There’s been an interesting dialogue between Streetwise Professor and Deus ex Macchiato on the matter of the practical impact of the pending Basel III rules, which will rejigger, in a pretty significant way, bank capital requirements (see here and here for details). The reason Basel III matters is that the Treasury has been touting it as the remedy for all the things that didn’t get done in the financial reform hoopla: if the banks are forced to have “enough” capital (query what “enough”) is, and better liquidity buffers, the likelihood of a financial crisis will be lower.
As an motherhood and apple pie statement, it’s hard to argue with that sort of thing, but making it operational is quite another matter. And here’s where the chat between Streetwise and Deus comes in. Per Streetwise Professor:
Risk-based capital requirements are like a regime of price controls, in this instance, risk price controls. If some risks are mispriced, and particular, priced too low, all affected institutions face the same incentives to take on those particular risks. The more institutions that fall under the capital regime, the more institutions that will take on these underpriced risks. That’s why I am very leery of global capital regimes, a la Basel. If they screw up the prices–and screw them up they will, with metaphysical certainty–the effect of the perverse incentives will be global…Let’s examine this a bit further. It’s important to recognize that the mispricing of risk under Basel II was a significant contributor to the global financial crisis. Eurobanks, which were subject to Basel II rules as of 2006, entered the crisis with lower capital levels than their US counterparts. Moreover, many engaged in a particular form of capital arbitrage that played a direct role in stoking the credit bubble, which was holding the AAA rated tranches of CDOs and insuring them (usually in part) to further reduce the amount of capital they had to hold. So the concern is valid.
This is a story about relative prices. In a risk based capital regime, some risks are mispriced relative to others. Banks load up on those mispriced risks. Since all face the same distorted pricing signal, they tend to trade the same way. They held more capital than they were required to, but that provided a false sense of security because the required levels of capital did not accurately reflect the risks.
There is, in fact, dysfunction in the financial system. That dysfunction, in the first instance, is the result of the deadly combination of implicit and explicit guarantees that stoke moral hazard, and woefully inadequate and scarily expansive capital requirements that are intended to make it difficult for banks to exploit that moral hazard, but fail to do so.
Even with the likely (in Streetwise’s view, inevitable) mispricing of risk, the impact might not be as significant as he contends if the capital levels for the underpriced risk was still high enough. In other words, I’m not certain I buy the strong form of the “crowded trades” argument, a risk based capital regimes is inherently flawed. And Streetwise effectively concedes that point:
The capital required against certain instruments (government debt being another example) was too small relative to the true risks of those instruments. So too many banks loaded up on them.But from a practical standpoint, his concerns are valid. The unrecognized crowded trade problem only make matters worse. Even if the authorities were to come up with a sound program, the crowding in the strategies that were cheap on a relative basis would make them riskier, and hence the render the required capital levels insufficient.
Let’s face it, the notion that we are going to have adequate private sector equity in the banking system anytime soon, if ever, is a fantasy. The way that Fannie and Freddie have stepped in to become become virtually the only mortgage issuer/securitizer, with the obvious aim of propping up the housing market and bank balance sheets, is a highly visible example of the extent of back door support to undercapitalized banks. Team Obama is of course trying to divert public attention from the continuing high level of support and regulatory forbearance via its continued
Richard Smith did a bit of quick and dirty math to determine what it would take to adequately capitalize the shadow banking system:
Let’s just ignore the liquidity issue for the moment, and ignore the variety of business models of the various kinds of shadow bank, and require the shadow banks to put up a not very demanding 5% capital cushion and regulate to that, somehow. Assume, for simplicity, that we want to keep all that lovely shadow banking activity going and that shadow banks’ assets are identical in size to their liabilities; that 5% capital cushion would then be 5% of $8-16Trn. That’s between $400Bn and $800Bn of capital to raise.Yves here. It is politically unacceptable to make banks raise that much capital. Not only would the firms howl blood murder, but policymakers are unwilling to take the economic hit of a quick or even attenuated return to sounder practices. So we have state subsidies of various sorts like ZIRP standing in.
Or, perhaps more likely, our shadow banks take 50% losses on 15% of their loans that they never never want to do again (the CDO bonanza, etc), and then need 5% equity on the rest. That way our shadow banks would need $925-$1,850 billion in equity. Which is impressive, but fair enough: the traditional banking system has about $1.3Trn of equity, and we know the shadow banking system is the same size, or somewhat bigger, and more prone to runs. Why, pray, should it not at least be capitalized to the same level, either by new capital, or by shrinkage?
That further means we have a continuing moral hazard problem. Basel III can’t solve the problem because despite the officialdom’s fantasies to the contrary, they simply won’t get enough equity into the system. That might not be as terrible as it sound if the authorities were willing to admit that and were using other approaches to monitor and reduce risk, in particular, much more aggressive regulation, and far more intervention on pay practices.
In the stone ages of investment banking, when firms were partnerships, it would have been unheard of to take on a lot of moderately long-dated, risky, illiquid, bespoke, hard to value assets and fund them in short term where they’d be exposed to rollover risks. Similarly, in those days, the major players all held a lot more in capital than was required by regulators (reg cap was regarded as overly permissive but constraining in certain circumstances, so it still needed to be managed). Investment banks were cautious not only because the partners had unlimited liability (they could lose everything) but also because they most if not all of their wealth tied up in the firm and could access it only gradually after departing, as younger partners bought them out over time. That forced them to maintain modest lifestyles relative to their net worth and to be concerned about the long term viability of the franchise.
We have a massive agency problem in the financial services industry. The crisis was a textbook case of looting. The major firms are now more powerful by virtue of being bigger and fewer, and official denials to the contrary, are in a better position to loot than before. The belief that higher capital requirements can be the mainstay of solving this problem is wishful thinking.