Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: “Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud” by David Dayen

David Dayen’s book, Chain of Title, looks at the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath from a different perspective than most of the existing literature, which has focused on the financial difficulties of major financial participants and how the government did or did not come to their rescue. Dayen focuses instead on the plight of the people whose homes were foreclosed on and the fraud committed to accomplish these foreclosures. The financial difficulties of many of the homeowners were due to their losing their jobs as a result of the economic downturn in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

As for the financial institutions, the book describes in great detail how they and their lawyers commit fraud in having documents manufactured after the fact in order to cover up that the mortgages and the associated notes were not properly transferred after the original secured loan was made. The financial institutions had taken shortcuts in order to securitize home mortgage loans quickly and to evade local real property recording fees. When many of the home mortgages were in default, the financial institutions bringing the foreclosure cases to court in those states, such as Florida, which require this, they manufactured documents, sometimes sloppily to a comical extent. Judges, in many instances looked the other way, and some in Florida had a financial incentive to process as many cases as possible, because they were paid by the case.

In many, though not all cases, the homeowners had in fact missed payments on their mortgage loans, sometimes with the encouragement of representatives of the lenders. Some might say that, therefore, they do not deserve much sympathy because the original deal was that the mortgage loan was secured by the home. Defenders of financial institutions might dismiss this book as leftist propaganda in the “Occupy Wall Street” genre. The author, in fact, writes for left of center publications and websites. But, this is too easy a dismissal. As Zach Carter in an article about this book for the Huffington Post remarks:

“Because Chain of Title shows both the Bush and Obama administration policies siding with elites against consumers, it’s tempting to see the book as a narrative of the American political left. But the lessons Dayen draws from his tale could come straight from a conservative think-tank. Property rights are important, he argues, and the rule of law matters. But neither mean very much when the government refuses to enforce them for everyone.”

In fact, not only were homeowners being foreclosed on by institutions that did not have proper documentation that the mortgages and the notes had been properly transferred to them, institutional investors in mortgage-backed securities were put at risk by the practices of the financial institutions. In many cases, it appears that the mortgages and notes were not properly transferred to the trusts associated with the securities, which means that there were potentially adverse consequences to investors if something went wrong. If a trust did not hold the mortgages and the notes, the arrangements to issue the securities ran afoul of the tax regulations that permit such a structure. Investors, therefore, might not have the type of security they thought they had. In the event, the book documents that the both the IRS and the Justice Department knew about this but decided to do nothing about it, not even to use this and other possibly illegal practices of financial institutions to bring pressure on them to offer some relief to homeowners.

Most readers will be outraged by the practices described in this book. The author begins by telling the story of a Florida nurse who runs into problems with a financial institution and her developing obsession with foreclosure practices. Two other main characters are subsequently introduced who share the same obsession, a car salesman and a lawyer. The early part of the book reads like a novel, especially when telling the story of the nurse.

Scores of other characters are introduced, and it is hard to keep them all straight, as they disappear and then reappear much later. The book would have been helped by a listing of all these people with a brief description of who they are. Also, it is somewhat disappointing that many of these people have interesting stories, but they are not fully developed, leaving the reader to ask what happened to them.

Another problem with the book is that it makes no attempt to analyze why the government acted as it did. For example, it seems that the author made no attempt to interview Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner or Attorney General Eric Holder about their reasons for not getting tough on these bad and, most likely, illegal practices. Perhaps, they would have refused to be interviewed, but that would have told us something. Someone else in the government might have been willing to talk if they were not.

Still, while I have these criticisms, this is an important book, and probably will not get the attention it deserves. As far as I can tell, the only major (“mainstream”) publication to review the book is the New York Times Book Review. The review is by Frank Partnoy, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law. Those familiar with Professor Partnoy’s writings will not be surprised to learn that he likes the book
The book should be read because it has an important story to tell about one of the causes of the financial crisis and about how the federal and state governments operate when powerful constituencies are affected. Arguably, if financial institutions had correctly transferred mortgages and notes and paid the recording fees, this would have slowed down the mortgage securitization process, which reached such a frenzy that “synthetic” securities based on mortgages were created, the banks not being able to make enough, mostly bad, loans quickly enough. This could have lessened the severity of the financial crisis, which after all stemmed from a real estate bubble fueled by excessive lending.  

It is also disturbing to realize that the problems with foreclosure practices and improper transfers have apparently not been cleaned up. What is holding back another excessive frenzy in private label mortgage related securities is not the financial institutions but limited investor demand. Meanwhile, the government remains undecided about what to do about Fannie Mae and Freddie and Freddie Mac. The book does not go into this, but one might wonder how properly documented the trusts underlying their securities are. (I don’t know.)

The Obama Administration can be justifiably criticized in not facing these problems head on. As far as the prospects for the next Administration in dealing with this, Hillary Clinton is viewed as too close to Wall Street, and therefore it is unclear whether a Clinton Administration would have any appetite to deal with this. A Clinton Administration would have people who understand the issue. As far as Donald Trump is concerned, while he is running a populist campaign, he was involved in the mortgage industry in Florida (see article by Dayen and another article by Lynn Szymoniak, one of the main characters in Dayen’s book). Also, the finance chair of Trump’s campaign is Steve Mnuchin, who once headed OneWest Bank, which Dayen contends was “one of the worst foreclosure operators” (see the end of this Salon article). This is, of course, not dispositive of what a Trump Administration would do, but the signs are not positive.

One can hope that federal and state governments do not continue to view this issue as a can to be kicked down the road until the next crisis happens. Absent a crisis, though, the next Administration will likely view many other issues as more pressing, though some of the regulators may do something.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Review of The End of Alchemy by Mervyn King

Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England from 2003 to 2013, has written an interesting book, The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking, and the Future of the Global Economy. As he states at the outset, this book is not a memoir of the financial crisis and its aftermath. Rather it is his reflections on the problems he sees in the world economy and its financial sector informed by his long career in public service.

These reflections are always interesting, and the book, written for a general audience and consequently not burdened by graphs and math, is well written. This does not mean that the book is unsophisticated; a discussion of Keynesian economics is perhaps the clearest presentation of a difficult subject that I have run across, though King has criticisms of modern economic theory, including those derived from Keynes’ significant contributions.

King is particularly critical of the euro. His argument about the folly of creating the euro is essentially the same as the one Yanis Varoufakis makes in his book, And the Weak Suffer What They Must? (reviewed in my previous post). King believes the lack of a political union, a common fiscal policy, and democratic political legitimacy of Eurozone decision makers dooms the monetary union to failure. While he does not propose a path forward, he does write:

“The tragedy of monetary union in Europe is not that it might collapse but that, given the degree of political commitment among the leaders of Europe, it might continue, bringing economic stagnation to the largest currency bloc in the world and holding back recovery of the wider world economy. It is at the heart of the disequilibrium in the world today.”
While the reflections are interesting, the book is not always clear about how the various discussions fit together or, as one proceeds through the book, what the central thesis is. The main proposal in the book, which concerns banking and is aimed at removing the “alchemy’ referred to in the title is made two-thirds of the way through the book, with interesting discussions preceding that, not all of which relate all that much to his proposal.

By “alchemy,” King is referring to our fractional reserve banking system, in which demand deposits are for the most part invested in longer-term and riskier assets, while the owners of the deposits believe that they can withdraw their deposits either to spend the proceeds or transfer them to another financial institution whenever they want. Of course, if all, or many, of the depositors of a bank want to do this at the same time, the bank cannot pay and will have to go to the central bank for a loan backed by the bank’s assets. As banks have gotten into riskier activities, King believes that this is not a satisfactory situation. He wants to transform the central bank from a lender of last resort to a “pawnbroker for all seasons.”

Unlike others who have proposed breaking up banks and limiting what deposit-taking institutions can do and letting other financial intermediaries without access to the central bank take on the riskier activities, King proposes that banks that take deposits pledge up front assets to the central bank in sufficient amount, after haircuts, to back the deposits. He would also impose an overall leverage ratio on the bank, but would eliminate complex regulations after a transition period to this new regime. Within these restraints, the bank could do what it wants with the rest of its balance sheet. If the bank got into trouble, depositors would know that the banks could borrow from the central bank up to the amount of the collateral minus haircuts which it has pledged to the central bank.

This idea is not totally fleshed out. While the haircuts on the pledged assets, which are presumably higher the riskier assets are in terms of market and credit risk, are determined at the outset, King does not explain what would happen during a financial crisis during which the market valuation of some assets may plummet and may not be sufficient after haircuts to back the deposits. This is not an insurmountable issue, perhaps there could be a daily mark-to-market regime, but it would have been better if he had addressed it.

The proposal is quite radical, but worthy of consideration and debate. Banks will of course strenuously oppose this, and it may not be politically possible. King is though correct that financial crises are inevitable and that current arrangements probably make them more likely and lead to ad hoc approaches to dealing with them. For example, while current government officials express confidence that the resolution procedures established by Dodd-Frank will work, many outside observers have doubts that they will work in the case of a failure of a large, international bank. Differences in legal requirements, procedures, and concepts in different countries exacerbated by government officials primarily concerned about protecting their own citizens and companies which are creditors of the failing bank would make international coordination difficult. The untangling of a web of transactions among financial institutions and the necessity for government officials of various countries to understand these transactions and what unwinding them may imply compounds the difficulty. Whatever current laws and expectations are in calm times, one can easily see that officials will conclude in a crisis that creative, ad hoc measures are necessary.

Among other issues, King stresses the importance of political developments affecting economic conditions and economic conditions affecting political developments. He is of course correct in this, and we can see it in the increased popularity of fringe parties and unconventional politicians in the West. Taking this further, King makes a distinction between what he calls the “economy of stuff” and the “economy of stuff happens.” What stuff happens is unpredictable, and consumers deal with “radical uncertainty” by effectively using short-cut rules which may change given experience over time. This criticism of economic theory is well-taken, but King is less clear about how government official should shape policy in a situation of radical uncertainty. At points he seems modest about what an institution such as the Bank of England can realistically know, and at other points, he seems to want the Bank of England to take actions, which may be painful in the short run, in order to change the expectations and heuristic rules of consumers. He thinks this is necessary in order to change the economy from an unsustainable course. Unfortunately, King is not clear about how policymakers determine that an economy is on an unsustainable course, or what he means by that.

As for King’s general prescriptions of the world economy, he outlines them in a chapter entitled “The Audacity of Pessimism: The Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Coming Crisis.” It is hard to take much comfort from this chapter. King’s recommendations are either thin or not politically realistic.

First, he thinks that countries should “boost productivity,” by changing their tax systems and regulations. He writes that “the specific microeconomic policies required will differ from country to country,” but he does not acknowledge that this could make for a robust debate among economists and others. For example, consider the debate in the U.S. about raising the minimum wage, which each side proffering its own economists and studies about whether this decreases employment or reduces income inequality.

Second, King argues for the promotion of trade. Among most economists, though not among the general public, there is general agreement that freer trade (reduced tariffs and many, though not all, other non-tariff barriers to trade) benefit all the countries involved. However, the devil is in the details. Criticisms of trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, include more meritorious arguments than those about employment. The dispute resolution procedures and other issues, such as those involving patent protection for drugs, have been raised, and economic theory has less to say about these political issues. Increased trade is usually good, but King should realize the complexity of some of the issues involved. Trade deals need to be examined, not just supported automatically because of tariff reductions.

His third proposal is that the world move back to a floating exchange rate regime. He does not say it explicitly, but King seems to be recommending here that the euro in its current form needs to be ended. Rather, than kicking many of the weaker countries out, King floats the proposal that Germany should exit. Of course, that is not going to happen, because, as King argues elsewhere in the book, the euro is a political project. The key relationship in Europe is between Germany and France. This is true, even though France has become less powerful than it once was both politically and economically. The political reason for the euro would disappear with a German exit, but at the same time, Germany’s use of the euro causes both economic and political problems, which have been compounded by the current German government’s economic and diplomatic policies in the Eurozone, which are personified by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

In spite of these criticisms, I recommend the book to those interested in the subject matter. While some ideas need more development, King is an original and provocative thinker and he writes well and in an engaging manner. Because the book does not develop clearly one central argument but covers quite a bit of the waterfront, the book is best approached as a series of interesting articles. Though written for a general audience, the book’s arguments are sophisticated, and one hopes that what he has to say will be considered and debated by academics and economic policymakers. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book Review: “And the Weak Suffer What They Must: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future” by Yanis Varoufakis

The former and controversial Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has written an interesting but somewhat frustrating book. Its main theme is that the breakdown of fixed exchange rates anchored by the U.S. dollar under the Bretton Woods System in the early 1970s led the Europeans to take steps to form a monetary union, which eventually led to the creation of the euro. While this worked for a while, the euro was a deeply flawed idea. At first, banks were pushing loans in the periphery countries because their view was that the creation of the euro reduced risk. However, when the economies of these countries were hit by the 2008 financial crisis, the bubbles created by this excessive lending burst. The European Union (EU) had no good way of dealing with this, and the policy decisions were being taken behind closed doors by the Eurogroup, an unofficial but powerful body of the finance ministers of the countries of the Eurozone. Varoufakis argues that this way of making decisions has no democratic legitimacy.
When it comes to the euro and its flaws, Varoufakis is, of course, correct. He points out that the EU is not like the United States, where major fiscal policy is made at the federal level. The lack of a banking union and European-wide deposit guarantee fund also compounds the problem. As Varoufakis points out, if banks in Nevada, for example, run into problems, say because the real estate market there has collapsed, there is no insistence that the State of Nevada come up with the money to deal with the insolvency of banks located in Nevada. The FDIC does this.
In addition, Varoufakis puts much of the blame on inept policy to deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis on Jean-Claude Trichet, the Frenchman who was President of the European Central Bank from 2003 to 2011, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. The tight money policies of Trichet were certainly a mistake, and Schäuble continues to appear to be both undemocratic and wanting to make an example of Greece in order to frighten other countries to follow his preferred policies.
Varoufakis does not consider how much the system was to blame for the economic distress in the periphery and how much it was due to bad decisions by political actors, though he makes a convincing case against both. Also, he appears to go easy on Mario Draghi, the Italian who succeeded Trichet. Varoufakis clearly admires Draghi, but it was the ECB under him which increased the pressure on Greece by refusing to allow the Bank of Greece to make further collateralized loans to Greek banks on June 28, 2015, thus creating a cash shortage in Greece and long lines at ATMs. It is not clear whether this was something Draghi wanted to do or whether he was pressured to do it. (My discussion of this and other matters relating to the Greek crisis can be found here.)
When he discusses the United States, Varoufakis makes some errors that do not matter that much to his argument but are annoying nonetheless. For example, he identifies Medicare as being in place at the time of the Bretton Woods negotiations. Also, he states that “after 1965, the New Dealers and their successors lost every domestic battle they fought against the resurgent Republicans.” Ask any Republican whether they think this is true.
More importantly, I think Varoufakis mischaracterizes Paul Volcker’s intentions. He makes a lot of a speech that Paul Volcker made in November 1978 at Warwick University when he was still President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This speech is not a model of clear writing, but, as I read it, Volcker’s main point is that the Bretton Woods system eventually became unsustainable and needed to be replaced. He argues that there was no replacement which could guarantee that there would be no future crises, “but,” he states, “a crisis can also be therapeutic – it forces a response.” Varoufakis, though, claims that what Volcker is really saying is that “if America cannot recycle its surplus, having slipped into a deficit position back in the mid-1960s, it must now recycle other people’s surpluses” through financial intermediation. I do not see where Volcker says that in his speech.[1]
Moreover, Varoufakis argues that the primary reason Volcker raised interest rates when he became Chairman or the Federal Reserve Board was not to slay inflation but to preserve American dominance of the international system. He claims that the “Warwick speech had given the Europeans ample warning” (p.77). This is unpersuasive. Anyone who remembers the end of the Carter Administration and the beginning of the Reagan Administration knows that inflation was the primary concern. And U.S. economic dominance is not what it once was. In short, Volcker was trying to solve an immediate and serious problem.
In general, while Varoufakis’s discussion of American policymakers from the New Deal on is unconvincing, his analysis of the problems with the euro are on point. But that leaves the question of where Europe goes from here. With all its faults, Varoufakis believes in the EU; he is currently involved in convincing U.K. voters to vote for remaining in the EU. He ends on a hopeful note, making reference to a statement Gandhi made when asked about his thoughts on Western civilization – “It would be a very good idea.” Similarly, Varoufakis thinks that European Union would be “a splendid idea” and he thinks that Europeans can “pull it off” (p.251). The problem is nothing in his analysis supports his hopes.  

[1] It would add to understanding if both Varoufakis and Volcker had made clear their definition of “deficit” or “external constraints of the balance of payments.” In the last half of the 1960s, both the U.S. trade balance and current account balance (goods, services, income (investment and compensation), and transfers (including remittances)) were not in deficit. They may be referring to a balance of payments measure in use then but not much discussed today, the basic balance, which includes long-term capital flows as well as current account transactions. They may also be referring to the official reserve transactions balance, which includes everything except changes in a country’s official reserve position. Nowadays, when someone says balance of payments surplus or deficit, this usually refers to the current account unless the context clearly indicates otherwise.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

FBI vs. Apple, Some Observations

·      The FBI is trying to force Apple to write code which will do three things. First, it will eliminate those part of the current operating system which makes the data on the current phone indecipherable after 10 failed password attempt. Second, it will eliminate the increasing time intervals between password attempts at accessing the device. Third, it will allow password attempts be allowed remotely from a computer rather than being entered in by hand.

·      The FBI wants to use “brute force” to discover the correct password to the phone. In other words, a computer will try every possible combination of number and letters until it hits the correct one. If the password is composed only of numbers and has four digits, this can be done very quickly by computer, since there are only 10,000 possible number codes. If it is an alphanumeric code, it takes more time since, rather than only ten possibilities for each position, there are 36. If the password is case sensitive, then there are 62 possibilities. If the password is an alphanumeric code which is case sensitive and has six positions, then it will take even more time. The time to discover the correct password depends on the number of possible combinations of symbols, how fast the computer using the brute force is, and how fast the iPhone can respond. Obviously, adding symbols as well as letters will increase the number of possibilities. How long it would take to break into the particular iPhone in this case is not clear.

·       The FBI is relying on a short, ambiguous 1987 statute, the All Writs Act, to try to compel Apple to write the necessary code. The courts will have to resolve whether the All Writs Act is applicable in this case. If some sort of resolution is not reached between Apple and the government, then it seems likely that this will reach the Supreme Court.

·       Bill Gates entered into this discussion by leaning to the government’s side, but not completely.

·       Gates used an analogy to banks giving up customer transaction information to law enforcement authorities. Gates, though, is understating what banks are required to do. Not only must they respond to subpoenas, they are required to file suspicious activity reports (SARs) to a bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Often these are transactions that could involve money laundering or violation of U.S. international sanctions regulations (which are promulgated by another part of the Treasury, the Office of Foreign Assets Control.) When a particular bank gets into trouble for having lax controls, or actively assists, in money laundering or sanction violations, the volume of SARs increases as other banks start playing it safe. The banks are prohibited from telling their customers about any SARs reports.

·       Supporters of Apple’s position argue that, if Apple is forced to write this computer code, other countries (such as China) may lean on it to use the same method to force entry into the phone of its citizens in order to suppress dissent. These countries could do that now, though Apple’s ability to resist such demands might be weakened if the FBI prevails.

·        It seems unlikely that there is anything of interest on the particular phone in question. The government already has the metadata from the phone and what was backed up to Apple servers. The auto backup function of the phone was disabled a few weeks before the San Bernardino attacks. This is what the government wants.

·       It is pretty clear that the government is using a case involving terrorism to set a precedent. It seems to be winning in the court of public opinion.

·       It is not clear how the courts will resolve this case or whether Congress will be able to pass a law clarifying the government’s ability to force software companies to write code in order to assist its investigations.

·      The technology industry is probably correct in saying that there is no foolproof way to leave a backdoor into a smartphone’s data that can be limited to the government and the manufacturer. Hackers will probably find a way to break in.

·       If U.S. technology companies are prohibited from creating encryption for phones that make them secure from outsiders without some sort of backdoor, others, perhaps companies located abroad, will do so.

·       The issues are not easy, and it is healthy to have a debate. The law is having difficulty keeping up with technology.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

“The Big Short” Movie: My Review

Yesterday, I saw “The Big Short,” a movie based on the book by Michael Lewis. It was announced today that it one of eight films nominated for the “Best Picture” Oscar award. It is an entertaining movie, but I doubt that it will have much, if any, impact on the regulation of financial markets or financial institutions.
The movie focuses, as does the book, on a few, rather strange persons (fictionalized in the movie) who saw that there was a housing bubble of major proportions and that, when it burst, many of the mortgages which had been packaged into mortgage-backed securities and subsequently into collateralized debt obligations (“CDOs”) would end up in foreclosure. They decided to short the market in a big way and were ultimately rewarded.
For those who have not heard of CDOs and credit default swaps, the movie, while both entertaining and in places comedic, is a painless introduction of some of the practices that led to the 2008 financial market meltdown. It is, though, by necessity incomplete and a bit misleading.
In particular, the description of synthetic CDOs, which features Richard Thaler, an economist playing himself, and actress Selena Gomez in a Las Vegas casino is incomplete. Rather than trying to explain that synthetic CDOs were created by putting in them credit default swaps referencing mortgage-backed securities, instead of the securities themselves, the movie’s explanation of this describes the betting that this structure facilitates.  
The reason that this is important is that it was the presence of short sellers that enabled the creation of the credit default swaps that were put into the CDOs. How much this exacerbated the financial crisis has been debated. “Yves Smith” of the blog “Naked Capitalism” is rather caustic on this point.
While the real life characters on whom the movie is based were not that big nor that significant compared to someone like John Paulson, who was also shorting the market, in one instance controversially involved with Goldman Sachs in creating a very bad synthetic CDO (“Abacus”), they were more opportunistic in seeing the trade of a lifetime than heroes. To be fair, the movie does not portray them as unalloyed heroes, but it is clear for whom the audience should be rooting.
Also, while the bailout of the major financial institutions is implicitly criticized, it is left unmentioned that the short sellers benefitted from the bailout, in particular that of AIG, which ended up holding much of the risk that other financial institutions wanted to unload through the use of credit default swaps. If the government had not undertaken through TARP and other measures to bail out the Street, the counterparties to the shorts might not have been able to come up with the money they owed the shorts.
This is all perhaps more complicated than an entertainment movie could put into a story, but it is worth reminding ourselves of what happened. The Street needed the shorts to create the synthetic CDOs. The synthetic CDOs were easier to construct than CDOs with actual mortgage-backed securities, and, moreover, even with the flurry of mortgage lending there was not enough mortgages to meet the demand for CDOs.
The movie implies that it was mainly a few people with somewhat inadequate social skills who saw that there was a housing bubble. Plenty of people saw it; it was just as obvious as the tech stock bubble that preceded it. The failure of the Federal Reserve, and in particular Chairman Greenspan, to see that there was a bubble and to use the Fed’s existing authority to rein in the abusive lending practices in subprime mortgages was a gigantic mistake. There is, though, plenty of blame to pass around. (The Onion had a funny article in July 2008 headlined “Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble to Invest In.”)
What many did not see, though, was the major financial calamity that would result when the bubble burst. After all, the end of the tech stock bubble, while unpleasant, was manageable. The bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent financial crisis is still affecting us eight years later.
The shorts were right in realizing that the bursting of the bubble would be calamitous. But they were also lucky. While bubbles of the magnitude of what happened in housing and tech stocks are not hard to see, it is near impossible to predict when the supply of “greater fools” will run out and the whole thing collapses. The movie gets at this by depicting the losses and withdrawals one hedge fund manager had to endure while he waited for the massive defaults he knew were coming. If he had been a bit more off on his timing, he may not have had the financial wherewithal to keep his positions until they paid off.  
At the end, the movie criticizes the failure to break up the big banks and the failure to prosecute the fraud that took place. This may make some moviegoers angry, as it should, but I doubt that this movie will change the political realities.
Nevertheless, the movie is worth seeing. The acting is first rate, it captures the characters and the atmosphere of the mortgage frenzy, and, in places, the movie is quite funny. Also, while the explanations of some of the financial instruments are incomplete, it serves to bring some more clarity in an entertaining fashion to those not familiar with the arcana of the Street about what happened.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

“Netanyahu at War” Documentary – Some Comments

Last night (January 5, 2016), PBS broadcasted an interesting Frontline documentary, “Netanyahu at War.” The documentary focuses on the troubled relationship Israel has had with the U.S while Benjamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister.

Interestingly, the documentary indicates that Netanyahu has failed to understand U.S. politics even though, of all Israeli leaders, he has the best background to understand this country. He and his family moved to the U.S. when he was seven, and he went to U.S. schools from that time on (including high school). He earned two degrees at MIT and was studying for a doctorate in political science at Harvard but returned to Israel after his older brother was killed in the Entebbe raid. He also was an official at the Israeli embassy in Washington in the early 80s and subsequently served as the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.

This documentary, which is almost two hours long, is well worth watching. The end of the program focuses on the nuclear negotiations with Iran and the dismal professional and personal relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama. Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress in order to urge them to scuttle the deal was clearly a mistake. Since he lost, his actions in defiance of a U.S. President showed that the supposedly invincible Israeli lobby could be beaten. His attempt to convince American Jewish voters of the rightness of his cause also did not succeed. The vast majority of Jews voted for Obama both times he ran. Throwing his hat in with the Republicans, when most Jews are Democrats, was a mistake by Netanyahu that Israel will have to correct. It is possible that Netanyahu mistook his conversations with rich, conservative American Jews as representing general American Jewish opinion. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, who is interviewed in the documentary, Netanyahu and his entourage were sure that Mitt Romney would win the 2012 presidential election, and were like Fox News “bitter enders” before admitting to themselves that Obama had won. (The Israelis would have had better intelligence if they had read Nate Silver’s 538 blog, then hosted by the New York Times.)

There is a lot more to the documentary, including arguments concerning whether Netanyahu’s actions and speeches in 1995 helped create the atmosphere contributing to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Netanyahu was an implacable opponent of the Oslo peace process to which Rabin had subcribed. The treatment of this subject gives both sides their say.

Nevertheless, I have a few quibbles. The first is stylistic. I dislike Will Lyman’s voice of god narration for the Frontline programs, which seems to be a cheap way to stack the deck in favor of whatever point Frontline is making. (How could you possible disagree with that authoritative voice? But I have.)

Also, the program did not indicate the background and positions of some of the interviewees. For example, while correctly identifying Ron Dermer as Israel’s current ambassador to the U.S., there is no mention of his professional ties to the Republican Party as an American citizen and his role in arranging Netanyahu’s speech to Congress with Speaker John Boehner. However, Ron Dermer does not come off all that well in the show unless you totally agree with him. He sounds like many political operatives who show up on cable political shows who do not depart from their talking points.

Also, Ari Shavit, who wrote an interesting book on Israel (my review is here) makes the main point of the documentary at the end that, if things turn out badly, the years 2009 to 2015 will be viewed as a sad chapter in history and a failure of the Americans and the Israeli governments to work together. What is not mentioned is that, while Ari Shavit, who work for the liberal Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, is in some ways a liberal in Israeli politics, he agreed with Netanyahu’s reasons for opposing  the nuclear deal with Iran. This is probably what he was talking about in his interview, but the editing takes away some of the context. (Shavit though did not agree with Netanyahu’s tactics of opposing the American President on this. See “An Israeli Triumph Over Obama on Iran Could Be Disastrous.”)

Nevertheless, I recommend the program for those interested in Israel and the Middle East in general. Now that we see the total breakdown of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Israeli situation underlines how complicated the politics of the region are. For the U.S., there is no obvious optimal Middle East foreign policy, but the current and subsequent American presidents will have to navigate this difficult terrain as best they can. It is way too easy to get things wrong. One can only hope that they avoid some of the disastrous decisions of some of their predecessors.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants by Bethany McLean

Bethany McLean’s new book, Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants, is short (about 150 pages) but filled with useful information and analysis concerning the two biggest government-sponsored enterprises (“GSEs”), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I recommend this book for anyone wondering about these entities and why they are still in conservatorship.

I should point out at the outset that I spent most of my career in the Domestic Finance section of Treasury, and the Treasury, no matter the political complexion of the Administration, took a dim view of Fannie and Freddie. The career Treasury official I worked for in the first half of the 1980s summed up the attitude succinctly by remarking that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac officials paid themselves private sector salaries without taking private sector risks. While Treasury would take every opportunity to say that GSE debt was not guaranteed by the U.S. government, the market assumed, rightly as it turned out, that if the GSEs ever got into trouble, the U.S. government would make good on the debt. In other words, Treasury was correct as a legal matter in saying that the debt was not guaranteed, but most, if not all, Treasury officials knew that the Treasury would have to do something if they got into financial trouble because of the implicit government guarantee. The shock to the financial system of a Fannie or Freddie default would be too great.

In fact, it was the implicit government guarantee that effectively saved Fannie Mae in the 1980s. Fannie Mae was then faced with the same problem as the savings and loans in a rising interest rate environment. Both Fannie and the S&Ls were financing long-term assets (home mortgages) with shorter term financing. When the cost of financing became much higher than the return on their assets, this proved to be a big problem. Fannie solved this by resorting to issuing mortgage-backed securities, on which Fannie bore credit but not interest rate risk, and by changing its financing strategy so that the duration of its liabilities more nearly matched the duration of its assets, thus reducing its interest rate risk. (I am using the term “duration” in its technical sense, which is related to but not the same as maturity, but you can probably follow what I am saying even if you do not how to calculate duration.) Fannie would not have been able to do this and effectively grow out of its problem without the implicit government guarantee that afforded it continued access to the credit market. Real private companies would have faced downgrades on their debt and eventual failure.

Another reason for Treasury resentment of the GSEs is that, when it came to policy issues that affected them, the GSEs would either argue as if they were  private corporations or as if they were government entities, depending on the particular issue. Fannie Mae, in its publicity, stated that this mixture of public and private worked for the benefit of housing and the U.S. economy. From the Treasury perspective, Fannie and Freddie did just enough for low income housing in order to form a formidable political coalition including the housing finance industry, real estate brokers, and advocates for low income housing.

Further, Treasury was keenly aware that Fannie and Freddie were thinly capitalized. Officials from both companies would argue that they had a good handle on their risk, and that the only thing that could bring them down was a housing bust all over the United States, rather than in  particular regions. Treasury was resigned to appreciating that nothing really could be done about them unless they got into real trouble. In the event, there was a housing bust, and the U.S. government took them over.

Nevertheless, I do not subscribe to the view that the activities of Fannie and Freddie were major causes of the financial crisis. The person most associated with pushing this view is Peter Wallison, a former General Counsel of the Treasury Department during the Reagan Administration and currently co-director of financial policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. He was also a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and wrote a dissent from the Commission’s report. In his dissent, he argued that a prime cause of the crisis was the affordable housing goals of Fannie and Freddie. This was too much for his fellow Republican commissioners, and they jointly filed a different dissent, which, as I have previously commented, made reasonable arguments.

Bethany McLean easily demolishes Wallison’s argument by pointing out, among other things, that the mortgages Fannie and Freddie bought or securitized were not as risky as Wallison claimed and the two institutions were latecomers to the subprime party. As for the more sophisticated argument that Fannie and Freddie took all the good loans, leaving only bad loans for the private sector, McLean writes that “this leaves a lot of other factors unexplained. Among them: Why was there so much money, for a period of time, to be made on these fringes? Why didn’t the private sector do what it was supposed to do best, namely manage risk?” (p. 55)

It is unclear why Wallison has been obsessed with Fannie and Freddie. He may be trying to make a political case that stricter regulation of the private financial sector is unnecessary because the financial crisis, in his view, is the result of government policies. As I have indicated, I am not a fan of these companies and their activities were part of the myriad of causes for the financial crisis, but focusing on these companies and leaving out other actors, which had much more to do with the crisis, is a mistake. There is plenty of reason to question whether initially privatizing Fannie and Freddie (their respective histories, incidentally, are different) were good ideas, and, as McLean points out, the political process has not produced any consensus about what to do with these entities.

Fannie and Freddie are currently profitable, but the profits are flowing to the U.S. government, which I suppose should please deficit hawks. For example, in calendar year 2014, Fannie paid the Treasury $20.1 billion in dividends and Freddie paid $19.6 billion. However, when the government put the two GSEs into conservatorship, it left 20.1% of the common stock in private hands in order not to include the two companies’ debts on the U.S. balance sheet. Now the holders of the common stock and preferred stock have gone to court because they believe that they have a right to some of the profits the GSEs are generating. Whether or not they do has not been finally decided by the courts.

Fannie and Freddie are providing significant financial support to the housing market. Left undecided is what role the government should play in housing. The 30-year fixed rate mortgage is possible because of Fannie and Freddie, and U.S. homebuyers have become accustomed to the availability of this type of loan. On the other hand, government subsidies to housing – and Fannie and Freddie are only part of that – arguably distort markets and encourages more resources to be devoted to housing at the expense of other sectors of the economy and encourages families and individuals to buy larger houses than they really need or would otherwise buy. Since there is no consensus on what to do with the GSEs, they continue in conservatorship and, at least until the courts have finally spoken, providing their profits to the U.S. government, which also effectively bears the risks from their operations.

There is much more to the book, including discussion of Ed DeMarco, who was acting head of the regulator of  Fannie and Freddie, defying enormous pressure to have them provide relief to borrowers. There are also some errors and oversights in the book, though none are critical. I will single out two here. The author uses the term government-sponsored enterprise to refer to only Fannie and Freddie. In fact, there are other GSEs, such as the problematical Farm Credit System. (The GSE that has been successfully spun off from the government is Sallie Mae, which is active in the student loan market.)

Also, the author quotes former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner saying “how little authority we had over Fannie and Freddie” without mentioning that Treasury had the authority to approve (or disapprove) their debt issuances. Treasury had used that authority mainly as a traffic cop, that is, to make sure that the Treasury and the GSEs were not all issuing debt at the same time. Treasury stopped acting as a traffic cop during the Clinton Administration. However, in the early 1980s, Treasury used the authority to stop Fannie Mae from issuing debt in a manner motivated by questionable tax strategies. In one instance, it stopped Fannie from setting up a Netherlands Antilles financial subsidiary as a way to issue bonds in Europe without imposing a 30% foreign withholding tax. (Tax law regarding the 30% foreign withholding tax was subsequently changed to exempt “portfolio interest income.”) The Treasury could likely have been more aggressive in using the debt approval authority, as Fannie and Freddie grew their mortgage portfolios, on which they bore both interest and credit risk, in the decade leading up to the financial crisis, but shied away from doing that.
Fannie and Freddie have long been absent from the headlines, but what ultimately to do about them is important. They should not be in conservatorship forever. Despite my quibbles, I recommend this book is for those interested in the subject, whether or not they are previously familiar with these two companies.