Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The current bank regulatory system is fundamentally flawed, at its core.

Even if the credit ratings are absolutely right, using them as they are used, as a basis for calculating capital requirements of banks, is wrong, because the regulators have no business introducing an arbitrary regulatory bias against risk-taking. The world moves forward taking risk, the world lies down and dies avoiding risk.
“The First Pillar” of our current bank regulations (Basel) establishes the “Minimum Capital Requirements” for the banks (MCRs).

The MCRs depend on a risk assessment of a quite vaguely defined risk of default. The risk assessment is to be carried out primarily by the Credit Rating Agencies but, in the case of larger banks, also by using their internal risk models. In this respect, as an example, the MCRs rule that if a bank lends to an ordinary not rated client, it is required to hold 8 percent in equity, which is equivalent to an authorized leverage of 12.5 to 1, but, if lending to a client that is rated AAA, then it only needs to hold 1.6 percent in equity, which is equivalent to an authorized leverage of 62.5 to 1.

The above represents two risks, both clearly evidenced in the current crisis.

The first is that the credit rating agencies, by being captured by other interests or plainly because of human fallibility, could be wrong in their assessments, with the consequences that too much capital will follow the wrong ratings in the wrong direction. The current crisis did not result from investment in anything that could be considered as risky but almost exclusively from investments in instruments carrying an AAA rating and which were considered to be absolutely free of risk.

The second risk with the structure of the MDCs is that they effectively imply a subsidy to anything perceived as having a low risk and, comparatively, a tax on whatever seems to carry a higher risk. The subsidies, or costs, of these regulatory risk-weights, are layered on whatever risk differentials the market already prices in their interest rate spreads. This creates confusion in the risk allocation mechanism of the market as the signals are obscured and no one knows for sure whether the low spreads are the result of low risks or the result of low capital requirements. But, so much worse, these risk-subsidies or risk-taxes help to channel and push capital flows into “risk-free” territories that could already be swamped or serve no real societal purpose, or stop capitals from flowing into dried areas much in need of capitals and which represent important societal purposes.

All human endeavors to move forward are risky by nature, and there is absolutely nothing that in economic terms justifies a regulatory bias in favor of what is perceived as having a low risk. In the current crisis immense amounts of capital were lost sustaining a useless and artificial housing boom in a developed country, and not lost in projects that for instance tried to combat climate change or create sustainable jobs.

The Gini Coefficient, in economics, measures the inequalities in the distribution of wealth and income, from cero, no inequalities, to 1, absolute inequality. The current bank regulatory system, by design, with the MDCs pushes up the world’s Gini Coefficient. Do we really want that?

Please help us mend the faulty core of our bank regulations. Without this, all our other important and needed efforts to reform our financial sector are meaningless.

Per Kurowski