Monday, March 23, 2009

The Public-Public-Public-Public-Public-Public-Public-Public-Public-Public-Public-Public-Private Investment Partnership

Timothy Geithner's plan to get money to the banks was released today. One of the guiding principles is:
Maximizing the Impact of Each Taxpayer Dollar: First, by using government financing in partnership with the FDIC and Federal Reserve and co-investment with private sector investors, substantial purchasing power will be created, making the most of taxpayer resources.

But when you get into the details, you find the plan is for 50/50 public/private equity supported by 6:1 leveraged borrowing from the public sector. That means 12 dollars of public money goes in for every 1 dollar of private money, making this the PPPPPPPPPPPPPIP of the title. So, does Geithner actually believe that this is making the most of taxpayer resources? I have to grant that he seems to believe CDO's of mezzanine subprime MBS tranches are "undervalued", which is even less plausible. Foolish or dishonest? You decide.

In the "Legacy Securities Program" Geithner continues to promise he'll develop a plan - someday.

Borrowers will need to meet eligibility criteria. Haircuts will be determined at a later date and will reflect the riskiness of the assets provided as collateral. Lending rates, minimum loan sizes, and loan durations have not been determined. These and other terms of the programs will be informed by discussions with market participants. However, the Federal Reserve is working to ensure that the duration of these loans takes into account the duration of the underlying assetsBorrowers will need to meet eligibility criteria.

Yes, Geithner has known that we have a lot of bad loans since at least the fall of Bear Stearns a year ago. Yes, he has been involved in multiple negotiations trying to save companies loaded with bad debt over the past year. Yes, he has supposedly been working hard on this for at least 4 months.

No, that quote is not from the Onion.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The right amount of quantititative easing.

Krugman has a post up expressing approval of the Fed's announced intent to buy 1 trillion in long-term bonds. I'm all for quantitative easing (I wonder what Orwellian instinct causes them to avoid the proper phrase "printing money") but not on this scale. M1 is only about 1.6 billion (and was less that 1.4 last summer) so this is about a 60% increase in the money supply, coming on the heels of some significant printing in Q3-Q4 2008. Crudely, you'd expect about 60% inflation from this and that's far too much. As Krugman points out, the prices of these bonds will drop as the economy recovers and interest rates decrease. So even if the Fed pulls back as hard as it can in a year or so we're still left with about a 15% increase and I very much doubt the Fed will pull back even that hard as IMO that would throw us into a depression.

I think a better guide would be to print enough money, excuse me, "quantitatively ease" enough, to keep the leading indicators moderately positive. That should be enough to get us out of recession without risking the worst inflationary shock since the Constitution was written.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Tranche warfare, in earnest.

I have seen some discussions about how differing interests of differing tranches could potentially lead to some pathological results, but here's a real example : Carrington Investment Partners LP vs. American Home Mortgage Servicing.

Carrington bought some junior tranches that apparently have the right to control disposal of REOs in the pool (there are legal fights now over whether they do). As long as the REOs aren't sold, the junior tranche gets its scheduled payment. Once the REO is sold, the proceeds are dived starting from the seniormost tranche, which in this case will leave Carrington's tranches in the cold.

So Carrington is trying to force the servicer to keep the REOs, unsold, presumably until they rot into uselessness. Sure that screws over the senior tranches, nearby homeowners, and the economy as a whole, but hey! a hedge fund has to make a buck! Go free market!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Are you ready to be Geithnerized?

Geithnerize, vb: To make somebody grossly overpay for something, and still end up not owning it.

The core problem for the banking sector is that the banks have lost far, far more money than they could have and remained solvent. As Yves Smith pithily puts it:

Let's start with the basics. The US banking system is insolvent. Got that? Insolvent. That does not mean every bank in the US is toast, in fact quite a few are probably just fine, and another large group is no doubt hurting and undercapitalized, but ... a significant portion of the very biggest banks are insolvent.

The fair solution is that the insolvent current banks have to be shut down, their owners wiped out, their managers fired, and new banks started with new owners, new managers, and new capital. Fair, efficient, and straightfoward - but it will ruin many of those responsible for the disaster, especially current bank management. Their solution? Make the taxpayer pay to keep them rich - via Geithnerization!

We've already had a lot of Geithnerization already - the TARP, which overpaid by at least 87 billion for equity that doesn't carry voting rights; the Citibank bailout, where the US government gave Citibank guarantees so grotesquely underpriced they won't even let us find out what they guaranteed; and the similar BOA bailout. And the public is getting wise to the Geithnerization process.

So the new Geithner plan cleverly dresses up another (and huge!) round of Geithnerization with some platitudinous frills (but little substance) to disguise the ravenous monstrosity at the core of the plan. Lurking at the core:

a) TARP style useless equity in the "Capital Assistance Program". Undercapitalized banks get money from the treasury in return for preferred shares - inevitably underpriced, since the bank are undercapitalized. The preferred shares aren't voting, so no control over the bank for the taxpayer who's going to pay so much for it. Just like with Citi, we get to pay more than the banks are worth, and somebody else still owns it.

b) A "public-private investment fund" which will take equity mostly (read all) from the private sector to take loans from the public sector to buy assets that can't be valued accurately. Result: if the assets go up, the private investors take all the gains; if they go down private investors lose a little and the public loses a lot on the bad loan. Geithnerization for uncertain assets!

The plan has some nice-sounding frills calling for bank audits (but with no specifics), posting some information to the Web (but again, no details), and some expanded programs for mortgage modification. Of real merit is a plan to expand the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) to 1 trillion. This really helps, because as I've said, the fundamental solution is to have new bank with new money take over lending. With the TALF the Federal Reserve will be doing it. Of course the point is that since Geithnerizing the public won't actually help the credit market, they needed to put in a program that would. We don't have to rip off the public to expand the TALF.

But no detail can disguise the 1 trillion plus plan to make the taxpayer pay for investors to own and get rich on assorted shady assets. But what do you expect when you appoint a Treasury secretary whose primary goal is saving the banks from nationalization?

Are you ready to be Geithnerized now?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Recessionary employment declines

In response to some widely circulated and controversial charts of employment declines in major recent recessions, I took a look at the employment to population ratios. I looked at the recessions from an employment ratio perspective, starting at peak employment ratio and continuing until it recovered. The conclusions are somewhat surprising.

First, some recessions merge. The 1980 and 1981-82 recessions do, and we have never gotten out of the 2001 recession. 2001 on kind of looks like a Long Recession by this measure, and may be turning into a Long Depression. The current recession by itself (2007) does indeed show up as bad - it's the worst of all at 25 months. It's not quite as bad as the 1981-82, but it's very close, and it's worse than everything else, including 1974-75 (except of course 2001 with 2007 added on). Also, the lurch downward over the past 7 months is unprecedented and worse than anything else, although the 1974 lurch down is very close. Another bad month will make the 2007 recession unsurpassed.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Isakson Pro-Fraud Amendment passes

Senator Isakson recently proposed an amendment to defraud the federal government of 10's of billions of dollars by paying people 15,000 to buy a house. Of course, even an idiot can see this will just make millions of homewoners swap houses with each other, collecting 15,000 from the federal government for doing NOTHING useful. Of course, he supports this because he's a realtor and hopes to collect vast fees assisting people in defrauding the government. Even more horrifyingly, the Senate passed this outrage unaninmously.

They should all be impeached, and Isakson should be indicted for corruption.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Um - try 23 years.

Paul Krugman has a post about the fall in employment ratio to numbers not seen for sixteen years.

Except it's actually 23. And probably more to come.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Europe headed to the liquidity trap?

Ugh. Now the Europeans want to join the US, Britain, and Japan in the liquidity trap. In England, banks are now no longer able to collect interest on some mortgages. What's that going to do to bank stability? But still they cut, in the face of evidence that extremely low interest rates are actively harmful to economic stability.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A better CPI

From Mish Shedlock, here's a graph of the CPI with owner equivalent rent replaced by the Case-Shiller Index aka the CS-CPI. It would have led to much better Fed action in the current cycle. The Fed would have pulled back credit in 2003, tempering the bubble, and would be broadly inflating now, tempering the depression. Wouldn't it be nice to have a Fed that used good metrics?

Toxic loan modifications

There has been a big push to address the current mortgage crisis via mortgage modifications, notably by Sheila Bair of the FDIC. For most borrowers, modding down loan principals to house values generally just recognizes reality; most borrowers either can't or won't pay far more than the value of their house to live in it. However, a lot of mods just reduce interest rates - here's a particularly spectacular million-dollar 1% balloon loan from WAMU. Not only do these mods not acknowledge reality, they are adding to the toxic debt problem.

A big part of toxic debt, and arguable the worst for the financial system, is debt which cannot be accurately valued by any method. This can arise from exceedingly complicated derivatives, but a relatively new problem arises from our being in uncharted economic waters. Predicting the value of a long-term security requires projecting the future, which in turn must be done with models from the past. However when you're in a strange and unprecedented situation, old models aren't going to be accurate. This means long-term securities become un-valuable - nobody can figure out what they're worth. Since market mechanisms are just an opinion-averaging system, market prices are as arbitrary and meaningless as the unfounded opinions they're based on.

When you have this "mystery meat" toxic debt, it becomes impossible to fix companies reliant on it, even with unlimited resources. There's no way to know how much to allocate to cover losses. Too little means the company is still bad. Too much is an unfair windfall. And almost any amount could be either - there's no way to know, except to wait and find out.

This WAMU balloon loan is exhibit A for a "mystery meat" toxic debt. What will currently overpriced houses be worth in 5 years? We have no idea, basically. How much of the underwater amount will the borrower be able to cover? We have no idea. How possible will it be to get a rollover loan in 5 years? We have no idea. So, what had been a relatively easy-to-value foreclosure has become a million-dollar slug of toxic mystery meat which has to molder on the plate for years until it can be resolved.

Instead of the garbage getting taken out, it's been added to the food. We are worse off than before. I'm all for constructive loan modifications, but these kinds of mods have to stop.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Drama Geisha?

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism passes on a report from Frank Veneroso decrying the massive collapse in Japanese manufacturing, which is the fastest on record for a major industrialized country. He complains that he's "crying from the rooftops" but it's "like a neutron bomb had gone off" because nobody cares. He blames the EEEVIL speculators, picking - of all agents to blame for a manufacturing depression - technical analysis traders. Blaming that fractious bunch earns him an "Oh Please" award.

Japan, a supercreditor nation, is now running a small trade deficit, which is what it should be doing, so the yen is about right. Of course they're getting a depression in switching from an insanely low manipulated exchange rate to a reasonable one, because they've had truly massive misallocation of resources over the past 30 years, due to the crazy low yen value. Basic economics, folks - bad prices cause bad decisions.

Venerosa is right that the rest of the world doesn't care - because we all know this is about where things should be. The depression which will result from this return to sanity isn't something we can do much about anyway. Normally there would be more sympathy but since Japan Inc. has been wrecking everybody else's manufacturing longer than most working people's memory nobody's going to feel too sorry for them now.

Maybe we can get a bunch of really, really small violins to play along with MITI's sob story about manufacturing disaster from unfair trade practices - their own. Heck, Japan's into miniaturization and classical music. Maybe they can provide the violins for us!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thoughts of an unserious economist

William Pesek writes:

No serious economist thinks Japan is going to crash.

This charming little argument from intimidation reminds me of the endless parade of pundits proclaiming that all the "serious" people supported the War in Iraq. Or, for that matter, all the "serious" mockery of housing bubble predictions.

It seems most people fall into a fallacy encouraged by standard macroeconomic thinking that savings automatically produces something useful and that all "productive capacities" are equally good. All investments are particular - they are to make or do something. Market action equalizing marginal benefit *normally* produces a very good set of particular investments so it's an acceptable approximation to view any investment as equally good. But markets do fail, and they can also be distorted. If this happens the investment is wasted - perhaps partially; perhaps totally.

Japan has a huge productive capacity, but if that productive capacity is for export products that nobody will buy for years, then it's virtually worthless - regardless of how much people thought it was worth last year, or the effort put into creating it. Likewise Japan's vast savings, insofar as they own worthless productive capacity or assorted foreign bonds that can't be paid, are also worthless.

If Japan's exports continue down 35% they will crash. Hard. Are the "serious" economists going to be wrong again?

So is it insider trading?

An important point from Clusterstock:

Side note: if the government officials have been consulting with banking heads about the bad bank, and we hope they have been, does it count as insider trading when the banking chiefs buy their own stock?

This is a reference to large insider purchases by Dimon and Lewis of JPM and BoA. It's particularly interesting that both bought shares at the same time.

I have one disagreement with Clusterstock: This is not a side note. Not to say that Dimon and Lewis are necessarily guilty; but if they are this is a very big deal. This harkens back to a point I made about the Citi bailout: the connections between bank regulators and the banks are so strong that the incentives and opportunities for corruption are unbearable. Even apart from solvency issues, the banks (at least the big money center banks) have to be nationalized for governance issues while we figure out how to solve these problems.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A disturbing aspect of Obama's economic plan

There's nothing on mortgages, foreclosures, bank management, bailouts, deriivative tangles, SIVs, or any of the other financial issues dragging us into depression. This site came up as soon as Obama assumed the presidency and doesn't appear to be pulling punches, as Obama did during the transition. Other issue pages put forward a clear, if somewhat mild, center-left agenda in basic agreement with his campaign promises. So Obama has at least not yet figured out how to address the real economic problems, not even to the point of putting out an outline.

These problems are thorny but they will not wait. It's very concerning that Obama does not yet have a road map he's willing to publish, and possibly no road map at all.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Me too!

Felix Salmon wrote a great piece on Why Nationalization is the Best Alternative. It's been mentioned by Krugman, and in several comments threads. I don't have a great deal to add at the moment but it's well worth a read.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The stimulus plan: useful, but misses the point.

The House Democrats have released a first draft of their stimulus plan. It's a mix of relief (medicare/unemployment) and infrastructure investment. With current bond rates, those are good ideas; but what we will need most are employment projects and there's not a whole lot of jobs here. Most proposals are capital-intensive. It's a good idea to do capital-intensive infrastructure when rates are low; but that won't help most people in fear of losing their jobs.

What I would add to the program is jobs-related programs. Do things that aren't done now, at least not enough, which don't require much skill or physical prowess, and which pretty much everybody likes. My initial ideas would be cleaning public spaces (especially of grafitti), neighborhood patrols, landscaping, ecological restoration (wetland recreation, elimination of invasive species), and public art. Not only would this make the country a nicer place, those kinds of activities feel constructive to the worker and make for good temporary work where the pay needs to be low.

4 million people at $8/hour is 64 billion a year, which is smallish compared to this overall proposal or to the TARP. In addition to the direct benefits, if we make it clear that we *aren't* going to get depression-level unemployment then other stimulus proposal can be addressed level-headedly without the kind of panic that was used to shove through the TARP.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Reforming the Federal Reserve

The policy responses to the current crisis have exposed some bad governance problems with the Federal Reserve. Like most central banks, the Fed is fairly independent, and needs to be as otherwise there are massive incentives for electorally directed manipulation of the money supply. However, in the current crisis the Fed has used its independence to provide massive benefits to private interest, most notably with with Citibank bailout, ultimately from the pocketbook of the taxpayer.

Clearly it's totally unacceptable for any institution to effectively give hundred of billions of taxpayer money with no effective control. We'll pay for years covering the past year of thinly disguised giveaways. However, we don't want to put the Federal Reserve under the direct control of the President due to the need for independence.

To solve this dilemma, I have a simple proposal: the Federal Reserve will only be allowed to own debt explicitly guaranteed by the federal government. It will not be authorized to make any guarantees of any other assets, or to participate in any derivatives. It may make loans only when suitably collateralized by government-guaranteed debt. If the Fed needs to operate a discount window, it must first get guarantees from the political system, so it will no longer be able to effectively give away money without taxpayer control.

The Federal Reserve will still be able to control the money supply but it will only be able to use use its implicit call on taxpayer money to benefit government-guaranteed entities, which is restrictive enough. I think this proposal provides leeway for the Federal Reserve to perform its monetary function with adequate interference while ensure that benefits from government granted authority are controlled by Congress and the Executive branch.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

What does it take?

Right now the world faces a real risk of economic disaster, quite possibly a depression, as a result of a credit bubble set off by insanely low interest rates in 2001-2005. This is no surprise; if you set the price for something (credit in this case) you get overconsumption and efficiency losses; when the item in question (credit) is the most important single element of the economic system the waste has particularly dire results. Now Germany's finance minister blandly observes this obvious fact we are so painfully being reminded of.

And Paul Krugman finds this objectionable?

Seriously, what does it take for economists to accept basic economics? Mad Max?