Lessons from the Fall of Lehman

As you have undoubtedly noticed, this week marks the one-year anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers–the moment at which the financial crisis became a severe economic crisis.

I did an interview on Fox Business on Tuesday to discuss some of the lessons learned. (My wife’s comment  on the interview: “You need to straighten your collar next time.”)

Going in, I had two basic points I wanted to make:

  • First, the fall of Lehman Brothers was the moment that the abstract threat of “systemic risk” became tangible to many policy makers and the public. As we progressed from propping up Bear Stearns to taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, many observers began to suffer from policy fatigue, and, in some circles, there was concern that the scale of the government actions might be disproportionate to the alleged, but little-seen, risk of a systemic crisis. That changed when Lehman fell, and the dominoes started toppling.
  • Second, we still have our work cut out for us. The major items on our to do list include:

(1) Taking steps to avoid such enormous shocks in the future (e.g., by increasing capital requirements and reducing allowed leverage for financial firms).

(2) Fixing the problem of too-big-to-fail (or, if you prefer, too-interconnected-to-fail). Unfortunately, this problem has worsened, in many ways, since the crisis began. Some gigantic firms have grown even larger. And the necessary interventions to prop up the financial sector have reinforced the idea that the government will prevent these firms from failing in the future.

(3) Disentangling the government from private firms, so that it can again act as a referee, not as a player. That will take time given the enormous investment portfolio that the government has amassed in financial firms and the auto companies. It is heartening, however, that even Citigroup is beginning to ponder how to raise outside capital and reduce the government stake.

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?

Inflation, Bank Reserves, and Lending

The Business News Network in Canada interviewed me last week about the gigantic amount of excess reserves being held by U.S. banks.

Here’s a link to the video of the interview. (We had a small technical glitch at the start, but then got rolling.)

Going into the interview, I was focused on the following talking points:

  • Total bank reserves have skyrocketed over the past year, from roughly $50 billion to roughly $850 billion.
  • When we studied economics in school, we were usually taught that a big increase in reserves would eventually translate into big inflation.
  • However, that’s not true today, for two reasons: (1) short-term interest rates are effectively zero, and (2) the Fed can now pay interest on reserves. Those facts weaken / break the traditional link between reserves and inflationary pressures.
  • Some have wondered whether the excess reserves mean that banks are hoarding, rather than lending.
  • That’s not true either. Instead, the high level of reserves simply reflects the fact that the Fed has been a busy beaver, expanding its balance sheet by making loans and buying securities (i.e., credit easing). Banks might be hoarding or they might not; excess reserves don’t shed any light on the question.
  • Viewers who are interested in these issues should check out a recent paper from the New York Federal Reserve, which does a great job of explaining each of these issues.

I didn’t manage to get all of that into the interview, of course, but I tried to hit some of the high points.

Sub-Debt = Senior Debt?

I was flipping through a report from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) recently (ht Torsten Slok) and came across this fascinating six-pack of charts:

BIS Debt Spreads

The charts show how much banks have had to pay in interest on their senior, subordinated, and guaranteed debt, relative to the interest rates of comparable government bonds. For example, the chart shows that banks in the United Kingdom have recently had to pay about 250 basis points (i.e., 2.5 percentage points) more on their senior debt than the UK government pays on its debt.

There are many interesting stories spread across these charts. For example, the red lines suggest that the first wave of investors in guaranteed bank debt in the United States and France did well for themselves (since the decline in yields implies an increase in bond prices).

But the thing that really caught my eye was the behavior of the senior debt (green) and sub-debt (blue) lines. In the five European countries, you see what you might expect: the sub-debt trades at a higher spread than the senior debt. That makes sense, since the sub-debt faces greater risk of losses. Investors demand compensation — a higher yield — for bearing that risk.

And then there’s the United States.

Continue reading “Sub-Debt = Senior Debt?”

Why Are Banks Holding So Many Excess Reserves?

That’s the question posed by a recent staff report from Todd Keister and James McAndrews at the New York Federal Reserve.

Their answer? Because the Federal Reserve has been really, really busy.

Keister and McAndrews begin their analysis by documenting the remarkable increase in excess reserves since the fall of Lehman:

Since September 2008, the quantity of reserves in the U.S. banking system has grown dramatically, as shown in Figure 1. Prior to the onset of the financial crisis, required reserves were about $40 billion and excess reserves were roughly $1.5 billion. Excess reserves spiked to around $9 billion in August 2007, but then quickly returned to pre-crisis levels and remained there until the middle of September 2008. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, however, total reserves began to grow rapidly, climbing above $900 billion by January 2009. As the figure shows, almost all of the increase was in excess reserves. While required reserves rose from $44 billion to $60 billion over this period, this change was dwarfed by the large and unprecedented rise in excess reserves.

Excess ReservesSome observers have expressed two concerns about the spike in excess reserves:

Continue reading “Why Are Banks Holding So Many Excess Reserves?”

Citigroup & Efficient Markets

The Citigroup pricing anomaly may be in its final days (earlier posts here and here).

Investors must submit their offers to exchange preferred shares for common shares by this Friday (which may require contacting your broker several days earlier). The common shares will then be delivered to investors on July 30.

The pricing gap between the common and preferred shares remains large (about 10% at the close on Monday), but has narrowed as the exchange date has drawn near.

It thus seems an appropriate time to reflect on what, if anything, the Citigroup anomaly illustrates about economics and finance more broadly. Happily, this week’s Economist carries a quote from Dick Thaler (previously quoted in my post about Catherine Zeta-Jones) that summarizes the lesson perfectly:

Mr Thaler concedes that in some ways the events of the past couple of years have strengthened the [Efficient Markets Hypothesis]. The hypothesis has two parts, he says: the “no-free-lunch part and the price-is-right part, and if anything the first part has been strengthened as we have learned that some investment strategies are riskier than they look and it really is difficult to beat the market.” The idea that the market price is the right price, however, has been badly dented.

To me, the Citigroup anomaly illustrates the strength of the “no-free-lunch” part of the EMH, and the limitations of the “price-is-right” part.  Continue reading “Citigroup & Efficient Markets”

Beyond the $23.7 Trillion Headline

Neil Barofsky, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (affectionately known as SIGTARP), is making headlines with his estimate that the government has provided “potential support totaling more than $23.7 trillion” in fighting the financial crisis. That estimate will be officially released on Tuesday morning in the SIGTARP’s latest quarterly report (you can find an early copy here – ht WSJ).


As the media are already noting (e.g., WSJ and Yahoo), there are many reasons to believe that the $23.7 trillion figure is overstated. For example, as noted in the footnote to the table above, the figure “may include overlapping agency liabilities … and unfunded initiatives [and] … does not account for collateral pledged.” In other words, there may be double-counting, some of the programs won’t happen or are already winding down, and the estimates assume that any collateral is worthless. For example, to get to $5.5 trillion in potential losses on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (part of the $7.2 trillion Other category), you would have to assume that all GSE-backed mortgages default and that all houses backing them are worthless.

In short, the SIGTARP estimate is a way upper-bound on likely Federal support to the financial support. That fact shouldn’t detract, however, from the importance of the rest of this report.

Continue reading “Beyond the $23.7 Trillion Headline”

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”

The Citigroup Repo

As I’ve noted in a series of posts (here’s the most recent), there’s an anomaly in the pricing of Citigroup securities. Several issues of Citi’s preferred stock are scheduled to convert into common by the end of the month. Yet the common stock has been trading at a significant premium to the preferred in recent months. As I type this, for example, the common is trading at roughly a 14% premium to the preferred common, even though the conversion is just a few weeks away.

As best I can tell, the only explanation for this pricing anomaly is that Citigroup common stock is very difficult to sell short. So arbitrageurs can’t bid the spread down to levels that would be normal for such a deal.

This anomaly intrigues me for two reasons. First, it appears to be a blatant rejection of strong versions of the efficient markets hypothesis. However, as I will discuss in a later post, the market for Citigroup securities is actually ruthlessly efficient in many ways. As a result, it’s extremely difficult to profit from the anomaly. Sharp financial types have already bid other prices — most notably those for Citi options — to a level where obvious profit opportunities don’t exist.

Second, the anomaly is a big dangling carrot for big-money types to get creative. Markets always try to find ways around imperfections like the limits on short-selling. So I’ve been wondering what creativity would come out of the woodwork. Well, today I got an answer.

Continue reading “The Citigroup Repo”

Citigroup & Berkshire Anomalies

Summary: Both Citigroup and Berkshire Hathaway continue to violate the law of one price.


In previous posts (this is the most recent), I’ve pointed out that there are three ways you can purchase common shares of Citigroup:

Simple: Buy shares of common stock.

Preferred: Buy shares of preferred stock that will convert into common.

Synthetic: Use call and put options to replicate the financial returns of owning common stock.

In a perfect world, these three approaches would give nearly identical prices. That’s the law of one price.

Over the past few months, however, Citi securities have been breaking that law. Investors who have been buying common shares have been significantly overpaying relative to the values implied by the prices of the preferred stock and options.

Continue reading “Citigroup & Berkshire Anomalies”