It’s Everybody Else’s Fault

That’s the claim of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, as described in Sunday’s Wall Street Journal editorial. The editors are correct as far as they go, but I do have a quibble and a more serious disagreement with some of the things they said.

First my quibble:

Yet here we are with major banks failing, and the government having to bail out uninsured depositors and offer lifelines to protect bank assets that are underwater.

No, the government most certainly did not have to “bail out” uninsured depositors or offer lifelines to other banks. The Biden administration, through Yellen, chose to do those things. By doing so, though, they set the ugly precedent of bailing out everyone else in all other banks without regard to whether those depositors are FDIC insured and without regard to the risks other banks may or may not be running, the Biden-Yellen blather to the contrary not withstanding. By doing so, Biden and Yellen have indemnified uninsured depositors and careless bankers from risk, laying that risk off onto us taxpayers instead.

My more serious disagreement:

The main culprit [regarding Silicon Valley Bank and the deposit runs at midsize banks] was duration risk from the failure to properly hedge against rising interest rates…. …. There’s no excuse for the examiners at the San Francisco Federal Reserve not to have acted on the problem as the West coast bank regulator.

Again, no. There’s certainly room to decry the failure of the SF Fed regulators to regulate, and those worthies should be terminated for cause over their negligence.

However, the first, proximate, and last responsibility for SVB’s failure and those other banks’ problems lies with the managers of those institutions. Interest rate risk, which underlies duration risk, is the risk taken when buying a debt instrument: when market interest rates rise, the debt instrument’s market price falls, and that reduces the value of the debt instruments already bought—for instance, the long Treasury bonds SVB’s managers had bought in satisfaction of its reserve requirements. Any first year economics student learns that, if he hadn’t already learned it in high school.

Duration risk, which matches long term debt assets with short term debt obligations (or not…) is something that same first-year economics student learns later in that same semester. And it’s something about which any first-year Finance student learns early in the first semester.

It was those managers’ decision to ignore those risks, or their careless laziness in not bothering to deal with those risks, or some combination of the two, that lay at the heart of the failure of the one and the problems of the others. The San Francisco Fed’s failure to act was only a (actually quite minor, given where the primary responsibility, and initiative, lies) contributing factor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *