Why Bank Stocks Rose on Bernanke’s Remarks

In a CNBC spot with Steve Liesman & Erin Burnett, I tried to explain why investors in bank stocks had good reason to be pleased with part of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s speech.  Judging by the response of Steve and Erin, and others on CNBC over the following day,  I must not have been persuasive.

For clarification, I am quoting the exact language from Bernanke’s talk, with my emphasis added.

My main point is that Bernanke admitted that when it comes to the “financial crisis” of some big banks, this is largely an artifact of unduly harsh regulation being applied at the worst possible time:

There is some evidence that capital standards, accounting rules, and other regulations have made the financial sector excessively procyclical–that is, they lead financial institutions to ease credit in booms and tighten credit in downturns more than is justified by changes in the creditworthiness of borrowers, thereby intensifying cyclical changes.

For example, capital regulations require that banks’ capital ratios meet or exceed fixed minimum standards for the bank to be considered safe and sound by regulators. Because banks typically find raising capital to be difficult in economic downturns or periods of financial stress, their best means of boosting their regulatory capital ratios during difficult periods may be to reduce new lending, perhaps more so than is justified by the credit environment. We should review capital regulations to ensure that they are appropriately forward-looking…

Bernanke emphasized the regulators’ dangerous habit of raising capital requirements and loan loss reserves simply because of a strict mark-to-market misinterpretation of the “fair value” of mortgage-backed securities.

He noted that:

Determining appropriate valuation methods for illiquid or idiosyncratic assets can be very difficult, to put it mildly. Similarly, there is considerable uncertainty regarding the appropriate levels of loan loss reserves over the cycle. As a result, further review of accounting standards governing valuation and loss provisioning would be useful, and might result in modifications to the accounting rules that reduce their procyclical effects without compromising the goals of disclosure and transparency.

The key here is Bernanke’s criticism of the rigid use of Basel capital standards, not mark-to-market information per se (which would be harmless if it did not trigger foolish regulations). When combined with Barney Frank’s similar comments on the same day, it begins to look as though sensible economics might finally take priority over dubious bookkeeping.