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Is the Auto-Loan Bubble Ready to Pop? – Article by Tommy Behnke

Is the Auto-Loan Bubble Ready to Pop? – Article by Tommy Behnke

The New Renaissance HatTommy Behnke

On Tuesday, it was announced that over seventeen million new vehicles were sold in 2015, the highest it’s ever been in United States history.

While the media claims that this record has been reached because of drastic improvements to the US economy, they are once again failing to account for the central factor: credit expansion.

When interest rates are kept artificially low, individuals are misled into spending more than they otherwise would. In hindsight, they discover that their judgment errors wreaked havoc on their financial well-being.

This is a lesson that the country should have learned from the Subprime Crisis of 2008. Excessive credit creation led too many individuals to buy homes, build homes, and invest in the housing industry. This surge in artificial demand temporarily spiked prices, resulting in over four million foreclosed homes and the killing of over nine million US jobs.

Instead of learning from the mistakes that sent shock waves throughout most of the planet, the Federal Reserve has continued with its expansionist policies. Since 2009, the money supply has increased by four trillion, while the federal funds rate has remained at or near zero percent. Consequently, the housing bubble has been replaced with several other bubbles, including one in the automotive industry.

Automotive companies have taken advantage of the cheap borrowing costs, increasing vehicle production by over 100 percent since 2009:

Behnke 1_0Source: OICA

In order to generate more vehicle purchases, these companies have incentivized consumers with hot, hard-to-resist offers, similar to the infamous “liar loans” and “no-money down” loans of the 2008 recession. Dealerships have increased spending on sales incentives by 14 percent since last year alone, and the banners in their shops now proudly proclaim their acceptance of any and all loan applications — “No Credit. Bad Credit. All Credit. 100 Percent Approval.” As a result, auto loans have increased by nearly $80 billion since 2009, many of which have been given to individuals with far-from-stellar credit scores. Today, almost 20 percent of all auto loans are given to individuals with credit scores below 620:

Behnke 2.pngSource: New York Fed

Not only are more auto loans being originated, but they are also increasing in duration. The average loan term is now sixty-seven months (that’s 5.58 years) for new cars and sixty-two (that’s 5.16 years) months for used cars. Both are record numbers.

Average transaction prices for new and used cars are also at their record highs. Used car prices have increased by nearly 25 percent since 2009, while new car prices have increased by over 15 percent. Part of this has to do with the increasing demand for cars generated by the upsurge in auto loans. The main reason, however, is that consumers — taking advantage of the accessibility of cheap credit — are purchasing more expensive body styles. This follows the housing bubble trend, when the median size of a newly built single-family home rose to 2,272 square feet at the start of 2007.

We all know the end result of the Great Recession — prices soared, millions of houses were foreclosed, and unemployment surged. Demand for homes then plummeted, and home prices ultimately dropped by 20 percent each month.

The auto bubble has yet to burst, but its negative effects are already starting to gradually appear. For one, delinquencies on car loans have increased by nearly 120 percent, from just over 1 percent in 2010 to 2.62 percent in 2014. Since cars rapidly depreciate in value, this number is projected to spike. By the time these six, seven, and eight year no-money down loans are due to be paid in full, many of these vehicles won’t be worth paying off anymore — maintenance and loan costs will start exceeding the value of the cars.

According to the Center for Responsible Lending, one in every six title-loan borrowers is already facing repossession fees. If defaults sharply increase in the coming years as projected, the market will become flooded with used cars, and their prices will, with near certainty, fall to a significant degree.

At a time when labor force participation is at its lowest level since 1977 — at a time when real wages are rising less than they have since at least the 1980s — it is imperative that the Federal Reserve stop misleading individuals into making irrational investments. The economy is simply too frail to continue weathering these endless business cycles. Economists, politicians, and the general populace need to start learning from their economic history so they can begin recognizing that favoring debt over thrift isn’t beneficial to the country’s financial well-being. Failure to do so will simply lead to more bubbles, more malinvestment, and more economic headaches in the years to come.

Tommy Behnke is an economics major and Mises University alumnus.

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

The Imperative of Technological Progress: Why Stagnation Will Necessarily Lead to Disaster and How Techno-Optimism Can Overcome It – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The Imperative of Technological Progress: Why Stagnation Will Necessarily Lead to Disaster and How Techno-Optimism Can Overcome It – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance HatG. Stolyarov II
August 14, 2015

“He who moves not forward, goes backward.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It is both practically desirable and morally imperative for individuals and institutions in the so-called “developed” world to strive for a major acceleration of technological progress within the proximate future. Such technological progress can produce radical abundance and unparalleled improvements in both length and quality of life – whose possibilities Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler outlined in their 2012 book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. Moreover, major technological progress is the only way to overcome a devastating step backward in human civilization, which will occur if the protectionist tendencies and pressures of existing elites are allowed to freeze the status quo in place.

If the approximate technological and economic status quo persists, massive societal disintegration looms on the horizon. A Greece-style crisis of national-government expenditures may occur as some have predicted, but would only be a symptom of a greater problem. The fundamental driver of crisis since at least September 11, 2001, and more acutely since the Great Recession and the national-government bailouts of legacy financial and manufacturing institutions, is an increasing disconnect between the powerful and everybody else. The powerful – i.e., the politically connected, including the special interests of the “private sector” – seek to protect their positions through political barriers, at the expense of individual rights, upward social mobility, and economic/technological progress. Individuals from a relatively tiny politically connected elite caused the 2008 financial crisis, lobbied for and received unprecedented bailouts and lifelines for the firms whose misbehavior exacerbated the crisis, and then have attempted to rig the political “rules of the game” to prevent themselves from being unseated from positions of wealth and influence by the dynamics of market competition. The system created by these elites has been characterized by various observers as crony capitalism, corporatism, corporate fascism, neo-mercantilism, and a neo-Medieval guild system.

The deleterious influence of the politically connected today is reflected in the still-massive rates of unemployment and underemployment for the millennial generation, while many established industries fail to make openings for young people to ascend and fail to accommodate the emerging technologies with which young people thrive. While the millennial generation had nothing to do with the Great Recession, it has suffered its greatest fallout. Many millennials now encounter tremendous diminution in economic opportunity and living standards (think of young people in New York City paying several thousand dollars a month to share a tiny, century-old apartment among three people – or the emerging trend of shipping containers being converted into the only type of affordable housing for young people in San Francisco). The “Occupy” movement was a reflection of the resulting discontentment – a reflexive and indiscriminate backlash by young people who knew that their circumstances were unjustly bad, but did not understand the root causes or the culprits.

The only way for a crisis to be averted is for the current elites to stop blocking people from the millennial generation from opportunities to achieve upward mobility. The elite must also stop bailing out obsolete and poorly managed legacy institutions, and cease erecting protectionist barriers to the existence of innovative businesses that young people can and have tried to start. If the millennial generation continues to be shut out of the kinds of opportunities available to the preceding generation, however, I can envision two crisis scenarios. Each of these characterizations is not a prediction (but rather a nightmare which I hope can be avoided), is somewhat broad and, of course, is tentative. However, these scenarios are rough outlines of how the West could falter in the absence of significant technological progress.

Crisis Scenario 1: “Occupy” Times Ten: Millions of unemployed thirty-somethings (millennials in five to ten years) riot in the streets, indiscriminately destroying storefronts and setting cars alight. Economic activity and sophisticated production are ground to a halt because of the turmoil. The continuity of knowledge transfer and intergenerational symbiosis involved in human civilization are completely interrupted. Clashes with police create martyrs who are then invoked by opportunistic thugs as an excuse to loot and burn. Without the opportunity for peaceful economic cooperation, society degenerates into armed gangs, some left-wing (e.g., “Black Bloc” violent anarchists), others right-wing (e.g., survivalist militia groups). Thoughtful and intellectual people, who want the violence to end and see an imperfect peace as better than a war of all against all, are universally despised by the new tribes and cannot find a safe environment in which to work and innovate. The infrastructure of everyday life is critically damaged, and nobody maintains or repairs it. Roads, bridges, pipes, and electrical grids are either destroyed or become unusable after years of decay. The West becomes Ukraine writ large, eventually regressing into premodernity.

Crisis Scenario 2: The Reaction: Current political and crony-capitalist elites crack down with extreme force, either in response to actual riots or, more likely, to the threat thereof. Civil liberties are obliterated and an economic underclass enforced through deliberate restrictions on entry into any remunerative occupations – much like the 17th-century mercantilists advocated for maximum wages and prohibitions on perceived luxuries for the working classes. Those who do get jobs are required to work 60 or more hours per week and so have no time for anything else in life. All established industries are maintained in their current form through legal protections and bailouts, and there is an official policy that the structure of the economy must not be allowed to change for any reason. (Think of Directive 10-289 from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.) Licensing requirements for professions become ubiquitous and burdensome, laden with Catch-22 provisions so that few or no new entrants can make it into the system. Only an elite cadre of Baby Boomers enjoys wealth and uses the force of legal entry barriers to prevent anyone else from having the opportunity to earn their own. They have ground technological progress to a halt, seeking to keep established business models in place and thwart all competition. The national government develops a massive spying capability and enforces social order through the ability to detect behaviors that might even be algorithmically correlated with dissent. All ordinary citizens are routinely humiliated in public under the pretense of thwarting crime or terrorism. TSA body searches have expanded beyond airports to highway checkpoints, shopping centers, and random stops by police on city streets. People’s homes are routinely raided by SWAT teams at the mildest pretext. This is done to make people meek and subservient to the established order. To keep young people from rioting (and get rid of the “excess” unemployed youths), the elites concoct jingoistic justifications to inflame endless foreign wars, and young people are conscripted and sent to die abroad. If any of these wars aggravate the regimes of either Russia or China, this scenario has the added risk of putting the world back on the verge of nuclear conflict. The fast-senescing crony-capitalist elites have cut off future biomedical progress and so will die eventually, but only the children of the elite will inherit any wealth. A neo-feudal oligarchy is established and becomes gradually ossified throughout the generations, while the industrial and technological base built over the past 200 years, as a legacy of the Enlightenment and individual rights, will deteriorate, eventually bringing the West back into premodernity.

I see an ossification of the status quo as leading to one or both of the above crisis scenarios. A return of premodernity is the logical conclusion of the dynamics of a fundamentally unaltered status quo. If humankind does not move technologically forward, it will go backward in a spiral of destruction and repression.

The only way for either crisis scenario to be averted is for technological progress to occur at no slower than the rates experienced during the twentieth century. Overt political revolution, even if it begins peacefully, is dangerous. To understand why this is so, one needs look no further than the recent Arab Spring uprisings – initially motivated by liberally minded dissidents and ordinary people who could no longer tolerate corrupt dictatorships, but ultimately hijacked by Islamist militants, military juntas, or both. A case even closer to the contemporary Western world is the recent Maidan revolution in Ukraine, which, while initially motivated by peaceful and well-intentioned pro-European activists, replaced a corrupt regime that occasionally persecuted dissidents with a fiercely militant, nationalistic regime that tolerates no dissent, engages in coercive historical revisionism, prohibits criticism of Nazi and neo-Nazi thugs, conscripts some of its citizens to die in civil war, and indiscriminately shells others of its citizens in the East. Revolutions always have the potential of replacing a lethargically bad regime with an aggressively destructive one.

This is why it is better for any societal transformation to be driven primarily by technological and economic development, rather than by political turmoil. The least turbulent transformations should be somewhat gradual and at least grudgingly accepted by the existing elites, who need to be willing to alter their own composition and accept bright minds from any background – not just their own progeny. A sufficient rate of technological advancement – especially due to the growth in 3D printing, robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, genetic engineering, vertical farming, and renewable energy – can ensure near-universal abundance within a generation, untethered from permission-granting institutions to which most people today owe a living. Such prosperity would enable most people to experience what are today upper-middle-class living standards, therefore having no motivation to riot. Technological progress can also preserve individual liberty by continually creating new spheres where politicians and lobbyists are incapable of control and individuals can outmaneuver most political restrictions.

Technological progress, particularly radical extension of the human lifespan through periodic rejuvenation that can restore the body to a more youthful condition, is also the only hope for remedying unsustainable expenditures of national governments, which are presently primarily intended to support people’s income and healthcare needs in old age. Rejuvenation biotechnology of the sort championed by Dr. Aubrey de Grey’s SENS Research Foundation could be developed with sufficient investment into the research, and could become disseminated by biotechnology entrepreneurs, ensuring that older people do not become decrepit or incapable of productive work as they age. The only way to sustainably extend average lifespans past about 85 years would be to turn back the clock of biological aging. It is not possible for most people (who do not have some degree of genetic luck) to live much longer beyond that without also becoming more youthful.

Many people who receive rejuvenation treatments will not want to retire – at least not from all work – if they still feel the vitality of youth. They will seek out activities to support human well-being and high living standards, even if they have saved enough money to consider it unnecessary to take a regular 8-to-5 job. With the vitality of youth combined with the experience of age, these people will be able to make sophisticated, persistent contributions to human civilization and will tend to plan for the longer term, as compared to most people today. If automation takes care of basic human needs, then human labor will be freed for more creative and fulfilling tasks.

Effective rejuvenation will not arrive right away, but immigration can keep the demographic disparity between the young and the old from being a severe problem in the meantime. This is another reason to reject protectionist policies and instead pursue approaches that allow more people to contribute to and benefit from the material prosperity of the “developed” world. Birth rates tend to fall anywhere there are major rises in standards of living after an industrial revolution, as children stop becoming productive helpers in an agricultural economy and instead become expensive to raise and educate so that they can participate in a knowledge-based economy. However, birth rates are still higher in many less-developed parts of the world, and people from those areas will readily seek opportunities for economic advancement in more developed countries, if given the option.

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope that the path of gradual embrace of ever-accelerating progress will be the one taken in the early-21st-century Western world. The best outcome would be for an existing elite to facilitate mechanisms for its own evolution by offering people of merit but from humble backgrounds a place in real decision-making.

Some of that evolution can occur through market competition – new, upstart businesses displacing incumbents and gradually amassing significant resources themselves. The best instantiation of this in the United States today is the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial culture – which, incidentally, tends to finance the majority of longevity research. The most massive infusion of funds into longevity-related research has been from an offshoot of Google – Calico – founded in 2013 and currently partnering with a large pharmaceutical company, AbbVie. Calico has been somewhat secretive as to the details of its research, but there are other large businesses that are beginning to invest in similar endeavors – e.g., Craig Venter’s Human Longevity, Inc. Moreover, the famous libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel has given millions of dollars to Dr. Aubrey de Grey’s SENS Research Foundation – a smaller-scale organization but perhaps the most ambitious in its goals to bring about a reversal of human senescence through advances in rejuvenation treatments within the next quarter-century.

These developments are evidence that the United States today is characterized not by one elite, but by several – and the old “Paper Belt” elite is clearly in conflict with the new Silicon Valley elite. Politicians tend, surprisingly, not to be the most decisive players in this conflict, since they typically depend on harnessing pre-existing cultural currents in order to get elected and stay in office. Thus, they will tend to side with whatever issues and special interests they consider to be gaining ground at a given time. For this reason, many thinkers have characterized politics as a lagging indicator, responding to rather than triggering the defining events of an era. The politicians ride the currents to power, but something else creates those currents.

Differences in the breadth of vision among elites also matter. For instance, breakthroughs in human longevity could actually be a great boon for medical providers and the first pharmaceutical companies that offer effective products/treatments. Even the most ambitious proponents of life extension do not think it possible to develop a magic immortality pill. Rather, the treatments involved (which will be quite expensive at first) would require periodic regeneration of the cells and tissues within a person’s body – essentially resetting the biological clock every decade or so, while further innovation uncovers ways to reverse the damage more cheaply, safely, and effectively. This is a field ripe with opportunities for enterprising doctors, researchers, and engineers (while, at the same time, certainly endangering many extant business models). Some government officials, if they are sufficiently perceptive, could also be persuaded to support these changes – if only because they could prevent a catastrophic collapse of Social Security and Medicare. Approximately 30% of Medicare expenditures occur during the last year of patients’ lives, when the body is often fighting back multiple ailments in a losing battle. If this situation were simply prevented in the first place, and if most people became biologically young again and fully capable of working for a living or financing their own retirements, the expenses of both Social Security and Medicare could plummet until these programs became wholly unnecessary in the eyes of most voters.

The key to achieving a freer, more prosperous, and longer-lived future is to educate both elites and the general public to accurately weigh the opportunities and risks of emerging technologies. Too many individuals today, both elites and ordinary people, view technological progress with suspicion, conjuring in their minds every possible dystopian scenario and every possible malfunction, inconvenience, lost opportunity, moral reservation, or esthetic dislike they can muster against breakthroughs in life extension, artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and many other areas of advancement that could vastly benefit us all. This techno-skeptical mindset is the biggest obstacle for proponents of progress and a better future to overcome. Fortunately, we do not need to be elites to play important roles in overcoming it. By simply arguing the techno-optimist case and educating people from all walks of life about the tremendous beneficial potential of emerging technologies, we can each do our part to ensure that the 21st century will become known as an era of humankind’s great liberation from its age-old limitations, and not a lurch back into the bog of premodern barbarism.

If we have a modicum of technological progress, the West might be able to muddle through the next several decades. If we have an acceleration of technological progress, the West will leave its current problems in the dust. The outcome will be a question of whether people (both elites and ordinary citizens) are, on balance, held hostage to the fear of the new or, rather, willing to try out technological alternatives to the status quo in the hopes of achieving improvement in their lives.

This essay may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.
The Japanese Deflation Myth and the Yen’s Slump – Article by Brendan Brown

The Japanese Deflation Myth and the Yen’s Slump – Article by Brendan Brown

The New Renaissance Hat
Brendan Brown
October 4, 2014

The slide of the yen since late summer has brought it to a level some 40 percent lower against the euro and US dollar than just two years go. Yet still Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his central bank chief Haruhiko Kuroda warn that they have not won the battle against deflation. That caution is absurd — all the more so in view of the fact that there was no deflation in the first place.

Some cynics suggest that Abe’s and Haruhiko’s battle cry against this phoney phantom is simply a ruse to gain Washington’s acquiescence in a big devaluation. But whatever the truth about their real intent, Japan’s monetary chaos is deepening.

Japanese Prices Have Been Stable

The CPI in Japan at the peak of the last cycle in 2007 was virtually at the same level as at the trough of the post-bubble recession in 1992, and up a few percentage points from the 1989 cycle peak. Hence, Japan alone has enjoyed the sort of price stability as might be enjoyed in a gold-standard world. Prices have fallen during recessions or during periods of especially-rapid terms-of-trade improvement or productivity growth. They have risen during cyclical booms or at times of big increases in the price of oil.

If price-indices in Japan were adjusted fully to take account of quality improvements they would have been falling slightly throughout, but that would also have been the case under the gold standard and was fully consistent with economic prosperity.

yenslumpSuch swings in prices are wholly benign. For example, lower prices during recession coupled with expectation of higher prices in expansion induce businesses and households to spend more. A valid criticism of the Japanese price experience of the past two decades has been that these swings have lacked vigour due to various rigidities. Particularly valid is the claim that price falls should have been larger during the post-bubble recession of 1990-93 and subsequent potential for recovery would have been correspondingly larger.

Prices in Japan did fall steeply during the Great Recession (2008-10) but the perceived potential for recovery was squeezed by the Obama Monetary Experiment (the Fed’s QE) which meant an immediate slide of the US dollar. It was in response to the related spike of the yen that Prime Minister Abe prepared his counter-stroke. This involved importing the same deflation-phobic inflation-targeting policies that the Obama Federal Reserve was pursuing. Washington could hardly criticize Tokyo for imitating its own monetary experiment.

Deflation and “The Lost Decade”

The architects of the Obama Monetary Experiment have cited as justification Japan’s “lost decade” and the supposed source in deflation. In fact, though, the only period during which the Japanese economy underperformed other advanced economies (as measured by the growth of GDP per capita) was from 1992-97. The underperformance of that period had everything to do with insufficient price and wage flexibility downward, the Clinton currency war, and the vast malinvestment wrought by the prior asset price inflation, coupled with a risk-appetite in Japan shrunken by the recent experience of bust.

Moreover, as time went on, from the early 1990s, huge investment into the Tokyo equity market from abroad compensated for ailing domestic risk appetites. Yes, Japan’s economy could have performed better than the average of its OECD peers if progress had been made in de-regulation, and if Japan had had a better-designed framework of monetary stability to insulate itself from the Greenspan-Bernanke asset price inflation virus of the years 2002-07. (The Greenspan-Bernanke inflation caused speculative temperatures in the yen carry trade to reach crazy heights.) But deflation was never an actual or potential restraint on Japanese prosperity during those years.

True, there was a monetary malaise. Japan’s price stability was based on chance, habit, and economic sclerosis rather than the wisdom of its monetary policy. It had been the huge appreciation of the yen during the Clinton currency war that had snuffed out inflation. Then the surge of cheap imports from China had worked to convince the Japanese public that inflation had indeed come to an end. Lack of economic reform meant that the neutral rates of interest remained at a very low level and so the Bank of Japan’s intermittent zero rate policies did not stimulate monetary growth.

The monetary system in Japan had no secure pivot in the form of high and stable demand for non-interest bearing high-powered money. In Japan the reserve component of the monetary base is virtually indistinguishable from a whole range of close substitutes and banks had no reason to hold large amounts of this (given deposit insurance and the virtual assurance of too-big-to-fail help in need). Monetary policy-making in Japan meant highly discretionary manipulation of short-term interest rates in the pursuance of fine-tuning the business cycle rather than following a set of rules for monetary base expansion.

The Yen After Abenomics

When Prime Minister Abe effected his coup against the old guard at the Bank of Japan there was no monetary constitution to flout. Massive purchases of long-dated Japanese government bonds by the Bank of Japan are lowering the proportion of outstanding government debt held by the public in fixed-rate form. But this is all a slow-developing threat given a gross government debt to GDP ratio of around 230 percent and a current fiscal deficit of 6 percent of GDP. Bank of Japan bond-buying has strengthened irrational forces driving 10-year yields down to almost 0.5 percent despite underlying inflation having risen to 1 percent per annum.

It is doubtless the possibility of an eventual monetization of government debt has been one factor in the slump of the yen. More generally, as the neutral level of interest rates in Japan rises in line with demographic pressures (lower private savings, increased social expenditure) one might fear that BoJ manipulation of rates will eventually set off inflation. Part of the yen’s slump, though, is due to a tendency for that currency to fall when asset price inflation is virulent in the global economy. This stems from the huge carry trade in the yen.

The yen could indeed leap when the global asset price-inflation disease — with its origins in Fed QE — moves to its next phase of steep speculative temperature fall. The yen is now in real effective exchange rate terms at the record low point of the Japan banking crisis in 1997 or the global asset inflation peak of 2007. So, the challenge for investors is to decide when the Abe yen has become so cheap in real terms that its hedge properties make it a worthwhile portfolio component.

Brendan Brown is an associated scholar of the Mises Institute and is author of Euro Crash: How Asset Price Inflation Destroys the Wealth of Nations and The Global Curse of the Federal Reserve: Manifesto for a Second Monetarist Revolution. See Brendan Brown’s article archives.

This article was published on 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

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 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.