Collateral Transformation: The Latest, Greatest Financial Weapon of Mass Destruction

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Back in 2002 Warren Buffet famously proclaimed that derivatives were ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’ (FWMDs). Time has proven this view to be correct. It is difficult to imagine that the US housing and general global credit bubble of 2004-07 could have formed without the widespread use of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and various other products of early 21st century financial engineering. But to paraphrase those who oppose gun control, “FWMDs don’t cause crises, people do.” But then who, exactly, does? And why? And can so-called ‘liquidity regulation’ prevent the next crisis? To answer these questions, let’s take a closer look at proposed liquidity regulation as a response to the growing use of ‘collateral transformation’: the latest, greatest FWMD in the arsenal.

Behind the Curve, as Usual

Back in 2006, as the debate was raging whether or not the US had a mortgage credit and housing bubble, I had an ongoing, related exchange with the Chief US Economist of a large US investment bank. It had to do with what is now commonly referred to as the ‘shadow banking system’.

While the debate was somewhat arcane in its specifics, it boiled down to whether the additional financial market liquidity created through the use of securities repo and other forms of collateralized lending were destabilizing the financial system.

The Chief US Economist had argued that, because US monetary aggregates were not growing at a historically elevated rate, the Fed was not adding liquidity fuel to the house price inflation fire and that monetary policy was, therefore, appropriate. (Indeed, he denied that the rapid house price inflation at the time was cause for serious concern in the first place.) I countered by arguing that these other forms of liquidity (eg securities repo) should be included and that, if they were, then in fact the growth of broad liquidity was dangerously high and almost certainly was contributing to the credit+housing bubble.

We never resolved the debate. My parting shot was something along the lines of, “If the financial markets treat something as a money substitute—that is, if the incremental credit spread for the collateral providing the marginal liquidity approaches zero—then we should treat it as a form of de facto money.”

He dismissed this argument although I’m not sure he really understood it; at least not until there was a run on money-market funds in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in November 2008. It was at that point that economic officials at the Fed and elsewhere finally came to realise how the shadow banking system had grown so large that it was impossible to contain the incipient run on money-market funds and, by extension, the financial system generally without providing explicit government guarantees, which the authorities subsequently did.

This particular Chief US Economist had previously worked at the Fed. This was and remains true, in fact, of a majority of senior US bank economists. Indeed, in addition to a PhD from one of the premiere US economics departments, a tour of duty at the Fed, as it were, has traditionally been the most important qualification for this role.

Trained as most of them were, in the same economics departments and at the same institution, the Fed, it should perhaps be no surprise that neither the Fed, nor senior economists at the bulge-bracket banks, nor the US economic academic and policy mainstream generally predicted the global financial crisis. As the discussion above illuminates, this is because they failed to recognize the importance of the shadow banking system. But how could they? As neo-Keynesian economists, they didn’t—and still don’t—have a coherent theory of money and credit.[1]

From Blissful Ignorance to Paranoia

Time marches on and with lessons learned harshly comes a fresh resolve to somehow get ahead of whatever might cause the next financial crisis. For all the complacent talk about how the “recovery is on track” and “there has been much economic deleveraging” and “the banks are again well-capitalised,” the truth behind the scenes is that central bankers and other economic officials the world over remain, in a word, terrified. Of what, you ask? Of the shadow banking system that, I believe, they still fail to properly understand.

Two examples are provided by a recent speech given by Fed Governor Jeremy Stein and a report produced by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), the ‘central bank of central banks’ that plays an important role in determining and harmonizing bank regulatory practices internationally.

The BIS report, “Asset encumbrance, financial reform and the demand for collateral assets,” was prepared by a “Working Group established by the Committee on the Global Financial System,” which happens to be chaired by none other than NYFed President William Dudley, former Chief US Economist for Goldman Sachs. (No, he is not the Chief US Economist referred to earlier in this report, although as explained above these guys are all substitutes for one another in any case.)[2]

In the preface, Mr Dudley presents the report’s key findings, in particular “evidence of increased reliance by banks on collateralized funding markets,” and that we should expect “[t]emporary supply-demand imbalances,” which is central banker code for liquidity crises requiring action by central banks.

He also makes specific reference to ‘collateral transformation’: when banks swap collateral with each other. This practice, he notes, “will mitigate collateral scarcity.” But it will also “likely come at the cost of increased interconnectedness, procyclicality and financial system opacity as well as higher operational, funding and rollover risks.”

Why should this be so? Well, if interbank lending is increasingly collateralized by banks’ highest quality assets, then unsecured creditors, including depositors, are being de facto subordinated in the capital structure and are highly likely to ‘run’ at the first signs of trouble. And if banks are holding similar types of collateral that suddenly fall in value, then they can all become subject to a run at the same time, for the same reason.

Collateral transformation is thus a potentially powerful FWMD. But don’t worry, the BIS and other regulators are on the case and doing the worrying. As a belated response to the financial crisis that they all failed to foresee, the latest, greatest trend in financial system oversight is ‘liquidity regulation’. Fed Governor Jeremy Stein explains the need for it thus:

[A]s the financial crisis made painfully clear, the business of liquidity provision inevitably exposes financial intermediaries to various forms of run risk. That is, in response to adverse events, their fragile funding structures, together with the binding liquidity commitments they have made, can result in rapid outflows that, absent central bank intervention, lead banks to fire-sell illiquid assets or, in a more severe case, to fail altogether. And fire sales and bank failures--and the accompanying contractions in credit availability--can have spillover effects to other financial institutions and to the economy as a whole. Thus, while banks will naturally hold buffer stocks of liquid assets to handle unanticipated outflows, they may not hold enough because, although they bear all the costs of this buffer stocking, they do not capture all of the social benefits, in terms of enhanced financial stability and lower costs to taxpayers in the event of failure. It is this externality that creates a role for policy.[3]

Ah yes, wouldn’t you know it, that ubiquitous, iniquitous enigma: market failure. Regulators have never found a market that doesn’t fail in some way, hence the crucial need for regulators to prevent the next failure or, at a minimum, to sort out the subsequent mess. In the present instance, so the thinking behind liquidity regulation goes, prior to 2008 the regulators were overly focused on capital adequacy rather than liquidity and, therefore, missed the vastly expanded role played by securitized collateral in the international shadow banking system. In other words, the regulators now realise, as I was arguing back in the mid-2000s, that the vast growth in shadow banking liquidity placed the stability of the financial system at risk in the event that there was a drop in securitized collateral values.

In 2007, house prices began to decline, taking collateral values with them and sucking much of the additional, collateral-based liquidity right back out of the financial system, unleashing a de facto wave of monetary+credit deflation, resulting in the subsequent financial crisis. But none of this was caused by ‘market failure’, as Governor Stein contends. Rather, there is another, simpler explanation for why banks were insufficiently provisioned against the risk of declining collateral values, yet it is not one that the regulators much like to hear, namely, that their own policies were at fault.

In one of my first Amphora Reports back in 2010 I discussed in detail the modern history of financial crises, beginning with the 1980s and concluding with 2008. A pattern rapidly becomes apparent:

[Newton’s] third law of universal motion was that for each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. While applicable to the natural world, it does not hold with respect to the actions of financial markets and the subsequent reactions of central banks and other regulators. Indeed, the reactions of regulators are consistently disproportionate to the actions of financial markets. In sinister dialectical fashion, the powers assumed and mistakes made by policymakers tend to grow with each crisis, thereby ensuring that future crises become progressively more severe…

[W]as the Fed’s policy reaction to the 1987 crash proportionate or even appropriate? Was it “an equal but opposite reaction” which merely temporarily stabilized financial markets or did it, in fact, implicitly expand the Fed’s regulatory role to managing equity prices? Indeed, one could argue that this was merely the first of a series of progressively larger “Greenspan Puts” which the Fed would provide to the financial markets during the 18 years that the so-called “Maestro” was in charge of monetary policy and, let’s not forget, bank regulation…

By the late 1980s, a huge portion of the S&L industry was insolvent. The recession of 1990-91, made a bad situation worse. FSLIC funds were rapidly depleted. But a federal guarantee is supposed to be just that, a guarantee, so Congress put together a bailout package for the industry. A new federal agency, the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), issued bonds fully backed by the US Treasury and used the proceeds to make insolvent S&L depositors whole…

In retrospect, the entire S&L debacle, from its origins in regulatory changes and government guarantees, through the risky lending boom, bust, credit crunch and fiscal and monetary bailout can be seen as a precursor to the far larger global credit bubble and bust of 2003-2008: Just replace the S&Ls with Fannie/Freddie and the international shadow banking system. But there is no need to change the massive moral hazard perpetrated by incompetent government regulators, including of course the Fed, and the reckless financial firms who played essentially the same role in both episodes.[4]

Notwithstanding this prominent pattern of market-distorting interest-rate manipulation, guarantees, subsidies and occasional bailouts, fostering the growth of reckless lending and other forms of moral hazard, the regulators continue their self-serving search for the ‘silver bullet’ to defend against the next ‘market failure’ which, if diagnosed correctly as I do so above is, in fact, regulatory failure.

Were there no moral hazard of guarantees, explicit or implicit, in the system all these years, the shadow banking system could never have grown into the regulatory nightmare it has now become and liquidity regulation would be a non-issue. Poorly capitalized banks would have failed from time to time but, absent the massive systemic linkages that such guarantees have enabled—encouraged even—these failures would have been contained within a more dispersed and better capitalized system.

As it stands, however, the regulators’ modus operandi remains unchanged. They continue to deal with the unintended consequences of ‘misregulation’ with more misregulation, thereby ensuring that yet more unintended consequences lurk in the future.

Might Collateral Transformation Be the Crux of the Next Crisis?

In his speech, Governor Stein also briefly mentions collateral transformation, when poor quality collateral is asset-swapped for high quality collateral. Naturally this is not done 1:1 but rather the low quality collateral must be valued commensurately higher. In certain respects these transactions are similar to traditional asset swaps that trade fixed for floating coupons and allow financial and non-financial businesses alike to manage interest rate and credit risk with greater flexibility. But in the case of collateral transformation, what is being swapped is the principal and the credit rating it represents, and one purpose of these swaps is to meet financial regulatory requirements for capital and, in future, liquidity.

An obvious consequence of such collateral transformation is that it increases rather than decreases the linkages in the financial system and thus in effect replaces firm-specific, idiosyncratic risk with systemic risk, exactly the opposite of what the regulators claim they are trying to do by increasing bank regulatory capital ratios. Liquidity regulation is an attempt to address this accelerating trend and the growing systemic risks it implies.

Those financial institutions engaging in the practice probably don’t see things this way. From the perspective of any one institution swapping collateral in order to meet changing regulatory requirements, they see it as necessary and prudent risk management. But within a closed system, if most actors are behaving in the same way, then the net risk is not, in fact, reduced. The perception that it is, however, can be dangerous and can also contribute to banks unwittingly underprovisioning liquidity and undercapitalising against risk.

Viewed system-wide, therefore, collateral transformation really just represents a form of financial alchemy rather than financial engineering. It adds no value in aggregate. It might even detract from such value by rending opaque risks that would otherwise be more immediately apparent. So I do understand the regulators’ concerns with the practice. I don’t, however, subscribe to their proposed self-serving remedies for what they perceive as just another form of market failure.

Plagiarized Copies of an Old Playbook

Already plagued by the ‘Too Big to Fail’ (TBTF) problem back in 2008, the regulators have now succeeded in creating a new, even more dangerous situation I characterize as MAFID, or ‘Mutual Assured FInancial Destruction.’ Because all banks are swapping and therefore holding essentially the same collateral, there is now zero diversification or dispersion of financial system risk. It is as if there is one massive global bank with thousands of branches around the world, with one capital base, one liquidity ratio and one risk-management department. If any one branch of this bank fails, the resulting margin call will cascade via collateral transformation through the other branches and into the holding company at the center, taking down the entire global financial system.

Am I exaggerating here? Well, if Governor Stein and his central banking colleagues in the US, at the BIS and around the world are to be believed, we shouldn’t really worry because, while capital regulation didn’t prevent 2008, liquidity regulation will prevent the scenario described above. All that needs to happen is for the regulators to set the liquidity requirements at the right level and, voila, financial crises will be a thing of the past: Never mind that setting interest rates and setting capital requirements didn’t work out so well. Setting liquidity requirements is the silver bullet that will do the trick.

Sarcasm aside, it should be clear that all that is happening here is that the regulators are expanding their role yet again, thereby further shrinking the role that the markets can play in allocating savings, capital and liquidity from where they are relatively inefficiently utilized to where they are relatively more so. This concept of free market allocation of capital is a key characteristic of a theoretical economic system known as ‘capitalism’. But capitalism cannot function properly where capital flows are severely distorted by regulators. Resources will be chronically misallocated, resulting in a low or possibly even negative potential rate of economic growth.

The regulators don’t see it that way of course. Everywhere they look they see market failure. And because Governor Stein and his fellow regulators take this market failure as a given, rather than seeking to understand properly how past regulatory actions have severely distorted perceptions of risk and encouraged moral hazard, they are naturally drawn to regulatory ‘solutions’ that are really just plagiarized copies of an old playbook. What is that definition of insanity again, about doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results?

A Brief Market Update

May was by far the most tumultuous month to date in the international financial markets. Although Japanese markets have been highly volatile for some time, and with good reason, this volatility spilled out into nearly all markets last month.

There are good reasons for this, some fundamental and some technical. First, it was inevitable that, at some point, yen weakness was going to trigger a rise in Japanese government bond yields. It appears that point was reached in April as JGB yields spiked sharply higher, implying rising funding costs for Japan’s huge government debt mountain. But as any student of international finance knows, government bond markets compete with one another and, as JGB yields rose yet the yen declined, JGBs began to appear as better value vis-à-vis other markets such as those for US Treasuries and Eurogovies. And so the JGB yield spike turned into a global yield spike.

Second, as finance students also know, equities compete with bonds and, as bond yields rise, equity valuations should decline, other factors equal. The general surge in global bond yields thus appears finally to have applied the brakes to the equity market rally. Were equity valuations more in line with historical averages then a much larger rise in bond yields would probably have been required, but given lofty P/Es, in particular in the US, the equity market was highly vulnerable.

Third, as realized volatility increases, many financial institutions are required to reduce positions to stay within mandated risk limits, regardless of where those positions are. So increased volatility elsewhere was bound to affect the US stock market at some point if only through such transmission.

I continue to regard the risks of an equity market correction or even a crash as unusually high at present for a variety of reasons as discussed in previous reports.[5] Whether this has started to unfold is, of course, unclear, but recent price action does suggest a trend reversal may now be underway.

As for commodities, these remain the cheapest they have been relative to equities since 2007. A few of them look a bit pricey, including crude oil, cotton and palladium. Gold, however, has been among the worst performers this year and with a volatility far above the historical average. While that might scare away those speculators playing in gold via ETFs and other paper instruments, it is also playing into the hands of longer-term investors who hold physical gold as a form of insurance against financial instability, monetary inflation and currency depreciation. The risks of and regulatory responses to collateral transformation should, in my opinion, only serve to increase the demand, and price, for such insurance in future.

A Few Words About The Amphora Report

As mentioned in prior reports I have begun the process of transforming the Amphora Report into a low-cost subscription service. If you would like to continue receiving it, please send me your details and I will place you on the list of interested parties. Once available I will send through detailed subscription information. In any case, thanks again for your interest in these pages. I do hope they remain enjoyable, informative and educational.

[1] Neo-Keynesians will deny this, claiming that their models take money and credit into account. But they do so only to a very limited extent, with financial crises relegated to mere aberrations in the data. The Austrian economic school of Menger, Mises, Hayek, etc, by contrast, has a comprehensive and consistent theory of money and credit that can explain and even predict financial crises.

[2] The entire paper can be found at the link here.

[3] This entire speech can be found at the link here.

[4] FINANCIAL CRISES AND NEWTON’S THIRD LAW, Amphora Report Vol. 1 (April 2010). The link is here.

[5] For example, please see MONETISATION ON STERIODS, Amphora Report vol. 4 (March 2013). The link is here.

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