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What Happens as a Bubble Deflates?

November 17, 2014 7 comments

Having written a couple of guest posts about bubbles possibly inflating (college tuition, high end Manhattan condos), I thought it might be interesting to consider what a deflating bubble looks like.

A number of observers point to the oil markets, where the price of crude has fallen by about 30% since June of this year, to a multi-year low today of about $75.50 per barrel.   Just last spring, Bloomberg was reporting on how the drilling and exploration business in the US was heavily dependent on the issuance of junk rated debt – over $160 billion worth by some measures – to fund the shale drilling that has been so popular lately.  The junk debt had been popular because it was a source of relatively cheap funds, thanks in part to the Federal Reserve’s efforts with Quantitative Easing to drive down bond yields.   Oil and shale exploration are expensive and there are quite a few people that believe that certain types of exploration only make economic sense when the price of oil is above a certain level – say $80 a barrel (or perhaps even higher).  Now that the price of oil has plummeted, there is a possibility that a whole collection of oil drillings and mines are underwater, so to speak, and no longer profitable.

Funding a bunch of expensive exploration with junk bonds makes things complicated and speculative.  For instance, a substantial portion of these junk offerings were purchased by issuers of collateralized loan obligations (CLO) and then rated (up to the AAA level), securitized and distributed to an audience of investors who may or may not have been investing in energy related debt otherwise.  CLOs are being issued at a record pace, by the way, and 2014 is on track to be the highest issuance year ever, exceeding the pre-crisis peak in 2007 of $93 billion.  If the energy exploration companies that issued junk debt are no longer profitable and getting squeezed by the falling price of oil, will that lead to a bunch of companies defaulting and then sending shockwaves through the securitized market, via CLOs?  (Note – the CLO market is much smaller than the subprime mortgage backed collateralized debt obligation market got to be before the 2007 implosion and energy companies are only a portion of the total issuance).

One thing that happens when investable asset prices fall, is that a bunch of people think that maybe it means there’s a new buying opportunity – a chance to get a hot asset at a cheap price on the expectation that prices will spring back up again soon.  That’s what a bunch of hedge funds did a couple of weeks ago, betting that the sharp fall in oil would turn around.  And then it fell another 6 or 7% to today’s levels.   If oil prices continue to fall, as some speculate may happen, that would be called “catching a falling knife” and the investors may end up feeling rather burned by their optimism.  Once cut by the falling knife, some investors become reluctant to come back a re-test their theory on rising prices, and this can contribute to a negative spiral for the falling asset.

I learned from my father-in-law, who worked at an oil company his whole life until he retired, that the oil business is always complicated.  Up and down, supply and demand; they don’t work the way you’d think they would.  When oil prices go down, gasoline gets cheaper, so people drive more, which drives prices back up (unless people are driving less and buying fewer cars, as appears to be happening now, perhaps because of those darn millennials and their urbanization and bike riding).  Plus, there’s international politics, with Russian, OPEC, the Middle East, China the drive for energy independence, solar power, etc.  On the other hand, gasoline and home heating oil and such are getting cheaper, which is a nice bonus for consumers, particularly in more car dependent regions.  The economy benefits from the effect of extra money in the hands of consumers as that money gets spent elsewhere (other than on oil executives third or fourth homes, presumably). Oil is complicated.

But oil can and does crash.  When it does, it can have a wider adverse impact on local oil-dependent economies, like Texas in the 80’s or perhaps, North Dakota, today.  While there are a number of mysterious factors at play in the current fall in oil prices, the knock-on effects are starting to pile up.  Oil producers are cutting production, idling rigs and cutting prices to stay competitive.  The somewhat worried sounding consensus is that there is “too much oil supply” currently. The speculative portion of the oil market will be hit hardest, i.e. the junk-debt fueled shale companies.  At some point, investors in the CLOs (and regular debt) backed by this highly leveraged debt from companies that aren’t profitable anymore, are going to get nervous (yields on such debt are already quite a bit higher) and start selling.  In all likelihood, some exploration companies will fail.  I wouldn’t describe it as a fear environment yet – in many cases the junk debt from exploration companies doesn’t come due for a few years – but the seeds of worry have been planted on fertile ground.  One observer described the current environment as a “negative bubble”, with a herd mentality driving investors away from any optimistic assumptions for the market.

Why should we care?  For most consumers, the most likely impact of a continuing deflation in oil prices will, as I mentioned, be cheaper gas and heating costs.  When the housing market crashed, the negative impact was mostly felt by average Americans, as wealth was destroyed up and down the block, whereas the oil market seems very different and more removed.  Still, it’s fascinating and instructive to watch the dynamics of a (potential) collapse of a bubble – on exploration, shale, oil prices, international politics – and the odds are high for unexpected consequences and global volatility.  What will happen to the recent growth in solar and other renewable energies, if the price of the competing product gets much cheaper?  What about the local politics of fracking? What kind of exposure do banks have to the oil markets and will it trigger any regulatory issues?  What will happen to the international politicians, who like moving chess pieces around the Middle East map if oil-producing countries lose their political clout?  Also, it’s odd that the Fed’s efforts to fight deflation have contributed, in part, to a price collapse of a crucial commodity, via QE-fueled easy money helping to push oil producers to dig up too much oil? How will the Fed react to this challenge?

I don’t know the answer, nor do I expect anyone else does either.   But oil and energy are hugely important issues to most Americans (and the people of other countries, too, obviously) and to the national and global economies – not as big as housing, but pretty close.  What happens in the next few months may affect many of us and it bears watching how our regulators, politicians, mega-companies and generals respond to the emerging (potential) collapse.

Categories: economics, finance

Alt Banking in Huffington Post #OWS

November 11, 2014 1 comment

Great news! The Alt Banking group had a piece published today in the Huffington Post entitled With Economic Justice For All, about our hopes for the next Attorney General.

For the sake of the essay, we coined the term “marble columns” to mean the opposite of “broken windows.” Instead of getting arrested for nothing, you never get arrested, as long as you work at a company with marble columns. For more, take a look at the whole piece!

Also, my good friend and bandmate Tom Adams (our band, the Tomtown Ramblers, is named after him) will be covering for me on mathbabe for the next few days while I’m away in Haiti. Please make him feel welcome!

Bitcoin provocations

Yesterday at the Alt Banking meeting we had a special speaker and member, Josh Snodgrass (not his real name), come talk to us about Bitcoin, the alternative “cryptocurrency”. I’ll just throw together some fun and provocative observations that came from the meeting.

  1. First, Josh demonstrated how quickly you can price alternative currencies, by giving out a few of our Alt Banking “52 Shades of Greed” cards and stipulating that the jacks (I had a jack) were worth 1 “occudollar” but the 2’s (I also had a 2) were worthy 1,000,000,000 occudollars. Then he paid me $1 for my jack, which made me a billionaire. After thinking for a minute, I paid him $5 to get my jack back, which made me a multibillionaire. Come to think of it I don’t think I got that $5 back after the meeting.
  2. There’s a place you can have lunch in the city that accepts Bitcoin. I think it’s called Pita City.
  3. The idea behind Bitcoin is that you don’t have to have a trustworthy middleman in order to buy stuff with it. But in fact, the “bitcoin wallet” companies are increasingly playing the role of the trusted middlemen, especially considering it takes on average 10 minutes, but sometimes up to 40 minutes, of computing time to finish a transaction. If you want to leave the lunch place after lunch, you’d better have a middleman that the shop owner trusts or you could be sitting there for a while.
  4. People compare bitcoin to other alternative currencies like the Ithaca Hours, but there are two very important differences.
  5. First, Ithaca Hours, and other local currencies, are explicitly intended to promote local businesses: you pay for your bread with them, and the bread company you give money to buys ingredients with them, and they need to buy from someone who accepts them, which is by construction a local business.
  6. Second, local currencies like the Madison East Side Babysitting Coop’s “popsicle currency” are very low tech, used my middle class people to represent labor, whereas Bitcoin is highly technical and used primarily by technologists and other fancy people.
  7. There is class divide and a sophistication divide here, in other words.
  8. Speaking of sophistication, we had an interesting discussion about whether it would ever make sense to have bitcoin banks and – yes – fractional reserve bitcoin banking. On the one hand, since there’s a limit to the number of overall bitcoins, you can’t have everyone pretending they can pay a positive interest rate on all the bitcoin every year, but on the other hand a given individual can always write a contract saying they’d accept 100 bitcoins now and pay back 103 in a year, because it might just be a bet on the dollar value of bitcoins in a year. And in the meantime that person can lend out bitcoins to people, knowing full well they won’t all be spent at once. Altogether that looks a lot like fractional reserve bitcoin banking, which would effectively increase the number of bitcoins in circulation.
  9. Also, what about derivatives based on bitcoins? Do they already exist?
  10. Remaining question: will bitcoins ever actually be usable and trustworthy for people to send money to their families across the world below the current cost? And below the cost of whatever disruptions are being formulated in the money business by Paypal and Google and whoever else?

Update: there will be a Bitcoin Hackathon at NYU next weekend (hat tip Chris Wiggins). More info here.

Categories: #OWS, economics, finance

Links (with annotation)

I’ve been heads down writing this week but I wanted to share a bunch of great stuff coming out.

  1. Here’s a great interview with machine learning expert Michael Jordan on various things including the big data bubble (hat tip Alan Fekete). I had a similar opinion over a year ago on that topic. Update: here’s Michael Jordan ranting about the title for that interview (hat tip Akshay Mishra). I never read titles.
  2. Have you taken a look at Janet Yellen’s speech on inequality from last week? She was at a conference in Boston about inequality when she gave it. It’s a pretty amazing speech – she acknowledges the increasing inequality, for example, and points at four systems we can focus on as reasons: childhood poverty and public education, college costs, inheritances, and business creation. One thing she didn’t mention: quantitative easing, or anything else the Fed has actual control over. Plus she hid behind the language of economics in terms of how much to care about any of this or what she or anyone else could do. On the other hand, maybe it’s the most we could expect from her. The Fed has, in my opinion, already been overreaching with QE and we can’t expect it to do the job of Congress.
  3. There’s a cool event at the Columbia Journalism School tomorrow night called #Ferguson: Reporting a Viral News Story (hat tip Smitha Corona) which features sociologist and writer Zeynep Tufekci among others (see for example this article she wrote), with Emily Bell moderating. I’m going to try to go.
  4. Just in case you didn’t see this, Why Work Is More And More Debased (hat tip Ernest Davis).
  5. Also: Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong (hat tip Natasha Blakely).
  6. Jesse Eisenger visits the defense lawyers of the big banks and writes about his experience (hat tip Aryt Alasti).

After writing this list, with all the hat tips, I am once again astounded at how many awesome people send me interesting things to read. Thank you so much!!

Guest post: New Federal Banking Regulations Undermine Obama Infrastructure Stance

September 11, 2014 11 comments

This is a guest post by Marc Joffe, a former Senior Director at Moody’s Analytics, who founded Public Sector Credit Solutions in 2011 to educate the public about the risk – or lack of risk – in government securities. Marc published an open source government bond rating tool in 2012 and launched a transparent credit scoring platform for California cities in 2013. Currently, Marc blogs for Bitvore, a company which sifts the internet to provide market intelligence to municipal bond investors.

Obama administration officials frequently talk about the need to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Yet new regulations published by the Federal Reserve, FDIC and OCC run counter to this policy by limiting the market for municipal bonds.

On Wednesday, bank regulators published a new rule requiring large banks to hold a minimum level of high quality liquid assets (HQLAs). This requirement is intended to protect banks during a financial crisis, and thus reduce the risk of a bank failure or government bailout. Just about everyone would agree that that’s a good thing.

The problem is that regulators allow banks to use foreign government securities, corporate bonds and even stocks as HQLAs, but not US municipal bonds. Unless this changes, banks will have to unload their municipal holdings and won’t be able to purchase new state and local government bonds when they’re issued. The new regulation will thereby reduce the demand for bonds needed to finance roads, bridges, airports, schools and other infrastructure projects. Less demand for these bonds will mean higher interest rates.

Municipal bond issuance is already depressed. According to data from SIFMA, total municipal bonds outstanding are lower now than in 2009 – and this is in nominal dollar terms. Scary headlines about Detroit and Puerto Rico, rating agency downgrades and negative pronouncements from market analysts have scared off many investors. Now with banks exiting the market, the premium that local governments have to pay relative to Treasury bonds will likely increase.

If the new rule had limited HQLA’s to just Treasuries, I could have understood it. But since the regulators are letting banks hold assets that are as risky as or even riskier than municipal bonds, I am missing the logic. Consider the following:

  • No state has defaulted on a general obligation bond since 1933. Defaults on bonds issued by cities are also extremely rare – affecting about one in one thousand bonds per year. Other classes of municipal bonds have higher default rates, but not radically different from those of corporate bonds.
  • Bonds issued by foreign governments can and do default. For example, private investors took a 70% haircut when Greek debt was restructured in 2012.
  • Regulators explained their decision to exclude municipal bonds because of thin trading volumes, but this is also the case with corporate bonds. On Tuesday, FINRA reported a total of only 6446 daily corporate bond trades across a universe of perhaps 300,000 issues. So, in other words, the average corporate bond trades less than once per day. Not very liquid.
  • Stocks are more liquid, but can lose value very rapidly during a crisis as we saw in 1929, 1987 and again in 2008-2009. Trading in individual stocks can also be halted.

Perhaps the most ironic result of the regulation involves municipal bond insurance. Under the new rules, a bank can purchase bonds or stock issued by Assured Guaranty or MBIA – two major municipal bond insurers – but they can’t buy state and local government bonds insured by those companies. Since these insurance companies would have to pay interest and principal on defaulted municipal securities before they pay interest and dividends to their own investors, their securities are clearly more risky than the insured municipal bonds.

Regulators have expressed a willingness to tweak the new HQLA regulations now that they are in place. I hope this is one area they will reconsider. Mandating that banks hold safe securities is a good thing; now we need a more data-driven definition of just what safe means. By including municipal securities in HQLA, bank regulators can also get on the same page as the rest of the Obama administration.

Categories: economics, finance, guest post

Crime and punishment

When I was prepping for my Slate Money podcast last week I read this column by Matt Levine at Bloomberg on the Citigroup settlement. In it he raises the important question of how the fine amount of $7 billion was determined. Here’s the key part:

 Citi’s and the Justice Department’s approaches both leave something to be desired. Citi’s approach seems to be premised on the idea that the misconduct was securitizing mortgages: The more mortgages you did, the more you gotta pay, regardless of how they performed. The DOJ’s approach, on the other hand, seems to be premised on the idea that the misconduct was sending bad e-mails about mortgages: The more “culpable” you look, the more it should cost you, regardless of how much damage you did.

would have thought that the misconduct was knowingly securitizing bad mortgages, and that the penalties ought to scale with the aggregate badness of Citi’s mortgages. So, for instance, you’d want to measure how often Citi’s mortgages didn’t match up to its stated quality-control standards, and then compare the actual financial performance of the loans that didn’t meet the standards to the performance of the loans that did. Then you could say, well, if Citi had lived up to its promises, investors would have lost $X billion less than they actually did. And then you could fine Citi that amount, or some percentage of that amount. And you could do a similar exercise for the other big banks — JPMorgan, say, which already settled, or Bank of America, which is negotiating its settlement — and get comparable amounts that appropriately balance market share (how many bad mortgages did you sell?) and culpability (how bad were they?).

I think he nailed something here, which has eluded me in the past, namely the concept of what comprises evidence of wrongdoing and how that translates into punishment. It’s similar to what I talked about in this recent post, where I questioned what it means to provide evidence of something, especially when the data you are looking for to gather evidence has been deliberately suppressed by either the people committing wrongdoing or by other people who are somehow gaining from that wrongdoing but are not directly involved.

Basically the way I see Levine’s argument is that the Department of Justice used a lawyerly definition of evidence of wrongdoing – namely, through the existence of emails saying things like “it’s time to pray.” After determining that they were in fact culpable, they basically did some straight-up negotiation to determine the fee. That negotiation was either purely political or was based on information that has been suppressed, because as far as anyone knows the number was kind of arbitrary.

Levine was suggesting a more quantitative definition for evidence of wrongdoing, which involves estimating both “how much you know” and “how much damage you actually did” to determine the damage, and then some fixed transformation of that damage becomes the final fee. I will ignore Citi’s lawyers’ approach since their definition was entirely self-serving.

Here’s the thing, there are problems with both approaches. For example, with the lawyerly approach, you are basically just sending the message that you should never ever write some things on email, and most or at least many people know that by now. In other words, you are training people to game the system, and if they game it well enough, they won’t get in trouble. Of course, given that this was yet another fine and nobody went to jail, you could make the argument – and I did on the podcast – that nobody got in trouble anyway.

The problem with the quantitative approach, is that first of all you still need to estimate “how much you knew” which again often goes back to emails, although in this case could be estimated by how often the stated standards were breached, and second of all, when taken as a model, can be embedded into the overall trading model of securities.

In other words, if I’m a quant at a nasty place that wants to trade in toxic securities, and I know that there’s a chance I’d be caught but I know the formula for how much I’d have to pay if I got caught, then I could include this cost, in addition to an estimate of the likelihood for getting caught, in an optimization engine to determine exactly how many toxic securities I should sell.

To avoid this scenario, it makes sense to have an element of randomness in the punishments for getting caught. Every now and then the punishment should be much larger than the quantitative model might suggest, so that there is less of a chance that people can incorporate the whole shebang into their optimization procedure. So maybe what I’m saying is that arriving at a random number, like the DOJ did, is probably better even though it is less satisfying.

Another possibility to actually deter crimes would be to arbitrarily increasing the likelihood of catching people up to no good, but that has been bounded from above by the way the SEC and the DOJ actually work.

Categories: finance, modeling

Review: House of Debt by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi

I just finished House of Debt by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, which I bought as a pdf directly from the publisher.

This is a great book. It’s well written, clear, and it focuses on important issues. I did not check all of the claims made by the data but, assuming they hold up, the book makes two hugely important points which hopefully everyone can understand and debate, even if we don’t all agree on what to do about them.

First, the authors explain the insufficiency of monetary policy to get the country out of recession. Second, they suggest a new way to structure debt.

To explain these points, the authors do something familiar to statisticians: they think about distributions rather than averages. So rather than talking about how much debt there was, or how much the average price of houses fell, they talked about who was in debt, and where they lived, and which houses lost value. And they make each point carefully, with the natural experiments inherent in our cities due to things like available land and income, to try to tease out causation.

Their first main point is this: the financial system works against poor people (“borrowers”) much more than rich people (“lenders”) in times of crisis, and the response to the financial crisis exacerbated this discrepancy.

The crisis fell on poor people much more heavily: they were wiped out by the plummeting housing prices, whereas rich people just lost a bit of their wealth. Then the government stepped in and protected creditors and shareholders but didn’t renegotiate debt, which protected lenders but not borrowers. This is a large reason we are seeing so much increasing inequality and why our economy is stagnant. They make the case that we should have bailed out homeowners not only because it would have been fair but because it would have been helpful economically.

The authors looked into what actually caused the Great Recession, and they come to a startling conclusion: that the banking crisis was an effect, rather than a cause, of enormous household debt and consumer pull-back. Their narrative goes like this: people ran up debt, then started to pull back, and and as a result the banking system collapsed, as it was utterly dependent on ever-increasing debt. Moreover, the financial system did a very poor job of figuring out how to allocate capital and the people who made those loans were not adequately punished, whereas the people who got those loans were more than reasonably punished.

About half of the run-up of household debt was explained by home equity extraction, where people took out money from their home to spend on stuff. This is partly due to the fact that, in the meantime, wages were stagnant and home equity was a big thing and was hugely available.

But the authors also made the case that, even so, the bubble wasn’t directly caused by rising home valuations but rather to securitization and the creation of “financial innovation” which made investors believe they were buying safe products which were in fact toxic. In their words, securities are invented to exploit “neglected risks” (my experience working in a financial risk firm absolutely agrees to this; whenever you hear the phrase “financial innovation,” please interpret it to mean “an instrument whose risk hides somewhere in the creases that investors are not yet aware of”).

They make the case that debt access by itself elevates prices and build bubbles. In other words, it was the sausage factory itself, producing AAA-rated ABS CDO’s that grew the bubble.

Next, they talked about what works and what doesn’t, given this distributional way of looking at the household debt crisis. Specifically, monetary policy is insufficient, since it works through the banks, who are unwilling to lend to the poor who are already underwater, and only rich people benefit from cheap money and inflated markets. Even at its most extreme, the Fed can at most avoid deflation but it not really help create inflation, which is what debtors need.

Fiscal policy, which is to say things like helicopter money drops or added government jobs, paid by taxpayers, is better but it makes the wrong people pay – high income earners vs. high wealth owners – and isn’t as directly useful as debt restructuring, where poor people get a break and it comes directly from rich people who own the debt.

There are obstacles to debt restructuring, which are mostly political. Politicians are impotent in times of crisis, as we’ve seen, so instead of waiting forever for that to happen, we need a new kind of debt contract that automatically gets restructured in times of crisis. Such a new-fangled contract would make the financial system actually spread out risk better. What would that look like?

The authors give two examples, for mortgages and student debt. The student debt example is pretty simple: how quickly you need to pay back your loans depends in part on how many jobs there are when you graduate. The idea is to cushion the borrower somewhat from macro-economic factors beyond their control.

Next, for mortgages, they propose something the called the shared-responsibility mortgage. The idea here is to have, say, a 30-year mortgage as usual, but if houses in your area lost value, your principal and monthly payments would go down in a commensurate way. So if there’s a 30% drop, your payments go down 30%. To compensate the lenders for this loss-share, the borrowers also share the upside: 5% of capital gains are given to the lenders in the case of a refinancing.

In the case of a recession, the creditors take losses but the overall losses are smaller because we avoid the foreclosure feedback loops. It also acts as a form of stimulus to the borrowers, who are more likely to spend money anyway.

If we had had such mortgage contracts in the Great Recession, the authors estimate that it would have been worth a stimulus of $200 billion, which would have in turn meant fewer jobs lost and many fewer foreclosures and a smaller decline of housing prices. They also claim that shared-responsibility mortgages would prevent bubbles from forming in the first place, because of the fear of creditors that they would be sharing in the losses.

A few comments. First, as a modeler, I am absolutely sure that once my monthly mortgage payment is directly dependent on a price index, that index is going to be manipulated. Similarly as a college graduate trying to figure out how quickly I need to pay back my loans. And depending on how well that manipulation works, it could be a disaster.

Second, it is interesting to me that the authors make no mention of the fact that, for many forms of debt, restructuring is already a typical response. Certainly for commercial mortgages, people renegotiate their principal all the time. We can address the issue of how easy it is to negotiate principal directly by talking about standards in contracts.

Having said that I like the idea of having a contract that makes restructuring automatic and doesn’t rely on bypassing the very real organizational and political frictions that we see today.

Let me put it this way. If we saw debt contracts being written like this, where borrowers really did have down-side protection, then the people of our country might start actually feeling like the financial system was working for them rather than against them. I’m not holding my breath for this to actually happen.

Categories: #OWS, finance, statistics
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