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Bernanke’s Legacy: A Weak and Mediocre Economy – Article by John P. Cochran

Bernanke’s Legacy: A Weak and Mediocre Economy – Article by John P. Cochran

The New Renaissance Hat
John P. Cochran
February 8, 2014

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As Chairman Bernanke’s reign at the Fed comes to an end, the Wall Street Journal provides its assessment of “The Bernanke Legacy.” Overall the Journal does a reasonable job on both Greenspan and Bernanke, especially compared to the “effusive praise from the usual suspects; supporters of monetary central planning. The Journal argues when accessing Bernanke’s performance it is appropriate to review Bernanke’s performance “before, during, and after the financial panic.”

While most assessments of Bernanke’s performance as a central banker focus on the “during” and “after” financial-crisis phases with much of the praise based on the “during” phase, the Journal joins the Austrians and John Taylor in unfavorable assessment of the more critical “before” period. It was this period when the Fed generated its second boom-bust cycle in the Greenspan-Bernanke era. In the Journal’s assessment, Bernanke, Greenspan, and the Fed deserve an “F.” While this pre-crisis period mostly fell under the leadership of Alan Greenspan, the Journal highlights that Bernanke was the “leading intellectual force” behind the pre-crisis policies. As a result of these too-loose, too-long policies, just as the leadership of the Fed passed from Greenspan to Bernanke, the credit boom the Fed “did so much to create turned to mania, which turned to panic, which became a deep recession.” The Journal’s description of Bernanke’s role should be highlighted in any serious analysis of the Bernanke era:

His [Bernanke’s] role goes back to 2002 when as a Fed Governor he gave a famous speech warning about deflation that didn’t exist [and if it did exist should not have been feared].[1] He and Mr. Greenspan nonetheless followed the advice of Paul Krugman to promote a housing bubble to offset the dot-com crash.

As Fed transcripts show, Mr. Bernanke was the board’s intellectual leader in its decision to cut the fed-funds rate to 1% in June 2003 and keep it there for a year. This was despite a rapidly accelerating economy (3.8% growth in 2004) and soaring commodity and real-estate prices. The Fed’s multiyear policy of negative real interest rates produced a credit mania that led to the housing bubble and bust.

For some of the best analysis of the Fed’s pre-crisis culpability one should turn to Roger Garrison’s excellent analysis. In a 2009 Cato Journal paper, Garrison (2009, p. 187) characterizes Fed policy during the “Great Moderation” as a “learning by doing policy” which, based on events post-2003, would be better classified as “so far so good” or “whistling in the dark.” The actual result of this “learning by doing policy” is described by Garrison in “Natural Rates of Interest and Sustainable Growth”:

In the earlier episode [dot.com boom-bust], the Federal Reserve moved to counter the upward pressure of interest rates, causing actual interest rates not to deviate greatly from the historical norm. In the later episode [housing bubble/boom-bust], the Federal Reserve moved to reinforce the downward pressure on interest rates, causing the actual interest rates to be exceedingly low relative to the historical norm. Although the judgment, made retrospectively by economists of virtually all stripes, that the Fed funds target rate was “too low for too long” between mid-2003 and mid-2004, it was almost surely too low for too long relative to the natural rate in both episodes. (p. 433)

Given this and other strong evidence of the Fed’s role in creating the credit-driven boom, the Journal faults “Mr. Bernanke’s refusal to acknowledge that the Fed made any mistake in the mania years.”

On the response to the crisis, the Journal refrains from the accolades of many who credit the Fed led by the leading scholar of the Great Depression from acting strongly to prevent another such calamity. According to the Fed worshipers, things might not be good, but without the unprecedented actions and bailouts things would have been catastrophic. The Journal’s more measured assessment:

Once the crisis hit, Mr. Bernanke and the Fed deserve the benefit of the doubt. From the safe distance of hindsight, it’s easy to forget how rapid and widespread the financial panic was. The Fed had to offset the collapse in the velocity of money with an increase in its supply, and it did so with force and dispatch. One can disagree with the Fed’s special guarantee programs, but we weren’t sitting in the financial polar vortex at the time. It’s hard to see how others would have done much better.

But discerning readers of Vern McKinley’s Financing Failure: A Century of Bailouts might disagree. Fed actions, even when not verging on the illegal, were counter-productive, unnecessary, and contributed to action-freezing policy uncertainty which contributed to the collapse of the velocity of money. McKinley describes much of what was done as “seat-of-the-pants decision-making” (pp. 305-306):

“Seat of the pants” is not a flattering description of the methods of the regulators, but its use is justified to describe the panic-driven actions during the 2000s crisis. It is only natural that under the deadline of time pressure judgment will be flawed, mistakes will be made and taxpayer exposure will be magnified, and that has clearly been the case. With the possible exception of the Lehman Brothers decision … all of the major bailout decisions during the 2000s crisis were made under duress of panic over a very short period of time with very limited information at hand and with input of a limited number of objective parties involved in the decision making. Not surprisingly, these seat-of-the-pants responses did not instill confidence, and there was no clear evidence collected that the expected negative fallout would truly have occurred.

While a defense of some Fed action could be found in Hayek’s 1970s discussion of “best” policy under bad institutions (a central bank) where he argued that during a crisis a central bank should act to prevent a secondary deflation, the Fed actions went clearly beyond such a recommendation. Better would have been an immediate policy to end the credit expansion in its tracks. The Fed’s special guarantee programs and movement toward a mondustrial policy should be a great worry to anyone concerned about long-term prosperity and liberty. Whether any human running a central bank could have done better is an open question, but other monetary arrangements could clearly have led to better outcomes.

The Journal’s analysis of post-crisis policy, while not as harsh as it should be,[2] is critical. Despite an unprecedented expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, the “recovery is historically weak.” At some point “a Fed chairman has to take some responsibility for the mediocre growth — and lack of real income growth — on his watch.” Bernanke’s policy is also rightly criticized because “The other great cost of these post-crisis policies is the intrusion of the Fed into politics and fiscal policy.”

Because the ultimate outcome of this monetary cycle hinges on how, when, or if the Fed can unwind its unwieldy balance sheet, without further damage to the economy; most likely continuing stagnation or a return to stagflation, or less likely, but possible hyper-inflation or even a deflationary depression, the Bernanke legacy will ultimately depend on a Bernanke-Yellen legacy. Given, as the Journal points out, “Politicians — and even some conservative pundits — have adopted the Bernanke standard that the Fed’s duty is to reduce unemployment and manage the business cycle,” the prospect that this legacy will be viewed favorably is less and less likely. Perhaps if the editors joined Paul Krugman in reading and fully digesting Joe Salerno’s “A Reformulation of Austrian Business Cycle Theory in Light of the Financial Crisis,” they would correctly fail Bernanke and Fed policy before, during, and after the crisis.

But what should be the main lesson of a Greenspan-Bernanke legacy? Clearly, if there was no pre-crisis credit boom, there would have been no large financial crisis and thus no need for Bernanke or other human to have done better during and after. While Austrian analysis has often been criticized, incorrectly,[3] for not having policy recommendations on what to do during the crisis and recovery, it should be noted that if Austrian recommendations for eliminating central banks and allowing banking freedom had been followed, no such devastating crisis would have occurred and no heroic policy response would have been necessary in the resulting free and prosperous commonwealth.

Notes

[1] See Joseph T. Salerno, “An Austrian Taxonomy of Deflation — With Applications to the U.S.” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 6, no. 4 (2001).

[2] See John P. Cochran’s, Bernanke: The Good Engineer? Mises Daily Article, 21 March 2013 and Bernanke: A Tenure of Failure, Mises Daily Article, 31, July 2013.

[3] See John P. Cochran, Recessions: The Don’t Do List, Mises Daily Article, 17 February 2013.

John P. Cochran is emeritus dean of the Business School and emeritus professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver and coauthor with Fred R. Glahe of The Hayek-Keynes Debate: Lessons for Current Business Cycle Research. He is also a senior scholar for the Mises Institute and serves on the editorial board of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. Send him mail. See John P. Cochran’s article archives.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Why Do Banks Keep Going Bankrupt? – Article by Kirby R. Cundiff

Why Do Banks Keep Going Bankrupt? – Article by Kirby R. Cundiff

The New Renaissance Hat
Kirby R. Cundiff
November 4, 2013
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The banking industry is unstable. Banks are regularly going bankrupt. Crises in the banking industry have occurred in three distinct time periods during the twentieth century—during the Great Depression of the 1930s, during the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and during the Great Recession from 2007 to present.

Why the banking industry is so vulnerable to bankruptcies and what can be done to correct this problem?

Debt to assets, or leverage, ratios vary significantly from industry to industry. They are typically under ten percent in most high tech industries and go up to forty percent for public utilities. Average debt ratios in the banking and financial services industry are in the fifty to seventy percent range, however, and many banks have much higher leverage ratios.

Firms attempt to minimize their total financing costs or Working Average Cost of Capital (WACC). The component costs of capital (cost of debt and cost of equity) are determined by investors’ perceptions of the risk and return possibilities associated with buying debt or equity in a given company or individual.

A credit card loan has a higher interest rate than a home loan because the credit card loan is riskier—i.e. there are no assets to seize if the money is not paid back. Similarly, a high-risk company normally pays a higher interest rate on its debt than a lower-risk company and increasing leverage is normally associated with increasing risk. Due to deposit insurance, however, this isn’t the case with banks.

Moral Hazard

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures deposits up to $250,000 in the United States. Most of the European countries (including Cyprus) have similar organizations that insure deposits up to 100,000 EUR. (See Deposit Insurance.)

Since depositors believe that their bank accounts are insured by governments, they do not generally know or care how much risk banks incur when they invest their depositors’ money. This creates a moral hazard problem with very little oversight by depositors of a bank’s management of their assets. Bank managers can take a lot of risk and, if they make profits, they keep the money. If they lose money, the taxpayers pay for the losses. In theory, this moral hazard problem is mitigated by subordinated debt, investors with deposits over the deposit insurance limit, and banking regulations. But these approaches are clearly not working.

In a series of agreements called the Basel Accords, the Basel Committee on Bank Supervision (BCBS) provides certain recommendations on banking regulations in regards to capital risk, market risk and operational risk. The purpose of these accords is to ensure financial institutions have enough capital to meet their obligations. The Tier I and Tier II capital controls of the Basel Agreements are supposed to prevent banks from taking too much risk with depositors’ assets. Tier 1 capital consists largely of shareholders’ equity. Tier 2 capital comprises undisclosed reserves, revaluation reserves, general provisions, hybrid instruments and subordinated debt.

The capital ratios are:

  •   Tier 1 capital ratio = Tier 1 capital / Risk-adjusted assets
  •   Total capital (Tier 1 and Tier 2) ratio = Total capital (Tier 1 + Tier 2) / Risk-adjusted assets
  •   Leverage ratio = Tier 1 capital / Average total consolidated assets

To be well-capitalized under federal bank regulatory definitions, a bank holding company must have a Tier 1 capital ratio of at least six percent, a total capital ratio of at least ten percent, and a leverage ratio of at least five percent (Capital).

The leverage ratios allowed under the Basel agreements are far higher than the typical leverag ratios in most industries and are far higher than would exist in a free-market financial system. Under a free-market system, depositors would not put their money in overly-leveraged banks and banks would be forced to decrease their leverage ratios and behave more like mutual or money market funds. Banks would be less likely to use short-term liabilities (deposits) to fund long-term assets (loans).

The S&L Crisis

Massive bank leverage would not create as much instability if the money supply was stable as in the 1800s under the gold standard. Under the current debt-is-money system, inflation and interest rates can vary wildly from year to year. The Savings and Loan Associations (S&Ls) made many low interest 30-year fixed rate home loans when inflation was low in the 1960s—five percent interest rate loans were typical. As inflation increased, the S&Ls still had these long-term home loans on their books, but the market now demanded higher interest rates on deposits (eighteen percent at times). The interest rates that many savings and loans were receiving on their assets (30-year fixed rate loans) were much lower than the interest rates the same S&Ls were paying on their liabilities (deposits). This duration mismatch resulted in the mass insolvency of the Savings and Loan Industry and a bailout of the S&Ls by the American tax payers exceeding $100 billion.

The Great Recession

The banking defaults of the Great Recession (2007 to present) were also caused by unstable interest rates combined with high leverage. The Federal Reserve lowered rates in the early 2000s to stimulate the economy after the bursting of the dot.com bubble. This resulted in many people borrowing money at very low interest rates to buy homes. Then the Federal Reserve raised interest rates and many people were no longer able to make their home payments. Again the result was massive bank insolvency and a substantial decrease in home values. Another huge taxpayer -funded bailout of the banking system followed, and the Federal Reserve has been printing money ever since, trying to stimulate the economy in the wake of yet another bubble it created.  The disbursements associated with placing into conservatorship government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by the U.S. Treasury, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and the Federal Reserve’s Maiden Lane Transactions are probably around $400 billion. How much of these disbursements will be paid back is currently unclear.

During the recent crises in Cyprus, proposals were seriously considered to ignore the 100,000 EUR deposit insurance and seize a fraction of even small depositors’ money. Most depositors lost access to their accounts for over a week and large depositors are still likely to lose a large fraction of their assets. This crisis has made some depositors more likely to pay attention to the solvency of their banks, but most depositors still believe that deposit insurance will cover any possible losses. If banks are to become more stable, the amount of equity relative to debt in the banking system must be drastically increased to something resembling what it would be without government deposit insurance, central bank subsidies, and treasury bailouts. Given the lobbying power of bankers in Washington, DC and around the word, such is unlikely to occur. The boom-bust cycle of banking bubbles followed by banking crises will most surely continue.

For further reading on this topic see this from The Freeman.

Kirby R. Cundiff, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Finance at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is a Chartered Financial Analyst and a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM Professional. 

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

 

New Fed Boss Same as the Old Boss – Article by Ron Paul

New Fed Boss Same as the Old Boss – Article by Ron Paul

The New Renaissance Hat
Ron Paul
October 13, 2013
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The news that Janet Yellen was nominated to become the next Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System was greeted with joy by financial markets and the financial press. Wall Street saw Yellen’s nomination as a harbinger of continued easy money. Contrast this with the hand-wringing that took place when Larry Summers’ name was still in the running. Pundits worried that Summers would be too cautious, too hawkish on inflation, or too close to big banks.

The reality is that there wouldn’t have been a dime’s worth of difference between Yellen’s and Summers’ monetary policy. No matter who is at the top, the conduct of monetary policy will be largely unchanged: large-scale money printing to bail out big banks. There may be some fiddling around the edges, but any monetary policy changes will be in style only, not in substance.

Yellen, like Bernanke, Summers, and everyone else within the Fed’s orbit, believes in Keynesian economics. To economists of Yellen’s persuasion, the solution to recession is to stimulate spending by creating more money. Wall Street need not worry about tapering of the Fed’s massive program of quantitative easing under Yellen’s reign. If anything, the Fed’s trillion dollars of yearly money creation may even increase.

What is obvious to most people not captured by the system is that the Fed’s loose monetary policy was the root cause of the current financial crisis. Just like the Great Depression, the stagflation of the 1970s, and every other recession of the past century, the current crisis resulted from the creation of money and credit by the Federal Reserve, which led to unsustainable economic booms.

Rather than allowing the malinvestments and bad debts caused by its money creation to liquidate, the Fed continually tries to prop them up. It pumps more and more money into the system, piling debt on top of debt on top of debt. Yellen will continue along those lines, and she might even end up being Ben Bernanke on steroids.

To Yellen, the booms and bust of the business cycle are random, unforeseen events that take place just because. The possibility that the Fed itself could be responsible for the booms and busts of the business cycle would never enter her head. Nor would such thoughts cross the minds of the hundreds of economists employed by the Fed. They will continue to think the same way they have for decades, interpreting economic data and market performance through the same distorted Keynesian lens, and advocating for the same flawed policies over and over.

As a result, the American people will continue to suffer decreases in the purchasing power of the dollar and a diminished standard of living. The phony recovery we find ourselves in is only due to the Fed’s easy money policies. But the Fed cannot continue to purchase trillions of dollars of assets forever. Quantitative easing must end sometime, and at that point the economy will face the prospect of rising interest rates, mountains of bad debt and malinvested resources, and a Federal Reserve which holds several trillion dollars of worthless bonds.

The future of the US economy with Chairman Yellen at the helm is grim indeed, which provides all the more reason to end our system of central economic planning by getting rid of the Federal Reserve entirely. Ripping off the bandage may hurt some in the short run, but in the long term everyone will be better off. Anyway, most of this pain will be borne by the politicians, big banks, and other special interests who profit from the current system. Ending this current system of crony capitalism and moving to sound money and free markets is the only way to return to economic prosperity and a vibrant middle class.

Ron Paul, MD, is a former three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President and Congressman from Texas.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

Mainstream Economists Prove Krugman Wrong About Hayek and Mises – Article by John P. Cochran

Mainstream Economists Prove Krugman Wrong About Hayek and Mises – Article by John P. Cochran

The New Renaissance Hat
John P. Cochran
September 13, 2013
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Paul Krugman has recently been critical of Friedman (and Phelps), the Phillips curve, and the Natural Unemployment Rate (NUR) theory in the process of arguing that due to the recent Great Recession, the accompanying financial crisis, and Bush-Obama-Fed Great Stagnation, Friedman has vanished from the policy front. Krugman makes this claim despite the fact there is an on-going vigorous debate on rules versus discretion with at least some attention to Friedman’s plucking model. While maligning Friedman’s contributions, Krugman manages a slap at Austrians and claims a renewed practical relevance for Keynes:

What I think is really interesting is the way Friedman has virtually vanished from policy discourse. Keynes is very much back, even if that fact drives some economists crazy; Hayek is back in some sense, even if one has the suspicion that many self-proclaimed Austrians bring little to the table but the notion that fiat money is the root of all evil — a deeply anti-Friedmanian position. But Friedman is pretty much absent.

The Friedman-Phelps hypothesis was the heart of the policy effectiveness debate of the 1970s and early 80s. The empirical evidence developed during the debate over the policy implications of the NUR model, at least temporally, discredited active Keynesian discretionary policy as an effective tool to reduce unemployment in the long run. One result of the debate: monetary policy appeared to improve, especially compared to the Fed’s dismal record in the late 1920s and 1930s and the mid 1960s to the late 1970s. Central banks, à la Friedman, focused on rules-based policy and inflation targeting resulting in what many, following John B. Taylor, call the Great Moderation of the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

Krugman does recognize the “stagflation (of the 1970s) led to a major rethinking of macroeconomics, all across the board; even staunch Keynesians conceded that Friedman/Phelps had been right (indeed, they may have conceded too much [emphasis added]), and the vertical long-run Phillips curve became part of every textbook.”

My early work on Hayek and Keynes (see here and here) argued that this development was important, but misleading. The then current business cycle research and its newer variants could benefit from re-examining the issues at the heart of the Hayek-Keynes debate.

Money, banking, finance, and capital structure were, and still are, for the most part ignored in much of the new (post-Friedman-Phelps) macroeconomics including the new–Keynesian approaches. In this regard, Hayek (and Mises) had then, and has now, more to offer than Keynes.

Recent papers by respected mainstream economists are beginning to recognize that attention to Hayek and Mises can be useful. Guillermo Calvo of Columbia University, in a recent paper [PDF], has even gone so far as to argue, “the Austrian school of the trade cycle was on the right track” and that the Austrian School offered valuable insights and noting that:

There is a growing empirical literature purporting to show that financial crises are preceded by credit booms including Mendoza and Terrones (2008), Schularik and Taylor (2012), Agosin and Huaita (2012), and Borio (2012).

Calvo adds “[t]his was a central theme in the Austrian School of Economics.”

Claudio Borio highlights what Austrians have long argued is a key flaw in inflation-targeting or stable-money policy regimes such as many central banks either adopted or emulated during the 1980-2008 period. This flaw contributed to back-to-back boom-busts of the late 1990s and 2000s:

A monetary policy regime narrowly focused on controlling near-term inflation removes the need to tighten policy when financial booms take hold against the backdrop of low and stable inflation. And major positive supply-side developments, such as those associated with the globalisation of the real side of the economy, provide plenty of fuel for financial booms.

Borio thus recognizes that a time to mitigate a bust is (contra-Keynes) during the boom:

In the case of monetary policy, it is necessary to adopt strategies that allow central banks to tighten so as to lean against the build-up of financial imbalances even if near-term inflation remains subdued.

William R. White, another economist who has worked at the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) and has been influenced by Hayek, has come to similar conclusions as does Calvo, who argues “Hayek’s theory is very subtle and shows that even a central bank that follows a stable monetary policy may not be able to prevent business cycles and, occasionally, major boom-bust episodes.”

In the current environment, many, including Krugman, have argued for a higher inflation target or a higher nominal GDP target to jump start the current sluggish recovery.

Austrian business cycle theory on the other hand, as recognized by Borio and Calvo, provides analysis on why such a policy may be ineffective and if temporarily effective in the short run, harmful if not destructive, in the long run. (See here and here for more.)

An easy money and credit policy impedes necessary re-structuring of the economy and new credit creation begins a new round of misdirection of production leading to an “unfinished recession.” Calvo expounds:

Whatever one thinks of the power of the Hayek/Mises mix as a positive theory of the business cycle, an insight from the theory is that once credit over-expansion hits the real sector, rolling back credit is unlikely to be able to put “Humpty-Dumpty together again.”

It is too bad it took back-to-back harmful boom-bust cycles for the profession at large to begin to again examine Austrian insights, but it does illustrate how foolish Krugman is when he argues Austrians have nothing to bring to the table.

John P. Cochran is emeritus dean of the Business School and emeritus professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver and coauthor with Fred R. Glahe of The Hayek-Keynes Debate: Lessons for Current Business Cycle Research. He is also a senior scholar for the Mises Institute and serves on the editorial board of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. Send him mail. See John P. Cochran’s article archives.

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This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

Cyprus and the Unraveling of Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Joseph T. Salerno

Cyprus and the Unraveling of Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Joseph T. Salerno

The New Renaissance Hat
Joseph T. Salerno
March 30, 2013
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[Originally posted on Circle Bastiat, the faculty blog of the Mises Institute. Read Circle Bastiat for Austrian analysis of current economic events from today’s top Misesian and Rothbardian economists.]

The “Cyprus deal” as it has been widely referred to in the media may mark the next to last act in the the slow motion collapse of fractional-reserve banking that began with the implosion of the savings-and-loan industry in the U.S. in the late 1980s.

This trend continued with the currency crises in Russia, Mexico, East Asia, and Argentina in the 1990s in which fractional-reserve banking played a decisive role. The unraveling of fractional-reserve banking became visible even to the average depositor during the financial meltdown of 2008 that ignited bank runs on some of the largest and most venerable financial institutions in the world. The final collapse was only averted by the multi-trillion dollar bailout of U.S. and foreign banks by the Federal Reserve.

Even more than the unprecedented financial crisis of 2008, however, recent events in Cyprus may have struck the mortal blow to fractional-reserve banking. For fractional-reserve banking can only exist for as long as the depositors have complete confidence that regardless of the financial woes that befall the bank entrusted with their “deposits,” they will always be able to withdraw them on demand at par in currency, the ultimate cash of any banking system.

Ever since World War Two governmental deposit insurance, backed up by the money-creating powers of the central bank, was seen as the unshakable guarantee that warranted such confidence. In effect, fractional-reserve banking was perceived as 100-percent banking by depositors, who acted as if their money was always “in the bank” thanks to the ability of central banks to conjure up money out of thin air (or in cyberspace).

Perversely the various crises involving fractional-reserve banking that struck time and again since the late 1980s only reinforced this belief among depositors, because troubled banks and thrift institutions were always bailed out with alacrity—especially the largest and least stable. Thus arose the “too-big-to-fail doctrine.” Under this doctrine, uninsured bank depositors and bondholders were generally made whole when large banks failed, because it was widely understood that the confidence in the entire banking system was a frail and evanescent thing that would break and completely dissipate as a result of the failure of even a single large institution.

Getting back to the Cyprus deal, admittedly it is hardly ideal from a free-market point of view. The solution in accord with free markets would not involve restricting deposit withdrawals, imposing fascistic capital controls on domestic residents and foreign investors, and dragooning taxpayers in the rest of the Eurozone into contributing to the bailout to the tune of 10 billion euros.

Nonetheless, the deal does convey a salutary message to bank depositors and creditors the world over. It does so by forcing previously untouchable senior bondholders and uninsured depositors in the Cypriot banks to bear part of the cost of the bailout. The bondholders of the two largest banks will be wiped out and it is reported that large depositors (i.e., those holding uninsured accounts exceeding 100,000 euros) at the Laiki Bank may also be completely wiped out, losing up to 4.2 billion euros, while large depositors at the Bank of Cyprus will lose between 30 and 60 percent of their deposits. Small depositors in both banks, who hold insured accounts of up to 100,000 euros, would retain the full value of their deposits.

The happy result will be that depositors, both insured and uninsured, in Europe and throughout the world will become much more cautious or even suspicious in dealing with fractional-reserve banks. They will be poised to grab their money and run at the slightest sign or rumor of instability. This will induce banks to radically alter the sources of the funds they raise to finance loans and investments, moving away from deposit and toward equity and bond financing. As was reported Tuesday, March 26, this is already expected by many analysts:

One potential spillover from the March 26 agreement is the knock-on effects for bank funding, analysts said. Banks typically fund themselves with some combination of deposits, equity, senior and subordinate notes and covered bonds, which are backed by a pool of high-quality assets that stay on the lender’s balance sheet.

The consequences of the Cyprus bailout could be that banks will be more likely to use contingent convertible bonds—known as CoCos—to raise money as their ability to encumber assets by issuing covered bonds reaches regulatory limits, said Chris Bowie at Ignis Asset Management Ltd. in London.

“We’d expect to see some deposit flight and a shift in funding towards a combination of covered bonds, real equity and quasi-equity,” said Bowie, who is head of credit portfolio management at Ignis, which oversees about $110 billion.

If this indeed occurs it will be a significant move toward a free-market financial system in which the radical mismatching of the maturities of assets and liabilities in the case of demand deposits is eliminated once and for all. A few more banking crises in the Eurozone—especially one in which insured depositors are made to participate in the so-called “bail-in”—will likely cause the faith in government deposit insurance to completely evaporate and with it confidence in the fractional-reserve banking system.

There may then naturally arise on the market a system in which equity, bonds, and genuine time deposits that cannot be redeemed before maturity become the exclusive sources of finance for bank loans and investments. Demand deposits, whether checkable or not, would be segregated in actual deposit banks which maintain 100-percent reserves and provide a range of payments systems from ATMs to debit cards.

While this conjecture may be overly optimistic, we are certainly a good deal closer to such an outcome today than we were before the “Cyprus deal” was struck. Of course we would be closer still if there were no bailout and the full brunt of the bank failures were borne solely by the creditors and depositors of the failed banks rather than partly by taxpayers. The latter solution would have completely and definitively exposed the true nature of fractional-reserve banking for all to see.

Joseph Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He has been interviewed in the Austrian Economics Newsletter and on Mises.org. Send him mail. See Joseph T. Salerno’s article archives.

Why the Deflationists Are Wrong – Article by Gary North

Why the Deflationists Are Wrong – Article by Gary North

The New Renaissance Hat
Gary North
August 23, 2012
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An inflationist is someone who believes that price inflation is the result of two things: (1) monetary inflation and (2) central-bank policy.

A deflationist is someone who believes that deflation is inevitable, despite (1) monetary inflation and (2) central -bank policy.

No inflationist says that price inflation is inevitable. Every deflationist says that price deflation is inevitable.

Deflationists have been wrong ever since 1933.

Milton Friedman is most famous for his book A Monetary History of the United States (1963), which relies on facts collected by Anna Schwartz, who died recently.

It is for one argument: the Federal Reserve caused the Great Depression because it refused to inflate.

This argument, as quoted by mainstream economists, is factually wrong.

I often cite a study, where you can see that the monetary base grew under the Federal Reserve, 1931 to 1932. This graph is from a speech given by the vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. You can access it here.

Figure 1
I posted this first in early 2010.

We can see that there was monetary deflation of the money supply, beginning in 1930. This continued in 1931 and 1932, despite a deliberate policy of inflation by the Fed, beginning in the second half of 1931 and continuing through 1932.

Depositors kept pulling currency out of banks and hoarding it. They did not redeposit it in other banks. This imploded the fractional-reserve-banking process for the banking system as a whole. M1 declined: monetary deflation.

The Fed could not control M1. It could only control the monetary base.

The argument of Friedman and Schwartz was picked up by mainstream economists. It is his most famous and widely accepted position. Bernanke praised him for it on Friedman’s 90th birthday in 2002.

Why was the argument wrong, as applied to 1931–33? I must tell the story one more time. Four letters tell it: FDIC. Well, nine: FDIC + FSLIC. They did not exist.

Franklin Roosevelt froze all bank deposits in early March 1933, immediately after his inauguration. This calmed the public when the banks reopened a few days later. He verbally promised people that the banks were now safe.

The US government created federal bank-depositor insurance in 1933. The Wikipedia article describes the Banking Act of 1933, which was signed into law in June:

  • Established the FDIC as a temporary government corporation
  • Gave the FDIC authority to provide deposit insurance to banks
  • Gave the FDIC the authority to regulate and supervise state non-member banks
  • Funded the FDIC with initial loans of $289 million through the U.S. Treasury

That stopped the bank runs. The money supply reversed. It went ballistic. So did the monetary base.

The key event was therefore the Banking Act of 1933. After that, the money supply never fell again. After that, prices never fell again by more than 1 percent. That was in 1955.

All it took for prices to reverse and rise was this: an expansion of the monetary base coupled with bank lending.

Yet deflationists ever since 1933 have predicted falling prices. They die predicting this. Then their successors die predicting this.

They never learn.

They do not understand monetary theory. They do not understand monetary history. They therefore do not learn. They do not correct their bad predictions, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation.

They still find people who believe them, people who also do not understand monetary theory or monetary history.

I have personally been arguing against them for four decades.

Price deflation has nothing to do with the fall in the price of stocks.

There can be monetary deflation as a result of excess reserves held at the Fed by commercial banks. But this is Fed policy. The Fed pays banks interest on the deposits. Even if it didn’t, there would still be excess reserves. But by imposing a fee on excess reserves, the Fed could eliminate excess reserves overnight. Then the money multiplier would go positive, price inflation would reappear, and the Fed would get blamed. So, it maintains a policy of restricting the M1 multiplier.

Every inflationist says that monetary inflation will produce hyperinflation unless reversed by the central bank. There will be a return to low prices after what Ludwig von Mises called the crack-up boom. The classic example is Germany in 1934. That was a matter of policy. The central bank substituted a new currency and stopped inflating.

John Exter — an old friend of mine — argued in the 1970s and 1980s that monetary deflation has to come, despite Fed policy. There will be a collapse of prices through deleveraging.

He was wrong. Why? Because it is not possible for depositors to take sufficient money in paper-currency notes out of banks and keep these notes out, thereby reversing the fractional-reserve process, thereby deflating the money supply. That was what happened in the United States from 1930 to 1933. If hoarders spend the notes, businesses will redeposit them in their banks. Only if they deal exclusively with other hoarders can they keep money out of banks. But the vast majority of all money transactions are based on digital money, not paper currency.

Today, large depositors can pull digital money out of bank A, but only by transferring it to bank B. Digits must be in a bank account at all times. There can be no decrease in the money supply for as long as money is digital. Hence, there can be no decrease in prices unless it is Fed policy to decrease prices. This was not true, 1930 to 1933.

Deflationists never respond to this argument by invoking either monetary theory or monetary history. You can and should ignore them until one of them does answer this, and all the others publicly say, “Yes. That’s it! We have waited since 1933 for this argument! I was blind, but now I see! I’m on board! I will sink or swim with this.”

Let me know when this happens. Until then, ignore the deflationists. All of them. (There are not many still standing.)

The fact that a new deflationist shows up is irrelevant. Anyone can predict inevitable price deflation. They keep doing this. Look for the refutation of the inflationists’ position. Look for a theory.

If you do not understand the case I have just made, you will not understand any refutation. In this case, just pay no attention to either side. If you cannot follow economic theory, the debate will confuse you. It’s not worth your time.

For background, see my book Mises on Money.

See also Murray Rothbard’s book What Has Government done to Our Money?

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money and Honest Money: The Biblical Blueprint for Money and Banking. He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. Visit his website: GaryNorth.com. Send him mail. See Gary North’s article archives.

This article originally appeared on GaryNorth.com.

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Copyright © 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

Let Unsound Money Wither Away – Article by Joseph T. Salerno

Let Unsound Money Wither Away – Article by Joseph T. Salerno

The New Renaissance Hat
Joseph T. Salerno
July 29, 2012
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[This is a revised version of written testimony submitted to the the Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology of the Committee on Financial Services, US House of Representatives “Fractional Reserve Banking and Central Banking as Sources of Economic Instability: The Sound Money Alternative,” June 28, 2012.]
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Chairman Paul and members of the subcommittee, I am deeply honored to appear before you to testify on the topic of fractional-reserve banking. Thank you for your invitation and attention.

In the short time I have, I will give a brief description of fractional reserve-banking, identify the problems it presents in the current institutional setting, and suggest a potential solution.

A bank is simply a business firm that issues claims to a fixed sum of money in receipt for a deposit of cash. These claims are payable on demand and without cost to the depositor. In today’s world these claims may take the form of checkable deposits, so called because they can be transferred to a third party by writing out a check payable to the party named on the check. They may also take the form of so-called “savings” deposits with limited or no checking privileges and that require withdrawal in person at one of the bank’s branches or at an ATM. In the United States, the cash for which the claim is redeemable are Federal Reserve notes — the “dollar bills” that we are all familiar with.

Fractional-reserve banking occurs when the bank lends or invests some of its depositors’ funds and retains only a fraction of the deposits in cash. This cash is the bank’s reserves. Hence the name fractional-reserve banking. All commercial banks and thrift institutions in the United States today engage in fractional–reserve banking.

Let me illustrate how fractional-reserve banking works with a simple example. Assume that a bank with deposits of $1 million makes $900,000 of loans and investments. If we ignore for simplicity the capital paid in by its owners, this bank is holding a cash reserve of 10 percent against its deposit liabilities. The deposits constitute the bank’s liabilities because the bank is contractually obligated to redeem them on demand. The assets of the bank are its reserves, loans, and investments. Bank reserves consist of the dollar bills in its vaults and ATMs and the bank’s deposits at the Federal Reserve, which can be cashed on demand for dollar bills printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at the order of the Fed. The bank’s loans and securities are noncash assets that are titles to sums of cash payable only in the near or distant future. These assets include short-term business loans, credit-card loans, mortgage loans, and the securities issued by the US Treasury and foreign financial authorities.

Now the key to understanding the nature of fractional-reserve banking and the problems it creates is to recognize that a bank deposit is not itself money. It is rather a “money substitute,” that is, a claim to standard money — dollar bills — universally regarded as perfectly secure.

Bank deposits transferred by check or debit card will be routinely paid and received in exchange in lieu of money only as long as the public does not have the slightest doubt that the bank that creates these deposits is able and willing to redeem them without delay or expense.

Under these circumstances, bank deposits are eagerly accepted and held by businesses and households and regarded as indistinguishable from cash itself. They are therefore properly included as part of the money supply, that is, the total supply of dollars in the economy.

The very nature of fractional-reserve banking, however, presents an immediate problem. On the one hand, all of a bank’s deposit liabilities mature on a daily basis, because it has promised to cash them in on demand. On the other, only a small fraction of its assets is available at any given moment to meet these liabilities. For example, during normal times, US banks effectively hold much less than 10 percent of deposits in cash reserves. The rest of a bank’s liabilities will only mature after a number of months, years, or, in the case of mortgage loans, even decades. In the jargon of economics, fractional-reserve banking always involves “term-structure risk,” which arises from the mismatching of the maturity profile of its liabilities with that of its assets.

In layman’s terms, banks “borrow short and lend long.” The problem is revealed when demands for withdrawal of deposits exceeds a bank’s existing cash reserves. The bank is then compelled to hastily sell off some of its longer-term assets, many of which are not readily saleable. It will thus incur big losses. This will cause a panic among the rest of its depositors who will scramble to withdraw their deposits before they become worthless. A classic bank run will ensue. At this point the value of the bank’s remaining assets will no longer be sufficient to pay off all its fixed-dollar deposit liabilities and the bank will fail.

A fractional-reserve bank, therefore, can only remain solvent for as long as public confidence exists that its deposits really are riskless claims on cash. If for any reason — real or imagined — the faintest suspicion arises among its clients that a bank’s deposits are no longer payable on demand, the bank’s reputation as an issuer of money substitutes vanishes overnight. The bank’s brand of money substitutes is then instantly extinguished and people rush to withdraw their deposits in cash — cash that no fractional-reserve bank can provide on demand in sufficient quantity. Thus the threat of brand extinction and insolvency is always looming over fractional-reserve banks.

In other words, a fractional-reserve bank must develop what Ludwig von Mises called a “special kind of good will” in order to create a clientele who treats their deposits as money substitutes. On a free market this kind of good will is very difficult and costly to acquire and maintain. This reputational asset is what induces a bank’s clients to forebear from immediately cashing in their deposit claims and driving the bank into instant insolvency. Of course to remain profitable the bank must also build up conventional business good will, which depends upon convenient geographical location, outstanding customer service, attractive facilities, the reputation of its management team and so on. But unlike the common form of good will essential to all successful business ventures, the good will that is necessary for a particular bank’s brand of deposits to circulate as money substitutes is indivisible. In almost all other industries, customer good will can be gained or lost in marginal units and does not typically vanish all at once, destroying its product brand and plunging the firm into immediate insolvency.

Ludwig von Mises described the loss of confidence in a bank’s solvency and the related phenomenon of brand extinction in the following terms:

The confidence which a bank and the money-substitutes it has issued enjoy is indivisible. It is either present with all its clients or it vanishes entirely. If some of the clients lose confidence the rest of them lose it too.… One must not forget that every bank issuing fiduciary media is in a rather precarious position. Its most valuable asset is its reputation. It must go bankrupt as soon as doubts arise concerning its perfect trustworthiness and solvency. [1]

The issuing of deposits not fully backed by cash is therefore always a precarious business on the free market. The slightest doubt about the bank’s solvency among even some of its clients will instantly destroy the character of its deposits as money substitutes. Furthermore, the loss of confidence that causes this phenomenon of “brand extinction” is the cause and not the result of a run on the bank and cannot be deterred by a high ratio of reserves to deposits. For under fractional-reserve banking, by definition, reserves are always insufficient to pay off all the demand liabilities that the bank has incurred. In fact the level of cash reserves is not directly relevant to the stability of a bank. It is simply one of several factors that a bank’s clients take into account in forming their subjective judgment concerning whether a bank’s brand of notes and deposits are or are not money substitutes. For example in the 19th century the ratio of gold reserves to notes and deposits of the Bank of England are reported to have been as low as 3 percent, yet it was generally regarded as one of the most stable financial institutions in the world.

The peculiar and overriding importance of public confidence in sustaining fractional-reserve banking was particularly emphasized by Murray N. Rothbard:

But in what sense is a bank “sound” when one whisper of doom, one faltering of public confidence, should quickly bring the bank down? In what other industry does a mere rumor or hint of doubt bring down a mighty and seemingly solid firm? What is it about banking that public confidence should play such a decisive and overwhelmingly important role? The answer lies in the nature of our banking system, in the fact that both commercial banks and thrift banks have been systematically engaging in fractional-reserve banking: that is, they have far less cash on hand than there are demand claims to cash outstanding.[2]

Rothbard’s point about the extreme fragility of public confidence in issuers of fractionally-backed money substitutes is well illustrated by the stunning collapse of Washington Mutual (WaMu) in September 2008, the largest bank failure in United States history. WaMu had been in existence for 119 years and was the sixth-largest bank in the United States with assets of $307 billion. It had branches throughout the country and billed itself as the Walmart of banking. It was one of the top performers on Wall Street until shortly before its failure. Its depositors clearly had enormous confidence in its solidity, especially given that its deposits were insured by the federal government reinforced by the existence of the Fed’s “too-big-to-fail” policy. And yet, almost overnight the special good will that gave its deposits the quality of money substitutes vanished as panic-stricken depositors rushed to withdraw their funds. The unlikely event that triggered the sudden loss of confidence and subsequent brand extinction was the failure of Lehman Brothers, a venerable investment house. A week after Lehman failed, mighty WaMu was no more.

The highly publicized Lehman Brothers failure had shaken public confidence in the solvency not only of WaMu but of the entire banking system. Had the Fed and Treasury not acted aggressively to bail out the largest banks in the fall of 2008, there is no doubt that the entire system would have collapsed in short order. Indeed on a single day in December, the combined emergency lending by the Fed and the US Treasury had risen to a peak of $1.2 trillion. The recipients of these billions included some of the most trusted and reputable brand names in banking: Citibank, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, as well as European banks like the Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS AG. Without this unprecedented bailout, these discredited brand names would have been relegated to the dustbin of business history

The ever-present threat of insolvency is a relatively minor problem with fractional-reserve banks, however. Its effects are restricted to the bank’s stockholders, creditors, and depositors who voluntarily assume the peculiar risks involved in this business.

The major problems with fractional-reserve banking are its harmful effects on the overall economy caused by the related phenomena of inflation and business cycles.

First, fractional-reserve banking is inherently inflationary. When a bank lends out its clients’ deposits, it inevitably expands the money supply. For example, when people deposit an additional $100,000 of cash in the bank, depositors now have an additional $100,000 in their checking accounts while the bank accumulates an additional $100,000 of cash (dollar bills) in its vaults. The total money supply, which includes both dollar bills in circulation among the public and dollar balances in bank deposits, has not changed. The depositors have reduced the amount of cash in circulation by $100,000, which is now stored in the bank’s vaults, but they have increased the total deposit balance that they may draw on by check or debit card by the exact same amount. Suppose now the loan officers of the bank lend out $90,000 of this added cash to businesses and consumers and maintain the remaining $10,000 on reserve against the $100,000 of new deposits. These loans increase the money supply by $90,000 because, while the original depositors have the extra $100,000 still available on deposit, the borrowers now have an extra $90,000 of the cash they did not have before.

The expansion of the money supply does not stop here however, for when the borrowers spend the borrowed cash to buy goods or to pay wages, the recipients of these dollars redeposit some or all of these dollars in their own banks, which in turn lend out a proportion of these new deposits. Through this process, bank-deposit dollars are created and multiplied far beyond the amount of the initial cash deposits. (Given the institutional conditions in the United States today, each dollar of currency deposited in a bank can increase the US money supply by a maximum of $10.00.) As the additional deposit dollars are spent, prices in the economy progressively rise, and the inevitable result is inflation, with all its associated deleterious effects on the economy.

Fractional-reserve banking inflicts another great harm on the economy. In order to induce businesses and consumers to borrow the additional dollars created, banks must reduce interest rates below the market-equilibrium level determined by the amount of voluntary savings in the economy. Businesses are misled by the artificially low interest rates into borrowing to expand their facilities or undertake new long-term investment projects of various kinds. But the prospective profitability of these undertakings depends on expectations that bank credit will remain cheap more or less indefinitely. Consumers, too, are deceived by the lower interest rates and rush to purchase larger residences or vacation homes. They take out second mortgages on their homes to buy big-ticket luxury items. A false economic boom begins that is doomed to turn into a bust as soon as interest rates begin to rise again.

As the inflationary boom progresses and prices rise, the demand for credit becomes more intense at the same time that more cash is withdrawn from bank deposits to finance the purchase of everyday goods. The banks react to these developments by sharply raising interest rates and contracting loans and deposits, causing a decline in the money supply. Indeed the money supply may very well collapse, as it did in the early 1930s, because the public loses confidence in the banks and demands it deposits back in cash. In this case, a series of bank runs ensue that pushes many fractional-reserve banks into insolvency and instantly extinguishes their money substitutes, which had previously circulated as part of the money supply. Recession and deflation results and the binge of bad investments and overconsumption is starkly revealed in the abandoned construction projects, empty commercial buildings, and foreclosed homes that litter the economic landscape. At the end of the recession it turns out that almost all households and business firms are made poorer by fractional-reserve bank-credit expansion, even those who may have initially gained from the inflation.

Inflation and the boom-bust cycles generated by fractional-reserve banking are enormously intensified by Federal Reserve and US-government interference with the banking industry. Indeed, this interference is justified by economists and policymaker precisely because of the instability of the fractional-reserve system. The most dangerous forms of such interference are the power of the Federal Reserve to create bank reserves out of thin air via open market operations, its use of these phony reserves to bail out failing banks in its role as a lender of last resort, and federal insurance of bank deposits. In the presence of such polices, the deposits of all banks are perceived and trusted by the public as one homogeneous brand of money substitute fully guaranteed by the Federal government and backed up by the Fed’s power to print up bank reserves at will and bail out insolvent banks. Under the current monetary regime, there is thus absolutely no check on the natural propensity of fractional-reserve banks to mismatch the maturity profiles of their assets and liabilities, to expand credit and deposits, and to artificially depress interest rates. Without fundamental change in the US monetary system, the growth of bubbles in various sectors of the economy and subsequent financial crises will continue unabated.

The solution is to treat banking as any other business and permit it to operate on the free market — a market completely free of government guarantees of bank deposits and of the possibility of Fed bailouts. In order to achieve the latter, federal deposit insurance must be phased out and the Fed would have to be permanently and credibly deprived of its legal power to create bank reserves out of nothing. The best way to do this is to establish a genuine gold standard in which gold coins would circulate as cash and serve as bank reserves; at the same time the Fed must be stripped of its authority to issue notes and conduct open-market operations. Also, banks would once again be legally enabled to issue their own brands of notes, as they were in the 19th and early 20th century.

Once this mighty rollback of government intervention in banking is accomplished, each fractional-reserve bank would be rigidly constrained by public confidence when issuing money substitutes. One false step — one questionable loan, one imprudent emission of unbacked notes and deposits — would cause instant brand extinction of its money substitutes, a bank run, and insolvency.

In fact on the banking market as I have described it, I foresee the ever-present threat of insolvency compelling banks to refrain from further lending of their deposits payable on demand. This means that if a bank wished to make loans of shorter or longer maturity, they would do so by issuing credit instruments whose maturities matched the loans. Thus for short-term business lending they would issue certificates of deposits with maturities of three or six months. To finance car loans they might issue three-year or four-year short bonds. Mortgage lending would be financed by five- or ten-year bonds. Without government institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — backed by the Fed’s money-creating power — implicitly guaranteeing mortgages, mortgage loans would probably be transformed into shorter five- or ten-year balloon loans, as they were until the 1930s. The bank may retain an option to roll over a mortgage loan when it comes due pending a reevaluation of the mortgagor’s current financial situation and recent credit history as well as the general economic environment. In short, on a free market, fractional-reserve banking with all its inherent problems would slowly wither away.

Notes

[1] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Scholar’s Ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), pp. 442, 444.

[2] Murray N. Rothbard, Making Economic Sense, 2nd ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), p. 326.

Joseph Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He has been interviewed in the Austrian Economics Newsletter and on Mises.org. Send him mail. See Joseph T. Salerno’s article archives.

This is a revised version of written testimony submitted to the the Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology of the Committee on Financial Services, US House of Representatives “Fractional Reserve Banking and Central Banking as Sources of Economic Instability: The Sound Money Alternative,” June 28, 2012.

You can subscribe to future articles by Joseph T. Salerno via this RSS feed.

Copyright © 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

Casino Banking – Article by Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr.

Casino Banking – Article by Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr.

The New Renaissance Hat
Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr.
July 15, 2012
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JPMorgan Chase & Co., one of the nation’s leading banks, revealed in May that a London trader racked up losses reportedly amounting to $2.3 billion over a 15-day period. The losses averaged over $150 million per day, sometimes hitting $200 million daily. The bank originally stated the trades were done to hedge possible losses on assets that might suffer due to Europe’s economic woes. There is now doubt whether it was a hedge or just a risky financial bet.

A hedge is a financial transaction designed to offset possible losses in an asset or good already owned. The classic hedge occurs when a farmer sells his crop in a futures market for delivery at a specified date after harvesting. He sells today what he will only produce tomorrow, and locks in the price. If the price at harvest time is lower than today’s price, he makes money on the forward contract, while losing a corresponding amount of money on the crops in the ground. In a perfect hedge the gains and losses should exactly offset each other.

How did JPMorgan suffer such large losses on its hedges, and what are the lessons?

It appears the London trader entered into financial transactions on the basis of observed relationships among various bond indices. The market relationships broke down. The indices moved differently from what historical patterns or financial models predicted. Such a breakdown has been at the heart of a number of spectacular financial collapses, notably that of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) in 1998 and a number of others during the financial meltdown of 2007–08.

LTCM invested the money of rich clients in financial bets based on the expected relationships among the prices of various assets. According to Nicole Gelinas in After the Fall: Saving Capitalism from Wall Street—and Washington, at the time of its collapse LTCM had $2.3 billion of client money. By borrowing, it leveraged that investment 53 to 1. Further, it employed derivatives to further magnify its bets so that its total obligations were a fantastic $1.25 trillion.

A derivative is any security whose price movements depend on (are derived from) movements in an underlying asset. “Puts” and “calls” on equity shares are relatively simple derivatives familiar to many. Asset prices, like various bonds, move in predictable ways with respect to each other, and values of derivatives linked to the assets similarly move in a predictable fashion with respect to the prices of the underlying assets—in normal times.

But the summer of 1998 was not a normal time. There was turmoil in Asian financial markets, then Russia threatened to default on its domestic debt. Global credit and liquidity dried up, and LTCM could not fund itself. It collapsed spectacularly.

A decade later there was turmoil in housing finance. The housing bubble was bursting. Mortgage lenders were under pressure, and some were failing. Many mortgages had been packed together in mortgage-backed securities, which were sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie, allegedly private entities but in reality guaranteed by the government, were failing. Lehman Brothers, an investment bank, was heavily involved in housing finance; it borrowed short-term, even overnight, to finance long-term holdings; it employed heavy leverage; and it made liberal use of derivatives contracts. It declared bankruptcy on September 15, 2008.

The specifics varied between 1998 and 2008, and between LTCM and Lehman. But the reliance on certain asset prices moving in predictable fashion was one shared element. So, too, was the heavy use of borrowed money (leverage) and the reliance on derivatives contracts. The volatility of complex derivatives contracts led legendary investor Warren Buffett to characterize them as “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

The Usual Suspects

In short there is nothing new in what happened to JPMorgan. It claimed it was not trying to make risky financial bets, but hedge risks already booked on its balance sheet. While details of the trades that led to losses are sketchy at this writing, they apparently employed both leverage and derivatives. As documented here, these are elements present in major financial blowups and collapses going back decades (and further). LTCM, Lehman, and Fannie and Freddie all thought they had at least some of their risks hedged. But hedges have a tendency to unravel just when needed most: in times of financial turmoil. Even so, financial institutions permit their traders to make the same kinds of dangerous bets over and over again. We used to have financial crises every decade or so. Now the cycle seems to be halved.

In the past I have dubbed today’s banking practice of placing dangerous financial bets “casino banking.” It differs little from the activities conducted at gaming tables in Las Vegas and has little or no reference to the fundamentally healthy activity of matching viable businesses with capital and credit.

In a Cato Policy Analysis, “Capital Inadequacies: The Dismal Failure of the Basel Regime of Bank Capital Regulation,” Kevin Dowd and three coauthors examined some of the technical problems with standard risk models used by large banks. It is an exhaustive analysis, and I commend it to those interested. The authors delve into many issues, but concentrate on the many flaws of the complex mathematical models used by banks to control risks.

In August 2007 Goldman Sachs Chief Financial Officer David Viniar puzzled over a series of “25-standard deviation moves” in financial markets affecting Goldman. (Returns deviated from their expected values by 25 standard deviations, a measure of volatility.) Such moves should occur once every 10-to-the-137th-power years if the assumptions of the risk model were correct (a Gaussian, or “normal,” distribution of returns). As Dowd and his coauthors put it, “Such an event is about as likely as Hell freezing over. The occurrence of even a single such event is therefore conclusive proof that financial returns are not Gaussian—or even remotely so.” And yet there were several in a matter of days. In Dowd & Co.’s telling, the models lie, the banks swear to it, and the regulators pretend to believe them. All of this goes to answer how the losses at Morgan might have happened. Traders rely on flawed models to execute their trades.

Now to the Lessons

Major financial institutions continue to take on large risks. Why? Assume the trades made by Morgan really were to hedge the bank’s exposure to events in Europe. That implies, of course, that risky investments had already been put in place (since they then needed to be hedged). Additionally, the risks were so complex that even a highly skilled staff (which Morgan certainly employs) could not successfully execute hedges on them.

Reports indicate that senior management and the board of directors were aware of the trades and exercising oversight. The fact that the losses were incurred anyway confirms what many of us have been arguing. Major financial institutions are at once very large and very complex. They are too large and too complex to manage. That is in part what beset Citigroup in the 2000s and now Morgan, which has until now been recognized as a well-managed institution.

If ordinary market forces were at work, these institutions would shrink to manageable sizes and levels of complexity. Ordinary market forces are not at work, however. Public policy rewards size (and the complexity that accompanies it). Major financial institutions know from experience that they will be bailed out when they incur losses that threaten their survival. Morgan’s losses do not appear to fall into that category, but they illustrate how bad incentives lead to bad outcomes.

Minding Our Business

Some commentators have argued that politicians and the public have no business in Morgan’s losses. Only Morgan’s stockholders, who saw its share price drop over 9 percent in one day, and senior management and traders who lost their jobs should have an interest. But in fact losses incurred at major financial institutions are the business of taxpayers because government policy has made them their business.

Large financial institutions will continue taking on excessive risks so long as they know they can offload the losses onto taxpayers if needed. That is the policy summarized as “too big to fail.” Let us not forget the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2008. It was a $700 billion boondoggle to transfer taxpayer money to stockholders and creditors of major banks—and to their senior management; don’t forget the bonuses paid out of the funds.

Banks may be too big and complex to close immediately, but no institution is too big to fail. Failure means the stockholders and possibly the bondholders are wiped out. Until that discipline is reintroduced (having once existed), there will be more big financial bets going bad at these banks.

Changing the bailout policy will not be easy because of what is known as the time-inconsistency problem. Having bailed out so many companies so many times, the federal government cannot credibly commit in advance not to do so in the future. It can say no to future bailouts today, but people know that when financial collapse hits tomorrow, government will say yes once again. The promises made today will not match the government’s future actions. There is inconsistency between words and deeds across time.

What to do in the meantime? The Volcker Rule was a modest attempt to rein in risk-taking. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker wanted to stop banks from making risky trades on their own books (as opposed to executing trades for customers). Industry lobbying has hopelessly complicated the rule and delayed its issuance.

Morgan’s chief executive officer, James Dimon, asserted the London trades would not have violated the rule. If true, it suggests that an even stronger rule needs to be in place. Various suggestions have been made to address excessive risk-taking by financial firms backed by the taxpayers. It is time to take them more seriously.

Gerald O’Driscoll is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. With Mario J. Rizzo, he coauthored The Economics of Time and Ignorance.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.