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March 18, 2009

Economist's View - 4 new articles

FOMC: "Economic Conditions are Likely to Warrant Exceptionally Low Levels of the Federal Funds Rate for an Extended Period"

The news in this press release from the FOMC is the plan to purchase "up to an additional $750 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities," to buy "up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities over the next six months" and other moves such as "increased purchases of agency debt this year by up to $100 billion" designed to bring down long-term interest rates:

Press Release, Release Date: March 18, 2009, For immediate release: Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in January indicates that the economy continues to contract. Job losses, declining equity and housing wealth, and tight credit conditions have weighed on consumer sentiment and spending. Weaker sales prospects and difficulties in obtaining credit have led businesses to cut back on inventories and fixed investment. U.S. exports have slumped as a number of major trading partners have also fallen into recession. Although the near-term economic outlook is weak, the Committee anticipates that policy actions to stabilize financial markets and institutions, together with fiscal and monetary stimulus, will contribute to a gradual resumption of sustainable economic growth.

In light of increasing economic slack here and abroad, the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued. Moreover, the Committee sees some risk that inflation could persist for a time below rates that best foster economic growth and price stability in the longer term.

In these circumstances, the Federal Reserve will employ all available tools to promote economic recovery and to preserve price stability. The Committee will maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and anticipates that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period. To provide greater support to mortgage lending and housing markets, the Committee decided today to increase the size of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet further by purchasing up to an additional $750 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities, bringing its total purchases of these securities to up to $1.25 trillion this year, and to increase its purchases of agency debt this year by up to $100 billion to a total of up to $200 billion. Moreover, to help improve conditions in private credit markets, the Committee decided to purchase up to $300 billion of longer-term Treasury securities over the next six months. The Federal Reserve has launched the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility to facilitate the extension of credit to households and small businesses and anticipates that the range of eligible collateral for this facility is likely to be expanded to include other financial assets. The Committee will continue to carefully monitor the size and composition of the Federal Reserve's balance sheet in light of evolving financial and economic developments.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; Elizabeth A. Duke; Charles L. Evans; Donald L. Kohn; Jeffrey M. Lacker; Dennis P. Lockhart; Daniel K. Tarullo; Kevin M. Warsh; and Janet L. Yellen.

Who's the Villain in the Crisis?

Is there a single factor, or one predominant factor, that caused the crisis? I've been asked this a lot. Is there something we can point to and say that was the villain, that did it, that's who we should blame? Was it greedy CEOs, Greenspan and the Fed, lying homeowners, real estate agents with bad incentives, Chinese savers, the ratings agencies, the quants, the economists who didn't see it coming, the regulators who failed to regulate, is there a single, predominate cause?

I don't think so. For the crisis to have occurred, there must have been (1) a source of vast amounts of liquidity, (2) a reason for most of that liquidity to go to one sector, the housing sector, rather than being spread around to a variety of industries, and (3) a failure to detect and prevent the bubble from developing in the industry where the excess liquidity found a home.

The source of the excess liquidity is well known, it came from China, the oil producing countries, and low interest rate policy from the Fed. China could have accumulated less reserves, invested them at home, etc., and the US could have pursued a higher interest rate policy (but at what cost to the economy as it was trying to recover from the bursting of the tech stock bubble), that's true, and it might have made the bubble less severe, but were these things, and these things alone, the cause of the bubble?

There's no reason why the excess liquidity could not have been invested in a variety of industries rather than flowing mainly to housing. If that happens, the risks are spread far more broadly, and we don't have such a large bubble, one that endangers the broader economy when it pops. So we have to ask, why did the money flow almost entirely to one industry? It was the false perception that financial innovation could produce higher rewards without increasing risk, there were lots of complex mathematical models around to prove it, and there were ratings agencies to validate the claims. So the combination of excess liquidity with the false promise of higher returns without higher risk caused the money to flow into a particular industry rather than into a wide variety of investment opportunities. It was safe as houses.

But even that wasn't enough to produce a bubble by itself, we have to ask why the checks and balances within the housing sector, both from the market and from regulators, failed to stop the massive flow of money into these assets. The reason is that there were incentive problems all the way through the system. The homeowner gets a non-recourse loan which makes risks mostly one-sided, real estate agents are paid on commission giving them to incentive to maximize the number of houses sold at the highest price they can get, real estate appraisers were in the pocket of the real estate agents (that's obvious when you buy a house), if they don't give the values the agents are looking for, their phone stops ringing. The mortgage brokers were being paid, essentially, on commission and they were able to move these loans off their books - sell them as repackaged securities - so as to remove any long-run interest in the outcome of the loans (so they didn't care what the appraisers said). Their incentive was to sell as many loans as possible with no real concern for quality. Why did people buy these repackaged loans from banks and brokers? Here we come again to the ratings agencies and the poor risk assessment models, the culture within these institutions, moral hazard from implicit or explicit government guarantees, compensation structures, and so on. The incentives at just about every step of the process were to create as many loans as possible with little regard to quality, every check and balance that ought to be in place was missing. The market did not self correct, and regulators clearly fell down on the job, fixing any one of these incentives could have made a big difference by plugging up the pass-through of the excess liquidity from China and the Fed, but the regulators were absent. Whether this is due to incompetence, poorly structured regulatory procedures, or regulatory capture - money talks and nobody wanted to spoil the party - I don't know for sure. But the regulatory failures were clearly broad based.

So I can only narrow the villains down and place them into broad categories, I can't point fingers at any one of them and say you did it, you were the cause of this. The managers at places like AIG were part of the problem, and they surely don't deserve rewards for their performance, that is not the argument here, but they and others like them were only one part of the problems we now have, they didn't cause the problems by themselves. It was a combination of things working together that produced this crisis, that is, excess liquidity, very poorly structured incentives, and incorrect assessment of the risks all came together to produce the problems we are seeing. I wish I could point to a single villain, it would be easier in a many, many ways to be able to do that, but I don't think we can, and doing so runs the risk of delaying the reform that is needed by causing us to focus on only a small set of the larger set of "villains". There's plenty of blame - and reform - to spread around.

"The Tipping Point?"

James Kwak hopes that the AIG scandal will compel the administration to take action:

The Tipping Point?, by James Kwak: $165 million, of course, is less than one-tenth of one percent of the total amount of bailout money given to AIG in one form or another. Yet it may turn out to be the $165 million that broke the camel's back.

The AIG bonus saga neatly encapsulates many of the problems that we have identified with the financial system and with the bailout to date.

  • The bonus contracts - which have still not been released to the public - reflect the instinct of Wall Street to favor its employees over any other stakeholders. ...
  • The failure of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to review and renegotiate the bonus plans as a condition of federal assistance last fall...
  • The seeming inability of the government to do anything but throw up its hands reflects the failed strategy of the bailouts so far: provide as much cash as needed, but do everything you can to minimize the impact on the companies being bailed out. ...
  • The testaments to "the best and the brightest" - here, referring to the people of AIG Financial Products - reflect, I don't know, either absolute, brazen obscenity, or a world-historical example of making the mistake of believing your own hype. The fact that people on Wall Street believe that they are the best among us is bad enough. The fact that people in Washington are willing to accept it is worse.

However, this scandal may yet serve a purpose. ... The key issues throughout this crisis have been political as much as economic. In this case, the Obama administration has been taking a difficult political position - propping up financial institutions in their current form and insisting everything will be OK - when it would have been easier to play the populist card. This was by no means an inescapable choice; according to news reports in February, David Axelrod and Rahm Emmanuel were in favor of being tougher on the banks. Perhaps the AIG bonus scandal will force the administration's hand toward the decisive action that we need.

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