Friday, May 27, 2016

Mervyn King’s book “The end of alchemy” is dangerously incomplete and excessively praised

Mervin King, former governor of the Bank of England begins his book “The end of alchemy” by citing from “The Rock” by TS Elliot, 1934. 
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; 
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; 
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? 
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? 

From a formal statement, delivered in March 2003, as an Executive Director of the World Bank, let me extract the following: 

“In this otherwise very complete Global Development Finance 2003, there is no mention about the issue of the growing role of the Independent Credit Rating Agencies, and the systemic risks that might so be induced, when they are called to intervene and direct more and more the world’s capital flows.

With respect to Basel, we would also like to point out that the document does not analyze at all a very fundamental risk for the whole issue of Development Finance, being it that the whole regulatory framework coming out of the BCBS might possibly put a lid on development finance, as a result of being more biased in favor of safety of deposits as compared to the need for growth.

As the financial sector grows ever more sophisticated, making it less and less transparent and more difficult to understand for ordinary human beings, like us EDs, it is of extreme importance that the World Bank remains prudently skeptical and vigilant, and not be carried away by the glamour of sophistication. In this particular sense, we truly believe that the World Bank has a role to play that is much more important than providing knowledge per-se and that is the role of looking on how to supply the wisdom-of-last-resort.

And some weeks later in another formal statement I insisted in my arguments and added:

“We truly have to find a way of helping the Knowledge Bank to try to evolve into something more of a Wisdom Bank, or, to put it more humbly, at least a Common Sense Bank.

Basel is getting to be a big rulebook (this was said by the Bank). And, to tell you the truth, the sole chance the world has of avoiding the risk that Bank Regulators in Basel, accounting standard boards, and credit-rating agencies will introduce serious and fatal systemic risks into the world, is by having an entity like the World Bank stand up to them—instead of rather fatalistically accepting their dictates and duly harmonizing with the International Monetary Fund”

Unfortunately though I expressed my reasoned concerns, timely, in a globally important and relevant institution, these fell on deaf ears and were unable to stop crazy Basel II from being approved in June 2004.

And that is the reason why I believe I have earned all the right to openly consider “The End of Alchemy” a very dangerously incomplete book that, equally dangerous, is being excessively praised. 

Mervyn King dedicates his book to his “four grandchildren because it is their generation who will have to develop new ways of thinking about macroeconomics and to redesign our system of money and banking if another global financial crisis is to be prevented."

While I equally dedicate, to my for the time being only two grandchildren, the fight against bank regulators who, fixated on turning the banks into safe mattresses where to stash away savings, did and do not give any consideration to the importance of banks allocating credit efficiently to the real economy, so that the economy can move forward and not stall and fall over us all.

Kings book, in 370 pages, except perhaps when discussing the “Chicago Plan” of banks’ holding 100 percent liquid reserves against deposits, and the configuration of “wide banks” financed with equity and long term debt, does not really discuss the allocation of bank credit to the real economy. That function which to me, represents the fundamental social purpose of banks. That allocation which has now been impeded by mindboggling stupid risk-weighted requirements, those which dangerously favor credit for what is perceived, decreed or concocted as safe, sovereigns, the AAArisktocracy and residential house financing over credit to those perceived as risky, like SMEs and entrepreneurs.

King's book, in 370 pages, does not mention the fact that allowing banks to hold less capital against assets perceived, decreed or concocted as safe, allows banks to earn higher expected risk adjusted returns on equity on these assets than on those perceived as risky.

But King writes “The people who designed those risk weights did so after careful thought and an evaluation of past experience”. Nonsense, they analyzed the perceived risks of bank assets, not the risk of those assets that have created bank crises.

And King follows that with “They simply did not imagine how risky mortgage lending and the sovereign debt of countries such as Greece would become during the crisis”. That clearly evidences that King does not yet understand the role the assignment of low risk weights as zero percent to sovereigns, 35 % to residential mortgages and 20% to AAA rated securities, played in helping create the dangerous excessive bank exposures to these categories.

And King follows that with: “Rather than lambast the regulators for not anticipating those events, it is more sensible to recognize that the pretense that it is possible to calibrate risk weights is an illusion” And I just have to ask, should we not lambast regulators more with the latter, as it proves their excessive hubris?

And King follows that with: “The need for banks to use equity to absorb losses is most important in precisely those circumstances where something wholly unexpected occurs” Right, that is precisely why setting capital requirement that are to cover of the unexpected based on expected credit risks, the risk most cleared for by the banks is so loony.

But at least King there concludes in that “A simple leverage ratio is a more robust measure for regulatory purposes. Good for him! Though clearly he does that only from the perspective of making banks safer, without any thought about the need for less distortions produced in the credit allocation.

In terms of TS Eliot, when it comes to making the bank system safer: 

Knowledge could, as it did, set the risk weights, based the ex ante perceptions of it. 
Wisdom would only set these based on their ex post possibilities of creating havoc. 
Knowledge can get you get started immediately on the avoidance of risks. 
Wisdom would first have you to identify, which risks you cannot afford not to take.

Where King is absolutely right is when he opines, “Regulation has become extraordinarily complex, and in ways that do not go the heart of the problem of alchemy… By encouraging a culture in which compliance with detailed regulations is a defense against a charge of wrong doing, bankers and regulators have colluded in a self-defeating spiral of complexity”

But then a much better title of the book would have been “How do we stop bank regulators from doubling down on alchemy”.

Current regulations only make banks refinance the safer past. For King’s grandchildren, and for mine, let us pray they can soon take on again their vital role in financing the riskier future.

The major mistake with current bank regulations, one that has not been rectified yet, is that the regulators never defined the purpose of banks before regulating these. In this respect, let me stop, for now, by quoting John A Shedd “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.”