Kevin Drum - March 2009

Regulation

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:18 PM EDT
Bloomberg reports that new financial regulations are on their way:

The Obama administration is preparing an overhaul of U.S. banking rules that would force financial companies to keep more cash on hand in case their trading bets go wrong.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told lawmakers yesterday that changes will include “strong oversight, including appropriate constraints on risk-taking.” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the case of American International Group Inc. showed the “intense problem” of trading with insufficient capital to guard against losses.

This is probably good stuff, but one thing that I find persistently missing from these discussions is any sense of guiding principles. There are a million rules you might want to put in place to regulate the financial industry, and every one of them might individually sound sensible.  But what's the big picture?  What are you trying to accomplish?

If you asked me, for example, I'd toss out three big principles.  #1 is firmer regulation over leverage, wherever and however it occurs.  This would produce regulations like the one above that increases capital adequacy ratios, but it would also lead to similar oversight of hedge funds; an overhaul of how capital and assets are calculated; regulation of effective leverage embedded in complex derivatives; rules about off-balance-sheet vehicles; and so forth.

#2 would be a stronger commitment to act countercyclically.  That would produce things like rules designed to force the Fed to keep an eye on asset inflation as well as goods inflation; a dedication to limiting credit expansion as well as credit destruction; capital adequacy rules that weren't merely stronger, but that tightened during expansions and loosened during contractions; and stronger down payment requirements for mortgage loans.

#3, for lack of a better name, is a recognition that the global financial system could stand to have a little more sand in its gears.  Something to slow it down just a little bit.  This might include things like a small transaction tax; exchange trading for credit derivatives; and stronger transparency rules.

Now, I might be wrong about these principles, and I might be wrong about the specific regulations needed to support them.  Fine.  Suggest your own.  But rather than a huge hodgepodge of rules that might be good ideas on their own but might not really work together to accomplish what you want, I'd like to see a moderate, well-targeted set of rules aimed at fixing two or three big things.  The principles should guide what we do, not the other way around.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Come See Rachel! (If You're in the Bay Area, That Is)

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 1:11 AM EDT
Would you like to meet Rachel Maddow?  Do you live near San Francisco?  Our fundraiser this Saturday with Maddow has been sold out for weeks, but we thought it might be nice to give away a pair of tickets to one of our blog readers.  (I'll be there too, in case you need even more incentive to come.)  If you're interested, just leave a comment and we'll choose a random winner on Thursday evening.  Make sure you're registered so we have an email address to contact you.  Good luck!

The Three C's

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:49 AM EDT
Fred Kaplan writes that the Obama administration will soon have to choose its Afghanistan strategy: either CT (counterterrorism) or COIN (counterinsurgency).  Steve Hynd doesn't like either option: he suggests plain old C (containment) instead.  Read and decide.

Cruel and Unusual

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 11:41 PM EDT
Atul Gawande has a piece in the New Yorker arguing that lengthy periods of solitary confinement are so debilitating that it basically amounts to torture.  You can read the whole thing and decide for yourself, but I actually found this short passage to be the most convincing argument:

The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional. Writing for the majority in the case of a Colorado murderer who had been held in isolation for a month, Justice Samuel Miller noted that experience had revealed “serious objections” to solitary confinement:

“A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover suffcient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

If you go down the whole list of accepted norms in treating people — child labor, civil rights, treatment of the mentally ill, minimum housing standards, workplace safety, etc. — virtually everything that was even a close call in 1890 is universally reviled today.  Nobody's in favor of kids working in mills, Jim Crow laws, packed lunatic asylums, rat-infested slums, or miners dying of black lung.  Our penal system is apparently the exception.  But if we knew, even in 1890, that long-term solitary confinement is essentially barbaric, can there really be any question about it in 2009?

Press Conference Notes

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 8:35 PM EDT
Obama better pick up the pace.  I'm about to fall asleep.  If he doesn't start bringing a little more pizazz to these things the networks are just going to pull their cameras and go home.

UPDATE: OK, this was good.  Ed Henry asked Obama why it took him a few days to respond to the AIG bonus scandal.  Answer: "It took me a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I say something."  Ba-da-bum!

How Far To Fall?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 6:09 PM EDT
Via Andrew Sullivan, Mike at No Empty Wallets wants to know why I think home prices have another 20% to fall.  It's nothing complicated.  The most widely accepted barometer of home prices is the Case-Shiller home price index, which canvasses housing prices in 20 cities.  Here's the raw data.

Case-Shiller was at 150 in December 2008.  The GDP price deflator stood at 123.  So the inflation-adjusted value of Case-Shiller was about 122.

In January 2000, when home prices were near their historical trend levels, Case-Shiller stood at 100.  The GDP deflator stood at 99.  So the inflation-adjusted value of Case-Shiller was about 101.

My arithmetic is pretty simple: getting from 122 back to 101 is about a 20% drop. (The chart on the right, from Calculated Risk, is a year old, but even so it gets the same point across for the graphically minded.  The orange line is the 20-city index.  It's fallen 20% in the past year, and looks to have another 20% to go before it reaches pre-bubble trend levels.)

Actually, it's worth noting that I'm being a little generous here, since in a recession values often overshoot on the way down.  Mike suggests that lower mortgage rates and the upcoming stimulus tax credit will prop up prices a bit compared to past levels, and that's possible.  But mortgage rates are only slightly lower today than in 2000, and the effect of the tax credit is hard to judge.  I'm just guessing like everyone else (and since I have a house I'm trying to sell I'd be delighted to end up wrong about this) but I'd keep my money on a further 20% drop.  We still have a fair bit of recession ahead of us.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Afraid of Risk?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 2:53 PM EDT
Brad DeLong points to a defense of Tim Geithner's toxic waste plan from Christopher Carroll:

Unlike the critics, the Treasury has absorbed the main lesson from the past 30 years of academic finance research: asset price movements mainly reflect changes in investors’ collective attitude toward risk.

....The details [of the Geithner plan] flow from an overarching view that the markets for the “toxic assets” that are corroding banks’ balance sheets have shut down in part because in those markets the degree of risk aversion has become not just problematic but pathological. The different parts of the plan reflect different approaches to trying to coax private investors back into the market by reducing their perceived degree of risk to levels that even a skittish risk-shy hedge fund manager might find tempting.

I don't want to disagree with this, but I think it's worth looking at it from a slightly different perspective. Obviously risk aversion goes up and down with economic conditions, but one problem with our financial markets is that over the past 30 years they've largely convinced themselves that risk doesn't really exist anymore.  This is especially true on the fixed income side of things, where I think it's been years since the Wall Street crowd really, truly, thought there was any risk left in the market for anyone smart enough to read a yield spread.  You just needed to have the right models and the right hedging strategy.

At the very least, investors should have learned their lesson on this score in 1998, when Long Term Capital Management collapsed.  There were multiple reasons for LTCM's failure, but the biggest one was that they felt comfortable taking enormous leveraged positions because they were convinced that their models had essentially hedged all the risk away.  They hadn't, of course, and they crashed spectacularly.  But in the end the Fed oversaw a rescue, LTCM's investors lost some money, and then they dusted themselves off and convinced each other that this was a once-in-a-century event they didn't really have to worry about.  (The guys responsible for LCTM's implosion went back to Wall Street 12 months later to start a new fund.  They had no trouble raising capital.)

But this time it's different.  It's pretty obvious that all the credit derivatives in the world, no matter how cleverly they're constructed, don't genuinely hedge away risk.  It's still there, and all the guys who thought they'd discovered a magical way to insure high returns forever discovered that they were wrong.

So, yes: risk aversion is sky high right now.  But this is more than just the normal ebb and flow of animal spirits.  It's sophisticated investors rediscovering the idea that risk really exists at all, even for them.  That's a tough transition.  Tim Geithner's about to find out if Wall Street has made it yet.

Quote of the Day - 3.24.09

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 2:00 PM EDT
From Marc Ambinder, explaining why he thinks Obama is moving more cautiously than his critics would like:

What's kept the administration from being as bold as its critics want is not a lack of imagination, or a lack of contact with the outside world, or an overreliance on the banks....It's a combination of the knowledge that Obama cannot do big things unless he remains a majority president, that he could make a hash of them if Congress perceives that the administration is pushing too close to the boundary of what's acceptable, and that the administration has accepted that it cannot allow Congress to be a partner in leading the American people towards a solution.  The stimulus package debate in February was dispositive; the administration lost confidence in Congress's maturity fairly quickly.

It's not clear how much of this is just Ambinder's own judgment and how much is informed by his reporting, but presumably he wouldn't say this if he didn't have good reason to believe it.  And that's pretty interesting: Obama no longer trusts Congress.  It's also a wee bit frightening, no?

(Ambinder also has a list of questions he thinks need to be answered before any kind of nationalization plan is possible.  I don't quite understand some of them — why would there be a run on a nationalized bank? — but they're worth taking a look at.)

The Price of Health

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 1:45 PM EDT
Ezra Klein has a friend who got airlifted to a small town in Germany after an accident in Sierra Leone.  Now he's stuck:

My friend does not speak German. He does not know anyone in Germany. He wants to come home and receive his care in the states. He wants a doctor he can communicate with and nurses who can understand his requests and friends who can speak to him and calls that aren't subject to international fees. But his insurance is refusing the request. Medical treatment, they're arguing, is simply too expensive in America.

....My friend's insurers are not lying to him. They are not making a capricious decision. They simply have no wish to pay American prices when care can be obtained at German rates. And so my friend and his family must now focus their days and nights worrying over what to do, and how much to spend. As for the rest of us in America, we pay these prices anyway, and never realize how terribly we're being ripped off.

Just keep telling yourself: best healthcare in the world, baby, best healthcare in the world.  Say it often enough and you might even believe it eventually.

The Swedish Model

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 1:08 PM EDT
The interview of the day is Benjamin Sarlin's short chat with Bo Lundgren, the finance minister who oversaw Sweden's temporary bank nationalizations in the early 90s:

"There are similarities [to Sweden's case]," Lundgren said. "There are three things any plan must do — the first is to maintain liquidity, that's taken care of by the Fed. The second thing is to restore confidence, and that hasn’t been done so far and obviously the first proposal to buy toxic assets wasn't enough. And then you need capital injections so banks can keep lending at the levels needed for the economy as a whole."

However, Lundgren said that Obama was correct in observing that a similar nationalization scheme might be more difficult given America's size and preeminent role in world finance compared to Sweden.

"With Japan and Sweden, the crises we had, even if it was a very long process with Japan, they were crises that we had on our own," Lundgren said. "The rest of the world economy managed to be not perfectly good but still reasonably good. This time it's worse; it's a kind of financial tsunami."

I suppose you could equally make the case that the worldwide nature of this crisis makes dramatic action like bank nationalization more necessary than it was in Sweden's case.  Still, Lundgren is almost certainly right that it would be a lot more difficult.  Nationalizing a $2 trillion institution that's a commercial bank, an investment bank, a hedge fund, an insurance company, a brokerage, and owner of a portfolio of other banks around the world is a lot trickier than nationalizing a midsize regional bank in the era before the explosion of credit derivatives.

In fact, here's an assignment desk job for someone with the background to know the details: What would it take to nationalize an outfit like Citigroup?  What are the likely legal, financial, diplomatic, and operational issues that would have to be resolved?  It would be a real public service if someone with a credible background in this stuff could lay out the details in a way that's understandable for all the rest of us.