More on the immorality and hazard of policy based on moral hazard

They say that the 1930s Depression was a result of a crisis exacerbated by policies to maintain a strong dollar. When the history of the 2000s Crunch comes to be written, they’ll say it was a result of a crisis exacerbated by policies to maintain another sacred cow – the idea of moral hazard. Both policies may have made sense in the 19th century, but not in today’s world.

Let’s first ask ourselves what the priorities of the central bankers should actually be. Well, I’m in the UK and it seems to me that Mervyn King’s overwhelming priority right now should be to slow the impact of the liquidity crisis on asset values, principally housing. Since this is not being done, the danger now is that price declines become self-fuelling, of a housing-market correction turning into a crash. Over the last year or so, I’ve wavered between predicting just a shake-out in the buy to let* (BTL) market in the UK and expecting large house-price declines across the board. The swingometer right now is well into the red of a general crash. And the people who will suffer most are people like the le Roux family reported in Saturday’s Guardian. Working people, IMHO, should be able to afford to buy the house they live in (um, isn’t that why we’re building these houses?). Ensuring they can should be King’s no.1 long-term objective – but more about that some other time.

The point of this post is to clarify my views on moral hazard. I may previously have given the impression that I consider the concept worthless. This is not the case. I consider it a special case of expectations. Expectations matter. If I expect to be robbed in a particular district I won’t go there. Or, say, if I expect a government to expropriate my assets I won’t invest in that country – or will at least demand a higher return for the political risk.

The idea of moral hazard is that we should be wary of behaving in a way that may lead people to think that we will behave the same way in future, when, in fact, we want to give the opposite impression. That is, we should not reward undesirable behaviour. If a child throws a tantrum and is rewarded with sweets to make them stop, then they will learn that next time a screaming fit is a good way to get hold of some more candy. So far, so good, but “punishing” banks – and specifically their shareholders – for becoming illiquid is a bad policy on a number of counts:

1. It is ineffective because it hurts the wrong people. In more ways than one.

a. Subtle differences are important. The devil is always in the detail. For example, it is absolutely critical, as I pointed out a while ago, and as Daniel Gros notes in today’s FT, that US mortgages are “no recourse”. This is not the case in the UK. Northern Rock couldn’t sell or borrow against its mortgages because everyone was in a panic, not because the Rock took on daft risks. The Rock went under because of a US crisis, not a UK one. The institution that has been “punished” is secondary to the crisis, and, here’s another “subtle” distinction, not insolvent, but illiquid. The Rock has been allowed to fail partly because it was relatively small. Larger banks more directly involved in the dodgy lending are likely to survive.

Because we now have an interconnected global market for capital, institutions around the world have been affected by the credit crunch. Central banks should not allow any to fail simply because they are illiquid (at least so long as, prior to a crisis they have met clearly-defined capital ratio and other regulatory requirements). Banks should be allowed to go under only if they are insolvent.

b. But how can you “punish” an institution? Individuals made the decisions that caused the problem. I’m sure many of the Bear staff who’ve (literally, I read) been crying on the stairwells were not involved in buying CDOs based on sub-prime mortgages.

The shareholders in both Rock and Bear have been (pending legal action) pretty much wiped out. This is unreasonable not just because (as noted above) they have not necessarily invested in a business that has allowed its liabilities to exceed its assets, but also because there is no mechanism in place for them to exert control over management to the extent that they could prevent it running into liquidity difficulties. If the FSA couldn’t do it, how could the Northern Rock shareholders?

And what’s more, the shareholders at the time a bank runs into problems are not the same as those at the time decisions are made. Specifically, in the case of both Rock and Bear, large holdings were owned by institutions and individuals who saw the companies as recovery prospects. As I noted before, (more than once, or even twice, it seems) at least some of these investors were prepared to put more capital in to these institutions.

2. Moral hazard based crisis management also has rather serious unintended consequences.

As we already know, in the UK we don’t have “no recourse” mortgages. In fact, Gordon Brown has just created real-life counter-terrorism units – I kid you not, 24 should sue for breach of copyright – to be staffed with real-life Jack Bauers who will no doubt, among their other duties, hunt down people who don’t pay their mortgage. So, a company like HBoS is not going to go bust. But what have we got? Short-selling. Now, there’s nothing wrong with short-selling – as Nils Pratley notes in today’s Guardian – but it’s wrong not just to profit from spreading false rumours, but also if the aim of short-selling is to drive a company out of business. And in the financial sector this is possible if the central banks allow runs to occur. Short-selling can undermine the confidence in an institution and cause investors to make an otherwise irrational decision (given that they lose out by withdrawing funds early). This was a factor in the downfall of Northern Rock, and it seems Bear, as well as in the attack on HBoS last week. Rumours are probably impossible to prevent and in any case, the sight of a falling share price may be enough when everyone is on edge. And if destructive short-sellers are actually rewarded – by, say, the nationalisation of Northern Rock, to take an example at random – why, of course they’ll do it again… Hmm, aren’t we talking about moral hazard?

No, if central banks don’t stand behind institutions – or stand behind them sharpening their knives – then it is inevitable that there will be attempts to force some institutions out of business to make a profit.

Readers will be forgiven at this point for thinking that moral hazard based crisis management is more about an assertion of authority, a demonstration of power, than actually solving the problem. Perhaps central banks don’t want to feel they are becoming just another market participant in the global market-place. And perhaps they are playing as well to the mainstream media, who – as is a recurring theme on this blog – consider themselves now to be the conscience of our society, ever ready to allow subjective value judgements to take priority over cold rational, objective decision-making. Maybe I’m being too harsh. I’m sure that ultimately the problem is that people want to read exciting stories of good and evil, not abstruse analysis of systemic failures! JPM good, Bear bad? Yeah, right.

3. Moral hazard based crisis management is an obstacle to fixing the real problem.

Citibank has pointed this out. “They [the BoE] still seem to be concerned about moral hazard, but we are long past that. It is not a question of bailing out the City. We’re faced with the threat of unnecessary damage to the real economy,” say Citi. Exactly right.

But here’s one response: “Isn’t this the bank that has already written off in excess of $20bn, or thereabouts? Doesn’t that mean, by simple rule of thumb, at a 5% Tier 1 capital requirement, this bank has just had to withdraw up to $400bn from the credit markets?”

This commenter has answered his own question. We read that credit markets are seized up, but that US Treasurys are flying. Why? Because the banks have had to write down capital. They can’t therefore lend out deposits without screwing up their capital ratios. But what they can do is lend it to the US Gov’t (or UK for sterling) by buying gilts because then they effectively hold cash. The inflated price of Treasuries tells us, I suggest, that there are plenty of deposits – whether retail or money-market – in the system (cash has to be put somewhere and it’s generally not under the mattress these days), but not enough shareholders’ capital to cover the perceived default risk – or more likely the liquidity risk – of investing it either in mortgages or existing debts, however low risk and profitable they might be. That is, if I find a stash of cash in the attic, and deposit it in my bank, it won’t allow them to write a mortgage for someone else, however low a risk they might be, because this set of transactions would increase the risk of all the mortgages on their books (and no-one will buy mortgages off them). On the other hand, if I suddenly discover I have some money in a bank account, withdraw it, and invest it in new shares in the same bank, then the bank would be able to issue more mortgages far in excess of the amount of money I have invested, because I have invested some more money in covering the risk associated with those mortgages.

I stress that banks can’t lend because they are worried not just about default risks, but also about liquidity risk (otherwise the price of debt would, I suggest, have found a floor by now), that is, to put it bluntly, by the risk of a bank run. Because the central banks (OK at least the Fed and the BoE) have not drawn a line in the sand, no bank is safe from becoming the next Northern Rock or Bear. So the markets are seized up, I suggest, as a direct result of moral hazard driven crisis management. I hope everyone feels better that the “greedy bankers” have been punished (and here’s silly me thinking that the way to deal with inequality is by policies to deal with inequality, not by destroying institutions that have taken many decades to create, reducing competition, and thereby making banking services more expensive for everyone in the future, allowing the surviving bankers to pay themselves even more…).

Now, the problem is not going to resolve itself until we get more capital into the banking system. Since the sovereign wealth funds may not do this, I suggest the banks make rights issues.

Unfortunately, thanks to moral hazard madness, for a bank to suddenly announce a rights issue would be a sign of weakness, and they’d be torn apart by the wolves.

Ergo, the correct central bank policy is to take the illiquid assets onto their books, albeit at a penalty rate, committing to rolling the facility over for (say) 6 months. But, I’m a taxpayer, thanks very much, not in the mortgage business, so the quid pro quo must be that the central banks make the banks commit to substantial rights issues over that 6 month period. At the end of it, they’ll have the capital they need to take the assets back off the central banks and start trading amongst themselves.

It’s very simple. If a huge hole gets blown in the capital base of the world’s banking system then it’s got to be filled in again. Blathering about moral hazard does not achieve this.

4. Moral hazard crisis management is a poor substitute for effective long-term expectation setting.

If setting expectations is going to work – and I agree that it is necessary – then it has to be done on a deep, long-term basis. It has to be drilled into the nation’s psyche over a long period of time.

Just punishing almost at random a few managers, employees and shareholders – most of whom simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – will not be effective. It will simply leave these people feeling unfairly treated and aggrieved. Maybe they’ll simply invest their time and money in some other sector of the economy.

The sort of expectation it might be worth setting over time is that you have to pay your debts. This would have helped prevent the US housing meltdown spilling over into the whole global economy. Heck, it might even have helped prevent the bubble developing, since, at the margin, a few people might have questioned whether they really could afford the debt they were taking on. Clearly, though, no-one is ever going to be able to sell “no recourse” mortgages on the open market ever again.

Hmm, maybe we shouldn’t say never! This is the problem with moral hazard based policies. Those who are punished essentially leave the game. Those who profit (e.g. the banks that survive) are re-affirmed. JPM good, Bear bad. Yeah, right. And we end up repeating the same mistakes in the next cycle, because no-one’s left to remember the lesson.

5. An underlying cause of instability is the propensity of housing markets to develop bubbles. A moral hazard based approach will not prevent this, since it is not irrational to participate in a bubble (as I said before). Policies are needed to stop prices rising too steeply.

So the underlying cause is the fault of the regulatory authorities.

And their response has made the crisis worse.

Good work guys. But you’re right about one thing. It really is time to put those thinking caps on. This is starting to get a bit irritating for the rest of us.

* Postscript: I meant to say why BTL “investors” deserve to be hunted down by Jack Bauer. They don’t have the excuse of simply wanting somewhere to live, but nevertheless made reckless bets that house prices would continue to rise. They could make no money any other way than by capital gain. The point is that their market was tenants who couldn’t afford to buy property (at first it was people renting for convenience…). How, pray tell, can a rational investor expect tenants to pay the mortgage on a property they can’t afford to pay the mortgage for (otherwise they’d have bought it) and cover agency fees in order to provide the “investor” with a profit? Unbelievable.