Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Some of my early public opinions on the Basel bank regulations

June 1997, in an Op-Ed VenezuelaIf we insist in maintaining a defeatist attitude which definitely does not represent a vision of growth for the future, we will most likely end up with the most reserved and solid banking sector in the world, adequately dressed in very conservative business suits, but presiding over the funeral of the economy. I would much prefer the regulators to put some blue jeans on and try to help to get the economy moving.”

October 1998, Op-Ed Venezuela: “In many cases even trying to regulate banks runs the risk of giving the impression that by means of strict regulations, the risks have disappeared. Sometimes it is good faith... sometimes it is only pure faith… Frequently, in matters of financial regulations, the most honest, logical and efficient is simply to alert about the risks and allow the market, by assigning prices for them, to develop its own paths. I do not propose, not for a moment, that the State abandons completely the regulatory functions, much the opposite, 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

November 1999, Op-Ed Venezuela: “The possible Big Bang that scares me the most, is the one that could happen the day those genius bank regulators in Basel, playing Gods, manage to introduce a systemic error in the financial system, which will cause its collapse

March 2001, Op-Ed Venezuela: “Beware of bank consolidation” (an early manifestation against too big too fail and govern banks, and against too few bank regulation criteria) “Today, when the world seems to be asking much for bank mergers or consolidations, I wonder if we on the contrary should be imposing on banks special reserves depending on their size. The bigger the bank is, the worse the fall, and the greater our need to avoid being hurt

September 2002, Op-Ed Venezuela: “The riskiness of country risk: What a nightmare it must be to be a sovereign risk evaluator! If they underestimate the risk of a given country, it will most assuredly be inundated with fresh loans and leveraged to the hilt. If on the contrary, they exaggerate the country’s risk level, it can only result in making access to international financial markets more difficult and expensive. Any mistake will turn out to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any which way, either extreme will cause hunger and human misery.”

January 2003, while an ED of the World Bank, in a letter published by the Financial Times: “Everyone knows that, sooner or later, the ratings issued by the credit agencies are just a new breed of systemic errors, about to be propagated at modern speeds

March 2003, in a formal discussion at the Executive Board of the World Bank: “The sole chance the world has of avoiding the risk that entities such as the Basel Committee, accounting standard boards and credit rating agencies introduce serious and fatal systemic risks, is by having an entity like the World Bank stand up to them, instead of sort of fatalistically accepting their dictates."

April 2003, in a formal written statement delivered as an ED of the World Bank: “The Basel Committee dictate norms for the banking industry… there is a clear need for an external observer of stature to assure that there is an adequate equilibrium between risk-avoidance and the risk- taking needed to sustain growth.

April 2003, commenting on the World Bank's Strategic Framework 04-06 "A mixture of thousand solutions, many of them inadequate, may lead to a flexible world that can bend with the storms. A world obsessed with Best Practices may calcify its structure and break with any small wind."

May 2003, in comments made at a workshop for regulators at the World Bank: “A regulation that regulates less, but is more active and trigger-happy, and treats a bank failure as something normal, as it should be, could be a much more effective regulation. The avoidance of a crisis, by any means, might strangely lead us to the one and only bank, therefore setting us up for the mother of all moral hazards—just to proceed later to the mother of all bank crises. Knowing that “the larger they are, the harder they fall,” if I were regulator, I would be thinking about a progressive tax on size

May 2003, in the same workshop above: “Be careful, when looking for ways of avoiding a bank crisis, you could be inadvertently slowing development. I have been sitting here for most of these five days without being able to detect a single formula or word indicating that growth and credits are also a function of bank regulations.” 

May 2003, Op-Ed Venezuela: “In a world that preaches the worth of the invisible hands of the market, with its millions of mini-regulators, we find it so strange that the Basel Committee delegates, without protest heard, so much responsibility in the hand of so very few and human-fallible credit rating agencies… Perhaps we need to include a label that states: Warning excessive banking regulations from the Basel Committee can be very dangerous for the development of your country

October 2004, in a written statement delivered as an ED at the Board of the World Bank: “We believe that much of the world’s financial markets are currently being dangerously overstretched, through an exaggerated reliance on intrinsically weak financial models, based on very short series of statistical evidence and very doubtful volatility assumptions

November 2004, in a letter published by the Financial Times: “Our bank supervisors in Basel are unwittingly controlling the capital flows in the world. How many Basel propositions it will take before they start realizing the damage they are doing by favoring so much bank lending to the public sector (sovereigns)? In some developing countries, access to credit for the private sector is all but gone, and the banks are up to the hilt in public credits. Please, help us get some diversity of thinking to Basel urgently; at the moment it is just a mutual admiration club of firefighters”

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

My statement on IBRD's Liquidity Management and Borrowing Program

“Phrases such as “absolute risk-free arbitrage income opportunities” should be banned in our Knowledge Bank. We believe that much of the world’s financial markets are currently being dangerously overstretched through an exaggerated reliance on intrinsically weak financial models that are based on very short series of statistical evidence and very doubtful volatility assumptions.”

Saturday, June 26, 2004

G10 signs up on Basel II

Central bank governors and the heads of bank supervisory authorities in the Group of Ten (G10) countries met today and endorsed the publication of the International Convergence of Capital Measurement and Capital Standards: a Revised Framework, the new capital adequacy framework commonly known as Basel II. The meeting took place at the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, one day after the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, the author of the text, approved its submission to the governors and supervisors for review.

The Basel II Framework sets out the details for adopting more risk-sensitive minimum capital requirements for banking organisations. The new framework reinforces these risk-sensitive requirements by laying out principles for banks to assess the adequacy of their capital and for supervisors to review such assessments to ensure banks have adequate capital to support their risks.

PS. It is lunacy!

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Towards a counter cyclical Basel?

(A letter to the Financial Times that was not published)

Sir, the financial system is there to safeguard savings, to generate economic growth by channeling investments, and to promote equality by providing full and free access to capital and opportunities.

Currently, our bank regulators headquartered in Basel are primarily concerned with the first goal, that of avoiding bank collapses, and how could it be otherwise, if you have only firemen on the board that regulates building permits.

Now, one of these days, the financial system, neatly combed and dressed in a tuxedo, but lying more than seven feet under in the coffin of financial de-intermediation, is going to wake up to the fact that it needs the presence of others in Basel. At that moment, perhaps we might start hearing about flexible capital requirements, moving up to 8.2 % or down to 7.8% by region, in response to countercyclical needs.

Meanwhile it’s a shame that even their first goal might turn out to be elusive, since although the individual risks have fallen with Basel regulations, the stakes have increased, as those same regulations accelerate the tendency towards fewer and fewer banks.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Odious credit

I recently wrote about odious foreign public debt, that debt about which there is a current debate in the world as to whether it can be legally repudiated if it is taken on by illegitimate governments or for illegitimate ends. The other side of the coin is odious credit. Please don’t think I’m against banks—quite the opposite. But I respect the role of the financial middlemen too highly to keep quiet when they are not doing their job right. 

In 1981, the representative of a foreign bank in Venezuela showed me a letter in which his boss instructed him to “give credit to the INAVI, Venezuela’s National Housing Institute. It’s the worst public institution, which means that it pays us the highest rate and, as you know, in the end it’s just as public as the best of them and Venezuela will have to pay up just the same.” Odious credit, isn’t it?

The first thing a good banker should ask a client applying for a loan is what is it for and if the answer is not satisfactory he should reject the application, regardless of the guarantees offered. Simple plain-vanilla fraud of the Parmalat kind will always exist, but the asinine way all their creditors fell into the trap makes one suspect that this is only the first case of systemic risk in the banking system: tempted by the regulators in Basel, banks subordinate their own criteria to those dictated by auditors and credit raters. This development, bad in itself, is even more serious in the case of public credit, where the what it’s for is being replaced by how much can be carried, perversely derived by calculating the level of sustainable public debt.

When I call for the total elimination of foreign public debt (which is feasible and would not require huge sacrifices in an oil rich land like Venezuela) my colleagues often argue that a certain level of debt is good and necessary for the country. This does not convince me, since it makes debt sound like electricity that must be kept at a certain voltage. Because public debt must always be paid back, regardless of whether anybody ever knew what or whom it was for, I’m fighting for the day when the private sector in Venezuela can return to the markets, freely, without having to carry that huge monkey—foreign public debt—on its back.

In my opinion, the Benemérito (the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez (1864–1935) who ruled the country between 1908 and 1935) deserved great credit for ridding Venezuela of her foreign debts He certainly knew that to shake off that vice more than patches or pieces of chewing gum are needed.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

About the Global Bank Insolvency Initiative

(An informal email sent in 2004 to my then colleagues Executive Directors of the World Bank.)

Dear Friends,

We recently had a technical briefing about the Global Bank Insolvency Initiative. Having had a special interest in this subject for some years, I wish to make some comments.

As I have always seen it, the costs related to a bank crisis are the following three:

The actual direct losses of the banks at the outbreak of the crisis. These are represented by all those existing loans that are irrevocably bad loans and therefore losses without a doubt.

The losses derived from mismanaging the interventions (workout costs). These include, for example, losses derived from not allowing some of the existing bad loans the time to work themselves out of their problems. They also include all the extraordinary legal expenses generated by any bank intervention in which regulators in charge want to make sure that they themselves are not exposed to any risk at all.

The long-term losses to the economy resulting from the “Financial Regulatory Puritanism,” that tends to follow in the wake of a bank crisis as thousands of growth opportunities are not financed because of the attitude “we need to avoid a new bank crisis at any cost.”

For the sake of the argument, I have hypothesized that each of these individual costs represents approximately a third of the total cost. Actually, having experienced a bank crisis at very close range, I am convinced that the first of the three above costs is the smallest ... but I guess that might be just too politically incorrect to pursue further at this moment.

In this respect, it is clear that any initiative that aims to reduce the workout costs of bank insolvency is always welcome and in fact the current draft contains many well-argued and interesting comments, which bodes well for its final findings and suggestions.

That said, the scope of the initiative might be somewhat limited and outdated, making it difficult to realize its full potential benefits. There is also the danger that an excessive regulatory bias will taint its findings.


Traditional financial systems, represented by many small local banks dedicated to very basic and standard commercial credits, and subject to normally quite lax local regulation and supervision, are mostly extinct.

They are being replaced by a system with fewer and bigger global bank conglomerates governed by a global Basel-inspired regulatory framework and they operate frequently by transforming the economic realities of their portfolios through mechanisms and instruments (derivatives) that are hard to understand even for savvy financial experts.

In this respect I believe that instead of dedicating scarce resources to what in some ways could be deemed to be financial archaeology, we should confront the new market realities head on, making them an explicit objective of this global initiative. For instance, what on earth is a small country to do if an international bank that has 30% of the local bank deposits goes belly up?

We all know that the financial sector, besides having to provide security for its depositors, needs also to contribute toward economic growth and social justice, by providing efficient financial intermediation and equal opportunities of access to capital. Unfortunately, both these last two objectives seem to have been relegated to a very distant plane, as the whole debate has been captured by regulators that seem only to worry about avoiding a bank crisis. Unfortunately, it seems that the initiative, by relying exclusively on professionals related to banking supervision, does little to break out from this incestuous trap. By the way if you want to see about conflict of interest, then read the section “Legal protection of banking authorities and their staff.” It relates exactly to those wide blanket indemnities that we so much criticize elsewhere.

And so, friends, I see this Global Bank Insolvency Initiative as a splendid opportunity to broaden the debate about the world’s financial systems and create the much needed checks and balances to Basel. However, nothing will come out of it if we just delegate everything to the hands of the usual suspects. By the way, and I will say it over and over again, in terms of this debate, we, the World Bank, should constitute the de facto check and balance on the International Monetary Fund. That is a role we should not be allowed to ignore—especially in the name of harmonization.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

A letter to my colleagues on the "Global Insolvency Initiative"

Dear Friends,

We recently had a technical briefing about the Global Bank Insolvency Initiative. Having had a special interest in this subject for some years, I wish to make some comments.

As I have always seen it, the costs related to a bank crisis are the following three:

• The actual direct losses of the banks at the outbreak of the crisis. These are represented by all those existing loans that are irrevocably bad loans and therefore losses without a doubt.

• The losses derived from mismanaging the interventions (workout costs). These include, for example, losses derived from not allowing some of the existing bad loans the time to work themselves out of their problems. They also include all the extraordinary legal expenses generated by any bank intervention in which regulators in charge want to make sure that they themselves are not exposed to any risk at all.

• The long-term losses to the economy resulting from the “Financial Regulatory Puritanism,” that tends to follow in the wake of a bank crisis as thousands of growth opportunities are not financed because of the attitude “we need to avoid a new bank crisis at any cost.”

For the sake of the argument, I have hypothesized that each of these individual costs represents approximately a third of the total cost. Actually, having experienced a bank crisis at very close range, I am convinced that the first of the three above costs is the smallest ... but I guess that might be just too politically incorrect to pursue further at this moment.

In this respect, it is clear that any initiative that aims to reduce the workout costs of bank insolvency is always welcome and in fact the current draft contains many well-argued and interesting comments, which bodes well for its final findings and suggestions.

That said, the scope of the initiative might be somewhat limited and outdated, making it difficult to realize its full potential benefits. There is also the danger that an excessive regulatory bias will taint its findings.

Traditional financial systems, represented by many small local banks dedicated to very basic and standard commercial credits, and subject to normally quite lax local regulation and supervision, are mostly extinct. They are being replaced by a system with fewer and bigger global bank conglomerates governed by a global Basel-inspired regulatory framework and they operate frequently by transforming the Economic realities of their portfolios through mechanisms and instruments (derivatives) that are hard to understand even for savvy financial experts.

In this respect I believe that instead of dedicating scarce resources to what in some ways could be deemed to be financial archaeology, we should confront the new market realities head on, making them an explicit objective of this global initiative. For instance, what on earth is a small country to do if an international bank that has 30% of the local bank deposits goes belly up?

We all know that the financial sector, besides having to provide security for its depositors, needs also to contribute toward economic growth and social justice, by providing efficient financial intermediation and equal opportunities of access to capital. Unfortunately, both these last two objectives seem to have been relegated to a very distant plane, as the whole debate has been captured by regulators that seem only to worry about avoiding a bank crisis. Unfortunately, it seems that the initiative, by relying exclusively on professionals related to banking supervision, does little to break out from this incestuous trap. By the way if you want to see about conflict of interest, then read the section “Legal protection of banking authorities and their staff.” It relates exactly to those wide blanket indemnities that we so much criticize elsewhere.

And so, friends, I see this Global Bank Insolvency Initiative as a splendid opportunity to broaden the debate about the world’s financial systems and create the much needed checks and balances to Basel. However, nothing will come out of it if we just delegate everything to the hands of the usual suspects. By the way, and I will say it over and over again, in terms of this debate, we, the World Bank, should constitute the de facto check and balance on the International Monetary Fund. That is a role we should not be allowed to ignore—especially in the name of harmonization.