Monday, December 20, 2010

About as clear as it gets

John Hussman's piece this week has a clear synopsis of the financial events of the Great Recession in just a few paragraphs.
While most of you know this well, it is still useful to read a concise exposition of what happened, and why it didn't have to be handled the way it was.

The usual straw man argument is that it was TARP or Armageddon.


4) We did not avoid a second Great Depression because we bailed out financial institutions. Rather, the collapse in the economy and the surge in unemployment were the direct result of a gaping hole in the U.S. regulatory structure that prevented the rapid restructuring of insolvent non-bank financials. Policy makers then inappropriately extended the "too big to fail" doctrine to ordinary banks. Following a striking loss of public confidence that resulted from arbitrary policy responses, coupled with fear-mongering by exactly those who stood to benefit from public handouts, the self-fulfilling crisis was contained by a change in accounting rules that effectively disabled capital requirements for all financial companies. We are now left with a Ponzi scheme.

While it's clear that the four-second tape in Ben Bernanke's head is an endless loop saying "We let the banks fail in the Great Depression, and look what happened," any disruption caused by the "failure" of a financial institution is not due to financial losses to bondholders, but is instead due to the necessity of liquidating the assets in a disorganized, piecemeal way, as was the case with Lehman Brothers. Large, sometimes major banks fail every year without a material effect on the economy. The key is to have regulations that allow these failures to occur with the minimal amount of disruptive liquidation.

It is important to recognize that nearly every financial institution has enough debt to its own bondholders on the balance sheet to absorb all of its losses without any damage to depositors or customers. These bondholders lend at a spread, and they knowingly take a risk.

Bank regulations intelligently allow the FDIC to cut away the "operating" portion of a financial institution from the obligations to its bondholders and stockholders. Consider a bank with $100 billion of assets, against which it owes $60 billion of customer deposits, $30 billion of debt to its own bondholders, and $10 billion in shareholder equity. Now suppose those assets decline in value to just $80 billion, creating an insolvent institution ($80 billion in assets, $60 billion in deposit liabilities, $30 billion in debt to bondholders, and -$10 billion in equity). The "operating portion" is the $80 billion in assets, along with the $60 billion of customer deposits, which can be sold as a "whole bank" transaction for $20 billion to another institution. The stockholders are wiped out, while the bondholders get the $20 billion residual and take a loss on the rest. Depositors and customers now get statements with a different logo at the top. The seamless "failure" of Washington Mutual is a good example of this in action.

The problem with Bear Stearns and Lehman was that no equivalent set of regulations was in place to allow "cutting away" the operating portion of a non-bank institution. Instead, the Fed illegally expanded the definition of the word "discount" in Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act and created a shell company to buy $30 billion of Bear Stearns' questionable long-term assets without recourse. The remaining entity was sold to JP Morgan, where Bear Stearns bondholders still stand to get 100 cents on the dollar plus interest. Lehman was allowed to "fail," but because there was still no set of regulations that allowed cutting away the operating entity, it had to be liquidated piecemeal.

Importantly, and even urgently, it was not this "failure" that produced the economic downturn. If you carefully observe what happened in 2008, the large-scale collapse of the financial markets and the U.S. economy started literally sixty seconds after TARP was passed by Congress on October 3, 2008. At that moment, the world was told not that the smooth operation of the global financial system would be ensured by taking receivership of failing financial institutions; not that the focus of policy would be the protection of depositors, customers, and U.S. fiscal stability; but instead that insolvent private balance sheets would now be defended, subject to the arbitrary decisions of policy makers in which nobody had confidence. Lehman's failure simply told investors that these decisions could be completely arbitrary, since there was really no operative distinction between Bear Stearns, which was saved, and Lehman, which was not. Moreover, in order to pass TARP, the public had to be convinced that a global meltdown would result if financial institutions weren't preserved in their existing form. In this way, policy makers created a crisis of confidence.

Skip forward and carefully observe what happened in 2009, and you'll see that the crisis was suspended once the FASB threw out rules requiring financial companies to report their assets at market value, while at the same time, the Federal Reserve illegally broadened the definition of "government agency" in Section 14(b) of the Federal Reserve Act in order to purchase $1.5 trillion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac obligations. These actions replaced the arbitrary discretion of policy makers with confidence that no major institution would be at risk of failing because, in effect, meaningful capital standards would no longer apply.

Thus, our policy makers first created a crisis of confidence, and then resolved it by legalizing a global Ponzi scheme.

As David Einhorn at Greenlight Capital has noted, "We learned the wrong lesson." We should have learned that existing capital standards were insufficient and that there was a large, gaping hole in our regulatory structure that failed to provide "resolution authority" for non-bank financial companies. Instead, we've learned the dangerously misguided notion that some institutions are simply too big to fail. This inevitably creates a situation where reckless misallocation of capital continues to be subsidized at increasing public cost, while bondholders go unscathed and insiders take bonuses with the same alacrity as Bernie Madoff's early investors.

In short, the downturn in the real economy occurred because regulators refused to take receivership of insolvent institutions, while pushing a story line that the entire global economy would crumble if bondholders had to take losses. This created a fear among depositors and consumers that the entire system was arbitrary and unstable, fueled periodic runs on various financial institutions, tightened the availability of credit to companies having nothing to do with real estate, and created a self-fulfilling prophecy of global economic weakness. Had our policy makers said "depositors and customers will be protected, we will immediately exercise resolution authority over insolvent institutions, and bondholders will not be spared" we could have simply had a "writeoff recession" in paper assets, rather than an implosion of the real economy and an explosion in public debt.

The facts simply do not support the idea that taking receivership of insolvent financials leads to economic distress. Rather, it properly rests losses on the bondholders, and preserves the operation of the financial system by bolstering its solvency. One might argue that we could not possibly let bondholders take the trillions of dollars of losses that would have been required in order to restructure debt and get the bad obligations off the books. This is absurd. A 20% stock market decline wipes out about $3 trillion in market value. Indeed, given the size and average maturity of the U.S. bond market, just the increase in interest rates that we've observed over the past 6 weeks has knocked off trillions in market value.

The financial markets are perfectly capable of taking losses. They don't do well with disorganized piecemeal liquidation - where perfectly good loans are called in and countless positions have to be unwound - but that isn't required if your regulatory structure allows receivership/conservatorship that can cut away and gradually transfer the operating portion of an institution. What the global economy is not capable of taking is the uncertainty that results when policy makers apply arbitrary rules, leaving all other decision makers in the economy frozen at the edge of their seats to discover what the results of those arbitrary decisions will be. We have learned the wrong lesson, and we continue to pay for it.

The rest of this week's Hussman's commentary here.

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