaining position to adopt a very extreme position.  But if you are demanding that the car flies, you are not going to get your way no matter how determined you are.

It seems likely that the man in the driver’s seat – House Speaker John Boehner – does realize that his fellow passengers don’t have the facts quite right.   But there is also a game of chicken going onwithin the Republican car.  The crazies have said they will oppose in the next Republican primary election any congressman who votes to raise the debt ceiling or to raise tax revenues.   (Yes, they think they would support someone who would eliminate the budget deficit primarily by cutting non-defense discretionary spending; but remember, this is arithmetically impossible.)   The guy who is riding shot-gun in the car – the one who believes the car can fly — is trying to put his foot on top of Boehner’s on the accelerator pedal.

Yes, people who cannot do basic arithmetic are in charge here. And they’re throwing a childish tantrum because they can’t get their way.  Only unlike a child who’s threatening to hurt themselves if they don’t get their way, these folks could potentially take us all down.

The facts are that nobody knows for sure what happens if Congressional Republicans don’t raise the debt ceiling by August 3. But it defies imagination to think it will be smooth sailing. It depends on how the Obama adminstration reacts.  There might be ways around it.  A couple of proposals exist. The government could dispute the constitutionality of the debt ceiling law or it could mint some super-large coins (such as billion-dollar coins) that would only be used as Marshall Auerbach has noted:

Or the President could, as we and others have suggested in the past), simply invoke the 14th amendment and refuse to enforce a statute that he believes violates the Constitution.

Professor Scott Fullwiler has suggested an even more creative way around the debt ceiling: Fullwiler notes that Fed is the monopoly supplier of reserve balances, but that the US Constitution bestows upon the US Treasury the authority to mint coins (particularly platinum coins). Future deficit spending by the federal government could thereby continue to be carried out by minting coins and depositing them in the Treasury’s account at the Fed (for more details see here).

Curiously, the President won’t pursue any of these options.

These options would keep financial markets on an even keel but could provoke a constitutional and legal crisis as the Tea Party types would not doubt file endless lawsuits challenging it.  But thinking about these options is largely academic since Obama shows no inclination to exercise these options or to explain why he doesn’t.   Obama shares responsibility because he’s let the Tea Party types and Republicans take this charade this far.

Let’s consider a more likely intermediate case.  As mentioned in another post, to immediately stop all new borrowing and instantly balance the budget, the government has to cut 40% of it’s spending right now.  The federal government accounts for $3.8 trillion of spending in 2011.  GDP is expected to be in the $15 trillion range.  If the government cuts 40% of that $3.8 trillion instantly, that’s a $1.5 trillion cut in spending. Government spending is part of GDP (despite what far right-wing types believe).  So an instant balancing of the budget on Aug 3 means a 10% cut in GDP.  When the economy collapsed in 2008 it was only approximately a 5% drop in GDP.  So the “intermediate” case of default is an instant recession twice as big as the “Great Recession” of 2008.  Apparently the Republicans and Tea Party types loved 2008-09 and the bailouts so much they want to repeat it and double down.

Now what’s the worse case?  Well add into the scenario a financial crisis to dwarf 2008.  See US bonds are AAA rated because there’s no chance of default.  If there’s a default, or even a slight increase in the possibility of a future default, then pension funds, banks, and central banks around the world no longer have safe, interest bearing assets.  Chaos. Pension funds have to sell bonds.  Bond prices drop. Interest rates rise. Banks lose capital as the bonds fall in value. Nobody knows which banks are worst off.  A mess to make 2008 look simple.  And guess what, we’ll be back to bank bailouts only with even more unemployment.

Why can’t we have grown-ups in Washington?  These kinds of scary scenarios should be fictional and in the movies.  It shouldn’t be national policy to deliberately default and crush the economy just to make some political policy victory that you couldn’t win straight up.


* racing cars in real life is different.  ;-)

Debts & Deficit Are Not A Problem (until you reach full employment)

In the current media- and pundit-manufactured hysteria about the government budget deficit and sovereign debt, much has been made of a relatively recent book by Rogoff and Reinhart.  It purports to find patterns of default by surveying 800 years of sovereign defaults.  R&R conclude that somehow, magically, an 80% debt-to-GDP ratio will virtually ensure sovereign default, crisis, pain, suffering, and general mayhem.  I find it interesting that they reach this conclusion by noting that somewhat over half of the crises they study had ratios above that.  Strange that they never test the hypothesis by asking how many times have nations exceeded that threshold and NOT come to grief (Japan the last 20 years anybody?).  I obviously was not impressed with the book or it’s scholarship.  I’ve been meaning to blog about it, but Yeva Nersisyan at New Economic Perspectives says what I’ve been thinking…

In every culture there are a set of myths that are used to bring up future generations. In the US parents tell their children that if they don’t behave the bogeyman will get them. In many other countries it is a “Sack man” who carries naughty children away in a big sack. The myths are numerous and differ from culture to culture but the purpose is to get children to conform to the parental authority. As children trust their parents this is usually fairly easily accomplished. Although we would like to think that once we become adults we are not fed similar half-truths and outright lies, unfortunately it is not the case. One would think that as adults who have the capacity to reason and think critically we could spot those lies and myths. But what to do, if the people whose authority we trust, the so-called scientists and experts in the field are the ones feeding us the myths?
Major crises can be useful in helping people to rethink the way they once thought about the world. During the Great Depression, we abandoned the idea that free markets could work without government intervention. Gradually, as the postwar economy avoided major crises, precisely due to state intervention, people got comfortable thinking that the economy has become inherently stable and that state intervention is no longer necessary. Economists were at the forefront of propagating this myth. We were also led to believe that fiscal policy was neither useful nor necessary. But perhaps the biggest myth that we were all taught is that the government should balance its budget just like a household does, that persistent budget deficits are unsustainable and will lead to stagnant growth and even to sovereign defaults. Thanks to this myth, propagated by professional economists, with nearly 10% of the US labor force unemployed and another 7% underemployed, the public debate is now focused on the false issue of deficits and debt.
A case in point is a recent book by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, “This Time is Different” that has become a bestseller, making them the ultimate authorities on the issues of debt, default and crises. It has been used by conservatives and progressives alike to argue for lowering government deficits and debt in the midst of the current Great Recession. The media as well as academia have fawned all over this book, to the point where one begs the question whether they have actually taken the pain (it is painful!) to read the book (see here for more on this).

Jim, again here.  I have read the book.  I was greatly unimpressed.  Yes R&R have assembled a huge database (there contribution would be useful if they open-sourced the data files), but their analysis is greatly lacking.  They treat 800 years of history as if there’s never been any change in institutions – kind of strange when banking itself is only a few hundred years old.  Most important, though, is that R&R cannot recognize that the gold standard disappeared some 40 years ago.

The book is mostly on crises driven by government debt. Rogoff and Reinhart claim to have identified 250 sovereign external defaults and 70 defaults on domestic public debt. The problem with their “analysis”, however, is that over the past 800 years (and even over the past two centuries that are the focus of the book), institutions, approaches to monetary and fiscal policy, and exchange rate regimes have changed. For example, before the Great Depression the US was on a Gold Standard, then there was the Bretton Woods regime and finally in the last 40 years the US dollar has been a non-convertible currency. From reading the book it seems that this is not important at all. In reality the monetary regime a country operates on has major implications for government solvency. Aggregating data over different monetary regimes and different countries cannot yield any meaningful conclusions about sovereign debt and crises. It is only useful if the goal is to merely validate one’s preconceived myth about government debt being similar to private debt.

A sovereign government that operates on a non-convertible currency regime spends by issuing its own currency and as it’s the monopoly issuer of that currency, there are no financial constraints on its ability to spend. See here, here and here for more. It doesn’t need to tax or issue bonds to spend. It makes any payments that come due, including interest rate payments on its “debt” and payments of principal by crediting bank accounts meaning that operationally they are not constrained on how much they can spend. Governments operating with a non-convertible fiat currency cannot be forced to default on sovereign debt. They can choose to do so but that’s ultimately a political decision, not an economic/operational one. As far as I can tell Rogoff and Reinhart haven’t identified a single case of government default on domestic-currency denominated debt with a floating exchange rate system.

The need to balance the budget over some time period determined by the movements of celestial objects is a myth. When a country operates on a fiat monetary regime, debt and deficit limits and even bond issues for that matter are self-imposed, i.e. there are no financial constraints inherent in the fiat system that exist under a gold-standard or fixed exchange rate regime. But that superstition is seen as necessary because if everyone realizes that government is not actually financially constrained then it might spend “out of control” taking too large a percent of the nation’s resources. See here for more.

When the Great Depression hit governments didn’t know how to counteract the crisis, to solve the problem of unemployment. Further they were constrained by the Gold Standard (which the U.S. finally abandoned in 1933). Today we know exactly what to do to solve the issue of underutilization of labor resources. But unfortunately we are constrained by myths. I wonder what the economists, who propagate these myths, would say if they were in the ranks of the unemployed. Would they say that Congress should not extend unemployment benefits because it will further contribute to the deficit? Would they say that more stimulus is unsustainable? I suggest we leave them unemployed for a while. They will have more free time to do some Modern Monetary Theory reading and more “economic incentives” (i.e. lack of income to support themselves and their families) to rethink their position. Professional economists are a major impediment on the way to using our economic system for the benefit of us all. And Reinhart and Rogoff are no exception.

Seems the Rich Default Even More

Well, so much for the idea that the foreclosure crisis is /was due to those “irresponsible low-income people buying stuff they can’t afford”.  It seems the rich are even less responsible:

the rich have stopped paying the mortgage at a rate that greatly exceeds the rest of the population.

More than one in seven homeowners with loans in excess of a million dollars are seriously delinquent, according to data compiled for The New York Times by the real estate analytics firm CoreLogic.

By contrast, homeowners with less lavish housing are much more likely to keep writing checks to their lender. About one in 12 mortgages below the million-dollar mark is delinquent.

Though it is hard to prove, the CoreLogic data suggest that many of the well-to-do are purposely dumping their financially draining properties, just as they would any sour investment.

“The rich are different: they are more ruthless,” said Sam Khater, CoreLogic’s senior economist.

From the New York Times.