stock market crash

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Book review: Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, by Charles W. Calomiris, and Stephen H. Haber.

This book start out with some fairly dull theory, then switches to specific histories of banking in several countries with moderately interesting claims about how differences in which interest groups acquired power influenced the stability of banks.

For much of U.S. history, banks were mostly constrained to a single location, due to farmers who feared banks with many branches would shift their lending elsewhere when local crop failures made local farms risky to loan to. Yet comparing to Canada, where seemingly small political differences led to banks with many branches, it seems clear that U.S. banks were more fragile because of those restrictions, and less competition in the U.S. left consumers with less desirable interest rates.

By the 1980s, improved communications eroded farmers’ ability to tie banks to one locale, so political opposition to multi-branch banks vanished, resulting in a big merger spree. The biggest problem with this merger spree was that the regulators who approved the mergers asked for more loans to risky low-income borrowers. As a result, banks (plus Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) felt compelled to lower their standards for all borrowers (the book doesn’t explain what problems they would have faced if they had used different standards for loans the regulators pressured them to make).

These stories provide a clear and plausible explanation of why the U.S. has a pattern of banking crises that Canada and a few other well-run countries have almost entirely avoided over the past two centuries. But they suggest the U.S. banking crises should have been more unique among mature democracies than was actually the case.

The authors are overly dismissive of problems that don’t fit their narrative. Commenting on the failure of Citibank, Lehman, AIG, etc to sell more equity in early 2008, they say “Why go to the markets to raise new capital when you are confident that the government is going to bail you out?”. It seems likely bankers would have gotten better terms from the market as long as they didn’t wait until the worst part of the crisis. I’m pretty sure they gave little thought to bailouts, and relied instead on overly complacent expectations for housing prices.

The book has a number of asides that seem as important as their main points, such as claims that Britain’s greater ability to borrow money led to its military power, and its increased need for military manpower drove its expansion of the franchise.

Book review: Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises 6th ed., by Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Aliber.

The book starts with a good overview of how a typical bubble develops and bursts. But I found the rest of the book poorly organized. I often wondered whether the book was reporting a particular historical fact as an example of some broad pattern – if not, why weren’t they organized in something closer to chronological order? It has lots of information that is potentially valuable, but not organized into a useful story or set of references.

One simple way to prevent fluctuations like those of last Thursday would be for stock exchanges to prohibit orders to buy or sell at the market.

That wouldn’t mean prohibiting orders that act a lot like market orders. People could still be allowed to place an order to sell at a limit of a penny. But having an explicit limit price would discourage people from entering orders that under rare conditions end up being executed at a price 99 percent lower than expected.

It wouldn’t even require that people take the time to type in a limit price. Systems could be designed to have a pseudo-market order that behaves a lot like existing market orders, but which has a default limit price that is, say, 5 percent worse than the last reported price.

However, it’s not obvious to me that those of us who didn’t sell at ridiculously low prices should want any changes in the system. Moderate amounts of money were transferred mainly from people who mistakenly thought they were sophisticated traders to people who actually were. People who are aware that they are amateurs rarely react fast enough to declines to have done anything before prices recovered. The decline looked like it was primarily the result of stop-loss strategies, and it’s hard to implement those without at least superficially imitating an expert investor.

Many people seem to be reacting to the recent stock market crash the way they wish they had to the 1987 crash, and a smaller number are comparing it to 1929.
The unusual resemblance to the crash of 1937 makes me expect something in between those two scenarios.

  • The 1937 crash was caused in part by a sudden increase in caution by banks after the Fed significantly increased their reserve requirement. Banks played no interesting role in the 1929 or 1987 crashes.
  • The 1929 and 1987 crashes followed stock market peaks in August, versus March and the prior October for the 1937 and 2008 crashes.
  • The 1937 and 2008 crashes both came eight years after one of history’s largest stock market bubbles.
  • The 1929 and 1987 crashes followed an increase in the discount rate to 6 percent. The 1937 and 2008 crashes followed decreases in the discount rate to 1 and 2.25 percent.

All four crashes happened mainly in October and their behavior in that month provides little reason for distinguishing them.
If the 1937 crash is a good model for what to expect in our near future, many investors who are currently following the lesson they learned from the 1987 crash will discover in early 2009 that the unexpectedly severe recession casts doubt on the belief that crashes create good buying opportunities. How many of them will stick to their buy and hold commitment then (when I expect it will be a good idea)?
When the extent of the recession becomes disturbing, remember Brad DeLong’s perspective:

Is 2008 Our 1929? No. It is not. The most important reason it is not is that Bernanke and Paulson are both focused like laser beams on not making the same mistakes as were made in 1929….
They want to make their own, original, mistakes..

(HT James Hamilton).

For more than 2 months, Treasury Inflation-Indexed Notes maturing within 2 years have been selling at prices that apparently mean their yields are negative (e.g. see here and here). This isn’t the first time people have apparently paid a government to hold their money, but I can’t think of a previous case where yields reached -1 percent.
What can cause such a perverse situation? An expectation that the CPI would overstate inflation by as much as 1 percent would mean appearances are misleading and investors do expect to make money on those notes. I could make a case for that by focusing on the way that the CPI’s reliance on rents to measure housing costs hides the effects of dropping home prices. But most evidence about people’s inflation expectations (e.g. the University of Michigan Inflation Expectation report) say they expect more inflation than what can be inferred from the Treasury Inflation-Indexed Notes about expected CPI change.
So I’m inclined to conclude that we’re seeing investors paying abnormally large amounts in order to get liquidity, and probably plan to redeploy those assets somewhere else within a few months. If we see a big financial crisis soon, that strategy may pay off. But having people prepare for financial crises tends to reduce their magnitude, so I’m skeptical and am short t-bond futures.

Up to two months ago, I was not too excited by the claims of a bubble in the Chinese stock market. Maybe the stocks that trade only in China were at bubble levels, but the ones that trade in the U.S. or Hong Kong still looked like mostly good investments.
Much has changed since then. On October 17, PetroChina rose 14.5%, more than doubling in about two months. That was a one day gain in market capitalization of almost $60 billion, and a two month gain of $247 billion (doubling the market capitalization). I’ve seen similar but less dramatic rises in smaller Chinese stocks that trade in the U.S., but less on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
By comparison, the largest rises in market capitalization that I’ve been able to find in the technology stock bubble of 1999-2000 were a $50 billion one day rise in Microsoft on December 15, 1999, and a $250 billion rise (doubling) in Cisco which took four months.
I’m not saying that Chinese stocks are clearly overvalued yet, and I’m still holding some stocks in smaller Chinese companies that I don’t feel much urgency about selling. But the unusually strong and long lasting Chinese economic expansion, combined with the unusually frothy action in the stock market, are what I’d expect to be causes and symptoms of a bubble.
Bubbles in the U.S. have peaked when real interest rates rise to higher than normal levels. The Chinese government is keeping real interest rates near zero, and seems to think it can keep nominal interest rates stable and reduce inflation. That would be an unusual accomplishment under most circumstances. When combined with a stock market bubble, I suspect it could only be accomplished with drastic restrictions on economic activity, which would involve instabilities that the Chinese government has been trying to avoid by stabilizing things such as interest rates.
Without a rise in interest rates or drastic restrictions of some sort, it’s hard to see what will stop the rise in Chinese stocks. So I’m guessing we’ll see a bigger bubble than the U.S. has experienced. It’s effects will likely extend well beyond China.

Book Review: When Genius Failed : The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by Roger Lowenstein
This is a very readable and mostly convincing account of the rise and fall of Long-Term Capital Management. It makes it clear to me how the fairly common problem of success breeding overconfidence led LTCM to make unreasonable gambles, and why other financial institutions that risked their money by dealing with LTCM failed to require it to exercise a normal degree of caution.
The book occasionally engages in some minor exaggerations that suggest the author is a journalist rather than an expert in finance, but mostly the book appears a good deal more accurate and informed than I expect from a reporter. It is written so that both experts and laymen will enjoy it.
One passage stands out as unusually remarkable. “The traders hadn’t seen a move like that – ever. True, it had happened in 1987 and again in 1992. But Long-Term’s models didn’t go back that far.” This is really peculiar mistake. The people involved appeared to have enough experience to realize the need to backtest their models better than that. I’m disappointed that the book fails to analyze how this misjudgment was possible.
Also, the author spends a bit too much analysis on LTCM’s overconfidence in their models, when his reporting suggests that a good deal of the problem was due to trading that wasn’t supported by any model.