Paul Krugman Crosses the Line

Gerald Epstein

In his recent New York Times opinion column, “Sanders Over the Edge” (4/8/16), economist Paul Krugman offers his readers a basketful of misinformation on important economic matters about which he should – and probably does – know better. The column contains a large number of snipes and a great deal of innuendo against Bernie Sanders and his supporters, but here I focus on his claims about “Too Big To Fail” (TBTF) banks, their role – non-role, according to Krugman –  in the financial crisis, and Sanders’ understanding of the policy tools available to deal with them. Krugman’s claims about these issues are misleading, almost certainly wrong, and, in my view, call into question the credibility of his New York Times column as a source of economic information and analysis.

Krugman starts here:

“Bernie is becoming a Bernie Bro.” I’ll leave it to others to dissect this one. Moving on:

“Let me illustrate the point … by talking about bank reform.

“The easy slogan here is ‘Break up the big banks.’ It’s obvious why this slogan is appealing from a political point of view: Wall Street supplies an excellent cast of villains. But were big banks really at the heart of the financial crisis, and would breaking them up protect us from future crises? Many analysts concluded years ago that the answers to both questions were no.”

As you can see by following Krugman’s link here, this is not, what Krugman suggests it is: it is not a link to an article quoting multiple analysts presenting strong arguments with evidence that large banks were not responsible for the crisis. It is a link to an opinion piece by Paul Krugman himself. Period.

And, moreover, in this linked piece, Krugman is far more circumspect and uncertain of the answers than if implied in his statement “that many analysts concluded years ago.” So, who are these “many analysts”? On what basis did they reach their conclusions?

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German Financialization and the Eurozone Crisis

Nina Eichacker

Nina Eichacker is a lecturer in economics at Bentley University. This blog post summarizes her recent Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) working paper “German Financialization, the Global Financial Crisis, and the Eurozone Crisis.” Her previous blog post, on financial liberalization and Iceland’s financial crisis, is available here.

Many studies of the Eurozone crisis focus on peripheral European states’ current account deficits, or German neo-mercantilist policies that promoted export surpluses. However, German financialization and input on the eurozone’s financial architecture promoted deficits, increased systemic risk, and facilitated the onset of Europe’s subsequent crises.

Increasing German financial sector competition encouraged German banks’ increasing securitization and participation in global capital markets. Regional liberalization created new marketplaces for German finance and increased crisis risk as current accounts diverged between Europe’s core and periphery. After the global financial crisis of 2008, German losses on international securitized assets prompted retrenchment of lending, paving the way for the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis. Rethinking how financial liberalization facilitated German and European financial crises may prevent the eurozone from repeating these performances in the future.

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Banking on Bonds, Part 2

This is the second of two excerpts from a recent paper on the role of “repurchase agreements” (or “repos”) in the eurozone crisis, co-authored Daniela Gabor and Cornel Ban. Gabor is an associate professor in the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Western England-Bristol. Ban is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Co-Director of the Global Economic Governance Initiative at Boston University.

This part describes the behavior of the European Central Bank in the repo market—for example, tightening the standards for use of repos as borrowing collateral by embattled private banks—which had a perverse (pro-cyclical) impact in the eurozone crisis. Part 1, explaining repos are and their growing importance, is available here. The full text is available on the GEGI website.

Collateral Damage in the European Sovereign Debt Crisis

Daniela Gabor and Cornel Ban

The financial crisis which erupted in 2007 has fragmented the GC repo market in Eurozone government bonds … There is consequently a German GC market, a French GC market and so on, but there is no longer a eurozone GC market, except for oneday repos, where credit risk is minimal. (European Repo Council, 2013)

While US scholars and policy-makers have dedicated close attention to the run on US repo markets following Lehman Brothers’ collapse (Gorton and Metrick, 2012; Krishnamurthy et al., 2014) and the FSB (2012) put repo markets on its shadow banking agenda, scholarship on the systemic fragilities in European repo markets is in its infancy. Although the crisis reversed the Europeanization of sovereign collateral, as suggested in the quote above, the few studies dealing with European repo markets (Mancini et al., 2013; Boissel et al., 2014) do not engage with the impact on collateral markets.

The paucity of research on this topic is striking considering that by 2012, Portugal, Greece and Ireland provided 0.1 per cent of total repo collateral, sharply down from the 3.5 per cent share in 2008 (see Figure 2), and that Eurex (a large CCP) eliminated GIP government bonds from its GC Pooling basket (Mancini et al., 2013). Repo participants also reduced the use of German government bonds, for the opposite reason: in times of uncertainty, investors become reluctant to part with highly liquid assets.

Thus, the insight from the US-based literature on repo markets that government bonds preserve their high-quality collateral status in crisis, when repo lenders stop accepting privately issued securities, does not apply to Europe (Pozsar, 2014). The eurozone crisis shows that governments are also vulnerable to repo market tensions because the private rules that govern collateral and the incentives of systemic repo market participants are inherently destabilizing.

In the eurozone crisis, Member States faced not only destabilizing repo market dynamics, but also a central bank whose collateral policies were pro-cyclical at critical junctures. This clashes with the conventional description of the ECB’s crisis interventions, which emphasizes that its measures helped stabilize repo and collateral markets (ECB, 2010; Drudi et al., 2012; BIS, 2011). The narrative goes like this: throughout 2008 and 2009, the ECB acted counter-cyclically by extending the pool of eligible collateral (lowering the credit rating threshold from A! to BBB!), a measure meant to help leveraged European banks facing severe funding problems (ECB, 2015a). This allowed banks to take ‘bad’ collateral to the ECB’s long-term lending facilities and use high-quality collateral in private repos. Policy action contained potential runs in periphery collateral markets, restoring confidence in the collateral qualities of GIIPs government debt. The several long-term refinancing operations (LTROs) enabled banks to fund government debt portfolios, increasing demand and therefore liquidity in those markets. The OMT finally dealt with unfounded fears of a eurozone break-up in 2012.

A repo lens complicates this account. When examined through collateral practices, the ECB’s crisis interventions were often pro-cyclical. At critical moments, the central bank made margin calls, raised haircuts and tightened collateral standards. Indeed, in those moments the ECB behaved just like a private repo market participant – a ‘shadow bank’ – that disregards the systemic implications of its collateral practices.

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Banking on Bonds: The New Links Between States and Markets

This is the first of two excerpts from a recent paper, co-authored by Daniela Gabor and Cornel Ban and published in the Journal of Common Market Studies, on the role of “repurchase agreements” (or “repos”) in the eurozone crisis. Gabor is an associate professor in the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Western England-Bristol. Ban is an assistant professor of International Relations and Co-Director of the Global Economic Governance Initiative at Boston University.

Part 1 explains what repos are and how their importance has grown in recent years. Part 2, to be posted next week, describes the behavior of the European Central Bank in the repo market—for example, tightening the standards for use of repos as borrowing collateral by embattled private banks—which had a perverse (pro-cyclical) impact in the eurozone crisis. The full paper is available on the GEGI website.

Part 1: How Repos Work

Daniela Gabor and Cornel Ban

The ‘repurchase agreement’ (often referred to as ‘repo’) has become a key financial device for contemporary capitalism. Though the legal and formal definitions of a repo transaction can make it sound quite complex, it most simply can be thought of as a (usually short-term) secured loan. In a repo transaction one institution (the lender) agrees to buy an asset from another institution (the borrower) and sell the asset back to the borrower at a pre-agreed price on a pre-agreed future date (a day, a week or more). The lender takes a fee (repo interest rate payment) for ‘buying’ the asset in question and can sell the asset in the case that the borrower does not live up to the promise to repurchase it. The fundamental purpose of this circular transaction is to lend and borrow funds (and, in some cases, securities). While financial institutions use it to raise finance, central banks use it in monetary policy.

To illustrate, suppose Deutsche Bank (DB), acting as a borrower, sells assets to a buyer (Allianz), acting as a lender, and commits to repurchasing those assets later (see Figure 1). Allianz becomes the temporary owner of the assets, which also serve as collateral, and Deutsche Bank has temporary access to cash funding. DB and Allianz also agree that the purchase price is less than the market value of collateral (€100) – in this case a 5 per cent difference, known as a haircut. This provides a buffer against market fluctuations and incentivizes borrowers to adhere to their promise to buy securities back. In our example, DB provides €100 worth of collateral to ‘insure’ a loan of €95. When the repurchase takes place, DB pays €95 plus a ‘fee’ or interest payment in exchange for the assets it had sold.

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From “Boring” Banking to “Roaring” Banking, Part 3

Gerald Epstein

This is the final installment of a three part interview with regular Triple Crisis contributor Gerald Epstein, of the Political Economic Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This part focuses on why there have not been more significant reforms since the financial crash and Great Recession, and on a reform agenda for today. Parts 1 and 2 are available here and here.

Dollars & Sense: Of course, bubbles burst and exacerbate the severity of downturns. One of the amazing things about the aftermath of the recent crisis has been the apparent imperviousness of the financial sector to serious reform—especially in contrast to the Great Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. How do you make sense of that?

Gerald Epstein: You have to use a political economy approach to understand the sources of political support for finance. I call these multilayered sources of support the “bankers’ club.”

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From “Boring” Banking to “Roaring” Banking, Part 2

Gerald Epstein

This is the second part of a three part interview with regular Triple Crisis contributor Gerald Epstein, of the Political Economic Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This part focuses on the performance of the financial sector, against the key claims that are made by mainstream economists about its socially constructive role, during the era of “roaring” banking. Part 1 is available here.

Dollars & Sense: How does the performance of the financial sector measure up, during this most recent era of deregulated finance?

Gerald Epstein: If you look at the textbook description of the positive roles that finance plays, basically it comes down to six things: channel savings to productive investment, provide mechanisms for households to save for retirement, help businesses and households reduce risk, provide stable and flexible liquidity, provide an efficient payments mechanism, and come up with new financial innovations, that will make it cheaper, simpler, and better to do all these other five things. If you go through the way finance operated in the period of “roaring” banking, one can raise questions about the productive role of banking in all of these dimensions.

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From “Boring” Banking to “Roaring” Banking, Part 1

How the Financial Sector Grew Out of Control, and How We Can Change It

Gerald Epstein

Gerald Epstein is a professor of economics and a founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. In April, he sat down with Dollars & Sense co-editor Alejandro Reuss to discuss major themes in his current research. This first part (in a three part series) focuses on the dramatic growth in the financial sector and the transformation from regulated “boring” banking to deregulated “roaring” banking.

Dollars & Sense: What should we be looking at as indicators that the financial sector has grown much larger in this most recent era, compared to what it used to be?

Gerald Epstein: There are a number of different indicators and dimensions to this. The size of the financial sector itself is one dimension. If you look at the profit share of banks and other financial institutions, you’ll see that in the early post-war period, up until the early 1980s, they took down about 15% of all corporate profits in the United States. Just before the crisis, in 2006, they took down 40% of all profits, which is pretty astonishing.

Another measure of size is total financial assets as a percentage of gross domestic product. If you look at the postwar period, it’s pretty constant from 1945 to 1981, with the ratio of financial assets to the size of the economy—of GDP—at about 4 to 1. But starting in 1981, it started climbing. By 2007, total financial assets were ten times the size of GDP. If you look at almost any metric about the overall size of the financial sector—credit-to-GDP ratios, debt-to-GDP ratios, etc.—you see this massive increase starting around 1981, going up to a peak just before the financial crisis, in 2006.

Two more, related, dimensions are the sizes of the biggest financial firms and the concentration of the industry. For example, the share of total securities-industry assets held by the top five investment banks was 65% in 2007. The share of the total deposits held by the top seven commercial banks went from roughly 20% in the early postwar period to over 50%. If you look at derivatives trading, you find that the top five investment banks control about 97% of that. So there’s a massive concentration in the financial system, and that hasn’t declined—in some ways, it’s gotten worse—since the financial crisis.

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Is Financial Fraud Too Complex to Prosecute?

William K. Black, Guest Blogger

This interview with William K. Black (University of Missouri-Kansas City) appeared originally at The Real News Network. Prof. Black describes why the U.S. Department of Justice has failed to prosecute executives at financial institutions that helped to detonate the recent crisis. It is not, Black argues, that the bankers were engaged in “rocket science” too complex to prosecute, but that the lack of prosecutions is “a matter of will and a matter of ideology.” His writings on this and other subjects can be read at New Economic Perspectives.

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G20 Finance Ministers Cannot Hide Failure to Tackle Major Issues

By Jesse Griffiths, Guest Blogger

Jesse Griffiths is the director of Eurodad, European Network on Debt and Development.

The communiqué from this weekend’s G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Cairns tried to paper over increasingly evident cracks in the global economy, trumpeted an OECD initiative to reduce tax dodging which is not as good as it seems, continued to focus on privately funded infrastructure, and suggested G20 impotence in tackling big problems including too-big-to-fail banks and global governance reform.

The global economy: fragile and faltering

The G20 cannot hide the continued high levels of fragility, huge unemployment, and glaring inequality that continue to characterise the global economic situation. The finance ministers’ communiqué notes that, “the global economy still faces persistent weaknesses in demand, and supply side constraints hamper growth.” Recent reports that companies are buying their own stocks at record rates, helping stock market bubbles build rather than investing for future growth, is one reason the ministers “are mindful of the potential for a build-up of excessive risk in financial markets,” though they promise no new measures to tackle this.

Instead, their response has been to trumpet the promise they made in Sydney earlier in the year to “develop new measures that aim to lift our collective GDP by more than 2 per cent by 2018.” They get the seal of approval from the IMF and OECD’s “preliminary analysis, ” which, at three pages long, has so little detail it is impossible to assess its accuracy. Interestingly, according to the crystal ball gazing that inevitably characterises such attempts to assess global impacts of national policy changes, “product market reforms aimed at increasing productivity are the largest contributor to raising GDP,” which appears to largely mean changes in trade policies in emerging markets. The next biggest impact comes from public infrastructure investment commitments – highlighting the problems with the G20’s focus on private investments in infrastructure, discussed below.

Brief reference is made to the problem that dominated the G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in February: developing countries’ concern about how the gradual ending of quantitative easing and possible future rises in interest rates in the developed world will affect capital inflows and outflows, which can create huge problems for them. The rich countries that dominate the G20 cannot offer more than the promise to be “mindful of the impacts on the global economy as [monetary] policy settings are recalibrated.”

Despite the fact that Argentina – currently fighting a rearguard action to prevent a US court ruling from undermining a decade of debt restructuring – has a seat on the G20, the issue of permanent mechanisms to deal with debt crises continues to be off the table. Instead it was picked up by the UN, which passed a resolution in September to negotiate a “multilateral legal framework for sovereign debt restructuring,” which could be a game changer for how sovereign debts are managed, offering the possibility of preventing and resolving debt crises: a consistent plague for many countries and a huge problem for the global economy.

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U.S. Financial Reform Law Still Not Fully Implemented

Anton Woronczuk of The Real News Network interviews regular Triple Crisis contributor Gerald Epstein, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) and professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts. Epstein argues that, on the fourth anniversary of the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which was intended to rein in certain kinds of risky financial practices, implementation is going “much more slowly than one would have hoped.” The United States will need both a more complete implementation of Dodd-Frank and more far reaching regulation, Epstein concludes, to prevent the kinds of financial risk-taking that detonated the global economic crisis.

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