What Would the "Financial Instability" Argument Look Like For Any Other Industry?

May 7, 2013Mike Konczal

It’s becoming a surprisingly influential argument given that it hasn’t been well presented or argued, much less vetted and challenged. What is it? The argument that we should raise interest rates or otherwise contract monetary policy in order to preserve “financial stability.”

Brad Delong says critiquing this idea is “PRIORITY #1 RED FLAG OMEGA,” while Nick Rowe argues that this idea “may be influential. And that idea is horribly wrong.”

Here’s one version of the argument, from a recent speech by Narayana Kocherlakota:

“On the one hand, raising the real interest rate will definitely lead to lower employment and prices. On the other hand, raising the real interest rate may reduce the risk of a financial crisis—a crisis which could give rise to a much larger fall in employment and prices. Thus, the Committee has to weigh the certainty of a costly deviation from its dual mandate objectives against the benefit of reducing the probability of an even larger deviation from those objectives.”

Tim Duy and Ryan Avent commented on this speech, which essentially argued that that raising rates would certainly cause a problem, but rates at their current value could cause even bigger problems.

Let’s be clear on the terms: should we risk another immediate recession (“lower employment and prices”) to preserve a thing called “financial stability?” Five immediate problems jump out from this argument. Nick Rowe emphasized tackling this on an abstract level; I’m going to focus on practical stuff.

1. This whole story seems predicated on the idea that expansionary monetary policy was behind the housing bubble and collapse. I think there’s very little hard evidence for that. Also, the basic stories surrounding interest rates, as JW Mason mentioned in a guest post here, being too low for too long have some serious contradictions. (For instance, if the problem is a “global savings glut,” expansionary monetary policy should push against that by reducing capital inflows.) So if the idea is to risk another recession in order to not repeat the 2000s, we should work with a clearer story about what went wrong in the housing bubble.

2. The term “reaching for yield” is often deployed in these arguments. Low rates means that traders have to take on bigger risks in order to earn a rate of return that is acceptable. (Is there a minimum level of profit that finance must make on lending? And should we throw people out of work to make sure they make it? I hadn’t heard of that, but sounds like a nice gig.)

But either way, it isn’t clear that low rates drive reaching for yield. Yields are the difference between lending and funding rates. And as JW Mason again writes in an important post, banks’ funding costs are also affected by the policy rate. “Looking at the most recent cycle, the decline in the Fed Funds rate from around 5 percent in 2006-2007 to the zero of today has been associated with a 2.5 point fall in bank funding costs but only a 1.5 point fall in bank lending rates -- in other words, a one point increase in spreads.” If anything, the story is the opposite of what people are arguing.

3. The best empirical evidence at understanding the “reach for yield” phenomenon I’ve seen comes from Bo Becker and Victoria Ivashina from Harvard University, “Reaching for Yield in the Bond Market.” Here’s a Voxeu summary, and here’s the research pdf. They look at holdings of insurance companies, and find that, “conditional on credit ratings, insurance portfolios are systematically biased toward higher yield, higher CDS bonds...It is also more pronounced for firms with poor corporate governance and for which regulatory capital requirement is more binding.”

This comes across as portfolio managers juking and manipulating capital requirements and the ratings agencies. The authors note that this is a major agency problem for insurance agencies. It was the strongest at the peak of the cycle, but went away during the recession.

Now if I told you we should keep the economy in a permanent recession because senior managers at insurance companies aren’t good at their basic job of monitoring mid-level portfolio managers you’d probably think I was crazy. And I would be. Especially since it seems that “reach for yield” is tied less to monetary policy and more to gaming ratings-based capital requirements.

4. If this is a serious problem, people should be talking about more serious forms of financial regulation. As a starter platform, we can raise capital requirements. Much of this “reach for yield” looks to be a regulatory arbitrage on ratings-based capital requirements, so, say, tripling the leverage requirement should net out the importance of the ratings agencies in capital requirements.

This is why a more coherent story about what we are concerned about when we think about “financial stability” would help. If we need to make the financial system less complex and prone to abusive practices, requiring parties of a derivatives contract to hold a stake in the underlying asset would do a lot. Are we worried about contagion? In that case, force banks to hold more capital as well as convertible instruments. About bad debts holding back the economy? Then reform the bankruptcy code, dropping the 2005 “reforms.” Some people are demanding more jail sentences, not only for the benefit of the public but for boards and shareholders who can’t keep their workers in line.

5. Because imagine this argument in the context of any other industry. Right now the interest rate is above where it needs to be to guarantee full employment. People are arguing that we should raise rates because banks might make loans, even though that is what the financial sector is supposed to do. (As Daniel Davies notes, “If the Federal Reserve sets out on a policy of lowering interest rates in order to encourage banks to make loans to the real economy, it is a bit weird for someone's main critique of the policy to be that it is encouraging banks to make loans.”)

Now imagine the government was going to take some land it owns containing oil and sell it to an oil company. Could you imagine someone saying, “We shouldn’t do this, because we can’t assume that oil companies are capable of drilling, refining and selling that oil” as a valid concern? Not concerns about random spills or global warming? But instead expressing concerns about whether the industry is capable of executing its most basic function.

Or take immigration. Imagine if a common response to letting a large number of high-skilled immigrants into the country would be “but we can’t assume that the labor market is capable of matching people with skills who want to work with employers who are willing to pay to complete jobs.” It’s tantamount to saying, “we shouldn’t assume that the labor market can do its basic function.”

It’s hard not to read the financial stability arguments as saying “look, we can’t trust the financial sector to accomplish its most basic goals.” If true, that’s a very significant problem that should cause everyone a lot of concern. It should make us ask why we even have a financial system if we can’t expect it to function, or function only by putting the entire economy at risk.

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