Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On the making and the unmaking of the Paradox of Deleveraging

Paul McCulley, Managing Director of PIMCO, the world's largest bond trading company yada yada yada, provides a highly useful public service by sharing his views on and understanding of the state and structure of the economy in words that are, for the most part, accessible to the feeble mind of a Guambat. The price of the education is to simply click on PIMCO's Content Archive and have a read. It's really good stuff, man.

Back in July of this year, he told us about the Paradox of Thrift, which is that what is good for the gooses is not always good for the geese. And currently, he takes a gander at the Paradox of Leveraging and a solution to it. Both of these, and especially when read together, have helped Guambat to experience a bit of perception of understanding the current financial crisis in the much larger context of both its making and its rehabilitation.

Guambat is likely to make a hash of the explanations, so you ought to read them in their entirety from the source, but here are some extracts that Guambat hopes will enlighten you if you are not inclined to click away, and then hopefully entice you to click anyway.

The Paradox of Deleveraging

For those of you who might not recall, the paradox of thrift posits that if we all individually cut our spending in an attempt to increase individual savings, then our collective savings will paradoxically fall because one person’s spending is another’s income – the fountain from which savings flow.

This principle is part of a whole range of macroeconomic concepts under the label of the paradox of aggregation: what holds for the individual doesn’t necessarily hold for the community of individuals. Understanding this paradox is absolutely vital to understanding macroeconomics and even more so to understanding what is presently unfolding in global financial markets.

[E]very levered financial institution – banks and shadow banks alike – decided individually that it was time to delever their balance sheets. At the individual level, that made perfect sense.

At the collective level, however, it has given us the paradox of deleveraging:... not all levered lenders can shed assets and the associated debt at the same time without driving down asset prices, which has the paradoxical impact of increasing leverage by driving down lenders’ net worth.

[M]onetary easing is of limited value in breaking the paradox of deleveraging if levered lenders are collectively destroying their collective net worth. What is needed instead is for somebody to lever up and take on the assets being shed by those deleveraging. It really is that simple.

As Keynes taught us long ago, that somebody is the same somebody that needs to step up spending to break the paradox of thrift: the federal government, which needs to lever up its balance sheet to absorb assets being shed through private sector delevering, so as to avoid pernicious asset deflation.

But levering up Uncle Sam’s balance sheet, to buy assets to break asset deflation resulting from the paradox of deleveraging still seems to be a foreign, if not a sinful proposition. [W]e hear endlessly that any levering up of Uncle Sam’s balance sheet to buy assets must be done in a way that “protects tax payers.” By definition, levering Uncle Sam’s balance sheet to buy or guarantee assets to temper asset deflation will put the taxpayer at risk – but will do so for their own collective good!

Conventional wisdom holds that when an economy faces a paradox of private thrift, it is appropriate for the sovereign to go the other way, borrowing money to spend directly or to cut taxes, taking up the aggregate demand slack. Indeed, that is precisely what Congress did earlier this year, sending out $100+ billion of rebate checks, funded with increased issuance of Treasury debt. Good ole fashioned Keynesian stuff!

Concurrently, conventional wisdom is struggling mightily with the notion that when the financial system is suffering from a paradox of deleveraging, the sovereign should lever up to buy or backstop deflating assets. But analytically, there is no difference: both the paradox of thrift and the paradox of deleveraging can be broken only by the sovereign going the other way.

The Paradox of Deleveraging Will Be Broken
[W]hat ailed Lehman was but a manifestation of what ailed, and ails the global financial intermediary system: the presumption that grossly levered positions in illiquid assets can always be funded, because those doing the funding will always assume the borrower is a going concern.

I submit, it was the loss of understanding of first principles that lies at the heart of the on-going paradox of deleveraging, which is the proximate cause of the on-going downward spiral of asset and debt deflation.

[T]he genius of banking, if you want to call it that, is simple: a bank can take more risk on the asset side of its balance sheet than the liability side can notionally support, because a goodly portion of the liability side, notably deposits, is de facto of perpetual maturity, although it is notionally of finite maturity, as short as one day in the case of demand deposits.

It’s the same alchemy that permits mutual funds to commit to next-day redemption at tonight’s NAV, even though all reasonable people know that a mutual fund – with the possible exception of a money market fund – could not possibly liquidate all assets on the wire tomorrow at tonight’s NAV marks. Systemically, it’s the illusion of liquidity, as so elegantly described by John Maynard Keynes:
"[T]he fact that each individual investor flatters himself that his commitment is ‘liquid’ (though this cannot be true for all investors collectively) calms his nerves and makes him much more willing to run a risk. If individual purchases of investments were rendered illiquid, this might seriously impede new investment, so long as alternative ways in which to hold his savings are available to the individual. This is the dilemma.

So long as it is open to the individual to employ his wealth in hoarding or lending money, the alternative of purchasing actual capital assets cannot be rendered sufficiently attractive (especially to the man who does not manage the capital assets and knows very little about them), except by organizing markets wherein these assets can be easily realized for money.”
Yes, liquidity for all at last night’s marks is an illusion. But for banks, unlike mutual funds, it’s not so much an illusion after all, for two simple reasons: banks have access to deposit insurance underwritten by fiscal authorities and to a discount window underwritten by the monetary authority (and one step removed, the fiscal authority). Thus, banks are unique institutions, providing a “public good:”
* Liquidity on demand at par for their depositors, because of the safety net underwritten by the sovereign, yet
* The ability to invest in longer-dated, more risky, not-always-at-par loans and securities, because the existence and credibility of the public safety net systemically renders the public’s ex post demand for liquidity at par below the public’s ex ante demand.
[A]nd since the sovereign providing the liquidity safety net is a de facto equity partner in the business, the sovereign quite rationally wants a say in how the business is run – the degree of leverage, corporate governance, risk management controls, etc. Kinda like I do when I pay the insurance premium on my 19-year old son’s car. Jonnie doesn’t like it, and neither do bankers.

Thus, both bankers and would-be bankers have, from time immemorial, sought to get the benefits of the sovereign’s liquidity safety net without shouldering the associated regulator nuisance.

Over the last three decades or so, the growth of “banking” outside formal, sovereign-regulated banking, has exploded, in something that I dubbed the Shadow Banking System. Loosely defined, a Shadow Bank is a levered-up financial intermediary whose liabilities are broadly perceived as of similar money-goodness and liquidity as conventional bank deposits. These liabilities could be shares of money market mutual funds; or the commercial paper of Finance Companies, Conduits and Structured Investment Vehicles; or the repo borrowings of stand-alone Investment Banks and Hedge Funds; or the senior tranches of Collateralized Debt Obligations; or a host of other similar funding instruments.

The bottom line is simple: Shadow Banks use funding instruments that are not just as good as old-fashioned sovereign-protected deposits. But it was a great gig so long as the public bought the notion that such funding instruments were “just as good” as bank deposits – more leverage, less regulation and more asset freedom were a path to (much) higher returns on equity in Shadow Banks than conventional banks.

And why did the public buy such instruments as though they were “just as good” as bank deposits? There are a host of reasons, not the least of which was lust for yield. But most fundamentally, Keynes again gives us the systemic answer (his italics, not mine):
“In practice we have tacitly agreed, as a rule, to fall back on what is, in truth, a convention. The essence of this convention – though it does not, of course, work out quite so simply – lies in assuming that the existing state of affairs will continue indefinitely, except in so far as we have specific reasons to expect a change. This does not mean that we really believe that the existing state of affairs will continue indefinitely. We know from extensive experience that this is most unlikely.

We are assuming, in effect, that the existing market valuation, however arrived at, is uniquely correct in relation to our existing knowledge of the facts which will influence the yield of the investment, and that it will only change in proportion to changes in this knowledge; though, philosophically speaking, it cannot be uniquely correct, since our existing knowledge does not provide a sufficient basis for a calculated mathematical expectation. In point of fact, all sorts of considerations enter into the market valuations which are in no way relevant to the prospective yield. Nevertheless the above conventional method of calculation will be compatible with a considerable measure of continuity and stability in our affairs, so long as we can rely on the maintenance of the convention.

For if there exist organized investment markets and if we can rely on the maintenance of the convention, an investor can legitimately encourage himself with the idea that the only risk he runs is that of a genuine change in the news over the near future, as to the likelihood of which he can attempt to form his own judgment, and which is unlikely to be very large. For, assuming that the convention holds good, it is only these changes which can affect the value of his investment, and he need not lose his sleep merely because he has not any notion what his investment will be worth ten years hence.
Thus investment becomes reasonably “safe” for the individual investor over short periods, and hence over a succession of short periods however many, if he can fairly rely on there being no breakdown in the convention and on his therefore having an opportunity to revise his judgment and change his investment, before there has been time for much to happen. Investments which are “fixed” for the community are thus made “liquid” for the individual."
And so, Keynes provides the essential – and existential – answer as to why the Shadow Banking System became so large, the unraveling of which lies at the root of the current global financial system crisis. It was a belief in a convention, undergirded by the length of time it held: Shadow Bank liabilities were viewed as “just as good” as conventional bank deposits not because they are, but because they had been. And the power of this conventional thinking was aided and abetted by both the sovereign and the sovereign-blessed rating agencies.

Until, of course, convention was turned on its head, starting with a run on the ABCP market in August 2007, the near death of Bear Stearns in March 2008, the de facto nationalization of Fannie and Freddie in July, and the actual death of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Maybe, just maybe, there was and is something special about a real bank, as opposed to a Shadow Bank!

And indeed that is unambiguously the case, as evidenced by the on-going partial re-intermediation of the Shadow Banking System back into the sovereign-supported conventional banking system, as well as the mad scramble by remaining Shadow Banks to convert themselves into conventional banks, so as to eat at the same sovereign-subsidized capital and liquidity cafeteria as their former stodgy brethren.

The new conventional wisdom: levered capitalism is good, and made even better with a bit of socialism to protect the downside.

Like most of us, I’ve always had a separation in my mind between strictly capitalist activities and strictly public activities. Not that the demarcation is always clean. But it’s a useful way of thinking.

But you get the point: there is private enterprise and there is public enterprise. And then there is banking, a hybrid of the two. There is no way ‘round this, for good or bad, because fractional reserve banking depends upon the sovereign’s safety net against liability runs, a safety net that the private sector definitionally can’t universally supply. In this sense, the safety net is like national defense: we all need it, but since nobody individually has the incentive to pay for it, we collectively tax ourselves to pay for it.

[We] are now caught in the debt-deflationary pathologies of “the paradox of deleveraging.”6 Not everybody in the private sector can delever at the same time without creating a depression. Accordingly, the sovereign must go the other way, levering up the public balance sheet. And Washington has finally started to do so with appropriate vigor and enthusiasm.

It’s not a pretty picture. In fact, it’s repugnant, giving proof to the proposition that breaking the paradox of deleveraging does involve socializing the downside of previously profitable private sector activities.

If the sovereign must backstop a private sector activity that produces a public good, then the sovereign will, at least in a democracy, rightfully demand both bottom-up and macro-prudential rules to harness the greed that lubricates the invisible hand of capitalism.

Capitalism, and especially financial market capitalism, brought this outcome upon itself through greed and hubris. Capitalism is now re-grouping and learning how to play by new rules, which are still being written. And ultimately, I’m sure, capitalistic bankers will once again bend those rules in the pursuit of higher profitability. And that’s okay, I think. In the end, we really don’t want to turn our banking system into the [state Department of Motor Vehicles]. At the same time, we also don’t want our banking system to be nothing more than a betting parlor.

Or, in the famous words of Keynes again:
"When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.”

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