Thursday, September 30, 2010

To reform financial regulations we need to reform in depth the Basel Committee.

In May 2003, as an Executive Director of the World Bank, I told those many present at a risk management workshop for regulators the following with respect to the role of the Credit Rating Agencies. “I simply cannot understand how a world that preaches the value of the invisible hand of millions of market agents can then go out and delegate so much regulatory power to a limited number of human and very fallible credit-rating agencies. This sure must be setting us up for the mother of all systemic errors.” And this I repeated over and over again, even in the press.

Now the IMF is finally admitting “Policy makers should continue their efforts to reduce their own reliance on credit ratings, and wherever possible remove or replace references to ratings in laws and regulations, and in central bank collateral policies”

That is good, better late than never. But the real question has to be why on earth it had to take a financial crisis of monstrous proportions to reach a conclusion that should have been apparent to any regulator from the very beginning.

I saw it happen and I know why it happened. As I wrote in a letter published in the Financial Times in November 2004, it was the result of the whole debate about bank regulations being sequestered by the members of a small mutual admiration club.

If there is now something even more important than rectifying the faulty financial regulations, that is to break up the Basel Committee and make absolutely sure it represents a much more diversified group of thinkers. That would have at least guaranteed that the basic question of what the purpose of the banks should be would have been put in the forefront before regulating them. Current regulations do not contain one word about that.

Besides me there were not too many but still plenty of experts who raised the question of whether the credit rating agencies should have such a prominent role. These persons should participate in designing and putting in place the needed reforms. It is simply unacceptable that these reforms with huge global implications are implemented exclusively by Monday morning quarterbacks.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Are you ok with a 71.4 to 1 leverage for banks?

Basel III now tells us that the basic capital requirement for banks is not any longer going to be the 8 percent of wishy-washy made up capital of Basel II, but a more real and solid 7 percent. Good news!

But unfortunately Basel III completely ignores mentioning the risk-weights, though these were the real source of the problems with Basel II.

And so now with Basel III, since the risk-weight for operations with triple-A rated securities is still 20%, the “more real and solid” equity required is 1.4 percent; the new authorized leverage for banks when investing in exactly the same type of securities that set of the current crisis, is 71.4 to 1.

Are you really ok with this?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The bare-naked Basel Committee

The innocent child´s "But he isn't wearing anything at all!" in “The Emperor’s new clothes” tale by Hans Christian Andersen, would not have been written today, since modern emperors and their spin doctors are much too savvy to let an innocent voice get due attention.

As a sort of innocent child I have been clamoring for a long time that the Basel Committee on Banking Regulations, no matter their standing as the great global expert on these matters, is bare-naked and completely wrong… so wrong that they are in fact the primary cause of the current crisis… but the Basel Committee just ignores me.

In this respect I am searching for a voice stronger than mine who could pose some simple questions to the Basel Committee and have them answered. A Senator of the US concerned with that the banks in the land of the free and the home of the brave are not really free and are instructed to be coward, could be a perfect such voice.

Question 1: All major bank and financial crisis in the world have, without exceptions, resulted from excessive investments in what was ex-ante perceived as not risky but that ex-post turned out to be risky; and no crisis has never ever resulted from excessive investments in what was perceived as risky. In this respect, guys, what are your fundaments for creating regulations that give banks extra-incentives to lend or invest in what ex-ante is perceived as not risky; and thereby create extra disincentives for the banks to lend or invest in what is perceived as risky?

Question 2: In the whole set of bank regulations that has emanated from the Basel Committee over the last two decades, there is not one single word about the purpose of the banks. Guys, is not defining the purpose of the entity you are to regulate the basic required element for any successful regulation?

Question 3: Banks are allowed to lend to triple-A rated governments, like the US, with no capital at all, but are required to post 8 percent in capital when lending to any small business or entrepreneur. Guys, are you communist?

Question 4: Inducing the banks to follow too much the opinion of some few credit rating agencies must increase the risk that when these agents go wrong the banks will go dramatically and exponentially wrong. Guys why on earth would you do a dumb thing like this?

Question 5: Guys, when you have by the results been proven absolutely wrong are you not supposed to pause and perhaps even hit the reset button? Why then are you now forging ahead and perhaps digging us deeper in the hole we are in by now so arrogantly even trying to control for economic cycles?

Question 6: Guys, since even hedge funds rarely manage to leverage more than 15 to 1, would the banks without you explicitly allowing them to do so, even contemplate to leverage themselves 40 to 1?

Question 7: What was going on in your minds guys authorizing banks during the last five years to lend to a country like Greece or investing in triple-A rated securities, leveraging 62.5 to 1, and thereby converting for instance a .5 percent margins in an astonishing 31.25% return on equity… precisely that sort of returns that giant bonuses and too-big-to-fail banks are made of?

Question 8: It is evident that given the scarcity of bank capital, the small businesses and entrepreneurs, and who might be able to develop the next generation of jobs, are being crowded out from bank credits by your regulations are. Guys, why do you find that acceptable? Especially considering that these clients are supposed to be the banks´ most natural clients; and that they have nothing to do with creating a systemic crisis.

Question 9: Guys in the Basel Committee, who are you, how do you get appointed, who sets and pay your salaries?

There are of course many more questions, but for a starter these would do.

Is there any free and brave Senator fed up with being Razzle Dazzle Razzle Bazzled willing to make them? I sincerely hope so the whole world needs it… urgently!

Friday, September 24, 2010

My letter to the Independent Commission on Banking in UK

You’ve all been “Razzle Dazzle 'em, Razzle Bazzle 'em”… Get out of that trance!


The regulatory paradigm on which the Basel Committee stands will quite soon be discovered as one of the biggest regulatory failures ever, and all the experts will be looking for ways how to disassociate from them.

This is so because those regulations are primarily based on requiring the banks to have more capital when risk are perceived as high while allowing for much lower capital when risks are perceived as low, even though all financial and bank crisis in history have occurred from excessive investments in what is perceived as having low risk.

Only what is perceived as having a low risk can grow into systemic risk. A high perceived risk always takes care of itself and does never grow to be a systemic threat.

The regulators fixated themselves so much on stopping a bank from failing, that they ignored the system. Besides, who would like to live in a world where banks did not fail?

Currently small businesses and entrepreneurs, only because of the arbitrary, regressive and discriminatory capital requirements, need to pay the banks 2 percent more per year in order to provide the banks with the same return on capital that a loan or an investment to a triple-A rated client yields them. And this on top of the higher interests the small businesses and entrepreneurs anyway have to pay. Crazy!

I invite you to a brief lesson on how bank regulators have become so fixated on seeing the gorilla in the room that they completely lost track of the ball.

Per Kurowski
A former Executive Director at the World Bank (2002-2004)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Basel Committee, what are you, a naïve regulator, a terminator, a communist or just plain stupid?

All financial and bank crisis have resulted from excessive investments or loans where the risk of default was perceived as low. If so what are you doing dramatically lowering the capital requirements for banks when they invest or lend to what is perceived as safe?

One of the primary purposes of banks is tending to the financial needs of those small businesses and entrepreneurs who might be the source for the future generation of decent jobs, but are yet too small for the capital markets. If so why are you making it less attractive for banks to do just that by, in relative terms, placing much higher capital requirements on whom naturally must be perceived as riskier? Is not being perceived as riskier a heavy weight by itself? Do these clients not have to pay higher interest rates anyhow?

A banker’s most important mission is to learn to analyze a client and find ways of how to safely satisfy his credit needs. If so why are you implicitly ordering all bankers just to follow the opinions of some few credit rating agencies?

An absolute perfect credit rating, guarantees an exact pricing, and therefore provides no special profits to any side of the operation. Special profits, for one side or another, do only arise from incorrect perceptions of risk. If so, why are you creating risk information oligopolies which, when captured, can only leverage incorrect risk perceptions into a systemic risk?

Current financial regulations requires a bank to hold 100% of the standard Basel II or Basel III capital requirement when lending to a small business or entrepreneur, but allows it to hold zero percent of that same standard Basel II or Basel III capital requirement when lending to a triple-A rated sovereign like that of the USA. If so could not a visitor from outer space, looking solely at the financial regulations, simply conclude that planet earth is communistic?

In order to regulate banks, one would naturally assume the need of establishing a purpose for the banks. The Basel Committee does no such thing!

Titling the comment as I do, am I to harsh with the Basel Committee? I don’t think so!

In 1999 I wrote “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 the collapse”; and as an Executive Director at the World Bank I did all I could to warn about what I was certain was doomed to happen. But I was blithely ignored by this small group of regulators who were just too cozy in their little mutual admiration club.

Well the AAA-bomb finally exploded and the Basel Committee does still not take any questions from outside their own circle, which now includes the Financial Stability Board. And now they are only giving us their “Razzle Dazzle 'em, Bazzle III 'em” treatment. That is inacceptable for a world that is and will be going through much suffering, precisely because of the Basel Committee.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Basel Committee’s lousy Maginot Line

It is impossible not to see now that the financial regulators in the Basel Committee, trying to fend off a bank and a financial crisis, constructed an incredibly faulty Maginot Line.

It was built with lousy materials, like arbitrary risk-weights and humanly fallible credit rating opinions.

And it was built on the absolutely wrong frontier, for two reasons:

First, it was build where the risk are perceived high, and where therefore no bank or financial crisis has ever occurred, because all those who make a living there, precisely because they are risky, can never grow into a systemic risk. Is being perceived as risky not more than a sufficient risk-weight?

Second it was built where it fends of precisely those clients whose financial needs we most expect our banks to attend, namely those of small businesses and entrepreneurs, those who could provide us our next generation of decent jobs and who have no alternative access to capital markets.

Now with their Basel III the Basel Committee insists on rebuilding with the same faulty materials on the same wrong place and it would seem that we are allowing them to do so.

I am trying to stop them… are you going to help me or do you prefer to swim in the tranquil waters of automatic solidarity with those who are supposed to know better?

The implicit stupidity of the current Basel regulations could, seeing the damage these are provoking, represent an economic crime against humanity!

Monday, September 13, 2010

We are all being subject to a “Razzle Dazzle 'em, Bazzle III 'em” scheme

In Basel III, as in Basel II, the capital requirements are set “in relation to risk-weighted assets (RWAs)” even though it was the risk weights which proved to be most wrong.

It was a low risk weight of only 20% which generated a capital requirement of only 1.6 percent (.08 x .2) allowing banks to leverage 62.5 times to 1, which drove the banks to stampede after the triple-A rated securities collateralized with lousily awarded mortgages to the subprime sector.

Also if a bank lends to a small business then it needs 8 percent in capital but if it instead lends that money to the government of a sovereign rated AAA to AA then the bank needs no capital for the risk-weighted assets since the weight is 0%... lunacy!

Since the risk weights have not been modified at all in Basel III, let me assure you that the Basel Committee still has no idea about what they are doing. Frightening!

Basel III does mention that “These capital requirements are supplemented by a non-risk-based leverage ratio that will serve as a backstop to the risk-based measures described” but since that supplement seemingly will be small and what really counts are the marginal capital requirements for different assets Basel III does not provide a solution.

The Basel Committee is still so fixated with looking at the gorilla called “perceived risk” so as to completely lose track of the ball.

No financial or bank crisis has ever occurred from something ex-ante perceived as risky they have all resulted, no exceptions, from excessive lending or investment in something perceived as not risky.

Basel III still constitutes an arbitrary and regressive discrimination of small businesses and entrepreneurs whose needs we in fact most want our banks to attend. With the same risk-weight discriminations, the higher the capital requirements are, the higher the real effective discrimination.

Banks were authorized by the Basel Committee to lend to Greece leveraging 62.5 to 1! Now even after being sunk, we are still in the hands of exactly the same banks with exactly the same regulators following exactly the same fundamentally faulty regulatory paradigm… Help!

Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle, Razzle Bazzle 'em,

Show 'em the first rate sorceror you are

Long as you keep 'em way off balance

How can they spot you've got no talent

Razzle Dazzle 'em, Bazzle III 'em,

And they'll make you a star!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The financial crisis: The simple why and what to do?

When I talk about an authorized leverage of "64.5 to 1" the real figure is "62.5 to 1". Since there could be some debate on whether I was trying to see if you were following me, catch you sleeping, or because I did not use a calculator I made a mistake... be my guest and pick any explanation you choose, it won´t matter anyhow for the conclusions… and I will not repeat the class just because of that.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The six questions the Financial Regulatory Establishment refuses to answer.

1.- Knowing as we know that all bank or financial crisis have had their origin in excessive investments in what was ex-ante is perceived as having no risk... can you please explain the rationale behind a regulatory system that by means of allowing much lower capital requirements when lending or investing in anything is related to triple-A rated operations, provides the banks further incentives to accumulate excesses in what ex-ante is perceived as having lower risks?

2.- Knowing as we know that a perfect credit rating, though providing some useful information for capital allocation, provides none of the two sides in a operation with any real profit, something which only wrong risk appreciations can do, the wronger the larger the profits for the side that benefits... what is the rationale behind empowering the credit rating agencies with asymmetrical risk information oligopolies which dramatically increases the financial system´s exposure to catastrophic systemic risk?

3.- What is the rationale of a regulatory system where if the bank lends to an unrated small business or entrepreneur it needs to have 8 percent in capital but, if it instead lends to the government of an AAA rated sovereign, like the USA, so that government bureaucrats lend or give stimulus to the unrated small businesses and entrepreneurs, the banks need to hold zero capital? Is this not plain pro too-obese-to-succeed government regulation? What do the interest rates on public debt really signal with this type of regulations interfering?

4.- If a bank was required to have the same capital when lending to a country with a credit rating like that of Greece before year end 2009, as when lending to a small unrated businesses, then it could leverage itself 12.5 to 1. If it then made a spread of .5 percent when lending to a Greece it would obtain a return on capital of 6.25percent per year. But since the banks were allowed to do the above with only 1.6 percent in capital they could leverage their capital 62.5 to 1 and earn 31.25 percent on capital. Is this not exactly the stuff from which unbelievable bonuses are made of? Is this not exactly the growth hormones that results in too-big-to-fail banks?

5.- How come when regulating the banks the Basel Committee does not establish what is the purpose of banks? Is that not a pre-requisite for adequate regulation? When you regulate traffic it is to facilitate the traffic between two points... not to guarantee that the road will never need maintenance. Do the regulators really aspire for a world where there are no bank defaults? I shiver at the thought!

6.- Institutionally and given that the world will be in need of more global regulations, how is the oversight of the Basel Committee and the Financial Stability Board managed? To whom are they transparently accountable? I ask this because for instance if we had delegated the solving of global warming into a global institution that made mistakes like those made in the regulation of banks... there´s no question we would all be toast.

The questions at the IMF blog