Results tagged “Banking Reform”

May 24, 2013

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

On April 16, the European Parliament approved the packet of legislation known as CRD IV, which largely implements the Basel III banking reforms. This completes the political phase of the European legislative process -- formal adoption of CRD IV by the Council of Ministers is expected to occur in June. Assuming the schedule is met, CRD IV will become law effective January 1, 2014. Consultations on the form of detailed regulations ('technical standards') have now been launched.

CRD4.jpgCRD IV implements Basel III -- and does more. The term 'CRD IV' signals that this is the fourth generation of the EU's Capital Requirements Directive. The name is no longer precise: CRD IV is comprised of a Regulation (law that is uniformly applied throughout Europe) and a Directive (which requires national implementation and admits a certain degree of variation).

CRD IV increases the quantity and quality of regulatory capital a financial institution must hold. In most cases, transitioning to CRD IV requirements will place pressure on European banks to retain earnings, raise additional equity capital, dispose of assets or change their respective asset mixes. Under the existing version of the Capital Requirements Directive (which were adopted immediately prior to the onset of the 2007/2008 financial crisis), many European banks reduced their capital to extremely low levels. Reportedly some European banks had leverage ratios of over 40 to 1 -- that is, maintaining less than 2 percent of effective capital. Many of these same banks remain in crisis now -- a problem that in turn has infected the balance sheets of several EU Member States. CRD IV acknowledges the insufficiency of bank capital during the financial crisis. The new requirements are complex -- and involve a stack of charges and buffers. A minimum of 8 percent capital will now be mandated, computed with regard to a bank's risk-adjusted assets. Left undetermined for the time being is the overall leverage cap -- it is this simple metric that may prove to be the most meaningful limit on a bank's level of debt.

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May 15, 2013

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

Neil Irwin's The Alchemists delivers on its promise: the book is a central banker's view of the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis and the more recent (and related) Euro Crisis. Only the subtitle disappoints: The Alchemists isn't quite the story of the three central bankers depicted on its cover (Bernanke, Trichet and Mervyn King). Rather, The Alchemists offers a thorough treatment of Bernanke's crisis-plagued tenure at the Fed and insightful coverage of the ECB's Trichet - until Trichet morphs into Mario Draghi just in time for the worst of the Euro Crisis. Plus the odd bit of Bank of England's Mervyn King thrown in for comic relief. No doubt Irwin's project was inspired by Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, which treats four central bankers (their philosophies and their quirks) from the 1920s: the UK's Montague Norman, France's Emile Moreau, Germany's Hjalmar Schacht and the Fed's Benjamin Strong. Now these were central bankers: they dominated the monetary policies of their day.

AlchemistsCover.jpgOur contemporary central bankers lack some of the color of their predecessors (save Mervyn King, who is pretty darn colorful). Moreover, their field of action is much more circumscribed. They can be checked by other personalities within their respective institutions, by intimidating political leaders, and by uncooperative markets. These bankers do manage, at least in this account, to largely have their way in responding to the crises, through will and manipulation, and by playing on the palpable belief that no one else has any better idea of what to do.

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May 7, 2013

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

The Federal Reserve's Dan Tarullo has been a key player in post-Crisis U.S. bank reform and in the negotiation of Basel III, the set of international banking rules that guides regulation in major financial centers. In a speech made last Friday (May 3, 2013) Tarullo expressed some satisfaction with the U.S. and Basel III reforms -- and identified a risk needing further regulatory attention: runs on short-term wholesale funding.

Short-term funding has always constituted a vulnerability to the banking system. The traditional magic of banking involves the transformation of maturities -- banks borrow on a short-term basis and lend for the medium- or long-term. In ordinary times this works out splendidly -- as the short-term rates banks pay tend to be lower (over the long term) than the long-term rates they earn. And in ordinary times, short term funding is quite stable.

The dominant form of short-term funding was traditionally bank deposits. Deposits are essentially loans made to a bank by its depositors. Deposits are legally short-term, but practically rest in the hands of banks for substantial periods. Short-term funding becomes problematic, of course, when depositors systematically demand repayment: this is the old-style bank run. Post-Depression era deposit insurance has largely eliminated bank runs, at least in the United States, and so the ordinary insured bank deposit is (from the perspective of the bank) a trusty source of short-term funding.

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April 11, 2013

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

Admati Hellwig.jpgI have the odd habit, with academic writing, of first reading the notes and then returning to the central text. I like to see the foundation of a work. Would that I had read the notes to The Bankers' New Clothes first! For The Bankers' New Clothes is really two books which I had read in sequence (slave as I was to the Kindle's primitive formatting). The first book -- the primary text of 228 pages -- seemed simple-minded, sometimes shrill and often tedious. It argues for a significant increase in the amount of 'capital' (a specialized term in banking regulation) banks should maintain. The second book - the 107 pages of dense notes -- reveals a much more subtle, more flexible and more open understanding of the issues. This 'book' is more useful and persuasive. I recently heard co-author Anat Admati speak in Los Angeles. She described her surprise when first viewing the book as published, that it was so 'short' when the notes were stripped away and shuttled to the back of the book. It matters (Kindle take note) how books are presented; I would have had a better impression on my first read had these rich notes been on the page or gathered at the end of each chapter. And perhaps these authors will speak up the next time they write for the broader public.

Admati and Hellwig are on a mission. They fervently believe that banks should be required to hold more capital than present rules require. And by more, they mean much much more. From current rules that require, depending of the measure, 3 to 7 percent of a bank's assets, to something on the order of 20 to 30 percent. They demonstrate that such higher levels of capital (think of this like the ratio of equity to the fair market value of a house) would significantly increase the robustness of the entire banking system, relieving the state from facing new rounds of bailouts. Moreover, as the leverage of bank's decrease, banks will be less likely to attract the risk-seeking buccaneers that have managed our great financial institutions into the ground.

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March 21, 2013

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

Bull by the Horns is part defense of past action, part call-to-action. Sheila Bair served as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, one of the chief federal bank regulators, from 2006 through 2011 -- and thus rode the entire wave of the Financial Crisis. By her own account, she clashed with officials of both the Bush and Obama Administrations (in important cases, these were the same individuals). And throughout these times she was the most prominent woman in United States financial regulation.

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Bair becomes the FDIC in this story -- she absorbs its mission and makes it her own. The FDIC has a peculiar mission -- and it has never been the only law in banking. Bair believes in deposit insurance but not bailouts. Deposit insurance is paid to depositors in the event of bank failure; bailouts are payouts to shareholders, bondholders and management in the same circumstances. There is a distinction here -- but perhaps not as self-evident a one as Bair imagines. Both deposit insurance and bailouts (under the Too Big to Fail doctrine or otherwise) create moral hazard. Bair though sees banking policy through the FDIC lens -- depositors (up to the FDIC limits) are to be given continuous access to their funds in the event of failure; shareholders and bondholders are to be wiped out and -- at least in most cases -- bank management is to be fired. All very by the book. Which is to say, Bair wants the bank resolution system to work as it is promised to work -- which of course is not at all what happened following the Financial Crisis.

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December 18, 2012

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

Early Thursday morning (December 13) eurozone finance ministers agreed to take a first step toward establishment of a banking union. The agreement will grant supervisory powers to the European Central Bank (ECB) - at least with regard to the 200 or so largest banks headquartered in the eurozone. Large European banks located outside the eurozone (chiefly UK banks) will continue to answer to national authorities. With the accretion of these new powers and responsibilities, the ECB will come to resemble the Federal Reserve which functions as both as a monetary authority and as the chief regulator of large banks operating in the United States.

AtikBlog121812.jpgThe political accord reflects a compromise between the competing visions of France and Germany. France had desired a complete transfer of bank supervision to the ECB, effectively extinguishing national regulation. Under this approach all banks located within the eurozone would become 'European' in character. Germany resisted; Germany has been desirous of sheltering its politically powerful regional banks from European control. A reported late-night compromise between France and Germany has resulted in a mixed system - with the eurozone's 200 largest banks falling under the authority of the ECB and the remaining 5,800 or so smaller banks (including virtually all of Germany's regional banks) continuing under the oversight of national regulators.

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November 30, 2012

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

I was entranced by the prospect of reading Annelise Riles' Collateral Knowledge, given my eclectic (some would say scattershot) interests. Riles delivers a sophisticated and insightful anthropological treatment of the management of various legal questions facing Japanese banks entering OTC swap transactions. Global finance, ethnography, tasty legal theory: what fun!

Riles 2 book cover image.jpgAnd yes, Riles pulls it off. She promises an "ant's-eye view" of these stories, consistent with traditional ethnographic method. While the original intended targets of her observation were Japanese bank regulators, she later realizes the 'back-office' personnel (including the lawyers overseeing the documentation of the transactions) were as central in the process of the law-making.

Riles examines two crucial points of tension in the swap practices of Japanese banks. The first is the utilization (under Japanese law) of the institution of collateral: the posting of property to secure repayment of a debt. The book's title, Collateral Knowledge, plays on this and other meanings of "collateral." All commercial lawyers understand how collateral should work: it should freely pass the pledged assets into the hands of the favored creditor in the event of a debtor's default. And so the mission of a bank lawyer (in this case, one dealing with a Japanese bank) is to assure his principals that these functional expectations are met. This is hardly a simple matter where (in an example given by Riles) the swap is between a Japanese bank and a UK bank, posted to their respective Cayman Island subsidiaries and involving Chinese and Singaporean currencies. The swap raises peculiar difficulties, as neither party knows ex ante whether it will be a net creditor or net debtor of the other -- and so both may need to post, maintain and adjust collateral supporting the transaction. The standard industry forms, drafted by British and American lawyers and routinely used by the Japanese banks, are "literally nonsensical" to the Japanese, according to Riles.

But the forms "work" -- in that they satisfy the lawyers, the banks and their regulators. The art of a back-office lawyer is completing the forms -- the invariable boilerplate, the prompted elections (such as which country's law should govern) and any special terms. Standardization is at work here -- but so too is the exercise of a lawyer's "aesthetic" sensibilities, knowing when the paper looks right. In fact legal certainty may not be a dominant consideration -- at least not in ordinary times. But Riles' fieldwork followed an earlier Japanese financial crisis that set off external anxieties about aspects of Japanese law.

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November 13, 2012

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

So what would a Democrat central banker look like -- if there could be one? Resembling Paul Volcker, answers William Silber. That said, it is hard to recognize much in Volcker's policies marking him as a Democrat. Nixon did not trust him -- but that alone scarcely defines a Democrat. Volcker famously endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 election -- but then so did Republican Colin Powell.

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Silber adores Volcker -- which weakens Silber's ability to answer (or even ask) tough questions. It is clear that Silber believes Volcker saved the dollar -- and that he is a swell guy to boot. Pity poor Mrs. Volcker who spends an isolated life in a series of ratty apartments while her husband chases glory (in public service, mind you) rather than wealth. Neither Volcker nor Silber seem to realize what a lousy husband he was -- and Mrs. V. was too tactful to point this out.

The Silber account establishes Volcker's self-sacrifice -- and I suppose there's some foundation for it. Volcker spends many years as an underpaid public servant while having far more lucrative opportunities in the private sector. Yet one gets the sense that Volcker is simply more comfortable in the world of the Fed than he would ever have been in a bank. Generals are willingly generals -- there is something (glory? military music?) that draws them to their role. Their renunciation of wealth and a stable home-life only prove their ambition. While we should be grateful for their service, it is not clear that the generals are sacrificing anything. And so perhaps it is with Volcker.

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October 31, 2012

Atik_new_SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

What a fun book this is! The Hour Between Dog and Wolf by John Coates mixes pop finance with pop science, sketching some surprising links between them. I will trust Coates to get the science right (he provides citations). His investigation of financial markets is largely anecdotal and so speculative, but all the same it yields tantalizing suggestions.

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Coates is a former derivatives trader -- which gives him authority to describe the subjective experiences of winning and losing at a trading desk. He (somehow) becomes hooked on neuroscience research; he describes himself sneaking away from his Wall Street desk to mix with scientists at Rockefeller University. The book seeks to bring these two worlds together. Coates immerses himself in the activation of hormones: testosterone, cortisol and the like. It is these chemical agents that produce the profound effects on the humors of financial traders, and hence overall market behavior.

Coates attacks the mind/body dichotomy: a financial market trader reacts more like an athlete than an analyst in responding to the stimula communication through his screen. Coates employs emerging understandings of mind/body feedbacks to track the play of traders. The traders can react before they 'see', rely on 'gut feelings' and engage in mano-a-mano combats from which they emerge winners or losers. These are quintessentially physical experiences. The markets themselves may then be understood as projections of this human biology.

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August 27, 2012

Atik SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

As its subtitle suggests, Philip Coggan's book examines the relationship between debt and money and its implications for the 21st century economy. Coggan takes us through familiar territory (the nature of money) and familiar debates (Keynesianism vs. monetaristm), yet offers a novel framing that make this book a valuable read.

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Coggan has an unusual view of the fundamental divide in political economy. Rather than seeing class struggle everywhere, Coggan treats the conflict between creditors and debtors as the central fracture motivating politics, though he notes that -- all things being equal -- creditors tend to be wealthier (and fewer in number) than debtors.

In speaking of debt, Coggan slides (perhaps too easily) between private and public debt. The debt that interests Coggan is the burgeoning debt that tends toward default (as opposed to the under-remarked debt that is extinguished by repayment in the ordinary course). This is the persisting debt that in usual times is rolled over upon each maturation. He writes of unsustainable debt -- again, both private and public -- that will of necessity lead to some degree of default. In the case of public debt, the default scenarios include -- importantly -- devaluation, a course open to most states to reset the exchange value of the money in which a debt is expressed and thus unilaterally reduce the value of the debt (as expressed in some other value, such as gold or a harder currency).

For most states, there is a limit to this strategy. Devaluation has consequences. It may throttle domestic expectations, igniting inflation. And devaluation -- in a global society -- has consequences, distributing at least some of the lost value to other countries (by readjusting the terms of trade) as well as to the disappointed creditors. Devaluation will also make future borrowing more difficult.

But -- of late -- there appeared the possibility for at least one country to escape the devaluation trap. The United States has enjoyed an extraordinary privilege, in that its currency seemed to be highly valued notwithstanding its horrific trade deficits. This reflects its historical (though waning) primacy in world economic affairs. What matters now is the role of this particular national money as place for storage of value: China (as do Japan and others) continues to re-funnel its vast export earnings into dollar-denominated obligations of the U.S. Treasury, thus keeping prevailing U.S. interest rates low. Exchange values may reveal more about capital flows than trade balances, Coggan argues.

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August 13, 2012

Atik SJ.jpg By Professor Jeffery Atik

The EU's Council has prepared its draft legislative package implementing the Basel III banking reforms -- known as CRD IV. Attention now shifts to the European Parliament for its response, expected this autumn. A complex process of reconciliation will follow. On one point the Parliament has drawn a line in the sand: the eventual CRD IV must contain significant limits on contingent compensation paid to bankers. The Parliament's starting point is a one-to-one ratio cap: bankers' bonuses cannot exceed annual salaries.

Basel III did not impose any limits on bankers' compensation -- although several European members of the Group of 20 had sought bonus restraints during the negotiation. Nor does Basel III restrict the ability of Europe -- or any other Basel party -- from imposing additional requirements on its banks. Europe's imposition of bonus limits in CRD IV may be described as "Basel III Plus" -- an additional term beyond the basic Basel III mandates.

There is a broad perception that the bonus culture of New York and London contributed to the 2007 financial crisis. Bankers seduced by the prospect of large contingent payments caused their firms to undertake inappropriate levels of financial risk. New limits on bonuses, in this telling, are needed to eliminate the distortion in risk appetite generated by prevalent compensation practices. But bonuses have their defenders -- and not just the bankers who receive them. There remain policymakers (albeit more likely those overseeing markets in New York and London) who continue to believe that bonuses are necessary to attract the creative talent that will drive economic growth.

There are several important divides in the European debate over bankers' bonuses. The first is between the United Kingdom and the continentals (particularly France and Germany). The UK may be particularly solicitous of preserving large bankers' bonuses from fear of driving financial activity to other, less-regulated markets. But there is certainly a cultural element in play as well. The French and Germans frequently criticize "Anglo-Saxon" business culture as leading to social irresponsibility. And who -- think the continentals -- really deserves such large checks at the end of the year?

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August 6, 2012

Atik SJ.jpg By Professor Jeffery Atik

On prior occasions, European implementation of the Basel bank regulatory system had proceeded rather mechanically. The Europeans actively participated in the Basel II process, reached agreement with the world's other major banking powers, and then faithfully enacted Basel norms into EU law. This has not been the case with the latest product of Basel: Basel III. While Europe once again exerted its influence during the negotiation, it has been decidedly less determined to give full effect to its Basel III undertakings in EU legislation. And the reason -- it should be no surprise -- is politics.

The linkage between Basel III and the European implementation (known as CRD IV) involves three levels of politics: global, European and national. The uncharacteristic European reluctance to carry out the Basel III mandates to the letter results from the varying distributions of influence at each level of the lawmaking game. A case in point: so-called 'bancassurance' -- financial conglomerates that are part bank, part insurance company. France's Societe Generale and Credit Agricole are two large examples of 'bancassurance'.

The treatment of bancassurance was a sticking point in the Basel III negotiations. The United States and others (including the United Kingdom, an EU member state) identified the problem of 'double counting' equity capital in bancassurance. Basel III requires banks to maintain adequate amounts of high-quality (Tier 1) equity capital. This capital acts as a loss-absorbing buffer, protecting depositors and other bank creditors. In a similar spirit, insurance regulators demand that insurers maintain adequate equity to protect policyholders in the event insurers experience losses.

The banking business and the insurance business share many common characteristics: both take in capital (from depositors and policyholders, respectively), both invest capital, and both pay out capital (upon maturity or insured event, respectively). But the businesses also are quite distinctive. Banks lose money through improvident lending; insurance companies lose money through poor underwriting or unexpected casualties. Banks typically invest over a shorter time horizon than insurance companies. While in theory these distinctions might make banks and insurance companies good financial complements (or not), the historic outcome in many jurisdictions (including the United States) has been the separation of banking and insurance. In other jurisdictions (France, for example), mixed companies -- the bancassurance -- have thrived.

Although Basel III did not ban the bancassurance business model, it did make it more difficult to carry off. In order to avoid 'double-counting', Basel III requires banks to deduct from what otherwise would have been qualifying Tier 1 capital the capital serving as 'reserves' for purpose of meeting the mandates of insurance regulation. And there is a certain amount of appeal to this approach: capital protecting bank depositors cannot simultaneously protect insurance policy holders.

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July 30, 2012

Atik SJ.jpg By Professor Jeffery Atik

The implementation of the Basel III banking reforms in Europe has spanned two financial crises. And the European legislation is haunted by two specters: a possible collapse of the Euro; and -- in the alternative -- a blind leap into a European banking union.

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The first crisis of course was the 2007 global financial meltdown that led to significant bank failures and costly bank bailouts. The Basel III reforms were designed to prevent a re-occurrence of this kind of banking crisis through various new mandates and disciplines. The Basel III response was negotiated within the Group of 20, where Europe had a substantial presence and an important influence. Based on the past record of enthusiastic adoption of Basel norms by Europe, one might have expected the passage of Europe's CRD IV legislative package to be largely a technical exercise. It has not proven to be one.

This is due in part to the timing. The complex European legislative process -- extending well over a year -- coincided with the outbreak of the second severe crisis, one more specifically centered on Europe. This second -- and ongoing -- crisis is the sovereign debt crisis (or the Euro crisis). Initially involving Greece, the sovereign debt crisis has spread to Italy and Spain, sharply raising borrowing costs of these seriously indebted countries and miring their respective populations into social misery.

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July 16, 2012

Atik SJ.jpgBy Professor Jeffery Atik

European banking reform continues to develop alongside of - and perhaps in spite of - the ongoing Euro crisis. A significant EU reform package - involving a new directive (Capital Requirements Directive IV, or CRD IV) and a new regulation (Capital Requirements Regulation, or CRR) - is making its way through the EU legislative institutions. These reforms are driven in large part by Europe's undertakings within the global Basel system: Europe has committed to implement much of the most recent Basel package of reforms (known as Basel III) by January 2013.

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One of the chief requirements of the Basel III reforms is to increase both the quantity and quality of the 'regulatory capital' banks must hold. This capital is intended to operate as a financial shock absorber in the event of large losses - assuring a bank's continued solvency and sparing shareholders (and - in a worse case - taxpayers) pain. Basel III is a system of minimum standards - countries are expected to comply with Basel III's requirements but are free to impose higher standards. And several countries (Switzerland, for example) have determined to require their banks to maintain even more regulatory capital than what Basel III demands.

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