Tag: bank regulators

Who Wants To Be ‘Too-Big-To-Fail’?

I’ve argued that the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill does not end “too-big-to-fail”, that is the belief that certain companies are implicitly backed by the government because policy-makers are unlikely to let said institutions actually fail. By naming some companies as ”systemically important” – as required by Dodd-Frank – the government is actually sending a signal as to who is likely to be bailed out.

As evidenced by regulators’ behavior during the financial crisis, the prime beneficiaries would be the creditors of these companies, as even when shareholders and management suffered, creditors generally did not. This should allow such firms to borrow at a cost lower than firms not deemed systemically important.

Given this funding advantage, it would seem natural that firms would want to be included as systemically important. Sure they might be examined by bank regulators more often, but that’s hardly a large cost compared to the funding advantage.

Congressman Frank has attempted to refute that there are any benefits from being deemed “systemically important” by the fact that ”so many financial institutions have lobbied against being designated in this way.” What his argument misses, or chooses to ignore, is that these benefits are not the same for all institutions. It is companies that rely heavily on debt market financing, such as banks, that have the most to gain. And under Dodd-Frank, the largest banks are automatically included. They have no opportunity to lobby to be in or out. The firms that are not automatically in, the most important of which are insurance companies, do not fund themselves primarily via the debt markets. Insurance companies get most of their funding from the premiums paid by their policyholders. And those premiums must be sufficient to cover expected losses, which have little to do with funding costs in the debt markets. Other non-bank financial companies, such as hedge funds and private equity, do not gain to the same extent that banks do because they have traditionally been a lot less leveraged than banks.

So the answer to Mr. Frank’s point is that those who have the most to gain from being ”systemically important” are already included, those with the least the gain are the very ones lobbying against being included. The real perversity is that once they are included, they will have a strong incentive to shift their business models toward more debt funding, making them riskier and more likely to fail (debt markets are far more fickle than insurance policy-holders). We are left relying solely on the judgment of the regulators to avoid this outcome, the same regulators who were asleep at the wheel as the housing bubble expanded.

If Not Fannie, then Who?

A common defense offered for keeping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or something like them, is that the market simply cannot absorb the same level of mortgage lending without them.  The central flaw in this argument is that Fannie and Freddie themselves must be funded by the market.  So if the financial markets can absorb X in GSE debt, then the financial markets can absorb X in mortgages.

Different market participants currently face different capital requirements for the same assets.  To some extent, Fannie and Freddie were a vehicle for shifting mortgage risk from higher capitalized institutions to less capitalized.  If the Obama administration and bank regulators are serious about closing “regulatory gaps” then all entities backed by the govt, implicit or otherwise, should hold the same capital against the same risks.  In the following I will thus assume that differences in capital requirements behind mortgages are irrelevant.

So to determine who could absorb the GSEs’ buying of mortgages, let’s look at who holds GSE debt.  Of the approximately $5 trillion in GSE debt and mortgage backed securities (MBS), about a trillion is held by commercial banks and thrifts.  Another trillion is held by insurance companies and pension funds.  Close to a trillion is held by mutual funds.  That quickly gets one to 3 trillion.  Households and state/local governments also hold close to a trillion.  That leaves us with about a trillion left, held mostly by foreign governments (usually central banks).  For this analysis, I am using data pre-Federal Reserve purchases of GSE debt/MBS.

Given that banks hold about a trillion in excess reserves and over 9 trillion in deposits, I think its fair to assume commercial banks could easily absorb another $1 trillion in mortgages, as represented by foreign holders.   Some holders of GSE debt are legally prohibited from holding mortgages.  These entities can generally hold bank commercial paper (think mutual funds) which could then fund the same level of mortgages.  

The point here should be clear, by swapping out GSE debt for mortgages, our financial markets have sufficient capacity to replace Fannie and Freddie.  In fact, we are the only advanced country that does not fund our mortgage market primarily or exclusively with bank deposits.  This analysis also does not assume any reduction in the size of our mortgage market, which should actually be an objective of reform.  We devote too much capital to mortgages, at the expense of more productive sectors of our economy.

The Fraud From Basel

Despite every major US bank being declared by regulators as “well capitalized” prior to the financial crisis, we still found ourselves watching the government plow hundreds of billions of capital into said banks.  How can this be?  The answer is quite simple:  we were lied to.  Maybe that’s a little harsh, after all these banks did meet the regulatory definition of “well capitalized”.  But when push came to shove, market participants rightly ignored regulatory capital.  After all you cannot use things like “deferred tax losses” to pay your bills with.

It is hard to improve upon Martin Wolf’s observation in today’s Financial Times:  “This amount of equity is far below levels markets would impose if investors did not continue to expect governments to bail out creditors in a crisis.”  This point is best illustrated by the trend in bank capital over the last 100 years.  Back when banks were actually subject to market forces and were not explicitly subjected to government capital standards, they held significantly more capital.   In 1900 the average US bank capital ratio was close to 25%, now it’s closer to 5%.  The trend is unmistakable:  the more government has regulated bank capital, the less capital banks have ended up holding.

Despite the claims of the banking industry, what the bank regulators have just delivered with “Basel III” is simply another fraud upon the public and investors.  Any framework that continues to treat say Greek or Fannie Mae debt as largely risk-free is a sham.

The real solution is to first end the various government bailouts, guarantees and subsidies behind the banking system, subjecting bank creditors to actual losses, while also abandoning the charade that is capital regulation.   Sadly politicians (see the Dodd-Frank Act) and regulators continue to simply tweak a flawed and morally bankrupt system.

Fannie Mae and Greece’s Problems Enabled by Basel

On the surface the failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would appear to have little connection to the fiscal crisis in Greece, outside of both occurring in or around the time of a global financial crisis.  Of course in the case of Fannie and Freddie, primary blame lies with their management and with Congress.  Primary blame for Greece’s problems clearly lies with the Greek government. 

Neither Greece or Fannie would have been able to get into as much trouble, however, if financial institutions around the world had not loaded up on their debt.  One reason, if not the primary reason, for bailing out both Greece and the US’s government sponsored enterprises is the adverse impact their failures would have on the banking system.

Yet bankers around the world did not blindly load up on both Greek and GSE debt, they were encouraged to by the bank regulators via the Basel capital standards.  Under Basel, the amount of capital a bank is required to hold against an asset is a function of its risk category.  For the highest risk assets, like corporate bonds, banks are required to hold 8%.  Yet for those seen as the lowest risk, short term government bonds, banks aren’t required to hold any capital.  So while you’d have to hold 8% capital against say, Ford bonds, you don’t have to hold any capital against Greek debt.  Depending on the difference between the weights and the debt yields, such a system provides very strong incentives to load up on the highest yielding bonds of the least risky class.  Fannie and Freddie debt required holding only 1.6% capital.  Very small losses in either Greek or GSE debt would cause massive losses to the banks, due to their large holdings of both.

The potential damage to the banking system from the failures of Greece and the GSEs is not the result of a free market run wild.  It was the very clear and predictable result of misguided and mismanaged government policies meant to create a steady market for government borrowing.

A Deregulation That Could Reduce Foreclosures

One of the obstacles to reducing mortgage foreclosures is that so many of the homes being foreclosured upon are not occupied by their owners.  Approximately 20 percent of homes are vacant investor-held properties, while according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition another 20 percent are occupied by renters.

Addressing the issue of renter occupied foreclosures has been one of the harder nuts to crack.  We should have no sympathy for vacant homes purchased purely for speculative gain - the best course of action for those homes is foreclosure, or even better, speculators should be expected to continue paying those mortgages even in the face of losses.   Where homes are currently rented however, it may be in the interest of both the bank and the renter to continue that relationship.  Unfortunately, there is one larger barrier:  the very same bank regulators who are pushing lenders not to foreclose.

As banks are not in the business of property management, their regulators strongly discourage banks from keeping foreclosured properties on their books.  In fact bank regulations generally prohibit lenders from entering into long-term leases with tenants.  Legislation (HR 2529) introduced by Republican Gary Miller and Democrat Joe Donnelly would allow banks to do so for up to five years.  While the bill is sure to have some flaws - it merits a closer look.

Although most banks are unlikely to want to become property managers, allowing some to do so, even on an interim basis could reduce both the unnecessary eviction of renters and foreclosures on rental properties.   And unlike proposals that would force banks to make uneconomical modifications, or prohibit lenders from taking ownership of a renter-occupied home, relaxing regulations governing bank management of foreclosured properties could keep some families in their homes without having to violate contracts or re-distribute wealth.