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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

Authors for Policy Hub: Macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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April 29, 2010

Consumer credit: More than meets the eye

A lot has been made (here, for a recent example) of the idea that banks have shown a surprising amount of reluctance to extend credit and to start making loans again. Indeed, the Fed's consumer credit report, which shows the aggregate amount of credit extended to individuals (excluding loans secured by real estate), has been on a steady downward trend since the fall of 2008.

Importantly, that report also provides a breakdown that shows how much credit the different types of institutions hold on their books. Commercial banks, which are the single largest category, accounted for about a third of the total stock in consumer credit in 2009. The two other largest categories—finance companies and securitized assets—accounted for a combined 45 percent. While commercial banks have been the biggest source of credit, they have not been the biggest direct source of the decline.

042910a
(enlarge)

The chart above highlights a somewhat divergent pattern among the big three credit holders. This pattern mainly indicates that credit from finance companies and securitized assets has been on a relatively steady decline since the fall of 2008 while credit from commercial banks has shown more of a leveling off. These details highlight a potential misconception that commercial banks are the primary driver behind the recent reduction in credit going to consumers (however, lending surveys certainly indicate that standards for credit have tightened).

To put a scale on these declines, the aggregate measure of consumer credit has declined by a total of 5.7 percent since its peak in December 2008 through February 2010. Over this same time period, credit from finance companies and securitizations declined by 16.2 percent and 12.4 percent, respectively, while commercial bank credit declined by 5.5 percent. Admittedly, securitization and off-balance sheet financing are a big part of banks' activity as they facilitate consumers' access to credit. The decline in securitized assets might not be that surprising given that the market started to freeze in 2007 and deteriorated further in 2008 as many investors fled the market. Including banks' securitized assets that are off the balance sheet would show a steeper decline in banks' holdings of consumer credit.

A significant factor in evaluating consumer credit is the pace of charge-offs, which can overstate the decline in underlying loan activity (charge-offs are loans that are not expected to be paid back and are removed from the books). Some (here and here) have made the point that the declines in credit card debt, for example, reflect increasing rates of charge-offs rather than consumers paying down their balances.

How much are charge-offs affecting the consumer credit data? Unfortunately, the Fed's consumer credit statistics don't include charge-offs. However, we can look at a different dataset that includes quarterly data on charge-offs for commercial banks to get an approximation. We can think of the change in consumer loan balances roughly as new loans minus loans repaid minus net loans charged off:

Change in Consumer Loans = [New Loans – Loan Repayments] – Net Charge-Offs

Adding net charge-offs to the change in consumer loans should give a cleaner estimate of underlying loan activity:

  042910c

If the adjusted series is negative, loan repayments should be greater than new loans extended, which would lend support to the idea that loans are declining because consumers are paying down their debt balances. If the adjusted series is positive, new loans extended should be greater than loan repayments and adds support to the hypothesis that part of the decline in the as-reported loans data is from banks removing the debt from their books because of doubtful collection. Both the as-reported and adjusted consumer loan series are plotted here:

042910b
enlarge

Notably, year-over-year growth in consumer loans adjusted for charge-offs has remained positive, which contrasts the negative growth in the as-reported series. That is, the net growth in new loans and loan repayments shows a positive (albeit slowing) growth rate once charge-offs are factored in. Over 2009, this estimate of charge-offs totaled about $27 billion while banks' average consumer loan balances declined by about $25 billion. Thus, a significant portion of the recent decline in consumer loan balances is the result of charge-offs.

Nevertheless, in an expanding economy, little or no credit growth implies a declining share of consumption financed through credit. Adjusting consumer loans for charge-offs suggests that the degree of consumer deleveraging across nonmortgage debt is somewhat less substantial than indicated by the headline numbers.

All in all, the consumer credit picture is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface. A more detailed look suggests that banks haven't cut their consumer loan portfolios as drastically as sometimes assumed. The large run-up in charge-offs has also masked the underlying dynamics for loan creation and repayment. Factoring in charge-offs provides some evidence that a nontrivial part of consumer deleveraging is coming through charge-offs.

By Michael Hammill, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

December 18, 2009

October data indicate financial stress continuing to ease

Update: The numbers for T-bills and notes/bonds I am quoting refer to net official purchases only, not total net purchases by foreigners.

Original post:

The October Treasury International Capital (TIC) data, which report on U.S. cross-border financial flows, suggested continued unwinding of a massive flight to quality that took place in financial markets in the second half of 2008. (For a detailed overview of U.S. cross-border financial flows during the recent crisis, see a comprehensive report from the Federal Reserve Board.)

Cross-border private capital flows, which plummeted at the peak of the financial crisis in fall 2008, resumed as risk aversion in financial markets started to abate. On net, foreign private investors have again become buyers of U.S. assets, which has helped to increase the supply of capital in the United States.

Based on the TIC data, it appears that U.S. investors, too, are now channeling their savings abroad by buying foreign bonds and equities. Last fall as the global economy fell into a deep recession, U.S. investors sold, on net, foreign assets and repatriated capital at a record pace, partly offsetting outflows of foreign private capital. In recent months, U.S. investors on net bought foreign equities and bonds as foreign economic growth resumed and conditions improved in financial markets. The renewed purchases of foreign securities by U.S. investors shown in the data, however, represent an outflow of capital from the United States and, all else equal, increased U.S. reliance on foreign financing.

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The TIC data also show the easing of financial stress, which is reflected in the recent pick-up in foreign net buying of riskier U.S. assets, such as equities, and an increasing demand for agency bonds, including agency mortgage-backed securities, from foreign private investors. Also, foreign investors are rebalancing their portfolios from U.S. Treasury bills to longer-term Treasury securities.

As the financial crisis intensified in the fourth quarter of last year, foreign official investors bought on net a record $181 billion in Treasury bills while on net they sold $23.4 billion in Treasury bonds and notes. Although emerging markets' official reserves fell in the fourth quarter of 2008 (their central banks were selling dollars to support local currencies), net selling of longer-term Treasuries and a sharp sell-off in agency debt funded a surge in net buying of U.S. Treasury bills, based on the TIC data. Similarly, private investors' net buying of treasury bills soared in the second half of 2008. Buying short-term Treasuries allowed a shift to quality and safety in the most prudent way, leaving open the option to quickly reverse the flow. Now that the crisis has subsided, foreign official investors have tapered their purchases of Treasury bills and have increased their purchases of longer-dated Treasuries while private investors began on net selling Treasury bills in second quarter of this year.

Despite all these improvements, the influence of the financial crisis is still evident in the data that show persistent net selling of agency bonds by foreign official investors that began last year as well as continued net selling of long-term corporate debt by foreign private investors.

By Galina Alexeenko, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's research department

October 28, 2009

Selling stocks short: Ever controversial

Selling securities short has been a controversial practice as long as financial markets have existed, and the recent financial crisis brought short selling to the fore yet again. In the last week, a bill to impose new restrictions on short selling was introduced.

And earlier this month in its inaugural conference, the Atlanta Fed's new Center for Financial Innovation and Stability (CenFIS) provided a forum for discussing the topic of short selling.

Why does short selling have such a bad reputation? Financial economists generally have a positive view of short selling because short sellers take positions with risk of loss based on their view of a firm's prospects. Some others, though, generally do not take such a benign view of short selling.

Attitudes toward short selling reflect views about speculation. As Stuart Banner notes, a common historical view was that "[s]peculation was both productive and wasteful; it satisfied an evident demand, but its practitioners added no value to the community" (Banner 1998, p. 23). Banning short selling also has a long history. In the United Kingdom, "An act to prevent the infamous practice of stock-jobbing" was passed in 1734, an effort that attempted to ban short selling and was not repealed until 1860. In the United States, contracts to sell stock not owned at the time of sale were unenforceable in New York courts from 1792 to 1858.

Possibly short selling has a bad reputation partly because of its association with "bear raids." A bear raid is a set of trades in which a stock is sold short at a high price, negative rumors are spread to cause the price to fall, and then the short sales are covered by purchasing the stock at the lower price. Some discussions of bear raids suggest that buying stock on the way back up is a way of adding to the raider's profits from manipulating the stock price.

Bear raids are similar to speculators' manipulation of foreign exchange (Friedman 1953). Both are based on attempts to move a financial market price independent of any underlying development. Successful instances of bear raids and exchange-rate manipulation are similar in another way: They are far less frequent than complaints about them.

Selling securities short has a long and controversial history. While it's not clear whether proposed legislation on short selling will be enacted, it's a good bet that short selling's risks and benefits will be debated for quite some time.

By Gerald P. Dwyer, director of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Financial Innovation and Stability

References

Banner, Stuart. 1998. Anglo-American Securities Regulation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friedman, Milton. 1953. "The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates." In Essays in Positive Economics, pp. 157-203. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

February 6, 2009

Contraction, not tightening

Over at Financial Crisis and Recession, Susan Woodward and Robert Hall start a recent post, titled "The Fed contracts," with this:

"The Fed has indicated that it plans to pursue a policy of quantitative easing, that is, expanding its portfolio by borrowing in financial markets at low rates and investing the proceeds in higher-yielding private investments…

"But... the Fed has engaged in quantitative tightening over the past month, reducing its borrowing and reducing its holding of higher-yielding investments…. So far, no explanation for the Fed's announcements of moving in an expansionary direction while actually contracting."

First, it is probably appropriate to point out that the use of the term "quantitative easing" is a bit out of synch with the policy approach embraced by "the Fed." This is from Chairman Bernanke's January 13 Stamp Lecture at the London School of Economics:

"The Federal Reserve's approach to supporting credit markets is conceptually distinct from quantitative easing (QE), the policy approach used by the Bank of Japan from 2001 to 2006. Our approach—which could be described as 'credit easing'—resembles quantitative easing in one respect: It involves an expansion of the central bank's balance sheet. However, in a pure QE regime, the focus of policy is the quantity of bank reserves, which are liabilities of the central bank; the composition of loans and securities on the asset side of the central bank's balance sheet is incidental… In contrast, the Federal Reserve's credit easing approach focuses on the mix of loans and securities that it holds and on how this composition of assets affects credit conditions for households and businesses."

At Economist's View, Tim Duy zeroed right in on the point:

"Woodward and Hall are confused because they do not recognize that the Fed has not initiated a policy of quantitative easing…because the Fed sees their actions as credit market related, they would have no problem with the balance sheet contracting if credit market conditions dictate."

What Woodward and Hall describe is credit easing in the Bernanke lexicon, as "expanding its portfolio by borrowing in financial markets at low rates and investing the proceeds in higher-yielding private investments" is a description of changes in the composition of Federal Reserve assets. But the intent they assume is that of quantitative easing—which in the end is all about expanding the size of the balance sheet (on the liability size specifically).

In our opinion—and we rush here to add that is only our opinion—the key to unwinding the Woodward-Hall "puzzle" is in the last sentence of the Bernanke quotation above: "the Federal Reserve's credit easing approach focuses on the mix of loans and securities that it holds and on how this composition of assets affects credit conditions for households and businesses."

It is instructive to examine the source of the recent reduction in the Fed's balance sheet.

020609b

Though several categories of Fed assets have declined in recent weeks, the really large changes have been in currency swaps and the Commercial Paper Funding Facility or CPFF. In simple terms, currency swaps are the provision of dollars to foreign central banks to help satisfy dollar-based liquidity needs in foreign financial markets, the CPFF is a Federal Reserve funding facility to assist in the functioning of domestic commercial paper markets.

As the Chairman suggested in his Stamp Lecture:

"…when credit markets and the economy have begun to recover, the Federal Reserve will have to unwind its various lending programs. To some extent, this unwinding will happen automatically, as improvements in credit markets should reduce the need to use Fed facilities."

At least in U.S. dollar interbank lending markets, liquidity pressures have abated, as LIBOR rates have fallen substantially since last fall and have held relatively steady in recent weeks, and term financing premia have similarly eased.

020609c

Commercial paper yield spreads have also narrowed considerably for both asset-backed and financial paper since the introduction of the CPFF last fall:

020609a

Interestingly, a large amount of maturing CPFF paper was not reissued into the CPFF or the market in late January. This decline could be a result of some borrowers shifting to other, cheaper sources of credit. From CNNMoney:

"The Fed's commercial paper funding facility was a popular alternative for cash-strapped corporations at the height of the credit crunch, but demand for funding through the program has waned. Another government sponsored program, the FDIC's Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program backs financial institution debt issued up to 10 years, a more attractive alternative for many companies."

There is one additional wrinkle. Agency mortgage-backed securities—which the FOMC has authorized the purchase of, up to $500 billion—show up on the balance sheet at the time the trades settle. As of February 4, the Fed's balance sheet has $7.4 billion in Agency MBS. However, if you sum the purchases that the NY Fed posts on their Web site, the total is closer to $92 billion so far. Thus, roughly $85 billion in MBS the Fed has purchased have yet to show up on the balance sheet because the trades haven't settled. (Hat tip to our colleague Mike Hammill for bringing this to our attention.)

The central bank's balance sheet is in fact contracting. Maybe. But is it policy tightening? Doubtful.

By David Altig, senior vice president and research director, and John Robertson, vice president and senior economist at the Atlanta Fed