Kevin Drum

Political Interference

| Wed Mar. 11, 2009 1:07 PM EDT
The New York Times reports that banks are getting tired of Uncle Sam constantly looking over their shoulders:

Financial institutions that are getting government bailout funds have been told to put off evictions and modify mortgages for distressed homeowners. They must let shareholders vote on executive pay packages. They must slash dividends, cancel employee training and morale-building exercises, and withdraw job offers to foreign citizens....The conditions are necessary to prevent Wall Street executives from paying lavish bonuses and buying corporate jets, some experts say, but others say the conditions go beyond protecting taxpayers and border on social engineering.

Some bankers say the conditions have become so onerous that they want to return the bailout money. The list includes small banks like the TCF Financial Corporation of Wayzata, Minn., and Iberia Bank of Lafayette, La., as well as giants like Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo.

Obviously, everyone's first reaction is here is to break out their tiny violins so we can all play sad songs for the nation's bankers.  Songs like this: If you don't want taxpayer oversight, then don't take taxpayer money after you've run your bank into the ground.  Until then, suck it up.

That's pretty much my second reaction too.  Still, there's a germ of an issue here.  One of the arguments against bank nationalization is that unlike Sweden, where those nice sensible Scandinavians were willing to let their technocrats run things after their housing bust, Americans have no such discipline.  Nationalize a big American bank and Congress will promptly use it as a piggy bank for every half-baked scheme their staffs can cook up.  I mean, it's not as if Congress was exactly a positive influence on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, was it?

Which suggests these complaints deserve a hearing.  Some things just make sense: if you're accepting bailout money because your capital has become dangerously low, then it's hardly unreasonable to demand that you stop depleting capital even more by continuing to pay out full dividends.  That's directly related to the problem at hand and it's a reasonable regulatory response to a serious problem.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, you get populist grandstanding like the recent fuss over Northern Trust hosting a bunch of client parties at a golf tournament they were sponsoring in Los Angeles.  Aside from the fact that money for the events all came out of the bank's marketing budget — which no one in their right mind thinks should be shut down during a recession — they almost certainly would have wasted more money by calling off their parties than by holding them.  Those kinds of things are scheduled far in advance, and the contracts they signed probably didn't allow them to recover more than a pittance if they cancelled at the last minute.  So if they had cancelled, they would have ended up paying out 90% of their budget and getting nothing for it, instead of paying out 100% and getting something in return.

Now, you can argue that they should have cancelled anyway purely for the PR value.  And maybe so.  And it's obviously a judgment call about what kinds of rules should apply to bailed out banks that ought to be conserving cash.  Still, those of us who tentatively favor nationalization should also favor a process that keeps Congress at arm's length.  The whole point of nationalization is to restore both solvency and confidence, and let's face it: sober management isn't really Congress's stock in trade.  I'm not quite sure where the balance lies, but it's worth an open discussion.

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Vitter's Meltdown

| Wed Mar. 11, 2009 12:06 PM EDT
Roll Call reports that Sen. David Vitter (R–Hookerville) had an airport meltdown last week:

According to an HOH tipster who witnessed the scene, the Louisiana Republican arrived Thursday evening at his United Airlines gate 20 minutes before the plane was scheduled to depart, only to find the gate had already been closed. Undeterred, Vitter opened the door, setting off a security alarm and prompting an airline worker to warn him that entering the gate was forbidden.

Vitter, our spy said, gave the airline worker an earful, employing the timeworn “do-you-know-who-I-am” tirade that apparently grew quite heated.

That happened to me once.  I didn't barge through the door, and I wasn't important enough to credibly demand if the gate agent knew who I was, but I sure was pissed.  Obviously Vitter needs to learn a little impulse control, but I guess I sympathize a little bit here.  If you show up at your gate 20 minutes before the flight is scheduled, they really ought to let you on.

Advise and Consent

| Wed Mar. 11, 2009 1:32 AM EDT
Bruce Ackerman is unhappy that lots of powerful executive branch appointments can be made without Senate approval:

Modern presidents have increasingly gained the power to make key appointments unilaterally — with President Obama taking this process to new heights. His White House czars such as Lawrence Summers and Carol Browner are likely to overshadow the Cabinet secretaries in their respective domains. Yet, as presidential assistants, they escape the need for Senate scrutiny.

....Consider, for example, the treatment accorded Eric Holder as attorney general and Gregory Craig as counsel to the president. Holder was carefully vetted by the Senate, and his work in previous administrations was the subject of much debate. Yet Craig, who will also be involved in important and public legal matters, largely escaped scrutiny. Why?

Craig, a distinguished lawyer and public servant, is an outstanding choice for his key position. But it is not enough to trust the president to make good appointments. The challenge is to make it difficult for future presidents to appoint less-qualified officials — such as Alberto Gonzales or Harriet Miers — without serious outside review of their credentials. That, after all, is the aim of our system of checks and balances.

Ackerman has a point, but here's a different suggestion: how about doing away with Senate confirmation entirely? It wastes tons of committee time, it promotes endless grandstanding by bloviating pols, it discourages all but the hardiest from working for the government, and — most important of all — it doesn't actually seem to produce a better class of appointees, does it?  Is the country really better off with a system that confirms Alberto Gonzales but deep sixes Tom Daschle?  Has the White House staff, on average, been any less competent or less honest in recent years than the Senate-confirmed cabinet staff?  Does the Senate, as Ackerman would like, really make it difficult for presidents to appoint underqualified officials?

The Senate would never agree to give up its precious consent privilege, of course, but I'm frankly not sure they add much to the process these days.  In the meantime, allowing the president to have a White House staff of his choosing — whether I like his choices or not — seems more important than providing yet more cannon fodder for the greatest deliberative body in the world.  They've got plenty to chew on already.

Blogs and The Man

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 7:55 PM EDT
Should the president read blogs?  Ezra thinks so:

Many of us bloggers know Jesse Lee, the White House's crack blog outreach guy. It would be nice, however, if the Eisenhower Executive Office Building housed Lee's inverse: An independent-minded new media guy charged by Obama with digging through the blogosphere and picking out a selection of posts and contrary voices that the President might find analytically useful. That's certainly happening on the communications side of things, where the blogs are watched with an eye towards message and influence. It would be nice to know a similar project was underway to trawl the more technical corners of the blogosphere for insights that might be useful but aren't being hunted down by a busy president or his overworked underlings, much less passed on by technocrats whose incentives don't include elevating analyses that undercut their own positions.

Nah.  Obama has all the technical expertise he needs, and the real outliers wouldn't make it past this hypothetical EEOB gatekeeper anyway. Instead, Obama ought to just read some blogs.  Either pick a few he likes and scan them daily, or else commission some kind of random RSS feed based on a larger universe of blogs.  It would be sort of like Ozymandias watching all those TV screens at once to suck in the zeitgeist, except in words.

(Sorry.  I played hooky this afternoon and went to see Watchmen. So I figured I ought to work in a reference somewhere.)

Anyway, one of the keys to this would be to keep his reading list absolutely secret.  Can you imagine what your blog would become like if you knew the president was reading it?  You'd either become a constant shill for every one of your pet hobbyhorses or else catatonic from the pressure of knowing that the leader of the free world was reading your pearls of wisdom.  So that means Obama needs to make the choices himself and not let anybody else in on it.

Besides, assuming that Obama doesn't screw the pooch completely over the next eight years, what would be cooler than discovering in 2016 that your blog was one of the ones he had been reading?  Not much.  So get that man an RSS reader and let him see the outside world in all its raw glory.

Sticking Together

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 2:08 PM EDT
Without fussing over the details in this particular post (you can go here for that), the Employee Free Choice Act would almost certainly make it easier for unions to organize new workplaces.  That's why unions support it and management doesn't.  Wal-Mart management, for example, especially hates it.  But I sure never expected this, as reported by Ezra Klein:

The more impressive strike came, however, earlier this morning, when Citibank downgraded Wal-Mart's stock from a "buy" to a "hold" on fears that passage of EFCA could force the company to unionize which would in turn decrease shareholder profits as more of the company's worth was distributed to employees.

....It's hard to recall another time when an analyst actually downgraded a stock on fears of legislation that few expect will even pass. Indeed, many on the left are arguing that this is more about creating stock market panic that will convince senators to vote against EFCA than about accurately pricing Wal-Mart's stock. "When I see upgrades to the stocks of Wal-Mart's already-unionized competitors (grocery stores like Safeway who will gain back market share if easier unionization results in higher Wal-Mart labor costs) specifically pegged to the specter of EFCA, then I'll admit that Citi is engaged in good-faith prognosticating here," e-mails Josh Bivens at the Economic Policy Institute. "Otherwise, not so much."

The malefactors of great wealth are really sticking together on this, aren't they?  Considering Citibank's recent record, though, I think we could all be forgiven for taking their view on this with a grain of salt.

In Which I Agree With Yuval Levin

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 1:41 PM EDT
Hey, it was bound to happen sometime.  And of course, I only agree with him halfway.  But he's right when he says this about President Obama's decision to allow much broader federal funding of embryonic stem cell research:

What you think of his policy depends on what you think of the moral status of embryos....That legitimate dispute underlies the stem cell debate. But that is not the ground on which the president made his case yesterday. He argued that to deny free rein to stem cell science is to ignore and reject the promise of science as such. In a barely concealed swipe at his predecessor, he pledged that his administration would "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

The executive order Obama signed omits any mention of ethical debate....The issue, he suggested, is a matter of science, not politics.

Politics is politics, and presidents always frame their decisions in ways they think will be the most acceptable to the most people.  But this annoyed me when I read Obama's statement yesterday, and I don't blame Levin for being annoyed either.  If you think an embryo is a human life — and lots of people do — then you're going to be opposed to embryo research.  If, like me, you don't, then you're not likely to have any objection.  But although science can inform that debate, it can't resolve it.  Ethics and ideology will always be front and center.

I guess I wouldn't care too much about this except that Obama also issued a memo yesterday about eliminating political interference with science.  That's important, and it applies to important subjects like global warming, habitat protection, GM foods, Plan B, and other things.  But its impact is diluted if we pretend that everything is a scientific issue.  There's nothing wrong with admitting that both Bush's stem cell decision and Obama's have strong moral and ideological dimensions, and denying it tends to reduce our credibility when we insist on the underlying science of other issues that really are mostly scientific.  In this case, honesty really is the best policy.

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Bernanke on Leverage

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 12:24 PM EDT
The title of this post is mostly whimsy: in his speech about financial reform today, Ben Bernanke barely even mentioned leverage as a problem.  In fact, his only use of the word (in the financial sense, anyway) came toward the end when he vaguely suggested that a new government agency might be set up to, among other things, assess the potential for "broad-based increases in financial leverage...to increase systemic risks."

Since I think massive abuse of leverage is at the heart of what turned an ordinary asset bubble into a global meltdown, I'm disappointed that he didn't spend more time on this.  But on a related matter, he did say this:

However, there is some evidence that capital standards, accounting rules, and other regulations have made the financial sector excessively procyclical — that is, they lead financial institutions to ease credit in booms and tighten credit in downturns more than is justified by changes in the creditworthiness of borrowers, thereby intensifying cyclical changes.

For example, capital regulations require that banks' capital ratios meet or exceed fixed minimum standards for the bank to be considered safe and sound by regulators. Because banks typically find raising capital to be difficult in economic downturns or periods of financial stress, their best means of boosting their regulatory capital ratios during difficult periods may be to reduce new lending, perhaps more so than is justified by the credit environment. We should review capital regulations to ensure that they are appropriately forward-looking, and that capital is allowed to serve its intended role as a buffer — one built up during good times and drawn down during bad times in a manner consistent with safety and soundness.

Capital ratios basically regulate the amount of leverage a bank is allowed to take on, and what Bernanke is suggesting here is that in good times, when animal spirits are high and anyone with a pulse is offered a no-down loan, capital ratios should be increased, thus reducing bank lending and keeping leverage within reasonable bounds.  In bad times, when animal spirits are moribund and deleveraging shuts down the credit pipeline, capital ratios should be decreased, allowing banks to loan more money.

This has always struck me as a good idea.  But Bernanke doesn't say how he thinks it should be done.  Would a board of some kind make these decisions twice a quarter, the way the Fed does with interest rates?  Or would there be some kind of automatic mechanism involved?  If the former, what confidence do we have that they'd really be willing to take the punch bowl away during boom times?  The Fed sure wasn't willing to do so during the 2002-07 expansion.  Overall, this is a good suggestion, but it could bear some fleshing out.

More Losses

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 2:00 AM EDT
Here's your chart of the day, courtesy of McClatchy:

America's five largest banks, which already have received $145 billion in taxpayer bailout dollars, still face potentially catastrophic losses from exotic investments if economic conditions substantially worsen, their latest financial reports show.

Citibank, Bank of America, HSBC Bank USA, Wells Fargo Bank and J.P. Morgan Chase reported that their "current" net loss risks from derivatives — insurance-like bets tied to a loan or other underlying asset — surged to $587 billion as of Dec. 31. Buried in end-of-the-year regulatory reports that McClatchy has reviewed, the figures reflect a jump of 49 percent in just 90 days.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. officials are "examining what fresh steps they might need to take to stabilize [Citibank] if its problems mount, according to people familiar with the matter."  This is in case Citi "takes a sudden turn for the worse," which, they say hearteningly, "they aren't expecting."  Good to hear.

Quants

| Mon Mar. 9, 2009 9:56 PM EDT
Dennis Overbye has a piece in the New York Times today about "quants," the geeks and nerds who have converged on Wall Street in recent years and tried to use mathematical models to outsmart the market and generate vast sums of risk-free cash for their employers.  I've read a bunch of stories in this genre, and most of them have something in common that's always slightly puzzled me.  See if you can guess what it is based on these excerpts from Oberbye's piece:

Emanuel Derman....left particle physics for a job on Wall Street...."it had the quality of physics"....forerunner of the many physicists and other scientists who have flooded Wall Street....physics Web site arXiv.org....“My Life as a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance”

....Asked to compare her work to physics....There are a thousand physicists on Wall Street....Physicists began to follow the jobs from academia to Wall Street in the late 1970s....Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo....J. Doyne Farmer, a physicist and professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

....“I think physicists should go back to the physics department and leave Wall Street alone”....Eric R. Weinstein, a mathematical physicist....Nigel Goldenfeld, a physics professor at the University of Illinois....too many physicists on Wall Street.

Did you figure it out?  What's the deal with physicists?  They always seem to be at the center of these stories, but the fundamental tool of the quants is math.  So why not mathematicians instead of physicists?

Overbye suggests a couple of possibilities.  #1 is the glut theory: "Physicists began to follow the jobs from academia to Wall Street in the late 1970s, when the post-Sputnik boom in science spending had tapered off and the college teaching ranks had been filled with graduates from the 1960s. The result, as Dr. Derman said, was a pipeline with no jobs at the end."

#2 is the affinity theory: "The Black-Scholes equation resembles the kinds of differential equations physicists use to represent heat diffusion and other random processes in nature. Except, instead of molecules or atoms bouncing around randomly, it is the price of the underlying stock."

Those both sound plausible, if incomplete, so here's another thing to think about.  Even among the number crunching set, physics has a reputation as the most aggressive, male dominated branch of geekdom: only 14% of physics PhDs are women, the lowest of any of the sciences.  (Math is pretty male dominated too, but pales compared to physics: 29% of math PhDs are women.)  If the first thing that "aggressive and male dominated" reminds you of is the big swinging dick world of high finance, give yourself a gold star.  Call this the testosterone theory: physicists are attracted to Wall Street because they like the atmosphere.

Any other theories?  Leave 'em in comments.

Yet More on AIG

| Mon Mar. 9, 2009 7:09 PM EDT
Here's an odd new twist on the AIG situation.  ABC News has gotten hold of a memo AIG wrote a few days ago arguing that the Treasury needed to provide it with additional bailout funds because a failure of the company "would cause turmoil in the U.S. economy and global markets, and have multiple and potentially catastrophic unforeseen consequences."

No surprise there.  It might even be true.  But what's odd is where they say the problem is centered.  Not in AIG's high-flying CDS business, with all those counterparties demanding their billions of dollars in payouts, but in the stodgy old life insurance business:

The systemic risk is principally centered in the “life insurance” business because it is this subsector that has the greatest variety of investments and obligations that are subject to loss of value of the underlying investments....Over the past decade, the voluntary termination rate on individual policies declined remarkably (to six percent by 2007) as consumers could obtain liquidity from numerous other sources.

A significant rise in surrender rates — inspired by consumers’ needs for cash or because of rumored or real failure of insurance companies — could be disastrous. Because of widespread loss of liquidity, the industry would struggle to raise adequate cash to meet surrender requests. A “run on the bank” in the life and retirement business would have sweeping impacts across the economy in the U.S....State insurance guarantee funds would be quickly dissipated, leading to even greater runs on the insurance industry.

The claim here is that a weak economy has already left strapped consumers with fewer places to obtain traditional loans, which in turn means that people are increasingly likely to cash in their life insurance policies in order to scrounge up a bit of ready cash.  That's bad enough, but if AIG were to fail — or if there were even a rumor of failure — everyone would start lining up to cash in their policies at once.  This would cause a panic and customers of other insurance companies would start lining up too.  Since reserves aren't big enough to pay off everyone at once, this would cause massive, cascading failures in the entire life insurance business.

There's plenty more in the memo about the global catastrophe that would accompany an AIG failure, but it's mainly in bullet points and doesn't provide much backup for their claims.  So I don't have any good way to judge whether or not it's true.

But the life insurance claim is a new one on me, so I thought it was worth passing along.  I'll be very interested indeed to hear the reaction to AIG's "run on the bank" claim from people with experience in the business.