Wall Street Goes to Washington

A front page story in today’s Washington Post (“In Shift, Wall Street Goes to Washington“) documents the Capital’s rising importance in the financial world:

J.P. Morgan Chase for the first time convened its board in Washington this summer, calling the directors to a meeting at the downtown Hay-Adams hotel, then dispatching them to Capitol Hill for meet-and-greets.

Last month, a firm run by the billionaire investor Wilbur Ross hired the head of Washington’s top mortgage regulator to pick through the wreckage of the housing bust looking for bargains.

And the world’s largest bond fund, Pimco, which has traditionally assessed the risk of any new investment according to five financial criteria, recently added one more: the impact of any change in federal policy.

“In the old days, Washington was refereeing from the sideline,” said Mohamed A. el-Erian, chief executive officer of Pimco. “In the new world we’re going toward, not only is Washington refereeing from the field, but it is also in some respects a player as well. . . . And that changes the dynamics significantly.”

The Ross example doesn’t tell us much — the financial world has always recruited government officials. The J.P. Morgan and Pimco examples, however, highlight how much the playing field has changed over the past two years. Washington is not just a more aggressive regulator. Given the stresses on the system, it has become a serial intervener — stepping in to prop up specific firms or credit channels that appear too important to fail. And it is now a major investor, with a burgeoning portfolio of investments in financial firms, auto companies, and mortgage backed securities.

As we commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of Lehman, it appears that the worst of the financial and economic crisis is behind us. And the policy conversation should increasingly focus on exit strategies. Not just the narrow question of how the Federal Reserve eventually unwinds the extraordinary expansion of its programs. But also how the Treasury eventually unwinds it TARP investments. How the FDIC walks back from offering guarantees on bank debt. How the government restructures Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And, perhaps most importantly, how policymakers recalibrate their relationship with financial markets. To paraphrase Mohamed A. el-Arian: can Washington return to being a referee on the sidelines or will it continue to be a player?

Treasury: More Borrowing, Less Short-Term

The Treasury released its quarterly update on its borrowing needs yesterday. The headline is that Treasury expects to borrow $406 billion during July, August, and September. That’s a gigantic figure, but it is down from the roughly $530 billion that Treasury borrowed during those three months last year.

When combined with $1.4 trillion in borrowing during the previous nine months, the $406 billion will bring total borrowing to $1.8 trillion during this fiscal year (Oct. 2008 to Sept. 2009).

The Treasury release includes a number of fascinating charts about the size and composition of our nation’s debt. One that particularly caught my eye was this chart showing the percentage of outstanding debt that is scheduled to mature in the next 12, 24, or 36 months:

Debt MaturitiesAs you can see, Treasury has relied heavily on very short-term maturities to finance the recent burst of borrowing. Most notably, the fraction of debt that matures within 12 months (the blue line) reversed its decline and rose to levels not seen since the mid-1980s.

Students of financial crises, past and present, will recall that over-reliance on short-term debt is a classic precursor of financial distress. Think, for example, of the major financial firms that had to roll over significant fractions of their financing every week … or even every day.

Continue reading “Treasury: More Borrowing, Less Short-Term”

TARP Warrants: Auctions and the Oversight Panel

Good news on the TARP warrant front today (previous installments here and here).

First off, Reuters reports that:

JPMorgan Chase & Co, seeking to completely extricate itself from a federal bailout program, has asked the government to auction warrants to buy the bank’s stock, after the Treasury Department demanded too high a price for the bank to buy them back.

This is great news. Treasury should be driving a hard bargain. And JP Morgan should allow private investors to compete to buy the warrants — maybe that will allow JPM to use its capital for better purposes. As an economist, I also welcome the opportunity to find out the market price of the warrants, so we can compare it to what all the modelers have been estimating.

Next question: How do I bid? I hope Treasury does this in a way that lets small investors participate, much as they can in Treasury bond auctions.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Oversight Panel released a report on the warrants. The Panel suggests, albeit with major caveats, that some initial warrant repurchases were done too cheaply:

Continue reading “TARP Warrants: Auctions and the Oversight Panel”

Growing Government Transfers

I’ve received several emails today about a story posted last night by USA Today.  The story points out that government transfers now make up more than one-sixth of American incomes, the highest ever.  Naturally, some observers welcome this development, while others denounce it.

I thought it would be useful to side-step that debate and instead provide some historical context.  To begin, the following chart shows the ratio of government transfers to personal income from January 1959 through April 2009 (the most recent data):

Government Transfers 0 Continue reading “Growing Government Transfers”