Sunday, March 19, 2017

Banks, regulators and sovereigns, colluded to introduce, statism, risk aversion and complacency.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact meaning of complacency, especially as that sentiment could have different origins. I am not really sure what it means to Tyler Cowen, but to me, complacency, is quite often only a more comfortable and somewhat hypocritical expression of a “Please don’t rock the boat” wish.

I now quote extensively from Tyler Cowen’s “The complacent class” (page 13)

One thing most Americans agree on it politics–for all the complaining about the bank bailouts–is that there should be more guaranteed and very safe assets. The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond has estimated that 61 percent of all private-sector financial liabilities are guaranteed by the federal government, either explicitly or implicitly. As recently as 1999, this figure was below 50 percent. We’re also more and more willing to hold government-supplied, risk free assets, even if they offer very small or zero yields… Plenty of commentators suggest that something about this isn’t right, but again the push to fix it is extraordinarily weak, especially since that would mean someone somewhere would have to take significant financial losses.

There is a Zeitgeist and a cultural shift well under way, so far under way in fact that it probably needs to play itself out before we can be cured of it. The America economy is less productivity and dynamic, Americans challenge fundamental ideas less, we move around less and change our lives less, and we are all the more determined to hold on to what we have, dig in, and hope (in vain) that, in this growing stagnation, nothing possibly can disturb our sense of calm.”

Is it really so as Cowen seems to argue, that the Home of the Brave, that which has developed based on considerable doses of risk-taking by risk-takers, now comes to this complacency on its own... or was it entrapped?

I argue the latter. One way or another, regulators managed to sell to a financially naïve political sector the concept that it was possible for bank regulators, or for the more sophisticated banks’ risk models to determine real-risks, and so introduced risk-weighted capital requirements… topping it up by putting aside all considerations as to whether this could distort the allocation of credit to the real economy.

In 1988 America induced and signed up on the Basel Accord, Basel I. That ruled that for the capital requirements banks needed to hold, the risk weight of the sovereign was to be zero percent, 0%; for mortgages to the residential housing 55%; and for loans to We the People 100%.

In 2004, with Basel II, the risk-weight for residential mortgages was reduced to 35%; We the People were also split up in “the safe”, the AAA rated, the AAArisktocracy with a risk weight of 20%; passing through a risk-weight of 100% for those not rated ordinary citizens; and topping it out at 150% for those rated below BB-.

What did this mean? First that regulating technocrats, sent out the falsely tranquilizing message to the market of “Don’t worry, banks are now risk-weighted”. Second, that statists told banks: “We scratch your back and you scratch ours… the State guarantees you, and you lend to the State as cheap as possible”. 

Of course that immediately resulted in that banks would search out any assets that were decreed, perceived or concocted as safe; as with these banks could leverage more and therefore obtain higher risk adjusted returns on equity… which much explains the much increased appetite for “safe assets”, in America and Europe.

Of course that meant that the sovereign would by artifice receive much more bank credit, at much lower rates than usual; making a joke of that “risk-free-rate” used in finance. 

Of course that immediately resulted in that banks would avoid all assets officially perceived as “risky”, like loans to SMEs and entrepreneurs, as with these banks could leverage much less and therefore obtain lower expected risk adjusted returns on equity… which of course affected the productivity and the dynamism of the real economy, in America and Europe.

Of course that meant banks would prefer financing the construction of the “safe” basements were young unemployed can live with their parents than the riskier future that could create the jobs they need… which reduces mobility as more and more get to be chained to houses with artificially high prices.

And a truly sad part of all these induced statism and risk aversion is that it does not lead to any more bank stability, much the contrary. Major bank crises are caused by unexpected events (e.g. devaluations), criminal behavior (e.g. loans to affiliate) and excessive exposures to what was ex ante perceived as very safe but that ex post turns out to be very risky, among others because being perceived as very safe often causes it to receive too much bank credit.

What caused the 2007-08 crisis? Excessive exposures to what was perceived or decreed as safe as AAA rated securities and sovereigns like Greece.

What has caused stagnation thereafter? Lack of lending to SMEs and entrepreneurs, those best equipped to open up new paths.

Where banks in on this? Answer would banks like being able to earn the highest risk adjusted returns on equity when holding what they perceived as the safest? Of course they would, that sounds like bankers’ wet dreams come true.

I find “The Complacent Class” to be a fun and very useful book, and it could help get very important and needed debates going. That said I would like to see Tyler Cowen substantially updating the second edition of it, by including that dangerous risk aversion and complacency imposed on banks and on America (and Europe) by its regulators.