Author Archives: Deborah Lucas

Bridging the knowledge gap on governments as financial institutions

Ask most finance experts about the “world’s largest financial institutions,” and you’ll hear names like Citigroup, ICBC (China’s largest bank) and HSBC. However, governments top the list of large financial institutions, with investment and insurance operations that dwarf those of any private enterprise. For instance, last year the U.S. federal government made almost all student loans and backed over 97% of newly originated mortgages. Add to that Uncle Sam’s lending activities for agriculture, small business, energy and trade, plus its provision of insurance for private pensions and deposits, and you’ll discover it’s an $18-trillion financial institution. By comparison, JP Morgan Chase, the largest U.S. bank, had assets totaling about $2.4 trillion.

While government practices differ across countries, the basic story is much the same everywhere. As the world’s largest and most interconnected financial institutions — and through their activities as rule-makers and regulators — governments have an enormous influence on the allocation of capital and risk in society. And as financial actors they are confronted with the same critical issues as their private-sector peers: How should a government assess its cost of capital? How should its financial activities be accounted for? What are the systemic and macroeconomic effects? Are the institutions well-managed? Are its financial products well-designed?

Surprisingly, little research has focused on governments as financial institutions in their own right, and on finding solutions to the challenges they face. While private-sector financial theory and practice have benefited from decades of transformational innovations, public-sector financial thinking and education have not kept pace.

To help to bridge this knowledge gap, MIT is launching the Center for Finance and Policy (CFP) under the aegis of MIT Sloan’s Finance Group. A primary goal of the CFP is to be a catalyst for innovative, cross-disciplinary, and non-partisan research and educational initiatives. Its activities will address the unique challenges facing governments in their role as financial institutions, and also as regulators of private financial institutions. The aim is to provide much-needed support for policymakers and practitioners that will ultimately lead to improved decision-making, greater transparency, and better financial policies.

A quick look at recent headlines shows just how much is at stake and some of the significant decisions that need to be made. There’s the announcement by the BRICs about the formation of the New Development Bank, which will serve as a channel for large government-backed investments in those countries. In the U.S. there’s been heated debate over whether the Export-Import Bank should be reauthorized and whether the federal student loan programs are adequately serving students. There’s also the question of if, how and when the U.S. mortgage market will be reprivatized.

Research supported by the CFP is organized around three main tracks: the evaluation and management of government financial institutions, the regulation of financial markets and institutions, and the measurement and control of systemic risk. A critical focus of the CFP is the dissemination of knowledge to turn theory and data analysis into practice. That will be accomplished through policy briefs, conferences, the website, a visiting scholars program, and other initiatives.

We’re also focusing on education. The aim is to provide greater access to the tools of modern financial analysis to current and future regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders in the public sector. People working in the public sector have traditionally faced barriers to obtaining high-level financial education due to the cost and lack of a developed curriculum. We’re planning to use MIT edX to develop and offer material that will reach a broad audience free of charge. We also plan to offer special executive education programs and short courses at Sloan. To support those efforts, the CFP is investing in curriculum development in the application of financial concepts to public policy contexts.

The CFP will be officially announced in conjunction with our inaugural conference, which will take place Sept. 12-13. The conference will highlight new research related to its three main research areas. It features six paper sessions, three panel discussions, and a keynote address. Over 100 participants are expected to attend including policymakers, practitioners, and academics. The event will be available afterwards online.

I believe that the CFP’s research and educational initiatives will significantly move the needle on how policymakers think about their role as financial decision-makers and regulators, and ultimately have transformative effects on the quality and conduct of financial policy.

Deborah Lucas is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Finance at MIT Sloan and Director of the MIT Center for Finance and Policy

What is the true cost of government-backed credit?

The U.S. government is arguably the largest financial institution in the world. If you add the outstanding stock of government loans, loan guarantees, pension insurance, deposit insurance and the guarantees made by federal entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, you get to about $18 trillion of government-backed credit. Through those activities, the government has a first-order effect on the allocation of capital and risk in the economy.

Professor Deborah Lucas

The question of what those commitments cost the public is important; accurate cost assessments are necessary for informed decisions by policymakers, effective program management, and meaningful public oversight.  My research and that of others has shown that if one takes a financial economics approach to answering that question — one that is consistent with the methods used by private financial institutions to evaluate such costs — it leads to significantly higher estimates than the approach currently used by the federal government.

At the core of the problem are the rules for government accounting, which by law require that costs for most federal credit programs be estimated using a government borrowing rate for discounting expected cash flows, regardless of the riskiness of those cash flows. That practice systematically understates the cost to the government because it neglects the full cost of risk to taxpayers, who are effectively equity holders in the government’s risky loans and guarantees.

An alternative approach to cost estimation — a fair value approach based on market prices — would fully take into account the cost of risk. Fully accounting for the cost of risk makes a significant difference:  An estimate of the official budgetary cost of credit programs in 2013 shows them as generating savings for the government of $45 billion, whereas a fair value estimate suggests the programs will cost the government about $12 billion.

The understatement of cost has important practical consequences. For example, it may favor expanding student loans over Pell grants because student loans appear to make money for the government. It also creates the opportunity for “budgetary arbitrage,” whereby the government can buy loans at market prices and book a profit that reduces the reported budget deficit, as it did in several instances during the recent financial crisis.

That perspective on how credit program costs should be measured is widely shared by financial economists, although until recently the issue has not received much attention by academics. That changed last month when the Financial Economists Roundtable (FER), of which I am a member, issued a statement on this matter, writing: “The apparent cost advantage of government credit assistance over private lenders is, in the opinion of the FER, primarily due to [government] accounting rules, rather than to any inherent economic advantage of the government.”

According to the FER’s statement, the solution to this undervaluation is to amend current accounting rules to require an approach to cost estimation that fully recognizes the cost of risk in the government’s credit programs. The group maintains (and I agree) that such a change “would make the true budgetary implications of credit assistance more transparent to program administrators, policy makers and the public.”

Prof. Deborah Lucas is the author of “Valuation of Government Policies and Projects.” She previously served as assistant director and chief economist at the Congressional Budget Office.