The new Cato Institute 2017 Financial Regulation national survey of 2,000 U.S. adults released today finds that Americans distrust government financial regulators as much as they distrust Wall Street. Nearly half (48%) have “hardly any confidence” in either.
Click here for full survey report
Americans have a love-hate relationship with regulators. Most believe regulators are ineffective, selfish, and biased:
- 74% of Americans believe regulations often fail to have their intended effect.
- 75% believe government financial regulators care more about their own jobs and ambitions than about the well-being of Americans.
- 80% think regulators allow political biases to impact their judgment.
But most also believe regulation can serve some important functions:
- 59% believe regulations, at least in the past, have produced positive benefits.
- 56% say regulations can help make businesses more responsive to people’s needs.
However, Americans do not think that regulators help banks make better business decisions (74%) or better decisions about how much risk to take (68%). Instead, Americans want regulators to focus on preventing banks and financial institutions from committing fraud (65%) and ensuring banks and financial institutions fulfill their obligations to customers (56%).
Americans Are Wary of Wall Street, But Believe It Is Essential
Nearly a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, Americans remain wary of Wall Street.
- 77% believe bankers would harm consumers if they thought they could make a lot of money doing so and get away with it.
- 64% think Wall Street bankers “get paid huge amounts of money” for “essentially tricking people.”
- Nearly half (49%) of Americans worry that corruption in the industry is “widespread” rather than limited to a few institutions.
At the same time, however, most Americans believe Wall Street serves an essential function in our economy.
- 64% believe Wall Street is “essential” because it provides the money businesses need to create jobs and develop new products.
- 59% believe Wall Street and financial institutions are important for helping develop life-saving technologies in medicine.
- 53% believe Wall Street is important for helping develop safety equipment in cars.
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When banks are in distress, it is important to assess how easily the bank’s capital cushion can absorb potential losses from troubled assets. To do this, I performed an analysis using Texas Ratios for Greece’s four largest banks, which control 88% of total assets in the banking system.
We use a little known, but very useful formula to determine the health of the Big Four. It is called the Texas Ratio. It was used during the U.S. Savings and Loan Crisis, which was centered in Texas. The Texas Ratio is the book value of all non‐performing assets divided by equity capital plus loan loss reserves. Only tangible equity capital is included in the denominator. Intangible capital — like goodwill — is excluded.
Despite the already worry‐some numbers, the actual situation is far worse than even I had initially deduced. A deeper analysis of the numbers reveals that Greece’s largest banks include deferred tax assets as part of total equity in their financial statements. Deferred tax assets are created when banks are allowed to declare their losses at a later time, thereby reducing tax liabilities. This is problematic because these deferred tax assets are really just “phantom assets” in the sense that these credits cannot be used (read: worthless) if the Greek banks continue to operate at a pretax loss.
The European Union (EU) is still in the midst of an economic slump. Many members of the political class in Brussels claim that fiscal austerity is to blame. But, this diagnosis is wrong. The EU’s problem is one of monetary, not fiscal, austerity. Money matters. Just look at the accompanying chart. Private credit in the Eurozone has been shrinking since March 2012.
Never mind. The EU fiscal austerity bandwagon keeps rolling on with Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister and current President of the EU, holding the reins. Indeed, Renzi recently went so far as to form an anti-austerity coalition with France and Spain. According to the coalition, its members simply cannot impose further spending cuts. They assert that their budgets have been cut to the bone. This claim is ludicrous.
There is nothing to cut in Italy? Get real. Senior civil servants are being paid over 12 times the national average salary. As for France and Spain, their civil servants are “well paid,” too. It’s time for the public to stop listening to the EU’s anti-austerity hypocrites and start looking at the numbers.
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.
The U.S. isn’t Greece. Yet.
Moody’s is no longer so sure about the quality of Uncle Sam’s debt. Reports the Christian Science Monitor:
The US needs to make significant government spending cuts or else risk losing its gold‐plated credit rating that has made extensive borrowing so affordable, Moody’s Investor Service said late Monday.
The announcement was a sobering warning that the country’s burgeoning debt has weakened the country’s economic standing, and that US Treasury Bonds, traditionally a bullet‐proof investment, could lose their sterling Aaa‐rating if Washington cannot control its federal debt.
If Moody’s were to downgrade the country’s rating, the impact could be severe. It would signal to lenders worldwide that the US is no longer one of the safest places to invest money.
That, in turn, would threaten the country’s ability to borrow freely and extensively from other countries on favorable terms. Investors would likely demand a higher interest rate to finance US debt, which would push federal debt higher still.
“There’s a profound effect in this announcement,” says Max Fraad Wolff, a professor of economics at New School University in New York. “The US has always been the gold standard … and this begins to signal a fall or weakness in US global economic position. That’s a bit like a sea change.”
Obviously we are long overdue for some fiscal responsibility in Washington. And that means cutting spending across the board. Lawmakers might start by considering what programs are authorized by the Constitution – and the far larger number which represent unconstitutional political power grabs.
The most interesting libertarian‐related conversation I’ve read today comes from Rortybomb, by way of Andrew Sullivan, with commentary by Megan McArdle. Here’s a challenge to libertarians from Rortybomb, aka Mike Konczal:
I want to pitch to the credit card and financial industry a new innovative online survey. It is targeted for older, more mature long‐time users of our services. We’ll give a $10 credit for anyone who completes it. Here is a sense of what the questions will look like:
— 1) What is your age?
— 2) What day of the week are you taking this survey?
— 3) Many rewards offered are for people with more active lifestyles: vacations, flights, hotels, rental cars. Do you find that your rewards programs aren’t well suited for your lifestyle?
— 4) What is the current season where you live? Are any seasons harder for you in getting to a branch or ATM machine?
— 5) Would rewards that could be given as gifts to others, especially younger people, be helpful for what you’d like to do with your benefits?
— 6) Would replacing your rewards program with a savings account redeemable for education for your grandchildren be something you’d be interested in?
— 7) Write a sentence you’d like us to hear about anything, good or bad!
— 8 ) How worried are you you’ll leave legal and financial problems for your next‐of‐kin after your passing?
Did you catch it? Questions 1,2,4,7 are taken from the ‘Mini‐mental State Examination’ which is a quick test given by medical professionals to see if a patient is suffering from dementia. (It’s a little blunt, but we can always hire some psychologist and marketers for the final version. They’re cheap to hire.) We can use this test to subtly increase limits, and break out the best automated tricks and traps mechanisms, on those whose dementia lights up in our surveys. Anyone who flags all four can get a giant increase in balance and get their due dates moved to holidays where the Post Office is slowest! We’d have to be very subtle about it, because there are many nanny‐staters out there who’d want to coddle citizens here…
I smell money — it’s like walking down a sidewalk and turning a corner and then there is suddenly money all over the sidewalk. One problem with hitting up sick people, single mothers, college kids who didn’t plan well and the cash‐constrained poor with fees and traps is that they’re poor. Hitting up people with a lifetime of savings suffering from dementia is some real, serious money we can tap as a revenue source.
Clearly, only an evil person (or a libertarian!) would allow a scam like this one. Megan responds, I think rightly:
I’m not sure why this is supposed to be a hard question for libertarians. I mean, I might argue that preventing people from ripping off the marginally mentally impaired would, in practice, be too difficult. Crafting a rule that prevented companies from identifying people who are marginally impaired might well be impossible — I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to, I could devise subtler tests than “What day of the week is it?” And while the seniors lobby is probably in favor of not ripping off seniors, they’re resolutely against making it harder for seniors to do things like drive or get credit, which is the result that any sufficiently strong rule would probably have.
But it’s pretty much standard libertarian theory that you shouldn’t take advantage of people who do not have the cognitive ability to make contracts. Marginal cases are hard not because we think it’s okay, but because there is disagreement over what constitutes impairment, and the more forcefully you act to protect marginal cases, the more you start treating perfectly able‐minded adults like children.
The elderly are a challenge precisely because there’s no obvious point at which you can say: now this previously able adult should be treated like a child. Either you let some people get ripped off, or you infringe the liberty, and the dignity, of people who are still capable of making their own decisions.
I’d add two responses of my own.
First, I can’t believe there’s all that much money to be had here. Anyone who wanders into Tiffany’s and back out again without remembering what they bought is, generally speaking, a bad credit risk. Mildly irresponsible people — those who slightly overspend, then have to make it up later — those are probably great for creditors. Lesson learned: If you’re not demented, don’t be irresponsible. (If you are demented, you’re not going to follow my advice anyway.)
Second, I am always amazed at how border cases are dragged out, again and again, as if they proved something against libertarianism. Border cases — How old before you can vote? How demented before a contract doesn’t bind? — are a problem in all political systems, because all systems start with a presumed community of citizens and/or subjects. We always have to draw boundaries between the in‐group and the outliers before we have a polity in the first place.
What makes the classical liberal/libertarian approach so valuable is in fact that it draws so few boundaries. Where other systems depend on class boundaries, race boundaries, religious boundaries, and so forth — with annoying boundary issues at every stop along the way — libertarians make it as simple as I think it can be. We presume that all mentally competent adults are worthy of liberty until they prove themselves otherwise.
The boundary cases are still there, but they are fewer and more tractable. Konczal just wandered into one of them. It proves much less than he thinks.
“Why do people hate you?”, a fourth‐grade boy asked Obama .… “They’re supposed to love you. And God is love.”
Obama’s answer is actually pretty reasonable. But this is what happens when you make a mere elected politician assume the status of Priest‐King. It is, in its own way, a corrupting influence. I don’t blame the kid asking the question since, heck, there are plenty of professional journalists in DC who basically think along the same lines. This isn’t Obama’s fault, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
True enough, Americans had an irrational conception of presidential responsibility long before 44 took office. Still, Obama’s far from blameless. At the same town hall, Obama commented :
“You know, I listen to, sometimes, these reporters on the news: Well, why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?” he joked.
Ha: silly reporters! They should ask the president about something he’s actually promised to do, like provide “a cure for cancer in our time,” or stop the oceans’ rise, or “create a Kingdom right here on Earth.”
Obama’s right that it’s “part of the job” that the president gets an outsized share of credit or blame for the direction of the country. It’s been that way for a long time. As Thomas Cronin put it in his classic 1970 essay “Superman: Our Textbook President”:
on both sides of the presidential popularity equation [the president’s] importance is inflated beyond reasonable bounds. On one side, there is a nearly blind faith that the president embodies national virtue and that any detractor must be an effete snob or a nervous Nellie. On the other side, the president becomes the cause of all personal maladies, the originator of poverty and racism, inventor of the establishment, and the party responsible for a choleric national disposition.
Barack Obama didn’t create this view of presidential responsibility; he inherited it. But, other than the occasional “change is hard” caveat, it’s not as though Obama’s sought to dispel the irrational expectations people invest in the office. To the contrary, he’s done more than any president in living memory to encourage the view that the president is a benevolent father protector endowed with magical powers — a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. It’s the sort of view that people ought to — but often don’t — grow out of by, say, fifth grade. And a good deal of the burgeoning public dissatisfaction with Obama stems from his aggressive attempts to secure powers to match the boundless responsibilities he embraces.