How Fast Does the Stock Market Forget False News? About Seven Days

The New York Federal Reserve just posted an entertaining analysis of an “Internet blooper” that struck UAL, the parent company of United Airlines a few years ago. As authors Carlos Carvalho, Nicholas Klagge, and Emanuel Moench note in a blog post:

On September 8, 2008, a six-year-old article about the 2002 bankruptcy of United Airlines’ parent company resurfaced on the Internet and was mistakenly believed to be reporting a new bankruptcy filing by the company. This episode caused the company’s stock price to drop by as much as 76 percent in just a few minutes, before NASDAQ halted trading. After the “news” had been identified as false, the stock price rebounded, but still ended the day 11.2 percent below the previous close. Trading volumes skyrocketed during these extreme price movements. In subsequent days, the stock traded as much as 17 percent below its September 8 closing price, and on September 15 it finally traded above the price level seen just before the false news impacted the market.

In short, it took a week for the stock market to flush the “blooper” out of its system.

They then confirm that result using much more sophisticated techniques that allow them to estimate what UAL’s stock price would have been absent the false news:

For bonus points, they also find that similar, but smaller effects on the stock prices of other major airlines.

ht: Paul Kedrosky.

Playing with Fire with the Debt Limit

My latest column in the Christian Science Monitor:

America sometimes takes its exceptionalism too far.

Case in point: We are the only major economy that talks openly of default.

Government debt has ballooned throughout the developed world in the aftermath of the Great Recession. France and Britain are as deep in debt as the United States, for example, and Japan is much further in the hole.

But their leaders never mention the possibility of default. Why would they? If you have the ability to pay your bills, there’s no reason to scare your creditors.

But that’s exactly what we do in America. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been warning about the risks of default since January.

If we don’t increase the debt limit by early August, he tells us, default becomes a real possibility. And that could pose grievous risks to our already weak economy.

Many Republicans play down that risk. Echoing famed investor Stanley Druckenmiller, some argue that a temporary default would be acceptable if it’s part of a larger political strategy that brings future deficits under control.

But that is a dangerous game.

Large swaths of America’s financial infrastructure have been built on the assumption that US Treasuries pay on time. And financial markets would likely punish the US with higher interest rates if we defaulted. That’s what happened in 1979, for example, when back office snafus caused Treasury to unintentionally miss payments to some investors.

This time, Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poors are threatening to cut the US credit rating if we choose to default. Given the risks, most observers recognize that default is not, and should not be, an option. The US is not a deadbeat nation.

But does that mean the debt limit has to go up in early August? Some Republicans say no because of a simple fact: Every month, the federal government collects more in taxes than it pays in interest. With careful cash management (which would likely have to start before the August deadline), Mr. Geithner should be able to prioritize debt payments and thus avoid debt default.

As best as I can tell, that argument is correct, but it’s hardly a reason for complacency. America is currently spending about $100 billion more each month than it collects in revenues. If we hit the debt limit, we won’t be able to pay everyone who is rightly expecting to be paid.

Geithner can and should ensure that our debtholders get paid.

But someone – perhaps millions of someones – won’t be paid on time. Contractors, federal workers, program beneficiaries, or state and local governments will suddenly find themselves short on their cash flow.

That won’t be good for the economy. Even though it’s not as bad as debt default, it still would paint the US as a deadbeat.

The US faces severe fiscal challenges in the years ahead. It’s perfectly reasonable that lawmakers want to combine an increase in the debt limit with efforts to rein in future deficits.

But that worthy goal should not weaken our commitment to paying – on time and in full – the obligations that we have already incurred.

As the debt limit draws near, our leaders should stop playing with fire and craft instead a plan to rein in future deficits without threatening our struggling recovery.

That’s a difficult balancing act, requiring tough compromises across the political spectrum. But as everybody knows on Capitol Hill and beyond, it would be the best step for the nation and our fragile economy.

It would also be exceptional.

Europe and the Financial Crisis

Over the New York Times Magazine, Paul Krugman has today’s must-read economics article on the fate of Europe. (Today’s in the physical world; it’s been up electronically for several days.)

Krugman walks through various ways that struggling Eurozone members might adjust to their ongoing financial crisis.

Along the way, he emphasizes a key point: American housing and mortgage markets were not the only cause of the global crisis:

You still hear people talking about the global economic crisis of 2008 as if it were something made in America. But Europe deserves equal billing. This was, if you like, a North Atlantic crisis, with not much to choose between the messes of the Old World and the New. We had our subprime borrowers, who either chose to take on or were misled into taking on mortgages too big for their incomes; they had their peripheral economies, which similarly borrowed much more than they could really afford to pay back. In both cases, real estate bubbles temporarily masked the underlying unsustainability of the borrowing: as long as housing prices kept rising, borrowers could always pay back previous loans with more money borrowed against their properties. Sooner or later, however, the music would stop. Both sides of the Atlantic were accidents waiting to happen.


Federal Reserve Earned $81 Billion in 2010

The Federal Reserve system is doing its part to cut the budget deficit. The central bank earned $81 billion in fiscal 2010, of which a bit more than $78 billion will be remitted to the Treasury. That’s $31 billion more than last year.

According to the Fed’s news release yesterday, the following items drove profits:

$76.2 billion in income on securities acquired through open market operations (federal agency and government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) mortgage-backed securities, U.S. Treasury securities, and GSE debt securities) [In short, the Fed is making money on its “quantitative easing” / “credit easing” activities. At least for now.];

$7.1 billion in net income from consolidated limited liability companies (LLCs), which were created in response to the financial crisis [Profits on the Maiden Lane partnerships, etc.];

$2.1 billion in interest income from credit extended to American International Group, Inc.;

$1.3 billion of dividends on preferred interests in AIA Aurora LLC and ALICO Holdings LLC [also related to AIG]; and

$0.8 billion in interest income on loans extended under the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) and loans to depository institutions.

Additional earnings were derived primarily from revenue of $0.6 billion from the provision of priced services to depository institutions.

Those $88 billion in gross earnings were slightly offset by the following expenses:

$2.7 billion [of interest expense] on depository institutions’ reserve balances and term deposits;

[$4.3 billion] of operating expenses of the Reserve Banks, including $1.0 billion for Board expenditures and the cost of new currency.

The resulting $81 billion in net profits were then distributed as follows: $78.4 billion to the Treasury, $1.6 billion as dividends to member banks, and $0.6 billion retained to “equate surplus with paid-in capital.”

CBO Weighs in on Fannie and Freddie

Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released its long-awaited report on the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Role in the Secondary Mortgage Market (written by Deborah Lucas and David Torregrosa, with input from a cast of dozens — including, full disclosure, me as an outside reviewer) provides an outstanding overview of Fannie and Freddie’s history, the arguments for and against a government role in the secondary mortgage market, the flaws of the precrisis structure of Fannie and Freddie, and the pros and cons of possible reform models.

Readers may recall that last spring Phill Swagel and I proposed a reform in which Fannie and Freddie would be privatized, the government would sell guarantees on mortgage-backed securities composed of conforming loans, and that this guarantee would be available not only to Fannie and Freddie but also to qualified new entrants. (Here’s the blog version; here’s the full paper.)

CBO provides a thoughtful overview of such hybrid models:

A Hybrid Public/Private Model

Many proposals for the secondary mortgage market involve a hybrid approach with a combination of private for-profit or nonprofit entities and federal guarantees on qualifying MBSs. At its core, the hybrid public/private approach would preserve many features of the way in which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have operated, with federal guarantees (combined with private capital and private mortgage insurance) protecting investors against credit risk on qualifying mortgages. However, most hybrid proposals would differ from the precrisis operations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in several important ways: A possibly different set of private intermediaries would participate in securitizing mortgages backed by federal credit guarantees, the guarantees would be explicit rather than implicit, and their subsidy cost would be recorded in the federal budget.14 As the public-utility and competitive market-maker models illustrate, a hybrid approach could be implemented in a way that involved more or less federal regulation of participants in the secondary market and a smaller or larger number of competitors in that market.

Advantages of a Hybrid Approach

Regardless of its exact design, a hybrid model with explicit federal backing for qualifying privately issued MBSs would have several advantages over the precrisis model, as well as over either a fully federal agency or complete privatization (approaches that are discussed below). An explicit federal guarantee would help maintain liquidity in the secondary mortgage market, in normal times and particularly in times of stress, and could retain the standardization of products offered to investors that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bring to that market. Compared with the precrisis model, imposing guarantee fees would ensure that taxpayers received some compensation for the risks they were assuming.

Compared with a fully federal agency, a hybrid approach would lessen the problem of putting a large portion of the capital market under government control, encourage the inflow of private capital to the secondary market, and limit the costs and risks to taxpayers by having private capital absorb some or most losses. Putting private capital at risk would also provide incentives for prudent management and pricing of risk.

Compared with a fully private market, hybrid proposals would give the government more ongoing influence over the secondary market and an explicit liability in the case of large mortgage losses that would be reflected in the budget. That arrangement might have the advantage of leading to a more orderly handling of crisis situations.

Disadvantages of a Hybrid Approach

Relative to other approaches, a public/private model has a number of potential drawbacks, the importance of which differs depending in part on the specific design chosen. Experience with other federal insurance and credit programs suggests that the government would have trouble setting risk-sensitive prices for guarantees and probably would shift some risks to taxpayers. A hybrid approach also might not eliminate the tensions that exist—with regard to risk management and pursuit of affordable housing goals—between serving private shareholders and carrying out public missions.

Another concern is that over time, the secondary-market entities might push for broader guarantees of their product lines and attempt to reestablish themselves as too-big-to-fail institutions backed by implicit federal guarantees. Consequently, regulators would need to be vigilant to control risks to the financial system and avoid regulatory capture, while also being open to market innovations.

A Second Thought on the Cost of TARP

Two commenters (Jack B. and John L.) raise an important point about the $25 billion price tag that the Congressional Budget Office recently placed on the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Their concern is that the $25 billion figure includes some impacts that should rightfully be attributed to other government actions, not to TARP itself.

To illustrate, suppose that Treasury used TARP to buy $10 of preferred stock in Bank X in 2008 and that a year later Treasury sold its position for $12, including accrued dividends. This investment would be recorded as achieving a $2 profit in TARP (subject to one technical caveat, see below).

That’s the normal way of calculating profit on an investment, and is what CBO was instructed to do for its part of TARP oversight. But as Jack and John point out, there’s an important complication here. During the year, the federal government undertook many other policy actions which may have boosted the value of Bank X (remember all the new acronyms?). From the perspective of policy evaluation, some or all of the $2 gain should be attributed to those other policies, not TARP.

It could be, for example, that absent further action, Bank X would have struggled, leaving Treasury with stock worth only $6. Other government actions, however, breathed enough life into the company (or, at least, boosted the value of its assets) that the stock ultimately became worth $12.

In that case, you could argue that TARP, by itself, resulted in a $4 loss, while the other government actions created a $6 gain. That puts the budgetary impacts of TARP in a different light: a 40% loss versus a 20% gain in this example.

Of course, you could also argue that the $6 gain was only possible because of the TARP ownership stake. There’s certainly an element of truth to that. But the basic concern still applies: the $2 gain in this example reflects both TARP and subsequent government actions, not just TARP alone. That’s an essential point when trying to evaluate these policies after the fact, and we commenters should keep that in mind when interpreting CBO’s findings.

And that’s not all. The other government actions may also have imposed additional direct or indirect costs on the federal budget. As a result, the $2 gain in this example may be offset (or more) by other costs that aren’t included in the calculation.

Bottom line: One reason that TARP appears much less expensive than originally predicted is that many of its investments benefitted from other government actions whose costs show up elsewhere in the budget.

Caveat: CBO’s methodology actually judges the profitability of investments relative to benchmark rates of return. The details are surprisingly complex, but just for purposes of illustration, suppose that the appropriate benchmark rate of return for investing in Bank X was 10%. If Treasury sold the stock for $11 after one year, CBO would deem that as breaking even. If it sold it for $12, that would be a $1 profit.

How Much Did TARP Cost? $25 Billion

The much-maligned TARP program will cost taxpayers only $25 billion according to the latest estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. That’s substantially less than the $66 billion CBO estimated back in August or the $113 billion that the Office of Management and Budget estimated in October.

The good news, budget-wise, is that the government is on track to make about $22 billion on its assistance to banks.

However, CBO estimates that TARP’s other activities will cost $47 billion. This reflects aid to AIG ($14 billion), the auto industry ($19 billion), mortgage programs ($12), and a few smaller programs ($2 billion).

Positive Feedback and the Flash Crash

The CFTC and SEC staffs are out with their analysis of the May 6 “flash crash.”

Short version: A large trader (identified by the media as Waddell & Reed) initiated a large sell order to be executed based on volume, not time or price. The initial selling boosted trading volumes which prompted the algorithm to sell even faster. That positive feedback then spawned the short-lived crash.

The whole report is worth a skim for the details about market functioning, but if you are pressed for time here’s the key part of the Executive Summary (with my emphasis added and footnotes deleted):

At 2:32 p.m., against this backdrop of unusually high volatility and thinning liquidity, a large fundamental trader (a mutual fund complex]) initiated a sell program to sell a total of 75,000 E-Mini contracts (valued at approximately $4.1 billion) as a hedge to an existing equity position.

This large fundamental trader chose to execute this sell program via an automated execution algorithm (“Sell Algorithm”) that was programmed to feed orders into the June 2010 E-Mini market to target an execution rate set to 9% of the trading volume calculated over the previous minute, but without regard to price or time.

The execution of this sell program resulted in the largest net change in daily position of any trader in the E-Mini since the beginning of the year (from January 1, 2010 through May 6, 2010). Only two single-day sell programs of equal or larger size – one of which was by the same large fundamental trader – were executed in the E-Mini in the 12 months prior to May 6. When executing the previous sell program, this large fundamental trader utilized a combination of manual trading entered over the course of a day and several automated execution algorithms which took into account price, time, and volume. On that occasion it took more than 5 hours for this large trader to execute the first 75,000 contracts of a large sell program.

However, on May 6, when markets were already under stress, the Sell Algorithm chosen by the large trader to only target trading volume, and neither price nor time, executed the sell program extremely rapidly in just 20 minutes.

This sell pressure was initially absorbed by:

• high frequency traders (“HFTs”) and other intermediaries in the futures market;

• fundamental buyers in the futures market; and

• cross-market arbitrageurs who transferred this sell pressure to the equities markets by opportunistically buying E-Mini contracts and simultaneously selling products like SPY, or selling individual equities in the S&P 500 Index.

HFTs and intermediaries were the likely buyers of the initial batch of orders submitted by the Sell Algorithm, and, as a result, these buyers built up temporary long positions. Specifically, HFTs accumulated a net long position of about 3,300 contracts. However, between 2:41 p.m. and 2:44 p.m., HFTs aggressively sold about 2,000 E-Mini contracts in order to reduce their temporary long positions. At the same time, HFTs traded nearly 140,000 E-Mini contracts or over 33% of the total trading volume. This is consistent with the HFTs’ typical practice of trading a very large number of contracts, but not accumulating an aggregate inventory beyond three to four thousand contracts in either direction.

The Sell Algorithm used by the large trader responded to the increased volume by increasing the rate at which it was feeding the orders into the market, even though orders that it already sent to the market were arguably not yet fully absorbed by fundamental buyers or cross-market arbitrageurs. In fact, especially in times of significant volatility, high trading volume is not necessarily a reliable indicator of market liquidity.

What happened next is best described in terms of two liquidity crises – one at the broad index level in the E-Mini, the other with respect to individual stocks.

For more, click on over to the report.

Another Observation on the Yield Curve

As a follow-up to my recent post about recessions and the yield curve, reader Joan F. points us to a piece by the FT’s James Mackintosh. The money quote:

[T]hose keeping faith in recovery also point to the fact that the yield curve has not inverted – 10-year bonds still yield 2 percentage points more than two-year bonds. Given that the 10-year yield has dropped below the two-year (and the three-month) before every recession since the second world war, perhaps a double dip is not looming.

Unfortunately, a quick glance at Japan suggests that once short-term rates hit the floor, the yield curve may no longer be a valuable indicator. While it warned of the recession that followed the bursting of Japan’s bubble, it missed the three recessions since.

The Yield Spread and the Odds of Recession

Worries about a double-dip recession have spawned much economic commentary … and a humorous country and western song. So how likely is a return to recession?

Researchers at the San Francisco Fed took a crack at this question a few weeks ago. Their answer? It depends.

When they used a traditional model based on the leading economic indicators, the probability of a second dip turned out to be about 25% over the next two years (the blue line). When they dropped one indicator from their model, that probability doubled to about 50% (the red line).

That important indicator is the yield spread–the difference between the 10-year Treasury interest rate and federal funds rate. In recent decades, the yield spread has done a terrific job at anticipating recessions. When the federal funds rate has risen above the 10-year rate, the economy has invariably fallen into recession.

As I noted briefly the other day, the relative steepness of today’s yield curve (10-year rate about 2.5 percentage points above the fed funds rate) thus suggests, by itself, that renewed recession is unlikely, despite recent weak economic data. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that this time things are different (usually a scary phrase). After all, fed funds rate has been pushed down almost to zero and yet the economy no longer appears to be responding. That’s exactly the logic that inspired the SF Fed researchers to try their model without the yield spread.