Tag Archive | Bank of England

150 years of nominal interest rates distortion?

A very useful post was published on the FT Alphaville blog by David Keohane. It shows nominal interest rates levels over the past 5000 years in three different charts.

The first one comes from Andy Haldane, from the BoE:

Haldane-5000-years

The second one from Hartnett, from Bank of America Merrill Lynch:

5000 years BoAML

The last one comes from Costa Vayenas, from UBS:

5000 years UBS

Those charts use different sources so don’t look exactly the same. Nevertheless, they all show the same striking facts. In particular, the 20th and 21st centuries seem to have been huge monetary experiments: nominal rates went both sky high and negative within a few decades… Within a period of barely more than a 100 years, rates fell to the bottom (Great Depression), then jumped ridiculously high to counteract inflationary pressure in the 1970s and 1980s (i.e. the disastrous impact of crude Keynesian macro theory) that resulted from the money multiplier recovering after the Depression, then fell to the bottom again or even negative (Great Recession).

Remember: the 20th century was the period of the generalisation of central banking. It definitely looks like they have been successful at stabilising money markets (and remember this paper by Selgin and White, which shows how successful the Fed has been at stabilising the value of the dollar since its creation). In short, great success for central bankers*.

Another interesting fact is that nominal rates started to wildly fluctuate once the BoE was granted the exclusive right to issue banknotes in the London area in 1844. Unlikely to be a coincidence.

Something that worries me though is the current state of monetary policy throughout most of the Western world. Rates are stuck at the zero bound or even went negative for the first time in history. Perhaps this is justified. But I keep wondering whether our economies currently are in a worse state than at any time in history to justify such low rates (although to be fair, Haldane’s chart does show that long-term nominal rates remain around historical levels – but not Hartnett’s).

Real interest rate charts would also have been interesting for a more comprehensive analysis of the underlying drivers of the rate movements we see here. If ever anyone has access to real interest rate data that go back several hundred years, please let me know (probably hard, or even impossible, to obtain as historical inflation data is likely to be non-existent).

In a parallel world, the BoE recently opened a forum weirdly titled ‘Building real markets for the good of the people’ which, putting aside the slightly communist tone of its chosen name, describes markets are “prone to excess” if “left unattended”**. This is another great example of central banks succeeding in making public opinion believe that economic issues originate, not in central bankers’ failed policies, not in economically distortive banking regulation, but in free markets. Which aren’t actually free. Here again Selgin had a remarkable article reporting how the Fed promotes itself.

One reaches some sort of supreme irony after contrasting those BoE statements with the charts above. Worse, central banks’ power, despite the instability they have brought to the economy for 100+ years, is growing, and their adherence to the rule of law has all but vanished (see Salter here and here arguing that a stable monetary framework such as the gold standard or NGDP targeting would respect the rule of law, unlike current regimes, and that adherence to the rule of law should be the primary consideration for judging monetary regimes).

*Sarcasm, of course

**I’m not sure what’s going on at the BoE, but a culture shift seems to be happening: anti-market rhetoric and rather strange monetary and banking theories are overtaking the institution (see my posts on endogenous money theory)

Pushing market rationality too far

In a new post on Switzerland, Scott Sumner said (my emphasis):

The following graph shows that the SF has fallen from rough parity with the euro after the de-pegging, to about 1.08 SF to the euro today:

Screen-Shot-2015-02-23-at-5.18.21-PM

And this graph shows that the Swiss stock market, which crashed on the decision that some claimed was “inevitable” (hint, markets NEVER crash on news that is inevitable), has regained most of its losses.

Screen-Shot-2015-02-23-at-5.20.17-PM1

 

I often enjoy what Scott Sumner writes, but this comment is from someone who doesn’t understand, or has no experience in, financial markets. We all know that Sumner strongly believes in rational expectations and the EMH. But this is pushing market efficiency and rationality too far.

According to Sumner, “markets never crash on news that is inevitable”. Really? Is he saying that markets believed the Euro peg would remain in place forever (which is the only necessary condition for the de-pegging not being ‘inevitable’)?

In reality many investors, if not most (though it can’t be said with certainty), were aware that the peg would be removed and of the resulting potential consequences for Swiss companies. So why the crash?

While investors surely knew that the peg wouldn’t last, they didn’t know when it would end. They were acting on incomplete information. However, this is perhaps what Sumner implies: the Swiss central bank should have provided markets with a more precise statement of when, and in what conditions, the peg would end. Markets would have revised their expectations and priced in the information. This reasoning underpins the rationale for monetary policy rules and forward guidance. But in practice, providing ‘guidance’ isn’t easy: central bankers are not omniscient, have imperfect access to information and cannot accurately forecast the future in an ever-changing world. See what happened to the BoE’s forward guidance policy, which ended up not being much guidance at all as central bankers changed their minds as the economic situation in the UK evolved*.

But the rational expectations argument itself can be used to describe many different situations. If investors believe the peg will end at some point, but don’t know exactly when, it is arguably as ‘rational’ for them to try to maximise gains as long as they could and to try to exit the market just before it crashes, as it is ‘rational’ to adapt their positions to minimise their risk exposure. When the market finally does crash, it often overshoots, for the same reason: benefiting from a short-term situation to maximise profits.

Taking advantage of monetary policy is what traders do. It is their job. Of course, many will fail in their attempt. But necessarily identifying rational expectations with strong short-term risk-aversion and immediate inclusion of external information into prices is abusive.

This latest Bloomberg article shows that close to 20% of traders expect the Fed to raise rates in June, and consequently have surely put in place trading strategies around this belief, and are likely to react negatively if their expectations aren’t fulfilled. However, who doubts that a rate rise is ‘inevitable’? This demonstrates the price-distorting ability of central banks. In order to limit extreme price fluctuations and crashes, the better central banks can do is to disappear from the marketplace entirely.

 

*Other practical restrictions on guidance include the fact that, while professional investors are likely to be aware of their significance, the rest of the population has no idea what the hell you’re talking about, if it has even heard of it. As a result, the efforts the BoE made to reassure UK borrowers that rates would not rise in the short-run seemed pointless, as virtually no average Joe got it, implying that most people didn’t change their borrowing behaviour/plan in consequence.

I have made a case for rule-based policies a while ago, which I do believe would limit distortions to an extent.

Central banks don’t/do/don’t/do control interest rates

Ben Southwood and I agree on most things but a few topics. Whether central banks’ decisions affect interest rates is one of those, though I do think we have more common than we’re willing to admit. Here are the various reasons that convince me that central banks exert a relatively strong influence on most market rates.

On ASI’s blog, Ben wrote a piece about a 2013 research paper from Fama, who looked into interest rate time series to determine whether or not the Fed controlled interest rates. According to Ben’s own interpretation of the paper, the answer is ‘probably not’. Ironically, my take is completely different.

Throughout most of his paper, Fama’s results do indicate that the Fed exercises a relatively firm grip on all sorts of interest rates, as he admits it himself many times. For example, in his conclusion he writes:

A good way to test for Fed effects on open market interest rates is to examine the responses of rates to unexpected changes in the Fed’s target rate. Table 5 confirms that short-term rates (the one month commercial paper rate and three-month and six-month Treasury bill rates), respond to the unexpected part of changes in TF. Table 5 is the best evidence of Fed influence on rates, and event studies of this sort are center stage in the active Fed literature.

But I find Fama a little biased as he always tries to defend his original position that the Fed does not exert such a strong control:

But skeptics have a rejoinder. The response of short rates to unexpected changes in the Fed’s target rate might be a signaling effect. Rates adjust to unexpected changes in TF because the Fed is viewed as an informed agent that sets TF to line up with its forecasts of how market forces will shape open market rates.

Or also:

The Table 4 evidence that short-term interest rates forecast changes in the Fed funds target rate is not news (Hamilton and Jorda 2002). For those who believe in a powerful Fed, the driving force is TF, the concrete expression of Fed interest rate policy, and the forecast power of short rates simply says that rates adjust in advance to predictable changes in the Fed’s target rate. (See, for example, Taylor 2001.) The evidence is, however, also quite consistent with a passive Fed that changes TF in response to open market interest rates. There are, of course, scenarios in which both forces are at work, possibly to different extents at different times. The Fed may go passive and let the market dictate changes in TF when inflation and real activity are satisfactory, but turn active when it is dissatisfied with the path of inflation or real activity. This mixed story is also consistent with the evidence in Table 3 that the Fed funds rate moves toward both the open market commercial paper rate and the Fed’s target rate.

However Fama never explains why the Fed would simply passively change its base rate in response to private markets. This seems to defeat the purpose of having an active monetary policy.

In short, most of the evidences that Fama finds seem to demonstrate that the Fed indeed does control most interest rates to an extent (in particular short-term ones). But he does not seem to accept his own result and tries to come up with alternative explanations that are less than convincing, to say the least. He concludes by basically saying that…we cannot come to a conclusion.

But Fama’s paper suffers from a major flaw. Let’s break down a market interest rate here:

Market rate = RFR + Inflation Premium + Credit Risk Premium + Liquidity Premium

Fama’s dataset wrongly runs regressions between Fed’s base rate movements and observable market yields on some securities. The rate that the Fed influences is the risk free rate (RFR). But as seen above, market rates contain a number of premia that vary with economic conditions and the type of security/lending and on which the Fed has limited control.

For instance, when a crisis strikes, the credit risk premium is likely to jump. In response, the Fed is likely to cut its base rate, meaning the RFR declines. But the observable rate does not necessarily follow the Fed movement. It all depends on the amplitude of the variation in each variable of the equation above. Hence the correlation will only provide adequate results if the economic conditions are stable, with no expected change in inflation or credit risk. Does this imply that the Fed has no control over the interest rate? Surely not, as the RFR it defines is factored in all other rates. In the example above, the market rates ends up lower than it would have normally been if fully set by private markets.

David Beckworth had a couple of interesting charts on its blog, which attempted to strip out premia from the 10-year Treasury yield (it’s not fully accurate but better than nothing):

Adjusted US yield

Now compare the 1990-2014 non-adjusted and adjusted 10-year Treasury yield with the evolution of the Fed base rate below:

Fed Rate

The shapes of the adjusted 10-year yield and the Fed funds rate curves are remarkably similar, whereas this isn’t the case for the unadjusted yield*. Yet most of Fama’s argument about the Fed having a limited influence on long-term rates rests on his interpretation of the evolution of the spread between the Fed funds target rate and the unadjusted 10-year yield.

(the same reasoning applies to commercial paper spread, though the inflation premium is close to nil in such case)

 

Second, I find it hard to understand Ben’s point that markets set rates, when central banks’ role is indeed to define monetary policies and, by definition, impact those market rates. If only markets set rates, then surely it is completely pointless to have central banks that attempt to control monetary policies through various tools, including the control on the quantity of high-powered money. In a simple loanable funds model (let’s leave aside the banking transmission mechanism), in which the interest rate is defined by the equilibrium point between supply and demand for loanable funds, it is quite obvious that a central bank injecting, or removing, base money from the system (that is, pushing the supply curve one way or another) will affect the equilibrium rate. Of course the central bank does not control the demand curve. But the fact that the bank does not have a total control over the interest rate does not imply that it has none and that its policies have no effect. What does count is that the resulting equilibrium rate differs from the outcome that free markets would have produced.

Loanable Funds

I am also trying to get my head around what I perceive as a contradiction here (I might be wrong). Market monetarists (of whom Ben seems to belong) believe that money has been ‘tight’ throughout the recession due to central banks’ misguided monetary policies. They seem to think that rates would have dropped much faster in a free market. This seems to demonstrate that market monetarist believe in the strong influence of central banks on many rates. But according to Ben, central banks do not have much influence on rates. Does he imply that free markets were responsible for the ‘tight’ policy that followed the crisis?

 

So far in this post we’ve only seen cases in which the central bank indirectly affects market rates. But some markets are linked to the central bank base rate from inception. For instance, in the UK, most mortgage rates (‘standard variable rates’) are explicitly and contractually defined as ‘BoE Base Rate + Margin’**. The margin rarely changes after the contract has been agreed. Any change in the BoE rate ends up being automatically reflected in the rate borrowers have to pay (that is, before banks are all forced to widen the contract margin because of the margin compression phenomenon, as I described in my previous exchange with Ben here and here). The only effect of banking competition is to lead to fluctuations of a few bp up or down on newly originated mortgages (i.e. one bank offers you BoE + 1.5% and another one BoE + 1.3%).

 

At the end of the day, I have the impression that a part of our disagreement is merely due to semantics. I don’t think anybody has declared that central banks fully control rates. This would be foolish. But they certainly exert a strong influence (at least) through the risk-free rate, and this reflects on all other rates across maturities and risk profiles.

 

*To be fair, it does look like some of the Fed’s decisions were anticipated by markets and reflected in Treasury yields just before the target rate was changed.

**In some other countries the link is looser, as the central bank rate is replaced by the local interbank lending rate (Libor, Euribor…).

Myths are slowly being debunked. Slowly…

A few institutions have recently raised voices to try to debunk some of the banking legends that had appeared and became conventional knowledge as a result of the crisis. Here’s an overview.

S&P, the rating agency, just published a note declaring that, surprise surprise, the UK’s ring fencing plans could have clear adverse consequences. Those include: possible downgrade to ‘junk’ status and lower ‘stability’ of the non-ring fenced entities, costs for customers could rise, credit supply could be squeezed, and, what I view as the most important problem of all, ring fencing rules “will undoubtedly further constrain fungibility.” According to the S&P analyst, as reported by Reuters:

“The sharing of resources (and brand, expertise, and economies of scale) means we view most banking groups as being more than the sum of their parts,” the report said.

It said disrupting these benefits could lead S&P to have a weaker view of the group as a whole and to lower its credit ratings on some parts of the banks.

S&P said the complexity of separating functions “represents a significant operational challenge” for banks at a time of multiple other regulations.

I cannot agree more. I have already written four long pieces explaining why intragroup liquidity and capital transfers were key in maintaining a banking group safe. Ring fencing does the exact opposite, putting those liquidity buffers and capital bases in silos from which they cannot be used elsewhere, potentially endangering the whole bank.

 

The BoE just reported that households could actually cope with raising interest rates. One of the Bank’s justification for not raising rates was that it would push many households towards default, so it is now kind of contradicting itself. And anyway, as I have described previously, lowering rates ceased to translate into lower borrowing rates due to margin compression. Patrick Honohan, Governor of the central bank of Ireland, reported that the exact same phenomenon occurred in Ireland:

Because of the impact on trackers, though, the lower ECB interest rates have not directly improved the banks’ profitability, because the average and marginal cost of bank funds does not fall as much. The banks’ drive to restore their profitability, combined with the lack of sufficient new competition, has meant that, far from lowering their standard variable rates over the past three years as ECB rates have fallen, they have (as is well known) actually increased the standard variable rates somewhat. […] These rates indicate that standard variable rate borrowers are still paying less than they were before the crisis, but not by much. A widening of mortgage interest rate spreads over policy rates also occurred in the UK and in many euro area countries after the crisis, but spreads have begun to narrow in the UK and elsewhere. Until very recently bank competition has been too weak in Ireland to result in any substantial inroads on rates.

Ireland mortgage rates

This chart exactly looks like what happened in the UK. Spread over BoE/ECB rates have increased, and increasing rates could actually translate into the same level of mortgage rates. This is because, as margin compression starts disappearing, competition can start driving down the spread over BoE/ECB. Households may have to remortgage to benefit from the same rates though.

 

In Germany, regulators said that the ECB’s negative deposit rates could incite more risk-taking and declared that:

Excess liquidity could even threaten the banking system if it is put to poor use

Regulators vs. ECB. This is getting interesting.

 

In FT Alphaville, David Keohane reports a few charts from Morgan Stanley. One of them clearly shows the Chinese Central Bank’s use of reserve requirements to manage lending growth. I’m sure my MMT and ‘endogenous money’ friends will appreciate.

Chinese monetary policy

Chinese regulation, the European way

Some European banking regulators are currently considering the implementation of a sovereign bond exposure cap of 25% of capital to any one sovereign. Their goal is to break the link between sovereigns and banks. I think they don’t really know what they are doing.

China Europe

European sovereign bond markets are distorted in all possible ways:

  • The Basel banking regulation framework has been awarding 0% risk-weight to OECD sovereign debt since the 1980s, meaning purchasing such asset does not require any capital. Recent rules haven’t changed anything to this.
  • On the contrary, Basel 3 introduces a liquidity ratio (LCR) basically requiring banks to hold even more sovereign debt on their balance sheet (as part of so-called highly-liquid ‘Level 1 assets’).
  • Meanwhile, the ECB, as well as the BoE, have been trying to revive business lending (which suffers from the opposite problem: high risk-weights) by launching cheap funding programmes (LTRO, TLTRO, FLS…). Banks drawn on those facilities to invest in… more 0% weighted sovereign debt, and earn capital-free interest income. We call this the ‘carry trade’.
  • Furthermore, investors (including banks) have started seeing peripheral European debt as virtually risk-free thanks to the ECB pledge that it would do whatever it takes to prevent defaults in those countries.

There you are: had European regulators wanted to reinforce the link between sovereigns and banks, they wouldn’t have been more successful. Their usual talk of breaking the link between banks and sovereigns has been completely undermined by their own actions.

The easy solution would have been to scrap risk-weights (or at least increase them on sovereign bonds). But this was too simple, so European policymakers decided to go the Chinese way: never scrap a bad rule; design a new one to fix it; and another one to fix the previous one that fixed the original one.

The new 25% cap would only add further distortion: while Basel’s risk-weights do not differentiate between Portuguese and German bonds, the 25% rule doesn’t either. But, you would retort, this isn’t the point: the point is to limit the exposure to any single sovereign. I agree that diversification is usually a good thing. But 1. lack of diversification has been encouraged by policymakers’ own decisions, and 2. forcing banks to diversify away from the safest sovereigns just for the sake of diversifying may well put many banks’ balance sheet more at risk.

Finally, Fitch estimates at EUR1.1Trn the amount of debt that would need to be offloaded. This is very likely to affect markets and could result in banks taking serious one-off hits on their available-for-sale and marked-to-market bond portfolios, resulting in weaker capital positions. This could also raise overall interest rates, in particular in riskier (and weaker) European countries. Fitch believes banks could rebalance into Level 1-elligible covered bonds. Maybe, but this would only introduce even more distortions in the market by artificially raising the demand for their underlying assets, and this would encumber banks’ balance sheets even further, creating other sorts of risks.

Why pick a simple solution when you can do it the Chinese way?

 

Photo: picture-alliance / dpa through www.dw.de

ECB policies: from flop to flop… to flop?

Even central bankers seem to be acknowledging that their measures aren’t necessarily effective…

ECB’s Benoit Coeuré made some interesting comments on negative deposit rates in a speech early September. Surprisingly, he and I agree on several points he makes on the mechanics of negative rates (he and I usually have opposite views). Which is odd. Given the very cautious tone of his speech, why is he even supporting ECB policies?

Here is Coeuré:

Will the transmission of lower short-term rates to a lower cost of credit for the real economy be as smooth? While bank lending rates have come down in the past in line with lower policy rates, there is a limit to how cheap bank lending can be. The mark-up that banks add to the cost of obtaining funding from the central bank compensates for credit risk, term premia and the cost of originating, screening and monitoring loans. The need for such compensation does not necessarily fall when policy rates are lowered. If anything, a central bank lowers rates when the economy needs stimulus, which is precisely when it is difficult for banks to find good loan making opportunities. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the recent monetary policy accommodation translates into cheaper bank lending.

This is a point I’ve made many times when referring to margin compression: banks are limited in their ability to lower the interest rate they charge customers as, absent any other revenue sources, their net interest income necessarily need to cover their operating costs (at least; as in reality it needs to be higher to cover their cost of capital in the long run). Banks’ only solution to lower rates is to charge customers more for complimentary products (it has been reported that this is in effect what has been happening in the US recently).

Negative rates are similar to a tax on excess reserves, which evidently doesn’t make it easier for a bank to improve its profitability, and as a result its internal capital generation. And Coeuré agrees:

A negative deposit rate can, however, also have adverse consequences. For a start, it imposes a cost on banks with excess reserves and could therefore reduce their profitability. Note, however, that this applies to any reduction of the deposit rate and not just to those that make the rate negative. For sure, lower bank profitability could hamper economic recovery, especially in times when banks have to deleverage owning to stricter regulation and enhanced market scrutiny. But whether bank profitability really falls when policy rates are lowered depends more generally on the slope of the yield curve (as banks’ funding costs may also fall), on banks’ investment policies (as there is scope for them to diversify their cash investment both along the curve and across the credit universe) and on factors driving non-interest income.

Coeuré clearly understands the issue: central banks are making it difficult for banks to grow their capital base, while regulators (often the same central bankers) are asking banks to improve their capitalisation as fast as possible. Still, he supports the policy…

Other regulators are aware of the problem, and not all are happy about it… Andrew Bailey, from the Bank of England’s PRA, said last week that regulatory agencies should co-ordinate:

I am trying to build capital in firms, and it is draining out down the other side.

This says it all.

Meanwhile, and as I expected, the ECB’s TLTRO is unlikely to have much effect on the Eurozone economy… Banks only took up EUR83m of TLTRO money, much below what the central bank expected. It is also likely that a large share of this take up will only be used for temporary liquidity purposes, or even for temporary profitability boosting effects (through the carry trade, by purchasing capital requirement-free sovereign debt), until banks have to pay it off after two years (as required by the ECB, and without penalty, if they don’t lend the money to businesses).

Fitch also commented negatively on TLTRO, with an unsurprising title: “TLTROs Unlikely to Kick-Start Lending in Southern Europe”.

Finally, the ECB also announced its intention to purchase asset-backed securities (which effectively represents a version of QE). While we don’t know the details yet, the scheme has fundamentally a higher probability to have an effect on banks’ behaviour. There is a catch though: ABS issuance volume has been more than subdued in Europe since the crisis struck (see chart below, from the FT). The ECB might struggle to buy the quantity of assets it wishes. Perhaps this is why central bankers started to encourage European banks to issue such structured products, just a few years after blaming banks for using such products.

Europe ABS Issuance

Oh, actually, there is another catch. ABSs are usually designed in tranches. Equity and mezzanine tranches absorb losses first and are more lowly rated than senior tranches, which usually benefit from a high rating. Consequently, equity and mezzanine tranches are capital intensive (their regulatory risk-weight is higher), whereas senior tranches aren’t. To help banks consolidate their regulatory capital ratios and prevent them from deleveraging, the ECB needs to buy the riskier tranches. But political constraints may prevent it to do so… Will this new ECB scheme also fail? As long as central bankers (and politicians) continue to push for schemes and policies without properly understanding their effects on banks’ internal ‘mechanics’, they will be doomed to fail.

 

PS: I have been busy recently so few updates. I have a number of posts in the pipeline… I just need to find the time to write them!

Hummel vs. Haldane: the central bank as central planner

Recent speeches and articles from most central bankers are increasingly leaving a bad aftertaste. Take this latest article by Andrew Haldane, Executive Director at the BoE, published in Central Banking. Haldane describes (not entirely accurately…) the history and evolution of central banking since the 19th century and discusses two possible paths for the next 25 years.

Hayek Central Planning

His first scenario is that central banks and regulation will step backward and get back to their former, ‘business as usual’, stance, focusing on targeting inflation and leaving most of the capital allocation work to financial markets. He views this scenario as unlikely. He believes that the central banks will more tightly regulate and intervene in all types of asset markets (my emphasis):

In this world, it would be very difficult for monetary, regulatory and operational policy to beat an orderly retreat. It is likely that regulatory policy would need to be in a constant state of alert for risks emerging in the financial shadows, which could trip up regulators and the financial system. In other words, regulatory fine-tuning could become the rule, not the exception.

In this world, macro-prudential policy to lean against the financial cycle could become more, not less, important over time. With more risk residing on non-bank balance sheets that are marked-to-market, it is possible that cycles in financial assets would be amplified, not dampened, relative to the old world. Their transmission to the wider economy may also be more potent and frequent. The demands on macro-prudential policy, to stabilise these financial fluctuations and hence the macro-economy, could thereby grow.

In this world, central banks’ operational policies would be likely to remain expansive. Non-bank counterparties would grow in importance, not shrink. So too, potentially, would more exotic forms of collateral taken in central banks’ operations. Market-making, in a wider class of financial instruments, could become a more standard part of the central bank toolkit, to mitigate the effects of temporary market illiquidity droughts in the non-bank sector.

In this world, central banks’ words and actions would be unlikely to diminish in importance. Their role in shaping the fortunes of financial markets and financial firms more likely would rise. Central banks’ every word would remain forensically scrutinised. And there would be an accompanying demand for ever-greater amounts of central bank transparency. Central banks would rarely be far from the front pages.

He acknowledged that central banks’ actions have already considerably influenced (distorted?…) financial markets over the past few years, though he views it as a relatively good thing (my emphasis):

With monetary, regulatory and operational policies all working in overdrive, central banks have had plenty of explaining to do. During the crisis, their actions have shaped the behaviour of pretty much every financial market and institution on the planet. So central banks’ words resonate as never previously. Rarely a day passes without a forensic media and market dissection of some central bank comment. […]

Where does this leave central banks today? We are not in Kansas any more. On monetary policy, we have gone from setting short safe rates to shaping rates of return on longer-term and wider classes of assets. On regulation, central banks have gone from spectator to player, with some granted micro-prudential as well as macro-prudential regulatory responsibilities. On operational matters, central banks have gone from market-watcher to market-shaper and market-maker across a broad class of assets and counterparties. On transparency, we have gone from blushing introvert to blooming extrovert. In short, central banks are essentially unrecognisable from a quarter of a century ago.

This makes me feel slightly unconfortable and instantly remind me of the – now classic – 2010 article by Jeff Hummel: Ben Bernanke vs. Milton Friedman: The Federal Reserve’s Emergence as the U.S. Economy’s Central Planner. While I believe there are a few inaccuracies and omissions in Hummel’s description of the financial crisis, his article is really good and his conclusion even more valid today than at the time of his writing:

In the final analysis, central banking has become the new central planning. Under the old central planning—which performed so poorly in the Soviet Union, Communist China, and other command economies—the government attempted to manage production and the supply of goods and services. Under the new central planning, the Fed attempts to manage the financial system as well as the supply and allocation of credit. Contrast present-day attitudes with the Keynesian dark ages of the 1950s and 1960s, when almost no one paid much attention to the Fed, whose activities were fairly limited by today’s standard. […]

As the prolonged and incomplete recovery from the recent recession suggests, however, the Fed’s new central planning, like the old central planning, will ultimately prove an unfortunate and possibly disastrous failure.

The contrast between central bankers’ (including Haldane’s) beliefs of a tightly controlled financial sector to those of Hummel couldn’t be starker.

Where it indeed becomes really worrying is that Hummel was only referring to Bernanke’s decision to allocate credit and liquidity facilities to some particular institutions, as well as to the multiplicity of interest rates and tools implemented within the usual central banking framework. At the time of his writing, macro-prudential policies were not as discussed as they are now. Nevertheless, they considerably amplify the central banks’ central planner role: thanks to them, central bankers can decide to reduce or increase the allocation of loanable funds to one particular sector of the economy to correct what they view as financial imbalances.

Moreover, central banks are also increasingly taking over the role of banking regulator. In the UK, for instance, the two new regulatory agencies (FCA and PRA) are now departments of the Bank of England. Consequently, central banks are in charge of monetary policy (through an increasing number of tools), macro-prudential regulation, micro-prudential regulation, and financial conduct and competition. Absolutely all aspects of banking will be defined and shaped at the central bank level. Central banks can decide to ‘increase’ competition in the banking sector as well as favour or bail-out targeted firms. And it doesn’t stop here. Tighter regulatory oversight is also now being considered for insurance firms, investment managers, various shadow banking entities and… crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending.

Hummel was right: there are strong similarities between today’s financial sector planning and post-WW2 economic planning. It remains to be seen how everything will unravel. Given that history seems to point to exogenous origins of financial imbalances (whereas central bankers, on the other hand, believe in endogenous explanations, motivating their policies), this might not end well… Perhaps this is the only solution though: once the whole financial system is under the tight grip of some supposedly-effective central planner, the blame for the next financial crisis cannot fall on laissez-faire…

Lars Christensen on Yellen and bubbles, and UK regulators at full speed

Lars Christensen published a sarcastic post on his blog, which coincidentally treats the monetary policy and bubbles problem as the same time as my previous post. I fully agree with him that Yellen’s comments are ridiculous.

This is Lars:

it seems to part of a growing tendency among central bankers globally to be obsessing about “financial stability” and “bubbles”, while at the same time increasingly pushing their primary nominal targets in the background.

While I agree with Lars that central banks should provide ‘nominal stability’, I don’t think inflation targeting provides such framework (and I believe Lars agrees). Inflation is very hard to measure, let alone to define, and can be very misleading (Scott Sumner believes that inflation indicators are meaningless). According to a Wicksellian framework, it does look like something’s wrong with interest rates at the moment. Banking regulation, due to its roles in ‘channelling’ interest rates, surely also plays a big role that monetary policy cannot influence. In the end, maintaining inflation right on target is in no way insurance of actual nominal (and financial) stability.

David Beckworth, in a new paper published a few days ago, also criticised inflation targeting on the ground that it contributes to financial instability. I agree with Market Monetarists that a policy stabilising NGDP growth would provide a more robust economy and financial system, though it is in my view still imperfect (I’ll come back to that in another post).

 

Totally unrelated: in the UK, regulators are working at full speed. Here is a summary of some of the latest regulatory announcements:

  • Regulators believe that asset managers ‘waste’ too much client money on sell-side analysts research and want to regulate the process, risking to transform the market into an oligopoly as smaller research providers may not be able to cope with the reduced fee-generation (see here and here)
  • HMRC wants to get the power to access your bank account and check your spending habits without going through court to make sure that you are able to pay the taxes they claim you owe them (even if they are wrong). I have personally dealt many times with HMRC (I didn’t owe them money, they did) and the least I can say is that it wasn’t necessarily a pleasant experience: waiting 45min on the phone to end up speaking to someone who sounds very suspicious that you are trying to trick tax authorities… (to be fair, I also ended up speaking to competent and pleasant people) HMRC makes mistakes all the time and I would be very cautious in granting them such powers… (see here and here)
  • New rules capping the fees payday lenders can charge are effectively about to kill a large number of them… It probably won’t help much (see here)
  • Bank account holders aren’t taking advantage of the best offers available to them and don’t spend their time constantly changing bank to get the best pricing and as a result earn poor returns? The regulator also wants to change that, though I submit that it should tell his boss (the BoE) that, if savers indeed earn poor returns, it possibly is because rates aren’t very high… (see here)
  • The BoE and PRA want global banking regulators to reduce RWAs or capital requirements for small banks. Not saying this is a bad thing, but this sounds kind of contradictory to me, given everything we’ve been hearing for years from the same regulators… (see here)

Vince Cable realises too late what banking regulation involves

Back from holidays, and a lot of things to cover…

Let’s start with Vince Cable, Britain’s Secretary of State for Business, who is making a U-turn, though not yet quite finished, as he progressively realises how much he ignored about the pernicious effects of banking regulation.

Vince Cable

Last week, Mr Cable attacked the Bank of England over banks’ capital rules that require banks to hold higher level of capital against business lending than against mortgage lending:

The way the regulatory system operates has undoubtedly had a suffocating effect on business lending and particularly on our exporters.

Not surprisingly, the result is that banks pump out lending in the mortgage market, while lending to small businesses is restricted. This directly stems from the rules on which the regulatory model is based and has had a very damaging impact.

You may well recognise that he is referring to risk-weighted assets (RWAs), which have been a recurrent theme of this blog (and the focus of my three latest posts). Vince Cable had already sparked controversy pretty much exactly a year ago, when he first attacked the BoE for being a ‘capital Taliban’:

One of the anxieties in the business community is that the so called ‘capital Taliban’ in the Bank of England are imposing restrictions which at this delicate stage of recovery actually make it more difficult for companies to operate and expand.

This is a welcome reaction by one of the country’s top politician. However, let’s go back a few years to find the same Mr Cable vehemently supporting the exact same reforms he now criticises, while fully rejecting bankers’ claims that increased capital requirements would allocate funding away from SMEs (see here, here, here, here and here):

Banks and industry groups have argued more regulation could force institutions to curb lending to small- and medium-sized businesses at a time when the economy is slowing.

Prediction which turned out to be correct.

Mr Cable’s went from blaming banks for the crisis and justifying stronger regulatory requirements to blaming those same requirements for the weak level of business lending in the UK. Unfortunately, his U-turn isn’t fully completed and Mr Cable attacks the wrong target. Capital requirements are defined in Basel, the Swiss city. And he supported them in the first place, without evidently knowing what those rules involved. He also seemingly showed a poor understanding of banking history as his support for banking insulation through ring-fencing demonstrated (though most regulators are to blame as well).

Better late than never? Perhaps, but probably too late to have any effect going forward… Politicians’ and regulators’ rush to design banking rules in order to please the public opinion is making everyone worse off in the end.

Photo: Rex Features

The BoE’s FLS delusion

The Bank of England reported yesterday the latest statistics of one of its flagship measures, the Funding for Lending Scheme. Unsurprisingly, they are disappointing. No, more than that actually: the FLS has been pretty much useless.

When launched mid-2012, the FLS was supposed to offer cheap funding to British banks in exchange for increased business and mortgage lending (though originally, authorities strongly emphasised SMEs in their PR as you can imagine) in order to ‘stimulate the economy’. The only effect of the scheme was to boost… mortgage lending.

The BoE, unhappy, decided to refocus the scheme on businesses (including SMEs) only, in November last year. Well, as I predicted, it was evidently a great success: in Q114, net lending to businesses was –GBP2.7bn and net lending to SMEs was –GBP700m. Since the inception of the scheme, business lending has pretty much constantly fallen (see chart below).

UK Business Lending

According to the FT:

Figures from the British Bankers’ Association showed net lending to companies fell by £2.3bn in April to £275bn, the biggest monthly decline since last July.

The BoE argues that we don’t know what would have happened without the scheme. Perhaps lending would have fallen even more? That’s a poor argument for a scheme that was supposed to boost lending, not merely reduce its fall. Not even all large UK banks participated in the scheme (HSBC and Santander didn’t). Moreover, some banks withdrew only modest amounts because they could already access cheaper financial markets by issuing covered bonds and other secured funding instruments, or, if they couldn’t, used the FLS to pay off existing wholesale funding rather than increase lending… The FLS funding that did end up being used to lend was effective in boosting… the mortgage lending supply.

The UK government has also ‘urged’ banks to extend more credit to SMEs. Still, nothing is happening and nobody seems to understand why. For sure, low demand for credit plays a role as businesses rebuild their balance sheet following the pre-crisis binge. Still, nobody seems to understand the role played by current regulatory measures. Central bankers are supposed to understand the banking system. The fact that they seem so oblivious to such concepts is worrying.

On the one hand, you have politicians, regulators and central bankers trying to push bankers to lend to SMEs, which often represent relatively high credit risk. On the other hand, the same politicians, regulators and central bankers are asking the banks to… derisk their business model and increase their capitalisation. You can’t be more contradictory.

The problem is: regulation reflects the derisking point of view. Basel rules require banks to increase their capital buffer relatively to the riskiness of their loan book; riskiness measures (= risk-weighted assets) which are also derived from criteria defined by Basel (and ‘validated’ by local regulators when banks are on an IRB basis, i.e. use their own internal models).

Those criteria require banks to hold much more capital against SME exposures than against mortgage ones. Banks that focus on SMEs end up squeezed: risk-adjusted SME lending return is not enough to generate the RoE that covers the cost of capital on a thicker equity base. Banks’ best option is to reduce interest income but reduce proportionally more their capital base to generate higher RoEs. Apart from lending to sovereigns and sovereign-linked entities, the main way they can currently do that is to lend… secured on retail properties…

(I have already described here how this process creates misallocation of capital and possibly business cycles)

As such, it is unsurprising that mortgage lending never turned negative in the UK (even a single month) throughout the crisis. Even credit card exposures haven’t been cut by banks, as their risk-adjusted returns were more beneficial for their RoE than SMEs’. Furthermore, alternative lenders, who are not subject to those capital requirements, actually see demand for credit by SMEs increase (see also here).

Let’s get back to the 29th of November 2013. At that time, after it was announced that the FLS would be modified, I declared:

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.

Well…

As long as those Basel rules, which have been at the root of most real estate cycles around the world since the 1980s, aren’t changed, SMEs are in for a hard time. And economic growth too in turn. Secular stagnation they said?

 

 

PS: this topic could easily be linked to my previous one on intragroup funding and regulators “killing banking for nothing”. Speaking of the ‘death of banking’, Izabella Kaminska managed to launch a new series on this very subject without ever saying a word about regulation, which is the single largest driver behind financial innovations and reshaped business models. I sincerely applaud the feat.

PPS: The FT reported how far regulators (here the FCA) are willing to go to reshape banking according to their ideal: equity research in the UK is in for a pretty hard time. This is silly. Let investors decide which researchers they wish to remunerate. Oversight of the financial sector is transforming into paternalism, if not outright regulatory threats and uncertainty.

PPS: I wish to thank Lars Christensen who mentioned my blog yesterday and had some very nice comments about it.

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