January 16, 2008

Rule #1 states that the world always looks more interesting than it really is, an idea mentioned in a previous post, The Bond Market is Excitable. James Hamilton of Econbrowser took a look at the retail sales numbers that had everybody so excited yesterday and yawned.

I don’t know whether this marks the beginning of a trend or not, but there are two new posts out there complaining about executive pay amidst all the current shock and horror. Accrued Interest focusses on Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo, while Naked Capitalism republishes a more general article by Martin Wolf regarding bankers pay in general.

The latter essay espouses the popular ethic that this would be a much better world if only there were more rules. When considering the current devastation:

Up to now the main official effort has been to combine support with regulation: capital ratios, risk-management systems and so forth. I myself argued for higher capital requirements. Yet there are obvious difficulties with all these efforts: it is child’s play for brilliant and motivated insiders to game such regulation for their benefit.

So what are the alternatives? Many market liberals would prefer to leave the financial sector to the rigours of the free market. Alas, the evidence of history is clear: we, the public, are unable to live with the consequences.

An alternative suggestion is “narrow banking” combined with an unregulated (and unprotected) financial system. Narrow banks would invest in government securities, run the payment system and offer safe deposits to the public. The drawback of this ostensibly attractive idea is obvious: what is unregulated is likely to turn out to be dangerous, whereupon governments would be dragged back into the mess.

No, the only way to deal with this challenge is to address the incentives head on and, as Raghuram Rajan, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, argued in a brilliant article last week (“Bankers’ pay is deeply flawed”, FT, January 9 2008), the central conflict is between the employees (above all, management) and everybody else. By paying huge bonuses on the basis of short-term performance in a system in which negative bonuses are impossible, banks create gigantic incentives to disguise risk-taking as value-creation.

I certainly agree with the need for a continuous update of regulation – I have argued for increased capital requirements for loan committments (e.g., liquidity guarantees for SIVs) and more recently, for recognition of the credit risk on bank-sponsored Money Market Funds. And while it is indeed “child’s play for brilliant and motivated insiders to game such regulation”, it is also child’s play for a bored routiner at the regulator to update regulation. Remember: bank regulation does not need to be perfect. It only needs to be good enough. To date, I have seen no evidence that it hasn’t been good enough.

However, as I made clear in my comments on Willem Buiter’s Prescription, I am a fan of the “narrow banking” approach – although my idea of “narrow” is a lot wider than Mr. Wolf’s! You want the regulated banking sector to be fairly wide: firstly because, in general, regulation is slow to change and we should, as a society, be putting potentially good ideas to the test quickly; and secondly because the shadow banking system should not encouraged to grow so large that it will seriously endanger the entire economy.

And finally, I take exception to the last sentence quoted: “By paying huge bonuses on the basis of short-term performance in a system in which negative bonuses are impossible, banks create gigantic incentives to disguise risk-taking as value-creation.” No, Mr. Wolf. It is not the banks that are creating these gigantic incentives. It is the banks’ owners who are doing this. And if the owners of Citigroup and CIBC are so enthralled with the idea of paying fortunes of intergenerational size to bozos with no conception of risk control – why not let them?

On a related note, the monoline credit insurance agency Ambac Financial Group:

ousted its chief executive officer, slashed the dividend 67 percent and will raise more than $1 billion to preserve its AAA credit rating after announcing the biggest-ever writedowns by a bond insurer.

And remember those deeply subordinated MBIA notes, that I pointed out were really equities? They should have sold more!

MBIA Inc.’s surplus notes have tumbled as much as 12 percent since they were sold last week on concern that the world’s largest bond insurer may need to tap investors for more money.

The AA rated debt fell as low as 88.5 cents on the dollar today, according to bond traders. That’s the equivalent of a yield of 18 percent, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The notes were trading at 97.5 cents yesterday, according to Bloomberg data.

Perhaps not surprisingly, S&P will be re-evaluating the insurers:

because losses on subprime mortgages will worse than the firm anticipated.

The ratings company will examine whether insurers including MBIA Inc. and Ambac Financial Group Inc. have enough capital to withstand reductions in the ratings of the mortgage-backed securities they guarantee. The credit test will be completed within a week, said Mimi Barker, a spokeswoman in New York.

S&P is now assuming losses on 2006 subprime mortgages will reach 19 percent, up from 14 percent, as housing prices decline further than previously thought.

US headline inflation was in the headlines today:

Overall inflation in 2007 ran at its fastest rate since 1990, although core CPI inflation [excluding food and energy prices] moderated to 2.4% in 2007 from 2.6% in 2006.

By me, these figures indicate that there are no real inflationary problems – yet! – for the US, but there are two wild cards for the coming year: first, any Fed easing will increase the risk that inflation will again rear its ugly head; second, it is not apparent that the decline in the greenback relative to its trading partners has been fully reflected in these figures. It seems to me that there should be some curve steepening in the next while, particularly if central bank easing becomes the order of the day, as monetary policy controls the short end of the curve while inflation expectations rule at the long end.

James Hamilton of Econbrowser points out that:

The Fed bases its actions not on what inflation has been, but rather on what it anticipates for the future.

… and quotes a Bernanke speech that caused market excitement on January 10 when everybody else quoted a different part. Prof. Hamilton draws attention to:

Thus far, inflation expectations appear to have remained reasonably well anchored, and pressures on resource utilization have diminished a bit. However, any tendency of inflation expectations to become unmoored or for the Fed’s inflation-fighting credibility to be eroded could greatly complicate the task of sustaining price stability and reduce the central bank’s policy flexibility to counter shortfalls in growth in the future. Accordingly, in the months ahead we will be closely monitoring the inflation situation, particularly as regards inflation expectations.

Prof. Hamilton looks at two series: the 10-year Treasury yield and its spread against 10-year TIPS to conclude:

As long as those two series stay in their recent territory, the Fed thinks it has the maneuvering room to be aggressive about addressing the dangers of an economic downturn and financial collapse. And that’s why we’ll see at least a 50-basis-point cut in the fed funds target at the next meeting, despite the “highest inflation rate of the last 17 years”.

Further to yesterday’s note about Menzie Chinn’s post about automatic stabilizers, the Congressional Budget Office has release a report outlining the the political options (hat tip: WSJ Economics blog). It is interesting to note:

Automatic fiscal stabilizers also reduce the risk of recession. As the economy slows, slower growth of income, payrolls, profits, and production causes tax receipts to fall relative to spending––and causes outlays on programs such as unemployment compensation and Food Stamps to rise. That combination temporarily boosts demand for goods and services, thereby helping to offset some of the weakness in demand. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that, since 1968, automatic stabilizers have added between 1 percent and 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to the deficit during recessions, which translates to about $140 billion to $350 billion in today’s economy, and thereby helped mitigate past economic downturns. The automatic stabilizers already built into current law will partially offset any further weakening of the economy.

With the rather exciting headline Big banks consider defying rate cut, Heather Scoffield and Tara Perkins of the Globe noted:

Some of Canada’s big banks are contemplating holding their prime rates steady in the face of a rate cut by the Bank of Canada, a move that could destabilize the country’s monetary policy.

The central bank is expected to cut its key interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point on Jan. 22. But since the global credit crunch has driven up the cost of borrowing for commercial banks, some are questioning whether they should match the central bank’s move, banking sources say.

The comments on this story are, as usual, a hoot. Given that banks are now paying higher rates than non-financial corporations (due to credit concerns) and that RBC’s (for instance) cost of funds is so low:

Deposits include savings deposits with average balances of $46 billion (2006 – $46 billion; 2005 – $46 billion), interest expense of $.4 billion (2006 – $.4 billion; 2005 – $.3 billion) and average rates of .9% (2006 – .8%; 2005 – .6%).

… it is perhaps not as surprising as it might be otherwise that overnight vs. prime will decouple – at least to a limited extent. The credit crunch is affecting the markets in new and exciting ways!  Mind you – I have checked Bank of Canada data for the past ten years and the difference has only fleetingly been different from 175bp … so such a change, if effected, will be a relative novelty. Some may wish to review  BoC Working Paper 2003-9:

Although the magnitude of the impact differs between the models, the CPF and CF models respond similarly to the tighter credit conditions. As expected, the tightening of credit conditions leads banks to reduce lending and increase the loan rate. Firms react by cutting back on external funds to finance intermediate-good inputs, which causes in a fall in production. The central bank allows the deposit rate to also rise as it injects money (i.e., creates an inflation expectation) to offset the negative consequences of credit shocks. The restriction of credit impacts negatively on aggregate supply, as firms cut back on production, leading to a fall in final output. In an attempt to accommodate the deterioration in credit conditions, the monetary authority reacts by injecting more liquidity into the economy. The rise in liquidity plus the negative shift of the aggregate supply curve combine to push up the inflation rate.

The persistence of credit shocks is estimated to be quite high (i.e., rz = 0.7817). The result is that the tighter credit conditions generate persistent movements in all variables. In each case, we find that the variables do not return to their steady-state values even after 10 quarters. The implication of this result is that a worsening of credit conditions can be very persistent and have a lasting impact on economic activity. There could also be a persistent increase in the inflation rate if the monetary authority offsets the credit shock by infusing additional liquidity into the economy.

As the Banks’ researchers noted in 1994:

Banks try to avoid frequent changes in the prime rate, and they fund prime-related loans more often with 1-month or 3-month term deposits than with overnight deposits.

Most readers will be aware that the Bill/BA spread has gone completely nuts over the last six months … is it really all that surprising that the Overnight/Prime spread is at risk?

PerpetualDiscounts managed to return to their winning ways … barely! Volume was steady.

Note that these indices are experimental; the absolute and relative daily values are expected to change in the final version. In this version, index values are based at 1,000.0 on 2006-6-30
Index Mean Current Yield (at bid) Mean YTW Mean Average Trading Value Mean Mod Dur (YTW) Issues Day’s Perf. Index Value
Ratchet 5.42% 5.44% 57,984 14.75 2 -0.7325% 1,063.1
Fixed-Floater 4.92% 5.38% 74,920 15.02 9 +0.2123% 1,039.6
Floater 5.20% 5.24% 91,175 15.13 3 +0.7728% 847.0
Op. Retract 4.82% 2.72% 82,771 2.73 15 +0.2123% 1,045.2
Split-Share 5.25% 5.33% 100,630 4.31 15 -0.0328% 1,044.6
Interest Bearing 6.28% 6.40% 60,813 3.43 4 +0.0005% 1,072.5
Perpetual-Premium 5.77% 5.45% 64,824 6.39 12 -0.1703% 1,023.1
Perpetual-Discount 5.42% 5.45% 336,113 14.31 54 +0.0404% 945.3
Major Price Changes
Issue Index Change Notes
POW.PR.D PerpetualDiscount -1.8303% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.32% based on a bid of 23.60 and a limitMaturity.
HSB.PR.C PerpetualDiscount -1.7021% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.56% based on a bid of 23.10 and a limitMaturity.
BNA.PR.C SplitShare -1.6505% Asset coverage of 3.6+:1 according to the company. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 6.95% based on a bid of 20.26 and a hardMaturity 2019-1-10 at 25.00. Compare with BNA.PR.A (5.92% to 2010-9-30) and BNA.PR.B (6.71% to 2016-3-25).
ENB.PR.A PerpetualDiscount -1.0638% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.55% based on a bid of 25.11 and a limitMaturity.
FAL.PR.A Ratchet -1.0492%  
IAG.PR.A PerpetualDiscount +1.0546% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.26% based on a bid of 22.04 and a limitMaturity.
FTU.PR.A SplitShare +1.1506% Asset coverage of 1.7+:1 as of December 31, according to the company. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 6.13% based on a bid of 9.67 and a hardMaturity 2012-12-1 at 10.00.
CM.PR.G PerpetualDiscount +1.2142% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.80% based on a bid of 23.34 and a limitMaturity.
HSB.PR.D PerpetualDiscount +1.2987% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.38% based on a bid of 23.40 and a limitMaturity.
BCE.PR.Z FixFloat +1.7725%  
BAM.PR.K Floater +2.0230%  
Volume Highlights
Issue Index Volume Notes
NSI.PR.C Scraps (would be opRet, but there are volume concerns) 166,000 Nesbitt crossed 83,000, then 47,500, then 35,500, all at 25.30. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 4.00% based on a bid of 25.34 and a call 2009-5-1 at 25.00.
BCE.PR.T Scraps (would be FixFloat, but there are volume concerns) 119,600  Scotia crossed 119,400 at 24.60.
BCE.PR.G FixFloat 101,260  Scotia crossed 100,000 at 24.40.
MFC.PR.A OpRet 57,010 Nesbitt crossed 50,000 at 25.90. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 3.64% based on a bid of 25.89 and a softMaturity 2015-12-18 at 25.00.
CM.PR.J PerpetualDiscount 32,807 Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.56% based on a bid of 20.32 and a limitMaturity.
CM.PR.G PerpetualDiscount 31,350 Scotia bought 17,700 from Commerce at 23.30. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.80% based on a bid of 23.34 and a limitMaturity.
BCE.PR.C FixFloat 28,472  Scotia bought 12,600 from RBC at 24.75, then crossed the same amount at the same price.

There were twenty other index-included $25.00-equivalent issues trading over 10,000 shares today.

3 Responses to “January 16, 2008”

  1. […] Prof. Hamilton’s use of the unadjusted 10-year Nominal/TIpS spread, mentioned here yesterday, attracted some criticism in the comments to his post. The Cleveland Fed adjusts the raw data for (a) the inflation risk premium, and (b) liquidity premium. […]

  2. […] These are important concepts … particularly for those who are outraged by the banks’ so-called defiance of the Bank of Canada, reported here January 16. […]

  3. […] So Prime and the Bank of Canada rate have now decoupled … the potential for this was discussed in PrefBlog on January 16. […]

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