Sparkassen — A De Facto Glass-Steagall?

Ed Miliband has a very good idea to break the British lending freeze:

Ed Miliband is to make his firmest commitment to a regional-based economic policy when he proposes a network of banks around the country responsible for providing capital to businesses in their locality.

The proposals, due to be unveiled in a speech to the British chambers of commerce, mark a further attempt to map out a different industrial policy, some of which has echoes of plans for a revival of city regions set out by the coalition adviser Lord Heseltine.

Miliband will say it is time to stop tinkering with the banks and recognise a wholly new system is needed.

He will say: “We do not just need a single investment serving the country. We need a regional banking system serving each and every region of the country. Regional banks with a mission to serve that region and that region alone, not banks that are likely to say no but banks that know your region and your business; not banks that you mistrust, but banks you can come to trust.”

I would not support politicians interfering with the financial sector if the British financial sector was a successful model. But the country is still hurting from its utter failure in 2008. Back then, Ed Miliband’s predecessor Gordon chose to bail out the banking system. Had the financial sector been allowed to fail, then a new model would have been forced to emerge. But that wasn’t the case. Now, politicians must take responsibility for putting the banking system on a life support system. The current government’s attempts at reform have not succeeded in revitalising the economy.

Miliband’s idea approximates the German model of Sparkassen — publicly owned regional banks:

Supporters of the local banks claim that in 2011 total loans by the Sparkassen stood at €322bn (£280bn), whereas the total loan stock of Germany’s large commercial banks was only €177bn (£153.5bn). Like Britain’s large banks, Germany’s large commercial banks cut credit during the financial crisis; lending fell by 10% between 2006 and the middle of 2011. In contrast, the Sparkassen increased lending by 17%.

On the surface, regionalisation may be helpful in that British banks have become over-centralised and disconnected from the interests of their local customers. This may be one factor that can explain why local, small and new businesses are struggling to get credit.

But this is an even better idea than Miliband may realise. Why? Because so long as the regional banks behave solely as depository and business investment institutions, and not as investment banks, insurance brokers, hedge funds, shadow banks, or proprietary traders, or any of the other highly interconnective and risky activities favoured by today’s supermarket banks — then such a system acts as de facto Glass-Steagall-style separation between the riskier privately-owned national and international-level commercial banks, and the regional level business investment and savings banks.

Such a system also echoes the recommendation made by Nassim Taleb, to nationalise the parts of the banking system that act as a public utility, and deregulate the rest so it is free to gamble, speculate, succeed and fail without significantly destabilising business lending, public savings, and the wider economy.

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Krugman, Newton & Zombie Banks

Paul Krugman:

Mitt Romney – supposedly advised by Mankiw among others – is outraged:

[T]he American economy doesn’t need more artificial and ineffective measures. We should be creating wealth, not printing dollars.

That word “artificial” caught my eye, because it’s the same word liquidationists used to denounce any efforts to fight the Great Depression with monetary policy. Schumpeter declared that

Any revival which is merely due to artificial stimulus leaves part of the work of depressions undone

Hayek similarly decried any recovery led by the “creation of artificial demand”.

Milton Friedman – who thought he had liberated conservatism from this kind of nonsense –must be spinning in his grave.

The Romney/liquidationist view only makes sense if you believe that the problem with our economy lies on the supply side – that workers lack the incentive to work, or are stuck with the wrong skills, or something.

Perhaps Krugman ought to consider more seriously the reality that since both Japan and now America have gone down the path of continually bailing out a corrupt, dysfunctional and parasitic financial system that neither nation has truly recovered.

Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish. While some surely perished from misfortune, and some surely survived from luck, this basic antifragile mechanism ensured the survival of the fittest agriculturalists and the transmission of their methods, ideas and genes to further generations. In the financial sector today the Darwinian mechanism has been turned on its head; in both Japan and the West, financiers have not been forced by failure to learn from their mistakes, because governments and regulators protected them from failure with injections of liquidity. Markets have become hypnotised and junkified, trading the possibility of the next injection of central banking liquidity instead of market fundamentals.

So it should be no surprise that financial institutions have continued making exactly the same mistakes that created the crisis in 2008. That crisis was caused by excessive financial debt. Many Wall Street banks in 2008 had forty or fifty times as much leverage as they had equity. The problem with leverage is that while successful bets can very quickly lead to massive profits, bad bets can very quickly lead to insolvency, liquidity panics and default cascades.

Following 2008, many on Wall Street promised they had learned their lesson, and that the days of excessive leverage and risk-taking with borrowed money were over. But, in October 2011, another Wall Street bank was taken down by bad bets financed by excessive leverage: MF Global. Their leverage ratio? 40:1.

So why was the banking system bailed out in the first place? Defenders of the bailouts have correctly pointed out that not bailing out certain banks would have caused the entire system to collapse. This is because the global financial system is an interconnected web. If a particularly interconnected bank disappears from the system, and cannot repay its creditors, the creditors themselves become threatened with insolvency. Without state intervention, a single massive bankruptcy can quickly snowball into systemic destruction. The system itself is fundamentally unsound, fundamentally fragile, and prone to collapse.

Government life-support has given Wall Street failures the resources to continue their dangerous and risky business practices which caused the last crisis. Effectively, Wall Street and the international financial system has become a government-funded zombie — unable to sustain itself in times of crisis through its own means, dependent on suckling the taxpayer’s teat, alive but yet failing to invest in small business and entrepreneurs.

My theory is this: our depression is not a problem of insufficient demand. It is systemic; most prominently and immediately financial fragility, financial zombification, moral hazard, and excessive private debt, alongside a huge number of other long-term systemic problems.

The new policy of unlimited quantitative easing is an experiment. If those theorists of insufficient aggregate demand are right, then the problem will soon be solved, and we will return to strong long-term organic growth, low unemployment and prosperity. I would be overjoyed at such a prospect, and would gladly admit that I was wrong in my claim that depressed aggregate demand has merely been a symptom and not a cause. On the other hand, if economies remain depressed, or quickly return to elevated unemployment and weak growth, or if the new policy has severe adverse side effects, it is a signal that those who proposed this experiment were wrong.

Certainty is something that economists in particular should be particularly guarded against, even as a public relations strategy. Isaac Newton famously noted in the aftermath of the South Sea bubble that “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.” In the sphere of human action, there are no clear and definitive mathematical principles as there are in astronomy or thermodynamics; there have always been oddities, exceptions and quirks. There has always been wildness, even if it is at times hidden.

So we shall see who is right. I lean toward the idea— as Schumpeter did — that the work of depressions and crises is clearing out unsustainable debt, unsustainable business models, unsustainable companies, unsustainable banks and — as much as anything else — unsustainable economic theories.

The Absurdity of Sandy Weill

I’m suggesting the big banks be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk, the depositors won’t be at risk and the leverage will be something reasonable.

This from the guy who provided the impetus and the funds to end Glass-Steagall? Totally absurd — akin to Joe Stalin renouncing Marxism-Leninism and the gulag archipelago on his deathbed.

Glass-Steagall’s separation between depository and speculative institutions — especially during the Bretton Woods period — was a relatively robust system; there was never a large-scale banking calamity of the nature of 2008 or 1929 under its regime. Certainly, it had its imperfections — above all else that it never prevented bankers like Weill from chipping away at it up to the point of repeal — but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Glass-Steagall presided over a period of growth and stability.

While the data tends to show that the end of Bretton Woods in 1971 was the real catalyst of the financialisation, globalisation, deindustrialisation and debt buildup that ultimately flung the US into a depressionary deleveraging trap, the end of Glass-Steagall was profound.

Depositors’ funds became a medium for the creation of the huge and sprawling shadow banking and derivatives webs.

The blowout growth in shadow banking was presaged by the end of Glass-Steagall in 1999:

And the slow contractionary deleveraging of shadow banking has been a significant force in keeping the economy depressed since 2008. Any contrition on the part of Weill for his role in repealing Glass-Steagall might as well be an attempt to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s like trying to uninvent the atom bomb after Hiroshima. Weill was the guy who — above anyone else — was responsible for the damage done.

Coming out and claiming that reimposing Glass-Steagall would fix the problem is inadequate. If he wants to be taken seriously he should match every dollar he spent trying to get Glass-Steagall repealed with new lobbying funds to reimpose a separation between banks that accept deposits and the shadow banking and derivatives casinos.

Beyond that, I think that this is very telling. The financial institutions will do anything to avoid the ultimate free market solution — the disorderly liquidation of the system they created via default cascade. If high-ranking members of the financial elite are willing to talk about reimposing Glass-Steagall, they must be seriously concerned that the system they built is getting dangerously close to self-destruction.

The New European Serfdom

So let’s assume Greece is going to leave the Eurozone and suffer the consequences of default, exit, capital controls, a deposit freeze, the drachmatization of euro claims, and depreciation.

It’s going to be a painful time for the Greek people. But what about for Greece’s highly-leveraged creditors, who must now bite the bullet of a disorderly default? Surely the ramifications of a Greek exit will be worse for the international financial system?

J.P. Morgan — fresh from putting an LTCM alumnus in charge of a $70 trillion derivatives book (good luck with that) — is upping the fear about Europe and its impact on global finance:

The main direct losses correspond to the €240bn of Greek debt in official hands (EU/IMF), to €130bn of Eurosystem’s exposure to Greece via TARGET2 and a potential loss of around €25bn for European banks. This is the cross-border claims (i.e. not matched by local liabilities) that European banks (mostly French) have on Greece’s public and non-bank private sector. These immediate losses add up to €400bn. This is a big amount but let’s assume that, as several people suggested this week, these immediate/direct losses are manageable. What are the indirect consequences of a Greek exit for the rest?

The wildcard is obviously contagion to Spain or Italy? Could a Greek exit create a capital and deposit flight from Spain and Italy which becomes difficult to contain? It is admittedly true that European policymakers have tried over the past year to convince markets that Greece is a special case and its problems are rather unique. We see little evidence that their efforts have paid off.

The steady selling of Spanish and Italian government bonds by non-domestic investors over the past nine months (€200bn for Italy and €80bn for Spain) suggests that markets see Greece more as a precedent for other peripherals rather than a special case. And it is not only the €800bn of Italian and Spanish government bonds still held by non-domestic investors that are likely at risk. It is also the €500bn of Italian and Spanish bank and corporate bonds and the €300bn of quoted Italian and Spanish shares held by nonresidents. And the numbers balloon if one starts looking beyond portfolio/quoted assets. Of course, the €1.4tr of Italian and €1.6tr of Spanish bank domestic deposits is the elephant in the room which a Greek exit and the introduction of capital controls by Greece has the potential to destabilize.

A multi-trillion € shock — far bigger than the fallout from Lehman — has the potential to trigger a default cascade wherein busted leveraged Greek creditors themselves end up in a fire sale to raise collateral as they struggle to maintain cash flow, and face the prospect of downgrades and margin calls and may themselves default on their obligations, setting off a cascade of illiquidity and default. Very simply, such an event has the potential to dwarf 2008 and 1929, and possibly even bring the entire global financial system to a juddering halt (just as Paulson fear-mongered in 2008).

Which is why I am certain that it will not be allowed to happen, and that J.P. Morgan’s histrionics are just a ponying up toward the next round of crony-“capitalist” bailouts. Here’s the status quo today:

Greece no longer wants to play along with the game?

Okay, fine — cut them out of the equation. In the interests of “long-term financial stability”, let’s stop pretending that we are bailing out Greece and just hand the cash over to the banks.

Schäuble and Merkel might have demanded tough fiscal action from European governments, but they have never questioned the precept that creditors must get their pound of flesh. Merkel has insisted that authorities show that Europe is a “safe place to invest” by avoiding haircuts.

Here’s my expected new normal in Europe:

After all — if the establishment is to be believed — it’s in the interests of “long-term financial stability” that creditors who stupidly bought unrepayable debt don’t get a big haircut like they would in a free market.  And it’s in the interests of “long-term financial stability” that bad companies who made bad decisions don’t go out of business like they would in a free market, but instead become suckling zombies attached to the taxpayer teat. And apparently it is also in the interests of “long-term financial stability” that a broken market and broken system doesn’t liquidate, so that people learn their lesson. Apparently our “long-term financial stability” depends on producing even greater moral hazard by handing more money out to the negligent.

The only real question (beyond whether or not the European public’s patience with shooting off money to banks will snap, as has happened in Greece) is whether or not it will just be the IMF and the EU institutions, or whether Bernanke at the Fed will get involved beyond the inevitable QE3 (please do it Bernanke! I have some crummy equities I want to offload to a greater fool!).

As I asked last month:

Have the 2008 bailouts cemented a new feudal aristocracy of bankers, financiers and too-big-to-fail zombies, alongside a serf class that exists to fund the excesses of the financial and corporate elite?

And will the inevitable 2012-13 bailouts of European finance cement this aristocracy even deeper and wider?

Does Jamie Dimon Even Know What Hedging Risk Is?

From Bloomberg:

J.P Morgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon said the firm suffered a $2 billion trading loss after an “egregious” failure in a unit managing risks, jeopardizing Wall Street banks’ efforts to loosen a federal ban on bets with their own money.

The firm’s chief investment office, run by Ina Drew, 55, took flawed positions on synthetic credit securities that remain volatile and may cost an additional $1 billion this quarter or next, Dimon told analysts yesterday. Losses mounted as JPMorgan tried to mitigate transactions designed to hedge credit exposure.

Having listened to the conference call (I was roaring with laughter), Jamie Dimon sounded very defensive especially about one detail: that the CIO’s activities were solely in risk management, and that its bets were designed to hedge risk. Now, we all know very well that banks have been capable of turning “risk management” into a hugely risky business — that was the whole problem with the mid-00s securitisation bubble, which made a sport out of packaging up bad debt and spreading it around balance sheets via shadow banking intermediation, thus turning a small localised risk (of mortgage default) into a huge systemic risk (of a default cascade).

But wait a minute? If you’re hedging risk then the bets you make will be cancelled against your existing balance sheetIn other words, if your hedges turn out to be worthless then your initial portfolio should have gained, and if your initial portfolio falls, then your hedges will activate, limiting your losses. A hedge is only a hedge if it covers your position. That is how hedging risk works. If the loss on your hedge is not being cancelled-out by gains in your initial portfolio then by definition you are not hedging riskYou are speculating.

Dimon then stuck his foot in his mouth even more by claiming that the CIO was “managing fat tails.” But you don’t manage fat tails by making bets with tails so fat that a change in momentum produces a $2 billion loss. You manage tail risk by making lots and lots of small cheap high-payoff bets, which appears to be precisely the opposite of what the CIO and Bruno Iksil was doing:

The larger point, though, is I think we all know damn well what Jamie Dimon and Bruno Iksil were doing — as Zero Hedge explained last month, they were using the CIO’s risk management business as a cover to reopen the firm’s proprietary trading activities in contravention of the current ban.

Personally, I have no idea why the authorities insist on this rule — if J.P. Morgan want to persist with a hyper-fragile prop trading strategy that rather than hedging against tail risk actually magnifies risk, then there should be nothing to stop them from losing their money. After all, these goons would quickly learn to stop acting so incompetent without a government safety net there to coddle them.

The fact that Dimon is trying to cover the tracks and mislead regulators is egregious, but that’s what we have come to expect from this den of vipers and thieves.

Greece Defaults

From Sky News:

The talking is over; it is finally happening. For the first time since World War Two, a developed nation is going into default.

That’s the significance of the events of the past 24 hours, with Greece’s debt being classified as in “selective default” and the European Central Bank banning it from its cash window. Months of planning by both banks and policymakers have gone into ensuring that Greece’s negotiated default will be a smooth painless process. We are about to find out whether that planning pays off.

Now, we shouldn’t be surprised by Standard & Poor’s decision to cut the rating on Greece’s sovereign debt from CC to SD (which stands for “selective default”). The ratings agencies had always said that, given private investors are about to lose just over half the value of their debt (through a complex bond swap), this downgrade would be a natural consequence.

Nor should we be shocked that the ECB says it will no longer accept Greek debt as collateral: in fact, the only surprise is that it’s taken this long – on the basis of the ECB’s previous policy, the bonds should have become ineligible when were first downgraded from investment status two years ago.

Peter Tchir thinks all the hullabaloo is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing:

So far there are no dramatic consequences of the Greek default. The ECB did say they couldn’t accept it as collateral, but national central banks (including Greece’s somehow solvent NCB) can, so no real change. We will likely get a Credit Event prior to March 20th once CAC’s are used to get the deal fully done. Will the market respond much to that? Probably not, though there is a higher risk of unforeseen consequences from that, than there was from the S&P downgrade.

It just strikes me that Europe wasted a year or more, and has created a less stable system than it had before. A year ago, Europe was adamant about no haircuts and no default. I could never understand why. Let Greece default, renegotiate terms, stay in the Euro and move on.

I suppose the magnitude of the problem depends on just which kind of credit event. And that mostly depends on how well-insulated the financial system is, and market psychology. A full-blown Lehmanesque credit shock? Who knows — certainly banks are fearful. Certainly, the problem of default cascades has been out in the open for a while. But most of the attempts to deal with the prospect of such things have mostly been emergency room treatment, and not preventative medicine — throwing liquidity at the problem. Certainly, it is possible the system is in a worse shape than 2008.

  1. The derivatives web is (nearly) as big as ever:
  2. There are still a myriad of European housing bubbles ready to pop.
  3. American banks are massively exposed to Europe.
  4. China’s housing bubble is bursting Surely their reserves will go into bailing out their own problems, and not those of Europe and America?
  5. Rising commodity prices — especially oil — are already squeezing consumers and producers with cost-push inflation.

Meanwhile, the only weapon central bankers have in their arsenal is throwing more money at the problem.

Will throwing more money at the problem work? Yes — in the short term. The danger is that creditor nations will not be prepared to throw enough to shore up balance sheets.

Will throwing money at the problems cause more problems in the long run? Yes — almost certainly.

Ultimately, we must look at preventative medicine — to stop credit bubbles expanding beyond the productive capacity of the economy. We should also look at insulating the economy from the breakdown of any credit bubbles that do form.

Krugman Trashes Cameron

Regular readers will know that I have a track record of bashing arch-Keynesian provocateur Paul Krugman. But my views on Krugman — as well as Keynesian thought in general — are complex. For a start, I think his work on economic geography is excellent, and I rather wish he could take it to the same logical conclusions that I do.

In a way, he reminds me of Karl Marx. Marx’s exhaustive studies of 19th century capitalism are fascinating and essential reading. But Marx’s proposals for the global economy were ineffectual, just as Krugman’s solution to today’s economic malaise — throwing more money at the problem — is quite superficial. Plus, as a polemicist, he has been guilty of some raging hyperbole. But so have I.

Now, admitting that austerity is a problem has been quite difficult for me. Most of my political impulses are libertarian, and I see the accumulation of state power and an expansive state role in the economy as deeply problematic, mostly due to the problem of capital misallocation. But is a time of severe economic recession and weakened confidence really the appropriate time to cut spending, and throw welfare recipients – many of whom are elderly or disabled — into the blender?  I’d love to see less state involvement in the economy, and I think there are a good deal of wasteful programs — e.g. overseas military adventurism — that  can be cut right now in the name of paying down debt and improving infrastructure.

But the time to really cut is when the economy has significantly rebounded: when the private sector is creating jobs, when confidence is higher, when tax revenues have rebounded.

Krugman’s criticisms of Cameron have been rather different to mine: his line has been that cutting spending in a demand-depressed economy will just lead to lower demand. I take a slightly more qualified line.

The real problem here is that cuts in today’s environment are contractionary. That’s because of the debt. A high debt load means that service cuts are not offset with tax cuts. The money saved just goes toward balancing the budget, and not back out into the real economy where it can be used to create jobs and growth. The correct time for Cameron’s policies was during the last boom — when the economy is naturally at high steam, and is creating lots of jobs and growth. The best future period for these policies will be the next boom. Now, the argument Cameron might use is that there won’t be a “next boom” unless we take drastic action to reduce debt. Britain already has a huge total-debt-to-GDP ratio; we can ill afford another credit-financed boom. But austerity doesn’t even seem to be much use at reducing deficits: in a depressed economy, as government-spending falls tax revenue also seems to fall

Today Krugman obliterates the austerity policies of David Cameron’s coalition government:

Back in June 2010, when George Osborne unveiled the Cameron government’s austerity plan, it was all about confidence.

So how’s it going?

The Cameron government likes to point to low British interest rates — which are not just the result of safe-haven flight into the bonds of every advanced-country government that still has its own currency. Except, actually they are:


Still, the government’s commitment to fiscal responsibility has led to rising consumer confidence. Or, actually, not:


Business confidence! That’s the ticket! Or, well, no:

Will Osborne and Cameron listen to the raw empirical data that suggests very strongly that their policies are not working? Or will they drive onward on the strength of their ideological fervour?