Supercore Inflation is Worth Watching, but it is Probably Not a Good Policy Target
Although headline inflation continues to fall and unemployment is near a 50-year low, the Federal Reserve still faces some tricky policy decisions over…
Supercore prices have been in the news lately because some observers think the Fed is targeting them. This commentary will argue a focus on supercore inflation may have led to a more-than-prudent degree of monetary policy tightening by late 2022 and early 2023. The fact that high interest rates appear to have been a contributing factor to the banking crisis that was touched off by the failure of Silicon Valley Bank in March only strengthens the case.
So, what is the supercore?
So, what, exactly, is the supercore? The notion of ordinary core prices is familiar enough. The core consumer price index, for example, is the ordinary CPI with the highly volatile prices of food and energy removed. The personal consumption expenditures index, a CPI alternative, also has a core version that removes the same two sectors. Measures of the supercore go further by removing still more items.
The impression that the Fed is targeting supercore inflation was reinforced by a press conference held on February 1 by Chairman Jerome Powell. In answering a reporter’s question, Powell divided prices into three sectors. “In the goods sector,” he said, “you see inflation now coming down because supply chains have been fixed … In the housing services sector, we expect inflation to continue moving up for a while but then to come down … So, in those two sectors, you’ve got a good story. The issue is that we have a large sector called nonhousing service — core nonhousing services, where we don’t see disinflation yet.” Although he does not use the term, what Powell calls core nonhousing services is what others call the supercore.
It is almost as if Powell is treating the problem of inflation the way a frontline surgeon might treat a wounded soldier. “We’ve stopped the bleeding in his leg; we’ve got the bullet out of his shoulder; now all we’ve got to do is get that pesky piece of shrapnel out of his neck.” But is continuing to tighten monetary policy until supercore prices, too, stop rising really a good idea? Read on.
Why supercore prices are sticky
Economics 101 teaches us that market prices rise or fall in response to changes in supply and demand. True enough, but some prices respond faster than others. At the flexible end of the spectrum, the prices of oil or wheat quoted on commodity exchanges change by the minute. At the sticky end of the spectrum, prices like city bus fares or college tuitions are likely to change just once a year, if that often.
Economists suggest a variety of reasons for price stickiness. Some point to the costs of announcing and implementing price changes, such as a restaurant’s cost of printing new menus or a laundromat’s cost of adjusting the coin mechanisms on its washers and dryers. Others emphasize strategic considerations, such as the fear that the first seller to raise prices might lose market share to competitors who are slower to change. Marketing considerations like the fear of annoying loyal customers may be another factor. And prices that are subject to long-term contracts often can change only when those contracts expire.
The Atlanta Fed publishes monthly indexes for a flexible CPI and a sticky CPI. Using an admittedly arbitrary cutoff, it classifies flexible prices as those that change, on average, at least once every 4.3 months and sticky prices as those that change less frequently. That division makes about half the prices in the CPI flexible and half sticky. If weighted by value, the split is about 30 percent flexible and 70 percent sticky.
The bulk of the sticky CPI consists of services. The Atlanta Fed derives a “core sticky CPI” by removing its only food or energy element, “food away from home.” It then derives a measure called “core sticky CPI ex shelter” by further removing the category “owner equivalent rent.” That index, more than 90 percent of which is made up of services, covers 45 percent of the full CPI.
In what follows, I will use the Atlanta Fed’s core sticky CPI ex shelter as a measure of the supercore. It is probably not the exact measure of “core nonhousing services” to which Powell referred at his press conference, but if not, it is very close.
Figure 1 shows year-on-year data for the rate of change of the Atlanta Fed’s sticky and flexible price indexes since 1967. Not surprisingly, the flexible index is the most volatile. At major turning points, changes in the sticky price inflation lags visibly behind changes in flexible price inflation by an amount ranging from half a year to well over a year.
The relative supercore index
Let’s turn now from the inflation rate of supercore prices to the value of the supercore relative to the flexible CPI. Figure 1 showed the long-term trend of inflation rates, but nothing about the relative level of sticky and flexible prices. Figure 2 provides the missing information. For easy comparison, the top line, measured on the left-hand vertical axis, repeats the rate of flexible price inflation as shown in Figure 1. The lower line, measured on the right-hand vertical axis, shows the ratio of the level (not the inflation rate) of supercore CPI to the level of the flexible CPI, with January 1967 equal to 100. I will refer to this ratio as the relative supercore index. A value above the trendline shows that the nonhousing services in the supercore index are more expensive than usual relative to the goods in the flexible index. Similarly, a value below the trendline shows that increases in the prices of the items in the supercore have fallen behind those of more flexible goods.
Two features stand out in Figure 2.
First, as the trendline indicates, the ratio of supercore to flexible prices has increased by about 20 percent over time when cyclical ups and downs are smoothed out. My best guess is that this trend is largely due to the “Baumol effect.” As William Baumol and W. G. Bowen noted in a 1965 paper, there is a tendency for labor productivity to increase more rapidly in goods markets than in service markets. (It takes far fewer farm workers to harvest a ton of wheat than it did in the 19th century, but the same number of musicians to perform a Beethoven string quartet.) Because of slower productivity growth, the prices of services tend to rise faster than the prices of goods. Since more than 90 percent of the flexible CPI consists of goods while more than 90 percent of the supercore consists of services, the Baumol effect provides a plausible explanation of the upward trend of the relative supercore index.
Second, even a casual look at Figure 2 suggests that the relative supercore index tends to drop below its trend during periods when flexible prices are especially volatile. The stagflationary 1970s are one example. The supercore dropped below trend again in the years around the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, when the flexible-price inflation rate was highly variable, even though not as high as in the 1970s. In contrast, during the period of relative stability from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s – the Great Moderation – the supercore recovered relative to the flexible CPI.
Implications for policy
Back now to our main theme – does targeting supercore inflation make sense? I can think of three reasons why it might not.
Lags matter. The first reason is that monetary policy operates only with a considerable lag. Raphael Bostic, president of the Atlanta Fed, wrote recently that “a large body of research tells us it can take 18 months to two years or more for tighter monetary policy to materially affect inflation.” A recent paper by Taeyoung Doh and Andrew T. Foerster of the Kansas City Fed suggest that because of changes in the way the Fed implements tightening, those lags may be shorter now than they used to be. Even so, the new estimates show a lag of a full year for the effect on inflation and as much as three years for the effect on unemployment, with a wide range of uncertainty.
The Fed did not start its program of rate increases until March 2022. Taken at face value, that would mean we won’t feel the full effects of recent tightening until the fall of 2023 – or later this spring, at the earliest, if the new estimates hold up. Of course, the lag is less for some prices than others. Since supercore prices, by definition, are among the stickiest, it would seem that they would be subject to a lag toward the long end of the estimated range.
Lags matter for policy. If you want to nip an inflationary outbreak in the bud, the time to act is not when you see the relevant numbers starting to climb, but months in advance. Similarly, if you want to head off an impending recession, then you should not wait for unemployment to start rising or for inflation to fall all the way back to its target. You should ease off well before that point.
By that reasoning, critics may be right to say that in retrospect, the Fed would have better controlled inflation had it started to tighten earlier than the spring of 2022. However, continued tightening into 2023 could equally turn out to be a mistake. To see why, we need to understand the role the inflation expectations play in the making of monetary policy.
Forecasting and expectations. In a world with lags, optimal policy calls for action in advance of economic turning points. For that reason, some economists maintain that “inflation targeting” should instead be called “inflation-forecast targeting.” Under such a policy, central banks would cautiously adjust interest rates to keep inflation as close as possible to its forecast path, rather than waiting to raise rates until inflation got out of control.
That being the case, one argument for targeting core inflation is that the core reflects underlying trends in the economy. In contrast, indexes that are strongly affected by the flexible prices of items such as food and energy are more subject to random exogenous shocks. At the same time, central banks should closely monitor inflation expectations, which can be thought of as the inflation forecasts of consumers and producers.
In a methodological paper linked from the home page of the Atlanta Fed’s sticky price index, Michael F. Bryan and Brent Meyer argue that sticky prices have especially close links both to expectations and to future inflation outcomes. In particular, they show that an index of sticky prices provides more accurate forecasts 3, 12, and 24 months ahead than does an index of flexible prices. However, the correlations they observe do not necessarily constitute an argument for using either sticky prices in general or supercore prices as a policy target, nor do they make such an argument.
In particular, it seems questionable whether the relatively high rate of supercore inflation in early 2023 was primarily driven by expectations. Look at the far-right tail of the supercore series in Figure 2. Between May 2021 and May 2022, the relative supercore index dropped by 25 points – its sharpest drop ever. Although it began to recover just a bit in the second half of the year, by February, the relative supercore index had recovered only about a third of the amount by which it had dropped below trend. That being the case, ongoing price increases in the supercore sector may not, after all, reflect service providers’ expectations of ongoing inflation in the economy as a whole. Rather, they may simply be trying to get their heads back above water after two years in which their own prices spectacularly failed to keep up with the rise of wages and the prices of material goods.
If observed correlations among supercore prices, expectations, and near-term inflation outcomes turn out to not to be causal in nature, any attempt to use supercore prices for forecasting or targeting risks running afoul of Goodhart’s law. According to that principle, statistical relationships tend to break down when they are used for policy purposes. The demise of the quantity theory of money and the subsequent abandonment of money-supply targets by central banks are often cited as a case in point.
The health of the supercore. But Goodhart’s law to one side, shouldn’t we welcome the Fed’s efforts to smother inflation in the last stronghold where it survives? As consumers, don’t we consider low bus fares and manicure prices good things in themselves? The answer, I think, is yes – as long as firms remain able to provide a steady supply of high-quality services. But if relative prices of supercore services stay low indefinitely even while their costs have risen, suppliers will sooner or later come under real pressure.
Consider wages. According to the most recent data, 85 percent of privately-employed workers are employed in the service sector and just 15 percent in the production of goods. However, since workers are free to move back and forth between the two, relative wages in the goods and service sectors tend to be more stable than relative prices. In fact, between mid-2021 and mid-2022, while the relative supercore price index was dropping like a stone, wages in the service sector as a whole actually rose fractionally relative to wages of goods-producers.
Clearly, the combination of stable relative wages and dramatically falling relative prices puts the service sector under pressure. Add to that the fact that service firms need many non-labor inputs, such as fossil fuels and motor vehicles, that are sold by goods-producers. Further, add the fact that demand for goods recovered more rapidly from the pandemic than did the demand for services, and you get a picture of a sector at risk. Its cost-price squeeze is going to continue until relative supercore prices claw back at least a good part of the amount by which they have fallen below trend. It hardly seems like the right moment to single out nonhousing service prices for special restraint.
The bottom line
On the whole, I am enthusiastic about the Fed’s incipient moves away from old-style Phillips curve models that lump all prices together as a single variable, whether that is the CPI, the PCE, or something else. In that regard, Powell’s division of prices into goods, shelter, and nonshelter services is a step in the right direction. More detailed models could divide prices into a greater number of buckets, add input-output relationships among sectors, and include other details.
In my opinion, such models are likely to strengthen the case for a more flexible approach to inflation targeting in times of high relative price volatility like the past few years. Yes, it would be great to “Whip Inflation Now,” as a mid-70s policy slogan put it. However, if the current pattern of relative prices is out of whack, freezing it in place may not be a great idea. It would be worth considering giving more leeway for relative price adjustment even though that might slow the rate at which overall inflation returns to target. If the market turmoil that followed the failure of SVB causes the Fed to rethink its plans for further monetary tightening, that may turn out to be a good thing.
 A statistical test confirms the visual impression that low values for the relative supercore index are associated with volatile flexible-price inflation. The standard deviation over a moving two-year period of the monthly increase or decrease in the flexible CPI can serve as a measure of volatility. The correlation between that measure and the relative supercore index is negative and statistically significant (R = -.78).
 Their paper was published in 2010. It will be interesting to see how their results hold up when more recent data is include
recession unemployment pandemic monetary policy fed federal reserve interest rates unemployment oil
Debate Continues On Whether Bitcoin Is A Suitable Hedge For Hyperinflation
Bitcoin, the world’s first decentralized digital currency, has been gaining traction in recent years as a potential hedge against hyperinflation in fiat…
Bitcoin, the world’s first decentralized digital currency, has been gaining traction in recent years as a potential hedge against hyperinflation in fiat currencies. As the world’s reserve currency, the U.S. dollar has been the subject of much debate regarding its stability and potential vulnerability to hyperinflation.
As Coindesk explains, Twitter was ablaze with reactions to former Coinbase Chief Technology Officer Balaji Srinivasan accepting a bet proposed by James Medlock that, due to hyperinflation in the United States, a single bitcoin would be worth $1 million in just 90 days.
This prompted CoinDesk Chief Content Officer Michael J. Casey to discuss the future of bitcoin on the publication’s All About Bitcoin podcast. The discussion is an extension of Bitcoin suitability as an inflation hedge that has been raging ever since Satoshi Nakamoto first developed this novel form of currency.
In general, many proponents of Bitcoin argue that the cryptocurrency’s finite supply and decentralized nature make it a viable alternative to traditional currencies, while others remain skeptical of its ability to serve as a hedge against inflation.
The U.S. dollar has been the world’s reserve currency since the end of World War II, and its stability has been a cornerstone of the global financial system. However, the Federal Reserve has increased the money supply dramatically in recent years to stimulate the economy, leading some to worry about the potential for inflation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also put pressure on the economy, causing Federal Reserve to again begin increasing its balance sheet after a brief period of quantitative tightening. This, in response to consumers pulling their money out of the banking system to the tune of $475 billion last week alone. According to the Fed’s updated balance sheet, approximately two-thirds of the Fed’s quantitative tightening program—a program designed to reduce its balance sheet which was a year in the making—has been reversed.
The overarching fear among many analysts is that with bond market inversion signaling the economy is headed into recession, and with the Fed Funds rate a five percent, the Federal Reserve will soon be forced to enact another round of quantitative easing. Net interest payments on the debt are estimated to total $395.5 billion this fiscal year, or 6.8% of all federal outlays, according to the Office of Management and Budget. And this total is rising.
Quantitative easing (QE) is a monetary policy tool used by central banks to increase the money supply and encourage lending and investment. It involves the purchase of government securities or other assets by the central bank, which injects money into the economy and increases the amount of credit available to banks and other financial institutions.
Hyperflation And Bitcoin Debate
As mentioned off the top, the debate about whether Bitcoin can mitigate the effects of hyperinflation is a conversation that will continue to gain traction over time. This is due to fears that the money supply is again headed for a dramatic increase, due to the recent banking crisis which may require a massive influx or capital, upcoming recession support spending, higher interest payment of federal debt, and more.
Hyperinflation is a situation in which a country experiences a rapid and out-of-control increase in prices, often resulting in the collapse of its currency. It is usually caused by an excessive increase in the money supply, which reduces the currency’s purchasing power. This scenario is not hypothetical, as history has seen several instances of hyperinflation.
For example, Germany’s hyperinflation in the 1920s resulted in people burning money for fuel and using it as wallpaper, while Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation in the 2000s led to people using billion-dollar notes as napkins.
Bitcoin, on the other hand, has a finite supply of 21 million coins, with approximately 18.6 million already in circulation. This means that the supply of Bitcoin is limited and cannot be increased, theoretically making it immune to the effects of inflation caused by an increase in the money supply.
In addition, Bitcoin is decentralized, meaning that it is not controlled by any central authority, government, or financial institution. This makes it less vulnerable to the effects of political instability, such as hyperinflation caused by government mismanagement of the economy.
The Case Against Bitcoin As A Suitable (Hyper)Inflation Hedge
Some critics argue that Bitcoin is not a viable alternative to fiat currencies, including the U.S. dollar. They point out that Bitcoin’s price is highly volatile, with wild swings in value that make it difficult to use as a stable store of value. In addition, Bitcoin is not widely accepted as a means of payment, with only a small percentage of businesses accepting it as a form of payment. This limits its usefulness as a currency and makes it more difficult for individuals to use it as a hedge against inflation.
Another issue with Bitcoin as a hedge against hyperinflation is its lack of intrinsic value. While traditional currencies such as the U.S. dollar are backed by the government and have a certain amount of value due to their widespread acceptance, Bitcoin’s value is based solely on market demand. This makes it more vulnerable to market forces and less reliable as a long-term store of value.
It is worth noting in any conversation about Bitcoin vs. hyperinflation that its finite money supply does not guarantee that it will be a suitable inflation hedge. If governments are able to corral the gateways in which Bitcoin can be spent, acquired or transacted on, it is possible that transaction volume will never reach a critical mass to become a widescale alternative form of currency.
Despite these criticisms, many Bitcoin believers continue to purchase the cryptocurrency as a potential hedge against hyperinflation. Its decentralized nature and finite supply make it an attractive alternative to fiat currencies that are subject to political and economic instability. In addition, the increasing adoption of Bitcoin by businesses and individuals is making it more mainstream, which could further increase its value over time.
Given Bitcoin’s recent performance in the face of the U.S. banking calamity, there may be more believers than detractors give credit for.
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Southwest Airlines Wants to End a Major Passenger Problem
The company has a novel way to end a practice that passengers hate.
The company has a novel way to end a practice that passengers hate.
Southwest Airlines boards its planes in a way very different from that of any of its major rivals.
As fans and detractors of the brand know, the airline does not offer seat assignments. Instead, passengers board by group and number. When you check into your flight, Southwest assigns you to the A, B, or C boarding groups and gives you a number 1-60. The A group boards first in numerical order.
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In theory, people board in the assigned order and can claim any seat that's available. In practice, the airline's boarding process leaves a lot of gray area that some people exploit. Others simply don't know exactly what the rules are.
If, for example, you are traveling with a friend who has a much later boarding number, is it okay to save a middle seat for that person?
Generally, that's okay because middle seats are less desirable, but technically it's not allowed. In general practice, if you move into the second half of the plane, no passenger will fight for a specific middle seat, but toward the front some may claim a middle seat.
There's less grey area, however, when it comes to trying to keep people from sitting in unoccupied seats. That's a huge problem for the airline, one that Southwest has tried to address in a humorous way.
Southwest Airlines Has a Boarding Problem
When Southwest boards its flights it generally communicates to passengers about how full it expects the plane to be. In very rare cases, the airline will tell passengers when the crowd is small and they can expect that nobody will have to sit in a middle seat.
In most cases, however, at least since air travel has recovered after the covid pandemic, the airline usually announces that the flight is full or nearly full as passengers board. That's a de facto (and sometimes explicit) call not to attempt to discourage people from taking open seats in your row.
Unfortunately, many passengers know that sometimes when the airline says a flight is full, that's not entirely true. There might be a few no shows or a few seats that end up being open for one reason or another.
That leads to passengers -- at least a few of them on nearly every flight -- going to great lengths to try to end up next to an empty seat. Southwest has tried lots of different ways to discourage this behavior and has now resorted to humor in an effort to stop the seat hogs.
Southwest Uses Humor to Address a Pain Point
The airline recently released a video that addressed what it called "discouraged but crafty strategies to get a row to yourself" on Southwest. The video shows a man demonstrating all the different ways people try to dissuade other passengers from taking the open seats in their row.
These include, but are not limited to:
- Laying out across the whole row.
- Holding your arm up to sort of block the seats.
- Being too encouraging about someone taking the seat.
- Actually saying no when someone asks if they can have an open seat.
The airline also detailed a scenario it called "the fake breakup," where the person in the seat holds a loud phone conversation where he pretends he's being broken up with.
That one seems a bit of a reach, especially when Southwest left the most common seat-saving tactic out of its video -- simply putting some of your stuff in the open seat to make it appear unavailable.
Related Link:link pandemic
Das: Is A Full-Blown Global Banking Crisis In The Offing?
Das: Is A Full-Blown Global Banking Crisis In The Offing?
Authored by Styajit Das via NewIndianExpress.com,
If everything is fine, then why…
Authored by Styajit Das via NewIndianExpress.com,
If everything is fine, then why are US banks borrowing billions at punitive rates at the discount window... a larger amount than in 2008/9?
Financial crashes like revolutions are impossible until they are inevitable. They typically proceed in stages. Since central banks began to increase interest rates in response to rising inflation, financial markets have been under pressure.
In 2022, there was the crypto meltdown (approximately $2 trillion of losses).
The S&P500 index fell about 20 percent. The largest US technology companies, which include Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet and Amazon, lost around $4.6 trillion in market value The September 2022 UK gilt crisis may have cost $500 billion. 30 percent of emerging market countries and 60 percent of low-income nations face a debt crisis. The problems have now reached the financial system, with US, European and Japanese banks losing around $460 billion in market value in March 2023.
While it is too early to say whether a full-fledged financial crisis is imminent, the trajectory is unpromising.
The affected US regional banks had specific failings. The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank ("SVB") highlighted the interest rate risk of financing holdings of long-term fixed-rate securities with short-term deposits. SVB and First Republic Bank ("FRB") also illustrate the problem of the $250,000 limit on Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation ("FDIC") coverage. Over 90 percent of failed SVB and Signature Bank as well as two-thirds of FRB deposits were uninsured, creating a predisposition to a liquidity run in periods of financial uncertainty.
The crisis is not exclusively American. Credit Suisse has been, to date, the highest-profile European institution affected. The venerable Swiss bank -- which critics dubbed 'Debit Suisse' -- has a troubled history of banking dictators, money laundering, sanctions breaches, tax evasion and fraud, shredding documents sought by regulators and poor risk management evidenced most recently by high-profile losses associated with hedge fund Archegos and fintech firm Greensill. It has been plagued by corporate espionage, CEO turnover and repeated unsuccessful restructurings.
In February 2023, Credit Suisse announced an annual loss of nearly Swiss Franc 7.3 billion ($7.9 billion), its biggest since the financial crisis in 2008. Since the start of 2023, the bank's share price had fallen by about 25 percent. It was down more than 70 percent over the last year and nearly 90 percent over 5 years. Credit Suisse wealth management clients withdrew Swiss Franc 123 billion ($133 billion) of deposits in 2022, mostly in the fourth quarter.
The categoric refusal -- "absolutely not" -- of its key shareholder Saudi National Bank to inject new capital into Credit Suisse precipitated its end. It followed the announcement earlier in March that fund manager Harris Associates, a longest-standing shareholder, had sold its entire stake after losing patience with the Swiss Bank’s strategy and questioning the future of its franchise.
While the circumstances of individual firms exhibit differences, there are uncomfortable commonalities - interest rate risk, uninsured deposits and exposure to loss of funding.
Banks globally increased investment in high-quality securities -- primarily government and agency backed mortgage-backed securities ("MBS"). It was driven by an excess of customer deposits relative to loan demand in an environment of abundant liquidity. Another motivation was the need to boost earnings under low-interest conditions which were squeezing net interest margin because deposit rates were largely constrained at the zero bound. The latter was, in part, driven by central bank regulations which favour customer deposit funding and the risk of loss of these if negative rates are applied.
Higher rates resulted in unrealised losses on these investments exceeding $600 billion as at end 2022 at
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation-insured US banks. If other interest-sensitive assets are included, then the loss for American banks alone may be around $2,000 billion. Globally, the total unrealised loss might be two to three times that.
Pundits, most with passing practical banking experience, have criticised the lack of hedging. The reality is that eliminating interest rate risk is costly and would reduce earnings. While SVB's portfolio's duration was an outlier, banks routinely invest in 1- to 5-year securities and run some level of the resulting interest rate exposure.
Additional complexities inform some investment portfolios. Japanese investors have large holdings of domestic and foreign long-maturity bonds. The market value of these fixed-rate investments have fallen. While Japanese short-term rates have not risen significantly, rising inflationary pressures may force increases that would reduce the margin between investment returns and interest expense reducing earnings.
It is unclear how much of the currency risk on these holdings of Japanese investors is hedged. A fall in the dollar, the principal denomination of these investments, would result in additional losses. The announcement by the US Federal Reserve ("the Fed") of coordinated action with other major central banks (Canada, England, Japan, Euro-zone and Switzerland) to provide US dollar liquidity suggests ongoing issues in hedging these currency exposures.
Banking is essentially a confidence trick because of the inherent mismatch between short-term deposits and longer-term assets. As the rapid demise of Credit Suisse highlights, strong capital and liquidity ratios count for little when depositors take flight.
Banks now face falling customer deposits as monetary stimulus is withdrawn, the build-up of savings during the pandemic is drawn down and the economy slows. In the US, deposits are projected to decline by up to 6 percent. Financial instability and apprehension about the solvency of individual institutions can, as recent experience corroborates, result in bank runs.
The fact is that events have significantly weakened the global banking system. A 10 percent loss on bank bond holdings would, if realised, decrease bank shareholder capital by around a quarter. This is before potential loan losses, as higher rates affect interest-sensitive sectors of the economy, are incorporated.
One vulnerable sector is property, due to high levels of leverage generally employed.
House prices are falling albeit from artificially high pandemic levels. Many households face financial stress due to high mortgage debt, rising repayments, cost of living increases and lagging real income. Risks in commercial real estate are increasing. The construction sector globally shows sign of slowing down. Capital expenditure is decreasing because of uncertainty about future prospects. Higher material and energy costs are pushing up prices further lowering demand.
Heavily indebted companies, especially in cyclical sectors like non-essential goods and services and many who borrowed heavily to get through the pandemic will find it difficult to repay debt. The last decade saw an increase in leveraged purchases of businesses. The value of outstanding US leveraged loans used in these transactions nearly tripled from $500 billion in 2010 to around $1.4 trillion as of August 2022, comparable to the $1.5 trillion high-yield bond market. There were similar rises in Europe and elsewhere.
Business bankruptcies are increasing in Europe and the UK although they fell in the US in 2022. The effects of higher rates are likely to take time to emerge due to staggered debt maturities and the timing of re-pricing. Default rates are projected to rise globally resulting in bank bad debts, reduced earnings and erosion of capital buffers.
There is a concerted effort by financial officials and their acolytes to reassure the population and mainly themselves of the safety of the financial system. Protestations of a sound banking system and the absence of contagion is an oxymoron. If the authorities are correct then why evoke the ‘systemic risk exemption’ to guarantee all depositors of failed banks? If there is liquidity to meet withdrawals then why the logorrhoea about the sufficiency of funds? If everything is fine, then why have US banks borrowed $153 billion at a punitive 4.75% against collateral at the discount window, a larger amount than in 2008/9? Why the compelling need for authorities to provide over $1 trillion in money or force bank mergers?
John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked that "anyone who says he won't resign four times, will". In a similar vein, the incessant repetition about the absence of any financial crisis suggests exactly the opposite.
The essential structure of the banking is unstable, primarily because of its high leverage where around $10 of equity supports $100 of assets. The desire to encourage competition and diversity, local needs, parochialism and fear of excessive numbers of systemically important and 'too-big-to-fail' institutions also mean that there are too many banks.
There are over 4,000 commercial banks in the US insured by the FDIC with nearly $24 trillion in assets, most of them small or mid-sized. Germany has around 1,900 banks including 1,000 cooperative banks, 400 Sparkassen, and smaller numbers of private banks and Landesbanken. Switzerland has over 240 banks with only four (now three) major institutions and a large number of cantonal, regional and savings banks.
Even if they were adequately staffed and equipped, managers and regulators would find it difficult to monitor and enforce rules. This creates a tendency for 'accidents' and periodic runs to larger banks.
Deposit insurance is one favoured means of ensuring customer safety and assured funding. But that entails a delicate balance between consumer protection and moral hazard - concerns that it might encourage risky behaviour. There is the issue of the extent of protection.
In reality, no deposit insurance system can safeguard a banking system completely, especially under conditions of stress. It would overwhelm the sovereign's balance sheet and credit. Banks and consumers would ultimately have to bear the cost.
Deposit insurance can have cross-border implications. Thought bubbles like extending FDIC deposit coverage to all deposits for even a limited period can transmit problems globally and disrupt currency markets. If the US guarantees all deposits, then depositors might withdraw money from banks in their home countries to take advantage of the scheme setting off an international flight of capital. The movement of funds would aggravate any dollar shortages and complicate hedging of foreign exchange exposures. It may push up the value of the currency inflicting losses on emerging market borrowers and reducing American export competitiveness.
In effect, there are few if any neat, simple answers.
This means the resolution of any banking crisis relies, in practice, on private sector initiatives or public bailouts.
The deposit of $30 billion at FRB by a group of major banks is similar to actions during the 1907 US banking crisis and the 1998 $3.6 billion bailout of hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. Such transactions, if they are unsuccessful, risk dragging the saviours into a morass of expanding financial commitments as may be the case with FRB.
A related option is the forced sale or shotgun marriage. It is unclear how given systemic issues in banking, the blind lending assistance to the deaf and dumb strengthens the financial system. Given the ignominious record of many bank mergers, it is puzzling why foisting a failing institution onto a healthy rival constitutes sound policy.
HSBC, which is purchasing SVB's UK operations, has a poor record of acquisitions that included Edmond Safra's Republic Bank which caused it much embarrassment and US sub-prime lender Household International just prior to the 2008 crisis. The bank's decision to purchase SVB UK for a nominal £1 ($1.20) was despite a rushed due diligence and admissions that it was unable to fully analyse 30 percent of the target's loan book. It was justified as 'strategic' and the opportunity to win new start-up clients.
On 19 March 2023, Swiss regulators arranged for a reluctant UBS, the country's largest bank, to buy Credit Suisse after it become clear that an emergency Swiss Franc 50 billion ($54 billion) credit line provided by the Swiss National Bank was unlikely to arrest the decline. UBS will pay about Swiss Franc 0.76 a share in its own stock, a total value of around Swiss Franc 3 billion ($3.2 billion). While triple the earlier proposed price, it is nearly 60 percent lower than CS’s last closing price of Swiss Franc1.86.
Investors cheered the purchase as a generational bargain for UBS. This ignores Credit Suisse's unresolved issues including toxic assets and legacy litigation exposures. It was oblivious to well-known difficulties in integrating institutions, particularly different business models, systems, practices, jurisdictions and cultures. The
It also leaves Switzerland with the problem of concentrated exposure to a single large bank, a shift from its hitherto preferred two-bank model. Analysts seemed to have forgotten that UBS itself had to be supported by the state in 2008 with taxpayer funds after suffering large losses to avoid the bank being acquired by foreign buyers.
The only other option is some degree of state support.
The UBS acquisition of Credit Suisse requires the Swiss National Bank to assume certain risks. It will provide a Swiss Franc 100 billion ($108 billion) liquidity line backed by an enigmatically titled government default guarantee, presumably in addition to the earlier credit support. The Swiss government is also providing a loss guarantee on certain assets of up to Swiss Franc 9 billion ($9.7 billion), which operates after UBS bears the first Swiss Franc 5 billion ($5.4 billion) of losses.
The state can underwrite bank liabilities including all deposits as some countries did after 2008. As US Treasury Secretary Yellen reluctantly admitted to Congress, the extension of FDIC coverage was contingent on US officials and regulators determining systemic risk as happened with SVB and Signature. Another alternative is to recapitalise banks with public money as was done after 2008 or finance the removal of distressed or toxic assets from bank books.
Socialisation of losses is politically and financially expensive.
Despite protestations to the contrary, the dismal truth is that in a major financial crisis, lenders to and owners of systemic large banks will be bailed out to some extent.
European supervisors have been critical of the US decision to break with its own standard of guaranteeing only the first $250,000 of deposits by invoking a systemic risk exception while excluding SVB as too small to be required to comply with the higher standards applicable to larger banks. There now exist voluminous manuals on handling bank collapses such as imposing losses on owners, bondholders and other unsecured creditors, including depositors with funds exceeding guarantee limit, as well as resolution plans designed to minimise the fallout from failures. Prepared by expensive consultants, they serve the essential function of satisfying regulatory checklists. Theoretically sound reforms are not consistently followed in practice. Under fire in trenches, regulators concentrate on more practical priorities.
The debate about bank regulation misses a central point. Since the 1980s, the economic system has become addicted to borrowing-funded consumption and investment. Bank credit is central to this process. Some recommendations propose a drastic reduction in bank leverage from the current 10-to-1 to a mere 3-to1. The resulting contraction would have serious implications for economic activity and asset values.
In Annie Hall, Woody Allen cannot have his brother, who thinks he is a chicken, treated by a psychiatrist because the family needs the eggs. Banking regulation flounders on the same logic.
As in all crises, commentators have reached for the 150-year-old dictum of Walter Bagehot in Lombard Street that a central bank's job is "to lend in a panic on every kind of current security, or every sort on which money is ordinarily and usually lent."
Central bankers are certainly lending, although advancing funds based on the face value of securities with much lower market values would not seem to be what the former editor of The Economist had in mind. It also ignores the final part of the statement that such actions "may not save the bank; but if it do not, nothing will save it."
Banks everywhere remain exposed. US regional banks, especially those with a high proportion of uninsured deposits, remain under pressure.
European banks, in Germany, Italy and smaller Euro-zone economies, may be susceptible because of poor profitability, lack of essential scale, questionable loan quality and the residual scar tissue from the 2011 debt crisis.
Emerging market banks' loan books face the test of an economic slowdown. There are specific sectoral concerns such as the exposure of Chinese banks to the property sector which has necessitated significant ($460 billion) state support.
Contagion may spread across a hyper-connected financial system from country to country and from smaller to larger more systematically important banks. Declining share prices and credit ratings downgrades combined with a slowdown in inter-bank transactions, as credit risk managers become increasingly cautious, will transmit stress across global markets.
For the moment, whether the third banking crisis in two decades remains contained is a matter of faith and belief. Financial markets will test policymakers' resolve in the coming days and weeks.
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