A simple model of banking regulation and, like, counter-regulation goes something like this:
- Regulators are conservative and dumb, and want to safeguard banks from bad risks even at the cost of preventing good risks,
- Bankers are aggressive and smart, and want to take lots of good risks even at the cost of taking some bad risks, and
- Sometimes bankers can find people to put up with their shit and sometimes they can’t.
“Put up with their shit” is meant in the broadest sense – Can banks defeat Dodd-Frank? Brown-Vitter? Is Lloyd Blankfein a hero or a villain? Jamie Dimon? Etc. – but one particularly interesting question is, if you’re trying to do trades that evade or bend or optimize or whatever regulation, will someone do those trades with you? You could write a history of recent finance with the answer to that question: in 2007 you could chuck all of your mortgage risk off-balance sheet via securitizations, in 2008 you … could not, and in 2013 if you’re looking for someone to provide regulatory capital relief all you have to do is call a Regulatory Capital Relief Fund. Six years peak-to-peak, same as the S&P.
You could probably use words like “bubble” in characterizing that cycle but I prefer the approach taken in this new NBER paper by Guillermo Ordoñez of Penn (free version here), both because it mathematically formalizes that basic model of regulation and counter-regulation in an interesting way, and because it is congenially cynical. As he puts it, “banks can always find ways around regulation when self-regulation becomes feasible, and it is indeed efficient for them to do so.” Bankers, of course, always think that it would be efficient for them to find ways around regulation. They only do so when they can find someone to trade with them. Read more »
One reason that a lot of people are enamored with the Brown-Vitter approach to bank regulation is that it’s very simple, and everyone deep down sort of thinks that the simple answer has to be better than the complicated one. “You don’t need risk-based capital or stress tests or liquidity coverage ratios or VaR models or multiple tiers of capital or bail-in debt,” Brown and Vitter promise. “You just need to make sure that big banks don’t have assets of more than ~6x their common equity.”
Some people disagree1 and by all means feel free to question those people’s motives. Certainly some people benefit from complexity, bankers above all but also banking regulators, former regulators, and I suppose me too. Simple banking seems really boring, though maybe Brown-Vitter simple banking wouldn’t be.
Anyway that seems like the background to this interesting speech by Fed governor Daniel Tarullo about financial stability, which you could if you like read as sort of the Fed’s initial response to Brown-Vitter. And it’s not not that; the speech engages with Brown-Vitter on the capital stuff, basically defending the status quo of risk-based regulatory capital while conceding a little to Brown-Vitter’s call for higher capital.2
But he seems at least as focused on another source of systemic risk: not banks but wholesale funding markets, not capital but liquidity. You could see why the Fed might be focused there. Read more »
If you like or hate financial regulation you might take a quick look at today’s front-page New York Times article about how the art market is unregulated. Apparently this leads to terrible things like “chandelier bidding,” where auctioneers get the ball rolling by calling out a few fake bids, as well as conflicts of interest involved in third-party guarantees where someone writes the auction house a put on an artwork, is paid a variable commission for that put, and in some cases is allowed to credit that commission against his own bid for the artwork.1 One question you might ask is “why is that bad?”; the answer seems to be that some rich people who go to art auctions pay more for art than they would in the absence of these systems, and then feel vaguely uneasy about it. I think the whole thing disappears in the face of one more iteration of “well, why is that bad?,” but perhaps I am wrong.
There are places where you should think “customers should be protected from various sorts of sharp practices by dealers,” and there are places where you should not think that. I guess? Are there only the former?2 I come from a place that believes deeply in the separation between “sharp practices” and “illegal fraud” and works to keep them distinct. One thing the Times article mentions is that there is a law saying that stores have to display the price of their wares, and art dealers ignore that law, and this is bad for some reason. Try that law on derivatives dealers. One of the main driving forces behind financial innovation is finding novel places to hide fees.
The rest of the art-auctioneer tricks also seem pretty familiar. Imagine an M&A banker who couldn’t bluff, to the one serious bidder for an asset, that he had other bidders waiting in the wings. And of course the financial industry is very familiar with the creative use of options and guarantees to allocate value in ways beyond a headline purchase price. One flavor of that is “schmuck insurance.”3 Read more »
There’s a huge article by Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger in the Atlantic today about how banks are so horribly complicated that even sophisticated investors, meaning basically Bill Ackman, don’t trust them any more. I suppose this provides an excuse for me to trot out a toy theory that’s been congealing in my head, which is roughly that you can have two of the following in a publicly traded financial company, but not three:
- “market making,”
Like: you could, or someone could, make some educated guesses about what goes on at a bank that takes deposits and makes mortgage and commercial loans, and decide whether or not it’s a good business that you should invest in. You could even make such guesses and decisions about what goes on at an old-school broker-dealer that trades securities for a living. (Maybe? I’m less confident of this leg.) But for universal banks I’m kind of with Ackman – and Partnoy and Eisinger – that you have to give up on making intelligent decisions, or failing that have your intelligent decision be “I’m gonna need a 50% discount to book value before I invest in this thing.”
You can attribute the opacity of modern banking to like “bankers are eeeeeeevil,” which I don’t particularly believe, or “regulators are weeeeeeeak,” which seems sort of lame. Me I tentatively like “banking + market-making = insoluble complexity.”
The heart of the Atlantic article is an attempted deep dive into Wells Fargo’s financials, which ends up splattering against the rocks that guard those financials. Here is where things start to get alarming, for some value of alarming: Read more »
It’s probably good news that “European Union finance ministers reached a landmark deal early Thursday that would bring many of the continent’s banks under a single supervisor,” but of course it wouldn’t be Europe without some self-evidently bad ideas for financial regulation, so today we also get this:
Bankers’ bonuses in Europe would be capped at two times fixed salary under a tentative EU agreement that would mark the most severe crackdown on pay since the 2008 financial crisis.
The European parliament and negotiators for member states drafted a deal in Strasbourg on Thursday that imposes a 1:1 bonus to salary ratio, which can be increased to 2:1 with the backing of a supermajority of shareholders.
Still being negotiated, can change, etc. One could perhaps imagine that once there’s a single eurozone banking supervisor, the warm glow of supervision will shield eurozone banks from this sort of chaotic meddling from the European parliament. Or not, who knows.1
This is mostly bad for the usual reasons: keying bonuses to base salary, without capping base salary, increases fixed costs and thus risk, while reducing bankers’ incentives to actually do a good job at whatever they’re supposed to be doing. A first-best comp scheme would probably involve huge bonuses to reward bankers for doing the things you want them to do; smaller bonuses is perhaps a better scheme than huge bonuses to reward bankers for doing the thing you don’t want them to do, but it’s not a particularly impressive approach. Read more »
Like a lot of people I got an email yesterday telling me to close my Intrade account. This will not be a problem for me because:
Now I know it looks like I was terrible at predicting the election, but the real explanation is of course that I was astutely predicting the end of Intrade and managing my account to a level appropriate for that outcome. Though I assume there’ll be a $20 bank transfer fee to get those twenty cents out.
This CFTC suit is weird, huh? It’s effectively shut down Intrade for allowing US citizens to make illegal options trades, but its theory is a bit murky. One obvious thing about Intrade is that it is a little illegal to bet on U.S. elections and Oscar winners and all the other things you can bet on on Intrade, because it is a little illegal to bet on anything. This is America; you’re just not supposed to bet on things.
Except the things that the CFTC is willing to let you bet on.1 That’s a weird grab bag; you can bet on gold and orange juice and pork bellies and interest rates but not … well, not onions, but more relevantly, not elections. The CFTC is not a fan of election betting; earlier this year they rejected a request to allow trading of political event contracts on a derivatives exchange. And of course Intrade is for betting on elections, so of course the CFTC wants to shut them down.
Except that the CFTC isn’t suing Intrade for letting you bet on elections; it’s suing Intrade for letting you bet on the things that the CFTC lets you bet on. Go read the CFTC complaint; it doesn’t mention elections. The CFTC’s problems are with “binary options betting on the future prices of gold and crude oil, and changes in the U.S. unemployment rate and U.S. gross domestic product figures.” Which are just fine for betting on. Just not, it seems, on Intrade. Read more »
So let’s say you’re a bank and, redundantly, you are in trouble with the SEC. And you want to hire a new lawyer to get you out of that trouble, because your old lawyers got you into it. You decide, sensibly, to hire a lawyer directly from the SEC, both because those lawyers have valuable experience and contacts and because they lawyers are paid so much less than your other lawyers that they’re a bargain. Who would you rather hire:
(1) An SEC lawyer who has always been nice to you, settled cases easily, not pushed too hard on investigations, and waived collateral consequences of your repeated securities fraud, or
(2) A lawyer who has always been a huge dick to you, litigated everything to the death, made your life difficult, and taken unreasonable positions?
If you chose option (1), you probably don’t work at a bank.
This study of the SEC revolving door is actually pretty neat, though suspect for reasons Yves Smith points out.* The most important conclusion is that the prospect of leaving the SEC to go represent companies doesn’t make SEC lawyers nicer to the companies: in fact, SEC lawyers who later leave to represent clients before the SEC seem to litigate more aggressively than those who don’t. But that’s actually pretty obvious, isn’t it?
For one thing, aggressiveness correlates with ability and intelligence and hard work and the general facepunching ethos required to succeed in private industry. The SEC lawyer who goes home at five o’clock after a relaxing day of ignoring financial fraud probably won’t fit in at a bank with a fast-paced culture of committing financial fraud. Read more »
The Fed last night unleashed eight zillion pages of Basel III implementation on the universe and I’m tempted to be like “open thread, tell us about your hopes and fears for capital regulation.” So do that! Or don’t because it is super boring, that is also a valid approach. Still I guess we should discuss.
Starting slow though. Banks have to have capital, meaning that they have to fund some of their assets with things that are long-lived and loss-absorbing, like common equity, rather than with things that have to be paid back soon and at face value. The reason for this is that the rest of banks’ assets are funded with things that we really do want to be paid back soon and at face value, like deposits, and if the value of those assets declines you don’t want those deposits to be wiped out.
The rules say that you need capital equal to a percentage of your assets. The game is deciding (1) what that percentage is, (2) what is capital (proceeds from selling common stock, and actual earnings, yes, but, like, deferred tax assets?), and (3) how you count assets (you might want more capital to shield you from losses in, say, social media stocks than you would to shield you from losses in Treasury bonds, so regulators use “risk-weighted assets,” so that $1 of corporate bonds counts as $1 of assets, $1 of Treasuries counts as $0 of assets, and $1 of Facebook stock counts as $3 of assets*).
Anyway, here are the required capital levels: Read more »
So, um, news today, not great, huh? So no surprise that stocks are down. It’s okay though, since the SEC has cooked up a cure:
The Securities and Exchange Commission has approved two proposals submitted by the national securities exchanges and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) that are designed to address extraordinary volatility in individual securities and the broader U.S. stock market.
No, kidding, not a cure for bad jobs reports, but this is a weird phrasing isn’t it? The approved proposals are just better-thought-out circuit-breakers for single stocks and the broader market. Since getting pummeled for being an idiot about market structure, I am attempting to be less of an idiot about market structure (until now!), and one thing that seems to be settled wisdom is that trading halts have a function in reducing volatility associated with order imbalance caused by ignorance, panic, or fat-fingering, but don’t do much to cure volatility associated with, y’know, economic volatility. Not that the SEC is claiming that they do, exactly, but “easing volatility” doesn’t seem like exactly the result here.
The SEC approved two rules today. Read more »
Market microstructure is a thing that I don’t really understand and that seems daunting to me so I’ll pass this along as tentatively as possible, but: I thought this piece was really good.* Again, not my area, so if you disagree just get furious at me in the comments, but I thought it might be fun to talk about it as a parable of financial regulation.
The background here is that there is a thing called high-frequency trading in which (i) people, and by “people” I mean “computers,” (ii) trade, and by “trade” I really mean more like “post bids and offers” – they trade, too, but the activity that they’re optimizing is posting bids and offers, (iii) frequently, and by “frequently” I mean “in tiny fractions of a second.” There are various worries about this thing, of which the two biggest are:
(1) computers are scary and
(2) the amount of resources devoted to this activity is staggering and probably out of proportion to its social benefit.
Worry (1) is hard to address** but maybe you’ll be a bit soothed to learn that humans can be scary too? No, I mean, fat fingering is a problem and seems to be a bigger problem with virtual fingers but let’s just bracket that and talk about worry (2). Read more »