It's Essential the Federal Reserve Discusses Inequality

Oct 28, 2014Mike Konczal

Janet Yellen gave a reasonable speech on inequality last week, and she barely managed to finish it before the right-wing went nuts.

It’s attracted the standard set of overall criticisms, like people asserting that low rates give banks increasingly “wide spreads” on lending -- a claim made with no evidence, and without addressing that spreads might have fallen overall. One notes that Bernanke has also given similar inequality speeches (though the right also went off the deep end when it came to Bernanke), and Jonathan Chait notes how aggressive Greenspan was with discussing controversial policies to crickets on the right.

But I also just saw that Michael Strain has written a column arguing that by even “by focusing on income inequality [Yellen] has waded into politically choppy waters.” Putting the specifics of the speech to the side, it’s simply impossible to talk about the efficacy of monetary policy and full employment during the Great Recession without discussing inequality, or discussing economic issues where inequality is in the background.

Here are five inequality-related issues off the top of my head that are important in monetary policy and full employment. The arguments may or not be convincing (I’m not sure where I stand on some), but to rule these topics entirely out of bounds will just lead to a worse understanding of what the Federal Reserve needs to do.

The Not-Rich. The material conditions of the poorest and everyday Americans are an essential part of any story of inequality. If the poor are doing great, do we really care if the rich are doing even better? Yet in this recession everyday Americans are doing terribly, and it has macroeconomic consequences.

Between the end of the recession in 2009 and 2013, median wages fell an additional 5 percent. One element of monetary policy is changing the relative interest in saving, yet according to recent work by Zucman and Saez, 90 percent of Americans aren’t able to save any money right now. If that is the case, it’s that much harder to make monetary policy work.

Indeed, one effect of committing to low rates in the future is making it more attractive to invest where debt servicing is difficult. For example, through things like subprime auto loans, which are booming (and unregulated under Dodd-Frank because of auto-dealership Republicans). Meanwhile, policy tools that we know flatten low-end inequality between the 10 and 50 percentile -- like the minimum wage, which has fallen in value -- could potentially boost aggregate demand.

Expectations. The most influential theories about how monetary policy can work when we are at the zero lower bound, as we’ve been for the past several years, involve “expectations” of future inflation and wage growth.

One problem with changing people’s expectations of the future is that those expectations are closely linked to their experiences of the past. And if people’s strong expectations of the future are low or zero nominal growth in incomes because everything around them screams inequality, because income growth and inflation rates have been falling for decades, strongly worded statements and press releases from Janet Yellen are going to have less effect.

The Rich. The debate around secular stagnation is ongoing. Here’s the Vox explainer. Larry Summers recently argued that the term emphasizes “the difficulty of maintaining sufficient demand to permit normal levels of output.” Why is this so difficult? “[R]ising inequality, lower capital costs, slowing population growth, foreign reserve accumulation, and greater costs of financial intermediation." There’s no sense in which you can try to understand the persistence of low interest rates and their effect on the recovery without considering growing inequality across the Western world.

Who Does the Economy Work For? To understand how well changes in the interest-sensitive components of investment might work, a major monetary channel, you need to have some idea of how the economy is evolving. And stories about how the economy works now are going to be tied to stories about inequality.

The Roosevelt Institute will have some exciting work by JW Mason on this soon, but if the economy is increasingly built around disgorging the cash to shareholders, we should question how this helps or impedes full output. What if low rates cause, say, the Olive Garden to focus less on building, investing, and hiring, and more on reworking its corporate structure so it can rent its buildings back from another corporate entity? Both are in theory interest-sensitive, but the first brings us closer to full output, and the second merely slices the pie a different way in order to give more to capital owners.

Alternatively, if you believe (dubious) stories about how the economy is experiencing trouble as a result of major shifts brought about by technology and low skills, then we have a different story about inequality and the weak recovery.

Inequality in Political and Market Power. We should also consider the political and economic power of industry, especially the financial sector. Regulations are an important component to keeping worries about financial instability in check, but a powerful financial sector makes regulations useless.

But let’s look at another issue: monetary policy’s influence on underwater mortgage financing, a major demand booster in the wake of a housing collapse. As the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found, the spread between primary and secondary rates increased during the Great Recession, especially into 2012 as HARP was revamped and more aggressive zero-bound policies were adopted. The Fed is, obviously, cautious about claiming pricing power from the banks, but it does look like the market power of finance was able to capture lower rates and keep demand lower than it needed to be. The share of the top 0.1 percent of earners working in finance doubled during the past 30 years, and it’s hard not to see that not being related to displays of market and political power like this.

These ideas haven’t had their tires kicked. This is a blog, after all. (As I noted, I’m not even sure if I find them all convincing.) They need to be modeled, debated, given some empirical handles, and so forth. But they are all stories that need to be addressed, and it’s impossible to do any of that if there’s massive outrage at even the suggestion that inequality matters.

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Janet Yellen gave a reasonable speech on inequality last week, and she barely managed to finish it before the right-wing went nuts.

It’s attracted the standard set of overall criticisms, like people asserting that low rates give banks increasingly “wide spreads” on lending -- a claim made with no evidence, and without addressing that spreads might have fallen overall. One notes that Bernanke has also given similar inequality speeches (though the right also went off the deep end when it came to Bernanke), and Jonathan Chait notes how aggressive Greenspan was with discussing controversial policies to crickets on the right.

But I also just saw that Michael Strain has written a column arguing that by even “by focusing on income inequality [Yellen] has waded into politically choppy waters.” Putting the specifics of the speech to the side, it’s simply impossible to talk about the efficacy of monetary policy and full employment during the Great Recession without discussing inequality, or discussing economic issues where inequality is in the background.

Here are five inequality-related issues off the top of my head that are important in monetary policy and full employment. The arguments may or not be convincing (I’m not sure where I stand on some), but to rule these topics entirely out of bounds will just lead to a worse understanding of what the Federal Reserve needs to do.

The Not-Rich. The material conditions of the poorest and everyday Americans are an essential part of any story of inequality. If the poor are doing great, do we really care if the rich are doing even better? Yet in this recession everyday Americans are doing terribly, and it has macroeconomic consequences.

Between the end of the recession in 2009 and 2013, median wages fell an additional 5 percent. One element of monetary policy is changing the relative interest in saving, yet according to recent work by Zucman and Saez, 90 percent of Americans aren’t able to save any money right now. If that is the case, it’s that much harder to make monetary policy work.

Indeed, one effect of committing to low rates in the future is making it more attractive to invest where debt servicing is difficult. For example, through things like subprime auto loans, which are booming (and unregulated under Dodd-Frank because of auto-dealership Republicans). Meanwhile, policy tools that we know flatten low-end inequality between the 10 and 50 percentile -- like the minimum wage, which has fallen in value -- could potentially boost aggregate demand.

Expectations. The most influential theories about how monetary policy can work when we are at the zero lower bound, as we’ve been for the past several years, involve “expectations” of future inflation and wage growth.

One problem with changing people’s expectations of the future is that those expectations are closely linked to their experiences of the past. And if people’s strong expectations of the future are low or zero nominal growth in incomes because everything around them screams inequality, because income growth and inflation rates have been falling for decades, strongly worded statements and press releases from Janet Yellen are going to have less effect.

The Rich. The debate around secular stagnation is ongoing. Here’s the Vox explainer. Larry Summers recently argued that the term emphasizes “the difficulty of maintaining sufficient demand to permit normal levels of output.” Why is this so difficult? “[R]ising inequality, lower capital costs, slowing population growth, foreign reserve accumulation, and greater costs of financial intermediation." There’s no sense in which you can try to understand the persistence of low interest rates and their effect on the recovery without considering growing inequality across the Western world.

Who Does the Economy Work For? To understand how well changes in the interest-sensitive components of investment might work, a major monetary channel, you need to have some idea of how the economy is evolving. And stories about how the economy works now are going to be tied to stories about inequality.

The Roosevelt Institute will have some exciting work by JW Mason on this soon, but if the economy is increasingly built around disgorging the cash to shareholders, we should question how this helps or impedes full output. What if low rates cause, say, the Olive Garden to focus less on building, investing, and hiring, and more on reworking its corporate structure so it can rent its buildings back from another corporate entity? Both are in theory interest-sensitive, but the first brings us closer to full output, and the second merely slices the pie a different way in order to give more to capital owners.

Alternatively, if you believe (dubious) stories about how the economy is experiencing trouble as a result of major shifts brought about by technology and low skills, then we have a different story about inequality and the weak recovery.

Inequality in Political and Market Power. We should also consider the political and economic power of industry, especially the financial sector. Regulations are an important component to keeping worries about financial instability in check, but a powerful financial sector makes regulations useless.

But let’s look at another issue: monetary policy’s influence on underwater mortgage financing, a major demand booster in the wake of a housing collapse. As the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found, the spread between primary and secondary rates increased during the Great Recession, especially into 2012 as HARP was revamped and more aggressive zero-bound policies were adopted. The Fed is, obviously, cautious about claiming pricing power from the banks, but it does look like the market power of finance was able to capture lower rates and keep demand lower than it needed to be. The share of the top 0.1 percent of earners working in finance doubled during the past 30 years, and it’s hard not to see that not being related to displays of market and political power like this.

These ideas haven’t had their tires kicked. This is a blog, after all. (As I noted, I’m not even sure if I find them all convincing.) They need to be modeled, debated, given some empirical handles, and so forth. But they are all stories that need to be addressed, and it’s impossible to do any of that if there’s massive outrage at even the suggestion that inequality matters.

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Daily Digest - October 23: A Complex Financial System Begets Complex Regulations

Oct 23, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Dodd-Frank Spawns Software to Comprehend Dodd-Frank (Marketplace)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Dodd-Frank Spawns Software to Comprehend Dodd-Frank (Marketplace)

Sabri Ben-Achour speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and others about the complexity of the Volcker Rule. Mike says the scrutiny of the courts has made some rules clunkier than necessary.

Unions Keep Pushing Emanuel to Challenge Interest Rate Hedges (Crain's Chicago Business)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Brad Miller has joined the push to convince the Chicago Board of Education to seek legal remedies for some bad financial transactions, writes Greg Hinz.

The Big Bank Backlash Begins (ProPublica)

Jesse Eisinger reports on the banks' take on current regulatory practices, after attending a conference where their lawyers discussed strategies for dealing with tough regulators.

Should the Poor Be Allowed to Vote? (The Atlantic)

Peter Beinart says voter ID laws are part of a long and unfortunate American tradition of distrusting poor people's ability to make reasoned political choices.

America's Middle Class Knows It Faces a Grim Retirement (LA Times)

Michael Hiltzik looks at a scary set of survey results from Wells Fargo, and says that expanding Social Security is the best option to ensure that retirement is possible for the middle class.

The Sharing Economy’s ‘First Strike’: Uber Drivers Turn Off the App (In These Times)

In what some are calling the first labor strike in the sharing economy, Uber drivers in five cities stopped picking up rides yesterday, reports Rebecca Burns.

Can Student Credit Unions Solve the College Affordability Problem? (The Nation)

Helene Barthelemy reports on a Columbia University group's attempt to open a fully student-run credit union on campus, with broad goals that include offering lower rate student loans.

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Daily Digest - October 22: Taking Organized Labor Beyond Collective Bargaining

Oct 22, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Seeds of a New Labor Movement (TAP)

Harold Meyerson profiles David Rolf of SEIU and his work to push labor organizations beyond collective bargaining to incorporate minimum wage fights and other organizing work.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

The Seeds of a New Labor Movement (TAP)

Harold Meyerson profiles David Rolf of SEIU and his work to push labor organizations beyond collective bargaining to incorporate minimum wage fights and other organizing work.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch's report lays out policy ideas for reinvigorating the labor movement.

Holiday Shopping Season Kicks Off With Temp Workers Who Have No Rights (The Guardian)

Siri Srinivas says Amazon's annual hiring of thousands of temp workers to staff its warehouses during the busy holiday season highlights the lack of protections for U.S. workers.

States Ease Laws That Protected Poor Borrowers (NYT)

Michael Corkery reports on recent efforts by the consumer loan lobby to permit higher interest rates on riskier loans. These changes are opposed by many, including military leaders.

America’s Ugly Economic Truth: Why Austerity is Generating Another Slowdown (Salon)

David Dayen says that our economic October surprise, which includes stock market slumps and interest rate drops, is indicative of a larger global problem caused by austerity politics.

Ebola Galvanizes Workers Battling to Join Unions, Improve Safety (Reuters)

For workers exposed to bodily fluids, like those who clean airplane bathrooms, lack of clarity around Ebola safety has kicked union organizers into overdrive, writes Mica Rosenberg.

Republicans Trying to Woo, or at Least Suppress, Minority Vote (NY Mag)

Jonathan Chait looks at the Republican Party's split strategy, which simultaneously attempts to convince minority voters to vote for them while pushing laws that make it more difficult to vote.

Federal Reserve Officials Scold Bankers, Again (Buzzfeed)

Matthew Zeitlin reports on statements by the New York Federal Reserve president at a conference on Monday, where he questioned whether large banks can be managed effectively.

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Daily Digest - October 15: "Fifteen and a Union" Goes Beyond Fast Food

Oct 15, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

America’s Fastest-Growing Profession is Joining a Very Public Fight for Higher Wages (WaPo)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

America’s Fastest-Growing Profession is Joining a Very Public Fight for Higher Wages (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis looks at the differences in home health aides' fight for "15 and a union" when compared to fast food workers. For one, most home health aides are paid by Medicaid.

Gov. Scott Walker on the Minimum Wage: "I Don't Think It Serves a Purpose" (MoJo)

Andy Kroll places the Wisconsin governor's comments in context with his other remarks opposing the minimum wage, and his state's strong support for an increase.

Can Rehabilitating Prisoners Repair Wall Street’s Broken Reputation? (Buzzfeed)

Matthew Zeitlin questions whether financial products that fund social services are more than just a charm offensive meant to make Wall Street look nicer to the public.

Americans Face Post-Foreclosure Hell as Wages Garnished, Assets Seized (Reuters)

An uptick in "deficiency judgements," in which banks go after debt that wasn't covered by a foreclosure sale, is preventing people from moving forward after the Recession, writes Michelle Conlin.

When the Guy Making Your Sandwich Has a Noncompete Clause (NYT)

Neil Irwin says the noncompete clauses for "sandwich artists" at Jimmy John's typify the trend toward practices and procedures that leave low-wage workers even worse off.

Walmart’s Cuts to Worker Compensation Are Self-Defeating (AJAM)

By raising workers' share of insurance premiums, David Cay Johnston says that Walmart and other companies are only ensuring their own customers have less to spend.

The Real World of Reality TV: Worker Exploitation (In These Times)

David Dayen explains the difficult working conditions of the writers and editors who create "unscripted" reality television in light of one staff's recent push for unionization.

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Daily Digest - October 10: Feminists Leading the Charge in Global Development

Oct 10, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Please note: There will not be a new Daily Digest on Monday, October 13, in observance of Indigenous People's Day. The Daily Digest will return on Tuesday, October 14.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Please note: There will not be a new Daily Digest on Monday, October 13, in observance of Indigenous People's Day. The Daily Digest will return on Tuesday, October 14.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Connected Feminism Shows A Muscular Commitment To Change - And Civil Rights (Forbes)

Tom Watson reflects on the Women and Girls Rising conference, praising it for demonstrating the power of feminism in the development world today.

Change in Derivatives Doesn’t Resolve Question of Safe Harbors (NYT)

Stephen J. Lubben says that a change in bankruptcy laws so that other investors can be pulled into proceedings when one goes bankrupt doesn't go far enough.

  • Roosevelt Take: Lubben wrote a chapter in An Unfinished Mission, the Roosevelt Institute and Americans for Financial Reform's report on the questions that remain in financial reform post-Dodd-Frank.

After Huge Tax Incentive Package, Boeing Still Ships Jobs out of Washington (WaPo)

Boeing's tax incentive package was the largest any state had ever offered any one company, writes Reid Wilson, but that has not prevented Boeing from relocating a few thousand jobs.

  • Roosevelt Take: Washington's Boeing workers are largely unionized, and Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch praised them for rejecting a contract that harmed newer and younger workers last year.

From Lagging 'Job Creation' to Lower Charity Giving, the Wealthy Give Less Back to Society (The Guardian)

Suzanne McGee questions why the wealthiest Americans give the lowest percentage of their income to charity, when presumably they have enough funds to do more.

Voter ID Laws Cut Turnout By Blacks, Young (HuffPo)

Alan Fram reports on a new study by the Government Accountability Office, which shows steep drops in turnout in states with new voter ID laws.

Supreme Court Blocks Wisconsin's Voter ID Law (USA Today)

With this emergency stay and a related decision by a district court judge in Texas, some of the most restrictive voter ID laws will not be in effect this November, says Richard Wolf.

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Daily Digest - September 23: Even Wall Street Sees Inequality Holds Back the Economy

Sep 23, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Why Wall Street Cares About Inequality (WSJ)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Why Wall Street Cares About Inequality (WSJ)

Major Wall Street institutions like Standard & Poor's and Morgan Stanley have put out reports on income inequality. Pedro Da Costa says it's because these companies see what's holding back the economy.

Treasury Announces Rules to Help Curb Benefits of Inversions (Buzzfeed)

The new rules will change how money transferred from foreign subsidiaries and U.S.-based parent companies is taxed, in order to reduce the advantages of inversion, writes Matthew Zeitlin.

The Politics of Pre-K: How A Program Known to Help Poor Mothers Could Doom Your Candidacy (TAP)

Rachel M. Cohen explains why the gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania will only talk about pre-K in terms of education, skipping any mention of working mothers or income inequality.

The GOP's Jobs Bill Will Create Few Jobs, But Plenty of Debt (TNR)

The $590 billion deficit increase from the bill's tax breaks proves to Danny Vinik that the GOP doesn't actually care about the deficit as much as it opposes increased government spending.

What Happens to Families on Housing Assistance When the Assistance Goes Away? (WaPo)

The cost of market-rate housing often erases the benefits of positive life changes that take people off housing assistance, writes Emily Badger, and more gradual assistance reductions are costly.

Those Lazy Jobless (NYT)

Paul Krugman says that John Boehner's repetition of the accusation that the unemployed just don't want to work proves that the "closed information loop of the modern right" is particularly effective.

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Wall Street Swindled Local Governments, Too. Here’s How They Can Get Their Money Back.

Sep 17, 2014Saqib Bhatti

Predatory lenders drove municipal governments and taxpayers into debt with risky interest rate swap deals that may have violated federal regulations.

The story of how Wall Street banks steered unsuspecting homebuyers towards complex mortgages with hidden risks and hidden costs has been well-documented. In fact, the typical sales pitch for adjustable-rate mortgages was premised on the false notion that home values never fall and that borrowers could refinance their loans before interest rates jumped.

Predatory lenders drove municipal governments and taxpayers into debt with risky interest rate swap deals that may have violated federal regulations.

The story of how Wall Street banks steered unsuspecting homebuyers towards complex mortgages with hidden risks and hidden costs has been well-documented. In fact, the typical sales pitch for adjustable-rate mortgages was premised on the false notion that home values never fall and that borrowers could refinance their loans before interest rates jumped.

Less widely understood is the fact that a very similar story played out with cities, states, and other municipal borrowers that were also steered into predatory interest rate swap deals riddled with hidden risks and hidden costs. Banks pitched these deals as a way for municipalities to save money on bond issuances: instead of issuing a traditional bond that had a fixed interest rate, they could take out a cheaper variable-rate bond that had an adjustable interest rate, but use a swap to protect against the risk of interest rate spikes.

Under this structure, municipalities made fixed-rate payments to banks on their swap deals, while the banks gave them back a variable-rate payment that was intended to offset the interest rate that the municipality had to pay its bondholders. The idea was that this would allow borrowers to get a “synthetic fixed rate” on their debt that was cheaper than what they would have to pay on a comparable conventional fixed-rate bond.

However, there were numerous risks embedded in these deals. For example:

  • The variable interest rate that the banks paid to the municipality could fall short of the rate that the municipality owed bondholders, creating a shortfall.
  • These deals contained many termination clauses that would allow the banks to cancel the deals and charge municipalities tens or even hundreds of millions in termination penalties.
  • Rather than rising, interest rates could crater, causing the net payments on the swap deals to skyrocket and leaving the municipalities unable to take advantage of the low-interest environment unless they terminated their swaps and paid hefty termination penalties.

Even though banks tried to downplay or dismiss these risks in order to push interest rate swaps, all of them materialized in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis:

  • When interest rates on a type of variable-rate bond known as an auction rate security shot up, the bank payments on the corresponding swaps could not cover those payments, and cities and states across the country were stuck paying double-digit interest rates to bondholders.
  • When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and defaulted on its swap payments with municipalities, it triggered termination clauses on the bank’s swaps. In an ironic twist, cities and states actually had to pay penalties to Lehman because of the way the termination clauses were written.
  • When the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates in response to the financial crash, it also drove down variable rates on swaps, causing the net payments on the swaps for cities and states to soar and preventing taxpayers from enjoying any of the benefits from the low rate environment.

As a result, municipalities across the country have been hit with large bills to Wall Street at the same time that they are trying to close record budget shortfalls amid the biggest economic downturn in 80 years. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is shutting off water to families who have missed just a couple of payments on their water bill so that it can pay off more than $500 million in termination penalties on its swaps. The City of Chicago is now paying $72 million a year on its swaps as a result of the low interest rates, even as entire neighborhoods on the south and west sides of the city fall into disrepair. The school district in Chicago is paying another $36 million a year on swaps, while the Board of Education is invoking budget problems to justify the largest mass school closing in national history. In Wisconsin, the state is now paying $25 million a year on its swaps and making catastrophic cuts to state healthcare programs. These are just a few examples of a trend cropping up everywhere in the U.S.

It is no accident that the same communities that were disproportionately targeted for predatory mortgages are also bearing the brunt of these predatory municipal finance deals. Across the country, working class communities of color are disproportionately impacted by cuts to public services, and austerity measures serve to exacerbate the crisis in those communities in particular.

Luckily, there is something that public officials can do to stop the bleeding. Under Rule G-17 of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (MSRB), a federal regulator charged with protecting the interests of municipal borrowers, banks that pitch deals to public officials must “deal fairly” with them. According to the MSRB, this means that they “must not misrepresent or omit the facts, risks, potential benefits, or other material information about municipal securities activities undertaken with the municipal issuer.” In other words, they must not downplay the risks associated with deals like interest rate swaps, and they must not mislead public officials about the likelihood of such risks materializing. The banks must ensure that public officials truly understand the risks of the deals they enter into.

This is a burden that was not met in the typical swap transaction. As a rule, bankers highlighted the upside and minimized the potential downside in pitching these deals. This was in violation of MSRB Rule G-17 and municipalities like Chicago and Detroit have legal recourse to potentially win back hundreds of millions from Wall Street. Cities, states, and other municipal borrowers can pursue these legal claims by filing for arbitration with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).

The Baldwin County Sewer Service, a privatized utility in Alabama, successfully used a similar legal argument earlier this year to win back its swap payments and get out of its deals without any termination penalties. The total value of the award was approximately $10 million. The potential claims could be many magnitudes higher for cities and states that had significantly greater swap exposure.

However, officials in municipalities with swaps need to act fast, because time may be running out. FINRA has a six-year eligibility period on these claims. Because many of the risks associated with swaps materialized in October 2008, when interest rates plummeted as a result of the federal response to the financial crisis, it is possible that the clock could run out on these claims as early as October 2014. Public officials like Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin should act now to potentially recover millions for their constituents before it is too late.

Saqib Bhatti is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the ReFund America Project.

Image via Thinkstock

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Daily Digest - September 11: Funding Universal Preschool Means Taking Banks to Task

Sep 11, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Bright Future Chicago Pushes for Universal Preschool (Chicago Tonight)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Bright Future Chicago Pushes for Universal Preschool (Chicago Tonight)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Saqib Bhatti explains one way that universal preschool could be funded: Chicago could pursue legal claims against banks for bad interest rate swap deals.

Jerry Brown Signs Bill Requiring Employers to Give Paid Sick Leave (The Sacramento Bee)

California is the second state to enact state-wide paid sick leave, but David Siders reports that labor groups aren't in full support of the new law because it excludes home health care workers.

Asset Limits Are a Barrier to Economic Security and Mobility (CAP)

Rebecca Vallas and Joe Valenti explain how asset limits on social safety net programs prevent low-income families from building necessary economic stability, and lay out a plan for reform.

The Federal Reserve's Too Cozy Relations With Banks (WSJ)

Stephen Haber and Ross Levine suggest ways to limit banks' influence with the Federal Reserve, including requiring ex-Fed officials to agree to a waiting period before taking jobs in financial services.

Student Debt Collections Are Leaving the Elderly in Poverty (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Federal student debt among the elderly has increased sixfold since 2005, and a law meant to keep garnishments from putting retirees in poverty is in dire need of an update, reports Natalie Kitroeff.

Who Needs a Smoke-Filled Room? (NYT)

Thomas Edsall lays out an example of the complicated structures that allow tax-exempt "social welfare" organizations to spend millions of dollars on political campaigns with little accountability.

These Charts Are Good News if Your Employer Pays for Health Insurance (TNR)

Jonathan Cohn says that the slowed premium increases for employer-sponsored insurance this year are another sign that the Affordable Care Act is keeping health care costs down.

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Progress, Yet No Progress: The Two Lines of Defense Against Too-Big-To-Fail

Aug 7, 2014Mike Konczal

It’s been a week of whiplash when it comes to the issue of Too Big To Fail (TBTF). First the GAO released a report saying that it is difficult to find any bailout subsidy for the largest banks, implying that there's been progress on ending TBTF. Then, late Tuesday, the FDIC and Federal Reserve released a small bombshell saying that the living wills submitted by the 11 largest banks “are not credible and do not facilitate an orderly resolution under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.” These living wills were designed to make sure that banks could fail without causing chaos in the economy, and this report implies TBTF is still with us.

One of them has to be wrong, right? In order to understand this contradiction it's important to map out where the actual disagreement is. Doing so will also help explain how the battle over TBTF will play out in the near future.

So look - a large, systemically risky financial firm is collapsing! Oh noes! What has happened and will happen?

There are two levels of defense when it comes to ending this firm. The first is through a bankruptcy court, and the second is through the FDIC taking over the firm, much like what it does to a failing regular bank. The next several paragraphs give some technical details (skip ahead if your eyes are already glazing over).

<technical>

As you can see in the graphic above, before the failure, regulators will have failed to use “prompt corrective action” to guide the firm back to solvency. These are efforts regulators use to push a troubled firm to fix itself before a collapse. For example, if bank capital falls below a certain point, the bank can’t pay out bonuses or make capital purchases in order to attempt to make it more secure.

Once a failure happens, there are two lines of defense. The default course of action is putting the firm in bankruptcy, similar to what happened with Lehman Brothers. Why might this be a problem for a major financial firm? The Bankruptcy Code is slow and deliberate, when financial firms often need to be resolved fast. It isn't designed to preserve ongoing firm business, which is a problem when those businesses are essential to the economy as a whole. It can’t prevent runs by favoring short-term creditors. There is no guaranteed funding available to keep operations running and to help with the relaunch. And there are large problems handling the failure of a firm operating in many different countries.

With these concerns in mind, Dodd-Frank sets up a second line of defense. Regulators can direct the FDIC to take over the failed firm and do an emergency resolution (OLA), like they do with commercial banks. In order to active the OLA, there’s a comically complicated procedure in which the Treasury Secretary, the Federal Reserve Board, and the FDIC all have to turn their metaphoric keys.

OLA, particularly with its new "single point of entry" (SPOE) framework, solves many of the problems mentioned above. OLA comes with a line of emergency funding from Treasury to facilitate resolution if private capital isn’t available, as it likely won’t be in a crisis. OLA would also be able to prioritize speed, as well as protect derivatives and short-term credit, stopping potential runs. SPOE, by focusing its energy at the bank's holding company level, also helps to deal with coordinating the failure internationally. However, OLA would be executed by administrators instead of judges, and it could put taxpayer money at risk. (More on all of this here.)

</technical>

The Contradiction

So, what is the battle over? How are we making progress yet also making no progress?

All the innovation in the past 18 months in combating TBTF has taken place at the second line of defense. When Sheila Bair, for instance, says there’s been significant progress in ending taxpayer bailouts, or the Bipartisan Policy Institute releases a statement saying adopting an SPOE approach has the potential to eliminate TBTF, they are referencing the progress that is taking place at this second line of defense.

But there's no progress at the first line of defense. The living wills that regulators found insufficient are, by statute, part of the first line of defense. Dodd-Frank says that if the living will “would not facilitate an orderly resolution of the company under title 11, [Bankruptcy]” then the FDIC and the Fed “may jointly impose more stringent capital, leverage, or liquidity requirements, or restrictions on the growth, activities, or operations of the company.” They purposefully didn't drop the hammer in their announcement, instead telling the banks to go back to the drawing board rather than enforcing stricter requirements. But they can get as aggressive as they want here. 

So the FDIC and the Fed are drawing a line in the sand here - the first line of defense needs to work. The regulators call out the banks for their “failure to make, or even to identify, the kinds of changes in firm structure and practices that would be necessary to enhance the prospects for orderly resolution.” So making this line of defense work will not be a trivial endeavor.

If the first line of defense doesn’t work, why don’t we just rely on the second line? Thomas Hoenig, Vice Chairman of the FDIC and an aggressive opponent of TBTF, released a statement accompanying the regulators' release, specifically saying that they would not find this argument convincing. It’s worth noting how clear he is about this:

“Some parties nurture the view that bankruptcy for the largest firms is impractical because current bankruptcy laws won’t work given the issues just noted. This view contends that rather than require that these most complicated firms make themselves bankruptcy compliant, the government should rely on other means to resolve systemically important firms that fail. This view serves us poorly by delaying changes needed to assert market discipline and reduce systemic risk, and it undermines bankruptcy as a viable option for resolving these firms. These alternative approaches only perpetuate 'too big to fail.'”

That’s a strong statement that they are going to hold the first line.

Note here that the GAO results could still stand. The market's lack of a subsidy could reflect the second line of defense. Or it could reflect that even if they both fail, Congress, which is gridlocked, would not pass a bailout. It's not clear what would happen if a major bank failed, but the market is right not to assume the banks are permanently safe.

Politics

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Those who think reform didn’t go far enough like the idea of fighting on the first line, because there is significant leeway to push for more systemic changes to Wall Street. To get a sense of the stakes, Sheila Bair told Tom Braithwaite back in 2010 that she would break up an institution that couldn’t produce a credible living will.

This will also animate the Right, but in a different way. From the get-go, their preferred approach to TBTF was just to create a special new bankruptcy code Chapter, removing any type of independent regulatory administrative state like the FDIC from the issue. It’s not clear if they’ll support regulators pushing aggressively to restructure firms so they can go through the bankruptcy code as it is written right now.

The administration appears to be silent for now. It’s also not clear whether it will see this as a second bite to get higher capital requirements, or if they is happy enough with the second line of denfense as it is. If the second is true, that would be unfortunate. The banks remain undercapitalized and too complex for bankruptcy, and regulators have a responsiblity to make sure each line of defense is capable of stopping the panic of 2008.

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It’s been a week of whiplash when it comes to the issue of Too Big To Fail (TBTF). First the GAO released a report saying that it is difficult to find any bailout subsidy for the largest banks, implying that there's been progress on ending TBTF. Then, late Tuesday, the FDIC and Federal Reserve released a small bombshell saying that the living wills submitted by the 11 largest banks “are not credible and do not facilitate an orderly resolution under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.” These living wills were designed to make sure that banks could fail without causing chaos in the economy, and this report implies TBTF is still with us.

One of them has to be wrong, right? In order to understand this contradiction it's important to map out where the actual disagreement is. Doing so will also help explain how the battle over TBTF will play out in the near future.

So look - a large, systemically risky financial firm is collapsing! Oh noes! What has happened and will happen?

There are two levels of defense when it comes to ending this firm. The first is through a bankruptcy court, and the second is through the FDIC taking over the firm, much like what it does to a failing regular bank. The next several paragraphs give some technical details (skip ahead if your eyes are already glazing over).

<technical>

As you can see in the graphic above, before the failure, regulators will have failed to use “prompt corrective action” to guide the firm back to solvency. These are efforts regulators use to push a troubled firm to fix itself before a collapse. For example, if bank capital falls below a certain point, the bank can’t pay out bonuses or make capital purchases in order to attempt to make it more secure.

Once a failure happens, there are two lines of defense. The default course of action is putting the firm in bankruptcy, similar to what happened with Lehman Brothers. Why might this be a problem for a major financial firm? The Bankruptcy Code is slow and deliberate, when financial firms often need to be resolved fast. It isn't designed to preserve ongoing firm business, which is a problem when those businesses are essential to the economy as a whole. It can’t prevent runs by favoring short-term creditors. There is no guaranteed funding available to keep operations running and to help with the relaunch. And there are large problems handling the failure of a firm operating in many different countries.

With these concerns in mind, Dodd-Frank sets up a second line of defense. Regulators can direct the FDIC to take over the failed firm and do an emergency resolution (OLA), like they do with commercial banks. In order to active the OLA, there’s a comically complicated procedure in which the Treasury Secretary, the Federal Reserve Board, and the FDIC all have to turn their metaphoric keys.

OLA, particularly with its new "single point of entry" (SPOE) framework, solves many of the problems mentioned above. OLA comes with a line of emergency funding from Treasury to facilitate resolution if private capital isn’t available, as it likely won’t be in a crisis. OLA would also be able to prioritize speed, as well as protect derivatives and short-term credit, stopping potential runs. SPOE, by focusing its energy at the bank's holding company level, also helps to deal with coordinating the failure internationally. However, OLA would be executed by administrators instead of judges, and it could put taxpayer money at risk. (More on all of this here.)

</technical>

The Contradiction

So, what is the battle over? How are we making progress yet also making no progress?

All the innovation in the past 18 months in combating TBTF has taken place at the second line of defense. When Sheila Bair, for instance, says there’s been significant progress in ending taxpayer bailouts, or the Bipartisan Policy Institute releases a statement saying adopting an SPOE approach has the potential to eliminate TBTF, they are referencing the progress that is taking place at this second line of defense.

But there's no progress at the first line of defense. The living wills that regulators found insufficient are, by statute, part of the first line of defense. Dodd-Frank says that if the living will “would not facilitate an orderly resolution of the company under title 11, [Bankruptcy]” then the FDIC and the Fed “may jointly impose more stringent capital, leverage, or liquidity requirements, or restrictions on the growth, activities, or operations of the company.” They purposefully didn't drop the hammer in their announcement, instead telling the banks to go back to the drawing board rather than enforcing stricter requirements. But they can get as aggressive as they want here. 

So the FDIC and the Fed are drawing a line in the sand here - the first line of defense needs to work. The regulators call out the banks for their “failure to make, or even to identify, the kinds of changes in firm structure and practices that would be necessary to enhance the prospects for orderly resolution.” So making this line of defense work will not be a trivial endeavor.

If the first line of defense doesn’t work, why don’t we just rely on the second line? Thomas Hoenig, Vice Chairman of the FDIC and an aggressive opponent of TBTF, released a statement accompanying the regulators' release, specifically saying that they would not find this argument convincing. It’s worth noting how clear he is about this:

“Some parties nurture the view that bankruptcy for the largest firms is impractical because current bankruptcy laws won’t work given the issues just noted. This view contends that rather than require that these most complicated firms make themselves bankruptcy compliant, the government should rely on other means to resolve systemically important firms that fail. This view serves us poorly by delaying changes needed to assert market discipline and reduce systemic risk, and it undermines bankruptcy as a viable option for resolving these firms. These alternative approaches only perpetuate 'too big to fail.'”

That’s a strong statement that they are going to hold the first line.

Note here that the GAO results could still stand. The market's lack of a subsidy could reflect the second line of defense. Or it could reflect that even if they both fail, Congress, which is gridlocked, would not pass a bailout. It's not clear what would happen if a major bank failed, but the market is right not to assume the banks are permanently safe.

Politics

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. Those who think reform didn’t go far enough like the idea of fighting on the first line, because there is significant leeway to push for more systemic changes to Wall Street. To get a sense of the stakes, Sheila Bair told Tom Braithwaite back in 2010 that she would break up an institution that couldn’t produce a credible living will.

This will also animate the Right, but in a different way. From the get-go, their preferred approach to TBTF was just to create a special new bankruptcy code Chapter, removing any type of independent regulatory administrative state like the FDIC from the issue. It’s not clear if they’ll support regulators pushing aggressively to restructure firms so they can go through the bankruptcy code as it is written right now.

The administration appears to be silent for now. It’s also not clear whether it will see this as a second bite to get higher capital requirements, or if they is happy enough with the second line of denfense as it is. If the second is true, that would be unfortunate. The banks remain undercapitalized and too complex for bankruptcy, and regulators have a responsiblity to make sure each line of defense is capable of stopping the panic of 2008.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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Daily Digest - August 4: The Underappreciated Success of Financial Reform

Aug 4, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Obama’s Other Success (NYT)

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Obama’s Other Success (NYT)

Dodd-Frank financial reform is proving more successful than expected, writes Paul Krugman. He cites Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal in debunking the claim that the law created permanent bailouts.

The NFL Cheerleaders Should Be Your Fair-Pay Heroes (TNR)

Bryce Covert looks at what's needed to achieve wage growth in today's economy. She talks to Mike Konczal, who suggests that the Fed could help everyone's wages if it focused on unemployment.

Economy Adds 209,000 Jobs in July; Unemployment Rate Edges Up to 6.2 Percent (WaPo)

Ylan Q. Mui breaks down Friday's jobs report, which was generally positive but showed that underemployment (part-timers who want more hours) and long-term unemployment haven't budged.

Relying on Online Listings, Young Americans Struggle to Find Jobs (The Guardian)

Today's system of online job applications isn't making the search any easier, writes Jana Kasperkevic, as job-seekers find that their applications seem to disappear into black holes.

Work and Worth (Robert Reich)

Robert Reich emphasizes the difference between pay and value to society, given that kindergarten teachers and social workers make far less than hedge fund managers.

New on Next New Deal

The Worker-Owned Small Business Revolution

In his video speculation for the Next American Economy project, Gar Alperovitz predicts that as MBAs realize that worker-owned companies achieve higher productivity, the model will grow.

Thinking About the Women in Think Tanks

Bringing more women into the upper echelons of policy work will require engaging younger women in this work, writes Roosevelt Institute Summer Academy Fellow Hannah Zhang.

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