A simple model of banking regulation and, like, counter-regulation goes something like this:
- Regulators are conservative and dumb, and want to safeguard banks from bad risks even at the cost of preventing good risks,
- Bankers are aggressive and smart, and want to take lots of good risks even at the cost of taking some bad risks, and
- Sometimes bankers can find people to put up with their shit and sometimes they can’t.
“Put up with their shit” is meant in the broadest sense – Can banks defeat Dodd-Frank? Brown-Vitter? Is Lloyd Blankfein a hero or a villain? Jamie Dimon? Etc. – but one particularly interesting question is, if you’re trying to do trades that evade or bend or optimize or whatever regulation, will someone do those trades with you? You could write a history of recent finance with the answer to that question: in 2007 you could chuck all of your mortgage risk off-balance sheet via securitizations, in 2008 you … could not, and in 2013 if you’re looking for someone to provide regulatory capital relief all you have to do is call a Regulatory Capital Relief Fund. Six years peak-to-peak, same as the S&P.
You could probably use words like “bubble” in characterizing that cycle but I prefer the approach taken in this new NBER paper by Guillermo Ordoñez of Penn (free version here), both because it mathematically formalizes that basic model of regulation and counter-regulation in an interesting way, and because it is congenially cynical. As he puts it, “banks can always find ways around regulation when self-regulation becomes feasible, and it is indeed efficient for them to do so.” Bankers, of course, always think that it would be efficient for them to find ways around regulation. They only do so when they can find someone to trade with them. Read more »
Yesterday’s delightful insider trading settlement with Richard Moore, the CIBC banker who deduced the identity of a buyout target through sheer clingyness, is a good reminder that insider trading is weird. Nobody told Moore any material nonpublic information, but he got in trouble anyway.
It’s also a good reminder of this new-ish (March 2013) paper that I came across the other day, in which some academics went and interviewed sell-side research analysts about how they do their jobs. They don’t say anything all that surprising, though I guess if you’ve never met a sell-side analyst it’s sociologically interesting. But it’s a nice counterpoint Richard Moore: reading smoke signals and figuring out an acquisition is illegal insider trading, but having the company tell you stuff and then using it to make trading decisions isn’t. If you do it right.
Why would you talk to management? There are a bunch of reasons but one is surely that they might tell you stuff.1 And they will, though the phrasing is careful: Read more »
The Brown-Vitter bill, which two senators plan to introduce in an effort to dramatically raise bank capital requirements, has caused a range of fairly predictable reactions, and a few strange ones. Here, for instance, is a lobbyist complaining about “raising required capital to comically high levels,” but the comedy is perhaps elusive. But one stylized fact about bank capital that I find a little funny is that it is always the same; after a certain number of drinks this chart is hilarious:
What that says – perhaps a bit unclearly – is that if a bank is going to add some assets, it will do it by taking on debt; and if it’s going to reduce its debt, it will do so by selling assets; and the one thing that it won’t ever do is change the amount of equity it has. Capital ratios change, but capital amounts basically don’t (except to grow verrrrrrry slowly and steadily over time); all the action is in the denominator.
Consider what that chart means for Brown-Vitter: on Friday I calculated that the bill would require adding, in round numbers, $1.2 trillion of capital at the top 6 banks, all at once.1 But that holds bank assets constant, which is not how it generally works. Of course it’s possible that this new law would break the pattern of banks always having the same amount of equity and just adjusting their debt, and cause them to actually increase their equity dramatically; I suspect that’s roughly speaking the intention.
Another possibility is that banks would keep doing what they’ve always done and bring up equity ratios by reducing assets; the amount of equity would remain constant, as it has in the past. On that math, the six big banks would have to reduce assets by $7 trillion. Out of a total of $9.5 trillion currently. So like a 72% reduction in bank lending and investing and what-have-you.2 Eep?
Perhaps there is comedy there though I’m not sure. That chart has been floating around various places but I swiped it just now from this paper,3 by Tobias Adrian of the NY Fed and Hyun Song Shin of Princeton, musing about why it might be. Or, rather, they just assume the constantness of bank equity, and question why amounts of bank debt change. What they come up with is that leverage moves inversely to value-at-risk, which you can sort of see in this chart: Read more »
So there’s this fight over what Apple should do with its money and I think it boils down to:
- Lots of people think that Apple is undervalued,
- Some of those people say: “so, since the market undervalues you, a dollar in your hands is valued less than a dollar in shareholders’ hands, and since you have Just. So. Many. Dollars. in your hands, why not give some back to shareholders, like in the form of colossal dividends, or even more amusingly in the form of tens or hundreds of billions of dollars of preferred stock?”
- Others say: “no, the market’s valuation is irrelevant, you should stealthily keep investing your zillions of dollars into building wrist computers or whatever, and one day your stock will catch up.”
If these arguments sound familiar that’s because they are; you can pretty much always find an activist who thinks that a company should return cash to shareholders feuding with a management who thinks they should be investing that cash in growing the business. And they’re endless because they’re tough to adjudicate: everyone is sort of talking their own book. There is a pile of money, and some people say “we should have the money,” and others say “no we should have the money,” and, y’know, duh they’d say that. Are return-the-cash activist shareholders just greedy short-termers destroying long-term value? Are managers who prefer to invest the cash just blinkered empire-builders who don’t care about the welfare of the people actually funding their wrist-computer adventures?
I dunno. Here are some hypotheses: Read more »
The Libor scandal’s little brother, the Euribor scandal, is different from the Libor scandal in one important way. With Libor, banks are asked where they can borrow, and so if they can borrow at 2.5% and submit 2.4% then they’re lying. With Euribor, banks are asked where a prime bank can borrow, and so if they can borrow at 2.5% and submit 2.4% then … I mean, then who knows? Maybe they’re not prime? What’s a prime bank? This imprecision made Euribor impossible to manipulate, for some shady tautological meaning of “impossible to manipulate,” and so everyone felt very clever about avoiding scandals until they didn’t.
So when Libor rates were kept artificially low in 2007-2008, as banks tried to avoid seeming weak by submitting high rates: that was fraud. But when Euribor rates were kept artificially low, that was defensible. The intuition would be “well, last year we could all borrow at 3%, this year most of us can borrow at 4%, but we don’t look as prime as we used to. The best of us can still borrow at 3%, so Euribor = 3%.” That’s the intuition behind this amusing Banca d’Italia working paper by Marco Taboga:
Euribor rates are averages of survey responses by banks that are asked the following question: what is the interest rate that, to the best of your knowledge, a prime bank would charge another prime bank on an unsecured loan? The keyword in this question is “prime bank”. Before the crisis started, the concept of prime bank was probably rather unambiguous: there were dozens of large and internationally active banks that enjoyed AAA ratings and had tiny CDS premia (around or below ten basis points); any one of these banks would be easily recognized as a prime bank. During the crisis, however, most of these banks experienced deteriorations in their credit ratings and surges in their credit spreads. Which of them are still to be considered prime? In the absence of a standard de
finition of prime bank, this is a question that calls for quite a bit of subjective judgement. Therefore, it is conceivable that after 2007 Euribor rates might have been influenced also by changes in the survey respondents’ perception of what a prime bank is. This paper provides empirical evidence in favor of this hypothesis.
The empirical evidence is more suggestive than definitive, and the effects are more visible post-2008 than during the crisis, but still. Here’s the picture: Read more »
I’m generally fond of companies that find creative ways to access the public equity markets while not giving away all the “rights” that traditionally go to “owners” of “companies.” I mean, you want money, you ask people for money, you give them the terms that you need to give them to get the money: what is so sacred about shareholder voting rights?
At the same time though I’m a little skeptical of some of the reasons that private companies give for not wanting to go public. These seem to me to be basically two:
- High-frequency-trading computers robots algorithms crash scary scary.
- “If we go public our shareholders will force us to focus on quarterly earnings rather than the long-term good of the company.”
The first one, as you might notice from its grammar, seems ill-defined, though the fact that like every high-profile IPO this year has suffered from a computer glitch makes me think that it’s on to something. Something vague though. The second one: I mean, just don’t do that. What’s gonna happen to you if you manage for the long-term good of the company? Your stock will go down this quarter? Who cares? I thought you were in this for the long haul?
But they’ve got a point. Today in “shareholders are assholes,” here’s a delightful recent paper by three business professors about how stronger shareholder rights make companies more likely to manage earnings.1 As they point out, you could have two models of how strong public-shareholder rights (i.e. things like robust shareholder voting rights, weak anti-takeover provisions, etc.) affect corporate behavior:
- Shareholders are good and will make companies do good things if they’re empowered,2 or
- Shareholders are self-interested jerks and will make companies do bad things if it makes them more money.
There’s no particular reason to believe the first one but, y’know, it’s a hypothesis; it is also wrong: Read more »
While we’re celebrating successful bailouts I suppose it’s worth looking at this VoxEU post and related paper from two Swiss economists about the Fed’s Term Auction Facility, which provided short-term secured funding to U.S. banks who might otherwise have trouble getting such funding between December 2007 and March 2010. The authors ask the questions that we’ve seen asked before about a variety of bailouts, roughly:
- Were the bailed-out banks worse than the non-bailed-out-banks, pre-bailouts?, and
- Did they stay worse after the bailouts?
The answer to the first question is always yes, which you could figure out a priori.1 The answer to the second question is usually yes too. As I said about a previous study, “bank bailouts are designed to let banks keep getting up to their old tricks; if you wanted them to stop doing that you’d let them go bankrupt.”
But here it’s no, so, yay! The authors are looking specifically at interactions of TAF funding and liquidity risk; the idea is something like “a lot of banks did too much short-term funding of long-term assets, and when the funding markets blew up they were in trouble, and TAF was designed to save them, and it did, but did they learn any lessons?” And they did:
In words: Read more »
There are lots of things to worry about in the world and somewhere on the list is the fact that, while yields on agency mortgage-backed securities are really really really low, the rate you’ll pay for a new mortgage is only really low, so a couple of reallys have fallen off a truck somewhere. This worry isn’t at the top of my personal list – my mortgage rate is low enough I guess? – but it seems to make many other people’s list for two intersecting reasons. First, if the primary desire of Fed policy is to get people to buy houses, be rich, etc., and if its primary mechanism for doing so is buying MBS, then the inefficiency in transforming that mechanism into that desire is rather macroeconomically important and bad. Second, if money is coming out of the Fed and not ending up in homeowners’ pockets, that leaves only so many pockets it could be ending up in, and it is easy enough to observe that big banks (1) sit between the Fed and the homeowners and (2) have lots of pockets. So you can see how it might be fun to worry about money going to big multipocketed banks, because if it does, you get to be mad at them.
Anyway the New York Fed is doing a conference on it today; here’s the background paper and it’s really interesting; I recommend it, particularly if, like me, you have a hazy understanding of agency mortgage securitization. Everything in this space is predicated on somewhat fake math but their math is less fake than the simple spread math, which basically assumes that banks make a profit of:1
- Annual Profit = Mortgage Rate – MBS Yield
By that math, as William Dudley points out, the spread was 30-50bps in the ’90s and early 2000s, but rose to 150bps in September and is around 120bps now. The Fed’s paper, on the other hand, walks through the actual securitization process to get cash flows into and out of the mortgage lender, and computes its profit (technically, profit plus non-interest-y costs like underwriting and hedging) as roughly:
- Up-Front Profit = Sale Price Into MBS – Origination Price + 4 x (Mortgage Rate – MBS Coupon – GSE Guarantee Fee
Why 4? I dunno it’s in the paper.2 Anyway by this measure here is what has happened in the world: Read more »
Ben Bernanke gave another Augustinian give-us-QEn-but-not-yet* speech at Jackson Hole today and you could go read it but honestly why would you, you know what it says, which is “everything is bad, but not as bad as it could be, and we want to make it a bit better, but only once it’s gotten a bit worse.” Moving right along.
To Andrew Haldane’s speech, which is a treat! It is here and its title is “The dog and the frisbee,” so obviously he had Dealbreaker on his side right there. Haldane, the Bank of England’s financial-stability guy, basically argues that while the financial system is complex, it should be regulated simply – “As you do not fight fire with fire, you do not fight complexity with complexity” – just as a dog uses only elementary trigonometry and differential calculus to solve the complex and multivariate problem of catching a frisbee.**
Haldane’s main example of overcomplexity in regulation is risk-based capital regulation, in which the Basel accords have moved from simple leverage tests – common equity divided by total assets – to complicated tests where the numerator is made up of different tiers of capital and the denominator uses risk-weights that are largely driven by the bank’s own models of riskiness. One thing you could do is compare the performance of those measures in the recent crisis, so he did. Here is how Basel risk-based capital did:
That looks bad and also is bad, with no statistically significant difference between banks that blew up and banks that did not. This is just boring leverage: Read more »
A thing I used to do was go to companies and try to convince them to do various exotic flavors of share repurchase. This is in outline a thing that all bankers try to do – go to companies and (1) try to get them to do things and (2) if that’s going well, upsell to exotic flavors of those things – but the share repurchase angle is a challenging one because companies are universally and irremediably bad at share repurchase and everyone knows it. There are so many studies and they all basically say “you are dopes, stop buying back shares, you always buy at peaks and then sell at troughs, please for the love of God stop.” This is not really surprising: executives are by nature confident types, for one thing, so it’s a rare CEO who declines to buy his own stock on the grounds that it’s overpriced; for another, buyers buy things when they have lots of cash and feel rich, and shares are cheap when the issuer is running out of money and feels poor, so when the buyer and the issuer are the same you’ve sort of autocorrelated yourself into shittiness.*
Or so I thought. There is however an alternative explanation for why companies buy back shares that I have been giggling over for the last hour, and it is: because their managers are actually good at market timing and are sneakily insider trading for their own account through the corporation. Or so says Harvard Law professor Jesse Fried: Read more »