War Games

Inquiring minds may wish to take a peek inside a Fed ‘War Games’ Exercise conducted this past summer, just recently reported on by the Wall Street Journal.

Commercial real-estate prices have continued to rise and are projected to far exceed levels they reached before the 2007-09 financial crisis, adjusted for inflation. Debt is building up at companies through the issuance of junk bonds and loans to low-rated firms. Small banks, money-market funds, mutual funds and government-sponsored enterprises have become big players feeding the financial system with credit. However, the large banks subject to heavy regulatory oversight aren’t big providers of credit. Borrowers are increasingly reliant upon short-term loans, which could dry up quickly in a downturn. The economy could tumble into recession if a new financial bubble bursts.

What should the Fed do?

The question was posed to five regional Fed bank presidents in early June in a “war games” exercise. The presidents—the Boston Fed’s Eric Rosengren, Kansas City’s Esther George, New York’s William Dudley, Cleveland’s Loretta Mester and Minneapolis’s Narayana Kocherlakota, had to devise a response. They met at a regional Fed branch in Charlotte, N.C., and worked over three hours, with a whiteboard, briefing papers and lots of coffee. They emerged with a list of the pros and cons of various approaches, but no concrete road map for how to proceed.

Fed officials also looked at whether they could demand that banks require larger down payments on loans to ensure borrowers weren’t as exposed to a large drop in real-estate prices. These “loan-to-value” rules also would have required agreement among several slow-moving regulatory agencies. Another problem was that in this scenario, large banks weren’t at the root of the problem.

In addition, Fed officials looked closely at a little-used power the central bank has under the 1934 Securities Exchange Act to set so-called margin requirements on securities transactions, which could limit how much borrowed money banks, brokers and others can use in securities transactions.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the discussion related to monetary policy. Former Fed governor Jeremy Stein once argued that the most effective way to stop a bubble from building might be to raise interest rates, because that approach “gets in all of the cracks” of the financial system. Some of the Fed officials in Charlotte gravitated toward raising rates for that reason, and because they thought they could use it quickly and without consultation with other bank regulators.

Mr. Rosengren said he emerged from the exercise sympathetic to these arguments, but others disagreed. Among them was Ms. George, who said rates weren’t the right tool to address bubbles. She argued the best approach was to ensure the banks at the core of the financial system are required to have larger amounts of capital.

It was an odd turnabout. During most of this expansion, Mr. Rosengren has been a policy “dove” who supported the use of low interest rates to promote economic growth and reduce unemployment. Ms. George was a “hawk” who wanted rates higher because she thought low rates were causing bubbles.

Mr. Rosengren, in an interview, said low rates in this hypothetical scenario were less justified than they were in the years after the financial crisis because the economy in the scenario was back to a normal footing. Ms. George, in an interview, said she didn’t support low rates in the first place, but that didn’t mean that raising them was the best solution to a bubble after it had already been set in motion.

The disagreement was another sign that six years since the last financial crisis, Fed officials still don’t have an answer for dealing with the next boom-bust cycle.

War Games Joke

Shouldn’t central banks worry about bubbles before they blow them?

Raising interest rates much stronger, much faster than the Fed did may have prevented some of the housing lunacy that escalated between 2005-2007.

It may also have taken some steam out of the idiotic dotcom bubble. But Neither Greenspan nor Bernanke saw the real estate bubble until it was too late.

But in 1999, Greenspan was worried about Y2K problems and stepped on the gas. Right as the economy was about to crash, Fed minutes showed the Fed became concerned about inflation.

Clueless Fed Weighs Consequences

In further discussion of the “War Games” scenario, the Wall Street Journal reports As Commercial Real-Estate Prices Soar, Fed Weighs Consequences.

Federal Reserve officials participating in a “war game” exercise this year came to a disturbing conclusion: Six years after the financial crisis ended, the central bank remained ill-equipped to quell the kind of dangerous asset bubbles that destabilized the savings-and-loan industry during the late 1980s, tech stocks in the 1990s and housing in the mid-2000s.

The five officials—gathered at a conference table in Charlotte, N. C.—had to determine if hypothetical booms in commercial real estate and corporate borrowing risked collapse and damaging fallout for the broader economy.

The group was asked what to do about it. Fed officials said afterward they saw they lacked clear-cut tools or a proper road map of regulatory measures to help stem the simulated booms. They also disagreed on whether to use higher interest rates to stop bubbles, a blunt instrument affecting the entire economy.

“I walked away more sure about the discomfort I originally had,” said Esther George, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and a participant in the June exercise. She and others believe the Fed’s low-rate policies might have played a role in booming asset prices.

“Signs of valuation pressures are emerging in commercial real-estate markets, where prices have been rising at a solid clip and lending standards have deteriorated, although debt growth has not yet accelerated notably,” Stanley Fischer, vice chairman of the Fed, said in a speech Thursday.

Commercial real estate is a relatively small segment of the overall economy, and unsustainable debt hasn’t emerged as a problem. But financial bubbles have been root causes of the past three recessions and is a consideration as the Fed nears a decision on interest rates.

Mr. Rosengren arranged the war-game exercise, joined by New York Fed President William Dudley, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester and Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota and Ms. George. Some of them, including Ms. George, said rates weren’t the right instrument to use against bubbles. She favored demanding banks hold more capital.

Mr. Rosengren had noticed more building cranes in Boston. It conjured memories of the New England real estate boom in the late 1980s, which led to a regional banking crisis that played a role in the U.S. recession that followed.

“Given our low interest rates, given that it is an interest-sensitive sector, it is probably worthwhile to start thinking about at what point do we become concerned that is growing too rapidly,” he said. “And if it were to reverse course at some point in the future what would be the consequences of that?”

U.S. commercial real-estate prices are up 93% from a low in 2010 and 16% above the previous peak in 2007, according to Moody’s Investors Service. Among the hottest properties are apartment buildings, which have more than doubled in price since their November 2009 low and are 34% above their 2007 peak.

Such rapid price increases sometimes signal trouble. Another important measure is how investors and buyers use debt. Booms fueled by heavy borrowing can backfire on investors and their lenders.

Bank commercial real-estate loan portfolios are up 10% from a year earlier to $1.76 trillion in late November, a record high, according to Fed data. Nearly two-thirds of these loans are on the books of smaller banks, Fed data show, and foreign banks hold a growing proportion. Private-equity funds and real-estate investment trusts also have jumped in the game, reaching for high-yield returns.

Even though many Fed officials favor using regulatory powers over interest rates to stop bubbles, the U.S. was a “long way” from establishing a regulatory system that could achieve that, Mr. Dudley said in September.

“These tools are not things you just pull off the shelf and say, ‘Now I’m going to use them,’” Ms. George said. “They tend to be things that require policy analysis, discussion with other agencies or politicians even. By the time you identify the issue you are already too late in many respects.”

Fed Already Too Late, Again!

Now that the Fed realizes it has blown another bubble, it cannot figure out what to do about it.

Moreover, the Fed missed even bigger bubbles in the stock market as well as a bubble in corporate bonds in which companies have gone into debt to buy back their own shares at obscene prices.

And what about the bubble in junk bonds, now imploding? But let’s return to the commercial real estate theme for a moment since that is what’s on the Fed’s mind.

Demise of Malls Coming Up?

Supply Chain ponders the Demise of Malls and Traditional Distribution.

E-commerce and omni-channel fulfillment are the main drivers of transformational change in retail supply chains.

However, there are two other trends also illustrate how retail supply chain networks are changing:

1. the declining role of shopping malls, and;
2. the type of distribution facilities retailers and third-party logistics providers are investing in today compared to just a few years ago.

According to CoStar Group, a provider of commercial real estate information, the number of malls with vacancy rates greater than 40 percent – which generally means the mall is in “a death spiral” – has increased from less than 0.5 percent in 2006 to 3.4 percent in 2014.

And according to real estate research and consulting firm Green Street Advisors, “Since 2010, more than 24 enclosed shopping malls have closed, and 60 more are on the brink of closure.”

“About 15% of U.S. malls will fail or be converted into non-retail space within the next 10 years.”

Eyes on Wrong Problem?

Since the Fed has its eyes on commercial real estate, it’s highly likely a major problem surfaces elsewhere first. Perhaps it already has, in junk bonds.

William Dudley, president of the New York Fed asked in an October speech, Is the Active Use of Macroprudential Tools Institutionally Realistic?

Support for using macroprudential tools in the United States has also been bolstered by our experience during the financial crisis. The U.S. housing boom and subsequent bust might have been less severe had a set of macroprudential measures been in place at the time to limit the degree of leverage and speculative activity in the housing sector. The housing boom was fueled by optimistic expectations for house price appreciation, combined with lax underwriting standards embodied in such practices as no-doc mortgages and widespread speculative activity by investors. I remember, for example, the website, Condoflip.com, which says it all in terms of the degree of speculative fervor that was evident at the time.

[Mish Comment: And although it was indeed obvious, the Fed not only did not spot the problem, it denied existence of the problem when others pointed it out.]

My own view is that while the use of macroprudential tools holds promise, we are a long way from being able to successfully use such tools in the United States.

There is also the problem of responding to an emerging financial stability risk in a timely manner. First, the emerging problem needs to be identified. Then alternative policy responses need to be analyzed and debated. And, there is an understandable bias to start small and to escalate only as needed given the lack of understanding about how big an impact a particular tool may have on the economy.

Lack of Understanding About Tools

Note the irony here. The Fed has absolutely no problem whatsoever using “Macroprudential Tools” such a QE and zero interest rates to blow bubbles, but claims such tools cannot be done to prevent speculative booms in the first place.

And note the second big irony regarding “lack of understanding about how big an impact a particular tool may have on the economy“.

  1. Like keeping interest rates too low too long creating a housing bubble? And not even seeing it?
  2. Like blowing the biggest stock and corporate bond bubbles ever with round after round of QE? And not seeing those problems either?

And what will the Fed do if stock prices collapse? Retail spending sputters? Housing dramatically slows? All of the above at once?

The Fed seems oblivious to the strong possibility that multiple problems might hit at once. And it still doesn’t know what the hell to do about the obvious problems that it is looking at, created by its own macroprudential tool set that it says it cannot really use.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock