Thomas Frank, “Rendezvous With Oblivion”

Thomas Frank discusses his book, “Rendezvous With Oblivion” at Politics and Prose on 6/21/18.

If anyone can make sense of our polarized, divided, and increasingly frustrated nation, Frank can. One of the sharpest political commentators at work today, Frank, author of Listen, Liberal and the classic What’s the Matter with Kansas?, has gathered a wide-ranging selection of his essays that begins to put the messiness that is Trump’s America into some kind of perspective. Energetic, realistic, and outraged, Frank, founding editor of The Baffler and regular contributor to The Guardian,  writes with his signature wit and uncompromising common sense, taking us around the country for an incisive examination of how inequality is manifesting itself in cities, workplaces, and politics.…

Thomas Frank is the author of Listen, Liberal, Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter with Kansas? A former columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Harper’s, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and writes regularly for The Guardian. He lives outside Washington, D.C.

A Decade After Bear’s Collapse, the Seeds of Instability Are Germinating Again

A big financial-firm collapse in near future is exceedingly unlikely, but another crisis isn’t

.. Bear and Lehman were the manifestation of deeper economic forces that since the 1970s have produced crises roughly every decade. They are still at work today: ample flows of capital across borders, mounting debts owed by governments, corporations and households, and ultralow interest rates that nurture risk-taking in hidden corners of the economy.

By the early 1980s, though, deregulation had allowed capital to flow freely within and across borders and crises became a regular occurrence: the Latin American debt crisis that began in 1982,

  • the U.S. commercial real estate and savings and loan crisis of the 1980s,
  • the Asian and Russian financial crisis of 1997-98,
  • the dot-com bubble of 1998-2000,
  • the U.S. mortgage crisis of 2007-2009 and
  • the European sovereign debt crisis of 2009-2013

.. Bear was both facilitator and victim of a housing bubble inflated by low interest rates and huge inflows of foreign capital—a “global saving glut” as then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke put it.

.. It arranged mortgages that financed the housing bubble while borrowing heavily with short-term IOUs.

.. When those mortgages went bad, Bear’s creditors yanked their funds—a de facto run on the bank.

Most of the regulatory effort since has been to ensure the largest financial institutions such asJPMorgan Chase & Co., which bought Bear Stearns in a fire sale brokered by the Fed, don’t succumb to anything similar:

  • thicker buffers of capital to absorb losses,
  • more reserves of cash and liquid assets to pay off skittish creditors,
  • restrictions on trading and compensation that incentivize risk-taking, and
  • new procedures for winding down failing institutions without taxpayer bailout or a chaotic bankruptcy.

Hyun Song Shin, research chief at the Bank for International Settlements, warned in a 2014 speech against the tendency to “focus on known past weaknesses rather than asking where the new dangers are.”

.. bond markets are growing at the expense of banks in supplying credit, enabling business and government debt loads in many countries to surpass their precrisis peaks.

.. Emerging markets have borrowed heavily in dollars, which leaves them vulnerable should the dollar’s value rise sharply

.. Total U.S. debt, at around 250% of GDP, still stands at crisis-era peaks while debt levels in China have caught up and passed the U.S.

.. Crises surprise because they usually start with an assumption so sensible that everyone acts on it, planting the seeds of its own undoing:

  • in 1982 that countries like Mexico don’t default;
  • in 1997 that Asia’s fixed exchange rates wouldn’t break;
  • in 2007 that housing prices never declined nationwide; and
  • in 2011 that euro members wouldn’t default.

.. the equivalent today might be, “We will never see higher inflation or higher growth.” If either in fact occurs, the low interest rates that have raised household stock and property wealth to an all-time high relative to disposable income won’t be sustainable.

.. A 1.5 to 2 percentage point increase in real interest rates, which he isn’t forecasting, would be small by historical standards but could potentially make the debts of Italy or Portugal unsustainable.

.. Central banks know this, of course, which is one reason they are wary of raising interest rates too quickly—while nervous that if they raise them too slowly, the problem will get worse.

Big Banks Get a Big Win in Senate Rollback Bill

Nation’s largest banks would gain incentive to buy more municipal bonds in legislation targeting smaller banks

.. a section aimed at making it easier for them to buy state and local bonds.

The provision, championed by Citigroup Inc. and other large banks, would ease a new rule aimed at ensuring banks can raise enough cash during a financial-market meltdown to fund their operations for 30 days, requiring them to hold more cash or securities that are easily salable.

Under federal banking rules approved in 2014, those “high quality liquid assets” included cash, Treasury bonds and corporate debt—but not municipal debt. Banks historically like to hold municipal bonds because of their safety and tax advantages.

.. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and 31 other Democrats who opposed the procedural vote.

.. State and local officials have praised the move, saying their securities could suffer if banks begin to shun them.

.. Analysts have said changing the rule for municipal products would be a mistake because it would erode the core of a bank-safety rule put in place after the 2010 Dodd-Frank law. While municipal securities have relatively low default rates, they are traded thinly and shouldn’t count as liquid assets, critics say.

.. “It’s an outrageously bad idea,” said Phillip Swagel, a professor at the University of Maryland who served in the George W. Bush Treasury, characterizing the provision as an implicit federal guarantee of the municipal market. In the next crisis, banks will have trouble selling their municipal securities, freezing up the market for them and requiring the government to step in to backstop it, he predicted.

Fed’s Dudley Warns Against Overly Aggressive Regulation Roll Back

When it comes to change, Mr. Dudley said alterations of existing laws and regulations should be done with a “paring knife, rather than with a meat cleaver.” Maintaining higher capital and liquidity requirements for too-big-to-fail banks remains critical, he said.

Central clearing for derivatives securities should also be retained, and a continuing role for the Fed as an important regulator remains critical. Mr. Dudley also wants the Financial Stability Oversight Council to keep its ability to name nonfinancial firms as systemically important and eligible for increased government oversight.

..  the Volcker rule, which limits certain types of trading for banks, should get a “less burdensome” implementation.