Wednesday, June 24, 2015

THE FED | Moral Hazard

Paul Volcker
Wall Street on Parade in recent years has been playing the role that the Pecora Committee played in 1933.

Ferdinand Pecora was hired as general counsel to the Senate Banking Committee to investigate the causes of the 1929 Crash. His hearings in 1933 revealed many practices that tilted the financial marketplace against small investors. He laid the groundwork of public opinion to ensure passage of the Securities Acts of 1933 and 1934.

In the process, the testimony that Pecora extracted injured the reputations of many Wall Street leaders and their friends. Some practices were illegal. Others were attacked with the benefit of hindsight, in the new light of the Crash of 1929. What seemed normal in 1929 had become unethical or unfair... and with the new laws would become illegal.

Today's installment of Wall Street on Parade by Pam Martens and Russ Martens looks at the Latin American financial crisis of the early 1980s and cites from the transcript of the FOMC meeting of June 30, 1982 to examine why the Fed approved a loan to Mexico of $700 million. Mexico owed U.S. banks $21.5 billion. The Fed bailed out Mexico to bail out the banks that had loaned money to Mexico.

In an interview published in the fall of 2013, Harvard Professor Martin Feldstein asked former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker whether the high interest rates of the early 1980s caused debt problems in emerging economies. Volcker responded that U.S. bank loans were of great concern to his predecessor as Fed Chairman in the 1970s:
Arthur Burns, to his credit, was the Paul Revere on this thing. He'd go around and make speeches: "This can't continue. ... We've got to do something about it." The borrowing continued until the winter [1981-82] when a couple of banks stopped lending. Mexico ran out of money. What do you do? [my emphasis]... The big US banks and some of the big foreign banks had more exposure to Latin America than they had capital. It wasn't something you could just say: "Okay, knock off the loans by 50 percent or something and everybody will be happy." They all would have been bust. You look for other approaches, and it took nearly a decade until Mr. Brady [Nicholas Brady, Treasury Secretary, 1988-1993] came along and settled them [Brady bonds replaced Latin American debt, paying lower rates or reducing the face value, but with greater certainty of repayment].  (Martin Feldstein, "An Interview with Paul Volcker, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27:4, Fall 2013, pp. 112-113.)
Wall Street on Parade argues that the too-big-to-fail attitude, on view in 1982, was behind the Fed and Treasury response to the financial crisis of 2007-2009.

These issues go back to the earliest years of the Fed. Founded in 1913, the Fed published a statement of its policy intentions in 1924, in its Tenth Annual Report in 1924. It announced that it would seek to encourage "productive" loans and discourage "speculative" ones. As loans to purchase securities rose the following year, the Fed tightened money. Benjamin Strong in 1927 complained about the tightening. Concerns about productive lending were shelved that year in favor of expansionary monetary policy - the Fed purchased government securities to add to liquidity.

When the Fed tightened again in 1928, it created the disastrous crisis of 1929-30, and the expansion of 1927 was viewed as the root cause. When banks started to fail, the Fed often refused to lend to them. Not until April 1932 did it expand the money supply, and this ended by August. Julio Rotemberg, "Shifts in US Federal Reserve Goals and Tactics for Monetary Policy: A Role for Penitence?", Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27:4, Fall 2013, 67-69.

Thus a "too-big-to-fail" attitude emerged from the panics caused by a tough line on the banks in 1929-32, which was motivated by a reaction to the expansion of 1927. The "too-big-to-fail" idea creates moral hazard, as Wall Street on Parade notes. As long as that is not addressed, speculative lending will grow and the global financial structure remains shaky.