Mark-to-Market: The Bogeyman of the 1930s Is Back

by: Mark Sunshine

I wonder how many people realize that FDR got rid of mark-to-market accounting in 1938 after it virtually destroyed the banking sector. According to Brian Wesbury and Robert Stein, mark-to-market accounting was the law of the land for most of the Great Depression until it was outlawed by FDR in 1938. Wesbury and Stein report that the rationale for mark-to-market accounting in the 1930s seems similar to today’s argument for the rule: the need for greater price transparency based upon the efficient markets hypothesis in the banking sector.

FDR rejected the arguments of the efficient markets crowd because he thought that mark-to-market accounting contributed to the Great Depression. For approximately 70 years after FDR’s decision, banks operated without mark-to-market accounting and the economy didn’t have the threat of another depression. Years later Milton Friedman wrote that mark-to-market accounting was responsible for the avoidable failure of many banks in the 1930s. Maybe it is just coincidence, but immediately after mark-to-market accounting was restored in 2007 the banking sector started into a death spiral. Unfortunately, even though history seems to be repeating itself, few people are trying to learn from the past. Even so, today’s Congressional hearings on mark-to-market accounting are hopefully the first step towards stopping this terrible man-made economic disaster.

From the Wesbury and Stein article:

….The history seems clear. Mark-to-market accounting existed in the Great Depression…Franklin Roosevelt suspended it in 1938, and between then and 2007 there were no panics or depressions. But when FASB 157, a statement from the Federal Accounting Standards Board, went into effect in 2007, reintroducing mark-to-market accounting, look what happened.

Two things are absolutely essential when fixing financial market problems: time and growth. Time to work things out and growth to make working those things out easier. Mark-to-market accounting takes both of these away.

Because these accounting rules force banks to write off losses before they even happen, we lose time. This happens because markets are forward looking. For example, the price of many securitized mortgage pools is well below their value, based on cash flows. In other words, the market is pricing in more losses than have actually, or may ever, occur. The accounting rules force banks to take artificial hits to capital without reference to the actual performance of loans.

And this affects growth. By wiping out capital, so-called “fair value” accounting rules undermine the banking system, increase the odds of asset fire sales and make markets even less liquid. As this happened in 2008, investment banks failed, and the government proposed bailouts. This drove prices down even further, which hurt the economy. And now as growth suffers, bad loans multiply. It’s a vicious downward spiral…

…In the 1980s and 1990s, there were at least as many, and probably more, bad loans in the banking system as a share of the economy. The difference was that there was no mark-to-market accounting. This gave banks time to work through the problems. At the same time, the U.S. cut marginal tax rates and raised interest rates, which helped lift economic growth. Time and growth allowed those major banking problems to be absorbed, even though roughly 3,000 banks failed, without creating an economic catastrophe…

…In the 1930s, because mark-to-market accounting existed, we limited the amount of time available to fix problems…

…Anyone worried about repeating the errors of….the U.S. in the 1930s should focus on the policies that impeded recovery. Suspending mark-to-market accounting is a cost-free way to buy time. It does not allow banks to sweep bad loans under the rug. Bad loans are still bad loans, and banks cannot hide from them. Not suspending it, while at the same time interfering in the economy with massive stimulus and bank nationalization, is a recipe to undermine both time and growth and therefore hurt the economy even more.

The mark-to-market problem is particularly baffling to me. I don’t understand why the U.S. has to keep on repeating the mistakes of our fathers and grandfathers. Is it hubris? Do current financial leaders and policy makers believe that they are smarter than past generations and don’t need to learn from the past?

The list of reasons why mark-to-market accounting is a bad idea and should be eliminated is really long. But the biggest reason is that it is blamed for killing banks and helping put the U.S. into a deep depression. We shouldn’t be testing fate to see if the blame is misplaced or not. Instead, mark-to-market accounting should be re-repealed and FDR’s 1938 decision should be reinstated.

Yesterday the House Financial Services Committee held hearings on mark-to-market accounting and FASB announced that they are going to rework the rules. Hopefully we will follow FDR’s example and this terrible accounting rule will be rejected as a financial bogeyman that has come back from the dead to terrorize us.