Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Current bank regulators should undergo a psychological test. They clearly seem to be afflicted by “false safety behavior”

I extract the following from “False Safety Behaviors: Their Role in Pathological Fear” by Michael J. Telch, Ph.D. 

“What are false safety behaviors? 

We define false safety behaviors (FSBs) as unnecessary actions taken to prevent, escape from, or reduce the severity of a perceived threat. There is one specific word in this definition that distinguishes legitimate adaptive safety behaviors - those that keep us safe - from false safety behaviors - those that fuel anxiety problems? If you picked the word unnecessary you’re right! But when are they unnecessary? Safety behaviors are unnecessary when the perceived threat for which the safety behavior is presumably protecting the person from is bogus.”

The risk weighted capital requirements for banks, more perceived risk more capital – less perceived risk less capital, fits precisely that of being unnecessary. If a risk is perceived the banker will naturally take defensive measures, like limiting the exposure or charging higher risk premiums. If there is a real risk that is of the assets being perceived ex ante as safe, but turning up ex post as risky.

The consequences of such false safety behavior by current bank regulators are severe:

They set banks up to having the least capital when the most dangerous event can happen, something very safe turning very risky. 

Equally, or even more dangerous, it distorts the allocation of bank credit to the real economy, it hinder the needed “riskier” financing of the future, like entrepreneurs, in order to finance the “safer” present, like house purchases and sovereigns.

It creates a false sense of security because why should anyone really expect that “experts” picked the wrong risks to weigh, the intrinsic risk of the asset, instead of the risk of the asset for the banking system.

I quote again from the referenced document:

“How do false safety behaviors fuel anxiety? 

There seems to be a growing consensus that FSB’s fuel pathological anxiety in several different ways. One way in which FSBs might do their mischief is by keeping the patient’s bogus perception of threat alive through a mental process called misattribution. Misattribution theory asserts that when people perform unnecessary safety actions to protect themselves from a perceived threat, they falsely conclude (misattribute) their safety to the use of the FSB, thus leaving their perception of threat intact. Take for instance, the flying phobic who copes with their concern that the plane will crash by repeatedly checking the weather prior to the flight’s departure and then misattributes her safe flight to her diligent weather scanning rather than the inherent safety of air travel.” 

In this respect stress tests and living wills could perhaps be identified as “unnecessary safety actions” the “checking of the weather”. 

Finally: “FSBs may fuel anxiety problems by also interfering with the basic process through which people come to learn that some of their perceived threats are actually not threats at all…threat disconfirmation…For this important perceived threat reduction process to occur, not only must new information be available but it also must be processed.”

The 2007/08 crisis provided all necessary information on that the risk weighting did not work, since all bank assets that became very problematic, had in common low capital requirements since they were perceived as safe. And this information has simply not been processed.

Conclusion, I am not a psychologist but given that our banking system operates efficiently is of utmost importance, perhaps a psychological screening of all candidates to bank regulators should be a must. Clearly the current members of the Basel Committee and of the Financial Stability Board, and those engaged with bank regulations in many central banks, would not pass such test.

I feel sorry for them, especially after finding on the web someone referring to "anxiety disorder" with: “I don’t think people understand how stressful it is to explain what’s going on in your head when you don’t even understand it yourself”