Distinguished Speaker Series: Rick Waddell, Chairman of Northern Trust

Who better to teach management during a crisis than a former bank CEO who began his job in the midst of the 2008 recession? Rick Waddell has one of the most extensive resumes you’ll find in banking and dedicated his career to growing Northern Trust from a sleepy custody and wealth management firm into the technology-driven asset management and banking leader it is today. Waddell was CFA Society Chicago’s guest speaker on October 10th for its Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon.

He noted proudly that he saw many former and current Northern Trust employees in the audience. “The CFA Society is really important to us at Northern Trust,” he said. Waddell said that he was told not to make his speech a commercial for his bank, and joked that “this eliminates about 95% of my content” and made him ponder what would be a good topic for him to address, ultimately deciding on “5 Things I Learned From the Global Financial Crisis of 2008”.

In Waddell’s mind, the following five key features made the difference between success and failure during the financial crisis.

Capital matters. For any organization with a balance sheet, both the quantity and quality of its capital during ’08 were incredibly important. He noted that capital ratios had been too low in Europe, but generally were roughly OK in the US. He still sees problems with bank capital transparency in Europe today.

Liquidity matters. Again, both the quality and the amount of liquidity are important. Waddell said that he believed that the fall of Lehman Brothers was not due to lack of capital, but to lack of liquidity. The Fed was much more focused on capital during the global financial crisis than liquidity, but the latter was just as important. One of the earliest warning signs Waddell saw that all was not right in the financial world was when HSBC wrote down $11 billion worth of subprime mortgages in March of 2007. Waddell wanted to know if any part of Northern Trust had exposure to subprime lending and found that, while they didn’t make the loans themselves, they still had subprime-related instruments in some of their investment pools. Another warning sign came in August 2007 when Waddell learned that a securities lending collateral pool was facing losses when a number of banks withdrew from the niche Auction Rate Securities (ARS) market and banks holding the formerly liquid instruments suddenly faced losses.

Leadership and management during a crisis matter. Waddell said that during a tumultuous period, “the good and the not so good in all of us comes out.” With his background focused on commercial banking, he had to learn a lot of things quickly during the crisis as a new CEO leading a diversified financial firm. At the same time, Waddell had consultants and executives coming to him asking who he was going to fire in order to shed costs. Firing people immediately after the bank’s best year on record (2007) didn’t make sense to Waddell. He didn’t want to go down that route, and it turned out that staying the course and not making widespread headcount reductions was the right decision.

Culture matters. “At Northern Trust, our values are service, expertise and integrity,” said Waddell. Having that culture in place before a crisis hit was extraordinarily important. While Waddell admitted that Northern Trust has its share of problems like any firm, and its culture needs to evolve while holding employees more accountable, having a set of values that the team buys into was one of the main reasons the firm navigated the crisis so well. “Culture is more important than strategy,” Waddell said, echoing management consulting pioneer Peter Drucker. Despite the bank’s commitment to its partners and Waddell’s desire to avoid mass layoffs, its ROE fell to 8.2% in 2011, below its cost of capital, so the bank went on a mission to cut costs while still avoiding large layoffs that could have demoralized staff.

Strategy matters. Waddell said that having skin in the game was important during the recession. He found that the trend of banks securitizing assets and immediately getting them off their balance sheet led to a lack of skin in the game with financial institutions, and this made the crisis even worse.

Waddell continued on at length about his experience during the financial crisis. In 2009, large US banks were forced to accept a capital injection as part of TARP. Northern Trust was well-capitalized and didn’t need the money, but regulators hinted that they needed to comply or there could be consequences. Waddell said that the TARP program was in theory a good idea that could act as a stimulus, but the problem was that there weren’t enough borrowers demanding capital for it to have much of an impact. What was originally termed the “healthy bank program” soon became “the bailout” in the public’s eyes, which led to protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street, some of which were held immediately outside Northern Trust’s headquarters at LaSalle and Monroe. This populist take on the government bailing out fat cat bankers hurt the perception of Northern Trust, despite the firm’s insistence that it didn’t need capital and its desire to quickly repay the money. Waddell said that the terms of the loan Northern Trust was forced to take netted taxpayers a 15.5% return, and TARP overall was one of the most successful investments for taxpayers in recent history and very profitable for the government.

Blame for the crisis is difficult to assess, but Waddell said that the Fed was responsible for missing some of the warning signs, banks were also responsible to an extent for lax standards, and consumers were also responsible by borrowing far more money than they were able to repay. Waddell said that eventually there will be a recession in the US but the banking system will be in a much better position to not only withstand it, but even be a positive force for stability. One thing that remains unresolved is the issue of “too big to fail”, but bank capital and credit quality have greatly improved overall. While he noticed some clues that markets were starting to crack back in 2007, Waddell sees few red flags on the horizon today. He said that usually problems will manifest early on in the mortgage market, but that the industry appears to be functioning fairly normally now. There could be some issues with Brexit next year, and Northern Trust continues to monitor that situation closely, as well as the Chinese economy and issues around cybersecurity. In his Q&A, Waddell said that young professionals considering a career in banking will still find opportunities in the future, as the practice of safeguarding assets and allocating capital will be around for a long time. He was slightly less upbeat about the prospects for the asset management industry in light of the disruptions faced by robo advisers, low (and sometimes free, in the case of Fidelity) account fees, and the trend towards passive investing.

True to Northern Trust’s values, Waddell finished his speech by encouraging the audience to get involved in a philanthropic endeavor that aligns with their interest, saying “to much is given, much is expected”. Lastly, he noted the firm’s long history of collaborating with United Way and said that there’s still much work to be done.

Distinguished Speaker Series: James Bullard, President and CEO of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank

On September 12th, CFA Society Chicago welcomed James Bullard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. Members and guests heard Bullard’s remarks over breakfast at The University Club.

The focus of the discussion explored a possible strategy to extend the U.S. economic expansion. Bullard noted that historical signals used by monetary policy makers have broken down, specifically the empirical Phillips curve relationship. As a result Bullard suggested putting more weight on financial market signals, such as the slope of the yield curve and market -based inflation expectations. Handled properly, these signals could help the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) better identify the neutral policy rate and possibly extend the U.S. economic expansion.

Following are excerpts from Bullard’s presentation “What Is the Best Strategy for Extending the U.S. Economy’s Expansion?

The Disappearing Phillips Curve

Prior to 1995 inflation expectations were not well anchored. Around 1995, the U.S. inflation rate reached 2 percent, and U.S inflation expectations stabilized near that value. Bullard interpreted this as the U.S. having an implicit inflation target of 2 percent after 1995, calling it the inflation-targeting era. The FOMC named an explicit inflation target of 2 percent in January 2012, but Bullard said he believes that the Committee behaved as if it had a 2 percent target well before that date. The post 1995 period in the U.S. coincided with a global movement among central banks toward inflation targeting beginning in the early 1990s. During this period, the 2 percent inflation target became an international standard.

Once inflation expectations stabilized around this international standard, the empirical relationship between inflation and unemployment– the so called “Phillips curve”–began to disappear. Bullard provided a chart showing the slope of the Phillips curve has been drifting toward zero since the 1990’s and has been close to zero for the past several years.

Current monetary policy strategy

The conventional wisdom in current U.S. monetary policy is based on the Phillips curve and suggests that the policy rate should continue to rise in order to contain any increase in inflationary pressures. However, in the current era of inflation targeting, neither low unemployment nor faster real GDP growth gives a reliable signal of inflationary pressure because those empirical relationships have broken down. Continuing to raise the policy rate in such an environment could cause the FOMC to go too far, raising recession risk unnecessarily.

Given that, Bullard suggested using financial market signals such as the yield curve as an alternative to the Phillips curve. The slope of the yield curve is considered a good predictor of future real economic activity in the U.S. This is true both in empirical academic research and in more casual assessments. Generally speaking, financial market information suggests that current monetary policy is neutral or even somewhat restrictive today. Specifically, the yield curve is quite flat, and market based inflation expectations, adjusted to a personal consumption expenditures basis, remain somewhat below the FOMC’s 2 percent target. Financial market information also suggests the policy rate path in the June 2018 summary of Economic Projections (SEP) is too hawkish for the current macroeconomic environment.

A forward-looking strategy

More directly emphasizing financial market information naturally constitutes a forward looking monetary policy strategy. One of the great strengths of financial market information is that markets are forward looking and have taken into account all available information when determining prices. Thus, markets have made a judgment on the effects of the fiscal package in the U.S., ongoing trade discussions, developments in emerging markets, and a myriad of other factors in determining current prices.

Financial markets and the Fed

Financial markets price in future Fed policy, which creates some feedback to actual Fed policy if policymakers are taking signals from financial markets. This has to be handled carefully. Ideally, there would be a fixed point between Fed communications and market based expectations of future Fed policy, i.e., the two would be close to each other. Bullard said that generally speaking, markets have currently priced in a more dovish policy than indicated by the FOMC’s SEP – they expect the Committee to be more dovish than announced but still not enough to achieve the inflation target.

Caveats on financial market signals

Financial market information is not infallible, and markets can only do so much in attempting to predict future macroeconomic performance. The empirical evidence on yield curve inversion in the U.S. is relatively strong, and TIPS -based inflation expectations have generally been correct in predicting subdued inflationary pressures in recent years. Therefore, both policymakers and market professionals need to take these financial market signals seriously.

Risks 

Bullard suggested that yield curve inversion would likely increase the vulnerability of the economy to recession. An inflation outbreak is possible but seems unlikely at this point. By closely monitoring market based inflation expectations, the FOMC can keep inflationary pressure under close surveillance. In addition, financial stability risk is generally considered moderate at this juncture. Arguably, these are being addressed through Dodd-Frank and related initiatives, including stress testing.

Opportunities

The current expansion dating from the 2007-2009 recession has been long and subdued on average. The slow pace of growth suggests the expansion could have much further to go. The strong performance of current labor markets could entice marginally attached workers back to work, increasing skills and enhancing resiliency before the next downturn.

Uncertainty

Another long standing issue in macroeconomics is how to think about parameter uncertainty, or more broadly, model uncertainty. Bullard pointed to two studies: Brainard (1967) suggested that when model parameters are in doubt, policy should be more cautious than otherwise and, Hansen and Sargent (2008) suggested that, in some cases, policymakers might want to be more aggressive than otherwise. This is an unresolved issue, but how to handle parameter uncertainty has been a concern for the FOMC for years.

Conclusion

Bullard re-iterated his position stressing that U.S. monetary policymakers should put more weight than usual on financial market signals in the current macroeconomic environment due to the breakdown of the empirical Phillips curve. Handled properly, current financial market information can provide the basis for a better forward-looking monetary policy strategy. The flattening yield curve and subdued market-based inflation expectations suggest that the current monetary policy stance is already neutral or possibly somewhat restrictive.

Vault Series: James D. Shilling, DePaul Department of Real Estate

The Evolution of Modern Real Estate and its Role in a Multi-Asset Portfolio

CFA Society Chicago gathered in the Vault at 33 North LaSalle to hear Professor James Shilling from the DePaul Department of Real Estate discuss the evolution of commercial real estate and its increasing role in a diversified portfolio. Shilling was the James A. Grasskamp Professor of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics at the University of Wisconsin and currently holds the George L. Ruff Endowed Chair in the Real Estate Center at DePaul University.

Professor Shilling began his presentation by showing that the value of diversification has been recognized since the days of King Solomon (circa 970 BC). He then goes on to discuss how Nobel Laureates Harry M. Markowitz (1952) and Robert C. Merton (1973) quantified the concept of diversification for the portfolio.

Harry M. Markowitz is known as the Father of Modern Portfolio Theory. His work set the stage for the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM) and a two-fund theorem. This theorem holds that for diversification purposes investors should hold a combination of the risk-free asset and a market portfolio of risky assets.

Robert C. Merton extended the Markowitz framework by allowing for multiple sources of uncertainty. In this framework commercial real estate can now assume a critical role as investors require another “hedge” against risk. However, real estate was slow to enter portfolios as there were only a few indices that could track performance. Beginning in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the development of appraisal-based commercial real estate indices ameliorated this problem.

Professor Shilling pointed out that during prolonged periods of low economic growth and low interest rates the inclusion of commercial real estate is of great benefit to any investment portfolio. He argued that the current US economy continues to reflect this “secular stagnation”. The persistence of low interest rates has incented portfolio managers to leave fixed income and increase their investments in real estate. Current pension portfolios average around a 10% exposure to commercial real estate. If recent trends continue, this exposure will only increase.

The present state of the US commercial real estate market reflects the continuance of a slow growth economy. With portfolio managers searching for yield, the vehicle of choice has in many instances been commercial real estate. Professor Shilling argues that this influx of money has continued to compress cap rates, which for some properties approach 3%.

Professor Shilling pointed out that during prolonged periods of low economic growth and low interest rates the inclusion of commercial real estate is of great benefit to any investment portfolio.

Increasing correlation between asset classes due to lower interest rates and the trend towards a flat yield curve has produced a scenario for portfolio managers where there is “nowhere to hide”.   It is increasingly difficult to achieve diversification using only developed market assets. He argues that more effective diversification can be achieved through investments in emerging markets assets.

QE Postmortem

A review of the Quantitative Easing (QE) programs conducted by central banks around the world since the financial crisis of 2008-09 was the topic of a panel discussion before a full house at the Hotel Allegro on September 13th. Dr. Dejanir Silva, professor of Business at the Gies School of Business at the University of Illinois served as moderator. Dr. Dejanir focuses his research on unconventional monetary policy, financial regulation, and entrepreneurial risk-taking. His panelists included:

  • Roberto Perli, from Cornerstone Macro in Washington, D.C. where he heads global monetary policy research. Prior to moving to the private sector in 2010, Dr. Perli worked at the Federal Reserve Board, assisting with the formulation of monetary policy.
  • Nomi Prins, journalist and author with experience in international investment banking.
  • Brett Ryan, senior economist at Deutsche Bank responsible for high-frequency data forecasting for North America.

Dr. Dejanir kicked-off the event with preliminary comments starting with a quote from the former President of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke:

“The problem with quantitative easing is it works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.”

More specifically, Dr. Dejanir explained that although empirical tests have shown positive effects of QE, we don’t have a clear understanding of the channel by which it works: the how and why of QE. This condition makes QE programs difficult to plan, execute, and, most importantly, evaluate after the fact.

The panelists then gave their general observations on QE as conducted by the Federal Reserve (Fed), European Central Bank (ECB), and the Bank of Japan (BOJ). Prins pointed out the huge size of the programs—the equivalent of $22 trillion. Even though the Fed has begun (slowly) to unwind its QE program, the ECB and BOJ are still accumulating securities. Prins called this an “artificial subsidy” which has encouraged investors of all types to take more risk than they otherwise would (or should) have. Perversely, this could end up having a destabilizing impact.

Ryan complimented the central banks for conducting QE claiming it helped avoid a long, global depression, and he added, they had learned a lot about how to use the tool in the future. He admitted surprise that the term premium in financial markets hadn’t returned to pre-crisis levels, and wondered what this might imply for the performance of risk assets in the future.

Perli, pointed out that, because the QE programs at the ECB and BOJ are still underway, conducting a postmortem is premature. Indeed, the ensuing discussion failed to reach many insightful conclusions about QE.

Dr. Dejanir then asked the panelists if central banks should conduct QE at all, in light of the risks it poses for them (by investing in asset classes beyond sovereign debt) and for investors (by reaching out on the risk spectrum further than usual). Ryan thought the risks were lower for the U.S. than for other countries because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. That effectively removes a limit on QE for the Fed. He added that the increases in required bank capital enacted during the crisis counteracted the QE programs by requiring banks to operate at lower leverage ratios. This has led to the idea of flexible capital regulations allowing for their application counter-cyclically. The Fed is conducting research into this concept.

Perli, said that in a time of extreme crisis, central banks must take actions that go beyond standard policy, and the recent experience fits the bill. However, he questioned the separate nature of the various QE programs, and suggested a coordinated effort could be more effective in the future.

Prins, acknowledged the inherent riskiness of QE. She contended that a lot of the liquidity has found its way into equity markets, either from end investors, or corporate buybacks. She feared that future rounds might require further investments into equity markets by the central banks to be effective. She also noted that the lack of a clear exit strategy added to the uncertainty, if not the outright risk, of QE programs.

The next question put to the panelists was whether or not the central banks should (or would) seek to reduce their balance sheets to pre-crisis levels. All three were skeptical that they would. With specific regard to U.S. MBS, Ryan doubted the Fed could reduce its holdings significantly without a material impact on the market, which it would be reluctant to do. Banks invest heavily in agency MBS because of their low-risk weighting in determining capital requirements. Prins pointed out the Fed would be careful not to upset the MBS market and generate a knock-on negative impact on bank capital. Perli expected all central banks to continue with greatly expanded balance sheets for the foreseeable future. He also expects a slow transition to transactions-based policy rates rather than administered ones. Ryan seconded this opinion and endorsed SOFR (Secured Overnight Financing Rate)–essentially the overnight treasury repo rate–as an alternative to Fed Funds.

The discussion moved on to the topic of the increase in indebtedness since the crisis. Prins presented figures highlighting recent changes. Total household debt has barely budged since 2007, rising just $100 billion to $9.4 trillion. However, this masks a shift of over $1 trillion from mortgage debt to other types of consumer debt. Non-financial corporate debt has nearly doubled to $3 trillion (Ryan noted that ratios of corporate indebtedness have reached levels usually characteristic of recessions). Student loans have risen dramatically, in relative terms, from $500 billion to $1.4 trillion. When sovereigns are included, total global debt has risen from about $97 trillion to $247 trillion, mainly because debt remains very cheap for borrowers almost everywhere in the world. All panelists acknowledged, however, that emerging market countries, having to borrow in developed markets, will struggle to service their debt denominated in foreign currencies.

The debt question eventually led into the final topic of the event: inequality. Ryan noted that inequality has been rising since 1980 but has only become an issue more recently. Dr. Dejanir asked if central banks should take inequality into consideration in conducting QE in the future.  Ryan responded that central banks lacked tools to address the issue. Perli agreed, saying that in times of crisis, central banks had to act to help economies quickly, without consideration of side issues like inequality. In any case, inequality is a macro policy issue, not a monetary policy one. Prins thought inequality should be addressed with regulations all the time, not just during crises.

In the end the panel had no concrete conclusions on QE, but agreed on some broader points:

  • Despite uncertainty over the size, timing, and ending of their programs, the central banks in the largest global economies needed to act beyond monetary policy, to help their economies recover from the great recession.
  • Experience has shown that these programs entail risks that could prove to be larger problems in the future.
  • Central banks should learn from their experience with recent QE programs, share that knowledge, and plan now for more coordinated programs when they are needed next.