Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Big School and Convertibility Lost

As described in The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs: Coyne [CEO of J. Aron] learned that the central banks of many nations kept their currency reserves in gold bars stored in the vaults of the Bank of England in London or the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Taken together, all this great wealth of nations had what Coyne saw as one fascinating characteristic: It earned zero return. It just sat in the vaults. But Coyne knew that the time value of money always figured into any futures contract...so he called on the central bankers in one country after another and made what appeared to be a generous and innovative offer: "Lend me your sterile bars of gold bullion and I'll pay you a fee of one half of one percent every year!"

Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,
Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers; he knows that in the day
Ye Eate thereof, your Eyes that seem so cleere,
Yet are but dim, shall perfetly be then
Op'nd and cleerd, and ye shall be as Gods
Milton: Paradise Lost

There are, it may seem to a new student of economics, more schools of thought in the field than stars in the sky. I sometimes wonder if David Bohm, author of, inter alia, The Qualitative Infinity of Nature, might have felt more comfortable as an Economist than a Physicist. While the physical sciences, according to Thomas Kuhn, exhibit totalitarian tendencies with violent revolutions, Economics is far more democratic, tolerating, albeit not without disputes, multiple coincident schools of thought.

Of late, however, one school of economic thought has become increasingly dominant in policy making circles. The Big School holds that the larger a financial institution becomes the more protected it should be, and vice versa, the smaller a financial entity is, the less protection it should receive.

As an example of this (somewhat) facetious claim, consider the views of JPM's David Lowman: Like all loans, mortgage contracts are based on a promise to repay money borrowed. Importantly, there is no provision in the mortgage contract, express or implied, that the lender will restore equity or reduce the repayment amount if the value of the collateral – be it a home, a car or a stock market investment – depreciates. If we re-write the mortgage contract retroactively to restore equity to any mortgage borrower because the value of his or her home declined, what responsible lender will take the equity risk of financing mortgages in the future? What responsible regulator would want lenders to take such risk?

In other words, the same bank (there were, of course, others) whose inability to meet its contractual obligations a few years ago was such that it needed loans from, and preferential swapping of toxic for performing securities with, the Fed, equity support from the Treasury, and a release from the onerous task of marking securities to market, NOW thinks contracts, regulations and agreements are sacrosanct.

I wonder if the issue up for debate was deriviatives regulation or marking toxic assets to market, would any person from a bank end a paragraph with "what responsible regulator would want lenders to take such risks?"

Big School Rules.

In a Jonathon Demme film appropriately (for our purposes) titled "Stop Making Sense", the Talking Heads' David Byrne asked, "Well, how did I get here?"

The Big School took its cue from Kuhn and engaged not in democratic debate, but totalitarian revolt. They appropriated Walter Bagehot's views on the Central Bank's Lender of Last Resort facility in times of crisis but perverted them in the process. Instead of the outline presented in Lombard Street of "very large loans at very high rates" which, in modern times, became, "lend freely at a high rate", the Big School preaches the doctrine of "lending freely (to the banks) at a very low rate" thereby relieving the Central Bank of its responsibility to enforce prudence.

I may, however, be wrong in assuming the Big School appropriated their "lend freely (to the banks) at a very low rate" doctrine from Bagehot (they may simply have thought "lots of free money would sure be nice"), because this implies a reading thereof. If they had read Lombard Street they would have found these lines of concern about big banks, and management practices obscured from review:

The second misgiving, which many calm observers more and more feel as to our largest joint stock banks, fastens itself on their government. Is that government sufficient to lend well and keep safe so many millions?

All that the best board of directors can really accomplish [in the largest joint-stock banks] is to form a good decision on the points which the manager presents to them, and perhaps on a few others which one or two zealous members of their body may select for discussion

There is no more unsafe government for a bank than that of an eager and active manager, subject only to the supervision of a numerous board of directors, even though that board be excellent, for the manager may easily glide into dangerous and insecure transactions, nor can the board effectually check him.

Our great joint stock banks are imprudent in so carefully concealing the details of their government, and in secluding those details from the risk of discussion. The answer, no doubt, will be, “Let well alone; as you have admitted, there hardly ever before was so great a success as these banks of ours; what more do you or can you want?” I can only say that I want further to confirm this great success and to make it secure for the future. At present there is at least the possibility of a great reaction. Supposing that, owing to defects in its government, one even of the greater London joint stock banks failed, there would be an instant suspicion of the whole system. One terra incognita being seen to be faulty, every other terra incognita would be suspected. If the real government of these banks had for years been known, and if the subsisting banks had been known not to be ruled by the bad mode of government which had ruined the bank that had fallen, then the ruin of that bank would not be hurtful. The other banks would be seen to be exempt from the cause which had destroyed it. But at present the ruin of one of these great banks would greatly impair the credit of all. Scarcely any one knows the precise government of any one; in no case has that government been described on authority; and the fall of one by grave misgovernment would be taken to show that the others might as easily be misgoverned also. And a tardy disclosure even of an admirable constitution would not much help the surviving banks: as it was extracted by necessity, it would be received with suspicion. A sceptical world would say, “Of course they say they are all perfect now; it would not do for them to say anything else”.

A read of Lombard Street would not have led to the Big School's conclusion that the Lender of Last Resort should, in times of crisis, lend only to the banks, and even insolvent ones.

Bagehot advised differently: A panic, in a word, is a species of neuralgia, and according to the rules of science you must not starve it. The holders of the cash reserve must be ready not only to keep it for their own liabilities, but to advance it most freely for the liabilities of others. They must lend to merchants, to minor bankers, to “this man and that man,” whenever the security is good. In wild periods of alarm, one failure makes many, and the best way to prevent the derivative failures is to arrest the primary failure which causes them.

In other words, Bagehot argued the Central Bank's responsibility was to "the market", not the banks.

Further, he argued: the majority to be protected, are the “sound” people, the people who have good security to offer. He also speaks to the issue of unsound people, perhaps using a bit of wishful thinking: No advances indeed need be made by which the Bank will ultimately lose. The amount of bad business in commercial countries is an infinitesimally small fraction of the whole business. That in a panic the bank, or banks, holding the ultimate reserve should refuse bad bills or bad securities will not make the panic really worse; the “unsound” people are a feeble minority, and they are afraid even to look frightened for fear their unsoundness may be detected;

While the fraction of business which is unsound today is likely larger than in Bagehot's England, I suspect most is sound. Unfortunately, the unsound elements, while small in practical classification (derivatives, mortgage backed securities, etc.) are huge in terms of currency relative to the whole economy.

Big School means Big Problems

Why, I wonder, did the other schools of thought so meekly submit to the Big School's totalitarian revolution? Perhaps the question might better be phrased, what problem(s) deemed intractable by most other schools of thought did the Big School solve.

My best guess; one of the problems the Big School solved is Triffin's Dilemma. Alternatively, a previous (temporary) "solution" of Triffin's Dilemma, the London Gold Pool, was brought back to life, a la Frankenstein's monster which begat Big School thinking.

Triffin's Dilemma states that when a national money is used as an international medium of exchange and international reserve there will be trade-offs between the national and global effects of the reserve currency issuer's monetary policy. Moreover, the reserve currency issuer nation would soon find that it had to run increasing current account deficits to provide liquidity to the rest of the world. This, in turn, would erode confidence in reserve currency convertibility, eventually leading to international currency instability and potentially a break down in world trade.

Robert Triffin forecast the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system based on this dilemma. Of late, his work has been cited by the PBOC.

Issuing countries of reserve currencies are constantly confronted with the dilemma between achieving their domestic monetary policy goals and meeting other countries´ demand for reserve currencies. On the one hand,the monetary authorities cannot simply focus on domestic goals without carrying out their international responsibilities on the other hand,they cannot pursue different domestic and international objectives at the same time. They may either fail to adequately meet the demand of a growing global economy for liquidity as they try to ease inflation pressures at home, or create excess liquidity in the global markets by overly stimulating domestic demand. The Triffin Dilemma, i.e., the issuing countries of reserve currencies cannot maintain the value of the reserve currencies while providing liquidity to the world, still exists. Zhou Xiaochuan: hairman, Monetary Policy Committee of the People's Bank of China

Triffin, in the late 50s, called for the creation of a new global currency to act as international reserve, along the lines of Keynes' Bancor, or the IMF's SDR (deliberations for the creation of which were informed of his concerns), which, in my view, invites a whole new set of problems, but may still, barring a significantly large, in economic terms, country usurping the US$'s role, e.g. China (which invites similar problems, and leads to the US' loss of the exorbitant privilege), prove the best solution. A "free banking" system of competing moneys is another option.

As the US, not entirely without globally altruistic justification, did not want the Bancor in 1960 any more than it wanted it in 1945, the dilemma of convertibility fears was managed by illusion by way of intervention. The London Gold Pool was established in 1961 to keep the "market price" of Gold at $35 and thus reduce the incentive to demand promised convertibility from the Fed.

This worked until French demands for Gold were not satisfied. The cartel failed to maintain prices within the target and within a few years Nixon's closing of the Gold window ended US$-Gold convertibility.

I'll spare you the details of the 70s inflation and early 80s newfound stability. Suffice it to write that US$ reserves were accepted as semi-convertible- if not to Gold at a fixed price, at least to Gold and a basket of commodities with limited (until recently) fluctuations at new, higher prices.

In one (presumably easily accepted) respect, Big School banks that created and kept markets going in multiple new ($ based) investment vehicles helped sustain the sense of convertibility so long as those markets were trading.  Markets to spend one's $s, even if one never shops there, engender a sense of stability.

Also coincident with this new found stability was the beginning of a business deal between J. Aron (purchased by Goldman Sachs in 1981) and Central Banks around the world. As described in The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs: Coyne [CEO of J. Aron] learned that the central banks of many nations kept their currency reserves in gold bars stored in the vaults of the Bank of England in London or the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Taken together, all this great wealth of nations had what Coyne saw as one fascinating characteristic: It earned zero return. It just sat in the vaults. But Coyne knew that the time value of money always figured into any futures contract...so he called on the central bankers in one country after another and made what appeared to be a generous and innovative offer: "Lend me your sterile bars of gold bullion and I'll pay you a fee of one half of one percent every year!" (pg. 258)

The book goes on to detail that J. Aron was actually making 8% on the deal with no money down, "it produced a nearly infinite rate of return." The book suggests they pulled a fast one on the central banks.

What Coyne may not have known was that at least some governments may well have done the deal for nothing. J. Aron offered to do what the London Gold Pool had done, and was willing to take the risk itself- a risk passed on in the merger to GS.  An added benefit, assuming the deal worked as described, no gold had to actually be sold on the market, paper gold would suffice.

GS was not alone in this game. By the mid to late 80s when I was at Chase (now JPM), our Gold desk (fortunately positioned right behind the options desk where I worked) was playing the same game. Paper gold flooded the market.

One of the reasons I began working with GATA a decade ago was my observation (shared by them) of Gold's stubborn reluctance to rise in price despite the rapidly increasing external US$ reserves. If Gold was, as Triffin asserted, undervalued in the early 60s, surely, I thought, it was a steal in 2000 at $275.

Global US$ reserves have done nothing but rise since, at an increasing pace.

In 1978, Triffin and Mundell were warning of a sudden collapse of the US$ due to the growth of those reserves. Back then they wrote in astonishment of US$ reserves in the few hundreds of billions. Now, such reserves are measured in the trillions.

Without concrete data I can only speculate as to the extent of Central Bank gold leasing, or its effect on the price. In the past few years, the price of Gold has risen above $1000. Interestingly the price broke above the early 1980s high of $800 when problems began appearing in large US banks. The mid 2008 dollar squeeze in international markets capped its advance at that time, only to bring the US banking system to the brink of disaster.

How causal the coincidence proves to be remains a mystery. What seems certain is that, if Central Bank gold leasing is a policy aimed at extending the life of the US$ as global reserve currency, the banks so engaged cannot be allowed to fail, or the game is over.

Thus, I wonder how much effect, if any, the Gold leasing practices of the big NY banks had on the decision to make them too big to fail.

Have we dodged Triffin's dilemma by trying to maintain the illusion of convertibility only to invite a banking collapse worse than Bagehot's worse nightmare?

How will the US respond if an economy as large as China's needs a boost in international liquidity?  How large might an IMF rescue package need to be to keep China from suffering a disastrous contraction?  Would the US, as is its wont, allow the current account to widen further to ensure China repaid the IMF?

What if Japan needs IMF support?

How far off might such events be?

Big Questions for the Big School