Monthly Archives: June 2011

DeLong Illustrates Why We Should Be Scared of Economists

Several readers sent me links to a Brad DeLong post which they took to be a rebuttal to a takedown I did of a recent Ezra Klein piece.

Since DeLong did not link to or mention my post, I doubt his piece had anything to do with mine. But his post is noteworthy for a completely different reason: it illustrates how economists have refused to learn much, if anything, from the crisis.


Tom Adams: How Treasury’s “Kick the Can” Strategy Exacerbates Mortgage Market Woes (Mortgage Insurer Edition)

By Tom Adams, an attorney and former monoline executive

Barron’s published a detailed take down of the mortgage insurance industry weekend that highlights how Treasury’s approach to the mortgage mess will ultimately make matters worse. As the article points out, in the fairly likely scenario that mortgage claims exceed the amount of capital the insurers have available to pay them, the parties taking the biggest hit will be Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That means taxpayers are probably on the hook for more bailouts.

Despite having questionable capital reserves for the future claims they face, mortgage insurers are still continuing to write significant insurance business. Why would anybody want to continue to buy insurance from such shaky companies?

The continuing business of the mortgage insurers help shed light on the fact that virtually the entire mortgage industry is run through zombie companies that ought to have expired years ago.


Satyajit Das: Default Semantics – Credit Default Swaps & Greece

Yves here. Despite the technical focus of this post, the underlying issue, of whether Greek CDS will pay out as protection buyers expected, is very important. As Das discussed in an earlier post, in the first real test of the CDS market (the Delphi bankruptcy in 2005), credit defaults swaps had required delivery of bonds to get the insurance payout on the contract . Since the volume of CDS on Delphi was over five times the amount of bonds outstanding, that would have meant a lot of people bought dud insurance. That was recognized to have the potential to have very bad outcomes for the market. So, on the fly, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association implemented “protocols” by which any two counterparties, by mutual consent, substitute cash settlement for physical delivery. In other words, they came up with a big fix that was nowhere in the contracts. Ain’t it nice to be a big financial player?

Efforts to extend Greek debt may require similar efforts at fixes, and if they aren’t fully effective, it could have a chilling effect on the CDS market (not that we think that is a bad outcome, mind you). But even with all the powers that be out to preserve the product and avoid roiling the markets, the conflicting objectives of various players may render that outcome not so easy to achieve.

By Satyajit Das, the author of Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk (Forthcoming September 2011) and Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives – Revised Edition (2006 and 2010)

The European Union’s linguistic gymnastics, redefining default as “restructuring” or “re-profiling” and the structure of any final deal on Greek debt has “real” implications for the arcane workings of the CDS market.

In the film Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) tells Captain Renault (Claude Rains) that he came to the city because of his health, to take the waters. Informed that they are in the desert, Rick ironically replies that he was “misinformed”. Investors and banks that purchased Greek sovereign credit default swap (“CDS”) to protect themselves against the risk of default may find that they have been similarly “misinformed”.


Failing Upward, Version 3,452,227 (aka the Wages of Nearly Bringing Down the Global Economy)

Corporate American, and apparently important agencies, much prefer to hire people who’ve had Big Jobsno matter how poorly they’ve performed in them, that are very similar to the one at hand, rather than hire someone who relevant skills and experience but for whom a Big Job would be a step up.

You cannot make this up. From the Banking Times, “Ex-Lehman chief risk officer appointed World Bank treasurer,” hat tip Richard Smith:


The Social Cost of the Loss of Job Stability and Careers

As much as the rest of the world has chosen to look down on Japan in its post bubble era for its failure to clean up its banking mess and resultant stagnant economy, it has managed its relative decline in status with considerable aplomb. It still has the longest life expectancy in the world, universal health care, not bad unemployment (3% to 5%) and ranks well on other social indicators And now that the US is going down the Japan path, it might behoove us to take heed of their example.

One of the striking difference between the cultures is importance ascribed to job creation.


Quelle Surprise! Greece is REALLY REALLY Bad at Collecting Taxes!

Big Bad Bank, via Richard Smith, pointed out a post last fall that didn’t seem to get the traction it deserved (when market sentiment about Greece was peculiarly less pessimistic than now) that Greek tax administration is world class wretched. This matters because even if you operate under the fantasy that austerity works, you still have to be able to cut expenditures and raise taxes. But the logic of “raising taxes” is that if you increase tax rates, you’ll increase tax receipts. If you are already really terrible at collecting taxes, the odds are high that rate increase will not translate fully into higher tax revenues. And even if Greece were to decide to improve its tax apparatus, the machinery is in such wretched shape that it would take years of investment (and changes in laws) to make a dent.

The worst is that when your read this description (which I am excerpting at length, the details are intriguing and damning), although corruption plays a significant role, terrible institutional and systems design is an even bigger culprit.


Florida Governor Floats Huge Gimmie for Banks: Taking Foreclosures Out of the Court System

Florida continues to show a rather disconcerting willingness to throw its citizens’ rights under the bus to help the banks. The state created special foreclosure courts to clear up a substantial backlog, which might not have been such a bad idea if they had been properly implemented. However, they were staffed with retired judges, many of whom seemed to put speed over due process. There have been numerous reports of judges refusing to hear motions or evidence presented by borrowers, to the point where the ACLU contested the procedures used as violations of due process.

To some degree, this has become moot since these kangaroo courts are expected to be shuttered (they required an extension of funding to continue). Moreover, new foreclosure filings have slowed in Florida as a result of the robo-signing scandal. The revelation of widespread abuses by banks has led some judges to dismiss cases with dubious documentation; judges are also complaining that banks are seldom coming to hearings on foreclosure cases.

Never fear, with government bought and paid for in America, someone was certain to try a fix. The Florida governor has, in effect, suggested that if banks can’t meet the existing requirements for foreclosure, then the solution obviously is to lower them.


What can the Fed do?

Cross-posted from Credit Writedowns The Federal Reserve has released its latest statement on the state of the US economy.Its Chairman Ben Bernanke has now spoken to the press as well. The overall assessment was rather downbeat. (video below) Monetary Policy’s Impotence If you compare the Fed statement to its previous one, you will understand the […]