Tuesday, October 20, 1998

Regulations as enemies of bank missions

In Venezuela, much has been discussed about the solvency of the financial intermediation entities, mainly banking. In virtue of the great attention paid to the subject of banking regulation throughout the world and our recent banking crisis being quite recent, this should not surprise us.

In the debate I think, it is important to remember, that the functions of the financial sector are not limited, simply, to return the money received from its depositors, since, if so, the traditional mattress could be sufficient to fulfill this mission.

Apart from providing other opportunities, which serve to stimulate national savings, as well as fulfilling the task of facilitating monetary flows, there are two other functions, of great social importance, that banks must comply with. The first is to be a very active agent in the process of generating wealth and the second, to collaborate in the function of democratizing capital, that is, allowing access to capital to those people who, lacking resources, have initiatives and will to work.

Supposedly, with the commitment and ability to fulfill these last two functions, the creation and distribution of wealth, both the application and the approval of a banking license were justified. How far is it from being true today! Next, I present some reflections on the subject.

In 1975 John Kenneth Galbraith, in his book entitled "Money, his origin and destiny", advanced the thesis that one of the fundamental reasons, for the past century was achieved, the economic development of the West and the Southwest of the States United, it was the existence of an aggressive and unregulated bank, which frequently broke down, causing great losses to individual depositors, but which, because of an agile and flexible credit policy, left a trail of development.

As for the democratization of capital, it is clear that the new banking regulation, now more than ever, obliges the bank to lend to the one who has and refuse as a credit client, the one who does not. The days when a banker, on the simple basis of a character trial, could approve a loan, without having to incur the cost of creating reserves, which presumes in advance the non-payment, went down in history.

Of course, with the foregoing, I do not refer to the immense amounts consumer loans. Today, we can question the wisdom of the regulator, noting the ease with which a consumer gets a loan and compare it with how difficult it can be to acquire a loan for productive purposes.

The saddest part of the regulatory chapter is that it never really immunizes us against risk. Even in portfolio based on probabilistic expectations and compensations by means of high interest rates we know that, one way or another, risk remain… and in many cases even trying to regulate, runs the risk of giving the impression that by means of strict regulations risks have disappeared. Sometimes it is good faith... sometimes it is only pure faith. When for example the SEC (Venezuela) arrogantly presumes of performing a significant mission, we know it is pure baloney.

Frequently, in matters of financial regulations, the most honest, logical and efficient is simply alert to alert about the risks and allow the market, by assigning prices for these, to develop its own paths.

I do not propose, not for a moment, that the State abandons completely the regulatory functions, much the contrary, what I propose is that it assumes it correctly. History is full of examples of where the State, by meddling to avoid damages, caused infinite larger damages. In the case of banking regulations developed to be applied in developed countries, I am not sure we are doing our country a favor adopting them with so much fervor.

But what are we to do? Regulations are fashionable and there are many bureaucrats in the world trying to find their little golden niche. I just read an article about a county in Maryland, USA, where, in order to be able to work as an astrologer and provider of horoscopes, you need to be registered and obtain a license in order to “read the hand palms. The cost of such license is 150 dollars.”

PS. The page with the details of Maryland certified astrologers has disappeared, it might have been an early case of fake news :-( Now the certification is issued by AFA Certified Astrologers - American Federation of Astrologers

Thursday, February 26, 1998

Speaking about trust and distrust

International financial risk rating entities are once again issuing their results for Venezuela. And once again, everyone begins to tremble. There is confidence! Ooops, there is no confidence! The debate is once again on the table and I take advantage of this to share some of my reflections on this issue with my readers.

It could be that I am not exact in my appreciation, but then again, when dealing with something as subjective as confidence, it shouldn’t really make much difference. In 1982, the then Minister of Finance decided that the country should be paying interest rates well below those being required by the international banking community in order to renegotiate part of Venezuela’s foreign debt. This decision, which blocked the restructuring of the debt, together with the crisis in Mexico and other indebted nations, combined to unleash the events which resulted in the devaluation of Black Friday of February 1983.

Obviously, the Minister was severely criticized. I considered this criticism to be unjust since, as far as I was concerned, the Minister was in reality a hero of the nation; almost enough so as to merit a statue in some important plaza. In my opinion, his actions, which generated distrust internationally, saved the country from billions of dollars in debt, which would have bloated the amounts actually accounted for after the disaster. Few heroes can be proven to have undertaken such important deeds for the good of the nation.

In reality, to inspire confidence in others should be of no concern for the country, while it has not been able to find or generate an economic and administrative model which inspire confidence in its own people. Trying to do so simply confuses the search for in depth solutions. In addition, the people for whom instruments of measurement are designed don’t include those foreigners whose confidence we really seek. Rating agencies rank a country’s measure, principally the latter’s ability to service its debt. As such, their market is comprised of bankers and investors who simply wish to make a short-term financial investment. Nothing of special importance to the country.

Those foreigners who could really interest us are the ones who come to the country with resources, the ones with the intention of remaining here for the long-term, to put up factories, cultivate the land, generate employment and maybe even raise a Venezuelan family. That is to say, the one whose objectives are one and the same as those of the nation. The opinions and confidence of these people are not measured at all.

In addition, both the methods and measuring instruments as well as the professionals actually doing the measuring, probably continue to be the same. They are the same ones that not very long ago argued that it was impossible for a country to be bankrupt, thereby justifying stratospheric limits for indebtedness with such enthusiasm that both bankers (who by the way proved to be unprofessional in most cases) and the common Venezuelan, upon hearing this siren song, joined forces and created the mix-up of the century.

For those of you who may have any doubts about this, I suggest you look at the ranking of six months ago. In those listings, the majority of the Asian countries looked like nothing short of marvel of creation. Haven’t you recently heard all of the crying over the Asian financial crisis?

We must evidently listen to the opinions of the credit agencies. Their measurements reflect many variables of great importance for the well being of the country. Unfortunately they also are the principal source of information about the country for many foreigners. In other words, to lie awake at night worrying about ranking doesn’t make sense.

You may remember the story about the anguished debtor who could not sleep, but found a way of finally getting a night’s rest by transferring his insomnia to his banker with the simple words “I can’t pay you”. In this case, something similar occurs. I personally sleep better when Venezuela’s ranking goes down, since I am then sure that lenders will not be making additional resources available (in my name as well as in the name of my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other future debtors) to governments that insist on misspending them.

The day the government, during electoral period, pays more attention to the opinions of its humble subjects that to those of the glamorous international agencies, we will finally stand a chance of making it out of our standard situation. The latter, according to all international norms I know of, can be objectively classified simply as “poor and moody”

In the Daily Journal, Caracas February 26, 1998