Tag: banking

Choosing Financial Stability

Tomorrow the House Financial Services Committee moves to “mark-up” (amend and vote on) the Financial Choice Act, introduced by Committee Chair Jeb Hensarling.  The Choice Act represents the most comprehensive changes to financial services regulation since the passage of Dodd-Frank in 2010.  Unlike Dodd-Frank, however, the Choice Act moves our system in the direction of more stability and fewer bailouts.

At the heart of the Choice Act is an attempt to improve financial stability by increasing bank capital, while improving the functioning of our financial system by reducing compliance costs and over-reliance on regulatory discretion.  While I would have chosen a different level of capital, the Choice Act gets at the fundamental flaw in our current financial system: government guarantees punish banks for holding high levels of capital which, unfortunately, leads to excessive leverage and widespread insolvencies whenever asset values (such as houses) decline.  Massive leverage still characterizes our banking system, despite the “reforms” in Dodd-Frank.

The Choice Act also includes important, even if modest, improvements in Federal Reserve oversight (see Title VII).  There was perhaps no contributor to the housing boom and bust that has been as ignored by Congress as the Fed’s reckless monetary policies in the mid-2000s.  Years of negative real rates (essentially paying people to borrow) drove a boom in our property markets.  The eminent economist John Taylor has written extensively and persuasively on this topic, yet it remained ignored by legislators prior to Hensarling’s efforts.  Such reforms are too late to unwind the Fed’s current distortionary policies, but they may prove helpful in moderating future booms and busts.

Despite its daunting 500+ pages, the Choice Act is still best viewed as a modest step in the right direction.  Considerably more needs to be done to bring market discipline and accountability to our financial system.  But at least the Choice Act moves us in the right direction, for that the bill merits applause and consideration.


Osborne Risks a Triple-Dip for the UK

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has resumed his saber-rattling over raising capital requirements for British banks. Most recently, Osborne has fixated on alleged problems with banks’ risk-weighting metrics that, according to him, have left banks undercapitalized. Regardless of Osborne’s rationale, this is just the latest wave in a five-year assault on the U.K. banking system – one which has had disastrous effects on the country’s money supply. The initial rounds of capital hikes took their toll on the British economy – in the form of a double-dip recession. Now, Osborne appears poised to light the fuse on a triple-dip recession.

Even before the Conservative, Osborne, took the reins of Her Majesty’s Treasury, hiking capital requirements on banks was in vogue among British regulators. Indeed, it was under Gordon Brown’s Labour government, in late 2007, that this wrong-headed idea took off.

In the aftermath of his government’s bungling of the Northern Rock crisis, Gordon Brown – along with his fellow members of the political chattering classes in the U.K. – turned his crosshairs on the banks, touting “recapitalization” as the only way to make banks “safer” and prevent future bailouts.

It turns out that Mr. Brown attracted many like-minded souls, including the central bankers who endorsed Basel III, which mandates higher capital-asset ratios for banks. In response to Basel III, banks have shrunk their loan books and dramatically increased their cash and government securities positions, which are viewed under Basel as “risk-free,” requiring no capital backing. By contrast, loans, mortgages, etc. are “risk-weighted” – meaning banks are required by law to back them with capital. This makes risk-weighted assets more “expensive” for a bank to hold on its balance sheet, giving banks an incentive to lend less as capital requirements are increased. 

Five years later, Osborne is attempting to ratchet up the weights on these assets. Indeed, he is taking another whack at banks’ balance sheets – and the result will be the same as when the U.K. Financial Services Authority first took aim at the banking system (under Gordon Brown). As the accompanying chart shows, the first round of capital requirement hikes (in 2008) dealt a devastating blow to the U.K. money supply. Indeed, it tightened the noose on the supply of bank money – the portion of the total money supply produced by the banking system, through deposit creation.

Not surprisingly, this sent the British economy spiraling into its first recessionary dip. The second hit to the money supply came shortly after the Bank for International Settlements announced the imposition of capital hikes under the Basel III accords, in October 2010. Despite numerous infusions of state money (reserve money) via the Bank of England’s quantitative easing schemes, these first two squeezes on bank money have put the squeeze on the U.K.’s total money supply.

This is the case because state money makes up only 16.3% of the U.K.’s total money supply. The remaining 83.7% of the money supply is made up of bank money. In consequence, the Bank of England would have to undertake a massive expansion of state money, via quantitative easing, to offset the U.K.’s bank money squeeze.

It is doubtful, however, that the British pound sterling would be able to withstand such a move. Indeed, there are more storm clouds brewing over Threadneedle Street. The sterling recently touched a 15-month low against the euro, and it has fallen 8% against the euro since late July. For the time being, at least, the pound’s tenuous position will likely put a constraint on any further significant expansion of state money, through quantitative easing. It appears markets simply wouldn’t tolerate it.

Accordingly, the only viable option to jumpstart the faltering U.K. economy is to release the banking system from the grips of the government-imposed bank-money squeeze. Alas, Osborne’s most recent initiative on bank recapitalization goes in exactly the wrong direction.

Slumping Money Supply (Not Austerity) Plunges Hungary Into Recession

Hungary is in a recession, again. According to the chattering classes, as well as many analysts and financial reporters, fiscal austerity is the cause of Hungary’s slump.

Nonsense. Hungary’s recession results from its slumping money supply.

When monetary and fiscal policies move in opposite directions, the economy will follow the direction taken by monetary (not fiscal) policy – money dominates. For doubters, just consider Japan and the United States in the 1990s. The Japanese government engaged in a massive fiscal stimulus program, while the Bank of Japan embraced a super-tight monetary policy. In consequence, Japan suffered under deflationary pressures and experienced a lost decade of economic growth.

In the U.S., the 1990s were marked by a strong boom. The Fed was accommodative and President Clinton was super-austere – the most tight-fisted president in the post-World War II era. President Clinton chopped 3.9 percentage points off federal government expenditures as a percent of GDP. No other modern U.S. President has even come close to Clinton’s record.

The money supply picture for Hungary seemed to be looking up until late 2011 (see the accompanying chart). Indeed, Hungary’s money supply had nearly returned to its trend-rate level, when it peaked in November 2011. Then, in the course of just over a month, things took a turn for the worse.

First, Moody’s downgraded Hungary’s debt to junk status, and soon thereafter, S&P and Fitch followed suit. Then, the EU and IMF walked out on debt restructuring talks, citing concerns over proposed constitutional changes, which threatened the Hungarian central bank’s independence. Just days later, their fears were confirmed, as the Hungarian Parliament passed the controversial law, merging the central bank with the Financial Supervisory Authority. And, to top it off, Hungary unexpectedly cancelled part of its December debt auction.

When the dust settled, confidence in Hungary’s financial system had been shattered. Despite a 15.9% increase in the supply of state money, the total money supply had plummeted by 4.2% (from November 2011 to January 2012). As the accompanying table shows, this decline in the total money supply was driven by a 9% drop in the all-important bank-money component of the total.

Hungary’s money supply has yet to recover from this perfect monetary storm. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Hungary recently adopted a damaging financial transactions levy.

Money and monetary policy trump fiscal policy. Until Hungary gets its money and banking houses in order, its economy will continue to wallow in recession.

Why Is Massachusetts Trying to Ban Truthful Information About Hedge Funds?

The Massachusetts Uniform Securities Act prohibits general solicitation and advertising by anyone offering unregistered securities, ostensibly for the purpose of furthering state and federal disclosure schemes. Yet this ban on public communications has been applied so broadly that it has undermined those purported disclosure goals.  For instance, the ban has prevented individuals who have no interest in investing in any security – such as journalists, academics, students, and others who are not wealthy or financially sophisticated – from receiving truthful, non-misleading information about hedge funds.

In Bulldog Investors v. Massachusetts, an investment company maintained an interactive website that provided information about its products. Because Bulldog was not registered in Massachusetts, however, the State filed an administrative action against the firm, demanding it take down its online content.

In response, Bulldog joined a group of other firms and individuals – including some who have no interest in investing but wish to read the website information – in a lawsuit claiming that the Massachusetts ban violates their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the ban, so the plaintiffs have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

Cato, along with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a group of journalists and academics, has now filed an amicus brief supporting that request and arguing that the Massachusetts law is an unconstitutional ban on free speech. We show that the state’s claim that the ban furthers a larger federal regulatory scheme ignores the judgment of many federal officials (from both parties) who have concluded that such bans undermine these goals.

The state’s alleged disclosure interest is just a pretext for coercing companies to register in Massachusetts, and is therefore an unconstitutional attempt at circumventing federal preemption. But even if the ban furthers a legitimate state interest, it is so broad that it is has substantially chilled both truthful, non-misleading commercial speech and noncommercial speech alike.

A law so repugnant to the First Amendment cannot stand.

The Banking Deregulation that Mattered (and Actually Happened)

One commonly heard refrain is that the deregulation of banking caused the financial crisis.  To those of us that have actually spent years working on banking policy, such a claim is met with surprise.  What banking deregulation?  The usual response, with generally an absolute lack of detail or argument, is the repeal of Glass-Steagall by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLB).  When the proponents of this claim bother to offer any explanation (in some circles simply invoking the name “Phil Gramm” substitutes for any analysis), it usually goes like this:

With Glass-Steagall dead and gone, financial institutions were now free to grow large.

That’s taken from the recent book Reckless Endangerment.  What it misses that is that Glass-Steagall placed zero constraints on the size of banks.    

The following graph shows the share of total commercial bank assets held by banks over $10 billion in assets.  Its been quite a change, and obviously one toward growing concentration.  But was this caused by GLB?  Recall GLB was not signed into law until 1999.  By 1999 the share of assets held by the largest banks was already 65%, at the height of the bubble in 2005 it had risen to 73%.  

What could have contributed to this increase? Perhaps, just maybe, the removal of branch banking restrictions in the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994. Prior to the passage of Riegle-Neal many states had substantial restrictions on the number of branches a bank could have, which severelylimited the size of banks. In Texas for instance, banks were limited to a single location.

Before the passage of Riegle-Neal, the large bank share of assets stood at 38%.  In the few years, between its passage and that of GLB, this 38% shot up to 65%.   Far more than GLB, Riegle-Neal was the legislative driver of commercial bank consolidation.  But then a banking deregulation passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president just doesn’t garner the blind emotion of blaming everything on Phil Gramm.

It should, of course, be said that  the removal of branching banks restrictions was a great thing.  There is a substantial body of academic work supporting the notion that such restrictions increased the risk of the banking system.  Because of Riegle-Neal we had a safer banking system than we would have had otherwise.  It was indeed a deregulation — one that matter and one that vastly improved our financial system.

Hoenig for FDIC

On July 8th, Sheila Bair will step down as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).  While I believe she’s gotten a lot wrong (such as not preparing the fund for the coming crisis), she has been about the only voice among senior bank regulators for actually ending too-big-to-fail.  With her departure, we might lose that one voice.  Later this year, Kansas City Fed President Tom Hoenig is also scheduled to leave his current position.

Hoenig has actually gone beyond Bair in trying to address too-big-to-fail, having called for the largest banks to be broken up.  While I don’t believe that should be our first approach, having an advocate for both the taxpayer and the overall economy at the helm of the FDIC could make a significant difference.

Given that Section 2 of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act requires the FDIC to have a bipartisan board, President Obama is faced with the choice of either appointing a non-Democrat or asking Vice-Chair Marty Gruenberg to leave.  While I have no idea as to Hoenig’s politics, he’d likely be able to pass that test.

Hoenig has also been willing to publicly challenge Bernanke on a number of issues.  Given the narrow group-think among regulators that contributed to the crisis, having a loud, credible, independent voice among bank regulators is solely needed.  Hoenig again fits that bill.  His appointment would also offer Obama a chance to show that he is not completely beholden to the Geithner “never seen a bailout I didn’t like” worldview.

Perhaps with Hoenig at the helm, we can actually begin a debate about reducing the moral hazard created by the Federal Reserve.  While Bair was all too willing to see both insurance coverage and regulatory powers of the FDIC expanded, Hoenig strikes me as open-minded to the very real excess bank risk-taking that is encouraged by the existence of the FDIC.

Unintended Consequences of Money-Laundering Laws, Cont’d

As Dan Mitchell pointed out this morning, proposals to abolish the $100 bill, on the grounds that it’s too easily used in underground-economy activities such as tax evasion and drug dealing, are another instance in which ordinary citizens are called on to sacrifice convenience and privacy to help in the ever-expanding federal fight against “money laundering.” I’ve long been fascinated by the unintended consequences that arise from these laws, especially from the federal “know your customer” rules under which banks (and increasingly other businesses) are required to pry into their customers’ earnings sources, family relationships, overseas ties and other sensitive matters. Those who cannot furnish satisfactory answers – such as Americans who lack a suitable recent domestic credit record because they have long lived as dependents, overseas, or even as nuns in convents – may find that banks turn them away as customers or even freeze their existing accounts. The same is true of established customers who cannot explain a large or irregular series of cash deposits or remittances from abroad to a bank officer’s satisfaction.

A new example of this has emerged this fall, and it’s embarrassing even by the standards of federal government foul-ups. According to a Foreign Policy report last month, no fewer than 37 foreign governments with embassies in the United States are on the brink of losing, or have already lost, access to the routine banking services they need to pay their staff salaries and keep the lights and heat on in their consulates. The reason? These governments cannot prove to the satisfaction of U.S. banks that their accounts are not potentially open to use for illicit money transfers. From the banks’ point of view, there is no particular benefit to be had from an account which is relatively small in the first place – the countries involved are mostly poorer nations, many in Africa, with small embassy staffs – when these are dwarfed by the paperwork costs and potential legal exposures from a misstep.

The consequences for American foreign interests have already been unpleasant, and will become more so if the problem isn’t fixed. Angola, which saw its accounts closed down by Bank of America, has already had to cancel planned national independence day celebrations and has hinted at retaliation against unrelated U.S. companies that happen to do business in Angola. Extend that sort of anger to 37 countries, and some significant international frictions could result.

Now, I have no doubt that some embassy bank accounts, of smaller and bigger countries alike, are pressed into service for improper or even criminal money transfers. (I always assumed the whole point of “diplomatic pouches” was to transfer things back and forth that the host country would have preferred to stop and inspect). But the odds are near zero, I think, that the latest wave of bank refusals-to-deal was somehow a planned or intended consequence of the original federal calls for wide-ranging bank regulation in the name of money-laundering prevention. How many such unintended consequences will the new Dodd-Frank law turn out to have?