Thursday, July 23, 2009

The risk in not running the risk of the risky

The current crisis detonated because of investments in assets of the safest type, houses and mortgages; in the safest country, the US; and in the safest type of zero-risk instruments, triple-A rated, that turned out bad. Even so the immense majority of financial experts, even Nobel Prize winners, explain the crisis as the result of “excessive risk-taking”. They are wrong; the crisis is clearly the result of an extremely misguided excessive risk-aversion.

Looking to help the large international banks to compete better with the smaller local banks, and wanting also to avert a new bank crisis, the regulators from some developed countries got together behind closed doors in Basel and came up with what they thought was the brilliant idea of determining the capital requirements for the banks, based on how the credit rating agencies rated a loosely defined default risk of borrowers and securities.

We are not talking about something insignificant. According to the regulations known as Basel II and that apply or at least inspire most banking regulations in the world, in order to lend funds to a corporation that does not have a credit rating a bank is required to hold 8 percent in capital, but, if lending to someone rated AAA it is only required to have 1.6 percent. As you understand, these regulations, approved in June 2004, started a wild chase after the AAAs… and here we find ourselves where the global losses in what was supposed to be risk-free exceed many times what has been lost in what was considered to be more risky… among others because what is perceived as risky by itself always inspires more care.

This regulatory system is still applicable, causing immense hardships in the world economy. In tandem with how the ratings of borrowers worsen the banks need to obtain more capital and since bank equity is scarce, they try to obtain it freeing themselves from clients for whom because these have even worse credit ratings, they are required to hold even more capital. With that all bank clientele that is perceived as more risky, but that is just as or even more important to the economy, is exposed to additional pressures, just when they least need it.

Companies that are presenting difficulties and have to restructure their liabilities are among those most affected by these puritan and intrusive regulatory inventions. Clearly if the difficulties of a borrower seem to be unsurpassable the best things to do, for all, is to speedily cut it off from credit, but, if after having analyzed it, the decision is taken to help it out, it does not make any sense making it even more difficult for it, like by imposing higher capital requirements on its creditor banks. It should be just the opposite, not only because these companies need to be treated with delicacy, but also since normally, they have been more scrutinized than the majority of firms that show themselves off as representing zero risk.

It is natural that creditors would charge more or less for a loan in accordance with how they perceive the risk but… on account of what does a regulator arbitrarily intrude in the decision? Is by any chance a job in a company rated B- less important than a job in a company rated AAA?

Risk is the oxygen of all development and in this respect regulations oriented to conserve what has been developed because it is more likely to be perceived as less risky, are unacceptable. Less risky for whom? For the world? How naïve! There is nothing so risky for the world than to refuse to run the risk of the risky.

The triple-A ratings have, in only about four years, without leaving much development in its wake, taken over the precipice more capital than all that lent by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund since their creation sixty years ago. I have for years debated and fought these regulations from Basel, in the World Bank, in the United Nations and on the web… while others lose their time and our oil revenues in such absolute irrelevancies as a Banco del Sur.

Translated from El Universal, July 23, 2009