18 November 2016

Two Financial Regulation Models: NFL or WWE

One of the most dangerous things about a Trump presidency is what it could mean for financial regulation.

This weekend millions of Americans will watch football, a sport punctuated by flags, whistles, and officials calling back a run because someone cheated when blocking or granting yards on a failed pass because someone cheated when defending a receiver. The game is fiercely competitive and highly regulated. Americans love it. The teams want your money but they also want to win. All of them. And they have to follow clear rules that ensure that the competition involves football skill, not thuggery.

Far fewer will watch World Wrestling. Entertainment. At the WWE, the officials are props who circle the fighters and hopelessly flail, even when one of the fighters grabs a chair to hit the other over the head. This game is not competitive, as winners and losers are often negotiated beforehand. It's rigged. The wrestlers want your money but winning or losing is just part of their job. It's less about competition than theater.

Trump has hosted WWE events at his properties and has body slammed a guy whose head he later shaved. He and the Republicans in Congress largely believe that financial markets are self-correcting and don't really need regulation, suggesting that their ideal referee is more WWE than NFL.

Let's review what that means and start with a review of the Great Recession because it is so easy to forget.

The Great Recession
After January 2008, employment fell for 25 straight months - the longest streak since the 1930s. By February 2010, the "job deficit" was 12 million. (The job deficit equals the number of jobs lost plus the number of jobs that would have normally been created during that time. The economy destroyed about 8 million jobs in a period when it would have normally created about 4 million. Add them up and you're short 12 million jobs compared to any normal period.)

Long-term unemployment as a percentage of unemployment swung between 5% and 20% of total unemployment in the period after 1948. By April of 2010, it had hit 45% and would take years to drop to its old level.

GDP growth, too, was slow to recover. After the last two recessions GDP grew 6.2 and 5.6 percent in the years right after the recovery. This time it grew about 2%.

Between housing and financial assets, wealth fell about $18 trillion, an amount equal to annual GDP.

[All of these stats from Alan Blinder's After the Music Stopped: the financial crisis, the response, and the work ahead.]

These seem like cold stats. They're not. They represent millions who were made homeless, had careers and retirement plans derailed, and were unable to do things like help children with a college education or buy a car or pay a medical bill. They represent millions whose lives were set back. According to one study, the trauma of the Great Recession provoked 10,000 suicides and that is just the most extreme emotional consequence of an economy this brutal.

What Caused this Financial Crisis?

I think that a few things caused it.

Martin Wolf writes of the lead up to the 2007 - 8 Great Recession that "risk had been distributed not to those best able to bear it, but to those least able to understand it." Local bankers were less likely to own mortgage loans than remote investors.

Securitization let banks take loans and then turn them into securities that could be sold to investors who did not understand the underlying risk as well as local bankers might have. Coupled with loose regulation that allowed banks to issue NINJA loans (loans to folks with no income, no job, and no assets) that were then sold to largely ignorant third-parties who were misled by credit ratings agencies who called these good risks. (Michael Lewis tells this story in the Big Short.)

Financial innovation led to a rapid proliferation of new products that people didn't really understand. Imagine drug development that required no FDA approval or trials and you get some sense of the potential, unknown danger of these new products suddenly in circulation. The derivatives market exploded between 1998 and 2008; notional values grew from $72 trillion to $673 trillion. (If that sounds like a lot, it is. Total global GDP is about $50 trillion.) The market value of derivatives is considerably less than the notional value but even that grew from $2.6 trillion to a stunning $35.3 trillion by December 2008 at the cusp of the Great Recession. What's a derivative? It's a financial instrument whose value is derived from another, like a bet on a stock price or pork bellies. If a name like "financial derivative" makes your eyes glaze over and - at the same time - makes you feel impressed by the fancy term then it is doing its job; it is great to sell a product that is poorly understood but trusted as high-tech. Again, this is another example of risk being shifted from those who understand it to those who don't.

The rapid innovations in finance helped and was helped by the emergence of a shadow banking system. It was negligible in 1980 but by the early 2000s it had grown larger than traditional, regulated banking. In 2007 this shadow banking sector was about $13 trillion.

[Above facts are from Martin Wolf's The Shifts and the Shocks: what we've learned - and have still to learn - from the financial crisis.]

Banks had become public companies rather than private concerns. This gave them more capital to use but it also made them more accepting of risk. If you are a partner in a private bank, you want to make a good return on your money. But this is your money so you also want to avoid a lot of risk. If someone doesn't pay back your loan, you're out that amount. That was the old world. In the new world, banks were public and the money that bankers loaned was stockholders'. Bankers had incentives to originate loans in order to get big bonuses which often were paid at the time of the transaction, not slowly over time as the loan was paid back. Suddenly, the risk was someone else's and bankers wanting a bonus rather than protecting their own capital had an incentive to pursue returns with less discrimination.

Finally, the whole system was more fragile. The push for greater returns coupled with the ability to off-load risk and use someone else's money had driven the market to leverage more. Once upon a time banks had leveraged investments at a rate of 10 or 20 to 1. By 2008, they were leveraging investments at 50 to 1. That sort of leverage greatly inflates your returns on the way up but it disastrously exacerbates losses on the way down.

When the downturn hit - and downturns always hit - the system was fragile and poised for massive losses. The result has already been mentioned (13 million job deficit, $18 trillion in wealth disappeared, etc.)

"The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, 
and then it happens much faster than you would have thought."
- Rudiger Dornbusch

We Americans depend on Wall St. and the banks. Finance is to the economy what oxygen is to an ecosystem. The purpose of financial regulation is not to make the game noncompetitive but instead to ensure that competition is about creating value rather than hiding risk, about creating sustainable returns rather than unsustainable bubbles, and protecting the naive from the manipulative. With good financial systems, people still get filthy rich but fewer people go bankrupt. Someone like Elizabeth Warren understands the importance of NFL style regulation. Trump's sensibilities seem to run more towards WWE. That should have frightened voters last week. It should frighten you now.

As to timing of this? I don't know. Glass Steagal was repealed in 1999 and the Great Recession hit within a decade. There is a small chance that Trump and the Republicans have learned the lesson of the Great Recession and won't deregulate. It seems optimistic to assume this. There is a better chance that it takes at least two year for new regulations - or deregulations - to be put in place. And at that point the impact of the return to fragile finance could take a year to manifest or two decades. It's harder to predict than the impact of a rate hike or tax cut.

No comments: