Seven Terms to Sound like a Bretton Woods Economist

Nearly sixty-seven years after an international conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire organized a new financial system, an unofficial gathering of top economists and experts met at the same hotel this past weekend to talk about ways to fix the system once again. Here are some handy phrases that you can use to create the illusion that you actually sat through the grueling sessions:

#1) SIFI (pronounced "SIH-fee." Also known as LCFI, but never pronounced
"EL-kuh-fee.")

What does it mean?

SIFI stands for Systemically Important Financial Institution. A company
so important its collapse would cause destructive ripple effects across
the financial system. LCFI means the same thing: Large Complex Financial
Institution.

TBTF = Too Big To Fail. But don't ever say "Tih-BEE-tuf." Get it now?

What's the Status?

The market has a strong sense which financial firms are SIFIs, LCFIs, and
TBTFs, meaning that if they would likely be bailed out by the government
if they made bad decisions. This implicit government guarantee means the
financial institutions can pay less when they borrow, which could lead
them to take excessive risk. The Dodd-Frank financial reform law sets up
a system to help the government monitor SIFIs, but that system is not yet
up and running.

Why should anyone care?

If a SIFI fails, taxpayers are on the hook.

How can I sound like I went to Bretton Woods?

The chatter here is that SIFIs are one of the most important problems facing the world's financial system. There isn't a consensus on the solution, but nearly everyone seems to agree Dodd-Frank alone ain't it.

#2) Volcker Rule

What does it mean?

Named after the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, the rule limits the ability of banks to own hedge funds or to make bets in the market for their own profit.

What's the status?

A form of the Volcker Rule is now being put into force in the U.S. and a panel today recommends a version for the U.K.

Why should anyone care?

Banks may not be as profitable, which hits bank shareholders. However, the idea is that financial institutions will be less likely to take excessive risks, endangering themselves, their depositors or the financial system as a whole.

How can I sound like I went to Bretton Woods?

You wouldn't be ostracized for talking up the Volcker Rule; It had some big fans in attendance. (Paul Volcker, for one.)

#3) Basel III (pronunciation: BAH-sul three)

What does it mean?

A new set of international rules requiring banks to hold more cash or other ready capital to serve as a buffer if things turn bad.

What's the status?

The new, deeper cushions are being phased in through 2019. Some banks believe the reserve requirements are excessive. Others believe they're inadequate, and that the new rules take too long to phase in.

Why should anyone care?

The reserves could make the banking system safer and more stable, which would be good for customers and for taxpayers when governments back the banks up. The reserves could slow the banks ability to lend, which might make some loans tougher to get.

How can I sound like I went to Bretton Woods?
For those who fear SIFIs (see above), giving banks a bigger buffer is part of the solution, at least for speakers on the subject at Bretton Woods. But they want to go (much) further than Basel III.

#4) Derivatives clearinghouses

What does it mean?

Under America's new financial reform law, some complex financial transactions have to come in from the cold, to get a review and stamp-of-approval from a third party. It's a bit like hiring a building inspector to check things out before you buy a house.

What's the status?

Many derivatives are still exempt and will not have to pass through a clearinghouse.

Why should anyone care?

Critics say the global derivatives market is still too opaque and mysterious and could in the future present risks to the stability of the financial system.

How can I sound like I went to Bretton Woods?

The derivatives market is a prime example of an area needing regulation, according to many of the folks. We didn't hear a lot of specific takes on the clearinghouse solution.

#5) Capital Controls

What does it mean?

They're tools countries use to keep money from rushing in and out, ranging from taxes to hard caps.

What's the status?

The IMF used to oppose capital controls, but they reversed course back in 2010.

Why should anyone care?

Critics, which used to include most Western governments and Bigfoot institutions like the International Monetary Fund, say they hurt global trade. Supporters say they can be necessary to protect developing countries from having economic crises aggravated by stampedes of fleeing investors.

How can I sound like I went to Bretton Woods?

During one panel at Bretton Woods, moderator John Cassidy asked who supported the old IMF, no-controls-allowed policy. No hands were raised, and the audience shared a laugh of solidarity.

#6) Kindleberger

What does it mean?
Not an e-reader hamburger hybrid, Kindleberger is Charles Kindelberger, economic historian.

What's the status?

Unfortunately, Kindelberger passed away in 2003, but his work lives on; in particular his seminal history of the Great Depression, "The World in Depression."

Why should anyone care?

Kindleberger's history of the depression was called the "best book on the subject" by John Kenneth Galbraith.

How can I sound like I went to Bretton Woods?

Kindleberger is lauded here as an exemplar for the economics community. His name has become shorthand for the inclusion of historical context in economics, which many folks here think is sadly lacking.

#7) Balance sheet recession

What does it mean?

Short version: An individual business is right to pay down its debts and wait to invest, but when every business does it, the recession hurts everyone. Longer version, courtesy of term evangelist Richard Koo of Nomura Research Institute:

What's the status?

Koo told us that his "balance sheet recession" concept is starting to be embraced by the Obama administration. Though at the moment, it's hard to imagine them applying that knowledge by passing another economic stimulus measure.

Why should anyone care?

If the weak economy is due to companies paying down their debt, it could mean the government needs to step in.

How can I sound like I went to Bretton Woods?

Koo's debt diagnosis and stimulus prescription finds a number of allies here in the halls where original-stimulator John Maynard Keynes once walked.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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