What Hides Below

November 3, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Think the days of packaging subprime loans together is gone? Nope. They are called asset-backed securities, or ABS. The 60-day delinquency rate on subprime loans is now higher than it was during the financial crisis (Richter, 2019). The dollar amount of 90-day delinquencies has grown more than 60% above the high delinquencies during the financial crisis. Recently Santander U.S.A. was called out for the poor underwriting practices of its subprime loans. In this case, Santander must buy back loans that go into early default because of fraud and poor standards.

Credit card delinquencies issued by small banks have more than doubled since Mr. Trump took office (Boston, Rembert, 2019). Did a more relaxed regulatory environment encourage these banks to take on more risk to boost profits?

In the last century, geologists have developed new measuring and analytical tools to better understand the structure of the Earth. GPS technology can now detect movements of the earth’s crust as little as ¼” (USGS, n.d.). The same can’t be said for human foolishness. During the past half-century, financial analysts and academics have developed an amazing array of statistical and analytical tools to understand and measure risk. Despite that sophistication, the Federal Reserve has mismanaged interest rate policy (Hartcher, 2006). Government regulators have misunderstood risks in the banking and securities markets.

Earthquake threats happen deep underground. I suspect that the same is true about financial risks. To gain a competitive advantage, companies try to hide their strategies and the details of their financial products. On the last pages of quarterly and annual reports, we find a lot of mysterious details in the notes. After the Arthur Anderson accounting scandal in 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed to bring greater transparency and accountability to financial reporting. Six years later, the financial crisis demonstrated that there was a lot of risk still hiding in dark corners.

The financial crisis exposed a lot of malfeasance and foolishness. Some folks think that investors are now more alert. After the crisis, corporate board members and regulators are more active and aware of risk exposures. Are those risks behind us? I doubt it. Believing in the power of their risk models, underwriters, bankers and traders become victims of their own overconfidence (Lewis, 2015).

Each decade California experiences a quake that is more than 6.0 on the Richter scale. Following the quake come the warnings that California will split away from the North American continent. Still waiting. The recession was due to arrive eight years ago. We did experience a mini-recession in 2015-16, but it wasn’t labeled a recession. The slowdown wasn’t slow enough and long enough. Eventually we will have a recession, and all those people who predicted a recession in 2011 and subsequent years will claim they were right. In many areas of life, being right is all about timing. Few of us are that kind of right.

The data demonstrates the difficulty of financial fortune telling. The Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns shows the returns and rank of ten asset classes over the past two decades (Callan, 2019). An asset class that does well one year doesn’t fare as well the following year. An investor who can read the past doesn’t need to read the future. Does an investor need to diversify among all ten asset classes?  Many investors can achieve some reasonable balance between risk and reward with four to six index funds and leave their ouija boards in the closet.



Boston, C. and Rembert, E. (2019, October 28). Consumer Cracks Emerge as Banks Say Everything Looks Fine. Bloomberg. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-28/consumer-cracks-emerge-as-banks-say-everything-looks-fine

Callan. (2019). Periodic Table of Investment Returns. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.callan.com/periodic-table/

Hartcher, P. (2006). Bubble man: Alan Greenspan & the missing 7 trillion dollars. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Lewis, M. (2015). The Big Short. New York: Penguin Books.

Richter, W. (2019, October 25, 2019). Subprime auto loans blow up. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://wolfstreet.com/2019/10/25/subprime-auto-loans-blow-up-60-day-delinquencies-shoot-past-financial-crisis-peak

Szeglat, M. (n.d.) Photo of lava flow at Kalapana, HI, U.S. [Photo]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/NysO5Rdn7Mc

USGS. (n.d.). About GPS. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://earthquake.usgs.gov/monitoring/gps/about.php

The Force of the Fed

To some extent, the Federal Reserve considers itself government. Other times, when it serves, it considers itself not government. – Philip Coldwell, President FRB Dallas 1968-74

September 2, 2018

by Steve Stofka

The nations of the world are the gods of Mt. Money, most of them with central banks who administer the credit and currency of each nation. Like the ancient Mt. Olympus of Greek lore, there is competition and a hierarchy among the gods. Currently the U.S. is the top god of Mt. Money.  Central banks manage credit by changing the interest rate, or price, that they will charge the demi-god banks within the nation’s borders. The banks, however, do not perfectly distribute the intentions of the central bank. Acting as intermediaries, the banks filter monetary policy and have a more direct effect on the economy. In this intermediary role, banks control the draining of Federal taxes generated by the economic engine.

In the U.S., the Federal Reserve (Fed) is the central bank of the Federal government, an independent agency created by Congress which has given it two targets: promote full employment and stable inflation. To meet those goals, Fed economists must gauge the strength of the economy, a difficult task, and estimate an ideal state of the economy, an even more difficult task.

Each August the Federal Reserve holds an economic summit at Jackson Hole in Wyoming. The newly appointed head of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, is the first non-economist leading the central bank in 39 years. His paper (Note #1) is plain spoken and illustrates the difficulty of reading an economy in real time. As such, I think he will be a gradualist, someone who advocates measured moves in interest rates unless there is a more abrupt shift that requires a stronger policy tonic.

Powell uses the analogy of a sailor steering the waters by reading the stars. The waves and weather can make real time observations unreliable, yet the sailor must make decisions that steer his course. Optimizing employment is one of the two missions that Congress has given the Federal Reserve. The Fed must make a real-time estimate of what they think is the optimum or natural rate of unemployment (NAIRU) and adjust interest rates to help align the actual unemployment rate to the natural rate. Powell presented a chart that compares the actual rate of unemployment to NAIRU as it was estimated at the time, and the “hindsight” NAIRU as economists now calculate it. (Note #2) The speech balloons are mine.


On page seven, Powell writes that, in the past, the central bank “placed too much emphasis on its imprecise estimates of [NAIRU] and too little emphasis on evidence of rising inflation expectations.”

Note the final word – expectations. Measuring what will happen is especially difficult because it has not happened. Probability methods can help but an economy has many more inputs than a dice game. One category of estimates are surveys of guesses about what will happen in the future, but these overstate actual inflation [Note #3]. A second category uses market prices. One method uses the price that buyers are willing to pay for a Treasury Inflation Protected Security (TIPS) (Note #4) In my July 22nd post, I introduced another market method – the net flow of money into the economic engine (Note #5)

Credit expansion has been poor since the Financial Crisis. The Fed cannot force banks to increase or decrease their loan portfolios by changing interest rates. In the years following the Financial Crisis, the Fed was frustrated by this inability, called “pushing on a wet noodle.” Interest rates are the carrot. The stick is a complex regulatory process that raises or lowers asset leverage ratios to encourage or discourage lending (Note #6).

The Fed manages credit flow through asset sales and purchases. While the central banks of other countries can buy stocks and commodities, the Fed is limited to buying debt, including foreign currencies, from its member banks (Note #7).

The Fed has the extraordinary power to purchase or sell the reserves of its member banks without their consent. Like the Fed, you or I can increase the reserves of a bank by depositing money in the bank (Note #8). What we can’t do is lower those reserves by writing our own loans. However, credit card companies, who are underwritten by banks, do provide us with a line of credit that we can draw on by using our cards. During the Financial Crisis, credit card debt jumped $50B, or 15%, because card holders reduced their payments by that much. In response, credit card companies reduced credit card limits by 28% (Note #9). While the Fed encouraged banks to loan, the behavior of consumers and businesses did the opposite. Consumers and businesses were more powerful than the Fed.

The banks administer or filter Fed policy in their interactions with consumers and businesses. If a bank must pay higher interest for its funds, then it will charge higher interest rates for consumer and business loans. Interest is the price for a loan. When the price rises, the supply for loans rises (banks make more profit on the spread) but demand for loans falls. The reverse is not true, as the data of the past decade has shown. When the price falls, the supply of loans falls while the demand increases.

Less credit expansion results in a slower economic engine, which generates less Federal tax revenue. For the engine to run properly, the internal pressure must remain stable. Inflation is one gauge of that internal pressure. The annual growth in Federal tax revenue must be equal to or greater than the inflation rate. When it is not, the engine begins to stall. In the graph below, I’ve charted the annual growth in Federal tax revenue less the inflation rate. Note the periods when this metric dropped below zero. In most cases, recession follows. Look at the right side of this chart. There has never been a time when the reading is so far below zero without a recession. That is a cautionary note.


The Fed must look through the fog of the future before it deploys its money super powers. In the face of this, the Fed must act with humility and a practical caution. Once it has decided on a strategy, the banks modify its implementation because they obey three masters: the Fed, their customers and their stockholders. Actual monetary policy becomes not the work of a select few in the Federal Reserve but an emergent composite of policy force and practical friction.


1. Powell’s speech is 14 pages double-spaced with several pages of charts and references.

2. For thirty years, from 1955 to 1985, the gap between the real-time estimate of NAIRU and the hindsight estimate is 1-1/2%, an error of 25%. In the 1990s economists’ models were more accurate. The estimate of NAIRU and its validity is debated now as it was in 1998 when Nouriel Roubini referenced several views on the topic.

3. A one-page Fed article on survey and market methods of measuring inflation expectations.

4. A one-page Fed article on long-term inflation expectations using the implied rate of TIPS treasury bonds – currently it is 2.1%. Vanguard article explaining TIPS bonds.

5. The net flows of credit growth, federal spending and taxes precedes inflation by several months (July 22 blog post).

6. Credit growth has been flat for the past decade as I showed in this July 15th post.

7. In conjunction with the Treasury, the Federal Reserve may buy foreign currencies to correct disruptive imbalances in interest rates. A NY Fed article explaining the process.

8. When we deposit money in a bank, its reserves, or cash balance, increases on the asset side. It incurs an offsetting liability of the same amount because the bank owes us money. We have, in effect, loaned the bank money. When so many banks collapsed before and during the Great Depression, people came to realize the true nature of depositing money in a bank. The banks could not pay back the money that depositors had loaned them. The creation of the FDIC insured depositors that the money creating powers of the Federal government would stand behind any member bank. My mom grew up during the Depression era and passed on the lessons learned from her parents. She would point to the FDIC Insured decal on the bank window and tell us kids to look for that decal on any bank we did business with in the future.

9. Credit card companies lowered limits. See page 8. Oddly enough, this Fed study found “we have little evidence on the effect of such large declines in housing wealth on the demand for debt.” Page 9. NY Fed paper written in 2013.

The Big Picture

May 19, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Here is a simple and elegant animation model of the economy in a thirty-minute video from Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund. The video illustrates the spending – income – credit cycle in easy to understand terms. The video includes an insight first noted eighty years ago by the economist John Maynard Keynes, who pointed out that one person’s spending is another person’s income. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?  I spend money on a pizza which increases the income of the pizza store.

When Keynes explored this simple idea, he revealed a glitch in the traditional model of savings and investment. In a simplified version, money not spent is saved in a bank. The bank loans out those savings to a business.  A business invests that loan into production for future spending. When economists model the whole economy, Savings = Investment. It is an accounting identity like a mathematical definition. The financial industry transforms one into the other.

During the Depression, something was obviously broken, and economists debated various aspects of their models. Keynes asked a question: what happens to the merchant where the money was not spent? Let’s say the Jones family decides not to buy a new TV and puts the money in a savings account at the Acme Bank.  The local Bigg TV store sells one less TV and has a corresponding decline in its income. Because Bigg had less income, they must withdraw money from their Acme Bank savings account to meet payroll. The money that the family saves is withdrawn by the business. The money Saved never makes it to the Investment side of the equation.  There is no increase in investment.

Most of the time, those who are saving and those who are spending funds from saving balances out. But there were times, Keynes proposed, when everyone is saving. Keynes attributed the phenomenon to “animal spirits.” As incomes fall, people start using up their savings to make up for the lost income.

During a crisis like this, Keynes proposed that government increase its spending, even if it needed to borrow, to boost incomes and break the vicious cycle. When the crisis was over, the government could raise taxes to pay back the money it borrowed. In Keynes’ model, government spending acted as a balancing force to the animal spirits of the capitalist economy. In the real world, politicians win votes by spending money but find that raising taxes does not win them favor with voters. Without legislative debt controls, government borrowing to counterbalance declines in income only produces greater government debt.

Turning from government debt to personal debt, the average credit card rate has risen to 15.3%, an eighteen year record. As an economy continues to expand and credit is extended to those with marginal creditworthiness, the default rate grows. The percent of credit card balances that have been charged off in default has risen from 1.5% several years ago to 3.6% in the 4th quarter of 2017.

Mortgage rates have risen to about 4.9% on thirty-year loans, and about a half percent less on fifteen-year loans. That half percent difference is close to the average for the past twenty-five years and adds up to an extra $1.60 in interest paid during the life of the loan on every $100 of mortgage principal. The graph below shows the difference between the two rates.


Because shorter-term mortgages require higher monthly payments, they are more feasible for those with stable financial situations and above average incomes. When the difference in rates is less than average, there is a smaller advantage to getting a short-term mortgage.  At such times, the mortgage industry is reaching out to expand home ownership to lower income homeowners. When the difference is more than average, as it has been since the recession, the finance industry is cautious and not actively reaching out to lower income families.

Mortgages are secured by a physical asset, the house. U.S. Treasury bonds are secured by an intangible asset, the full faith and credit of the country. Just like us, the Treasury usually pays a higher interest rate for a longer-term loan.

A benchmark is the difference between a 10-year Treasury bond and a 2-year bond. As this difference declines toward zero, economists call it a “flattening of the yield curve.” At zero, there is no reward for loaning the government money for a longer term. Knowing only that, a casual investor would sense that something is wrong, and they are right. Periods when this difference falls below zero usually occur about a year before a recession starts. In the graph below, I’ve shaded in pink those negative periods. In gray are the ensuing recessions.


Before that negative pink period comes another phenomenon. Above was the 10 year – 2 year difference in interest rates. Let’s call that the medium difference. There’s also the difference between two long term periods, the 20-year minus 10-year difference. I’ll call that the long difference. When we subtract the medium difference from the long, we get a difference in long term outlook. In a healthy economy, that difference should be positive, meaning that investors are being paid for taking risks over a longer period. When that difference turns negative, it shows that there are underlying distortions in the risks and rewards of loaning money. That distortion will show first before the flattening of the yield curve.


As you can see, the difference today is positive, a welcome sign that a recession is not likely within the year.



The actuaries for Social Security and Medicare use an assumption that our average life expectancy will increase .77% per year (Reuters article)  If you are expected to live till 85 this year, then that expectation will grow to 85 years and eight months next year. That’s a nice birthday present!

U.S. lumber mills can supply only two-thirds of the lumber needed by homebuilders. The other third comes from Canada. Recent import tariffs now add about $6300 to the price of a new home (Albuquerque Journal).

Financial Regulation

In 1966, Congress passed the Fair Packaging and Labelling Act, which required manufacturers of retail products to list the contents and weights of their products. The food industry fought hard against it. Breakfast cereal makers were accustomed to packing their cereal in big boxes to trick the consumer into thinking that they were getting more product.

In 1969, Congress tried to pass a law mandating unit pricing but the food industry lobbied hard against it and the bill died in the Senate. The reasoning was that consumers could figure out the unit price or the price per ounce of a product by themselves or bring recently introduced battery powered calculators with them when they went shopping. In 1970, some grocery stores began to offer unit pricing as a convenience feature to lure customers. Unit pricing in grocery stores is now commonplace.

Many years ago there was one mortgage product, a 30 year fixed loan, making it fairly easy to compare mortgages. Because easy comparison by a customer is not always good for the seller, mortgage companies competed by introducing a complexity of “points”, closing fees and prepayment penalty packages to distinguish their mortgage product from their competitors.

The 15 year mortgage arose a few decades ago, followed by a variety of mortgage products. This profusion of choices can be a boon to a consumer but it can also be confusing. This variety and confusion is an effective sales tool, making it more difficult for a customer to compare products and prices.

Just as the food industry fought packaging regulations, the financial industry will fight similar regulations on their products. Under proposed financial regulations, teaser rates of “0% interest for 6 months” will have to be followed by plain English of what that teaser rate will reset to in six months. No longer will credit card companies be able to bury the truth in impossibly small print referencing the greater of the LIBOR rate (what’s that?, you ask) or the Federal Reserve discount rate (what’s that?, you ask again). Mortgage companies would have to offer at least 2 – 3 standard products, like a 30 year fixed loan, that a consumer could compare pricing with a competing mortgage company. While this legislation works its tortuous way through Congress, the finance industry will be busy lobbying against it and figuring out how to outsmart it.

Small Business Lending

In a 5/5/09 WSJ article, Raymund Flandez focuses on the market for small business loans.

In February, 35% of new SBA loans of the most popular type were sold on the secondary market, up from 24% the previous month. Before the crisis in September 2008, 45% of these loans were sold on the secondary market.

At GovGex.com, where these loans are bundled and sold, bids for these loans have more than doubled since mid-March, when the Obama administration made a pledge to use $15B of taxpayer money to free up the secondary market in these loans. The government is guaranteeing as much as 90% of some loans. Before that pledge, the market for these loans had all but dried up, with volume totalling on $7.8M. Since then, volume has rocketed to over $67M.

Loan applications have more than tripled at Small Business Loan Exchange, an online marketplace which matches up borrowers with lenders.

Government Loan Solutions follows the SBA market closely and reports that the delinquency on the most popular SBA loan was 6.18%, the second highest rate in 10 years.

Peer To Peer Lending

In a 4/28/09 WSJ article, Jane Kim reviews the market for peer to peer (P2P) lending. Several companies provide a platform to bring together those who need money and those who have some extra.

A borrower fills out an application, stating their financial information, the amount of money they need to borrow and why they want the money. The P2P company verifies the identity of the borrower and pulls a credit report but doesn’t verify employment. Most of the companies have some minimum FICO score, a commonly used credit grade, that all borrowers must meet. The company then posts the loan request and investors bid on it.

LendingClub.com, PertuityDirect.com and Prosper.com are three companies using this model. At an average interest rate of 13 – 17%, borrowers can often get a better rate than using a traditional credit card.

At LendingClub.com, the delinquency rate was 4 – 5%, about the same as for credit cards. For investors, this is a way to earn more interest on their money. As always, with higher return comes higher risk. The P2P company makes its money by taking a fee on the loans.