Sunday, December 27, 2015

Lord Adair Turner’s awakening as a bank regulator has at least begun, and that’s good news.

"Big companies in consolidated sectors, like BP in oil, tend to have much better credit ratings than those participating in developing markets, like wind energy. Do you really think the banks will perform better their societal capital allocation role if regulators allow them to have much lower capital requirements when lending to the consolidated sectors than when lending to the developing? Do you think we can reach a meaningful financial regulatory reform without opening up the discussion on the issue of risk in development?"

Lord Turner responded: "The point about lending to large companies development, I'm not sure. I'm trying to think about that. I mean we try to develop risk weights, which are truly related to the underlying risks. And the fact is that on the whole, lending to small and medium enterprises does show up as having both a higher expected loss but also a greater variance of loss. And, of course, capital is there to absorb unexpected loss or either variance of loss rather than the expected loss. I think, therefore, it's quite difficult for us to be as regulators, skewing the risk weights to achieve, as it were, developmental goals. There are some developmental goals, for instance, in a renewable energy, which I'm very committed to wearing one of my other hats on climate change, where I do think you may need to do, you know, in a straight public subsidy rather than believing that we can do it through the indirect mechanism of the risk weights. So I may have misunderstood your question, but I'm sort of cautious of the sort of the leap to introducing developmental roles into -- I thinks we, as regulators, have to focus simply on how risky actually is it?"

Lord Turner did not understand what I was referring to, and what was wrong:

Lord Turner: “we try to develop risk weights which are truly related to the underlying risks”. No! The real underlying risk with banks is not the risk of their assets, but how banks manage the perceived risks of their assets.

Lord Turner: “capital is there to absorb unexpected loss or either variance of loss rather than the expected loss”

Yes “capital is there to absorb unexpected loss”, and that is why it is so ridiculous to base the capital requirements for banks on something expected, like the perceived credit risks.

Now Lord Turner in his recent book, “Between Debt and the Devil”, though he still evidences he does not understand the distortions in the allocation of bank credit to the real economy the risk weighted capital requirements produce, he seems to become more flexible about using other criteria. From the “I think we, as regulators, have to focus simply on how risky actually is it” he now states: “We need to manage the quantity and influence the allocation of credit bank create… Capital requirements against specific categories of lending should ideally reflect their different potential impact of financial and macroeconomic stability. 

Though Turner has not yet reached as far as banks actually having a social purpose more important than that of just not failing, like financing job creation and the sustainability of our planet, this is a good and welcome start. And I say so especially because Lord Turner’s awakening might reflect what hopefully might be going on in other regulators' minds.

Lord Turner even though he gets it that “it is rational for banks to maximize their own leverage, increasing the returns on equity”, still fails to understand how allowing different leverages, much higher for safe assets than for risky, make banks finance more than usual what is perceived as safe, and much less than usual what is perceived as risky… which is precisely why banks finance so much houses and so little the SMEs and entrepreneurs, those that help create the jobs needed to pay mortgages and utilities.

Lord Turner also mentions in his book the issue of inequality. For the hopefully revised and corrected sequel to his book, I would suggest he thinks about the following quote from John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Money: Whence it came where it went” 1975. 

“The function of credit in a simple society is, in fact, remarkably egalitarian. It allows the man with energy and no money to participate in the economy more or less on a par with the man who has capital of his own. And the more casual the conditions under which credit is granted and hence the more impecunious those accommodated, the more egalitarian credit is… Bad banks, unlike good, loaned to the poor risk, which is another name for the poor man.”

But clearly Galbraith was referring to credit to producers and not to consumers. 

And of course I wish Lord Turner, like so many other, stops referring to the financial crisis as a result of free markets running amok. Free markets would never ever have authorized banks to leverage over 60 to 1 when investing in AAA rated securities, or when lending to Greece. Markets were not free. Banks were not deregulated. Banks were utterly misregulated.

PS. Cross your fingers. There might be something there that wasn't there before :-)