Banking supervision and the rule of law

Since the principles outlined in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government or in Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois, the rule of law has been a major driver of Western advancement. It supports time preference (and hence long-term investments) by ensuring that market actors know what rules are they are subject to and plan accordingly. Discretionary policymaking, on the other hand, tends to raise the sentiment of uncertainty, leading to more risk-averse and short-sighted behaviour.

Locke-Montesquieu-Hayek

In Freedom and the Economic System, Hayek suggested that the rule of law was akin to

a system of general rules, equally applicable to all people and intended to be permanent, which provides an institutional framework within which the decisions as to what to do and how to earn a living are left to the individuals.

In The Road to Serfdom, he added that the rule of law meant that

government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand.

In short, the rule of law is a legal framework that benefits economic development by suppressing the legal uncertainty and arbitrariness of discretionary power.

A new, quite interesting (although most of my readers will find it boring), paper published by NY Fed staff Eisenbach, Haughwout, Hirtle et al, and titled Supervising Large, Complex Financial Institutions: What do Supervisors Do?, describes in details what financial regulators and supervisors do and what actions they take.

What do we learn? (my emphasis)

Prudential supervision involves monitoring and oversight of these firms to assess whether they are in compliance with law and regulation and whether they are engaged in unsafe or unsound practices, as well as ensuring that firms are taking corrective actions to address such practices.

Supervisors send so-called MRIA letters (‘matters requiring immediate attention’) when they identify (my emphasis)

matters of significant importance and urgency that the Federal Reserve requires banking organizations to address immediately and include: (1) matters that have the potential to pose significant risks to the safety and soundness of the banking organization; (2) matters that represent significant noncompliance with applicable laws or regulations; [and] (3) repeat criticisms that have escalated in importance due to insufficient attention or inaction by the banking organization.

Essentially, US supervisors can require bankers to modify their business models, strategy, internal policies and controls, as well as the level of risk-taking they are willing to take, without those requirements being included within any banking regulatory framework signed into federal law. Those decisions are purely at the discretion of supervisors.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that such practices do not follow the principles of the rule of law as outlined above. Supervisors have full discretionary powers to address what they see as weaknesses in banks’ strategy, even if banks disagree.

Firstly, if supervisors’ discretionary demands and measures are indeed so important, why haven’t they been directly included within the (officially signed into law) regulatory framework in the first place?

Second, the traditional critique of any discretionary micromanagement and central planning applies: how can supervisors, many of them having no banking experience, know better than private bankers how to deal with the business of banking? How, with their limited market access, can they know what products customers want and at what price? This is all too reminiscent of Hummel’s depiction of central banking as the new central planning:

In the final analysis, central banking has become the new central planning. Under the old central planning—which performed so poorly in the Soviet Union, Communist China, and other command economies—the government attempted to manage production and the supply of goods and services. Under the new central planning, the Fed attempts to manage the financial system as well as the supply and allocation of credit.

Banking regulation (Dodd-Frank in the US, CRD4 in Europe…) has many, many flaws, as I keep highlighting on this blog. But at least it respects the rule of law to a certain extent. If only banking supervision simply was the practice of ensuring that banks comply with official regulations and not the practice of micromanaging and harmonising private institutions. If only.

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One response to “Banking supervision and the rule of law”

  1. mckinneyrd says :

    Excellent points. The Fed is trying to manage banks without having the tacit knowledge required for success. They remind me of organizational behavior analysis of D-Day. Experts show that complex situations like the D-Day landings require decentralized decision making. The generals chose the time, place and means of the invasions while the soldiers were free to make on the spot decisions about how to carry out their orders. The Germans, on the other hand, had to radio back to Berlin for instructions on even the simplest tasks. Some historians have called D-Day a test of the two systems. The lesson is that the more complex the situation the more decentralized decision making must be in order to succeed. But our socialist system ignores history and insists on implementing failed strategies while hoping for different results.

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