Tag Archives: banking

Some Wisdom from Henry Kaufman

Sometimes, when you write history, you can end up feeling old. I had that feeling a couple of weekends ago, when Henry Kaufman ventured to Baltimore to talk to the Business History Conference, an organization of historians.

I’ve known Kaufman for many years, and when my neighbor in the audience said, “I don’t know who this person is,” it was hard to explain how important he was on Wall Street in the second half of the twentieth century — how he, then head of research at Salomon Brothers, and Albert Wojnilower, the chief economist at First Boston, presciently warned in 1981 that Ronald Reagan’s economic policies would drive interest rates and the dollar sky-high, or how Kaufman’s pronouncement in August 1982 that interest rates had entered a long-term downward trend awoke the stock market from years of slumber. Since then, Kaufman has come in for a good bit of criticism: he was insufficiently bullish on the stock market in the 1990s, it is said, and as a board member bears responsibility for the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a venerable investment bank, in September 2008. He remains bitter about his experience with Lehman, and he blames the Treasury and the Securities and Exchange Commission for telling the directors Lehman should declare bankruptcy. “I think it was partly a political decision to allow Lehman to fail,” he says, recalling the pressure on the Fed and the Bush Administration to force someone on Wall Street to lose big.

Kaufman is 90 now, and he continues to cast a skeptical eye on the markets. He has always been a bond guy, and bond guys, by nature, worry about risks more than opportunities. His greatest worry is the financial system itself. He thinks that regulators missed the boat in the 1990s when they phased out the rules that separated commercial banking from investment banking; they expected deregulation would lead to greater competition among banks, he recalls, but instead it brought large-scale consolidation. The Dodd-Frank law and the other reforms that followed the 2008-2009 crisis, he thinks, have reinforced that trend. “It preserved the enormous financial concentration that had taken place and even accelerated concentration. That was a mistake,” Kaufman says. The result, in his view, is a system that is even riskier, with rules that are too complicated for bank supervisors to enforce.

His recommendation is to force financial institutions to specialize. The advantage in having companies that deal only in insurance, or consumer banking, or money management, he says, is that managers and regulators could better understand their finances. “I dare anyone to tell me they can go into a large financial institution [today] and tell me the details,” Kaufman insists. “You can’t,” he says, because the companies are too complicated to comprehend. The idea that “living wills” will enable them to disentangle their affairs in the event of crisis, as Dodd-Frank commands, is fatuous, Kaufman adds. Even with a living will, the markets will devalue a troubled institution’s assets, spreading pain widely.

Kaufman knows the world has moved on, and he is not optimistic about bringing the old times back. But he distinctly remembers how, back when Wall Street firms were partnerships for which partners bore personal responsibility, they behaved differently than they do today. When he was hired at Salomon in 1962, he recalls, he was told, “Go home and tell your wife you’re going to be liable for $2 billion.” Answering to shareholders isn’t the same thing at all.

A Museum Worth 100 Marcs

Economists are forever complaining about the public’s ignorance of economics. You can’t really blame the public: most of what academic economists produce these days is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t earned an A in advanced econometrics, and far too much of what economists say in less technical settings is driven more by political biases or commercial interests than by conclusive research. There’s a lot economists don’t know, and too often you won’t find them admitting it.

That said, there are some important economic concepts that people need to grasp to reach their own judgments about economic issues. Many U.S. high schools now seek to teach such things, with mixed success. On a recent trip to Mexico City I saw what might be a more promising approach than classroom lectures, the Interactive Museum of the Economy, known by its Spanish acronym as MIDE.

MIDE, housed in an eighteenth-century convent in the center of Mexico City, claims to be the world’s first museum dedicated to economics. Its target audience is high school students, large numbers of whom come to visit each week. Costs are covered by a modest admission fee and substantial contributions from the Banco de Mexico, the central bank, and private financial institutions.

The museum is short on artifacts, long on hands-on activities that introduce such concepts as scarcity, division of labor, comparative advantage, and the trade-off between consumption and investment. Exhibits don’t just talk about the role of banks in society and the effects of inflation, but offer screens students can use to explore how bank deposits are invested and see how prices for different commodities change at different rates. Docents barely older than the visitors roam the exhibit halls, answering questions and drawing together small groups to play table games that also teach economic ideas, while more experienced educators offer brief programs in screen-filled rooms just off the exhibition floor. After you’ve learned about the role of money in society, you can order up a hundred-peso note issued by the Bank of the Bethlehemites–the religious order that formerly owned the building–and featuring your own image.

Mexico, of course, is a vast country, and most high school students will never have the opportunity to visit the museum. MIDE is now developing an app to make itself accessible to students all over the country.

I’ve never come across a museum quite like this before. Sure, many central banks operate their own museums, but most of them are, to be polite about it, places a teenager would never think of setting foot in. There’s much to be said for making learning about economics a fun social activity rather than an unpleasant obligation. Washington, where I live, has museums about everything from the bible to the U.S. Navy. A hands-on museum about how the economy works would be a fine addition.

Making It Hard to Save

Americans are famously unable to save money. The personal saving rate is a scant 5% of disposable income, and while two in three adults told Federal Reserve researchers last year they were “living comfortably” or “doing okay,” many of those same people apparently have no savings: 46% of respondents to the Fed survey said they did not have the cash to cover an emergency expense costing $400. Among people with household incomes below $40,000, only one in three said they could come up with $400 in cash.

Last month, I got an unexpected taste of why it’s so hard for people to save. My District of Columbia income tax return had an error. Rather than refunding my overpayment by check, the DC finance department sent me a Citibank debit card. I’d never used a prepaid card before, and the experience was educational. Moving the money from the card into my bank account, which is not at Citibank, turned out to be a major ordeal.

In theory, according to Citibank, it’s possible to set up a password on the Internet to transfer money from card to bank account. I followed those instructions, to no avail. The only way to get my money, it seemed, was to go to the bank.

But not to my bank, which wanted a fee to turn Citi’s debit card into cash. To avoid the fee, I had to take the card to a Citibank branch. I did so–to be told that the amount on the card exceeded Citibank’s daily cash withdrawal limit. I took what Citi would give me, cautiously walked the cash down the street to my bank, and deposited it. The following day, I repeated the process. All told, between my attempt to set up an Internet password and my five visits to bank branches, it took two hours of my time to gain access to money that was already mine. Had the two branches not been close together, the transactions would have taken far longer, and I would have had to stroll through Washington carrying uncomfortably large amounts of cash.

This is the situation facing the millions of American workers, mainly in low-wage jobs, who now get their pay on a debit card rather than having it deposited into a bank account. Yes, I understand that paying wages via debit card may be useful to people who don’t have bank accounts, and I imagine debit cards are cheaper for employers or they wouldn’t use them. But as my experience showed, when you receive your pay on a debit card, you may well have a difficult time saving money in the bank. Which could leave you in a tough spot the next time you need $400.

Keep It Simple(r)

In the last couple of weeks, banking regulators in the U.S. and Europe have tightened rules concerning a financial measure known as a leverage ratio. The rules should make the banking system stronger, but that is only part of their appeal. One of their virtues is that they reverse half a century of increasingly complicated regulation by asserting a new idea: keep it simple.

A bit of background. Starting in 1974, regulators from a dozen countries came together in Basel, Switzerland, to find ways to make the world financial system safer. One of the subjects they discussed was capital, which is shareholders’ funds that are available to repay depositors and trading partners if the bank goes bust. Capital doesn’t produce a return for shareholders, so banks have an incentive not to hold a lot of it. By the 1970s, many banks, especially in Japan, had very little, and regulators responded by requiring banks to hold more, measured as a percentage of their assets.

Predictably, banks objected to this idea. One objection was that setting a higher capital-to-asset ratio would create a perverse incentive for banks to own riskier assets, such as loans to dodgy borrowers, which yield much higher interest rates than government bonds. If regulators were going to treat all types of assets the same way, the banks argued, banks would inevitably favor junkier borrowers to earn more money with a given amount of capital, and this would make the financial system less stable, not more.

The regulators came up with a compromise: the amount of capital required would depend on the types of assets a bank owned. At one end of the spectrum, loans to most businesses were deemed to be high-risk and had to be backed by a lot of capital. At the other extreme, loans to rich-country governments were deemed low-risk and required no capital at all. Over time, this seemingly sensible idea was taken to remarkable extremes. “Risk-based” standards were put in place, and were applied to banks’ trading businesses as well as their lending. This got so complicated that banks were allowed to figure out for themselves how much capital they should have, and clueless regulators couldn’t do much more than say “amen.” For more about this unfortunate development, you can see an article I wrote a couple of years ago.

Then, when the crisis came in 2008, regulators and bank investors discovered that banks had much less capital on hand than they were thought to have. The problem became acute in 2010, when Greece was unable to service its bonds. French and German banks had gorged themselves on Greek bonds precisely because they did not need to hold capital against which had been deemed “low risk” government debt. Had Greece not received an international bailout in May 2010, several big European banks could have gone bust.

The new rules on leverage ratios are meant to stop banks from gaming the system. They require most banks to add up their loans, their exposures to credit derivatives, and certain other commitments, and then to hold a certain percentage of that amount in capital, without adjusting for risk. The biggest banks will have to hold even more. This means that banks can’t get away with minimal capital by claiming they have low-risk businesses. Owning dubious Greek debt in order to avoid capital requirements will no longer make sense.

You’ll hear words like “crude” and “imprecise” thrown around by critics of the new leverage ratios. And there’s no question: they are crude. But what matters more is that they are relatively simple to enforce and harder for banks to manipulate. Banks businesses will continue to be very complex, but having some simple regulatory limits is worth a lot.