Improving Banking Supervision and Regulation

There were some other very interesting presentations at the conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston last week. Fed Chair Ben Bernanke spoke on Financial Regulation and Supervision after the Crisis while Princeton Professor Alan Blinder’s message was It’s Broke, Let’s Fix It: Rethinking Financial Regulation. Here I summarize four key reforms these speakers addressed.

(1) Capital adequacy. The key principle for preventing the “bank run” dynamics of the recent financial turmoil is to make sure that financial institutions have a sufficient cushion of equity capital to be able to absorb liquidation and delinquency losses on assets without sacrificing the institution’s ability to repay short-term creditors. Equity capital is also a critical tool for addressing the core incentive problems arising from gambling with other people’s money. As Chair Bernanke observed:

Through the course of the crisis, it became increasingly clear that many firms lacked adequate capital and liquidity to protect themselves as well as the financial system as a whole.

Professor Blinder elaborated:

the real leverage problems arose with (a) investment banks that operated (under a different regulatory regime [from commercial banks]) with 30 times leverage and more, and (b) gimmicks such as thinly-capitalized SIVs and conduits that (legally) avoided capital requirements…

Both Bernanke and Blinder further called attention to the problems with procyclical capital requirements. Standard capital requirements become looser when times are good, but that is exactly when it’s most feasible and desirable for them to strengthen the equity cushion. Blinder advocated reverse convertible debentures proposed by Mark Flannery and the Squam Lake Working Group on Financial Regulation as a way to implement countercyclical capital requirements.

Though a conceptually different issue from equity capital, Blinder also favored requiring both mortgage originators and mortgage securitizers to retain 5% of any assets they create.

(2) Compensation. Blinder observed: “Pay plans that are structured in such a ‘heads I win, tails I don’t lose’ way create powerful incentives for traders to go for broke gambling with OPM (‘other people’s money’).” In his spoken remarks he added, “They did go for broke, and a lot of them achieved that objective.”

Here were Bernanke’s observations on the subject:

flawed compensation practices at financial institutions also contributed to the crisis. Compensation, not only at the top but throughout a banking organization, should appropriately link pay to performance and provide sound incentives. In particular, compensation plans that encourage, even inadvertently, excessive risk-taking can pose a threat to safety and soundness. The Federal Reserve has just issued proposed guidance that would require banking organizations to review their compensation practices to ensure they do not encourage excessive risk-taking, are subject to effective controls and risk management, and are supported by strong corporate governance including board-level oversight.

(3) Derivatives. Though Bernanke did not say much about the explosion of financial instruments such as credit default swaps and their role in propagating the crisis, Blinder highlighted the desirability of changes:

While the regulation of derivatives is fraught with peril, it is not hard to improve upon what we have now– which is practically nothing. I have argued for years that the most important step the government could take would be to push as much derivatives trading as possible into organized exchanges….

The Treasury White Paper (p. 48) proposes to subject OTC derivatives to a “robust regime” of regulation that includes “conservative capital requirements,” margins, reporting requirements, and “business conduct standards.”

(4) Resolution mechanism. Finally, both Bernanke and Blinder stressed the need for a mechanism to supervise the liquidation of failing systemically important financial institutions. Blinder advocated:

we could develop a new resolution mechanism, perhaps patterned on what the FDIC now does with small banks (often before the bank’s net worth goes negative), that would enable the authorities to wind down a systemically-important financial institution (including a non-bank) in an orderly fashion– rather than just throwing it to the Chapter 11 wolves. This last idea is among the key ingredients of the Treasury’s reform plan, has substantial support in Congress, and may well become law. If so, it would have several desirable effects.

  • The TBTF doctrine would morph into too big to be put into Chapter 11,” but not “too big to be seized and its management thrown out.” That change alone would go a long way toward reducing moral hazard.
  • Taxpayers would (mostly) be relieved of the burdens of costly bailouts….
  • Regulators would no longer have to keep large “zombie banks” (and non-banks) on life support for fear of the systemic consequences of shutting them down.

Bernanke endorsed this reform as well:

the Congress should create a new set of authorities to facilitate the orderly resolution of failing, systemically important financial firms…. In light of the experience of the past year, it is clear that we need an option other than bankruptcy or bailout for such firms.

A new resolution regime for nonbanks, analogous to the regime currently used by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for banks, would permit the government to wind down a failing systemically important firm in a way that reduces the risks to financial stability and the economy. Importantly, to restore a meaningful degree of market discipline and to address the too-big-to-fail problem, it is essential that there be a credible process for imposing losses on the shareholders and creditors of the firm. Any resolution costs incurred by the government should be paid through an assessment on the financial industry and not borne by the taxpayers.

One detail I’d stress is the need for integration of the approaches to items (3) and (4) above. One of the problems that makes bankruptcy messy for these institutions is that outstanding derivatives contracts can assume a life of their own, sucking assets out of the firm as the market moves against the firm’s bets and in practice giving these contracts seniority over conventional debt. From the perspective of society’s best interests I don’t think such seniority can be justified. I agree with the assertion in Blinder’s spoken remarks that the economic costs of the latest recession exceed the cumulative potential efficiency benefits of what he referred to as “fancy finance.”

I would propose that instruments such as the credit default swaps entered into by any systemically important financial institution should be subject to a regulatory stop-loss provision. In a standard clearinghouse mechanism, each party delivers collateral against the possibility of the market moving against their original bet. If the market moves too much, the loser either must add collateral or their position is wiped out. If the institution continues to deliver new margin capital, it can become like the compulsive gambler doubling down as the firm’s equity cushion essential for financial stability bleeds away. Like the referee protecting a staggering boxer, the regulator needs the authority to declare “no mas” on an institution’s commitment of new capital to such positions.

Bernanke concluded with the following:

we cannot lose sight of the need to reorient our supervisory approach and to strengthen our regulatory and legal framework to help prevent a recurrence of the events of the past two years.

To which I would only add, Amen!

Improving financial regulation and supervision

About James D. Hamilton 244 Articles

James D. Hamilton is Professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego.

Visit: Econbrowser

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