Tag Archives: capital requirements

Restoring The Legitimacy Of The Federal Reserve

By Simon Johnson

The Federal Reserve has a legitimacy problem. Fortunately, a potential policy shift is available that offers both the right thing for the Fed to do and a way to please sensible people on both sides of the political spectrum: raise capital requirements for megabanks.

As the election season progresses, Republican politicians are increasingly criticizing the monetary policy of Ben Bernanke and his colleagues on the grounds that they are exceeding their authority, particularly by buying assets and trying to lower interest rates in what is known as “quantitative easing.”

There is growing concern in Republican circles that the Fed is tipping the election toward President Obama, and Mitt Romney repeated unambiguously in August that he would not reappoint Mr. Bernanke (a Republican originally appointed by President George W. Bush).

At the same time, a significant number of people on the left of American politics are concerned about how the Fed acted in the period leading up to the crisis of 2008 – blaming it for a significant failure of regulation and supervision – and about how much support it currently provides to big banks. Continue reading

Two Cakes

By James Kwak

Eric Dash of DealBook reports on the latest stress tests conducted by the Federal Reserve, which apparently went swimmingly, at least for some of the healthier banks. I have no independent basis on which to assess the accuracy of those test results, so I won’t.

What I did notice is that JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo are using the green light from the Fed to start buying back stock: $15 billion for JPMorgan, 200 million shares (about $6 billion) for Wells. Does something seem wrong with this picture to you? Me, too.

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Required Intellectual Capital

By Simon Johnson

At one level, the pursuit of higher and more robust capital requirements for banks is not going well.  The US Treasury insisted, throughout the year-long financial reform debate, that capital should be the focus – increasing the loss-absorbing buffers that banks must carry – and that they (and other regulators) needed to negotiate this is through the Basel Committee process.

But Basel has some under great pressure from the banking lobby, which argues that any increase in capital requirements would limit lending and slow global growth (see this useful background by Doug Elliott).  The Institute of International Finance (IIF) – a lobby group for big banks – issued an influential “report” along these lines and the European stress test results strongly suggest that Euroland politicians do not want to press more capital into their financial system – “just enough” would be fine with them.

However, at another level – in terms of the analytical consensus around these issues – there is a great deal of progress in the right direction.  In particular, an important new paper by Samuel Hanson, Anil Kashyap, and Jeremy Stein, “A Macroprudential Approach to Financial Regulation” pulls together the best recent thinking and makes three essential points.  (This is a nontechnical paper written for the Journal of Economic Perspectives – it’s a “must read” for anyone interested in financial sector issues but requires some effort and a little jargon does creep in.) Continue reading

The Mystery of Capital

By James Kwak

So the dust has settled on the Senate bill, and it remains studiously vague about capital requirements — no hard leverage cap, for example. This is what the administration wanted, for two reasons: first, they claim that regulators need ongoing flexibility to modify capital requirements; second, they claim that they need flexibility to negotiate a uniform international agreement.

There is one thing in there that is controversial enough to get the attention of the bank lobbyists: the Collins Amendment, which Mike Konczal has written about here. The main provision of the amendment is that whatever capital requirements apply to insured depositary institutions (banks), they also have to apply to systemically important financial institutions, including at the holding company level.

Sheila Bair of the FDIC is in favor of the amendment, on the argument that bank holding companies should not be able to evade capital requirements that are imposed on their subsidiary insured banks; she doesn’t want to regulate the depositary institutions but have all her work rendered irrelevant because the holding company collapses, triggering a mess of cross-guarantees.

This seems entirely unobjectionable, but as Konczal points out, the real threat to the banks is that it makes it harder for them to engage in financial engineering on the holding company level to evade capital requirements. According to the Wall Street Journal, not only the banks, but also the administration itself is planning to try to kill this amendment (at this point, in conference committee).

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Capital Requirements Are Not Enough

By Simon Johnson and James Kwak, authors of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown (Pantheon, 2010).

The number of important people expressing serious concern about financial institutions that are too big or too complex to fail continues to increase. Since last fall, many leading central bankers including Mervyn King, Paul Volcker, Richard Fisher, and Thomas Hoenig have come out in favor of either breaking up large banks or constraining their activities in ways that reduce taxpayers’ exposure to potential failures. Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Kaufman have also called for cutting large banks down to a size where they no longer pose a systemic threat to the financial system and the economy.

To its credit, the Obama administration recognizes the problem; according to Treasury Department officials, addressing “too big to fail” is one of the central pillars of financial reform, along with derivatives and consumer protection. However, the administration is placing its faith in technical regulatory fixes. And, as Andrew Ross Sorkin emphasizes in his recent Dealbook column, they see increased capital requirements as the principal weapon in their arsenal: “[Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner insists that if there is one change that needs to be made to the banking system to protect it against another high-stakes bank run like the one that claimed the life of Lehman Brothers, increasing capital requirements is it.”

(Brief primer: Capital is money contributed by a bank’s owners–conceptually, their initial capital contributions plus reinvested profits–that does not have to be paid back. Therefore, it acts as a buffer to protect a financial institution from defaulting on its obligations as the value of its assets falls. The more capital, the less likely a bank is to fail. The more capital, however, the lower the institution’s leverage, and hence the lower its profits per dollar of capital invested–which is why banks always want lower capital requirements.)

Don’t get us wrong: we think that increased capital requirements are an important and valuable step toward ensuring a safer financial system. We just don’t think they are enough. Nor are they the central issue. Continue reading

Volcker, Warren, and Kaufman: There Must Be New Law

 By Simon Johnson, (13 Bankers, out tomorrow)

Some people at the top of the administration begin to understand that it makes both economic and political sense to impose binding constraints on our largest banks.  But even the clearest thinking among them still has a problem – breaking up banks seems too much at odds with the way they saved these same banks in 2009.  At best, this would be most awkward for the individuals involved on all sides.

“We’ll achieve the same general goal by imposing capital requirements that increase with the size of the bank” (not an exact quote) is the administration’s latest whispered idea, and in principle this has some appeal.  If done properly, this could level the playing field – and therefore should be supported politically by small banks.  By increasing the buffer against future losses, it would put in place greater protection for taxpayers against too big to fail (TBTF) institutions.  And it would push TBTF firms to break up if they really have nothing better than cheap funding – based on implicit government subsidies – to support their continued existence.

But this “let’s do it with capital requirements” proposal is deeply flawed and completely unacceptable.  From different perspectives, Paul Volcker, Elizabeth Warren, and Ted Kaufman all agree, we cannot rely on our existing regulations (and regulators).  We need new law. Continue reading

The Importance of Capital Requirements

Arnold Kling of EconLog has done the hard work of setting out his theory of the financial crisis and what we should learn from it in a fifty-page but highly readable paper available here. I have some quibbles but think it is  worth a read.

Here are the causes of the crisis in one table:

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