Leverage is Everywhere

States have always competed with each other to attract corporate business, just as cities and counties compete to attract retail business. Usually they do this by offering tax breaks, which produces a downward spiral in overall tax revenue but doesn't otherwise cause any damage to the overall economy. But now states are competing with each other to attract dodgy insurance subsidiaries:

Companies looking to do business in secret once had to travel to places like the Cayman Islands or Bermuda. Today, all it takes is a trip to Vermont.

....Aetna recently used a subsidiary in Vermont to refinance a block of health insurance policies, reaping $150 million in savings, according to its chief financial officer, Joseph M. Zubretsky. The main reason is that the insurer did not need to maintain conventional reserves at the same level as would have been required by insurance regulators in Aetna’s home state of Connecticut.

....For the states, attracting these insurance deals promotes business travel and creates jobs for lawyers, actuaries and other white-collar workers, who pay taxes. States have also found that they can impose modest taxes on the premiums collected by captives. For insurers, these subsidiaries offer ways to unlock some of the money tied up in reserves, making millions available for dividends, acquisitions, bonuses and other projects. Three weeks after Aetna’s deal closed, the company announced it was increasing its dividend fifteenfold.

This is all possible because, for historical reasons, the insurance industry is regulated at the state level, not the federal level. And it's yet another example of how the bright boys in the finance industry can always figure out new and innovative ways of increasing leverage anyplace that regulations can be gamed in some way: Reducing reserves is, basically, a way of increasing leverage, and it's a great way of making more money. Until it isn't, that is. Unfortunately, "when it isn't" is a timeframe that's hard to predict. The only thing you can really say about it is that it's pretty much inevitable, and when it finally happens a whole lot of people are going to feel a whole lot of pain.

Bad News on Housing

The Wall Street Journal reports on the trajectory of housing prices following the expiration of the first-time homebuyer credit last year:

Home values posted the largest decline in the first quarter since late 2008, prompting many economists to push back their estimates of when the housing market will hit a bottom.

....While most economists expected sales to decline after tax credits expired, the drag on the market has been greater than many anticipated. "We expected December and January to be bad" as the market reeled from the after-effects of the tax credit, said Stan Humphries, Zillow's chief economist. But monthly declines for February and March were "really staggering," he said. They indicate "a reflection of the true underlying demand, which is now apparent because most of the tax credit is out of the system, and it's being completely overwhelmed by supply."

....Prices are decelerating in large part because the many foreclosed properties that often sell at a discount force other sellers to lower their prices. Mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have sold more than 94,000 foreclosed homes during the first quarter, a new high that represented a 23% increase from the previous quarter. More could be on the way: They held another 218,000 properties at the end of March, a 33% increase from a year ago.

Most analysts now expect that the housing market won't bottom out until sometime next year. Until that happens, it's unlikely that that the sluggish economic recovery we're seeing right now will improve much.

Cui Bono?

On Saturday, in a post about opposition to European bailouts from the German public, I asked, "Why should thrifty Germans bail out spendthrift euro countries on the periphery?" As it happens, this was bad phrasing: I didn't mean to endorse this view, merely to point out that it was easy to understand why Germans might feel this way. But Matt Yglesias makes a good point in response to my apparent meaning:

I think this conceptual scheme of saver = responsible, borrower = irresponsible needs to be challenged. It’s true that German households were thrifty net savers. But a German household that saves isn’t engaged in a self-sacrificing pursuit, it’s getting paid interest. And the institutions paying the interest are doing it because they’re expecting to make a profit by offering loans. And when they offer the loans, they’re charging interest.

The entire claim of people in this line of work is that they’re good at making decisions about who to lend money to and what interest rate to charge them in light of default risk. When I got my mortgage it involved a phone call with a guy from Bank of America. The premise of the conversation was that of the two people on the call, one of us was a highly trained professional with expertise in mortgage lending and the other one was me. And it’s just the same with Irish borrowers and German banks. In that transaction it’s the Germans who are supposed to be the experts. When the whole thing goes sideways it’s the Germans who failed to be responsible stewards of the Eurozone’s capital.

There's a sense in which this right: lenders can be as reckless as borrowers, and frequently they're more reckless. But there's also a sense in which this confuses the German public with German banks. German banks were unquestionably reckless, but the German public is just....the German public. They acted perfectly prudently given the level of knowledge you'd expect a normal person to have. All they did was put money in the bank, assuming that the banks would then treat their deposits wisely.

Paul Krugman addresses this distinction directly in his column tonight:

What I’ve been hearing with growing frequency from members of the policy elite — self-appointed wise men, officials, and pundits in good standing — is the claim that it’s mostly the public’s fault. The idea is that we got into this mess because voters wanted something for nothing, and weak-minded politicians catered to the electorate’s foolishness.

So this seems like a good time to point out that this blame-the-public view isn’t just self-serving, it’s dead wrong.

The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.

There's no question that ordinary borrowers sometimes act irresponsibly. They run up their credit cards too much, they buy more house than they can afford, and they don't always save for rainy days. But Krugman is right: if you look at the fiscal and financial disasters of the past decade, they're emphatically the fault of political and financial elites far more than they're the fault of ordinary citizens. And yet, in the aftermath, it's been ordinary citizens who have borne the lion's share of the pain. For the most part, Wall Street and the wealthy have been asked to pay very little to make up for their mistakes.

Which gets us back to those German savers. It's entirely understandable, I think, that the German public doesn't feel like bailing out Ireland and Portugal and Greece. After all, they did nothing wrong. It was German banks and their creditors who acted irresponsibly, and yet they're being treated with kid gloves at every turn. Instead of nationalizing banks and forcing creditors to take haircuts, European elites are basically asking German taxpayers to bail out the German banks that took their deposits and made irresponsible loans with them. Is it any wonder that the German public is non-thrilled about this?

Krugman's whole column is worth a read. The public in both Europe and America has taken a considerable licking over the past few years. But the elites — well, in a lot of cases they've actually emerged from a disaster of their own making in better shape than before. This is, perhaps more than anything else, the most dispiriting result of the Great Collapse.

Sunday Camel Blogging

Here's a pair of pictures from my trip to the Santa Ana zoo yesterday. On the left is the zoo's bald eagle, looking stern and patriotic.  On the right is one of the zoo's camels with Interstate 5 in the background. Impressive critters, no?

Termite Infestations in the Financial System

Should private equity shops be regulated by the SEC? Felix Salmon listens to a debate between two Democrats and comes away unimpressed with both of them:

The main reason for PE shops to be regulated, of course, has very little to do with fiduciary responsibility, and everything to do with the fact that leverage is a systemically-dangerous thing, and regulators need to know where it is and how it’s being put to use. But it can be hard to explain systemic tail risk to the kind of people who only really understand the meaning of a pie chart when they bake an actual pie.

Precisely. In fact, I'd go further: even if it were true that private equity funds don't generally operate with abusive levels of leverage today, the fact remains that Wall Street boffins are always on the lookout for new ways to overleverage themselves. If banks and hedge funds are regulated but PE funds aren't, then eventually some bright boy will figure out a way to leverage a PE fund at 50:1 while still making it look like it's an ordinary equity shop with modest leverage. The only way to have even an outside chance of preventing this is to regulate any entity with a substantial amount of money — and that most definitely includes PE funds. If they keep their leverage modest, the regulation will be light and little harm is done. But if they start to go overboard because someone figures out a new angle that no one's ever thought of before — and you know someone will eventually — a regulator who's already familiar with the operation has at least a fighting chance of catching it before it blows up the world.

Leverage is like a termite infestation: it swarms anywhere there's food, but you hardly even notice it's there until things get out of hand and your house starts to fall down. Substitute "money" for "food" and "the entire global economy" for "your house," and that's leverage. Constant vigilance is the only defense.

Having said that, though, I'd like to defend the practice of baking pies to understand the meaning of pie charts. It sounds like a delicious alternative to reading New York Times op-eds.

From Karl Taro Greenfeld, writing in Bloomberg Businessweek:

It's as if the great advances of human civilization, in everything from animal husbandry to mathematics to architecture to manufacturing to information technology, have all crescendoed with the Crunchwrap Supreme, delivered via the pick-up window.

The rest of the story is all about how Taco Bell — which is headquartered just down the road from me — has revolutionized its drive-through business over the past ten years or so. Still, this part is a little dispiriting:

The program was so successful that in 2009 the brand was the first to finish in the top five in QSR magazine's Drive-Thru Performance Study in both speed and accuracy, averaging 164 seconds per vehicle with an accuracy rate of 93.1 percent...."They [i.e., the entire fast-food industry] have gotten to a place where it is probably as fast and accurate as it is going to be," says Blair Chauncey, of QSR magazine. "We got to the point where they were separated by a few seconds and everyone's accuracy was above 90 percent. Everyone has gotten so good." We are all of us, right now, living in the golden age of drive-thru.

So that's that. The pinnacle of Western achievement is an accuracy rate of about 90%, and it's not getting any better. That means that your order is going to be screwed up one time in ten when you go through a drive-through lane. I guess we'll have to wait for Star Trek-style food replicators in order to see further improvements.

Germany's Revenge

Tyler Cowen points us to a long but, typically for Morgan Kelly, worthwhile and entertainingly written column about Ireland's banking woes. You should read the whole thing, but here's a big chunk to get you started:

Ireland’s Last Stand began less shambolically than you might expect. The IMF, which believes that lenders should pay for their stupidity before it has to reach into its pocket, presented the Irish with a plan to haircut €30 billion of unguaranteed bonds by two-thirds on average. [Irish Finance Minister Brian] Lenihan was overjoyed, according to a source who was there, telling the IMF team: “You are Ireland’s salvation.”

The deal was torpedoed from an unexpected direction. At a conference call with the G7 finance ministers, the haircut was vetoed by US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner who, as his payment of $13 billion from government-owned AIG to Goldman Sachs showed, believes that bankers take priority over taxpayers. The only one to speak up for the Irish was UK chancellor George Osborne, but Geithner, as always, got his way. An instructive, if painful, lesson in the extent of US soft power, and in who our friends really are.

....Given the political paralysis in the EU, and a European Central Bank that sees its main task as placating the editors of German tabloids, the most likely outcome of the European debt crisis is that, after two years or so to allow French and German banks to build up loss reserves, the insolvent economies will be forced into some sort of bankruptcy.

....Make no mistake: while government defaults are almost the normal state of affairs in places like Greece and Argentina, for a country like Ireland that trades on its reputation as a safe place to do business, a bankruptcy would be catastrophic....Worse still, a bankruptcy can do nothing to repair Ireland’s finances.

....National survival requires that Ireland walk away from the bailout. This in turn requires the Government to do two things: disengage from the banks, and bring its budget into balance immediately.

First the banks....The original bailout plan was that the loan portfolios of Irish banks would be sold off to repay these borrowings. However, foreign banks know that many of these loans, mortgages especially, will eventually default, and were not interested. As a result, the ECB finds itself with the Irish banks wedged uncomfortably far up its fundament, and no way of dislodging them.

This allows Ireland to walk away from the banking system by returning the Nama1 assets to the banks, and withdrawing its promissory notes in the banks. The ECB can then learn the basic economic truth that if you lend €160 billion to insolvent banks backed by an insolvent state, you are no longer a creditor: you are the owner. At some stage the ECB can take out an eraser and, where “Emergency Loan” is written in the accounts of Irish banks, write “Capital” instead. When it chooses to do so is its problem, not ours.

I suppose this analogy is wrong in a hundred different ways, but I can't help thinking that this is a lot like the aftermath of World War I, except in reverse. This time it's Germany acting as the imperious victor, demanding that the citizens of Ireland (and Greece and Portugal) immiserate themselves for years to pay back loans that they will never be able to pay back. It's easy to see why this is happening — thrifty Germans rather predictably don't feel like they should have to bail out spendthrift euro countries on the periphery — but it's also easy to see that there's no way it can end well.2 Likewise, it's easy to see why Geithner and others don't want to force still-fragile French and German banks to eat huge losses that could destabilize the global banking system in hard-to-predict ways. But again, it's also easy to see that there's really no choice. One way or another, neither Ireland nor Greece will ever be able to make good on their debts, and that means that either creditors or taxpayers in the rest of Europe — or both — are going to take a bath.

Would it be better to take that bath now, or better to wait a couple of years for the economy to recover before doing what has to be done? I don't know. But if I had to guess, I'd say that another two or three years of uncertainty (at best) or disaster (at worst) isn't worth the risk. Like it or not, Europe's banks and its taxpayers are probably better off dealing with this problem now. And it's not as if Ireland or Greece would be getting off without any pain, after all. Part 2 of Morgan's plan is to bring the Irish budget into balance, which would cause even more wrenching austerity than they're going through now. There's plenty of pain to go around.

1NAMA is a "bad bank" set up a couple of years ago to hold the worst toxic waste of the Irish banking system.

2Edited to make clear that I'm not especially defending the German attitude, just noting that it's perfectly understandable.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 May 2011

Domino was sunning herself in the doorway yesterday — it's been in the high 80s all week here — and I happened to have the camera out when Inkblot decided he wanted to go inside. What a hulking presence! Domino is obviously not excited by the idea of letting him by, but as it turned out, all went smoothly. Over on the right, however, we see how to make Inkblot look positively puny: just put him inside a gigantic garden pot. Perspective is everything.

Need more cats? Check out Slate's "The Cats of War." Good stuff.

No, We Will Never Be Oil Independent

Republicans have lately ratcheted up their "Drill Baby Drill" rhetoric, and they can now frequently be found claiming that the United States has enormous oil reserves that could make us energy independent if only we opened up drilling everywhere within shouting distance of our borders. This came up yet again during last night's Republican debate and I briefly thought about mentioning how inane this has all become in a blog post. But it was only a few minutes until dinner time, so I skipped it.

Luckily, Michael McAuliff at the Huffington Post has done it for me. You can click the link for details, but the bottom line is that if we damned the torpedoes and drilled like maniacs in every single oil-bearing formation in the country, it would....barely make a dent. Global oil prices would hardly respond at all and we'd continue to import huge amounts of oil every day.

We do have lots of coal, and we also potentially have lots of natural gas depending on whether fracking can be done without destroying the environment. The jury is still out on that. But oil? Forget it. We just don't have very much no matter how crazy we go.

The bin Laden Announcement

If President Obama had delayed the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death, it might have given the CIA more time to trawl through the data seized in the raid and track down other al-Qaeda leaders. So why announce it right away?

Following the operation, officials across U.S. government agencies told their Pakistani counterparts what had happened. As they did, the U.S. government was considering not immediately announcing that they had killed bin Laden, a U.S. official tells Time. But the Pakistanis, uncomfortable with having the information leak out slowly, “encouraged the United States to go public right away,” according to the U.S. official.

That's sort of interesting. Most likely, though, it wasn't so much that the Pakistanis "encouraged" us to announce the raid quickly as it was that they made it clear that the chances of keeping the raid secret were close to zero. Not only was there that downed helicopter in the middle of Abbottabad, but bin Laden's wife and daughter were in Pakistani custody, and word of that would almost certainly leak through ISI or other military sources almost instantly. At least, that's my best guess.