Opinion

The Great Debate

Are too-big-to-fail banks being cut down to size?

Financial institution representatives are sworn in before testifying at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington

The massive $16-billion mortgage fraud settlement agreement just reached by Bank of America and federal authorities — only the latest in a string of such settlements — makes it easy to lose sight of what good shape banks are in.

Banks are now far better capitalized, with tighter credit processes and better risk accounting. The bigger Wall Street houses have also jettisoned many of their most volatile trading operations. Yet most have still managed to turn in decent earnings. That is a tribute to the steady and generally thoughtful imposition of the new Dodd-Frank and Basel III regulations, the rules on “stress-testing” balance sheets and the controversial Volcker Rule that limits speculative proprietary trading operations.

And the feds are keeping on the pressure, as demonstrated by their rejection of almost all the “living will” plans submitted by the major banks, which are supposed to prevent the kind of disorderly collapse that Lehman Brothers went through in 2008.  These living will impositions are designed either to reduce the riskiness of bank holdings or to make the financial institutions post more capital and reserves to cushion against reverses.

A Bank of America sign is shown on a building in downtown Los Angeles, CaliforniaWhile these reforms were badly needed after the virtual wholesale deregulation of the 1990s, they almost all raise costs and limit flexibility. But that is far from the worst problem facing the banks. The regulatory impact on revenues and profits is likely to be dwarfed by the pain banks will experience after the inevitable removal of their current federal life-support systems.

The Federal Reserve has taken extraordinary measures to entice banks to lend money. It has used two main tools. The first, called quantitative easing or “QE,” has entailed the Fed buying massive quantities of securities normally held by private financial institutions. The second has been to keep the fed funds rate, or the rate at which major banks lend their short-term funds to each other, at unusually low levels.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

Yellen’s remarkably unremarkable news conference – and why it’s a good thing

Yellen holds a news conference following two-day Federal Open Market Committee meeting at the Federal Reserve in WashingtonJohn Maynard Keynes famously said that his highest ambition was to make economic policy as boring as dentistry. In this respect, as in so many others, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is proving to be a loyal Keynesian.

Yellen’s second news conference as Fed chair conveyed no new information about the timing of future interest rate moves. She gave no hints about an “exit strategy” for the Fed to return the $3 trillion of bonds it has acquired to the private sector. She told us nothing about the Fed’s expectations on inflation, employment and economic growth -- not even about the board’s views on financial volatility, regulation, asset prices or bank credit policies.

Yellen refused even to repeat, or repeal, her earlier answer to a question about the meaning of the “considerable period” she expected between the end of tapering and the first rate hike. At her first news conference, Yellen responded to a similar question by blurting out “six months.” This caused an eruption of volatility in financial markets -- that lasted about five minutes.

Fed tightening will help stem inequality

The Federal Reserve Building is reflected on a car in Washington September 16, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young

Just as quantitative easing by the U.S. Federal Reserve has inadvertently increased the country’s wealth gap, so should tapering limit its rise.

Under the central bank’s program of pumping money into the economy, purchases of financial assets have enriched the 10 percent of Americans who hold four-fifths of the country’s stocks and bonds. With the Fed’s liquidity being withdrawn, the whole effect should be more muted. And absent such underpinning for equities, corporate executives will be much more likely to invest to improve returns. This should involve more hiring and a better outlook for those outside the top decile.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Yellen shows her hand

The difference between the Federal Reserve Board of Chairwoman Janet Yellen and that of her immediate predecessor Ben Bernanke is becoming clear. No more so than in their approach to the problem of joblessness.

Bernanke made clear that in the post-2008 economy, his principal goal was the creation of jobs, not curbing inflation. He settled on a figure, 6.5 percent unemployment, as the threshold that would guide his actions.

While remaining true to the spirit of Bernanke’s principal goal, Yellen and the rest of her board refined the target in their meeting on March 18 and 19, a change in approach that at first sent the wrong signal to the stock and bond markets. At the press conference following the meeting, Yellen said she would not be raising interest rates “for a considerable time,” which could mean “something on the order of around six months.”

Stress and the Citi

Markets are still absorbing the Federal Reserve’s surprising smack-down of Citigroup. Under its chief executive officer, Michael Corbat, Citi had greatly strengthened its capital base — indeed, it had one of the best capital ratios of all the big banks — and had proposed modest dividend increases and stock buybacks.  Instead, City was the only big American bank that failed its review.

The Fed announcement, perhaps harking back to the Alan Greenspan tradition, was gnomic, to say the least. The Citi bombshell was buried in a few lines in both the press release and the much longer official statement.

While acknowledging Citi’s stronger capital position, the Fed stated that the rejection was based on “qualitative” weaknesses, including the bank’s “[in]ability to develop scenarios … that adequately reflect and stress its full range of business activities and exposures.” The bank will eventually be handed a detailed bill of particulars, perhaps in a week or so.

‘Rentiers’ are at root of 1 percent

The American public is catching on that almost all the benefits from the still-fragile U.S. recovery have gone to the top 1 percent of earners. One sign is that “inequality” has suddenly become a fighting word. Legendary venture capitalist Tom Perkins recently denounced the “demonization” of the rich — and was quickly forced to apologize for comparing it to Kristallnacht.

Perkins is too sensitive. He is one of the creators of the U.S. venture capital industry, and played a big role in nurturing the hardware and software revolutions that made the United States so dominant in high technology. Americans admire people like Perkins, who earned their wealth — whether they are financiers like Warren Buffett or George Soros, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, or superstars like Michael Jordan.

But Americans abhor “rentiers” — unproductive citizens who make good incomes by collecting tolls on other people’s production. In the early days of economics, rentiers were the owners of stagnating estates who partied in London on the earnings of their peasants and tenant farmers.

Yellen vs. the Fed critics

The confirmation hearing of Federal Reserve Chairwoman nominee Janet Yellen on Thursday will be an opportune moment for Fed critics to air their grievances.  There is plenty of fodder for disagreement and debate — ranging from the Fed’s supervisory track record, to the rules for tapering large-scale asset purchases, to the criteria for ending its zero-interest rate stance.

Yet, one sure criticism is sharply at odds with the facts: That the Fed’s crisis response was an insider affair, run by and for a handful of too-big-to-fail banks.

While the Fed’s actions in response to the 2008 financial crisis are certainly open to criticism, the creation and expansion of various credit and lending programs were aimed at calming the financial markets and maintaining the liquidity of specific financial instruments. It was not about befriending winners and giving the cold shoulder to losers.

Ending the debt limit crisis: Dear Ben Bernanke

Warren Buffett calls the debt ceiling a “nuclear weapon, too horrible to use.” Obama administration official Jason Furman says the consequence of a default on U.S. government debt is “too terrible to think about.” When asked about a default, Wells Fargo strategist James Kochan simply commented, “Holy cripes.”

With this crisis, America is risking financial Armageddon. The default of Lehman Brothers on its $613 billion of debt ignited a chain reaction in the financial system, nearly destroying the U.S. economy. A default by the U.S. government on $17 trillion of debt — debt that has been considered the safest in the world — could be far worse.

But at heart, this is not a debt problem. It is an accounting problem. The Treasury Department issues U.S. debt, and lots of it. So you would think that America is deeply indebted to its bondholders. Yet increasingly, it is the U.S. monetary authority, the Federal Reserve, and not private investors, who buys this debt.

from The Great Debate UK:

How central bankers have got it wrong

If you asked someone to list the chief qualities needed to be a good central banker I assume that the list may include: good communicator, wise, attention to detail, clear thinking, credibility, and good with numbers.  However, in recent months these qualities have been sadly lacking, most notably last week when the Federal Reserve wrong-footed the markets and failed to start tapering its enormous QE programme.

The market had expected asset purchases to be tapered because: 1, Ben Bernanke had dropped fairly big hints at his June press conference that tapering was likely to take place sooner rather than later and 2, because the unemployment rate has consistently declined all year and if it continues moving in this direction then it could hit the Fed’s 6.5% target rate in the coming months.

In the aftermath of the September Fed decision the markets, analysts and Fed commentators were lambasted for being too hasty and for trying to second guess the Fed. While I agree that the markets can get too hung up on the movements of the US central bank, I think that the criticism is unfair this time.

Why conservatives spin fairytales about the gold standard

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

The Federal Reserve is celebrating its 100th birthday trapped in a political bunker.

At few points since the Fed’s founding in 1913 has it taken such sustained fire. It’s taking fire from the left, because its policies favor Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and the other financial corporations that are most responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown and the Great Recession. But it is also taking fire from the right.

Conservative or Tea Party Republicans have a different kind of criticism. They reject the notion that the Fed should even have the power to regulate the money supply and “debase” the dollar. They believe in hard money and a return to the gold standard.

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