Tag: banking system

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.

Should We Break Up the Banks?

When it comes to banking policy, there are few people I respect more than Jonathan Macey and Arnold Kling; so when these two, independently, argue that we should be breaking up the largest banks, it is idea that merits consideration.  Yet I still have my doubts.

First, lets start with what we are fairly certain of.  There is a large empirical literature that suggest most US mega-banks are beyond their efficient size.  There is a good survey of the literature by former Fed Economist Allen Berger .  So, at a minimum, the academic literature suggests the largest banks are beyond a size that is justified by the social benefits.

However, there is also a small literature that suggests more concentrated banking systems are more stable, and less prone to crisis.  Some of this literature has grown out of research efforts by the World Bank.  While this literature is largely cross-country comparisons, recalling our own banking history gives several examples - the savings & loan crisis, the mass of small banks failures in the 1920s and 1930s, and current day Georgia - where lots of small bank failures have been associated with significant economic damage.  So, at minimum, there is some question of whether breaking up the largest banks would give us a more stable, less crisis-prone system.  In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that breaking up the banks would make our financial system more fragile.

To some extent, the debate over breaking up the large banks is about reducing political power.  The argument is that, because of their vast resources, these large banks unduly influence and capture our political system.  Undoubtedly, I believe the largest banks have substantial influence over both our legislative and regulatory systems.  However, so do smaller banks.  From my seven years as staff on the Senate Banking Committee, I would definitely argue that the Independent Community Banks Association (ICBA), as a group, has far more pull than does say Bank of America, as a single company.  One need only witness the various exemptions for small banks in the Dodd bill, for instance from the consumer protection bureau, to illustrate the lobbying power of small bankers.  One could also argue that the economic history of progressive era legislation, like the Sherman Act, is one of smaller, organized interests winning against larger sized firms.  Despite its appeal, the assertion that bigger is always better in politics is just an assertion.  Yet this is at heart an empirical argument, and perhaps one that can be tested.  Until then, I still have my doubts.

Out of the TARP, But Still on the Dole

While banks such as Goldman and J.P. Morgan have managed to find a way to re-pay the capital injections made under the TARP bailout, their reliance on public subsidies is far from over. The federal government, via a debt guarantee program run by the FDIC, is still putting considerable taxpayer funds at risk on behalf of the banking industry.  The Wall Street Journal estimates that banks participating in the FDIC debt guarantee program will save about $24 billion in reduced borrowing costs of the next three years. The Journal estimates that Goldman alone will save over $2 billion on its borrowing costs due to the FDIC’s guarantees.

One of the conditions imposed by the Treasury department for allowing banks to leave the TARP was that such banks be able to issue debt not guaranteed by the government.  Apparently this requirement did not apply to all of a firm’s debt issues.  These banks should be expected to issue all their debt without a government guarantee and be required to pay back any currently outstanding government guaranteed debt.

To add insult to injury, not only are banks reaping huge subsidies from the FDIC debt guarantee program, but the program itself is likely illegal.  The FDIC’s authority to take special actions on behalf of a failing ”systemically” important bank is limited to a bank-by-bank review.  The FDIC’s actions over the last several months to declare the entire banking system as systemically important is at best a fanciful reading of the law. 

The FDIC should immediately terminate this illegal program and end the continuing string of subsidies going to Wall Street banks, many of which are reporting enormous profits.

Exciting! But Not True …

The Center for a New American Security is hosting an event on cybersecurity next week. Some fear-mongering in the text of the invite caught my eye:

[A] cyberattack on the United States’ telecommunications, electrical grid, or banking system could pose as serious a threat to U.S. security as an attack carried out by conventional forces.

As a statement of theoretical extremes, it’s true: The inconvenience and modest harms posed by a successful crack of our communications or data infrastructure would be more serious than an invasion by the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. But as a serious assertion about real threats, an attack by conventional forces (however unlikely) would be entirely more serious than any “cyberattack.”

This is not meant to knock the Center for a New American Security specifically, or their event, but breathless overstatement has become boilerplate in the “cybersecurity” area, and it’s driving the United States toward imbalanced responses that are likely to sacrifice our wealth, progress, and privacy.