I’d rather not have a fox as bank regulator

We can sometimes read stupefying things on the internet. I almost fell off my chair yesterday when I read MC Klein’s latest banking piece on FT Alphaville. He suggests that the right way to regulate banks might well be to be “crazy like a fox”…

fox

Throughout his ‘surprising’ post, he writes things like:

While simple rules about capital and short-term debt still have tremendous appeal, there is value in having a regulatory regime that is onerous precisely because of its complexity and its unpredictability.

And

As Matt Yglesias notes, the value of having lots of pointless but annoying rules is that they distract the bank lobbyists from the really important stuff. The swap pushout was the first in what is hopefully a long line of defence. We’re tempted to say that crafty policymakers should immediately propose several new and even more annoying rules for the banks.

Fortunately, regulators have other means of harassing their adversaries, hopefully keeping them busy enough to avoid exploiting the system too much.

Andrew Haldane must be having a heart attack right now.

This goes against some of the most basic economic principles, and against the very thing that allows any business to exist and thrive in the first place: the rule of law.

Let’s start with Matt Yglesias’ post. Perhaps not surprising for someone who once wrote that Dodd-Frank was an ‘achievement’ that created a ‘safer banking system’, Yglesias again proves that he has a very low understanding of how banking works. CDS contacts have apparently become ‘custom swaps’ that are used to “bet on the potential bankruptcy of a given country or company or the failure of a new financial product.” Hedging anyone? Insurance that can protect even the most vanilla-like institutions against some specific default risks? No, this is just an evil Wall Street speculative tool. Nevermind that some CDS are traded on behalf of clients, and banks’ positions taken to offset customers’ needs. Nevermind that siloing banking activities/liquidity/capital across different entities of a same banking group actually decrease the safety of the system (see also here).

Despite this rather limited knowledge of the industry, Klein builds on Yglesias’ reasoning: any repealed rule should be replaced by many pointless ones to distract lobbyists.

Now, I am still trying to understand the logic behind constantly adding red tape for no reason rather than judging rules and bureaucracy on their actual value-added and efficiency. Here again, nevermind that countries with the least efficient and most numerous rules are the least business-friendly, and that too much red tape and regulatory uncertainty is around the top issue for most US businesses at the moment. No, banking is (apparently) different.

Let me suggest that a few years working for a bank would probably help dispel some of those myths. That, lobbyists aren’t that dumb, and that, if they attack some specific rules, it is surely that these would be harmful for the banks (and indeed, both Yglesias and Klein are plain wrong in considering this CDS rule ‘pointless’). That the 30,000-page rulebook that Dodd-Frank created might not fully facilitate banking processes and lending. That, by constantly changing the rules as Klein suggests, banks might well be tempted to move away from any risky activity that might end up being considered unlawful at some point in the future, hurting risky lending in the process (i.e. usually SME lending, as if it were not already low enough) with all the associated potential economic consequences.

Banks have been closing entire lines of business, de-globalising, preventing international payments to go through, harming international trade and economic activity. The multiplication of rules could, not only lead to resource misallocation, but also to increased management time. Management time that would be better spent on analysing and controlling the business than on bureaucratic, ‘pointless’, but dangerous (because of potential fines) rules. Unexpected consequences if you like. Still, it looks acceptable for Klein.

This is exactly why avoiding regulatory uncertainty and discretionary policies, and applying a predictable set of rules (i.e. rule of law), is so crucial in facilitating business and economic development.

As Kevin Dowd clearly illustrates in a very good recent paper:

One has to understand that the banks have no defense against this regulatory onslaught. There are so many tens or hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of rules that no one can even read them all, let alone comply with them all: even with armies of corporate lawyers to assist you, there are just too many, and they contradict each other, often at the most fundamental level. For example, the main intent of the Privacy Act was to promote privacy, but the main impact of the USA PATRIOT Act was to eviscerate it. This state of lawlessness gives ample scope for regulators to pursue their own or the government’s agendas while allowing defendants no effective legal recourse. One also has to bear in mind the extraordinary criminal penalties to which senior bank officers are exposed. Government officials can then pick and choose which rules to apply and can always find technical infringements if they look for them; they can then legally blackmail bankers without ever being held to account themselves. The result is the suspension of the rule of law and a state of affairs reminiscent of the reign of Charles I, Star Chamber and all. Any doubt about this matter must surely have been settled with the Dodd-Frank Act, which doled out extralegal powers like confetti and allows the government to do anything it wishes with the banking system.

A perfect example of this governmental lawlessness was the “Uncle Scam” settlement in October 2013 of a case against JP Morgan Chase, in which the bank agreed to pay a $13billion fine relating to some real estate investments. This was the biggest ever payout asked of a single company by the government, and it didn’t even protect the bank against the possibility of additional criminal prosecutions. What is astonishing is that some 80 percent of the banks’ RMBS had been acquired at the request of the federal government when it bought Bear Stearns and WaMu in 2008, and now the bank was being punished for having them. Leaving aside its inherent unpleasantness, this act of government plunder sets a very bad precedent: going forward, no sane bank will now buy a failing competitor without forcing it through Chapter 11. It’s one thing to face an acquired institution’s own problems, but it is quite another to face looting from the government for cooperating with the government itself.

The argument’s logic is also very weak. If rules are believed to let excessive risks “fall through the cracks”, then they should never be adopted in the first place. Why even adopting rules which we already know create systemic risks? If regulators really believe those rules will cover most (or all) risks, there is no point in planning to replace them with other rules, just for the sake of changing the rules, as the new ones are likely to be less effective. Otherwise those new, more effective, rules are the ones that should have been implemented in the first place. The whole logic of the argument just doesn’t hold*.

What about the practicality of ever changing the regulatory framework? Here again the argument fails. There aren’t hundreds of derivative settlement options and assets acceptable as collateral or as liquidity buffer. While the theory sounds nice in FT Alphaville’s columns, it is simply not possible to implement in practice.

The financial imbalances that led to our previous crisis, for a large part, originated in the most complex banking rule set devised in history, compounded by politically-incentivised housing agendas (along with misguided monetary policy and accounting rules). Klein’s (and Yglesias’) failure is to ignore this and assume that more, and tighter, rules are more effective. Moreover, regulators’ failure to foresee crises has probably been a constant throughout history. Yet, Klein backs an ever-more complex and constantly-changing regulatory framework at the discretion of those same regulators.

Calomiris and Nissim, two academics that know and understand a thing or two about banking, declared that:

We worry that regulatory uncertainty – and especially the persistent waves of political attacks on global universal banks – is taking a toll.

It is important to recognize that bank stockholders are not alone in suffering from the low stock prices that result from these attacks. The supply of bank loans, and banks’ ability to provide other crucial financial services in support of economic growth, reflect the risk-bearing capacity of banks, which is directly related to market valuations of bank franchises. If banks’ earnings get little respect from the market, banks’ abilities to help the economy grow will be commensurately hobbled.

Even The Economist, which has been a supporter of banking regulatory reform over the past few years, is against regulatory discretion and is well-aware of regulators’ weaknesses (emphasis mine):

Attracting the capital that will make banking safer will be hard, with profit forecasts so anaemic. However it will also be made unnecessarily difficult by capricious behaviour from the very watchdogs who are ordering banks to raise the funds.

One problem is the endless tinkering with the rules. For all Mr Carney’s talk of finishing the job, global regulators have yet to set the minimum level for several of their new capital requirements. National regulators are just as bad. No bank can be certain how much capital it will need in a few years’ time. Pension funds and insurance companies rightly fret that even a tiny tweak in any of the new regulatory tests is enough to send a bank’s share price plummeting (or, less often, rocketing). […]

Banks can hardly be surprised that regulators have rewritten the rule-book and then thrown it at them. But, for the health of the system, the rules need to be predictable, transparent and consistent. Incredibly, the regulations emanating from America’s Dodd-Frank financial reforms are still being written, more than four years after the law was passed. Europe is scarcely better. Impose demanding capital rules, but stop adding more red tape: that should be the mantra of bank regulators just about everywhere.

The worst is: Klein does identify some of the problems with our current regulatory regime, which is easily gameable because of its complexity. In terms of regulation and forecasting, simple rules and models have always performed better (see some of the links above). But instead of stepping back and getting back to simpler, less distortive, rules, his policy of choice seems to be more bank-bashing, never-ending regulatory regime uncertainty, more complexity, the possible paralysis of bank lending and the build-up of risk within the more opaque shadow banking system. I guess it’s going to be a real success.

 

* He could reply that the very purpose of ‘pointless’ rules is that they have no real impact on anything. Let me clarify something: all rules have an impact, whether it is small, big, negative, positive, or both (and again, the CDS rule was far from pointless). He could also reply that changing the rules limit the gameability of the system. But this makes little sense, as ‘pointless’ rules changes would probably not prevent the accumulation of risk anyway and, even for ‘non-pointless’ rules, there are only a few available options as described above (changing capital requirements by 1% up or down, including or excluding A+ rated bonds as LCR-compliant, increasing/decreasing haircut requirements by 5%, and so forth, really would have very little impact on gameability or stability).

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