Why Federal Reserve Policy Is Failing
The Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury continue to fail in their attempts to stabilize the U.S. financial system. That is due to failure to grasp the nature of the problem, which concerns the parallel banking system. Rescue policy remains stuck in the past, focused on the traditional banking system while ignoring the parallel unregulated system that was permitted to develop over the past twenty-five years.
This parallel banking system financed vast amounts of real estate lending and consumer borrowing. The system (which included the likes of Thornburg Mortgage, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers) made loans but had no deposit base. Instead, it relied on roll-over funding obtained through money markets. Additionally, it operated with little capital and extremely high leverage ratios, which was critical to its tremendous profitability. Finally, loans were often securitized and traded among financial firms.
This business model has now proven extremely fragile. First, the model created a fundamental maturity mismatch, whereby loans were of a long term nature but funding was short-term. That left firms vulnerable to disruptions of money market funding, as has now occurred.
Second, securitization converted loans into financial instruments that could be priced according to market conditions. That was fine when prices were rising, but when they started falling firms had to take large mark-to-market losses. Given their low capital ratios, those losses quickly wiped out firms’ capital bases, thereby freezing roll-over funding.
In effect, the parallel banking business model completely lacked shock absorbers, and it has now imploded in a vicious cycle. Lack of roll-over financing has compelled asset sales, which has driven down prices. That has further eroded capital, triggering margin calls that have caused more asset sales and even lower prices, making financing impossible for even the best firms.
Though the parallel banking system engaged in riskier lending than the traditional banking system, those differences were a matter of degree. Traditional banks like Washington Mutual, Wachovia, and Citigroup have also all lost huge sums. However, the traditional banking system is more protected for two reasons.
First, traditional banks are significantly funded by customer deposits. Ironically, such deposits can be withdrawn on demand and are in principle even more insecure than short term roll-over funding. However, they stay in place because of federally provided deposit insurance.
Second, traditional banks are significantly shielded from mark-to-market accounting because they hold on to many of their loans. These loans are therefore priced by auditors on a mark-to-realization basis. However, if they were securitized their market value would be significantly lower owing to current disruptive market conditions.
The bottom line is that the banking system is in better shape not because of its virtues, but because of policy. Deposit funding is safe because of deposit insurance. Banks are spared mark-to market losses because of different accounting rules. And the Federal Reserve is providing banks with massive liquidity infusions through its discount window and its various emergency auction facilities.
Policy has therefore ring-fenced traditional banks. But in the meantime it has left the parallel system in the cold, leaving a gaping hole in the policy dyke.
This policy stance reflects the Fed’s continuing attachment to an antiquated view of the system whereby it takes responsibility for traditional banks and nothing else. Such a policy makes no sense and will fail. The Fed encouraged development of the parallel system, and that system undertakes many of the same activities as traditional banks. Meanwhile, failure of the parallel banking system will continue putting downward pressure on asset prices and lender confidence.
The Treasury’s proposed seven hundred billion dollar asset purchase program will help put a needed floor under asset prices. However, it does nothing to tackle the parallel banking system’s roll-over funding crisis that is crimping lending and pushing firms into bankruptcy. That is causing distress to spread far beyond the mortgage market, undermining the ability of any asset purchase program to put a floor under asset prices.
The urgent implication is the Fed (and other central banks) must extend its safety network to include the parallel banking system. Just as the traditional banking system needs liquidity assistance, so too does the parallel system. That assistance can be provided through such vehicles as the discount window and Federal Reserve auction facilities, and it should be allocated to qualified firms able to post appropriate collateral.
A credit based system is a chain, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The Federal Reserve’s antiquated view has it protecting links connected to the traditional banking system while neglecting everything else. That is a recipe for failure.
Copyright Thomas I. Palley