Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bubble talk!

I am getting a bit nervous with all this bubble talk.

How are they intent to do their bubble-busting? Are the regulators now going to appoint bubble-measurers? Are we going to have these assets bubble-meters being showed off in Times Square? What instruments to puncture them are going to be used? Talk about value of inside information!

Much the same way it sounded so utterly reasonable to have the credit rating agencies influence how much equity banks should have, and look where it led us. This reasoning just like it assumed that a risk of default was a risk of default, assumes that a bubble is a bubble, and that there are no risks derived from pre-announcing that a bubble will not happen.

And what if the prime motor of development is the belief in the possibilities of the next bubble? If we ex-ante eliminate the possibility of a real bubble, how many will just stay in bed while other countries, those with no qualms about a crisis because for them any status quo is worse, will go forward?

If there is something truly lacking in the current discussion on regulatory reform that is the consideration of the good things that come with risk-taking and now, the good things that come from bubbles.

Me, I really would love the world to keep on taking risks and blowing bubbles, even at the cost of suffering huge setbacks, as long as that takes us forward. Because of this, more than worrying about where the next precipice might be, I would try to make more certain that we are heading in the right direction.

Others, baby-boomers and wimps, on the contrary, seem to be satisfied with what they have achieved and are happy settling for just keeping it.

This is a great opportunity for developing countries to catch up... I can already see the billboards “Have bubbles, willing to party, for real, no adult supervision, foreign investors welcome!” While the developed countries set up theirs, on Wall Street, announcing “Welcome... guaranteed no bubbles!”

Real capital might be coward... but it sure loves bubbles.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

My voice and noise on the regulatory reform of banks

As I am just a citizen working on his own I would appreciate any comment or editing suggestion and which you can send to my email
My voice and noise on the regulatory reform of banks
It is we the people who are supposed to be able to invest our savings in low-risk-operations. It is them the bankers, those who are supposed to be the professionals, whom we should count on to identify those risky risk-taking entrepreneurs most capable of restoring fiscally sustainable growth and create decent jobs, and then take the risk of lending to them.
Why then has the regulator been so set on having the banks avoiding ordinary banking risks, and have instead create incentives for our banks to finance those already rated AAA and who should not even need the help of a bank? In truth, the AAAs should be the almost exclusive territory of widows and orphans.
The bank regulatory framework which emanated from Basel and which promoted a highly imprudent risk-aversion in our banks, instead of a prudent risk-taking, represents a failure of immense proportions and it needs to be stopped, right now.
The following are some suggestions on that route and I call on anyone who knows the value of living in a “land of braves” to help to stop the arbitrary taxes on risks imposed on our banks by the Basel wimps.
We should temporarily lower the capital requirements for what is perceived as high risk.
The first, and basically only pillar of the Basel regulations, the minimum capital requirements, establishes that when a bank has an asset that carries an AAA rating it is required to hold 1.6 percent equity while, if it lends to an unrated entrepreneur it needs 8 percent. The difference of 6.4 percent, especially when bank equity is scarce and expensive, represents effectively a high and totally arbitrary regulatory tax on perceived risk; and which has to be added on to what the market already charges in premiums for risk.
Therefore and while we are increasing the extraordinary low capital requirements for the “low-risk” operations, which have proven to be so dangerous, we must, in order to avoid that "high-risk" borrowers are unduly crowded out from bank lending, substantially reduce the capital requirements for all those operations that are deemed more risky, in essence those rated BB+ or below. As an initial level I suggest 4 percent.This is real counter-cyclicality.
Once the banks have achieved a level of 4 percent (tier-one) capital for all of their assets (including government) and once out of the woods of this crisis, we must rebuild the capital base of the banks to a level ranging between 8 and 12 percent, for all assets, government included, cash excepted, a level that could fluctuate depending on where we find ourselves in the economic cycle.
Can the banks currently handle a 4 percent in capital requirements when lending to a risky entrepreneur? Yes, I am absolutely sure that a shell-shocked banking sector will behave prudently with what is perceived as “high-risk”. In fact since what normally produces certain carelessness are those loans and investments perceived as being less-risky, one could build a case for arguing that it is the “lower-risks” that should have higher capital requirements.
Since I am aware that the above sounds somewhat strange in the midst of the knee-jerk rule tightening reactions that a crisis always produces let me remind you that the first wave of bank losses sustained in this crisis from lending or investing in what required 8 percent of capital were only a fraction of those first wave losses sustained in “safe” 1.6 percent endeavors.
By the way, arguing in the first place that the losses that arose in connections to the safest assets, houses and mortgages, in the safest of the countries, the USA; and in the safest instruments, rated AAA, has anything to do with excessive risk-taking, seems to me somehow to include a dose of intellectual dishonesty.
Suppose a person entered a modern building and took an elevator that was supposed to be duly checked and then died in an accident because some inspectors did not do their job… would you call that excessive risk-taking? Of course not!
Purpose of the banks
The 347 pages of Basel II regulations contains not one single phrase, much less a paragraph that has anything to do with establishing the purpose of our banks.
Therefore we must require from the bank regulators to define the purpose for our banks, because without doing so, how can they regulate and how can we be sure they are taking the banks to where we want them to go? Let me below give you a hint
What’s in it for humanity for the banks to finance the AAA rated? Nothing! The real or fake AAAs are already more than strong enough, and so who we really need for our banks to support are those with BB+ or below ratings in order for these to have the chance of becoming the real AAAs of tomorrow. What the banks are supposed to do is to help society to evaluate the BB+ or below rated in order to generate new winners, while creating the lowest possible contingency risks for having to bail out the depositors if the banks fail in their mission.
Currently when a bank lends or invests in paper of the government there are no capital requirements. This amounts to an outright discrimination in favor of the government and against the citizen. I do not see how see how this could have been in the minds of any founding fathers.
Over a period of time we should reach a point where the capital requirements for banks when lending to the government, are the same to those when lending to an ordinary unrated citizen.
Credit rating agencies.
In January 2003 the Financial Times published a letter I wrote that included
“Everyone knows that, sooner or later, the ratings issued by the credit agencies are just a new breed of systemic error to be propagated at modern speeds”
And of course if we insist on blindly following the opinions of the credit rating agencies, as has been the case, we are sooner or later doomed to be back to the point where this crisis started.
But, what need is there to have the credit rating agencies pointing out the directions with 100 percent accuracy, if we should not be going to the place we are going? None! We cannot afford to channel scarce funds, by means of very low capital requirements for what is perceived as “low-risk”… into financing something, if that something is useless… like perhaps building a huge inventory of coffins. at zero percent interest rates.
And so, referring to the previous point, we should not waste a single second by reforming the credit rating agencies, when by reforming what really needs to be reformed, namely eliminating the regulations that discriminate based on risk of defaults, the problem of humanly faulty credit rating agencies will be solved on its own.
"Too big to fail."
In February 2000, in the Daily Journal of Caracas, in an article title “Kafka and global banking” I wrote:
"… thank God we still have several banks to work with". Imagine if we would have had to discuss the issue with an official of the One and Only World Bank (OOWB). Without a doubt this would present us with a future full of horrendous Kafkaesque possibilities. With every day that passes we have fewer and fewer banking institutions worldwide with which to work. This trend has been marketed as one of the seven wonders of globalization.”
Also in May 2003 in a risk management workshop for regulators at the World Bank I held
“There is a thesis that holds that the old agricultural traditions of burning a little each year, thereby getting rid of some of the combustible materials, was much wiser than today’s no burning at all, that only allows for the buildup of more incendiary materials, thereby guaranteeing disaster and scorched earth, when fire finally breaks out, as it does, sooner or later.
Therefore a regulation that regulates less, but is more active and trigger-happy, and treats a bank failure as something normal, as it should be, could be a much more effective regulation. The avoidance of a crisis, by any means, might strangely lead us to the one and only bank, therefore setting us up for the mother of all moral hazards—just to proceed later to the mother of all bank crises.
Knowing that the larger they are, the harder they fall, if I were regulator, I would be thinking about a progressive tax on size.”
But, having said all that, I equally believe firmly in that we are not well served by rushing to solve this particular problem, especially while we have much more urgent matters at hand, such as getting out of the woods.
And neither should we break up large banks while we still have regulations in place that breed and support large banks… does that not seem logical?
If there is one alternative that should definitely be explored is that of using a Non Operating Holding Company (NOHC) under which to separate the different activities of the typical huge bank of today and which I have seen proposed by OECD in their "The Financial Crisis: Reform and Exit Stategies". I find this route to be a very sensible and not too traumatic alternative and, if it would prove not to be working, we would at least already have it cut up in more digestible pieces.
Therefore my suggestion on the "Too Big To Fail" issue would be to give the largest banks some basic separation guidelines and ask them to come back for a proposal on how they would wish to set up their NOHC, if so required, and then take it from there.
On derivatives
Just get a central clearing house for anything that seems to taking on the form of a mass market and let all the rest be, stating of course, very loud and very clear, your caveat emptor and your caveat venditor.
Derivatives which cover real original risks are never as dangerous as derivatives designed to exploit arbitrary differences of a regulatory system.
The reason is that in real derivatives, for each seller taking the risk of being a seller, you always find a buyer taking the same sized opposite risk as a buyer… and all they have to do is being sure that the other counterpart has the means to pay out if he has to.
But, when derivatives are entered into in order to exploit a regulatory arbitrage, you find sellers and buyers more like partners eagerly sharing a free prize, and which often means they will let down their guards somewhat on each other´s respective counterparty risk.
Example: If a bank has an exposure to a an A- client then it needs a 4 percent equity but if it bought a CDS from a AAA rated insurance company (AIG) then it can get away with only 1.6 percent of capital. The saved difference of the costs of 2.4 percent of expensive bank equity, and which of course has nothing to do with real risks, can then be shared between a bank and an AIG.
When and if, as is here proposed, one eliminates the differences in capital requirements for banks based on risk, there are no longer incentives for this type of bastard derivatives…problem solved!
Systemic Risk
How are those who came up with the minimum capital requirements and enforced the use of credit rating, and thereby introduced so much systemic risk in the financial system, now going to control for systemic risk? They now mostly take systemic risk means to be institutions that are so large and important so as to create a risk for the system… that is just one of many systemic risks.
One thing is to bail out depositors for some fixed amount. But to think about the possibility of bailing out institutions because they might constitute a systemic risk is a totally different ballgame. That could be an open checkbook to disaster. As a government you should never want to have a pre-authorization to bailout a financial institution because then you are supposed to do so, or at least it is harder to say no.
We must measure and act during the full cycle.
If we are going to get the best out of our banks we have to stop measuring them only at their worst. We need to look at the full boom bust cycle since there are some busts where all the pains of a crisis are more than compensated with all achieved during the preceding boom, while at the same time there could also be booms that are so unproductive booms that no lack of a crisis pays for them.
Final Note:
I have been a financial advisor all my life never a regulator but when I started hearing about what the Basel Committee was up to I had to raise my voice. The surprise of my life is that still, two years into the crisis, the issue of the dangerous arbitrary risk aversion the Basel regulations were introducing in our financial system is not yet even discussed
Here is the link to the very first article I wrote on the subject in 1997
If you want to see more you can find it in:
or in
and in the more than 330 letters that I sent to the Financial Times on this issue and that can all be found in searching under the label of subprime banking regulations.
And you can also find a fun conspiracy theory of it all in:
PS. Here is a current summary of why I know the risk weighted capital requirements for banks, is utter and dangerous nonsense.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In the land of the brave?

The difference in bank capital requirement between an unrated client and an AAA is 6.4 percent, which at a capital cost of 15 percent, results in 1 percent a year. This represents a 1 percent tax on perceived default risk! Do the regulatory wimps really believe that creating jobs and moving the world forward is a risk free affair?

Read more at the Financial Times Economist Forum