Monetary Policy and Financial StructureThis program explores the structure of markets and institutions operating in the financial sector. Research builds on the work of the late Distinguished Scholar Hyman P. Minsky—notably, his financial instability hypothesis—and explores the institutional, regulatory, and market arrangements that contribute to financial instability. Research also examines policies—such as changes to the regulatory structure and the development of new types of institutions—necessary to contain instability.
Recent research has concentrated on the structure of financial markets and institutions, with the aim of determining whether financial systems are still subject to the risk of failing. Issues explored include the extent to which domestic and global economic events (such as the crises in Asia and Latin America) coincide with the types of instabilities Minsky describes, and involve analyses of his policy recommendations for alleviating instability and other economic problems.
Other subjects covered include the distributional effects of monetary policy, central banking and structural issues related to the European Monetary Union, and the role of finance in small business investment.
Working Paper No. 763 | May 2013
This working paper looks at excess reserves in historical context and analyzes whether they constitute a monetary policy problem for the Federal Reserve System (the “Fed”) or a potentially inflationary problem for the rest of us. Generally, this analysis shows that both absolute and relative sizes of excess reserves are a big problem for the Fed as well as the general public be-cause of their inflationary potential. However, like all contingencies, the timing and extent of the damage that reserve-driven inflation might cause are uncertain. It is even possible today to find articles in both scholarly circles and the popular press arguing either that the inflationary blow-off might never happen or that an increasing tendency toward prolonged deflation is the more probable outcome.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Walker F. ToddRelated Topic(s):
Policy Note 2013/4 | April 2013In March of this year, the government of Cyprus, in response to a banking crisis and as part of a negotiation to secure emergency financial support for its financial system from the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), proposed the assessment of a tax on bank deposits, including a levy (later dropped from the final plan) on insured demand deposits below the 100,000 euro insurance threshold. An understanding of banks’ dual operations and of the relationship between two types of deposits—deposits of customers’ currency and coin, and deposit accounts created by bank loans—helps clarify some of the problems with the Cypriot deposit tax, while illuminating both the purposes and limitations of deposit insurance.Download:Associated Program(s):Author(s):Related Topic(s):Region(s):Europe
Public Policy Brief No. 129 | April 2013This policy brief by Senior Scholar and Program Director Jan Kregel builds on an earlier analysis (Policy Note 2012/6) of JPMorgan Chase and the actions of the “London Whale,” and what this episode reveals about the larger risks inherent in the financial system. It is clear that the Dodd-Frank Act failed to prevent massive losses by one of the world’s largest banks. This is undeniable evidence that work remains to be done to reform the financial system. Toward this end, Kregel reviews the findings of a recent report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and expands on the lessons that we can draw from the evolution of the London Whale episode.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):Related Topic(s):
By David DayenThe American Prospect, April 24, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Satisfied with the meager reforms of the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill, the Treasury is standing in the way of further efforts to rein in mega-banks.
These are heady times for the bipartisan group of reformers seeking a safer and more manageable U.S. financial system. The leaders of this movement, Senators Sherrod Brown and David Vitter, introduced legislation yesterday to force the biggest banks to foot the bill for their own mistakes by imposing higher capital requirements. The bill would increase equity (either retained earnings or stock) in the financial system by $1.1 trillion and incentivize mega-banks to break themselves up, according to a Goldman Sachs report. Brown and Vitter previewed the legislation earlier this week at the National Press Club, insisting that the new regulations on risky mega-banks would diminish threats to the U.S. economy and prevent taxpayers from having to bail out banks in the future. Vitter also said the legislation would “level the playing field and take away a government policy subsidy, if you will, that exists in the market now favoring size.” With momentum, broadening support, and tangible legislation to push, bank reformers feel better positioned for success than they have since the passage of Dodd-Frank.
Or rather, they did until the Treasury Department poured a giant bucket of cold water on their effort. In a speech to the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College's annual Minsky Conference last Thursday, Undersecretary for Domestic Finance Mary Miller claimed that Dodd-Frank had already solved the “Too Big to Fail” problem. Miller indicated that mega-banks do not enjoy an unfair advantage in their borrowing costs and that recent boosts to capital standards were already working to strengthen the financial system. Having a big public speech at an important venue by a top official the week before the release of Brown-Vitter sends a clear message about the Treasury’s position. “She is not going off the cuff in a policy speech like that,” said former Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and persistent bank critic Neil Barofsky. “This seems like a carefully measured response to Brown-Vitter that the regulatory-reform shop, from the Treasury perspective, is closed.”
The resistance should not surprise anyone. Under Timothy Geithner, Treasury was openly hostile to far-reaching congressional proposals to constrain mega-banks. Despite the change in leadership at the department, many holdovers from the Geithner era, including Miller, still hold high-level positions. In his confirmation hearings, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew stated flatly that Dodd-Frank had dealt with the Too Big to Fail problem. Most important, Lew works for President Obama: Reaching an agreement to break up mega-banks by forcing them to carry more capital would represent a tacit admission that Dodd-Frank, widely touted as a centerpiece of the president's first term, failed in its core mission of stabilizing the financial system.
Given that Miller is a 26-year veteran of the investment-management firm T. Rowe Price, it is no surprise that she espouses Wall Street’s worldview.
What’s striking about Miller’s speech is how closely it mirrors the arguments set forth in several recent papers put out by the big banks, their lobbyists, and their allies. This includes the previously mentioned report on Brown-Vitter by Goldman Sachs; a policy brief by the Financial Services Forum and co-signed by the leading lobbyist groups for the banking industry; and a report with the cheery title "Banking on Our Future" by Hamilton Place Strategies (HPS), a public-relations firm staffed by top communications officials from the last three Republican presidential campaigns (HPS has admitted that its clients include large financial institutions). All of these reports were released in the past few months in an effort to derail Brown-Vitter. Given that Miller is a 26-year veteran of the investment-management firm T. Rowe Price, it is no surprise that she espouses Wall Street’s worldview. For example, Miller discounts an influential working paper from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) showing an $83 billion annual subsidy for mega-banks from their Too Big to Fail status by saying its evidence “predates the financial crisis and Dodd-Frank’s reforms.” This is precisely the argument the Financial Services Forum made, ignoring the fact that there are plenty of post-crisis studies hat show the subsidies persist. Miller highlights the resolution authority granted to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) under Dodd-Frank, which allows the FDIC to wind down any systemically important financial institution verging on collapse rather than resorting to a bailout. She says that, to the extent that a cost-of-borrowing advantage exists for mega-banks, resolution authority “should help wring it the rest of the way out of the market.” In practically the same language, HPS writes that resolution authority “helps eliminate any potential funding advantage big banks are thought to have.” And in providing statistical support for increased capital, Miller notes, “The 18 largest bank-holding companies … doubled the amount of their Tier 1 common equity capital over the last four years.” Goldman Sachs uses precisely this statistic, writing that “common equity has doubled for U.S. banks” since the financial crisis.
Critics have assailed the bank-industry papers for their unrealistic views about the risks in the current system and over-optimistic evaluations of the impact of the most recent regulatory changes. The truth is that Dodd-Frank has emerged from the gate slowly, bank lobbyists have successfully gutted many of its provisions, and much of it remains in flux. Miller approvingly highlights the Volcker rule as a key financial reform, but the final rule has been delayed nearly a year and has yet to be adopted. The proposed rule to tax systemically important institutions, for example, would cost as little as $28 million, about .2 percent of annual earnings. Other provisions like resolution authority could prove unworkable in an interconnected, global financial system and amid the pressure of catastrophic collapse. Stanford economics professor Anat Admati, author of the book The Banker's New Clothes does not believe Dodd-Frank will hold up in a crisis, comparing it to “preparing for a disaster like an earthquake by putting an ambulance at the corner.”
Since Brown-Vitter relies so heavily on imposing new capital requirements, Miller’s alignment with the industry on capital is the most telling section of her speech. Miller says that recently imposed capital rules—negotiated under an international process in Basel, Switzerland—are sufficient for banks to cover their own losses. But while the Basel rules as much as tripled capital requirements, as the Financial Times’s Martin Wolf quipped, when the standards were released in 2010, “tripling almost nothing does not give one very much.” Critics also argue that current capital rules afford banks far too many opportunities to use creative accounting to game the system. The rules allow banks to calculate their capital needs using “risk-weighted” assets, counting each type of asset differently based on its assumed level of risk. Banks use risk-weighting to sharply reduce the amount of capital they have to hold—by as much as 50 percent, according to some calculations. In the event of a systemic collapse where all assets fail, regardless of the accounting games, banks would not have the funds necessary to stay solvent. Indeed, during the 2008 financial crisis, investment banks like Lehman Brothers were allowed by the Securities and Exchange Commission to risk-weight assets, and nearly all of them failed. Meanwhile, Sheila Bair at the FDIC rejected risk-weighting, and the commercial banks her agency insured fared better. Brown-Vitter would ban risk-weighting in their capital standards, but Miller simply counsels to stay the course.
Treasury’s rejection of Brown-Vitter has serious implications. On Monday, Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson reacted to Brown-Vitter by saying that regulators should finish implementing Dodd-Frank before Congress moves to enact additional reforms. Johnson didn’t cite Miller’s speech, but he didn’t have to: Democratic leaders in Congress will naturally resist turning against the wishes of their president and his economic team. And many rank-and-file lawmakers will cede to the perceived expertise of the Treasury Department. This gives Treasury outsized control of the financial-reform debate, which they’ve used to weaken and soften reforms at virtually every step of the Dodd-Frank process and beyond. In fact, Treasury officials credit themselves with stopping Sherrod Brown’s 2010 proposal to cap bank size. An anonymous senior official said at the time, “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened. But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”
This all means that Brown-Vitter is likely to sit on a shelf unless and until Wall Street generates another crisis. With Sherrod Brown in line to potentially take over the Senate Banking Committee in 2014, reformers may benefit from the wait. But it will be a wait.
Financial-reform advocates see Brown-Vitter as a major opportunity for President Obama to “get on the right side of history” and address the continued riskiness and complexity of modern finance. But Treasury’s primary concern appears to be limiting any constraints on the record profits of those mega-banks, rather than protecting the public from threats to the rest of the economy. As Barofsky concluded, “Treasury has defended the status of the Too Big to Fail banks every step of the way, why would they stop now?”
For video excerpts from Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota’s speech "Low Real Interest Rates," presented at the Levy Institute’s 22nd Annual Minsky Conference in New York on April 18, click here. Includes audience and press Q&A.
By Caroline BaumBloomberg View, April 22, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
It's not every day that a central banker admits that his medicine for curing the last crisis may be laying the groundwork for the next. But that's exactly what Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said last week at the annual Hyman P. Minsky Conference at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.
Kocherlakota said low real interest rates are necessary to achieve the Fed's dual mandate of maximum employment and stable prices. He also said that low real rates lead to inflated asset prices, volatile returns and increased merger activity, all of which are signs of financial market instability. Listen to what he calls his "key conclusion"—and what I'd call a true conundrum:
"I've suggested that it is likely that, for a number of years to come, the FOMC will only achieve its dual mandate of maximum employment and price stability if it keeps real interest rates unusually low. I’ve also argued that when real interest rates are low, we are likely to see financial market outcomes that signify instability. It follows that, for a considerable period of time, the FOMC may only be to achieve its macroeconomic objectives in association with signs of instability in financial markets."
Just think about that for a minute: What the Fed needs to do in order to achieve its macroeconomic objectives will create instability in financial markets. There's more:
"On the one hand, raising the real interest rate will definitely lead to lower employment and prices. On the other hand, raising the real interest rate may reduce the risk of a financial crisis —- a crisis which could give rise to a much larger fall in employment and prices. Thus, the Committee has to weigh the certainty of a costly deviation from its dual mandate objectives against the benefit of reducing the probability of an even larger deviation from those objectives."
Damned if we do, damned if we don't. Other Fed officials have warned about froth in asset markets, but none to my knowledge has been as forthright in describing the Fed's life-saving medicine as systemic poison.
Like his colleagues, Kocherlakota believes effective supervision and regulation of the financial sector are the best ways to address threats to macroeconomic stability. Yeah, and the tooth fairy leaves money under your pillow if you're good.
For central bankers to believe regulation is the answer, they have to ignore history and disregard the tendency for regulators to be co-opted by those they are assigned to regulate, a phenomenon known as "regulatory capture."
The Minsky Conference was the ideal place for Kocherlakota to deliver his remarks. Minsky observed that, during periods of prosperity and financial stability (the Great Moderation), investors are lulled into taking on more risk with borrowed money.
At some point, investors are forced to sell assets to repay loans, sending asset prices into a downward spiral as cash becomes king. This is what's known as a "Minsky moment."
Kocherlakota seems to be saying such an outcome is inevitable. If only he could tell us when.
By David GraeberThe Guardian, April 21, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
If Reinhart and Rogoff's 'error' has discredited the prevailing policy dogma, now is the time for an alternative that works
The intellectual justification for austerity lies in ruins. It turns out that Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, who originally framed the argument that too high a "debt-to-GDP ratio" will always, necessarily, lead to economic contraction – and who had aggressively promoted it during Rogoff's tenure as chief economist for the IMF – had based their entire argument on a spreadsheet error. The premise behind the cuts turns out to be faulty. There is now no definite proof that high levels of debt necessarily lead to recession.
Will we, then, see a reversal of policy? A sea of mea culpas from politicians who have spent the last few years telling disabled pensioners to give up their bus passes and poor students to forgo college, all on the basis of a mistake? It seems unlikely. After all, as I and many others have long argued, austerity was never really an economic policy: ultimately, it was always about morality. We are talking about a politics of crime and punishment, sin and atonement.
True, it's never been particularly clear exactly what the original sin was: some combination, perhaps, of tax avoidance, laziness, benefit fraud and the election of irresponsible leaders. But in a larger sense, the message was that we were guilty of having dreamed of social security, humane working conditions, pensions, social and economic democracy.
The morality of debt has proved spectacularly good politics. It appears to work just as well whatever form it takes: fiscal sadism (Dutch and German voters really do believe that Greek, Spanish and Irish citizens are all, collectively, as they put it, "debt sinners", and vow support for politicians willing to punish them) or fiscal masochism (middle-class Britons really will dutifully vote for candidates who tell them that government has been on a binge, that they must tighten their belts, it'll be hard, but it's something we can all do for the sake of our grandchildren). Politicians locate economic theories that provide flashy equations to justify the politics; their authors, like Rogoff, are celebrated as oracles; no one bothers to check if the numbers actually add up.
If ever proof was required that the theory is selected to suit the politics, one need only consider the reaction politicians have to economists who dare suggest this moralistic framework is unnecessary; or that there might be solutions that don't involve widespread human suffering.
Even before we knew Reinhart and Rogoff's study was simply wrong, many had pointed out their historical survey made no distinction between the effects of debt on countries such as the US or Japan – which issue their own currency and therefore have their debt denominated in that currency – and countries such as Ireland, Greece, that do not. But the real solution to the eurobond crisis, some have argued, lies in precisely this distinction.
Why is Japan not in the same situation as Spain or Italy? It has one of the highest public debt-to-GDP ratios in the world (twice that of Ireland), and is regularly featured in magazines like the Economist as a prima facie example of an economic basket case, or at least, how not to manage a modern industrial economy. Yet they have no problem raising money. In fact the rate on their 10-year bonds is under 1%. Why? Because there's no danger of default. Everyone knows that in the event of an emergency, the Japanese government could simply print the money. And Japanese money, in turn, will always be good because there is a constant demand for it by anyone who has to pay Japanese taxes.
This is precisely what Ireland, or Spain, or any of the other troubled southern eurozone countries, cannot do. Since only the German-dominated European Central Bank can print euros, investors in Irish bonds fear default, and the interest rates are bid up accordingly. Hence the vicious cycle of austerity. As a larger percentage of government spending has to be redirected to paying rising interest rates, budgets are slashed, workers fired, the economy shrinks, and so does the tax base, further reducing government revenues and further increasing the danger of default. Finally, political representatives of the creditors are forced to offer "rescue packages", announcing that, if the offending country is willing to sufficiently chastise its sick and elderly, and shatter the dreams and aspirations of a sufficient percentage of its youth, they will take measures to ensure the bonds will not default.
Warren Mosler and Philip Pilkington are two economists who dare to think beyond the shackles of Rogoff-style austerity economics. They belong to the modern money theory school, which starts by looking at how money actually works, rather than at how it should work. On this basis, they have made a powerful case that if we just get back to that basic problem of money-creation, we may well discover that none of this is ever necessary to begin with. In conjunction with the Levy Institute at Bard College, they propose an ingenious, yet elegant solution to the eurobond crisis. Why not simply add a bit of legal language to, say, Irish bonds, declaring that, in the event of default, those bonds could themselves be used to pay Irish taxes? Investors would be reassured the bonds would remain "money good" even in the worst of crises – since even if they weren't doing business in Ireland, and didn't have to pay Irish taxes, it would be easy enough to sell them at a slight discount to someone who does. Once potential investors understood the new arrangement, interest rates would fall back from 4-5% to a manageable 1-2%, and the cycle of austerity would be broken.
Why has this plan not been adopted? When it was proposed in the Irish parliament in May 2012, finance minster Michael Noonan rejected the plan on completely arbitrary grounds (he claimed it would mean treating some bond-holders differently than others, and ignored those who quickly pointed out existing bonds could easily be given the same legal status, or else, swapped for tax-backed bonds). No one is quite sure what the real reason was, other than perhaps an instinctual bureaucratic fear of the unknown.
It's not even clear that anyone would even be hurt by such a plan. Investors would be happy. Citizens would see quick relief from cuts. There'd be no need for further bailouts. It might not work as well in countries such as Greece, where tax collection is, let us say, less reliable, and it might not entirely eliminate the crisis. But it would almost certainly have major salutary effects. If the politicians refuse to consider it – as they so far have done – it's hard to see any reason other than sheer incredulity at the thought that the great moral drama of modern times might in fact be nothing more than the product of bad theory and faulty data series.
By Robert LenznerForbes, April 20, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Erick Rosengren, suggested this week that there could still be runs on money market mutual funds, as took place at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis, since these funds have “no capital” and invest in uninsured short term securities of banks and other financial service firms. While debate over potential regulatory solutions for money market funds continues on, the Boston Fed chief, emphasized that the safety of the money market mutual funds are a “significant unresolved issue.”
As of April 13 there was $903.56 billion in retail money market funds sponsored by Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, Dreyfus, Invesco and others, The total amount of all kinds of money market funds, some owned by institutional investors, was $2.6 trillion. The average weekly yield was a record low of only 0.02%.
He also singled out the issue of capital for the broker-dealer fraternity, where he raised the problem of “virtually no change for broker-dealers since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September, 2008 and the shotgun marriage of Merrill Lynch into BankAmerica. The solution Rosengren recommended was that the “larger(these investment firms) get the higher the capital ratio”: should be imposed on them. The Boston Fed chief executive, speaking at Bard College’s Levy Institute conference on the economy and financial markets, seemed to be suggesting that the cause for this vacuum in policy is that “Regulatory bodies haven’t evolved as much as the financial markets.” In other words, 5 years after the 2008 meltdown we still have a major challenge in trying to make the global financial system secure against runs and speculative bubbles. There is still further to go in the structural reorganization of the danger from derivatives, but he believes clearing derivatives contracts on exchanges and the decline in bilateral transactions has reduced an element of risk.
Nevertheless, Rosengren made crystal clear in conversation after his talk that he “sees no bubbles anywhere, not even in real estate where prices are still below their 2006 peak.” He believes prices of residential real estate in Boston and New York are still 15-20% under their peak—and prices in Miami, Phoenix, Las Vegas, California– are still priced at a steeper discount to the peak in 2006.
As for the economy in general, Rosengren sees “traction” picking up momentum, in which case he would support the “prudent” position of gradually reducing the QE stimulus program. However, he is troubled by the fact that monetary policy(quantitative easing and record low interest rates) are in conflict with fiscal policy, the restraint of sequester and reduction of federal, state and local government spending, ie “the Obama cuts.”
By Robert LenznerForbes, April 19, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The growing disparity in wealth made the great recession worse and the recovery weaker than ever before. This nation’s wealth disparity widened more than ever before over the last five years because of the steep decline in the value of residential homes and stagnant wages for the lower and middle income groups in the U.S., explained a member of the Federal Reserve Board, Sarah Bloom Raskin, in a speech that explored for the first time a fresh explanation about the obstacles holding back economic growth.
This “financial vulnerability and marginal ability” to recover from the decline in the wealth of lower income and middle income Americans is “undermining our country’s strength,” Governor Raskin emphasized in New York yesterday at an economic conference sponsored by the Levy Institute at Bard College and the Ford Foundation. Raskin admitted to a feeling of frustration at the central bank about the inability of the Fed’s low interest rate policy together with the expansion in the money supply to alleviate this growing disparity between the wealthy and the rest of American families. She admitted there was current exploration at the Board level of the central bank that “our macro models should be adjusted,” because four years into the recovery a confluence of factors have contributed to a weak recovery.
“Inequality contributed to the severity of the recession,” Raskin said flatly, and blamed this inequality- for the “differential expectations” in the future between well-off families– with those families not so well off, who were battered by a plunge in the value of their homes, a high level of debt and a continuance of lower wages. I had never heard that theme so sharply expressed as the blame for the mediocre rate of growth we are experiencing.
Here are the Fed’s latest breakdown on the disparity in wealth. The top 20% of the population own 72% of the nation’s wealth in large part due to their vast holdings in the common shares of publicly held companies. By comparison, the poorest 20% of the U.S. population only own 3% of the wealth, and so were unable to shelter themselves when their homes declined in value, often below the face value of their mortgage and their take-home pay was not growing– or they lost their jobs.
The distribution of wealth inequality is far worse than the disparity in incomes. Nonetheless, the Fed Governor suggested it does explain the lower levels of consumer spending. As to income disparity between 1979 and 2007, the Federal Reserve figures shows the highest income cohort doubled their annual compensation when adjusted for inflation. The top 1% of earners in the nation saw their share of the national income rise from 10% to 20%. Meanwhile the bottom 40% of the nation’s workers saw their share of the national income decline slightly from 13% to 10%.
The middle class average income rose in those 30 years to 2007 by only 20% or less than 1% a year, underscoring just how much middle income Americans have fallen behind their wealthier brethren. Fed Governor Raskin called this performance “sluggishness.”
One hopeful sign is the gradual increase in prices for residential homes throughout the United States. This trend has restored some semblance of household wealth for homeowners from low income and middle income sectors of the population. Another 10% increase in home values, Gov. Raskin suggested, would allow many more low income families to stay in their homes.
More worrisome, however, is the trend for more and more jobs to be only part-time with less pay and less benefits. “We have lost 9 million jobs,” she said and the growing trend for new jobs to be part-time employment or involving contingent work is “no way to upward mobility” in America.
By Greg RobbMarketWatch, April 19, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) – No financial institution, regardless of its size, will be bailed out by taxpayers again, Treasury Undersecretary for Domestic Finance Mary Miller said Thursday. As a result of the Dodd-Frank bank regulatory reform, "shareholders of failed companies will be wiped out; creditors will absorb losses; culpable management will not be retained and may have their compensation clawed back; and any remaining costs associated with liquidating the company must be recovered from disposition of the company's assets and, if necessary, from assessments on the financial sector, not taxpayers," Miller said in a speech at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. Miller also said evidence was mixed on whether large financial institutions continue to benefit from lower borrowing costs. The Treasury will continue to work to reduce the risks posed by large financial companies and to put in place measures to wind the companies down if the need arises, Miller said.