Friday, November 6, 2009

Was it “Nobody Saw It Coming” or “Everybody Who Saw It Coming Was a Nobody”?

By Richard Alford, a former economist at the New York Fed. Since them, he has worked in the financial industry as a trading floor economist and strategist on both the sell side and the buy side. (Guest post on Naked Capitalism)

A number of economists, economic policymakers, regulators, and central bankers have attempted to explain away their failure to both foresee and mitigate the current financial crisis by asserting that no one saw it coming. The inference is that they cannot be held accountable for something so unusual, so extraordinary, and so unforecastable that that no one saw it coming. Robert Shiller, in a November 1, 2008 NYT OP-ED, noted the following example:

Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, acknowledged in a Congressional hearing last month that he had made an “error” in assuming that the markets would properly regulate themselves, and added that he had no idea a financial disaster was in the making. What’s more, he said the Fed’s own computer models and economic experts simply “did not forecast” the current financial crisis.

However, the Fed and other policymaking agencies cannot honestly claim that no one saw it coming. There is ample evidence that:

• Economist and commentators “saw it coming”; and

• Economists and others repeatedly brought their observations to the attention of the authorities including the Fed, but were ignored.

In fact, the Fed increasingly exhibited a willingness ignoring critics and criticism. The existence of this pattern at the Fed can be illustrated by looking at two presentations by Kohn. The first is from 2003 and the second is from 2005. But first, a return to Shiller’s OP-ED piece:

Mr. Greenspan’s comments may have left the impression that no one in the world could have predicted the crisis. Yet it is clear that well before home prices started falling in 2006, lots of people were worried about the housing boom and its potential for creating economic disaster. It’s just that the Fed did not take them very seriously.

Schiller blamed self-censorship and group think. Shiller reports that while he was a member of the economic advisory panel of FRBNY, he felt the need to use self-restraint and stated that he only gently warned about bubbles in the housing markets.

It is one thing for someone to practice self-censorship. It is another thing all together for an institution charged with a public responsibility to allow and foster an atmosphere in which someone well respected enough to be asked to sit on an advisory board feels as though he or she must temper their statements or pull punches. What was the role of the advisory board, if the members did not feel free to raise and discuss competing views or alternative policy paths? In the context of the dynamics of globalization and financial innovation, why was conformity to a static consensus tolerated and even encouraged?

Furthermore, while the Fed had a responsibility to promote economic and financial stability, Shiller did not. Once well respected economists and analysts highlighted the possible risks the Fed had an obligation to assess those risks. Shiller also reported that the group-think that ignored signs of the impending financial crisis extended well beyond the halls of the Fed:

I gave talks in 2005 at both the Office the Comptroller of the Currency and at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. I argued that we were in the middle of a dangerous housing bubble. I urged these mortgage regulators to impose suitability requirements on mortgage lenders, to assure that the loans were appropriate for the people taking them.

The reaction to this suggestion was roughly this: yes, some staff members had expressed such concerns, and yes, officials knew about the possibility that there was a bubble, but they weren’t taking any of us seriously.

Returning to the Fed, a speech by Kohn in February 2003 indicates that while Shiller was self-censoring, other commentators had been pointed enough in expressing their concerns to merit a response:

In particular, a number of commentators have raised the specter that imbalances are being created in the markets for consumer durable goods and houses–unsustainably high prices or activity–that will produce macroeconomic strains when, inevitably, they correct. These concerns obviously echo those expressed by some observers that monetary policy allowed run-ups in equity prices and capital spending in the 1990s that ultimately proved to be destabilizing.

In a footnote, Kohn went on to say:

Another possibility is that the buildup of debt associated with the strength in household investment will feedback adversely on financial conditions, especially as the boom unwinds. Such consequences could occur even in the absence of a “bubble” in housing prices if households were overextended and lenders had not taken adequate precautions against even a measured drop in collateral values… Moreover, loan-to-value ratios on mortgages have been about flat, leaving ample cushion for moderate housing price declines, should they occur. These observations suggest that widespread credit difficulties with important macroeconomic effects are unlikely when interest rates rise.

Kohn not only acknowledged the existence of the commentators and their concerns and took them seriously enough to present evidence that he thought should lay to rest those concerns to rest. He also suggests that the likely short-lived nature of the interest rate -driven increases in housing prices and real estate investment implied that any resulting macroeconomic or financial problem would be of a manageable scale:

Judging from this analysis, and bearing in mind its inherently tentative–if not speculative–character, it seems likely that as the economy strengthens and interest rates rise in response, household investment and prices are likely to soften some relative to recent trends, but not to break precipitously. Houses and cars would not be providing the impetus to economic activity they often have in past recoveries…

At the Jackson Hole Conference of 2005, a speech by Rajan, the then Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier?” and a response by Kohn allows us to get a read on Fed policymakers reactions to warnings about possible economic or financial dislocations two years later. In the opening paragraphs, Rajan argued that the transformation of the financial sector had made it more efficient, but at the expense of increased risk:

The expansion in a variety of intermediates and financial transactions has major benefits,…However, it has potential downsides, which I will explore ..

… the incentive structures of investment mangers today differs from the incentive structures of bank managers in the past in two important ways. First,… managers have a greater incentive to take risk. Second, their performance relative to other managers matters.

The knowledge that managers are being evaluated against other managers can induce superior performance, but also perverse behavior.

One is the incentive to take risk that is concealed from investors—since risk and return are related , the manger then looks as if he outperforms peers,,, typically the kind risks that can be concealed most easily… are known as tail risks.

Both behaviors can reinforce each other during an asset price boom…An environment of low interest rates flowing a period of high rates is particularly problematic, for not only does the incentive of some participants to “search for yield” go up, but asst prices are given the initial impetus which can lead to an upward spiral, creating conditions for a sharp messy realignment…..

…the most important concern is whether banks will be able to provide liquidity to financial markets so that if tail risk does materialize, financial positions can be unwound and….the real consequences to the real economy minimized.”

The balance of the Rajan paper was a development of these ideas along with the presentation of considerable amount of supporting evidence. He referenced over 50 plus scholarly papers. Rajan never forecasted or predicted the crises which were to follow relatively quickly. However, he concluded:

a risk management approach to financial regulation will be important to attempt to stave off such states through the judicious operation of monetary policy and through macro-prudential measures. I argue some thought also should be given to attempting to influence incentives of financial institutions mangers lightly, but directly.

Kohn was a Discussant, but his response was not so much a discussion or rebuttal of the Rajan theses as it was simply a restatement of his and presumably the Fed’s belief that the greater dispersion of financial risk away from banks necessarily implied lower levels of systemic risk. There was no discussion of the implication of the changes in incentive structures or herding behavior. Kohn dismissed concerns about tail risk citing reduced volatility of output and inflation over the previous twenty years. However, who believes that tail risk has to either manifest itself in a twenty year period, or be non-existent. Furthermore, the factors cited by Rajan had come to dominate the financial sector only during the prior ten years.

No mention was made of LTCM or the Tech bubble. Concerns that low interest rates may contribute to increased risk in the financial system were dismissed on the grounds that those policies contributed to greater stability in output and inflation. Kohn never addressed the point that the shift away from bank-center finance might leave the system short of liquidity should risks materialize.

In short, Kohn’s response to Rajan’s theses was nothing more than a curt dismissal when compared to his detailed response to the specter of imbalanced -induced concerns voiced by the unnamed commentators in 2003. It appears that the perceived need to respond, even if only in words, to well researched warnings by prominent economists had disappeared.

Furthermore, Kohn on this occasion and presumably others, never publicly revisited (to my knowledge) the contingencies which were in part the basis of his rejection of the warnings in 2003. Interest rates had risen very slowly amidst a jobless recovery and a failure of investment spending to propel the economy. Ten year Treasury yields were only about 25 bps higher and monetary policy remained accommodative. Loan to value ratios had started to erode as had lending standards. If Kohn had re-checked the reasons he cited in his in 2003 rejection of warnings he would have found that the conditions he had cited for being sanguine no longer obtained.

In summary, numerous people, including well respected economists and officials saw the grounds for economic and financial crises being laid. Furthermore, these warnings were brought to the attention of US policymakers. Assuming the two presentations cites above are representative, the warnings were at first treated as worthy of a serious response. However, even as evidence of serious imbalances and bubbles grew, the responses to warnings became perfunctory and devoid of serious analysis.

Houston, we have a problem.

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