Financial Alchemy: Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLOs) Transform Junk Loans into Investment Grade Securities

A week ago, we described commercial loans in general, and how they differ from bonds. Companies nearly always need money to make money, and thus have to borrow money in addition to selling stock shares. Companies that are new or smaller or doing poorly or have already borrowed a lot can still get loans, but these loans typically come with stringent conditions and require paying relatively high interest. These “leveraged loans” are the loan equivalent of “junk” bonds. When a bank lends money as a “Senior Secured Loan”, this entails agreements (“covenants”) which may specify that in event of default, this loan gets paid off ahead of any other creditor, and also that some specific asset held by the company, such as a building or an oil field, will be given over to the bank.

Financial institutions like insurance companies and pension funds are hungry for “investment grade” securities like bonds rated BBB or higher. Normally, these institutions would not consider buying into the senior loan marketplace, since these instruments are not considered investment grade.

Enter “Collateralized Loan Obligations” (CLOs). With a CLO, 200 or so loans which have been made by banks and then sold off into the market are bundled together, and then the cash flow from the interest paid on these loans plus the principal paid back is repackaged into slices or “tranches”. The highest level tranches get first dibs on being paid from the overall CLO cash flow, then the lower and lower tranches. The majority of bank loans today end up being packaged into CLOs.  CLOs are an example of a lucrative operation known as “securitization”:   “Securitization is the process of taking an illiquid asset or group of assets and, through financial engineering, transforming it (or them) into a security” (per Investopedia).

The rate of loan defaults in recent years has been only 3-4%, and on average the recovery on a given defaulted senior secured loan has been around 80%. So the actual losses (e.g. 4% x 20%, or 0.8% net) have been quite low. The highest annual default rate in recent memory was about 10%, in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009.

The theory is that, although any particular loan has a nontrivial chance of defaulting, it is unthinkable that more than say 20% of all loans would default; and even if a full 20% of the loans did default, we would expect that the actual losses after liquidating the pledged collateral would be more like 4% of the entire loan portfolio (i.e. 20% defaults x 20% loss per default). This means that the top 95% or so of CLO cash flow should be considered very secure, and the top 60-70% are utterly secure.

Thus, the top 60-65% of the CLO cash flow is packaged as super secure, relatively low-yielding AAA rated debt, and as such is bought up by conservative financial institutions, including banks. This arrangement keeps those institutions happy, and also facilitates the making of loans to the needy companies who are taking out the underlying loans.

The figure below from an Eagle Point Investment Company presentation depicts typical CLO tranches:

The lower the position in the CLO cash flow “waterfall”, the higher the yield and the higher the risk of non-payment. The AA, A, and BBB debt tranches are all considered investment grade, though with higher risk and higher yields than the AAA tranche. The Eagle Point Investment Company happens to buy into the BB-rated debt tranche, which is just below investment grade. You, the public, can buy shares Eagle Point Investment (stock symbol EIC). These shares pay about 7% yield, after hefty management fees have been subtracted.

The equity tranche lies at the very bottom of the CLO heap. If there were, say, 20% loan defaults with only 50% recovery of the loans, the equity tranche might get completely wiped out. So these are more risky investments. As usual, there is high reward along with the risk. Oxford Lane Capital (OXLC) deals in CLO equity, and it will pay you about 15% per year, which is huge in today’s low-interest world. But….you need to be prepared to have the stock value cut in half every ten years or so, whenever there is a big hiccup in the financial world.

Anyone who was an economics-savvy adult during the GFC should be asking, “But, but, but…aren’t these CLOs essentially the same thing as the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that blew up the world in 2008?”  The answer is partly yes, in that in both cases a bunch of loans get bundled together and then resliced into tranches. That said, we hope that the underlying loans in today’s CLOs are more robust than the massively shady home mortgage loans of 2003-2008 that fed into those CDOs. Back then, unscrupulous banks and mortgage companies handed out thousands of housing loans to ill-informed private individuals who did not remotely qualify for them, and then the banks dumped these loans out into the broader financial markets via CDOs. The bank loans behind today’s CLOs are more sober, serious, vetted affairs than those ridiculous subprime home mortgages.

This past summer, in the thick of the Covid shutdowns which have stressed small businesses,  The Atlantic published a dire assessment of the potential for CLOs to sink the system, with the catchy title “The Looming Bank Collapse “. The article noted, fairly enough, that there has been a trend in the past few years to weaken the covenants on loans which would normally protect the lender against losses. Most loans these days are considered “covenant-lite”, compared to several years ago. There is genuine concern that the recovery on these loans might be more like 40-50%, instead of the historic 70-80%. On the other hand, the looser requirements on these loans may mean that fewer of them will technically violate these looser covenants and thus fewer companies will actually default. A recent survey estimates that the default rate in the $ 1.2 trillion dollar leveraged loan universe will peak at only 6.6% in 2021.

Also, today’s CLOs seem to be rated by the major ratings agencies more responsibly than the notoriously optimistic ratings given to CDO’s back in 2008.  “CLOs are usually rated by two of the three major ratings agencies and impose a series of covenant tests on collateral managers, including minimum rating, industry diversification, and maximum default basket”, according to an article by S&P Global Market Intelligence. That article has a good description of CLOs, including a brief tutorial video on the nuts and bolts of how they work.

Charter Cities and Genetic Algorithms

My dear friend Mark Lutter has had me all riled up about charter cities for a few years now. I link to a new podcast from USFQ’s Aula Magna magazine on the subject that gives a very short introduction to the topic. After recording the podcast I returned to preping a class on genetic algorithms and got all riled up because I saw a connection between the two I hadn’t seen (clearly) before. Charter cities can be real life genetic algorithms for institutional innnovation.

Genetic algorithms are a form of machine learning that searches for solutions to problems by trying out a variety of solutions. As the name implies they are based on the evolutionary algorithm of diversity-selection-amplification to adapt solutions. In a genetic algorithm a population of of possible solutions to an optimization problem is instantiated and solutions with high fitness and reproduce (using cross over, mutation, and other genetic operators) to create new populations of solutions. over enough iterations genetic algorithms are goods ways to search for solutions whe the solution space is complex and poorly defined, which is probably what institutional space looks like.

Now imagine a country that is designed as a genetic algorithm and charter cities within the country as posible institutional solutions. The constitution of the central government is the overall framework of the genetic algorithm and the diversity of institutional arrangments at local government levels (i.e. different charters) are posible solutions.

Viewing charter cities in this light, the interesting question now turns to the rules of the central government and not necesarily to the rules implemented by the charters themselves.

A few of the questions that have begun to bother me follow. What country level rules lead to convergence, or at least continual adaptation to better institutional arrangments at the local level? What should the constriants be imposed on the charters for better, faster convergence and learning? Zoning and housing restrictions would be a clear impediment to convergence as they limit foot voting. If we view charter cities (and fiscal federalism) as an experiment to search for solutions to institutional arrangements for governance, can we use the criteria used by IRB boards as the minimum set of requirements that informa the central government constitution/framework where this experiment takes place?

Two Papers on the 1966 Minimum Wage Increase

Continuing on the theme of last week’s minimum wage increase in Florida, there are two interesting papers recently accepted for publication that both cover the 1966 Fair Labor Standards Act. This law extended the federal minimum wage to a number of previously uncovered. Crucially, the newly covered industries employed a large number of African-American workers.

The two papers agree on some points, such as that African Americans saw large wage gains following the increase. But was there a disemployment effect? Here is where the papers differ.

Ellora Derenoncourt and Claire Montialoux’s paper “Minimum Wages and Racial Inequality” is forthcoming in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Here is what they find: “We can rule out significant disemployment effects for black workers. Using a bunching design, we find no aggregate effect of the reform on employment.”

Martha J. Bailey, John DiNardo, and Bryan A. Stuart’s paper “The Economic Impact of a High National Minimum Wage: Evidence from the 1966 Fair Labor Standards Act” is forthcoming in the Journal of Labor Economics. They find “some evidence shows that disemployment effects were significantly larger among African-American men, forty percent of whom earned below the new minimum wage in 1966.”

So who is right? Let me clearly state here that both of these papers are very well done, both in their methods and in their assembling of historical data. But I think there is a key difference in the samples they analyze: Derenoncourt and Montialoux’s paper only includes workers aged 25-55. Bailey and co-authors use a broader age range, 16-64, which importantly includes teenagers (this is discussed in Section D of their online appendix).

Since teenagers and other young workers are the ones we suspect are going to be most impacted by the minimum wage (much of the literature focuses on teenagers), the exclusion of workers under 25 seems like a curious omission, and a reason I tempted to believe the results of Bailey and co-authors. But Derenoncourt and Montialoux do try to justify their choice of age group: 1. workers under 21 were subject to a different minimum wage; and 2. workers under 25 were subject to the draft for the Vietnam War.

So once again, you might ask, who is right? I will admit here that I don’t know. Standard economic theory suggests that disemployment effects will result from a legal minimum wage (I fully acknowledge the emerging literature on monopsony power, but I maintain this is still not the standard analysis), and especially so for teenagers and young workers. So I am skeptical of any analysis which excludes these workers, whatever other merits it may have.

Here’s my take: we probably can’t tell much about how the minimum wage will impact young workers today based on these studies. If Derenoncourt and Montialoux’s reasons for removing young workers are indeed sound, then we aren’t really testing the question most economists are interested in today (so I would caution against their attempt to apply the results to labor markets today). But that doesn’t mean these aren’t interesting papers to read on an important change in the history of minimum wage laws in the US!

Raising Cash: Corporate Bonds versus Corporate Loans

Corporations raise money in various ways to invest in their operation. A company may sell common stock to the public; the shareholders are not guaranteed any particular return on their investment, but if the company does well, the share price and the dividends paid by the stock can be expected to go up.

Preferred stock falls in between common stock and bonds. Investors mainly buy preferred stock for its dividends. Typically, the price of the preferred stock doesn’t go up like common stock can, but the company cannot pay any dividends on the common unless all of the promised dividends on the preferred are paid up.

CORPORATE BONDS: INVESTMENT GRADE AND JUNK

Companies can sell bonds to raise money. Bonds are somewhat standardized securities, which are marketed to the broad investing community. The company is legally bound to pay the interest, and eventually the principal, of a bond. Bonds are senior to stocks in case of extracting value from a company that has gone bankrupt. Some bonds are more senior than others, depending on the “covenants” in the fine print of the bond description (debenture). For smaller, less stable companies, the only way they may get someone to buy their bonds is to agree to certain conditions that make it more likely the bond will be repaid. For instance, the company selling the bond might be restricted from issuing more than a certain amount of total debt relative to its earnings, or from taking on additional debt which might be senior to its existing debt.

Bonds are rated by agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s. Large, stable companies get high ratings (e.g. AA), and can pay lower interest. You, the public, can buy into investment grade bonds through funds such as iShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF (LQD). This fund currently pays about 2.6%, but most of the returns in the past several years have been from an increase in the price of the fund shares. (For longer term bonds, the market price of a previously-issued bond increases as market interest falls, which it has in recent years).

The lowest investment grade is BBB. The bonds of shakier companies are rated at BB or lower, and have pay higher interest. This is called high yield debt or junk bonds. You can invest in junk bonds through funds such as JNK and HYG.

CORPORATE BANK LOANS

Companies also obtain loans from banks. Banks scrutinize the operations of the company to decide whether they want to risk their money in making a loan. Banks usually demand restrictions and guarantees to help ensure the loan will paid back. These restrictions are called covenants. Sometimes the payback of the loan is tied to a specified asset. For instance, if the income of a company falls below a certain level (which might imperil paying off the loan), the covenant may require the company to give ownership of some asset, like a building or a set of oil wells, to the bank, so the bank can sell it to pay back the loan immediately, before economic conditions worsen.

This graphic shows some of the conditions a company might have to sign to in order to get a loan from a bank:

Source: https://www.wallstreetmojo.com/debt-covenants-bond/

Here is a summary of the differences between bonds and loans, courtesy of WallStreetMojo (slightly edited):

  • The main difference is that a bond is highly tradeable. If you purchase a bond, there is usually a market place where you can trade it. It means you can even sell the bond, rather than waiting for the end of the thirty years. In practice, people purchase bonds when they wish to increase their portfolio in that way. Loans tend to be the agreements between borrowers and the banks. Loans are generally non-tradeable, and the bank will be obliged to see out the entire term of the loan.
  • In the case of repayments, bonds tend to be only repaid in full at the maturity of the bond – e.g., 10, 20, or 30 years. With bank loans, both principal and interest are paid down during the repayment period at regular intervals (like a home mortgage).
  • Issuing bonds give the corporations significantly greater freedom to operate as they deem fit because it frees them from the restrictions that are often attached to the loans that are lent by the banks. Consider, for example, that lenders or the creditors often require corporates to agree to a variety of limitations, such as not to issue more debt or not to make corporate acquisitions until their loans are repaid entirely.
  • The rate of interest that the companies pay the bond investors is often less than the rate of interest that they would be required to pay to obtain the loan from the bank. Sometimes the interest on the loan is not a fixed percent, but “floats” with general short-term interest rates.
  • A bond that is traded in the market possesses a credit rating, which is issued by the credit rating agencies, which starts from investment grade to speculative grade, where investment-grade bonds are considered to be of low risk and usually have low yields. On the contrary, a loan don’t have any such concept; instead, the creditworthiness is checked by the creditor.

LEVERAGED LOANS

The rough equivalent of a junk bond in the world of corporate loans is called a “leveraged loan”. A leveraged loan is a type of loan that is extended to companies or individuals that already have considerable amounts of debt or poor credit history. Lenders consider leveraged loans to carry a higher risk of default, and so they demand higher interest on the loan. Leveraged loans and junk bonds play a key role in helping smaller or struggling companies achieve their financial goals. Leveraged loans are widely used to fund mergers and acquisitions.

Because the company itself is considered shaky, creditors typically require that the company offers some specific asset for collateral to “secure” the loan. Also, the loan is typically written to be “senior” to other debt, including bonds, in case of bankruptcy. Historically, the recovery rate for such senior secured loans has been about 80%, as compared to a recovery of about 40% for unsecured bonds, if the company goes bankrupt.

Typically, a bank would not want to take all the risk of such a loan upon itself. Therefore, for a leveraged loan, the bank arranges for a syndicate of multiple banks or other financial institutions to own pieces of the loan. You, too, can get a piece of this action by buying shares of the fund Invesco Senior Loan ETF (BKLN), which is currently yielding 3.2%.

S&P Global Market Intelligence offers a primer on leveraged loans, complete with tutorial videos. As shown below, the market for leveraged loans in the U.S. is now over $ 1 trillion:

Source: https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/pages/toc-primer/lcd-primer#sec2

The Joad Family in 2020

The following is by Hannah Florence.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath details the impoverished circumstances of the fictional Joad family during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Initially, the Joads are tenant farmers in Oklahoma, but due to the consolidation and mechanization of agriculture during the 1920s, they are displaced from their farm and without many options. After receiving a leaflet that promises abundant jobs and housing, the family follows in the path of many of their neighbors that have already left for California in search of more opportunity. Yet the hardships continue for the Joads. The grandfather dies on the arduous trip and find that they have been misled about the availability of jobs and the conditions of the squalid camps.  

According to Steinbeck, the introduction of the tractor and the power of the bank are responsible for their initial misfortunes. The tractor makes farming easier and more efficient, but leaves families without work including the Joads. In an encounter with a tractor driver, a tenant farmer without work asks, “what you doing this kind of work for—against your own people?” (pg. 25). The tractor driver is seen as treasonous because he improves his own standing while a hundred other people—his people— are left without a means to provide for their own families. But the tractor driver doesn’t revel in his improved circumstances, instead he is blunt about all of their predicaments, “crop land isn’t for little guys like us anymore” (pg.25). This assessment indicates that despite their divergent trajectories, neither the tractor driver nor the tenant farmers have any influence, but they are both pawns of a larger power. Steinbeck insinuates that both individuals—the tenant farmer and the tractor driver– is largely expendable. If the driver leaves another tractor driver would gladly accept the job; if that one left, still another one would come along. The greater enemy is the big-wigs in ‘the East’ who give orders to ‘the bank,’ who are ultimately responsible for displacing the farmers.

The increasing efficiency of agriculture and its effect on the fictional Joad family illustrates what many families have faced due to the increasing efficiency of manufacturing. For the Joads, there is a strong sense of alienation. Their family home is damaged by a tractor, the neighbors are leaving, and there is no work available. Similarly, as factories and plants that were economic drivers have shuttered in rust belt towns, other main street staples such as the barber shop, the diner, and the hardware store can’t afford to stay open. As a result, formerly vibrant communities are emptied. Individuals are faced with the reality that the relatively straight-forward path to the middle class afforded to their parents will not be the same for them as options diminish for blue-collar work. The next steps for people, specifically without a college education, may not seem clear or within reach.

The monsters outlined in the first section of The Grapes of Wrath— the bank and the tractor—could be subbed in for the current monsters in our current political and economic discourse—automation and trade. The novel picks up on some of our current anti-establishment rhetoric as individuals in ‘the East’ that run the bank profit handsomely while families such as the Joads have their lives uprooted. The bank and the people in the East create a new class of winners and losers as well. The winners in this case are the tractor drivers who can now afford to give their kids shoes for the first time; the losers are the tenant farmers who have no income for food. The income inequality between the tractor driver and the tenant farmers is a microcosm of increasing income inequality in the U.S. as a result of rapidly increasing productively for a small sector of the labor force. In Average is Over, Tyler Cowen illustrates how low-skilled laborers face a similar scenario to the tenant farmer of the 1920s: individuals who are a complement to innovative technology are richly rewarded, but unskilled labor that can be replaced by it will struggle to find work in the knowledge economy.

The Grapes of Wrath demonstrates how creative destruction brought about by innovation and technology is an enduring phenomenon. Yet the characterization of this trend in The Grapes of Wrath seems prescient given the sentiments of many Americans that computers, automation, and globalization are richly benefitting a small portion of Americans that can harness these technologies at the drastic expense of many Americans that have been automated or outsourced out of their jobs.

  • Hannah Florence is a student at Samford University, where she studies economics, political science, and data analytics. She is currently a Young Scholar for the American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life. After graduation, she hopes to continue her public policy research as she begins a career in Washington, D.C.

If wages fell during a recession

A paper I wrote with Dan Houser is forthcoming in the Journal of Economics Behavior and Organization. “If wages fell during a recession”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167268120303577

The title comes from Bewley’s famous book “Why Don’t Wages Fall During a Recession?” In that book, Truman Bewley asks managers why they do not cut wages in a recession when equilibrium analysis tells us that the price of labor should fall.

We run an experiment in which employers and workers encounter a recession. The employers could cut wages, or they could keep them rigid as we normally observe during recession. The concept of a “cut” assumes a reference point from which to go down from. We establish that reference point by letting the employer set a wage before the recession and repeating that payment to workers for 3 rounds.

We use a Gift Exchange (GE) Game to model the relationship between employers and workers. Employers offer a wage that is guaranteed to the worker. Employers have to trust that workers will not shirk. We do observe a few subjects shirking, and those people are not very interesting to us. We are interested in the workers who respond with positive reciprocity because that means there is “good morale” in the “workplace”. The employers interviewed by Bewley were afraid that wage cuts would damage the good morale that is necessary for a business to run.

After three rounds, there was a recession. The total surplus available in the GE game shrank by 10%.  In the Inflation treatment, the exchange rate of tokens to dollars increased, such that if firms kept nominal wages rigid there would in fact be a 10% real wage cut.

If workers resent nominal wage cuts, then firms should keep wages rigid in a recession. If worker morale falls and workers decrease effort, then firms will be hurt more by the fall in productivity than by a large real wage cost.

In fact, about half of the firms did cut wages. So, we did not observe wage rigidity and we’d like to do follow-up research on that point. It did mean that we had variation and could observe the counterfactual that we were interested in.

Workers don’t like wage cuts. Workers who had been selecting an effort level near the middle of the feasible range dropped their effort significantly if they experienced a wage cut. The real wage cuts under Inflation did not have as sharp of an effect on effort, which suggests some nominal illusion.

Here’s a cumulative distribution of effort choices among workers (Recession treatment had no inflation). After half of the workers experienced a wage cut, the effort distribution moves toward 0.05, the minimum effort level.

We measured loss aversion at the end. We can’t say that loss averse workers resent wage cuts, because everyone resents wage cuts. There’s maybe some evidence that loss averse employers are less likely to cut wages. Thanks for reading! Please reach out through my Samford email if you’d like to know more.

The relationship between loss aversion and wage rigidity deserves more attention from behavioral economics.

Special thanks to Misha Freer, Cesar Martinelli, and Ryan Oprea for conversations that helped us. Also, we are indebted to everyone that we cited, of course, and to all the people we failed to cite.

2020 Nobel Prize to Milgrom and Wilson

The big news in our world is that the Nobel Prize was announced today for economists. (We call it “the Nobel Prize”.)

Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson win for 2020. They are known for auction theory and design. Here is a popular introduction from the Nobel Committee.

This prize is special to me because auction design was one of the very first practical problems that presented me with a chance to put economic ideas into practice. As an undergraduate at Chapman University, I had the privilege to spend time talking with people like Vernon Smith and Dave Porter. Some people think of Vernon Smith as being someone who “does things in the lab”. The thing that he actually did was often auctions.

My master’s thesis at Chapman University was a project on auctions. A practical problem to motived our inquiry. Students at Chapman were upset about the way that the most convenient parking spots were allocated. Concerns about parking showed up in quantitative student satisfaction surveys.

We designed an auction to price and allocate the most coveted parking spots. In this scenario, multiple items are being sold because the parking lot has many spots. Hence the “multi-unit” in the title of our paper Information Effects in Uniform Price Multi‐Unit Dutch Auctions.

We had an important question, since we were actually going to run an auction that would affect people’s lives. How to we choose from among the different possible auction formats?

Paul Milgrom (with Robert J. Weber) provided guidance to us in their 1982 paper in Econometrica.

Among other things, in that paper, they compare the revenue properties of English auctions and Dutch auctions. In an English auction, the price starts low and bidders compete to out-bid each other until the price is so high that only one bidder remains. That is the popular conception of an auction. There is another mechanism class (Dutch) in which the price starts higher than anyone wants to pay and drops until a buyer jumps in. Once you start thinking about how many ways one could run an auction, then you need some way to decide between all the mechanisms.

Theory can help you predict who will be better off under different formats. And, in my case, needing to figure out the revenue properties of different auction formats can help you learn economic theory!

Economists and Cocktail Parties

Sometimes I remark to my students, “This is why economists don’t get invited to cocktail parties.” This post is about that.

From 2008 – 2011 I taught a course at Florida State called “Economics of Compassion”. It is a course co-designed with my mentor Mark Isaac. The class discusses historical and contemporary problems related to poverty, both at the domestic and international levels. Having heard about the course, the Social Justice Living Learning Community at Florida State wanted me to teach the course to their incoming freshman. 

It was quite different from other courses they were taking that seemed to talk in terms of solutions without regard for scarcity. My role was to put parameters on their utopia and get the students to think carefully about a couple questions related to issues they care about:

  • Compared to what?
  • What happens next?

The students seemed to like the class, but, for a committed group of people who want to change the world it was also quite a downer. It was a downer for them the same way economics is a downer for people at cocktail parties.

We start with scarcity. Scarcity is a fact of life. There are never enough resources to satisfy everyone and there will always be unmet desires. For the economist, the notion of trade-offs — you must give up one thing to get another — flow from this scarcity. It means that anytime a solution to a problem is attempted you are always giving something up.

For example, the death of George Floyd this summer sparked conversation about how to reduce police violence. One approaching to curbing this important social problem is to eliminate or reform qualified immunity (QI). This is a legal doctrine intended to protect police and others from frivolous lawsuits. The problem is that QI has made accountability extremely difficult. The logic of reforming QI is that doing so will increase accountability, raise the cost of police violence, and therefore lead to less police violence. That’s good economics.

But, remember there are trade-offs. In a new world where police are opened up to lawsuits, local government might need to increase police compensation to retain or attract qualified men and women. Where does the money come from? Can you reduce the number of police and/or will you have to raise taxes? There are other trade-offs too. Will police become more reluctant to enter dangerous neighborhoods? After all, there is a greater chance that inserting themselves into a risky situation will lead to financial ruin.

Moving from heavy to light. If you haven’t seen Yoram Bauman’s comedic schtick on Principles of Economics Translated, take five minutes and check it out here. As he illustrates, “economic profit” depends on alternatives: A Snickers bar valued at one dollar with no alternative implies an economic profit of $1. However, if the alternative was M&Ms that you value at 70 cents then your economic profit is 30 cents … Your profit from pursuing one course action declines as the value of the alternative increases.

By accounting for trade-offs the net benefit of a course of action goes down. When we bring up trade-offs in conversation, economists effectively eat into people’s mental profits for some course of action.

Another thing to consider, when you’re intervening, that intervention can sometimes have dramatic side effects that you didn’t even think about. You cannot merely move people around as if they’re pieces on a chessboard (head nod to Adam Smith).

For example, it is possible that eliminating qualified immunity leads to less police violence but more neighborhood violence overall if police decide not to insert themselves into situations that could be more costly. Beyond this hypothetical example I have been using, there are loads of other unintended consequences economists talk about.

Thinking in this way is the bread and butter of economists. This is how we see the world. But, don’t try this in social settings. As EconTalk host Russ Roberts once commented (this podcast), a pleasant picnic veered into chilly company when he pointed out someone’s proposed minimum wage could have negative employment effects. The others at the picnic started to inch away from him on the picnic blanket. At parties, I’ve had people talk about the idea that a tax won’t effect them because it is only on sellers, homeowners, etc. I’ve had to ask myself, “Is it worth it to bring up that the tax is likely to be passed through?”

So while my last couple posts sing the praises of economics, I should let you know, at cocktail parties people don’t like to think about scarcity, tradeoffs, and unintended consequences. Economists like to think about the seen and unseen. Many others, especially in social settings, would rather the unseen remain unseen.

Spontaneous Emergence of Property Rights in the Classroom

Last week I posted about Bart Wilson’s talk on his new book “The Property Species” and promised to share a class demonstration about the emergence of property rights in the classroom. But first let me tell you why I did this demonstration.

When I was a student I hated assignments that go through the motions of learning, but provide no learing. Building a paper maché volcano, while fun for some, teaches little about volcanic eruptions. Shaking and opening a soda bottle (pop?) is more instructive: it’s the fall in pressure as the bottle is opened that leads to the rapid release of the gas disolved in the liquid, the same thing happens to magma. And while being able to algebraically solve for the equilibrium price given supply and demand functions is a very necessary evil (to a point), it teaches little about the process of competition and price formation.

This is why I was reluctant to having my first Intro to Economics class write their own version of “I pencil”, quite a few years ago. Driving the point of how largely anonymous exchange and specialization, coordinated peacefully through property, prices, and profits and loss makes the modern world possible is very important. But how much can you really learn about this by watching and transcribing an episode of “How It’s Made”? For most students, not much at all. Partly in dread of reading and grading 80 versions of “I whiteboard marker”, or “I toothbrush”, and partly following my conscience I decided to throw in a twist.

The twist may seem evil and arbitrary at first. Students still had to choose a good and write their own version of “I _____” , but if two students wrote about the same good I would divide their grade by 2. If three students wrote about the same good I would divide their grade by 3 and so on. I did not give any additional prompts about how they should sort out potential conflicts or coordinate amongst themselves. These were just the rules of the assignment.

Without this seemingly arbitrary grading rule, goods to write about were not scarce. By changing the grading rules, goods to write about became scarce. While there are many more goods to write about than students, certain goods stand out in the mind, and extra effort must be devoted in thinking up a new good, and finding out if someone had already looked around their room and chosen the same good. Now students also had to coordinate amongst themselves or run the risk of a fairly severe penalty to their grade.

As expected, I have never had to enforce the the harsh grading penalties (anecdotal, I know). Students always find a way to coordinate and establish property rights over suddenly scarce goods. The point of the assignment was no longer about I pencil, but about the emergence of property rights and social coordination (and hopefully a little bit about I pencil as well). I didn’t act as a central authority that imposed and enforced property rights. I merely changed the incentives and constraints, hoping that the costs of coordinating and setting up agreements was smaller than the costs of not doing this.

When they turned in their assignment, we discussed how they had actually coordinated. Over the years I have seen multiple ingenious mechanisms. From class forums using the university platform, to a simple spreadsheet circulated amongst the students via email or WhatsApp. In the good old times before the pandemic they would sometimes meet after class and sort it out in person. Sometimes they created a common pool of goods and one of their classmates is chosen to distribute them among their peers. Leaders emerge to fill various roles from dispute resolution to registering claims. How this person is chosen also varies from class to class. Some students volunteer, others have it thrust upon themselves. The use of a homesteading rule is fairly common, first to choose gets the good in cases where there are multiple claims. In class we discuss why they use this rule, rather than last to choose gets the good, and the problems this alternative would entail.

I have only had one instance of a strong and contested dispute among “property owners”. That semester students had to not only write but present their work. Two groups (that semester “I _____” was a group assignment) wanted to do a good they thought would be amusing to present in class. I’ll leave it up to your imagination what good students in their late teens and early twenties might find to be amusing to present in class. The two groups of students underwent a rather complicated dispute resolution system with the rest of the class playing the role of arbiters of the multiple claims to the same good. Neither group wanted to budge, but one group ended up ceding the rights in the end.

What I like about this little classroom demonstration is that it makes it easier to teach the emergence of institutions as the products of human action but not human design. Order without design is a difficult concept to grasp, but maybe even more importantly it is a concept that is difficult to accept. But after this demonstration, not anymore, students experience the emergence of property rights. An added bonus is that in this case scarcity is clearly a product of the relation between their minds and how they relate to the world, not about objective quantities of goods.

Property rights emerge through their coordination but are not centrally imposed. They coordinate because a change in the environment turned a previously free good, the subject of their short “I ____” essay, into a scarce (economic) good. As you can probably tell Harold Demsetz is one of my favorite economists of all time. After the barrier of disbelief is breached, we can easily talk about the spontaneous emergence of money, cover a little about how property rights emerged in whaling on the high seas, and the spontaneous origin of law (very useful for future law students usually educated in the positivist tradition, as is the norm in Ecuador).

I later learned of the fish game (I am not an experimentalist). But, no disrespect intended, it seems a little contrived. I still like my assignment better. While the goldfish game teaches the tragedy of the commons, the “I _____” assignment teaches how the tragedy can be solved without a centralized authority by having students solve if for themselves and come to grips with the real limitations and problems they faced, albeit on a much smaller scale. I am still hoping for an experimentalist that thinks something serious can be made out of my little classroom demonstration.

Timeline of the Global Financial Crisis, Part 1: January-September, 2008

The sudden shutdown of much of the economy of the U.S. and of the world starting in February and March of 2020 led to deep concern, if not panic, in world financial markets. Millions of people were suddenly unemployed or furloughed, millions of small businesses faced bankruptcy, and stocks plunged some 30% in the fastest fall of global markets in history. Demand collapsed, and prices for nearly all financial assets fell. Trillions of dollars of financial transactions were in danger of unravelling.

The Federal Reserve immediately rode to the rescue, slashing interest rates and buying up all kinds of financial assets. These purchases of bonds and similar products injected cash into the markets to provide much-needed liquidity, and kept the system on track. In late March, the U.S. federal government authorized trillions of dollars of payments to individuals and businesses to stave off bankruptcy, and forbade foreclosures on mortgages, to keep people from losing their homes (at least in the near term). Banks and governments in other nations took similar measures. By May, it was clear that the worst scenarios had been averted, even though there will be significant lingering consequences of the Covid shutdowns.

The speed and scale of the Fed and government responses in March, 2020, may be attributed in part to learnings from the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis (GFC). In that crisis, the severity of the problem was not understood at first. There was naturally reluctance to take unprecedented actions to do what was perceived as bailing out of irresponsible banks and other companies. Over a period of many months, various measures were implemented to address some immediate needs, but then more and more problems kept cropping up. It was a macroeconomic game of whack-a-mole.

As a bit of a history lesson, here is a timeline of the main financial events of January-September, 2008. These descriptions are taken, with only minor editing, from an article by Kimberly Amadeo in The Balance.

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January 2008: Fed Tries to Stop Housing Bust

Easy credit and expectations of always-increasing home prices led to a speculative run-up in housing in 2002-2006. Mortgages were given to people who really could not afford them, and billions of dollars of those unsound sub-prime mortgages were repackaged and sold into the broad financial system. That all began to unravel in 2006-2007. In response to a struggling housing market, the Federal Market Open Committee began lowering the fed funds rate. It dropped the rate to 3.5% on January 22, 2008, then to 3.0% a week later. Economic analysts thought lower rates would be enough to restore demand for homes.

It didn’t help the millions of homeowners who had adjustable-rate mortgages.

February 2008: Bush Signs Tax Rebate as Home Sales Continue to Plummet

President Bush signed a tax rebate bill to help the struggling housing market. The bill increased limits for Federal Housing Administration loans and allowed Freddie Mac to repurchase jumbo loans.

February’s homes sales fell 24% year-over-year. It reached 5.03 million according to the National Association of Realtors. The median resale home price was $195,900, down 8.2% year-over-year.  Foreclosures were up.

March 2008: Fed Begins Bailouts

The Fed Chair realized the Fed needed to take aggressive action. It had to prevent a more serious recession. Falling oil prices meant the Fed was not concerned about inflation. When inflation isn’t a concern, the Fed can use expansionary monetary policy. The Fed’s goal was to lower the LIBOR benchmark interest rate, and keep adjustable-rate mortgages affordable. In its role of “bank of last resort,” it became the only bank willing to lend.

It increased its Term Auction Facility program to $50 billion. It also initiated a series of term repurchase transactions. These were 28-day term repurchase agreements with primary dealers. The Fed’s goal was to pump $100 billion into the economy.

March 11: The Fed announced it would lend $200 billion in Treasury notes to bail out bond dealers. They were stuck with mortgage-backed securities and other collateralized debt obligations. They couldn’t resell them on the secondary market. The subprime mortgage crisis dried up the secondary market for these debt products.

No one knew who had the bad debt or how much was out there. All buyers of debt instruments became afraid to buy and sell from each other. No one wanted to get caught with bad debt on their books. The Fed was trying to keep liquidity in the financial markets.

But the problem was not just one of liquidity, but also of solvency. Banks were playing a huge game of musical chairs, hoping that no one would get caught with more bad debt. The Fed tried to buy time by temporarily taking on the bad debt itself. It protected itself by only holding the debt for 28 days and only accepting AAA-rated debt.

March 14: The Federal Reserve held its first emergency weekend meeting in 30 years. On March 17, it announced it would guarantee Bear Stearns‘ bad loans. It wanted JP Morgan to purchase Bear and prevent bankruptcy. Bear Stearns’ had about $10 trillion in securities on its books. If it had gone under, these securities would have become worthless. That would have jeopardized the global financial system.

March 18: The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) lowered the fed funds rate by 0.75% to 2.25%. It had halved the interest rate in six months. That put downward pressure on the dollar, which increased oil prices.

That same day, federal regulators agreed to let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac take on another $200 billion in subprime mortgage debt. The two government-sponsored enterprises would buy mortgages from banks. This process is known as buying on the secondary market. They then package these into mortgage-backed securities and resell them on Wall Street. All goes well if the mortgages are good, but if they turn south, then the two GSEs would be liable for the debt.

The Federal Housing Finance Board also took action. It authorized the regional Federal Home Loan Banks to take an extra $100 billion in subprime mortgage debt. The loans had to be guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie Mac

Fed Chair Ben Bernanke and U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson thought this would take care of the problem. They underestimated how extensive the crisis had become. These bailouts only further destabilized the two mortgage giants.

April – June: Fed Lowers Rate and Buys More Toxic Bank Debt

April 30: The FOMC lowered the fed funds rate to 2%.

April 7 and April 21: The Fed added another $50 billion each through its Term Auction Facility.

May 20: The Fed auctioned another $150 billion through the Term Auction Facility.

By June 2, the Fed auctions totaled $1.2 trillion. In June, the Federal Reserve lent $225 billion through its Term Auction Facility. This temporary stop-gap measure of adding liquidity had become a permanent fixture.

July 11, 2008: IndyMac Bank Fails

July 11: The Office of Thrift Supervision closed IndyMac Bank. Los Angeles police warned angry IndyMac depositors to remain calm while they waited in line to withdraw funds from the failed bank. About 100 people worried they would lose their deposit. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) only insured amounts up to $100,000. This was later raised to $250,000.

July 23: Treasury Secretary Paulson made the Sunday talk show rounds. He explained the need for a bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two agencies themselves held or guaranteed almost half of the $12 trillion of the nation’s mortgages.

Wall Street’s fears that these loans would default caused Fannie’s and Freddie’s shares to tumble. This made it more difficult for private companies to raise capital themselves. Paulson reassured talk show listeners that the banking system was solid, even though other banks might fail like IndyMac.

July 30: Congress passed the Housing and Economic Recovery Act. It gave the Treasury Department authority to guarantee as much as $25 billion in loans held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

September 7: Treasury Nationalizes Fannie and Freddie

The FHFA placed Fannie and Freddie under conservatorship. It allowed the government to run the two until they were strong enough to return to independent management. 

The FHFA allowed Treasury to purchase preferred stock of the two to keep them afloat. They could also borrow from the Treasury. Last but not least, Treasury was allowed to purchase their mortgage-backed securities. 

The Fannie and Freddie bailout initially cost taxpayers $187 billion. But over time, they two paid back all costs plus added $58 billion in profit to the general fund. 

September 15, 2008: Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy Triggered Global Panic

Paulson urged Lehman Brothers to find a buyer. Only two banks were interested: Bank of America and British Barclays.

Bank of America didn’t want a loan. It wanted the government to cover $65 billion to $70 billion in anticipated losses. Paulson said no. The U.S. Treasury had no legal authority to invest capital in Lehman Brothers, as Congress hadn’t yet authorized the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Barclays announced its British regulators would not approve a Lehman Brothers deal.

Since Lehman Brothers was an investment bank, the government could not nationalize it like it did government enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For that same reason, no federal regulator, like the FDIC, could take it over.  Moreover, the Fed couldn’t guarantee a loan as it did with Bear Stearns. Lehman Brothers didn’t have enough assets to secure one. 

When Lehman’s declared bankruptcy, financial markets reeled. The Dow fell 504 points, its worst decline in seven years. U.S. Treasury bond prices rose as investors fled to their relative safety. Oil prices tanked.

Later that day, Bank of America announced it would purchase struggling Merrill Lynch for $50 billion. 

September 16, 2008: Fed Buys AIG for $85 Billion

The American International Group Inc. turned to the Federal Reserve for emergency funding. The company had insured trillions of dollars of mortgages throughout the world. If it had fallen, so would the global banking system. Bernanke said that this bailout made him angrier than anything else. AIG took risks with cash from supposedly ultra-safe insurance policies. It used it to boost profits by offering unregulated credit default swaps.

October 8, 2008: The Federal lent another $37.8 billion to AIG subsidiaries in exchange for fixed-income securities.

November 10, 2008: The Fed restructured its aid package. It reduced its $85 billion loan to $60 billion. The $37.8 billion loan was repaid and terminated.The Treasury Department purchased $40 billion in AIG preferred shares. The funds allowed AIG to retire its credit default swaps rationally, stave off bankruptcy, and protect the government’s original investment. 

September 17, 2008: Economy Almost Collapsed

Due to losses from Lehman’s bankruptcy, investors fled money market mutual funds. That’s where companies obtain their short-term cash.

September 16: The Reserve Primary Fund “broke the buck.” It didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay out all the redemptions that were occurring.

September 17: The attack spread. Investors withdrew a record $172 billion from their money market accounts. During a typical week, only about $7 billion is withdrawn. If it had continued, companies couldn’t get money to fund their day-to-day operations. In just a few weeks, shippers wouldn’t have had the cash to deliver food to grocery stores. We were that close to a complete collapse. 

September 19, 2008: Paulson and Bernanke Meet with Congress

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (L) speaks as Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke (R) listens during a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill September 24, 2008 in Washington, DC. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

September 19: Paulson and Bernanke met with Congressional leaders to explain the crisis. Republicans and Democrats alike were stunned by the somber warnings. They realized that credit markets were only a few days away from a meltdown. 

The leaders were prepared to work together in a bipartisan fashion to craft a solution. But many rank-and-file members of Congress were not on board. 

Bernanke announced the Fed would lend the money needed by banks and businesses to operate so they wouldn’t have to pull out the cash in money market funds. This, along with the announcement of the bailout package, calmed the markets enough keep the economy functioning.

September 20, 2008: Treasury Submits Legislation to Congress

On September 20, Paulson submitted a three-page document that asked Congress to approve a $700 billion bailout. Treasury would use the funds to buy up mortgage-backed securities that were in danger of defaulting. By doing so, Paulson wanted to take these debts off the books of banks, hedge funds, and pension funds that held them.

When asked what would happen if Congress didn’t approve the bailout, Paulson replied, “If it doesn’t pass, then heaven help us all.”

September 21, 2008: The End of the “Greed Is Good” Era

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, two of the most successful investment banks on Wall Street, applied to become regular commercial banks. They wanted the Fed’s protection.

September 26, 2008: WaMu Goes Bankrupt

Washington Mutual Bank went bankrupt when its panicked depositors withdrew $16.7 billion in 10 days. It had insufficient capital to run its business. The FDIC then took over. The bank was sold to J.P. Morgan for $1.9 billion.

September 29, 2008: Stock Market Crashes as Bailout Rejected

A trader gestures as he works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange September 29, 2008 in New York City. U.S. stocks took a nosedive in reaction to the global credit crisis and as the U.S. House of Representatives rejected the $700 billion rescue package, 228-205. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The stock market collapsed when the U.S. House of Representatives rejected the bailout bill. Opponents were rightly concerned that their constituents saw the bill as bailing out Wall Street at the expense of taxpayers. But they didn’t realize that the future of the global economy was at stake.

Stock investors did, sending the ​Dow Jones Industrial Average down 770 points. It was the most in any single day in history. It didn’t stop there. Global markets panicked: The Morgan Stanley Capital International World Index dropped 6% in one day, the most since its creation in 1970.

To restore financial stability, the Federal Reserve doubled its currency swaps with foreign central banks in Europe, England, and Japan to $620 billion. The governments of the world were forced to provide all the liquidity for frozen credit markets.

[Again, these descriptions are taken nearly verbatim from 2008 Financial Crisis Timeline, by Kimberly Amadeo. See her article for coverage of the rest of 2008, and the ending of the recession in 2009.]