BUSINESS COLUMN | Shak: Leverage: the path to stability?

Most economists, politicians and businesspeople have accepted the business cycle as unavoidable and see the Fed Funds Rate, the key interest rate controlled by the Federal Reserve Bank, as the main means of smoothing out that cycle. However, with the Fed Funds Rate at essentially zero, the Fed has run out of conventional ammunition for its battle against the credit crisis.

John Geanakoplos, Yale’s James Tobin Professor of Economics, though, has proposed an unconventional way in which the Federal Reserve can control the boom-and-bust cycle by controlling leverage, or how much people can borrow against collateral.

Geanakoplos said he believes the leverage cycle was a major contributor to the current economic crisis. When the economy is booming, firms routinely borrow as much as 95 percent of the money they use to purchase assets. In so doing, they underestimate the risk of the assets they buy and, eventually, losses pile up quickly when prices drop only slightly.

As prices drop, Geanakoplos argues, fear makes lenders unwilling to lend, leaving many borrowers unable to use leverage at all. Without credit, new loans — necessary to hire new workers, buy new equipment and purchase consumer goods — become a rare luxury.

Because fluctuations in leverage can be so dangerous, Geanakoplos proposes that the Fed control its availability to borrowers. Under his plan — which he has presented to Chairman Ben Bernanke himself — the Fed would limit leverage when the economy is booming in order to prevent investors from taking on too much risk, and it would make leverage more available when banks are too afraid to provide it.

This would be a new mandate for the Fed. But Geanakoplos argues that the Fed can, with the right personnel, can provide the “adult supervision” investors may not want but so desperately need.

But can the Fed successfully mimic a private financial institution by assessing the risk of various securities and preventing all investors from over-leveraging?

Though I agree with Geanakoplos that the Fed should monitor leverage more closely when it is setting interest rates (since manipulating interest rates would have an indirect effect on leverage), I am not certain that his plan would be feasible.

Mainly, under Geanakoplos’ plan, the Fed would have to decide when leverage is “too high” — a difficult task. Now, the Fed does make a similarly subjective decision when it sets interest rates, but leverage is much harder to monitor. There are only two interest rates the Fed controls, but borrowers can leverage using just about anything as collateral (from cash or government bonds to real estate or commodities). In order to manage leverage, the Fed would have to observe the leverage available to holders of every conceivable type of asset and determine when investors are taking on too much risk.

The Fed is a government institution, not an investment bank. It employs economists, not securities analysts or hedge fund managers. In order to take on the gargantuan task of performing risk assessment on every market, it would have to hire Wall Street analysts (which would be easy to do now, but much harder to do when opportunities for these workers are available elsewhere).

If the Fed does decide to monitor the leverage available on all of these assets, it would have to know when an asset is risky when most financial institutions disagree. Unfortunately, it would employ people who have worked for the institutions that were unable to foresee the risk of over-leveraging, and then it would give them the task of trying to do exactly that. To be fair though, at the Fed, these employees’ incentives would be very different, and they would not be pressured, this time, to ignore risk.

As for increasing leverage when credit is unavailable, I believe Geanakoplos is exactly right. People are willing to buy the toxic assets that banks are holding, but no one will give them the leverage to do so. Though the Fed has already begun to do this through its Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, it should make providing leverage to borrowers more of a priority in order to unfreeze credit markets and increase the value of the toxic assets banks are holding and stabilize home prices.

Essentially, we should focus on increasing leverage now. Geanakoplos’ plan — that the Federal Reserve should provide that leverage itself — would expedite economic recovery. The task of preventing over-leveraging, though, may prove too colossal.

Marcus Shak is a freshman in Pierson College.

Comments

  • Edward J. Dodson

    The measures being proposed to stabilize our financial system and the economy reflect the sad state of discourse on substantive economic and societal challenges. Conventional wisdoms that conflict with reality continue to exert great power over the decision-making of our elected officials and those who serve as policy advisers. This circumstance is not new. Back in 1955, economics professor Harry Gunnison Brown expressed his frustration with many of his professional colleagues:

    "Economics is concerned with the problem of 'getting a living'. It deals, therefore, with an important phase of the 'struggle for existence'. Unfortunately, this fact operates to prevent unprejudiced investigation of its laws and of the effects of various economic policies. An examination that would show the effects of various policies from which a part of the public was benefiting, to be injurious to the remainder, might not be an examination which those who were profiting by the policies in question would desire to have made. And if such an examination were made, acceptance of its inevitable logical conclusions would probably be vigorously opposed."

    Over time, the search for solutions to the periodic tendencies of our economic system to implode have given way to mitigation by modest technical interventions using defined fiscal and monetary tools.

    Our very understanding of the health of our economy is obscured by the meaningless language of mainstream economics that is repeated regularly by journalists and news reporters. Let me begin with one prime example: the use of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a commonly-accepted measurement of economic health and growth. I doubt that any of the media commentators know that GDP includes (with minor exceptions) every dollar spent by government for any purpose, whether obtained by taxation or borrowed. GDP is calculated as follows: consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exports − imports). Thus, a rising GDP is hardly an indicator that the economy is expanding. Goods production can be falling, unemployment rising, crime rising, environmental disasters occurring with increasing frequency, with government spending on the military and the servicing of debt causing GDP to be reported as increasing.

    Another fundamental problem with how economics has evolved as a discipline is the extent to which theorists have embraced the notion that markets for locations in our cities and towns, for agricultural land, for natural resource laden lands, for the broadcast spectrum and all of nature, generally, respond to changes in price and demand in the same manner as goods we produce from nature. Generations of political economists who preceded economists treated nature (i.e., what they termed "land") as the first factor of production; that is, as the source of "wealth" but not as wealth itself. Nature was (and still is) the passive factor of production, acted on by labor with and without the use of capital goods.

    The first lesson confirmed in the real world is that the "price mechanism" does not work for "land". Price effectively clears markets for for labor, for capital goods and (to a great extent) for credit. However, as we have seen during this last land market cycle, as prices are rising speculation intensifies. Land is acquired to be held off the market for speculative gain rather than for development. This occurs even when locations are improved by various types of structures. Investors ignore vacancy rates and even negative cash flows on the gamble that rising land prices will allow them to flip the property to someone else within a few short years. The same mentality spills over into the residential property markets, exacerbated by low- and no-downpayment mortgage financing that allowed for interest-only payments or even negative amortization.

    What caused the current land market crash to spread so deeply and broadly around the world was bank-provided credit, allowing land speculators to pass on most of the risk to those same financial institutions (or investors in various types of collateralized mortgage obligations). The absence of effective regulation and law enforcement also deepened the crash by overloading the credit markets with poorly underwritten subprime mortgage loans, hundreds of billions of dollars in predatory loans made to low income, elderly and otherwise marginal borrowers, and outright fraud (e.g., the sale of nonexistent or extensively falsified loans by mortgage brokers).

    One immediate measure that ought to be passed into law is to prohibit any financial entity that accepts government insured deposits from taking land as collateral. This would remove a good deal of the accelerant from the next upsurge in land prices. Speculators would have to commit their own funds or find other investors willing to share the downside risk of speculation near or at the top of the land market cycle. Consistently imprudent bankers would be protected from their own inclination to book high-yielding assets without an objective assessment of the risks involved.

    There is nothing governments can really do at this point to bring us out of the economic depression. Government spending on infrastructure will stimulate a degree of private job creation and (combined with extended unemployment benefits and other social welfare measures) prevent widespread homelessness and social unrest.

    The time is long past for continued reliance on fine-tuning of the economy. When we suffered thru stagflation in the 1970s, critics on the right called for business deregulation and "supply-side" stimulation of investment based on dramatically lower marginal rates of taxation on so-called "capital gains" and ordinary income. These measures largely provided the atmosphere for an economy driven by speculation rather than goods production or the development of new technologies and services. I believe there are four main shifts in public policy required to start the dominoes falling in the right direction (i.e., in the direction of full employment without inflation):

    First, make the individual income tax system truly progressive and at the same remove its complexity. Wages and salaries are, for most people, the largest portion of their incomes, and are "earned" producing goods and services. This level of income should be exempted from taxation, or taxed at very low rates. We should begin by exempting all individual incomes up to a far higher amount than is now the case (eliminating all other exemptions and deductions). The national median could be a good starting point. Above the national median, increasing rates of taxation would be applied to higher ranges of individual income (which, as incomes increase, are derived from what economists describe as "rent-seeking" investment activities).

    Second, establish the mechanism for gradual repayment of the national debt by issuing fully amortizing bonds to replace existing government bonds as they mature. The amount required to service the debt (both interest and principal being retired) would be incorporated as an integral expense of the government budgeting process. The tax rates on individual incomes at the highest ranges would be set to raise sufficient revenue to achieve a balanced budget.

    Third, we need to replace the business profits tax with a graduated tax on gross revenue, exempting small businesses (which create the overwhelmining number of jobs in the economy). Some analysis is required to determine what the exemption level should be, but the idea is to benefit those companies most that have a stake in their communities and where profits are circulated locally rather than routed to a distant (or overseas) corporate headquarters and senior executives rewarded by compliant boards of directors for cutting the number of employees. This measure would also end the practice of companies being able to expense the huge compensation packages to executives and thereby reduce taxable income.

    And, finally, the federal and state governments must urge every community across the nation to restructure the long-destructive ways they have raised revenue for public goods and services. What communities create by investment in infrastructure and public amenities is land value. Thus, this community-created value ought to be the primary source of public revenue. Every parcel of land in a community has a potential annual rental value. This rental value is the amount that ought to be paid to the community in return for the services brought to a location. This means exempting property improvements (i.e., buildings of all types) from the property tax base. Moving to a land-only tax base will not only stimulate new construction and rehabilitation of existing structures, landowners will find it far more profitable to bring the land they hold to "highest, best use" as dictated by market forces (or sell to someone who will) than to hold onto land for speculation. Sufficient revenue might be generated by the taxation of location rental values to lower or eliminate taxes on wages and commerce.

    I welcome comments and questions on the above proposals. Readers may contact me directly at ejdodson@comcast.net if you care to engage in further discussion.

  • Principal

    Mr Dodson, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.