The Dukes of Moral Hazard: The Dangers of Quantitative Easing

 

This brilliant and terrifying column was originally published at ProPublica and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. cc

by Jesse Eisinger
ProPublica, Nov. 10, 2010, 2:40 p.m.

sinking_shipAcross the world, there are booms. Chinese Internet companies are flourishing. Energy companies are finding new sources of power. Commercial real estate is coming back.

Unfortunately, this isn’t happening in the real world, which is still crippled by sagging economies, but in the investing one.

If there’s a doggy stock, a dodgy loan or a slice of a complex credit security made to a questionable borrower — hedge funds want it now. Companies with junk bond ratings are flooding the markets with new issuance. If private equity firms bring a money-losing company saddled with debt to market, investors are eager to snap it up.

Thank the Federal Reserve. The central bank has embarked on its program of “quantitative easing,” a second round of experimental monetary policy in which the Fed buys up assets — like longer term government bonds — to bring down interest rates, which is supposed to spur lending and borrowing, thus reigniting the economy.

Nobody knows whether it will work to bring down the intractable rate of unemployment. But it has already worked in one significant way: the speculative juices of the markets are flowing.

What’s going on? As a Fed official explained it in a recent speech, one supposed benefit of the Fed policy is that it will add to “household wealth by keeping asset prices higher than they otherwise would be.”

So it’s levitation-by-decree. When the Fed moves, financial assets receive the opposite of collateral damage: universal blessing, deserved or not. Lower rates may or may not help more people find work. But there’s no doubt that the central bank has already helped the Henry Kravises and Lloyd Blankfeins of the world.

The Russell 2000 stock index, which is made up of smaller companies, has risen about 21 percent since September, when investors started to anticipate that the Fed would intervene in an aggressive fashion. A tiny Chinese Internet stock, China MediaExpress Holdings, is up more than 250 percent since mid-September. The private investors that own Harrah’s, the money-losing casino company, are bringing it public, and investors are going to gamble on it despite a crushing debt load.

Then there are something called B notes, bonds backed by commercial real estate loans. B-note holders are on the hook for the early losses if the loans go bad. They are as hot a commodity as everything else. Never mind that there’s a huge oversupply of commercial real estate in this country. Or that Wall Street just went through a disastrous episode for complex structured financial products of exactly this sort.

Without knowing a thing about finance, here’s how to tell it won’t work out well. Wall Street is the great master of the euphemism. The Street doesn’t call them junk bonds; they are “high yield.” Here, something isn’t just Triple A. It’s “Super Senior Triple A.” So when the best investment bankers can do is to dress something up with a lowly “B,” you know it’s trash.

Leverage, meanwhile, has made a glorious return. Interactive Brokers, a discount brokerage firm, has been running an advertising campaign that displays money spewing from printing presses. The firm will lend (for certain special customers)$566,000 for every $100,000. Ah, borrowing heavily for the purposes of trading in volatile markets. Maybe some Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers bankers can explain the wisdom of this.

All of this is Finance 101. The cheaper money is to borrow, the more it makes sense to take a bigger risk with it.

But that doesn’t make it more palatable. It feels like an ominous replay of recent Federal Reserve emergency actions, which led to bigger and bigger bubbles. The Fed brokered the rescue of Long-Term Capital Management, bailing out the investment banks that had lent to the collapsing hedge fund. The Fed pumped money into the economy to save us from the Y2K computer bug. The Fed tried to rescue the economy from the bursting of the Nasdaq bubble, helping to create the housing bubble.

It’s like the exhausted “Saw” movie franchise; this isn’t just a sequel. It’s more like the third iteration of the second reboot — harder core, baser and for serious liquidity heads only.

Is this the price society has to pay for a better economy? Do we care if some hedge funders get rich as long as unemployment goes down, fewer people get thrown out of their homes and household debts are less crushing?

That would be a worthwhile tradeoff. But it’s far from clear that the Fed can get any real traction with its policies.

Over the past year, I’ve been investigating some of the more egregious conduct that occurred in the bubble years. In this column, I’ll be monitoring the financial markets to hold companies, executives and government officials accountable for their actions.

A main focus will be the spectacle of returning speculation. It’s commonplace to lament Wall Street’s lack of a historical memory. But there is something different at work. Professional investors have learned the lessons of the financial markets’ serial bubbles and learned them well.

The lesson is: When the next one comes, I’m going to get mine. I’ll just get out early this time.

You can contact Jesse Eisinger at jesse@propublica.org

Who could possibly have seen the banking disaster coming?

What was the theory behind the Glass-Steagall Act? Foremost, it was meant to restore a certain sobriety to American finance. In the 1920s, the banker had gone from a person of sober rectitude to a huckster who encouraged people to gamble on risky stocks and bonds. As [chief congressional counsel Ferdinand] Pecora noted, small investors identified banks with security, so that National City salesmen “came to them clothed with all the authority and prestige of the magic name ‘National City.’” It was also argued that the union of deposit and securities banking created potential conflicts of interest. Banks could take bad loans, repackage them as bonds, and fob them off on investors as National City had done with Latin American loans. They could even lend the investors money to buy the bonds. A final problem with the banks’ brokerage affiliates was that they forced the Federal Reserve System to stand behind both depositors and speculators. If a securities bank failed, the Fed might need to rescue it to protect the parent bank. In other words, the government might have to protect speculators to save depositors.

Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan, 1990, pg. 375. (Emphasis added)

 

The repeal of Glass-Steagall was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1999.

The arguments made to repeal the act were primarily

  1. Depository institutions will now operate in “deregulated” financial markets in which distinctions between loans, securities, and deposits are not well drawn. They are losing market shares to securities firms that are not so strictly regulated, and to foreign financial institutions operating without much restriction from the Act.
  2. Conflicts of interest can be prevented by enforcing legislation against them, and by separating the lending and credit functions through forming distinctly separate subsidiaries of financial firms.
  3. The securities activities that depository institutions are seeking are both low-risk by their very nature, and would reduce the total risk of organizations offering them – by diversification.
  4. In much of the rest of the world, depository institutions operate simultaneously and successfully in both banking and securities markets. Lessons learned from their experience can be applied to our national financial structure and regulation

Emphasis added

How to get a piece of the government bailout

My latest from BlownMortgage:

At this point in the economic down-turn there’s really only one question on most of our minds: How can I become a commercial bank or an automaker?

Old friend Helen Kennedy put it succinctly in The New York Daily News: “Two more pillars of the American economy are coming to Washington hat in hand: American Express and Detroit’s Big Three. The struggling New York-based credit giant reportedly wants a $3.5 billion bailout. American Express got permission to become a bank holding company this week, making it eligible for a piece of the $700 billion bailout.

The Federal Reserve gets to make the decision about who gets to be a bank. Since the Fed has already decided to leave us all holding the bag for bank companies, it seems only fitting that we should also get a chance at being a bank holding company as well.

Use the following checklist to see if you qualify:

  • Do you need to cut borrowing costs?
  • Are your main sources of funding in danger of going away?
  • Do you need access to government money?
  • Has your inability to get credit endangered your fiscal health?
  • Would the ability to issue government-backed bonds keep you solvent?
  • Are you willing to take deposits from both consumers and companies?
  • Is your current role in the financial system mostly watching your investments lose money?

If you answered yes to all these questions then CONGRATULATIONS!!! You clearly meet all the essential qualifications needed to be a bank holding company.

Not sure of all that it takes to become an American car company but I do know I can fulfill one of the basic obligations: I guarantee no one will want to buy a car I build.

Is it just me or does the plan to throw more money at the car companies give new meaning to the phrase “Grand Theft Auto”?

Alan Greenspan, ingenue

Another one from BlownMortgage:

Alan Greenspan attempted to mimic Michael “Heckuva Job, Brownie” Brown during his testimony before congress yesterday. Mr. Greenspan attempted to place blame squarely on anyone except himself. Mr. Brown’s performance in the same role was slightly more credible because he was utterly unqualified for the job he held, a claim Mr. Greenspan cannot make.

Mr. Greenspan claims to have been overtaken by events so rare that no one could have seen them coming. He called it a “once-in-a-century credit tsunami” and that it was impossible for anyone to have been prepared for it. Mr. Brown made the same claims about hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans with every bit as little justification. The record of warnings about both disasters is substantial and undeniable.

And there’s more where that came from…

Would you buy a used economic commentary from this man?

My latest over at BlownMortgage:

The Fed has announced it will now buy commercial paper from money market mutual funds and endorsed the idea of another economic stimulus package. Far be it from me to turn up my nose at free money. I could use a handout … I mean stimulus check as much if not more than most of Wall Street. But I am disturbed that these efforts continue are in keeping with previous Bush Administration policy to never have a clue how something – like a war or a however many bailouts there will be – will be paid for.

Click for more of this and my paen to William Proxmire.