Monday, August 24, 2009

Green shoots, what green shoots?

Hopes of a quick recovery in the world economy are overblown. Emerging markets may bounce back but the advanced economies are mired in problems, especially the US. Nouriel Roubini thinks the chances of a double-dip recession are rising. He gives several reasons for this, including the damage to the US financial system and the failure to revive it. He also thinks the rise in oil prices, driven by excess liquidity, may well stymie a quick recovery.

The Obama administration has ducked the banking challenge, I argue in EPW. Not only is there no quick solution to the present crisis, I am increasingly sceptical about long-term proposals for reform after seeing the US treasury proposals. We have a serious problem of government capture by the financial system in the US. The proposals do not tackle the too big to fail problem, they do are not tough enough on bank compensation and it is unlikely that rules for bank capital will be stringent enough, as and when they emerge in the US. We probably need another serious crisis for banking reform to take place.

Meanwhile, China has circulated draft proposals for increasing bank capital to 12%. We in India should do likewise. We have a golden opportunity to create an even stronger, more competitive banking system in the near five years as the international banks struggle to get out of the present mess.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Let's put a cap on the size of banks

Large, complex financial institutions are lethal to the financial system. They can fail and when they do, they wreak havoc on the economy.That's why they have to be rescued- as we have seen in the present crisis. We also saw what happens when they are not rescued, as in the case of Lehman Brothers when confidence in the system evaporated.

I do not believe that the present two-pronged approach, which consists of a regime for winding down such institutions in the event of failure and higher capital requirements, will suffice. You have to tackle the root cause of the problem, the bigness of the bank itself. I cannot see how any CEO can manage risks in institutions with over a trillion dollars or so in assets. Ask any bank CEO with, say, $10 bn in assets and he will tell you he is fully stretched.

I elaborate on this in my ET column, Banks that can be run by idiots. I propose a ceiling a bank size- say, 5-10% of GDP. For a large economy, we should be closer to the lower end of the range; a smaller economy could be at the higher end. In addition, regulators should keep in mind some absolute size limit beyond which financial institutions become impossible to manage. In the process, we will also have less concentration and more competition.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In defence of economists

Morale in the economics profession is rather low, given the panning that economists have received in the wake of the sub-prime crisis. People have asked: how come economists did not provide warnings or don't seem to have solutions? (although some did warn and many have proposed solutions). The Economist ran a cover story in July about all that went wrong with the economics profession.

Robert Lucas responds to the criticism about why models failed to predict the depth of the downturn:

The Economist’s briefing also cited as an example of macroeconomic failure the “reassuring” simulations that Frederic Mishkin, then a governor of the Federal Reserve, presented in the summer of 2007. The charge is that the Fed’s FRB/US forecasting model failed to predict the events of September 2008. Yet the simulations were not presented as assurance that no crisis would occur, but as a forecast of what could be expected conditional on a crisis not occurring.

Until the Lehman failure the recession was pretty typical of the modest downturns of the post-war period. There was a recession under way, led by the decline in housing construction. Mr Mishkin’s forecast was a reasonable estimate of what would have followed if the housing decline had continued to be the only or the main factor involved in the economic downturn. After the Lehman bankruptcy, too, models very like the one Mr Mishkin had used, combined with new information, gave what turned out to be very accurate estimates of the private-spending reductions that ensued over the next two quarters. When Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Fed, warned Hank Paulson, the then treasury secretary, of the economic danger facing America immediately after Lehman’s failure, he knew what he was talking about.
Lucas is right, of course. Models do incorporate policy responses. Few economists would have thought that the US government would let a big bank fail. Such a failure would not have been part of the model. The decision to let Lehman was an inexplicable blunder- and it is doubtful that the crisis would have been as severe if that had not been allowed to happen.

Lucas also points out that the policy response to the crisis, based on whatever economics has taught us about crises in the past, has been pretty effective at least ensuring that there is no repeat of the Great Depression:
The recession is now under control and no responsible forecasters see anything remotely like the 1929-33 contraction in America on the horizon. This outcome did not have to happen, but it did.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Crisis won't upset US dominance

That's the title of my last ET column. Several commentators have predicted the eclipse and decline of the US consequent to the crisis just as gloomier commentators have forecast the demise of capitalism. They are both wrong. Capitalism will reinvent itself, with fresh rules for the financial sector, and the US will retain its pre-eminent position.

One reason, as historian Niall Ferguson points out, is that when the US has a serious recession, its principal economic rivals suffer sharper setbacks to growth, so the US ends up the winner. Another is that the dollar does not have a serious competitor- does anyone seriously believe that the world's central banks will hoard their reserves in remnimbi?

America's economic dominance is to some extent derived from and supported by its military and political dominance. The US can, if it is really pushed, exert pressure on its oil producing allies to rein in oil prices. It can get economies with surpluses to park these in US treasuries. It has a major say in the creation of rules for the world economy through institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO.

There are two areas in which the US is far ahead of the rest of the world: military power and higher education. Its lead in these areas will serve to ensure its pre-eminence in the world economy for as far as we can see now.

Status of IIMA

An important judgement related to IIMA is due on August 25- and it seems to have escaped the notice of much of the media. The only detailed report I have seen appeared in DNA.

The Gujarat High Court, the paper reports, will rule on "Whether the legal status of IIM-A (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) is of an autonomous institution, a State or an instrumentality of State..". If IIMA is a state institution, then article 226 of the constitution would become applicable whereby a high court can entertain a writ petition against the state or any state institution.

The issue has arisen in the context of a case filed by a dismissed IT manager of IIMA. The employee stated that "despite having performed her duties satisfactorily, she was illegally dismissed by the present director in complete violation of the principle of natural justice.".

Claims and counter-claims regarding the status of IIMA were made by the concerned counsels:

The IIM-A counsel, Nandish Chudgar, countered the argument by stating that the petition was not maintainable as the institute was an autonomous institution - it did not fall under the status of 'State' and 'an instrumentality of State' under Article 12 of the constitution, as held by a division bench of the Gujarat high court in 2002 in a case against IIM-A.

In his counter reply, Sinha argued that the decision of the division bench of the Gujarat high court, which is relied upon by the IIM-A's advocate, was mainly based upon the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Chander Mohan Khanna vs. National Council of Educational Research and Training in 1991. However, by a subsequent judgment of a division bench of the supreme court, in the case of Pradeep Kumar Biswas vs. Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in 2002, has specifically held that the decision in Chander Mohan Khanna does not lay down the correct law.

IIMA has thus far scrupulously adhered to norms applicable to public institutions in matters such as SC/ST quotas, OBC quotas, the Pay Commission awards and the RTI Act. It is also subject to CAG audit.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Goldman Sachs under fire

Goldman Sachs has been, at some point at least, a much admired firm. But it has come under heavy fire in recent months, as reputations in banking and investment banking have tumbled following the sub-prime crisis. The firm's stellar second quarter performance has done nothing to diminish the criticism. If anything, talk of record bonuses has infuriated people even more- the talk is that average pay at Goldman this year could touch a million dollars.

I wrote about this phenomenon in my ET column, Goldmine Sachs is an illusion. On the face of it, Goldman's performance looks impressive. It has increased return on equity while reducing its leverage by half and reducing its dependence on proprietary trading. But, then, Goldman today is a bank fully backed by the Fed. Its borrowing costs are surely lower than what they would be if it did not have an implicit central bank guarantee.

In return for the guarantee, the central bank is entitled to lay down capital requirements and other regulations for Goldman. Goldman's tier I ratio of around 13% is way above the Fed's requirement of 6%. But that is only because the regulatory requirements are far too low and are yet to be revised upwards. Capital requirements for banks will rise, even more so for banks with trading operations and for systemically important banks such as Goldman. The key question is what sort of return on equity Goldman can show after higher regulatory requirements kick in.

I argue that abnormal returns on equity such as the one Goldman showed this quarter (23%) arise not just from inadequate capital requirements but also from other market imperfections. There are others who argue that Goldman was close to imploding like Lehman and was saved only by its alumni ensconced in the corridors of power in the US. They cite the bail-out of AIG and the form it took- cash payments to counter-parties of AIG- as proof.

There's been a huge outpouring of venom towards Goldman. The most recent one is in New York magazine. The earlier celebrated diatribe appeared in Rolling Stone magazine.

Meanwhile, FT reports that Goldman's reputation has been tarnished by recent events.
In a survey of 17,000 Americans, Brand Asset Consulting found that Goldman’s stature – as measured by several gauges of brand strength – had suffered in 2008 and 2009.

“Goldman Sachs still has that Gordon Gekko look to it among the general public,” said Anne Rivers, who oversaw the survey, referring to the villain of the 1987 film Wall Street.