Christopher Papagianis

Election has big banks in crosshairs

Christopher Papagianis
Jul 27, 2012 16:43 UTC

Sandy Weill’s comments this week are just the latest dustup in the debate about the existence of financial institutions that are labeled by regulators and market participants as being too big to fail. Despite the criticisms leveled at these firms, the largest banks have only gotten bigger over the last few years – and U.S. regulators still appear underprepared to resolve a future failure of a systemically important financial institution without setting off broader market panic.

Against this backdrop, new bank reform proposals are likely to get a lot more attention on Capitol Hill heading into the November election. Catalysts for this debate are sure to include the stories around JPMorgan’s London Whale trader and the brewing Libor scandal.

In a recent paper, academics Frederic Schweikhard and Zoe Tsesmelidakis examined the borrowing advantage that large financial institutions had from 2007 to 2010 as result of the market’s perception that their liabilities were backed by the federal government. Taxpayers subsidized TBTF banks to the tune of $130 billion, according to their findings. Citigroup was the single biggest beneficiary of government support, totaling $50 billion, but even well capitalized JPMorgan is estimated to have gained $10 billion in value from taxpayer guarantees.

Privately, the big banks think this is old news. They are quick to note that Congress addressed the issue of taxpayer bailouts back in 2010, when it passed the 2,000-page Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Among its many directives, the law created a new systemic risk council of regulators and tasked it with designing and implementing a new “resolution regime” for big and complex financial institutions. The goal was to empower a new council to regulate and oversee the failure of future financial institutions and to guard against taxpayer guarantees or systemic consequences for the overall economy. While it’s certainly debatable whether Dodd-Frank achieved some progress in this area, credit rating agencies are still signaling to the market that the government would likely step in and protect bank creditors. As long as this is true, big banks continue to have a borrowing advantage. Even granting additional discretion to regulators solves nothing if economic vulnerabilities still make a bailout the less harmful choice when the next crisis arrives.

During the debates this fall, Mitt Romney will surely confront President Obama on the limitations of the financial reforms that his administration advanced, including the Dodd-Frank Act. The TBTF problem stands above all others in this area and presents an opportunity for a defining contrast before the election. A new choir of analysts – including those on the right that are steeped in both policy and political strategy – are also starting to argue that what looks like good policy on the big banks might also be good politics (see here and here and here).

More to the financial crisis than just subprime

Christopher Papagianis
Jul 12, 2012 19:24 UTC

Arpit Gupta, a Ph.D. student in finance at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, contributed to this column.

Just as the recession in the early 2000s became linked with the bursting of the tech bubble, for many the financial crisis in 2008 has been synonymous with the blow-up of subprime mortgages.

But there was more to 2008 than that.

Gary Gorton, an economist at Yale, recently published an analysis that shows how well some subprime mortgage-backed securities have performed over the past few years – a very counterintuitive conclusion. Citing one of his graduate students, Gorton explains that AAA/Aaa-rated subprime bonds issued in the peak bubble years (when mortgage underwriting was arguably the weakest in history) were only down 0.17 percent as of 2011. In other words, the highly rated subprime bonds – or toxic assets so associated with the financial crisis – have experienced only minimal losses since the bubble popped.

The next crisis – and the decline of ‘safe assets’

Christopher Papagianis
Jul 2, 2012 22:20 UTC

The policy response that perhaps best connects the U.S. financial crisis and the still brewing eurozone problem is that regulators have endeavored to make financial institutions more resilient. Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have focused on increasing financial institutions’ capital and liquidity positions to try to limit future bank failures and systemic risk. Both goals are served by increasing banks’ holdings of “safe assets” that are easily sold and retain value across different global economic environments.

But what if there simply aren’t enough safe assets to go around? After all, safe assets aren’t only being gobbled up in the name of financial stability. Today, the global investor universe is undoubtedly more risk-adverse and is naturally hungrier for these same stores of value. From insurers to pension funds, the demand for safe assets – and the corresponding dearth of supply – has led to strange, if not ominous, distortions in the market.

For example, over the last few years there have been numerous periods where the yields for short-term U.S. and German sovereign debt have turned negative. The real yields, or the amount earned after adjusting for inflation, on front-end Treasury notes are currently less than -1 percent. This means investors have been putting aside their search for yield, willing to lock in (small) losses with their new purchases because there were very few alternative and liquid markets where they could park their money on better terms.