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.

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 The Great Debate UK:

Swift action needed to curb tapering impact on emerging markets

--Shaukat Aziz is the former prime minister of Pakistan. The opinions expressed are his own.--

Emerging markets have seen increasing economic uncertainty in recent months, due to a slowing down in quantitative easing (QE) and a reduction in economic activity. Several countries have experienced rising current account deficits, reducing capital flows, declining foreign reserves and depreciating currency values. Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey have all seen their currencies drop by more than 10% this year.

These factors serve to lower consumer and investor confidence and delay new investments – in effect, creating a ‘wait and see’ attitude with the result that discretionary expenditure is deferred.

It’s too soon to taper

The chatter has it this week that the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank will allow its $85 billion a month bond buying program to wane, with the eventual death of quantitative easing and a return to economic normalcy. Not only is it too soon for the Fed to back off, it’s too soon to even be discussing it. The global economy is extraordinarily fragile. We need solutions that are more radical than QE, not a retreat into orthodoxy.

The global economy is threatened by conditions in both developed and emerging markets. In the U.S. and Europe, debt has been transferred from the private to the public sectors and debt levels have climbed faster than economic growth has been able to keep pace. The G7 nations borrowed $18 trillion since the financial crisis and have only $1 trillion in economic growth to show for it.

Meanwhile, both private and public borrowers in the emerging markets have larded up on cheap debt, much of it denominated in dollars and euros. They are borrowing in other currencies and paying with their own, leaving corporate and government treasuries vulnerable to currency shocks, just like we saw during the Asia Crisis of the 1990s.

Stubborn national politics drag down the global economy

Four years ago world leaders, meeting in the G20 crisis session, agreed they would all work to move from recession to growth and prosperity.  They agreed to a global growth compact to be delivered by combining national growth targets with coordinated global interventions. It didn’t happen. After the $1 trillion stimulus of 2009, fiscal consolidation became the established order of the day, and so year after year millions have continued to endure unemployment and lower living standards.

Only now are there signs that the long-overdue shift in national macro-economic policies may be taking place. The new Japanese government is backing up a “minimum inflation target” with a multi-billion-dollar stimulus designed to create 600,000 jobs. In what some call the “reverse Volcker moment,” Ben Bernanke has become the first head of a central bank for decades to announce he will target a 6 percent level of unemployment alongside his inflation objective. And the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has told us that “when policy rates are stuck at the zero lower bound, there could not be a more favorable case for Nominal GDP targeting.” Side by side with this shift in policy, in every area but the Euro, there is also policy progress in China. It may look from the outside as if November’s Communist Party Congress simply re-announced their all-too-familiar but undelivered wish to re-balance the economy from exports to domestic consumption, but this time the promise has been accompanied by a time-specific commitment: to double average domestic income per head by 2020.

The intellectual case for change is obvious. A chronic shortage of demand has developed for two reasons. First, as the IMF announced at the end of 2012, the adverse impact of fiscal consolidation on employment and demand has been greater than many people expected. Secondly, the effectiveness of quantitative easing has almost certainly started to wane. As former BBC chief Gavyn Davies has put it, “the supply potential of the economy is in danger of becoming dependent on, or ‘endogenous to,’ the weakness of domestic demand. …With demand constrained in this way for such a lengthy period of time, supply potential is beginning to downsize to fit the low level of demand.” It is a new equilibrium that can be reversed only by boosting demand.

from James Saft:

Waiting for Europe’s QE to sail

The good news is that the European Central Bank will probably start a massive additional round of quantitative easing to fight the break-up of the euro zone.

The bad news is that they will, as ever, only choose the right policy, as Winston Churchill said of the Americans, after exhausting all of the alternatives.

Global share markets rallied furiously on Wednesday, fed by hopes that the ECB would increase its bond-buying efforts, a possibility raised by its chief Jean-Claude Trichet in an appearance before the European Parliament. Trichet faces stern opposition inside the ECB from fellow central bankers, notably German Axel Weber, who believe that policy should be normalized rather than loosened.

Fed is split but QE2 looks a done deal

- The opinions expressed are the author’s own-

FOMC meetings are usually a strange combination of formality and easy-going familiarity but levity may be in short supply this week. The Fed’s institutional credibility is on the line, and the normal decorum that characterizes relations among committee members has become increasingly strained over the summer.

Divisions between proponents and opponents of a second round of quantitative easing (QE2) have been on display as never before. It is not clear what members will say to one another to fill two days since all the arguments have already been rehearsed in detail and in public over the last six weeks.

In a thinly veiled swipe at his colleagues, Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig has stumped around his patch on the Great Plains denouncing QE as a “dangerous gamble” and “a bargain with the devil”.

Quantitative easing and the commodity markets

-The views expressed are the author’s own-

A warning by an International Energy Agency (IEA) analyst this week that quantitative easing (QE) risked inflating nominal commodity prices and derailing the recovery drew a withering response from Nobel Economics Laureate Paul Krugman, who labelled the unfortunate analyst the “worst economist in the world”.

According to New York Times columnist Krugman “Higher commodity prices will hurt the recovery only if they rise in real terms. And they’ll only rise in terms if QE succeeds in raising real demand. And this will happen only if, yes, QE2 is successful in helping economic recovery”.

Krugman’s criticism is unfair. There are clear links between QE and investor appetite for commodity derivatives and physical stocks (via the Federal Reserve’s “portfolio balance” effect), and from investors’ holdings of derivatives and physical inventories to cash prices (given the relatively inelastic supply and demand for raw materials in the short term).

Euro zone faces QE2 pain test

QE2 — a second round of quantitative easing — means that soon the U.S., Japan and Britain will all be busily exporting their deflation, raising the question: Just how much pain can the euro zone take?

If by November we have three of the largest economies printing money and buying up their own debt, the outcome — in fact the intention — will be to drive their currencies lower against their trading partners, opening new international markets for their goods and, by raising the price of imported goods, fighting deflation before its debilitating psychology can take hold.

That is the plan, at any rate, and, unless something else happens, it will force the euro up against all major currencies, including, as it is tied to the dollar, the Chinese yuan. The euro has risen about 9.5 percent against the dollar in the past month, a trend that ultimately will murder European exporters and its stock market.

QE2 to speed triumph of emerging markets

While “decoupled” is not the same as “immune”, look for growth and investment performance in emerging markets to be better than in the sclerotic developed world.

In the short term emerging markets will be free riders as the U.S. launches the second round of quantitative easing. A portion of the stimulus generated by “QE2″ will inevitably leak cross border, while the risks of the gambit will fall almost entirely on the U.S. and on dollar-denominated assets.

QE2 is designed to work in two ways: to stimulate investment by making it cheaper to borrow money and to lift consumption by boosting asset prices.

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