To Find the Cause of the Crisis, Answer These Questions!

Sometimes, when you lose a debate, you have to just let it go. That seems to be a problem for those who are unwilling to accept the complex realities of what actually caused the financial crisis. I have been saying for a long time that many elements contributed to the global financial meltdown. From ultralow…

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The post To Find the Cause of the Crisis, Answer These Questions! appeared first on The Big Picture.

Making America’s Risk of a Financial Crisis Great Again

Me, at MoneyWatch:

Making America's risk of a financial crisis great again: In the decades prior to the financial crisis, the U.S. underwent a period of financial deregulation under the assumption that market forces would prevent financial institutions from taking excessive risk. In particular, the shadow banking system -- financial institutions that don’t operate as traditional banks -- was lightly regulated. 
However, as Alan Greenspan admitted in testimony on Capital Hill after the financial crisis, that assumption turned out to be wrong. The traditional banking sector, which is highly regulated, weathered the storm fairly well, but the shadow banking system came crashing down -- and brought the economy with it.
Nevertheless, Republicans are determined to roll back financial regulation, particularly measures implemented under the Dodd-Frank financial reform package passed in the aftermath of the financial crisis. I believe that’s a mistake. ...

CFPB Tales Told Out of School

Adam Levitin:

CFPB Tales Told Out of School: Former CFPB enforcement attorney Ronald Rubin has a lengthy attack on the CFPB in the National Review. It's got lots of sultry details, but there's nothing new and verifiable in the piece.  Instead, it's all tales told out of school, unverifiable personal anecdotes by Rubin, who seems to have an particular axe to grind with certain other CFPB staffers, and an ideological one too. Incredibly, Rubin, a former Managing Director for legal and compliance at Bear Stearns, holds up the oft-feckless SEC as a model of good enforcement practice, and criticizes the CFPB for any departures from that practice. 
The point of the piece seems to be that the CFPB is an agency gone rogue and that this wouldn't have happened if the CFPB had just been structured as a bi-partisan commission. That's hogwash. Assume that everything Rubin claims is true and correct. Even if so, every single problem Rubin identifies in the piece could just as easily have occurred at a bi-partisan commission. ...
Rubin's conclusions just don't follow from his non-verifiable personal evidence. Indeed, the very fact that the CFPB hired people like Rubin and Leonard Chanin seems to belie his claims of partisan hiring practices; Rubin is a guy who went from the CFPB to be a Republican staffer for the House Financial Services Committee, after all. Rubin's conclusions do follow from his anti-regulatory world view whose "primary influences were my business-school professors at the University of Chicago, the epicenter of free-market capitalism." Yup.

Jeb Hensarling and the Allure of Economism

James Kwak:

Jeb Hensarling and the Allure of Economism: The Wall Street Journal has a profile up on Mike Crapo and Jeb Hensarling, the key committee chairs (likely in Crapo’s case) who will repeal or rewrite the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It’s clear that both are planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks (which, together, make up most of the act).

Hensarling is about as clear a proponent of economism—the belief that the world operates exactly as described in Economics 101 models—as you’re likely to find. He majored in economics at Texas A&M, where one of his professors was none other than Phil Gramm. Hensarling described his college exposure to economics this way:

“Even though I had grown up as a Republican, I didn’t know why I was a Republican until I studied economics. I suddenly saw how free-market economics provided the maximum good to the maximum number, and I became convinced that if I had an opportunity, I’d like to serve in public office and further the cause of the free market.”

This is not a unique story...

Introductory economics, and particularly the competitive market model, can be seductive that way. The models are so simple, logical, and compelling that they seem to unlock a whole new way of seeing the world. And, arguably, they do: there are real insights you can gain from a working understanding of supply and demand curves.

The problem, however, is that the people ... forget that the power of a theory in the abstract bears no relationship to its accuracy in practice. ...

Hensarling, who likes to quote market principles in the abstract, doesn’t appear to have moved on much from Economics 101. ... This ritual invocation of markets ignores the fact that there is no way to design a contemporary financial system that even remotely resembles the textbook competitive market: perfect information, no barriers to entry, a large number of suppliers such that no supplier can affect the market price, etc. ...

Regulatory policy that presumes well-functioning markets that don’t exist is unlikely to work well in the real world. Actually, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried that already, and we got the financial crisis. But to people who believe in economism, theory can never be disproved by experience. Hensarling is “always willing to compromise policies to advance principles,” he actually said to the Journal. That’s a useful trait in an ideologue. It’s frightening in the man who will write the rules for our financial system.

Milton Friedman is Dead … and Really Misunderstood

Maximilian Auffhammer at the Berkeley Blog:

Milton Friedman is dead ... and really misunderstood: ...The GOP has long prayed at the temple of Milton Friedman ... who was ... at the forefront of arguments that markets are incredibly effective at allocating scarce resources. At the heart of (t)his argument lies the assumption that markets are “perfectly competitive”. ... If such a unicorn market is left alone, agents in it will maximize social welfare, so there is no need for government intervention.
Well, the problem is that perfectly competitive markets are about as common as Susan B. Anthony coins. Most markets are in fact not perfectly competitive, which Milton Friedman of course acknowledged. Market failures abound. The key question is whether the costs of intervening in the markets to address the failure outweigh the benefits.
The classic case of a market failure is an externality. If a power plant emits a pollutant, which causes kids in a neighboring city to fall ill, the absence of government intervention will lead to an inefficiently large amount of pollution.
Government should intervene to maximize welfare at the output level where the marginal benefit from emitting the last unit of pollution is equal to the marginal damage it causes. That amount in most cases is not zero, which upsets many folks..., but this is economics 101. If the government does not intervene, however, the power plant produces more than the optimal amount of pollution, thereby sort of “stealing” welfare from the kids downwind.
This point is undisputed...
But no matter where you look, there is almost obsessive talk of “government overreach”. My excessive consumption of media coverage leads me to believe that the plan may more likely be a gutting of regulation instead. While killing off the Clean Power Plan will not bring coal back from the dead, it will certainly significantly hamper the necessary progress on the rollout of renewables and energy efficiency required ... to avoid the worst consequences from climate change. The possible abandonment of the Paris Agreement will surely result in a higher emissions path for the US and possibly the rest of the world. ... Further, we have recently learned that the Social Cost of Carbon in federal rulemaking is at risk. The Social Cost of Carbon is a number used in federal benefit cost analysis, to incorporate the global damages from greenhouse gas emissions. The president could, for example, instruct agencies to use a domestic cost of carbon, which is a fraction of the true damages from carbon emissions. This would further increase emissions.
Finally, agencies interpret rules and I am afraid that there will be some very lax interpretations of regulations to protect the environment. ... While president elect Trump has said he likes clean air and water, his appointments would suggest that this is just hot air. Which leads me to the second point.
Purging climate experts from the federal government would harm future generations ...
I have said this before. The GOP is the party of markets. ... I hope that the GOP and Trump administration will relearn what free market economics is all about. It’s not about the absences of regulation. It’s about sensible regulation. We have no right to steal from our fellow humans alive now or in the future. That said, I’m not optimistic. I will now go back to breathing into my paper bag.

Paul Krugman: Trump and Pruitt Will Make America Gasp Again

 "Think about what America was like in 1970, the year the E.P.A. was founded":

Trump and Pruitt Will Make America Gasp Again, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: Many people voted for Donald Trump because they believed his promises that he would restore what they imagine were the good old days — the days when America had lots of traditional jobs mining coal and producing manufactured goods. They’re going to be deeply disappointed...
But in other ways Mr. Trump can indeed restore the world of the 1970s. He can, for example, bring us back to the days when, all too often, the air wasn’t safe to breathe. And he’s made a good start by selecting Scott Pruitt, a harsh foe of pollution regulation, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Make America gasp again!
Much of the commentary on the Pruitt appointment has focused on his denial of climate science and on the high likelihood that the incoming administration will undo the substantial progress President Obama was beginning to make against climate change. And that is, in the long run, the big story...
But climate change is a slow-building, largely invisible threat, hard to explain or demonstrate to the general public — which is one reason lavishly funded climate deniers have been so successful at obfuscating the issue. So it’s worth pointing out that most environmental regulation involves much more obvious, immediate, sometimes deadly threats. And much of that regulation may well be headed for oblivion.
Think about what America was like in 1970, the year the E.P.A. was founded. ... It was ... a very polluted country. Choking smog was quite common in major cities...
It’s far better now — not perfect, but much better. ...  And the improvement in air quality has had clear, measurable benefits. ...
The key point is that better air didn’t happen by accident: It was a direct result of regulation — regulation that was bitterly opposed at every step by special interests that attacked the scientific evidence of harm from pollution, meanwhile insisting that limiting their emissions would kill jobs.
These special interests were, as you might guess, wrong about everything. ...
But don’t expect rational arguments to ... sway the people who will soon be running the government. After all, what’s bad for America can still be good for the likes of the Koch brothers. ...
The good news, sort of, is that some of the nasty environmental consequences of Trumpism will probably be visible — literally — quite soon. And when bad air days make a comeback, we’ll know exactly whom to blame.

The Trouble with DTI as an Underwriting Variable

Richard Green:

The Trouble with DTI as an Underwriting Variable--and as an Overlay: Access to mortgage credit continues to be a problem. Laurie Goodman at the Urban Institute shows that, under normal circumstances (say those of the pre-2002 period), we would expect to see 1 million more mortgage originations per year in the market than we are seeing. I suspect an important reason for this is the primacy of Debt-to-Income (DTI) as an underwriting variable.
There are two issues here. First, while DTI is a predictor of mortgage default, it is a fairly weak predictor. The reason is that it tends to be measured badly, for a variety of reasons. ...
Let's get more specific. Below are result from a linear default probability regression model based on the performance of all fixed rate mortgages purchased by Freddie Mac in the first quarter of 2004. This is a good year to pick, because it is rich in high DTI loans, and because its loans went through a (ahem) difficult period. ...
The definition of default is over-90 days late. ... This is an estimation sample with 166,585 randomly chosen observations; I did not include 114,583 observations so I could do out of sample prediction (which will come later). The default rate for the estimation sample is 14.34 percent; for the hold out sample is 14.31 percent, so Stata's random number generator did its job properly. For those that care, the R^2 is .12.
Note that while DTI is significant, it is not particularly important as a predictor of default. ...
The Consumer Financial Protection Board has deemed mortgages with DTIs above 43 percent to not be "qualified." This means lenders making these loans do not have a safe-harbor for proving that the loans meet an ability to repay standard. Fannie and Freddie are for now exempt from this rule, but they have generally not been willing to originate loans with DTIs in excess of 45 percent. This basically means that no matter the loan-applicant's score arising from a regression model predicting default, if her DTI is above 45 percent, she will not get a loan.
This is not only analytically incoherent, it means that high quality borrowers are failing to get loans, and that the mix of loans being originated is worse in quality than it otherwise would be. That's because a well-specified regression will do a better job sorting borrowers more likely default than a heuristic such as a DTI limit.
To make the point, I run the following comparison using my holdout sample: the default rate observed if we use the DTI cut-off rule vs a rule that ranks borrowers based on default likelihood. If we used the DTI rule, we would have ... a default rate of 14.0 percent. If we use the regression based rule, and make loans to slightly more borrowers..., we get an observed default rate of 10.0 percent. One could obviously loosen up on the regression rule, give more borrowers access to credit, and still have better loan performance.
Let's do one more exercise, and impose the DTI rule on top of the regression rule I used above. The number of borrower getting loans drops to 73,133 (or about 20 percent), while the default rate drops by .7 percent relative to the model alone. That means an awful lot of borrowers are rejected in exchange for a modest improvement in default. ... In short, whether the goal is access to credit, or loan performance (or, ideally, both), regression based underwriting just works far better than DTI overlays.
(I am happy to send code and results to anyone interested.)

Currency Authority Proposes Ban on Bank Investments in Commercial Metals

Jayme Wiebold at Regblog:

Currency Authority Proposes Ban on Bank Investments in Commercial Metals: In addition to typical banking activities such as issuing home loans and administering savings accounts, should your neighborhood bank be able to buy and trade metals like copper and gold? Presently, financial institutions can legally participate in commodities markets—which include trading in these precious metals—creating a state of affairs that some regulators and politicians say may increase commodities prices for consumers and create financial instability. ...
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates and supervises national banks and federal savings associations, recently ... proposed [a] rule that would prohibit banking institutions from buying or selling metals including copper, aluminum, and gold. ...
Designating dealing in certain commercial metals as an out-of-bounds activity for commercial banks marks a reversal of position for the Currency Comptroller. It previously issued an interpretive letter stating that national banks could buy and sell copper—an industrial metal—because such trading was functionally equivalent to trading in precious metals like gold—an activity considered within the “business of banking.”
As indicated by the proposed rule, the Comptroller no longer believes that investing in copper markets is principally the same as dealing with coins made from precious metal or other types of gold. ...
The Comptroller’s proposed rule comes on the heels of a report it co-authored with the Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which contains several recommendations to ensure the separation of traditional banking activities from more commercial activities. The report specifically states that the Comptroller would publish a proposed rule about limits on trading copper.
In the report, the Federal Reserve also recommends several other reforms that aim to “help ensure the separation of banking and commerce.” It proposes repealing a rule that allows bank holding companies to participate in commodities activities similar to those addressed by the Comptroller’s proposed rule for national banks and recommends strengthening standards for other commodity-related activities like trading derivatives. The report’s authors also recommend repealing authority for financial holding companies to participate in merchant banking activities like buying a stake of ownership in a company instead of providing a traditional loan.
The Comptroller’s proposed rule is part of a growing trend of regulatory and political pressure to separate traditional banking activity from commercial activity. ...

Is the Obamacare Problem a Public or a Private Problem?

Jared Bernstein:

Is the Obamacare problem a public or a private problem?: My WSJ greets me on the front stoop this AM with the banner headline on the “Depth of Health Law Woes,” based on the rise of “thin” markets with too few private insurers to generate cost-saving competition. ...
First, while the Journal article is surely informative, it violates my rule #1 in this space: when writing about private exchanges, declare up front that we’re talking about 7 percent of the population. That’s the share that get coverage through the ... the exchanges. ...
Those shares don’t negate the thin market problem at all, but they do give it essential context. Most people still get their coverage through their employer (about 50 percent) and Medicare or Medicaid (34 percent).
But my question today is whether this spate of articles is accurately framing this problem. That is, diminished competition among insurers in various markets is invariably framed as an architectural flaw in Obamacare, and thus, a government failure. But it could just as easily be seen as market failure, or more specifically, a pricing-calibration problem. If so, the problem isn’t too much government intervention; it’s too little.
The theory of the case when the law was being crafted was, for both policy and political reasons—the latter being buy-in from private insurers, whose powerful lobby couldn’t be ignored—that the exchanges would be populated by private insurers competing for customers in the (relatively small!) non-group market.
The insurers would get a bunch more customers, most of whom would come to the table with a tax credit to help pay the cost of their subsidy, a non-trivial deal sweetener for the private insurers (not to mention the mandate, further nudging customers into the exchanges). In return, they’d have to accept a set of rules designed to promote adequate coverage, like accepting applicants with pre-existing conditions and “community rating:” no price discrimination based on health status.
At the time, there was a robust argument about the wisdom of this path. While it was the least disruptive to a major industry, the long history of the uneasy relationship between health care and markets, along with the experience of other advanced economies, led many to worry that private insurers could not be depended on to meet the demands of a newly regulated individual market. They had an incentive, for example, to set their initial prices too low to get customers, which would mean actuarial losses and a big jump in premiums (one solution was to add a program to limit losses to such insurers: the so-called “risk corridors”).
This was partially the motivation for adding a public option, but the politics blocked that option (some will argue that the administration, of which I was then a member, didn’t push hard enough; I’d argue the votes just weren’t there). The private folks didn’t want to compete with anything like Medicare, which consistently posts lower price growth than the privates—it is non-profit, after all—and their message was thus, “we got this.”
Well, it turns out they don’t got this, though again, this is less a failure in the structure of the program than growing pains as insurers learn to price their products based on the health of those coming into the exchanges. If there’s a structural flaw in Obamacare, it’s that it doesn’t include the public option. Those of us who pulled for it had it right in that we saw the need for just such a backstop.
To be fair, a public option is itself a tricky bit of work, and it’s too easy to make it sound like a hand-wave, miracle solution (see Jacob Hacker’s excellent discussion of these issues here). But you know what else is a big, old hand wave?: the miracle of competition, allegedly solving everything that ails the health care market.
Obamacare is a public/private hybrid, and this recent episode with the 2017 premiums should teach us that dialing back the public side is not the way forward. To the contrary, the private sector never has and never will provide the health care Americans want and need on its own.
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