Category Archives: The Real World

Federal Financial Guarantees: Problems and Solutions

Besides insuring bank and thrift deposits, the federal government guarantees a number of other financial transactions, including farm credits, home mortgages, student loans, small business loans, pensions, and export credits (to name a few).

In order to better understand the problems faced by federal financial guarantee programs, consider the conditions which give rise to a well-functioning private insurance market. In private markets, insurers segregate policyholders with similar exposures to risk into separate risk classifications, or pools. As long as the risks of the policyholders are not significantly correlated (that is, all policyholders do not suffer a loss at the same time), pooling reduces the risk of the average loss through the operation of a statistical principle known as the “law of large numbers”. Consequently, an insurer can cover its costs by charging a premium that is roughly proportional to the average loss. Such a premium is said to be actuarially fair.

By limiting membership in a risk pool to policyholders with similar risk exposures, the tendency of higher risk individuals to seek membership in the pool (commonly referred to as adverse selection) is controlled. This makes participation in a risk pool financially attractive to its members. Although an individual with a high chance of loss must consequently pay a higher premium than someone with a low chance of loss, both will insure if they are averse to risk and premiums are actuarially fair. By charging risk-sensitive premiums and limiting coverage through policy provisions such as deductibles, the tendency of individuals to seek greater exposure to risk once they have become insured (commonly referred to as moral hazard) is also controlled.

In contrast, federal financial guarantees often exaggerate the problems of adverse selection and moral hazard. Premiums are typically based upon the average loss of a risk pool whose members’ risk exposures may vary greatly. This makes participation financially unattractive for low risk members who end up subsidizing high risk members if they remain in the pool. In order to prevent low risk members from leaving, the government’s typical response has been to make participation mandatory. However, various avenues exist by which low risk members can leave “mandatory” risk pools. For example, prior to the reorganization of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) as part of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, a number of low risk thrifts became commercial banks. This change in corporate structure enabled these firms to switch insurance coverage to the FDIC, which at the time charged substantially lower premiums than did the FSLIC. Similarly, terminations of overfunded defined benefit pension plans enable firms to redeploy excess pension assets as well as drop out of the pension insurance pool operated by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC).

Although financial restructuring makes it possible to leave mandatory insurance pools, the costs of leaving may be sufficiently high for some low risk firms that they will remain. Unfortunately, the only way risk-insensitive insurance can possibly become a “good deal” for remaining members is by increasing exposure to risk; for example, by increasing the riskiness of investments or financial leverage. Furthermore, this problem is even more severe for high risk members of the pool, especially if they are financially distressed. The owners of these firms are entitled to all of the benefits of risky activities, while the insurance mechanism (in conjunction with limited liability if the firm is incorporated) minimizes the extent to which they must bear costs. Consequently, it is tempting to “go for broke” by making very risky investments which have substantial downside risk as well as potential for upside gain. The costs of this largely insurance-induced moral hazard problem can be staggering, both for the firm and the economy as a whole.

Ultimately, the key to restoring the financial viability of deposit insurance and other similarly troubled federal financial guarantee programs is to institute reforms which engender lower adverse selection and moral hazard costs. Policymakers would do well to consider how private insurers, who cannot rely upon taxpayer-financed bailouts, resolve these problems. The most common private market solution typically involves some combination of risk-sensitive premiums and economically meaningful limits on coverage. Federal financial guarantee programs should be similarly designed so that excessively risky behavior is penalized rather than rewarded.

Adverse Selection – a definition, some examples, and some solutions

During yesterday’s Finance 4335 class meeting, I introduced the topic of adverse selection, and we’ll devote tomorrow’s class to further discussion of this topic.

Adverse selection is often referred to as the “hidden information” problem. This concept is particularly easy to understand in an insurance market setting; if you are an insurer, you have to be concerned that the worst possible risks are the ones that want to purchase insurance. However, it is important to note that adverse selection occurs in many market settings other than insurance markets. Adverse selection occurs whenever one party to a contract has superior information compared with his or her counter-party. When this occurs, often the party with the information advantage is tempted to take advantage of the uninformed party.

In an insurance setting, adverse selection is an issue whenever insurers know less about the actual risk characteristics of their policyholders than the policyholders themselves. In lending markets, banks have limited information about their clients’ willingness and ability to pay back on their loan commitments. In the used car market, the seller of a used car has more information about the car that is for sale than potential buyers. In the labor market, employers typically know less than the worker does about his or her abilities. In product markets, the product’s manufacturer often knows more about product failure rates than the consumer, and so forth…

The problem with adverse selection is that if left unchecked, it can undermine the ability of firms and consumers to enter into contractual relationships, and in extreme cases, may even give rise to so-called market failures. For example, in the used car market, since the seller has more information than the buyer about the condition of the vehicle, the buyer cannot help but be naturally suspicious concerning product quality. Consequently, he or she may not be willing to pay as much for the car as it is worth (assuming that it is not a “lemon”). Similarly, insurers may be reticent about selling policies to bad risks, banks may be worried about loaning money to poor credit risks, employers may be concerned about hiring poor quality workers, consumers may be worried about buying poor quality products, and so on…

A number of different strategies exist for mitigating adverse selection. In financial services markets, risk classification represents an important strategy. The reason insurers and banks want to know your credit score is because consumers with bad credit not only often lack the willingness and ability to pay their debts, but they also tend to have more accidents than consumers with good credit. Signaling is used in various settings; for example, one solution to the “lemons” problem in the market for used cars is for the seller to “signal” by providing credible third party certification; e.g., by paying for Carfax reports or vehicle inspections by an independent third party. Students “signal” their quality by selecting a high-quality university (e.g., like Baylor! :-)). Here the university provides potential employers with credible third-party certification concerning the quality of human capital. In product markets, if a manufacturer provides a long-term warranty, this may indicate that quality is better than average.

Sometimes it’s not possible to fully mitigate adverse selection via the methods described above. Thus, insurers commonly employ pricing and contract design strategies which incentivize policyholders to reveal their actual risk characteristics according to their contract choices. Thus, we obtain what’s commonly referred to as a “separating” (Rothschild-Stiglitz) equilibrium in which high-risk insureds select full coverage “high-risk” contracts whereas low-risk insureds select partial coverage “low risk” contracts:

Rothschild-Stiglitz

The Rothschild-Stiglitz equilibrium cleverly restricts the menu of available choices in such a way that the insurer induces self-selection. Here, the insurer offers contract L, which involves partial coverage at an actuarially fair price (based upon the loss probability of the low risk insured), and contract H, which provides full coverage at an actuarially fair price (based upon the loss probability of the high risk insured). The differences in the shapes of the indifference curves are due to the different accident probabilities, with a lower accident probability resulting in a more steeply sloped indifference curve. Here, the high-risk policyholder optimally chooses contract H and the low-risk policyholder optimally chooses contract L. The high-risk policyholder prefers H to L because L would represent a point of intersection with a marginally lower indifference curve (here, the Ih curve lies slightly above contract L, which implies that contract H provides the high-risk policyholder with higher expected utility than contract L). The low-risk policyholder will prefer L, but would prefer a full coverage contract at the point of intersection of APl line with the full insurance (45 degrees) line. However, such a contract is not offered since both the low and high-risk policyholders would choose it, and this would cause the insurer to lose money. Thus, one of the inefficiencies related to adverse selection is that insurance opportunities available to low-risk policyholders are limited compared with the world where there is no adverse selection.

There is a very practical implication of this model. If you are a good risk, then you owe it to yourself to select high-deductible insurance, since insurers price low-deductible insurance with the expectation that high-risk policyholders will be the primary purchasers of such coverage (and therefore, low-deductible policies will be more costly per dollar of coverage than high-deductible policies.

On the Determinants of Risk Aversion

Four years ago, The Economist published a particularly interesting article about the determinants of risk aversion, entitled “Risk off: Why some people are more cautious with their finances than others”. Here are some key takeaways from this article:

1. Economists have long known that people are risk-averse; yet the willingness to run risks varies enormously among individuals and over time.

2. Genetics explains a third of the difference in risk-taking; e.g., a Swedish study of twins finds that identical twins had “… a closer propensity to invest in shares” than fraternal ones.

3. Upbringing, environment and experience also matter; e.g., . “…the educated and the rich are more daring financially. So are men, but apparently not for genetic reasons”.

4. People’s financial history has a strong impact on their taste for risk; e.g., “… people who experienced high (low) returns on the stock market earlier in life were, years later, likelier to report a higher (lower) tolerance for risk, to own (not own) shares and to invest a bigger (smaller) slice of their assets in shares.”

5. “Exposure to economic turmoil appears to dampen people’s appetite for risk irrespective of their personal financial losses.” Furthermore, a low tolerance for risk is linked to past emotional trauma.

The Index Fund featured as one of “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy”

Tim Harford also features the index fund in his “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” radio and podcast series. This 9 minute long podcast lays out the history of the development of the index fund in particular and the evolution of so-called of passive portfolio strategies in general. Much of the content of this podcast is sourced from Vanguard founder Jack Bogle’s September 2011 WSJ article entitled “How the Index Fund Was Born” (available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111904583204576544681577401622). Here’s the description of this podcast:

“Warren Buffett is the world’s most successful investor. In a letter he wrote to his wife, advising her how to invest after he dies, he offers some clear advice: put almost everything into “a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund”. Index funds passively track the market as a whole by buying a little of everything, rather than trying to beat the market with clever stock picks – the kind of clever stock picks that Warren Buffett himself has been making for more than half a century. Index funds now seem completely natural. But as recently as 1976 they didn’t exist.  And, as Tim Harford explains, they have become very important indeed – and not only to Mrs Buffett.”

Warren Buffett is one of the world’s great investors. His advice? Invest in an index fund

Insurance featured as one of “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy”

From November 2016 through October 2017, Financial Times writer Tim Harford presented an economic history documentary radio and podcast series called 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. This same information is available in book under the title “Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy“. While I recommend listening to the entire series of podcasts (as well as reading the book), I would like to call your attention to Mr. Harford’s episode on the topic of insurance, which I link below. This 9-minute long podcast lays out the history of the development of the various institutions which exist today for the sharing and trading of risk, including markets for financial derivatives as well as for insurance.

“Legally and culturally, there’s a clear distinction between gambling and insurance. Economically, the difference is not so easy to see. Both the gambler and the insurer agree that money will change hands depending on what transpires in some unknowable future. Today the biggest insurance market of all – financial derivatives – blurs the line between insuring and gambling more than ever. Tim Harford tells the story of insurance; an idea as old as gambling but one which is fundamental to the way the modern economy works.”

Stocks Weren’t Made for Social Climbing

Superb WSJ op-ed by (former hedge fund manager turned author) Andy Kessler about the corporate social responsibility “gospel” and the importance of profit; Kessler’s essay is essentially an homage to Milton Friedman’s famous 1970 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.”

Profits are the proper gauge of a company’s value to consumers—and to society.

On the relationship between the S&P 500 and the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX)

Besides going over the syllabus during the first day of class on Tuesday, January 9, we will also discuss a “real world” example of financial risk. Specifically, we will look at the relationship between short-term stock market volatility (as indicated by the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX)) and returns (as indicated by the SP500 stock market index).

As indicated by this graph from page 25 of next Tuesday’s lecture note, daily percentage changes on closing prices for VIX and the SP500 are strongly negatively correlated. In the graph above, the y-axis variable is the daily return on the SP500, whereas the x-axis variable is the daily return on the VIX. The blue points represent 7,056 daily observations on these two variables, spanning the time period from January 2, 1990 through December 29, 2017. When we fit a regression line through this scatter diagram, we obtain the following equation:

{R_{SP500}} = 0.00058 - 0.1187{R_{VIX}},

where {R_{SP500}} corresponds to the daily return on the SP500 index and {R_{VIX}} corresponds to the daily return on the VIX index. The slope of this line (-0.1187) indicates that on average, daily VIX returns during this time period were inversely related to the daily return on the SP500; i.e., when volatility as measured by VIX went down (up), then the stock market return as indicated by SP500 typically went up (down). Nearly half of the variation in the stock market return during this time period (specifically, 49.2%) can be statistically “explained” by changes in volatility, and the correlation between {R_{SP500}} and {R_{VIX}} comes out to -0.7014. While a correlation of -0.7014 does not imply that {R_{SP500}} and {R_{VIX}} will always move in opposite directions, it does indicate that this will be the case more often than not. Indeed, closing daily returns on {R_{SP500}} and {R_{VIX}} during this period moved inversely 78% of the time.

You can see how the relationship between the SP500 and VIX evolves prospectively by entering http://finance.yahoo.com/quotes/^GSPC,^VIX into your web browser’s address field.