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Fighting Bank Recidivism

Sunday, September 20, 2009 at 07:58 AM EDT

From Martin Wolf’s analysis in Financial Times.

It would take little for banks to have hands free again. What emerges from the crisis is a system even worse than the one who had caused it. The bank rescue lets the banks free hand to remake the same mistakes. It is urgent to raise prudential ratios.

Henri Cartier-Bresson · Shanghai (Run on Bank)

The panic of autumn 2008 now tends to fade. However, the period during which it is possible to draw lessons and make changes is nearing completion. Without radical changes, another crisis is inevitable. It could even happen much sooner than we think.

Never again? This is probably asking too much. But avoid “it” happening again quickly is crucial. Financially, politically and morally, governments cannot afford repeating this crisis in the short term: the lives of so many people can again be sacrificed to the whims of a few irresponsible.

So far, what emerges from the present crisis is a financial system even worse than that which had provoked. The survivors form an oligopoly of financial monsters too big and too interconnected to fail. And they won. Not because they are necessarily the most healthy institutions, but because they are the ones who received the largest support. One can easily imagine how they will behave when you consider all the devices that encourage risk taking.

What should we do? The most common response recommends tinkering some regulatory safeguards. You’d better worry about aligning the deck chairs on the Titanic: perfectly futile.

The proposals recently put forward by the US Treasury would fall partly into this category. Now the financial system must be protected from its own clumsiness at managing risk. In addition, it will not change it by external control, but only by redefining the system of incentives and bonuses.

The starting point must be the famous “too big to sink”. We need a credible system capable of dismantling huge financial institutions if necessary. The proposals are more attractive to look at the “good banks” in which creditors, in want of warranty, become shareholders. It would be easier if, as proposed by President Barack Obama and as demonstrated Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, a regulated institution was obliged to submit a plan for orderly stop its activities.

However, bank failures are like buses: you do not see one for hours and suddenly there came a half-dozen at once. The authorities cannot credibly promise that they would be willing, at a systemic crisis, to accept the failure of all affected establishments. This would lead to a particularly serious panic. The “too big and too interconnected to sink” is indeed a reality. And it is because, as recently remarked Andrew Haldane, from Bank of England – his speech “Rethinking the Financial Network” is available on – the financial system is a network increasingly tight.

If institutions are too big and too interconnected to sink, and no satisfactory structural solution can be found, then we must identify alternatives.

The most obvious would be to raise considerably the amount of capital required and to pay greater attention to liquidity. Today, major financial institutions operate virtually with no capital: in the United States, the average debt ratio of commercial banks was 35 to 1 in 2007; in Europe, it was 45 to 1. This allows shareholders to play all out with results that we previously witnessed.

Let financial institutions being managed by the interests of shareholders who provide only 3% of funds intended to be loaned, is pure folly. To align the interests of managers with those of shareholders is even more insane. Given their current capital structure, major financial institutions have a real incentive to play with taxpayers’ money.

How much equity would be reasonable for systemically significant institutions? The answer is: “Much more than today.”

Moreover, the risk that capital needed could be exposed should not be evaluated based on banks models, which are unreliable. Shareholders’ funds should be at least 10% of assets. In the U.S., there was a time when it was much more.

More important capital equities might be a good way to internalize negative externalities – and more precisely the risks – generated by an institution in respect of the rest of the system. Ideally, therefore, the capital requirement might be correlated to the weight of systemic schools, as recommended in the latest annual report of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). Moreover, these requirements should be calculated based on all the activities derived from fully consolidated accounts.

As part of a financial system much better capitalized, it is also relatively easy to implement a system of macro-prudence, while the required capitals increase during booms and decrease during decline periods.

Again, the higher the proportion of shareholders would be important the less would be worrying to see the bonuses of managers aligned with theirs. Even then, as it is the taxpayers who bear the residual risk, regulators should exercise control over the premiums paid to managers.

Two problems remain. First, transition. Secondly, level of regulation.

Regarding the first point, requiring now more significant capital ratios would jeopardize the recovery of the economy. It is better to imagine a long transition period, stretching perhaps over a decade.

For the second point, it is obvious that we cannot let the so-called “shadow banking system” operating outside any capital constraint if some entities are systemically significant –as we got evidence with funds acting on the money markets.

In addition, capital equity requirements might be imposed in all significant countries. The United States is powerful enough to urge a movement in this direction –by requiring any foreign bank operating in their territory to be properly capitalized.

The conservative method of small steps, not radicalism, is today the most risky option. What must first apply this radicalism? The answer is obvious: the system of premiums and bonuses, of course.