Opinion

The Great Debate

Servicing the underbanked

A new report from the United States Postal Service inspector general proposes that the agency offer non-bank financial services, including payday loans. Opinion pieces and blog posts praised this idea as a way for the post office to solve its fiscal woes while reaching a portion of Americans outside the traditional banking system. A Reuters “Great Debate” piece, “Transforming Post Offices into banks”), called the proposal a “win-win.”

These pieces overlook some practical problems, however, and leave numerous questions unanswered about implementation. While government and charitable-sponsored financial services should play a role in consumer lending, they cannot replace market-based solutions.

Notably, the USPS proposal underestimates the challenge of offering consumer financial services in an increasingly competitive marketplace regulated by complex federal and state laws. Without a sizable government subsidy, the report’s suggested interest rate for small-dollar loans would not even cover basic operating expenses.

A number of credit unions, community banks and nonprofit organizations have started similar, artificially low-priced, small-dollar loan programs only to struggle to sustain operations, much less make a profit. This has led many institutions — credit unions in particular — to conclude they cannot viably provide short-term credit, according to research by University of California, Davis Professor Victor Stango.

Local storefront lenders can offer market-competitive prices — with rapidly diversifying portfolios, insights from data on consumer trends and operational efficiencies — to meet the growing demand for short-term loans and other non-bank financial services.

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.

from Jeremy Gaunt:

Twisted Sister and the Federal Reserve

The Federal Reserve's "Operation Twist" has set the literary- and musical-allusion juices flowing.  It is all about the Fed selling or not rolling over short-term debt and buying long-term bonds instead in order to keep borrowing costs low.

But that is frightfully dull for economists, analysts and reporters trying to get attention for their work. So, so far we have heard:

-- "Let's Twist Again", a reference to the 1960's Chubby Checker record about the dance craze . Problem is that the second line is "Like we did last summer", and the Fed did nothing of the sort, launching plain old quantative easing instead.

from Reuters Money:

Retirement investors suffer as economy catches up to Wall Street

Retirement investors have struggled with a Jekyll and Hyde economy these past two years, where Dr. Jekyll lives very well on Wall Street while Mr. Hyde runs roughshod over a terrified Main Street.

On Main Street, the jobless rate tops 9 percent and 14 million residential mortgages are underwater – a figure Deutsche Bank thinks will hit 25 million, or 48 percent of all home loans, before the housing bust ends.

On Main Street, the economy hasn't respond to ultra-accommodative monetary policy. Near-zero interest rates don't matter because because there's so little demand for credit to hire people or to buy post-bubble real estate.

from Jeremy Gaunt:

The unsyncopated rhythm of central banks

The European Central Bank is off and running with its tightening cycle -- raising by 25 basis points last week and talking in tongues enough to persuade markets that another hike is coming by July.  At the same time, the Fed -- despite some hawkish comments recently about QE -- isn't seen actually tightening for some time. Next year, actually.

Bank of America-Merrill Lynch is now wondering whether there is something wrong with this. " Surely one of these central banks is heading to a painful policy mistake? " it says.

Key to the question is the fact that U.S. and euro zone economics are not as far apart normally as one might think. Take growth, where there is a 0.6 positive correlation between the two across business cycles. Or inflation. The correlation there is even greater at a positive 0.75 over a whole economic cycle.

There is no such thing as inflation

In 1987, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whipped up a firestorm of criticism from her opponents on the left when she told a magazine reporter that “there is no such thing as society”, only individual men and women, and families.

The interpretation of those comments remains fiercely controversial. From the context it is not certain the prime minister was clear what she was trying to say.

But according to one interpretation the prime minister was encouraging her listeners to look beyond the impersonal aggregate of “society” to the individuals behind it.

U.S. recovery – a mixed scorecard

Ultra-low interest rates and massive liquidity injections have acted like a painkiller, stabilising the U.S. economy and preventing it from going into shock. But they have not cured the underlying problem of over-extended households and an economy dependent on increasing consumer indebtedness as its main source of growth.

The result is a highly uneven recovery. While many parts of the manufacturing and the service sectors are rebounding strongly, those most dependent on credit, particularly housing and autos, and others associated with them such as home furnishing remain depressed.

Low rates have largely solved the cash flow problem, at least for households that have remained in employment. But household balance sheets are still undergoing what is likely to be a long and painful period of adjustment that will continue to act as a drag on credit-driven spending for several more years.

Market should prepare for autumn rate “exit”

Could the first increases in  short-term U.S. interest rates come much earlier than most forecasters expect, perhaps as soon as September or November 2010?

Past experience suggests rates begin to rise about 30-35  months after the trough in the manufacturing cycle (as measured by capacity utilisation rates).

In the last four expansions, before this one, rates started rising 27 months, 48 months, 33 months and 31 months after  capacity utilization had hit its low point.

Real commodity prices and the U.S. rate cycle

– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own. –

Commodity prices exhibit a strong cyclical component — though it can be masked when producers are carrying a lot of excess capacity.

The attached chart shows the real price of various commodity baskets (Jan 1980=100) overlaid by U.S. interest rates (discount rate, later funds target), and the business cycle (NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee).

Locking up bank reserves is wrong policy focus

– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own. —

Plotting an exit strategy and shrinking the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet has become a hot topic as policymakers try to underscore their commitment to price stability and markets ponder the risk of inflation.

But micro-managing the reserve base is a curiously inadequate way to respond to medium-term concerns about inflation. Interest rates (the cost of credit) and supervision (leverage) are broader, more appropriate tools.

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