Archive | November 2013

News digest (Krugman and deregulation, central banking for Bitcoin…)

A looooooooot of news since the beginning of the week. So I’ll just quickly go over a few of them. Guys please, next time, spread your news more evenly over time. There was nothing to comment on recently!

Not new news but the Swedish bank regulators are thinking of increasing RWAs on mortgages to fight a growing housing bubble. Well, raising them to 25% (from 15% floor…) would still not change much: they would remain below most other asset classes’ level and securitisation (RMBS) would allow banks to bypass the restrictions.

Meanwhile, Yves Mersch, member of the Executive Board of the ECB, spoke about how to revive SME lending in bank-reliant Europe. His solutions involve: strengthening banks, securitisation and… banking union. Any word of capital requirements/risk-weighted assets? Not a single one. When I told you that central bankers don’t seem to get it…

But the UK government wants to ditch the household lending side of the Funding for Lending Scheme! They now only want to provide cheap funding to banks if they prove that they lend to SMEs. Why not, but I doubt it would really work for a few reasons: 1. demand for loans remains quite low, 2. market funding remains cheap (it was cheaper than FLS), 3. banks haven’t drawn much on it anyway, 4. RWAs are still in place! Mortgage and household lending will still attract most of lending volume as it is more profitable from a capital point of view.

Meanwhile (again), SME financing from alternative lenders not subject to RWAs and other stupid capital rules, keeps growing in the UK. However, it is still tough for those lenders to assess the health of the companies that would like to lend to.

Erkki Liikanen, the Governor of the central bank of Finland, told us about his ideas to improve financial stability. Surprise: they haven’t changed. So macroprudential policy starts interfering with macroeconomic policies and financial regulation, with possibly opposite effects that don’t seem to bother him much. Look at that slide, which is the very definition of a messy policy goal, with multiple targets and interferences:

Liikanen Macroprudential

A very strange piece in the Washington Post: Bitcoin needs a central banker. Wait a second. No, it’s definitely not the 1st of April. First, the author asserts that Bitcoin’s wild changes in value make it difficult to be adopted as a currency. This is extraordinary. Does the author even understand FX rates? If the author wishes to purchase his coffee using Euros, despite the coffee being priced in Dollars, will he also declare that the fact the Euro’s value is unstable (making the effective Euro price of its coffee volatile) makes the currency improper for use? When prices are originally denominated in Bitcoin, the change in the value of the digital currency won’t affect them. When prices are actually denominated in USD, but converted into Bitcoin, then yes, changes in the value of the digital currency will affect them. But this is hardly Bitcoin’s fault… Then he gets mixed up with ‘menu costs’, ‘hyperinflation’, ‘money demand’, etc. Wow. Just one last thing: has he even understood that Bitcoin was designed to be free from central bankers and government intervention in the first place?

Izabella Kaminska in the FT wrote a new piece on Bitcoin and other alternative electronic currencies. She complains about the multiplication of such currencies that nothing backs and pretty much only see speculative motivations underlying them. I am not going to comment on the whole thing, but whether right or wrong, she should ask herself why there is such frenzy about those currencies at the moment. My guess is that, governments’ and central banks’ manipulation of their own currencies have unleashed a beast: people afraid to hold classic currencies started to look for alternatives, pushing up their prices, in turn attracting speculators. The process is similar to ‘bad’ financial innovations (the ones designed specifically to bypass restricting regulation): they often start as a benign innovation for the ‘common good’, but the surprising demand for them and large profits attract speculators until the market crashes. Not the fault of the innovation, but the fault of the regulation that triggered them…

Paul Krugman thinks that “the trouble with economics is economists”, and that mainstream economics is not to blame for the financial crisis. I partly disagree: 1. there are various schools of thought within mainstream economics that often disagree with each other altogether and 2. most (all?) of them cannot fully explain the crisis anyway. But, and this is where Krugman shows his limited knowledge of banking and therefore the limit of his reasoning, he declares that “the mania for financial deregulation, for example, didn’t come out of standard economic analysis.” I’m sorry? Which mania for financial deregulation? The international banking sector had never been as regulated in history as on the eve of the crisis! (even taking into account of the few one-off deregulations) I need to come back to this in a subsequent post. Really, Paul, you have to revise your history. And your reasoning.

On Free Banking, George Selgin urges Scots to ‘poundize’ unilaterally if ever they declare independence from the UK. And “if the British Parliament refuses to cooperate, so much the better. Who knows: Scotland could even end up with a banking system as good as the one it had before 1845, when Parliament, which knew almost as little about currency then as it does now, began to bugger it up.” If only Scotland could enlighten the world a second time and get back to a free banking system!

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The Pope fights against the dark side of the For…invisible hand (irony inside)

Apostolic Exhortation

The Pope came up with his latest ‘Apostolic Exhortation’ which rightly criticises those very evil free-markets. A few quotes:

The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person!

Really? I thought it originated in an unfortunate combination of too low interest rates and ill-defined regulation. I must have got it plain wrong.

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

States and politicians have always sought power for the common good, that’s for sure. I thought the Vatican was in Rome, where Berlusconi, a truly disinterested politician who sacrificed himself for the common good, ruled for many years. News reports don’t seem to be reliable around there. The Pope is right: for the greater good, we should all be governed and controlled by a handful of individuals whose only wish is to improve our way of life (rather than by a multitude of selfish individuals who have opposite interests and very limited control on anything).

Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions.

The Pope is right again: all those highly indebted countries have become so because of free markets’ greed. Certainly not because of the disinterested politicians who rule them. But, wait… Corrupted politicians? What do you mean? I thought they were “charged with vigilance for the common good”!

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.

True. We have lived in free-markets for too long. We now have to rein them in and replace the invisible hand with Berlusconi’s hand.

Right. So I guess I, and my blog, are unlikely going to end in Heaven. I should have thought about that before opening it :-/

Actually, I’m pretty sure that God’s knowledge is beyond comparison with our current Pope’s. I can sleep well tonight.

Let’s finish with Frederic Bastiat (The Law):

If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?

Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – A graphical experiment

Today is going to be experimental and theoretical. I have already outlined the principles behind the RWA-based variation of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT), which was followed by a quick clarification. I am now attempting to come up with a graphical representation to illustrate its mechanism. In order to do that, I am going to use Roger Garrison’s capital structure-based macroeconomics representations used in his book Time and Money: The Macroeconomics of Capital Structure. I am not saying that what I am about to describe is 100% right. Remember that this remains an experiment that I just wrote down over those last few days and that needs a lot more development. There may well also be other ways of depicting the impacts that Basel regulation’s RWAs have on the capital structure and malinvestments. Completely different analytical frameworks might also do. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

This is what Garrison’s representation of the macroeconomics of capital structure looks like:

Capital Structure Macro

It is composed of three elements:

  • Bottom right: this is the traditional market for loanable funds, where the supply and demand for loanable funds cross at the natural rate of interest. It represents economic agents’ intertemporal preferences: the higher they value future goods over present goods, the more they save and the lower the interest rate. The x-axis represents the quantity of savings supplied (and investments) and the y-axis represents the interest rate.
  • Top right: this is the production-possibility frontier (PPF). In Garrison’s chart, it represents the sustainable trade-off between consumption and gross investment. Only movements along the frontier are sustainable and supposed to reflect economic agents’ preferences. Positive net investments and technological shocks expand the frontier as the economy becomes more productive.
  • Top left: this is the Hayekian triangle. It represents the various stages of production (each adding to output) within an industry. See details below:

Hayek Structure of ProductionI don’t have time to come back to the original ABCT and those willing to find out more about it can find plenty of examples online. Today I wish only to try to understand the impact of regulatory-defined risk-weighted assets on this structure. Ironically, it becomes necessary to disaggregate the Austrian capital-based framework to understand the mechanics and distortions leading to a likely banking crisis. In everything that follows, and unlike in the original Austrian theory, we exclude central banks from the picture (i.e. no monetary injection). We instead focus only on monetary redistribution. The story outlined below does not explain the financial crisis by itself. Rather, it outlines a regulatory mechanism that exacerbated the crisis.

Let’s take a simple example that I have already used earlier. Only two types of lending exist: SME lending and mortgage/real estate lending. Basel regulations force banks to use more capital when lending to SME and as a result, bankers are incentivised to maximise ROE through artificially increasing mortgage lending and artificially restricting SME lending, as described in my first post on the topic.

In equilibrium and in a completely free-market world with no positive net investment, the economy looks like Garrison’s chart above. However, bankers don’t charge the Wicksellian natural rate of interest to all customers: they add a risk premium to the natural rate (effectively a ‘risk-free’ rate) to reflect the risk inherent to each asset class and customer. Those various rates of interest do reflect an equilibrium (‘natural’) state, which factors in the free markets’ perception of risk. Because lending to SME is riskier than mortgage lending, we end up with:

natural (risk free) rate < mortgage rate (natural rate + mortgage risk premium) < SME rate (natural rate + SME risk premium)

What RWAs do is to impose a certain perception of risk for accounting purposes, distorting the normal channelling of loanable funds and therefore each asset class’ respective ‘natural’ rate of interest. Unfortunately, depicting all demand and supply curves, their respective interest rates and the changes when Basel-defined RWAs are applied would be extremely messy in a single chart. We’re going to illustrate each asset class separately with their respective demand and supply curve. Let’s start with mortgage (real estate) lending:

Capital Structure Macro RWA REGiven the incentives they have to channel lending towards capital-optimising asset classes, bankers artificially increase the supply of loanable funds to all real estate activities, pushing the rate of interest below the natural rate of the sector. As the actual total supply of loanable funds does not change, returns on savings remain the same. In our PPF, this pushes resources towards real estate. Any other industry would interpret the lowered rate of interest as a shift in people’s intertemporal preferences towards the future and increase long-term investments at the expense of short-term production. Indeed, long-term housing projects are started. This is represented by the thin dotted red triangle.

However, the short-term housing supply is inelastic and cannot be reduced. The resulting real estate structure of production is the plain red triangle. Nonetheless, real estate developers have been tricked by the reduced interest rate and the long-term housing projects they started do not match economic agents’ future demand. Meanwhile, savers, adequately rewarded for their savings, do not draw down on them (or don’t have to), but are instead incentivised to leverage as they (indirectly) see profit opportunities from the differential between the natural and the artificially reduced rate. Leverage effectively becomes a function of the interest rate differential:

Leverage rates differential

The increased leverage boosts the demand for existing real estate, bidding up prices, starting a self-reinforcing trend based on expected further price increases. We end up in a temporary situation of both short-term ‘overconsumption’ of real estate and its associated goods, and long-term overinvestments (malinvestments). This situation is depicted by the thick dotted red triangle and represents an unsustainable state beyond the PPF.

Capital Structure Macro RWA SME

On the other hand, bankers artificially restrict the supply of loanable funds to SME, pushing the rate of interest above the natural rate. Tricked by a higher rate of interest, SMEs are led to believe that consumers now value more highly present goods over future goods (as they ‘apparently’ now save less of their income). They temporarily reduce interest rate-sensitive long-term investments to increase the production of late stages consumer goods. This results in an overproduction of consumer goods relative to economic agents’ underlying present demand. Nonetheless, wealth effects from the real estate boom temporarily boost consumption, maintaining prices level. Overconsumption of present goods could also eventually appear if and when savers start leveraging their consumption through low-rate mortgages, as house prices seem to keep increasing. In the long-run, SMEs’ investments aren’t sufficient to satisfy economic agents’ future demand of consumer goods.

With leverage increasing and the economy producing beyond its PPF, the situation is unsustainable. As increasingly more people pile in real estate, demand for real estate loanable funds increases, pushing up the interest rate of the sector. Interest payments – which had taken an increasingly large share of disposable income in line with growing leverage – rise, putting pressure on households’ finances. The economy reaches a Minsky moment and real estate prices start coming down. Real estate developers, who had launched long-term housing projects tricked by the low rates, find out that these are malinvestments that either cannot find buyers or are lacking the financial resources to be completed. Bankruptcies increase among over-leveraged households and companies. Banks start experiencing losses, contract lending and money supply as a result, whereas savers’ demand for money increases. The economy is in monetary disequilibrium. Welcome to the financial crisis designed in the Swiss city of Basel.

This all remains very theoretical and I’ll try to dig up some empirical evidences in another post. Nonetheless, the story seems to match relatively well what happened in some countries during the crisis. Soon after Basel regulations were implemented, household leverage in Spain or Ireland took off and came along with increasing house prices and retail sales, which both collapsed once the crisis struck. Under this framework, the artificially restricted supply of loanable funds to SME and the consequent reduction in long-term investments could also partly explain the rich world manufacturing problems. However, I presented a very simple template. As I mentioned in a previous post, securitisation and other banking regulations (liquidity…) blur the whole picture, and central banks can remain the primary channel through which interest rates are distorted.

 

RWA-based ABCT Series:

  1. Banks’ risk-weighted assets as a source of malinvestments, booms and busts
  2. Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – Update
  3. Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – A graphical experiment
  4. Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – Some recent empirical evidence
  5. A new regulatory-driven housing bubble?

The ivory tower economist syndrome

Here we go. Academic economists are lost. Lawrence Summers just made a striking announcement in a speech a few days ago: we are likely to be in a secularly stagnating economy that needs recurrent bubbles to achieve full employment, as its natural rate of interest has been constantly below zero for a while. Evidently, Krugman, Sumner, Cowen, Wolf and many other economists started to discuss the issue. Some agree, some don’t. However, most seem to miss the main problem. I call that the ivory tower economist syndrome. Abstractly thinking in terms of aggregated economic figures locked in a university or government office won’t be of much help. Zerohedge rightly makes fun of Summers and Krugman, as the satiric newspaper The Onion made the same economic advices a few years ago:

Congress is currently considering an emergency economic-stimulus measure, tentatively called the Bubble Act, which would order the Federal Reserve to† begin encouraging massive private investment in some fantastical financial scheme in order to get the nation’s false economy back on track.

Who said that was fiction?

Many of them are backing their ideas using wrong arguments. For instance, Summers and Krugman don’t believe interest rates were too low before the crisis as… there was no inflation! Sure, but, how do you know that? CPI? RPI? GDP deflator? There are many problems with inflation figures. Let’s list some of them:

  • They don’t accurately reflect inflation. You can change the calculation and the result changes dramatically. Moreover, the goods picked to calculate them and the weights applied to them are quite arbitrary. This is supposed to reflect the ‘average’ household basket. Well, I am not the average household apparently as my own inflation rate has been way higher than headline inflation over the past few years.
  • 0% CPI increase does not mean that there is no inflation. Productivity increase drives inflation down. As a result, reasoning in terms of headline inflation is a mistake. Real inflation is hidden. The fastest economic growth in the history of the Western world (late 19th and early 20th century) occurred during a long period of secular deflation…
  • Most asset prices aren’t reflected in inflation figures. Newly created money now mostly go to investments, a lot of which being speculation. Most of banks’ lending is mortgage lending. So newly-created money goes to housing, pushing up prices… which aren’t reflected in inflation figures. Sure, one can argue that, at some point, there will be inflationary pressure on consumer goods. But productivity increases reducing the price of domestically-produced goods (IT revolution anyone?) and cheap goods from developing countries mask that process. Moreover, when asset bubbles burst (which they eventually do), the wealth effect from asset price increases that could lead to inflation all but disappears. Lending was also different 50 or 100 years ago: much lending did not go directly to investments in financial or real assets. Consequently consumer goods inflation appeared a lot faster after new monetary injection (considering stable productivity).

So justifying the fact that nominal interest rates defined by central banks were not low because there was no inflation is in itself wrong, or at best inaccurate. In reality, low interest rates are very likely to have caused, or at least participated, in the recent credit bubble. Regarding the so-called ‘savings glut’, Cowen agrees with Kling on the fact that, if we really had ‘too much’ savings chasing ‘too few’ investment opportunities, we would not need central banks’ actions to push interest rates lower. The supply and demand of loanable funds would automatically drive the interest rate to a very low level.

But, most importantly, all those economists forget a fundamental fact that I have been mentioning a hundred times recently: regime uncertainty (yes, again…). For economists to speak in terms of monetary and spending aggregates alone and to not pay attention to the broader context surrounding businesses is a major mistake. I’ve kept repeating and giving many evidences recently (like here, here, and here) that businesses currently delay investments due to the uncertain regulatory and economic decisions taken by governments and regulators all around the world. This is now the major issue for SMEs and banks at least. Again today, Euromoney published an interesting short article on ‘renewed regulatory uncertainty’ for banks:

For all the populist fervor then about perceived policy inaction to address systemic risk, many banks see it differently: investor flight from banks’ equity and bond products has taken root over the years, amid fears that new rules will render business models uneconomic.

Take a look at that SEB and Deloitte chart summarising current regulatory reforms. It looks slightly messy doesn’t it? And look how it is named…

Banks regulatory_uncertainty_chart

A bank analyst told Euromoney that:

Changes in regulations, changes in what other stakeholders consider to be acceptable, the risk that the behaviours of certain employees become associated with the institution as a whole – those are indeed much more expensive for banks these days than credit [risk].

As I have already highlighted in an earlier post, more than the number of rules, it is the fact that rules change that is crucial to business planning. You can’t play a certain game if the rules of the game constantly change. Yet none of those ‘great’ economists ever mentioned regulation, uncertainty, rules or anything related. Looks like abstract economic aggregates are a lot more interesting to manipulate…

Get out of your tower guys!

Izabella Kaminska gets confused on 100%-reserve banking, or collateral, unless it’s… wait, I’m confused now

Meanwhile, Izabella Kaminska in the FT had an interesting (as usual), but very confused and confusing, blog post. I asked whether or not she was reading my blog given that some of her claims pretty much reflect mine (she calls the shadow banking system a “decentralised full-reserve banking system that just happens to run parallel with the official fractional system we are used to.” Compare that with my “[…] parallel 100%-reserve banking system. The shadow banking system is effectively some version of a 100%-reserve banking.”). But the similarities stop here. She sounds very confused… She gets mixed up between various terms, principles and concepts and tries to hide it behind quite complex wordings.

She mixes collateralised lending with 100%-reserve and uncollateralised lending with money creation. They are in fact totally unrelated. A bank or shadow bank can be fractional-reserve-based or 100%-reserve-based, which simply relates to whether or not a bank lends out a share of its deposits or if it maintains them in full in its vaults. Collateralised lending is, well, just lending provided against collateral (which can be almost any type of assets). Both fractional and 100%-reserve banks can lend against collateral in order to minimise the risk of loss in case of default. 100%-collateralised lending is not 100%-reserve.

True, 100%-cash collateralised lending could be thought of as some form of 100%-reserve banking as the cash reserve at the bank would virtually never depart from the deposit base amount. For example, if a fractional bank collects USD100 in deposits and lends out USD90, it only keeps 10% of cash deposits in reserve. If, though, it lends out USD90 collateralised against USD90 of cash, then it ends up with USD100 in its vault, the same amount as the deposit base (although there will be limitations on the liquidity of the cash as the collateral will likely be ‘stuck’ until repayment or default). But, following her claim, a mortgage bank would be a 100%-reserve bank as the value of the housing portfolio on which lending is secured is worth more than the amount of lending. This is obviously wrong. Unless houses are now a generally-accepted medium of exchange?

Then she claims that “the official banking sector, for example, has the capacity to make uncollateralised investments in growth areas it feels are promising regardless of whether borrowers have collateral, or whether they can be fully funded.” Not really. First, banks usually collateralise between a quarter and more than 100% of their lending. Second, “uncollateralised investments in growth areas it feels are promising regardless of whether borrowers have collateral” is called venture capital and is clearly not what banks do. Venture capital funds, business angels, and some crowdfunding and P2P platforms are here for that (you could also probably add the junk bond market to the list). She then adds that, in contrast to banks, “the shadow banking sector’s strength, of course, is that it is prepared to service those entities (whether directly or indirectly) the official banking sector is not prepared to service, thanks to a greater emphasis on collateral or funding.” As I just said, this is not the case. Venture capital-type investments cannot accept collateral as… there is none! This is why they are high-risk.

According to Izabella, there is a reason why shadow banks cannot create money: their use of collateral. While it is true that (most, probably all) shadow banks cannot create money, it is not because they lend against collateral as described above. A lot of shadow banks don’t lend against collateral: think most money market funds, P2P lending, hedge funds, mutual funds, payday lenders…or simply the bond market! But they don’t create money either! They only transfer cash.

In the comment section she also seems to claim that fractional reserve banking is an innovation of our modern banking system. Where did she get that? Fractional reserves have been used since antiquity: the use of the ‘monetary irregular-deposit’ contract in classical Roman law gave rise to fractional reserves as deposits were mixed with other ones of equivalent nature (as opposed to the mutuum, or monetary loan contract, which is similar to what we could describe as today’s mutual funds for example). Despite the illegality of lending out irregular-deposits, some bankers took advantage of the fungibility of money, and of the fact that many irregular-deposits were rarely withdrawn, to lend out a part of their deposit base. The ‘bank’ of Pope Callistus I (see photo) failed as it was unable to return the irregular-deposits on demand. Other examples of failed banks exist at this period but fractional reserves really took off from the late middle ages in Europe.

Callistus 1

Not everything is wrong in her article as I mentioned at the beginning of my post. She’s right to claim that regulation would only displace risk to another corner of the financial system that shadow banking is merely a response to the regulatory-incentivised under-banked part of the economic system, and that P2P lending is a kind of shadow banking. But too many confusions or misunderstandings around collateral, money creation, bank funding, bank reserves, etc., obfuscate the topic.

The Economist joins the regime uncertainty crowd

Has The Economist been reading my blog recently? Over the past two weeks, the newspaper that used to justify the use of more and more monetary and fiscal stimulus to push firms to invest (as the only reason why they would not invest was lack of demand) seems to have suddenly waken up to the fact that, after all, regulatory regime uncertainty could well be part of the current low business investment problem. This is welcome but a little late.

In a short Buttonwood article last week, the newspaper asserts that “arbitrary decisions by governments may reduce business confidence, and thus inhibit the investment the politicians want to see” and that:

What troubles businessfolk and investors most is the random nature of the process. They do not know where the next tax will be levied or regulatory boot descend. When rules are proposed, it can take ages for the details to emerge, making it hard for companies to plan ahead. That is the most insidious—and most underestimated—form of political risk.

Indeed.

The piece highlights that, in the latest World Economic Forum competitiveness survey, Singapore ranks first in terms of regulatory burden, whereas struggling EU countries are ranked close to the bottom: Spain is 125th, France 130th, Greece 144th, and Italy 146th. The US has also experienced a huge collapse over the past seven years regarding the perception of its regulatory burden: 23rd to…..80th. It’s probably not going to help the economic recovery, is it?

In this week’s edition of the newspaper, the Free Exchange column takes a look at recent research on uncertainty and investment. Results are striking:

They find that doubts about tomorrow have a big influence on what happens today. For every ten percentage points their measure of uncertainty rose, investment fell by one percentage point. During the financial crisis of 2008-09, for example, they calculate that implied volatility rose by almost 40 percentage points, suggesting a drop in investment due to uncertainty of just under four percentage points. That implies that uncertainty accounted for around half of the total drop in investment during the crisis. And it is not just spending on physical assets that declines. The authors find that other long-term outlays—hiring staff and launching advertising campaigns—also plunge when uncertainty rises.

Regime uncertainty

Interestingly, The Economist also mentions the banking sector:

Governments, however, are still breeding fears about the future. The most glaring form of uncertainty in the rich world is fiscal. In the euro area cash-strapped peripheral states rely on bail-outs from richer members or the IMF. As each round of talks—on a banking union, or a deposit-insurance scheme—approaches, sensible bosses decide to wait and see what happens. In America endless budgetary brinkmanship has led to a quarterly debate over whether the government will default on its debts (the next deadline is in February). This is self-imposed uncertainty. If the fiscal path were a little clearer, the reduction in uncertainty should spur investment and output, which in turn should improve the fiscal picture. To cut the debt, first clear the doubt.

Of course, The Economist falls short of claiming that stimulus does not work. Of course not. It declares that even more stimulus is necessary in uncertain conditions. Someday they’ll hopefully notice the fallacy in such logic…

Chart: The Economist

News digest

I have been so busy since last week that I didn’t have much time to write for this blog… And, to tell you the truth, I was almost shocked: barely any news on banks capital, regulation, monetary policy, etc, over the past few days. Sure, the ECB cut its rate by 25bp to 0.25%, but I’m not sure I should comment within the scope of this blog: I am still not convinced by such such a diverse monetary union as the Eurozone and find it hard to believe we can actually set a common interest rate for all country members within the union… Anyway, today I only wish to comment on a few articles published over the last few days.

A very interesting article published on SNL (subscription required) called Everybody wants to rule the world, including bank regulators, in which an analyst argued that “Banks are not only facing over-regulation. They are also emerging as a convenient channel through which regulators can extend their reach far beyond their legal writ.” You probably understand as well as I do how dangerous this is.

I found out yesterday that Bear Stearns liquidators filed a lawsuit against the three credit rating agencies for alleged manipulation of structured products’ ratings. They are basically arguing that, if ratings had been right, Bears Stearns’ hedge funds would not have collapsed. Blaming the rating agencies because…..hedge funds collapsed? We are not talking about simple retail investors here. We are talking about sophisticated investors. Aren’t hedge funds supposed to undertake their own analysis? Are they just blindly investing in various assets? If hedge funds managers and analysts did not believe in rating agencies’ ratings, why did they invest in those assets the first place? Or perhaps they indeed did not believe in those ratings and took on the risk on purpose. In both cases, we cannot blame the agencies for the lack of competence of those highly-remunerated hedge funds employees.

Yesterday, the FT reported that shadow banks had been among the biggest beneficiaries of the Fed’s monetary policies. I’ve already argued that it might well be a sign that real interest rates are too low (i.e. lower than the equilibrium natural rate of interest). As a result, regulators wish to regulate (of course) this segment of the financial system. My guess is that surplus liquidity would then shift to another less-regulated sector or asset class, as it always does.

A few days ago, I read in horror that Germany may start backing the financial transaction tax. A tax of 0.1% of the value of the transaction (as is proposed on cash instruments) would be a massive drain of wealth: just imagine what would happen to a newly set-up EUR100bn mutual fund (ok, no new fund would ever be of that size, but follow me just for the intellectual exercise). The fund has evidently to invest those 100bn on behalf of its clients, meaning they have to buy EUR100bn of assets. Taxing 0.1% off the total value of the transactions would mean…EUR100m to pay in taxes. This is EUR100m that EU states would withdraw from people’s savings and pensions. Bad idea.

In the Wall Street Journal, a Fed insider described how disillusioned he was from the Fed and QE: he ‘apologises’ to Americans (Scott Sumner comments on this) for QE’s bad or lack of effects. While I do not necessarily share everything he said, I also dislike the Fed’s large scale market manipulation.

On Free Banking, George Selgin criticised this Business Insider piece about airlines debasing their reward points. Reminds me of my own response to Matt Klein on the exact same topic a few weeks ago. No guys: those cases do not reflect free banking and private currencies.

Well, that’s all for the catch up.

Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – Update

Following a couple of comments I received on my RWA-based Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT) post, I’d like to clarify a few points:

  • In the original ABCT, one cannot figure out where malinvestments will appear following an increase in the money supply not matched by an increase in the demand for money, apart from the fact that they are likely to be in producer goods industries rather than in consumer goods industries, due to the artificial lengthening of the structure of production. The mechanism involved is the Cantillon effect: the first firms to receive the new money will see their purchasing/investing power increase at the expense of the rest. We cannot really foresee where the new spending/investments will be directed though but what is certain is that the original structure of relative prices between goods in the economy will be modified as a result.
  • In the RWA-based theory the Cantillon effect is ‘limited’: new funds are effectively channelled towards a few specific sectors that benefit from regulatory advantages (lower capital requirements for banks). It is thus possible to foresee which sectors could boom first and where some of the malinvestments could emerge. This does not mean that all malinvestments will show up in those sectors. Other related sectors could also boom as a result. And the increasing wealth effects of the people concerned could also reflect on unrelated sectors…
  • Securitisation also makes it a lot more difficult to follow the channelling effect: asset-backed securities were lowly weighted under Basel 2 (under both Standardised and IRB methods) if they obtained a good credit rating. As a result, some corporate lending got a boost from the measure and this would typically replicate the exact process of the original ABCT. Risk-weights were tightened under latest Basel rules though.
  • In the RWA-based ABCT, there is no increase in the money supply as assumption. Interest rates are lowered for some sectors (increasing related prices) and raised for others (depressing related prices) as a result of funding rebalancing through banks’ optimisation of capital. Consequences could be less catastrophic than an actual increase in money supply though (although I have no evidence of that). But there is always increase in the money supply at the same time anyway! 🙂

Today in an SNL article (membership required), I found out that the UK government is becoming increasingly frustrated about the lack of SME lending in the country. Hold your breath:

After years of frustration in its attempts to induce banks to extend more credit to small and medium-sized enterprises, the U.K. government has reached the perhaps surprising conclusion that bankers may simply lack the skills they need to lend.

RWAs? Capital requirements guys? No? It must be the skills! To be so clueless is both sad and hilarious.

 

RWA-based ABCT Series:

  1. Banks’ risk-weighted assets as a source of malinvestments, booms and busts
  2. Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – Update
  3. Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – A graphical experiment
  4. Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – Some recent empirical evidence
  5. A new regulatory-driven housing bubble?

A few complementary notes on regime uncertainty

Not much about finance or banking today. I just wanted to come back to a few concepts I mentioned in earlier posts (like here, here and here), such as regulatory regime uncertainty.

We keep hearing economists, journalists and politicians complaining about companies not investing ‘enough’ at the moment. Keynesians like Krugman, de Long and co, and some other non-Keynesian mainstream economists think that the main underlying reason to this phenomenon is lack of demand. I argued several times that, while demand fell probably too low in 2009, one of the other main culprits since then had been regime uncertainty: regulations keep changing and red tape expanding, leading most firms to postpone their various investments and projects until they have a clearer view of the rules going forward.

The Economist’s Buttonwood’s blog had a post about business regulation two days ago, which led me to look for some evidence that increasing (and uncertain) regulation was negatively impacting investments. I found this US Chamber of Commerce Small Business Study, which is enlightening. What it reveals:

  • 44% of SME owners ranked economic uncertainty as their number 1 worry (with over-regulation at number 3, or 39%, and high taxes number 4, or 37%). To be fair, economic uncertainty also comprises demand uncertainty. But read the rest first.
  • Only 24% indicated that they thought that business climate for SME had improved over the last couple of years.
  • 42% of SME owners ranked the US growing deficit and debt as number 2 worry.
  • “Seventy-eight percent of small business owners said that the U.S. deficit and debt pose a threat to the success of their businesses. The current federal debt and deficit (40%) and the regulations coming out of Washington (35%) are the top two current issues coming out of Washington that cause concern about the future of their businesses. In addition, sentiment is strong that the climate for small businesses is worse than under the previous administration (80%).”
  • The majority of small business owners, when asked what they need most from Washington right now, would like Washington to get out of the way (84%) as opposed to lending a helping hand (11%). When asked about specific actions they needed from Washington, overwhelmingly small business owners wanted more certainty (87%).
  • Government regulations on small businesses continue to be seen as unreasonable (73%) by small business owners with a two thirds majority (66%) saying that what Washington will do next to small businesses scares them most.

Right. It’s kind of a proof, isn’t it? This is also applicable to banks: giving God-like powers to regulators (or anyone) is usually not a good idea. Uncertainty is everywhere in the banking world. Just look at the latest Swiss news: a top official announced that, perhaps, Swiss banks will be subject to a very high 10% leverage ratio. Or perhaps just 6%. Or in between. Or possibly not at all. Or…well, they’re gonna discuss and let you know later. How can any bank plan for the future and lend in such conditions?

On a side not, I am wondering whether or not increasing red tape is linked to The Decline of Creative Destruction, as this Bryan Caplan piece was named today. Surely it is. Very interesting chart anyway (see below). Job destructions during the crisis were actually at the same level as they were throughout the 1990’s… It would be interesting to compare this chart to the evolution of business red tape. Unfortunately, this isn’t my area, so I’ll let you do it!

Jobs

Banks’ risk-weighted assets as a source of malinvestments, booms and busts

Here I’m going to argue that Basel-defined risk-weighted assets, a key component of banking regulation, may be partly responsible for recent business cycles.

Business cycles

Readers might have already noticed my aversion to risk-weighted assets (RWAs), which I view as abominations for various reasons. They are defined by Basel accords and used in regulatory capital ratios. Basel I (published in 1988 and enforced from 1992) had fixed weights by asset class. For example, corporate loans and mortgages would be weighted respectively 100% and 50%, whereas OECD sovereign debt would be weighted 0%. If a bank had USD100bn of total assets, applying risk-weights could, depending on the lending mix of the bank, lead to total RWAs of anything between USD20bn to USD90bn. Regulators would then take the capital of the bank as defined by Basel (‘Tier 1’ capital, total capital…) and calculate the regulatory capital ratio of the bank: Tier 1 capital/RWAs. Basel regulation required this ratio to be above 4%.

Basel II (published in 2004 and progressively implemented afterwards) introduced some flexibility: the ‘Standardised method’ was similar to Basel I’s fixed weights with more granularity (due to the reliance on external credit ratings), while the various ‘Internal Ratings Based’ methods allowed banks to calculate their own risk-weight based on their internal risk management models (‘certified’ by regulators…).

This system is perverse. Banks are profit-maximising institutions that answer to their shareholders. Shareholders on the other hand have a minimal threshold under which they would not invest in a company: the cost of capital, or required return on capital. As a result, return on equity (ROE) has to at least cover the cost of capital. If it doesn’t, economic losses ensue and investors would have been better off investing in lower yielding but lower risk assets in the first place. But Basel accords basically dictate banks how much capital they need to hold. Therefore banks have an incentive in trying to ‘manage’ capital in order to boost ROE. Under Basel, this means pilling in some particular asset classes.

Let’s make very rough calculations to illustrate the point under a Basel II Standardised approach: a pure commercial bank (i.e. no trading activity) has a choice between lending to SMEs (option 1) or to individuals purchasing homes (option 2). The bank has EUR1bn in Tier 1 capital available and wishes to maximise returns while keeping to the minimum of 4% Tier 1 ratio. We also assume that external funding (deposits, wholesale…) is available and that the marginal increase in interest expense is always lower than the marginal increase in interest income.

  • Option 1: Given the 100% risk-weight on SME lending, the bank could lend EUR25bn (25bn x 100% x 4% = 1bn), at an interest rate of 7% (say), equalling EUR1.75bn in interest income.
  • Option 2: Mortgage lending, at a 35% risk-weight, allows the same bank to lend a total of EUR71.4bn (71.4bn x 35% x 4% = 1bn) for EUR1bn in capital, at an interest rate of 3% (say), equalling EUR2.14bn in interest income.

The bank is clearly incentivised to invest its funding base in mortgages to maximise returns. In practice, large banks that are under the IRB method can push mortgage risk-weights to as low as barely above 10%, and corporate risk-weights to below 50%. As a result, banks are involuntarily pushed by regulators to game RWAs. The lower RWAs, the lower capital the bank needs, the higher its ROE and the happier the regulators. Banks call this ‘capital optimisation’.

Consequently, does it come as a surprise that low-risk weighted asset classes were exactly the ones experiencing bubbles in pre-crisis years? Oh sorry, you don’t know which asset classes were lowly rated… Here they are: real estate, securitisation, OECD sovereign debt. Yep, that’s right. Regulatory incentives that create crises. And the new Basel III regime does pretty much nothing to change the incentivised economic distortions introduced by its predecessors.

Yesterday, Fitch, the rating agency, published a study of lending and RWAs among Europe’s largest banks (press release is available here, full report here but requires free subscription). And, what a surprise, corporate lending is going…down, while mortgage lending and credit exposures to sovereigns are going…up (see charts below). The trend is even exacerbated as banks are under pressure from regulators to boost regulatory capitalisation and from shareholders to improve ROE. And this study only covers IRB banks. My guess is that the situation is even more extreme for Standardised method banks that cannot lower their RWAs.

Fitch 2 Fitch 1

The ‘funny’ thing is: not a single regulator or central banker seems to get it. As a result, we keep seeing ill-founded central banks schemes aiming at giving SME lending a boost, like the Funding for Lending Scheme launched by the Bank of England in 2012, which provided banks with cheap funding. Yes, you guessed it: SME lending continued its downward trend and the scheme provided mortgage lending a boost.

Should the situation ‘only’ prevent corporates to borrow funds, bad economic consequences would follow but remain limited. Economic growth would suffer but no particular crisis would ensue. The problem is: Basel and RWAs force a massive misallocation of capital towards a few asset classes, resulting in bubbles and large economic crises when the crash occurs.

The Mises and Hayek Austrian business cycle theory emphasises the distortion in the structure of relative prices that emanates from central banks lowering the nominal interest rate below the natural rate of interest as represented by economic agents’ intertemporal preferences, resulting in monetary disequilibrium (excess supply of money). The consequent increase in money supply flows in the economy through one (or a few) entry points, increasing the demand in those sectors, pushing up their prices and artificially (and unsustainably) increasing their return on investment.

I argue here that due to Basel’s RWAs distortions, central banks could even be excluded from the picture altogether: banks are naturally incentivised to channel funds towards particular sectors at the expense of others. Correspondingly, the supply of loanable funds increases above equilibrium in the favoured sectors (hence lowering the nominal interest rate and bringing about an unsustainable boom) but reduces in the disfavoured ones. There can be no aggregate overinvestment during the process, but bad investments (i.e. malinvestments) are undertaken: the investment mix changes as a result of an incentivised flow of lending, rather than as a result of economic agents’ present and future demand. Eventually, the mismatch between expected demand and actual demand appears, malinvestments are revealed, losses materialise and the economy crashes. Central banks inflation worsen the process through the mechanism described by the Austrians.

I am not sure that regulators had in mind a process to facilitate boom and bust cycles when they designed Basel rules. The result is quite ‘ironic’ though: regulations developed to enhance the stability of the financial sector end up being one of the very sources of its instability.

 

RWA-based ABCT Series:

  1. Banks’ risk-weighted assets as a source of malinvestments, booms and busts
  2. Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – Update
  3. Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – A graphical experiment
  4. Banks’ RWAs as a source of malinvestments – Some recent empirical evidence
  5. A new regulatory-driven housing bubble?
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