Treasury Round II: The Capital Markets Report

Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury published the second of four planned reports designed to implement the core principles for regulating the U.S. financial system announced in President Trump’s February 2017 Executive Order. This report focuses on capital markets. We wrote about the first report—regarding depository institutions—in June (see here). Future reports are slated to address “the asset management and insurance industries, and retail and institutional investment products and vehicles” and “nonbank financial institutions, financial technology, and financial innovation.”

A central motivation for all this work is to review the extensive regulatory reforms enacted in the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis. President Trump’s stated principles provide an attractive basis for evaluating the effectiveness of Dodd-Frank in making the financial system both more cost-effective and safer. Where have the reforms gone too far? Where have they not gone far enough?

Much of the capital markets report focuses on ways to reduce the regulatory burden, and many of the proposals—which address issues ranging from initial public offerings (IPOs) to securitizations to financial market utilities (FMUs)—could improve market function. However, while they would involve a large number of changes—most of which can be implemented without new legislation (see table)—none of the 100-plus recommendations seem terribly dramatic, nor are they likely to have much impact on the goal of promoting economic growth.

Our overall reaction is that Treasury’s predispositions—which were more clearly evident in the earlier report—encourage doubts. To us, the numerous proposals look lopsided in favor of providing “regulatory relief” even where systemic concerns may persist....

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In Defense of Regulatory Diversity

Guest post by Lawrence J. White, Robert Kavesh Professor in Economics, NYU Stern School of Business

The U.S. regulatory landscape--especially with regard to financial regulation—is maddeningly complex.  It is easy to make a case for a drastic simplification, and the authors of this blog have done so here. But there is value in diversity—including regulatory diversity. Consequently, with regard to the regulatory framework, as is true of most other areas of political economy, we need to consider the costs as well as the benefits of any proposed changes.

Let’s start with the undeniable complexity of U.S. financial regulation: Consider the following array of agencies and jurisdictions (an alphabet-soup glossary appears at the end)...

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Resolution Regimes for Central Clearing Parties

Clean water and electric power are essential for modern life. In the same way, the financial infrastructure is the foundation for our economic system. Most of us take all three of these, water, electricity and finance, for granted, assuming they will operate through thick and thin.

As engineers know well, a system’s resilience depends critically on the design of its infrastructure. Recently, we discussed the chaos created by the October 1987 stock market crash, noting the problems associated with the mechanisms for trading and clearing of derivatives. Here, we take off where that discussion left off and elaborate on the challenge of designing a safe derivatives trading system―safe, that is, in the sense that it does not contribute to systemic risk.

Today’s infrastructure is significantly different from that of 1987. In the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis, authorities in the advanced economies committed to overhaul over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives markets. The goal is to replace bilateral OTC trading with a central clearing party (CCP) that is the buyer to every seller and the seller to every buyer....

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Black Monday: 30 Years After

On Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 22.6 percent, nearly twice the next largest drop—the 12.8 percent Great Crash on October 28, 1929, that heralded the Great Depression.

What stands out is not the scale of the decline—it is far smaller than the 90 percent peak-to-trough drop of the early 1930s—but its extraordinary speed. A range of financial market and institutional dislocations accompanied this rapid plunge, threatening not just stocks and related instruments (domestically and globally), but also the U.S. supply of credit and the payments system. As a result, Black Monday has been labeled “the first contemporary global financial crisis.” And, a new book—A First-Class Catastrophe—narrates the tense human drama that it created for market and government officials. A movie seems sure to follow.

Our reading of history suggests that it was only with a great dose of serendipity that we escaped catastrophe in 1987. Knowing that fortune usually favors the well prepared, the near-collapse on Black Monday prompted market participants, regulators, the lender of last resort, and legislators to fortify the financial system.

In this post, we review key aspects of the 1987 crash and discuss subsequent steps taken to improve the resilience of the financial system. We also highlight a key lingering vulnerability: we still have no mechanism for managing the insolvency of critical payment, clearing and settlement (PCS) institutions....

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Moral Hazard: A Primer

The term moral hazard originated in the insurance business. It was a reference to the need for insurers to assess the integrity of their customers. When modern economists got ahold of the term, the meaning changed. Instead of making judgments about a person’s character, the focus shifted to incentives. For example, a fire insurance policy might limit the motivation to install sprinklers while a generous automobile insurance policy might encourage reckless driving. Then there is Kenneth Arrow’s original example of moral hazard: health insurance fosters overtreatment by doctors. Employment arrangements suffer from moral hazard, too: will you shirk unpleasant tasks at work if you’re sure to receive your paycheck anyway?

Moral hazard arises when we cannot costlessly observe people’s actions and so cannot judge (without costly monitoring) whether a poor outcome reflects poor fortune or poor effort. Like its close relative, adverse selection, moral hazard arises because two parties to a transaction have different information. This information asymmetry manifests itself in two ways. Where adverse selection is about hidden attributes, affecting a transaction before it occurs, moral hazard is about hidden actions that have an impact after making an arrangement.

In this post, we provide a brief introduction to the concept of moral hazard, focusing on how various aspects of the financial system are designed to mitigate the challenges it causes....

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Operational Risk and Financial Stability

Recent disasters—both natural and man-made—prompt us to reflect on the relationship between operational risk and financial stability. Severe weather in sensitive locations, such as Hurricane Irma in Florida, raises questions about the resilience of the financial infrastructure. The extraordinary breach at Equifax highlights the public goods aspect of data protection, with potential implications for the availability of household credit.

At this stage, it’s important to pose the right questions about these operational shocks and, over time, to draw the right lessons. We expect that systemic financial intermediaries’ risk managers, members of their boards, their regulators, and their ultimate legislative overseers are currently in the midst of an intensive review of exposures (and that of the financial system as a whole) to these risks.

So, what is operational risk (OR)? The Basel Committee for Banking Supervision (BCBS) defines OR as “the risk of loss resulting from inadequate or failed internal processes, people and systems or from external events”....

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Why the central bank should be a leading supervisor

Should central banks be a leading supervisor, including supervising systemically important institutions? This is a question that members of the U.S. Congress periodically raise.  Our answer is unequivocally yes. As the lender of last resort, as the monetary policy authority, and as the organization responsible for overseeing the health and stability of the overall financial system—what we could call a systemic regulator—the central bank needs to be a leading supervisor....

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Eclipsing LIBOR

The manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) began more than a decade ago. Employees of leading global firms submitted false reports to the British Banking Association (BBA), first to influence the value of LIBOR-linked derivatives, and later (during the financial crisis) to conceal the deterioration of their employers’ creditworthiness. U.S. and European regulators reported many of the details in 2012 when they fined Barclays, the first of a dozen financial firms that collectively paid fines exceeding $9 billion (see here). In addition to settling claims of aggrieved clients, these firms face enduring reputational damage: in some cases, management was forced out; in others, individuals received jail terms for their wrongdoing.

You might think that in light of this costly scandal, and the resulting challenges in maintaining LIBOR, market participants and regulators would have quickly replaced LIBOR with a sustainable short-term interest rate benchmark that had little risk of manipulation. You’d be wrong: the current administrator (ICE Benchmark Administration), which replaced the BBA in 2014, estimates that this guide (now called ICE LIBOR) continues to serve as the reference interest rate for “an estimated $350 trillion of outstanding contracts in maturities ranging from overnight to more than 30 years [our emphasis].” In short, LIBOR is still the world’s leading benchmark for short-term interest rates.

Against this background, U.K. Financial Conduct Authority CEO Andrew Bailey, recently called for a transition away from LIBOR before 2022 (see here). In this post, we briefly explain LIBOR’s role, why it remains an undesirable and unsustainable interest rate benchmark, and why it will be so difficult to replace (even gradually over several years) without risking disruption.

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Ninth Anniversary of the GSEs' Conservatorships: Not a Time to Celebrate

In the summer of 2008, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s financial positions deteriorated sharply: the result of inadequate capital (equity financing) for the risks in the residential mortgages that they held and had securitized. On September 6, 2008, their regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), removed senior management and placed these government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) into conservatorships. Since then, the FHFA and the U.S. Treasury (which extended almost $188 billion to keep them solvent through 2011) have run them...

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Adverse Selection: A Primer

Information is the basis for our economic and financial decisions. As buyers, we collect information about products before entering into a transaction. As investors, the same goes for information about firms seeking our funds. This is information that sellers and fund-seeking firms typically have. But, when it is too difficult or too costly to collect information, markets function poorly or not at all.

Economists use the term adverse selection to describe the problem of distinguishing a good feature from a bad feature when one party to a transaction has more information than the other party. The degree of adverse selection depends on how costly it is for the uninformed actor to observe the hidden attributes of a product or counterparty. When key characteristics are sufficiently expensive to discern, adverse selection can make an otherwise healthy market disappear.

In this primer, we examine three examples of adverse selection: (1) used cars; (2) health insurance; and (3) private finance. We use these examples to highlight mechanisms for addressing the problem....

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Looking Back: The Financial Crisis Began 10 Years Ago This Week

In his memorable review of 21 books about the 2007-09 financial crisis, Andrew Lo evoked Kurosawa’s classic film, Rashomon, to characterize the remarkable differences between these crisis accounts. Not only were the interpretations in dispute, but the facts were as well: “Even its starting date is unclear. Should we mark its beginning at the crest of the U.S. housing bubble in mid-2006, or with the liquidity crunch in the shadow banking system in late 2007, or with the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the ‘breaking of the buck’ by the Reserve Primary Fund in September 2008?”

In our view, the crisis began in earnest 10 years ago this week. On August 9, 2007, BNP Paribas announced that, because their fund managers could not value the assets in three mutual funds, they were suspending redemptions. With a decade’s worth of hindsight, we view this as a propitious moment to review both the precursors and the start of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But, first things first: What is a financial crisis? In our view, the term refers to a sudden, unanticipated shift from a reasonably healthy equilibrium—characterized by highly liquid financial markets, low risk premia, easily available credit, and low asset price volatility—to a very unhealthy one with precisely the opposite features. We use the term “equilibrium” to reflect a persistent state of financial conditions and note that—as was the case for Humpty Dumpty—it is easy to shift from a good financial state to a bad one, but very difficult to shift back again....

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Modernizing the U.S. Payments System: Faster, Cheaper, and more Secure

When it comes to domestic payments, the U.S. financial system still lags the efficiency in several advanced economies. The reasons are easy to find. First, other countries have leapfrogged outdated technologies. In the United States, checks remained dominant well after their technological sell-by date partly as a result of government support. The other key factor delaying a shift to alternative payment mechanisms is the importance of what economists call a network externality. That is, the more people who use one form of payment, the more valuable that method is to the people who are already using it. And, by the same token, the more expensive it is for someone to move away from the prevailing mechanism.

With these considerations in mind, two years ago the Fed convened the Faster Payments Task Force (FPTF), a group of more than 300 experts and interested parties from a wide range of backgrounds with the objective to “identify and evaluate alternative approaches for implementing safe, ubiquitous, faster payments capabilities in the United States.” Earlier this month, the FPTF issued its second and final report, which contains a set of 10 recommendations for making the payments system faster, cheaper and more secure....

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The Other Trilemma: Governing Global Finance

Courses in international economics usually introduce students to the impossible trinity, also known as the trilemma of open-economy macroeconomics: namely, that a fixed exchange rate, free cross-border capital flows, and discretionary monetary policy are incompatible. Why? Because, in the presence of free capital flows under a fixed exchange rate, private currency preferences (rather than policymakers) determine the size of the central bank balance sheet and hence the domestic interest rate. We’ve highlighted this problem several times in analyzing China’s evolving exchange rate regime (see here and here).

While many students learn that a country can only have two of the three elements of the open-economy trilemma, few learn that there also exists a financial trilemma. That is, financial stability, cross-border financial integration, and national financial policies are incompatible as well. The logic behind this second trilemma is that increases in financial integration reduce the incentives for national policymakers to act in ways that preserve financial stability globally. Put differently, as the benefits from financial stability policies spread beyond borders, the willingness to bear the costs of stabilizing the system at the national level decline. This has the important implication that, if we are to sustain increasing financial integration, then we will need greater international coordination among national financial regulators (see here, or for a much broader case for international economic governance, see Rodrik)....

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An Open Letter to the Honorable Randal K. Quarles

Dear Mr. Quarles,

Congratulations on your nomination as the first Vice Chairman for Supervision on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. We are pleased that President Trump has chosen someone so qualified, and we are equally pleased that you are willing to serve.

Assuming everything goes according to plan, you will be assuming your position just as we mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the global financial crisis. As a direct consequence of numerous reforms, the U.S. financial system—both institutions and markets—is meaningfully stronger than it was in 2007. Among many other things, today banks finance a larger portion of their lending with equity, devote more of their portfolios to high-quality, liquid assets, and clear a large fraction of derivatives through central counterparties.

That said, in our view, the system is not yet strong enough. In your new role, it will be your job to continue to fortify the financial system to make it sufficiently resilient.

With that task in mind, we humbly propose some key agenda items for the first few years of your term in office. We divide our suggestions into five broad categories (admittedly with significant overlap): capital and communications, stress testing, too big to fail, resolution, and regulation by economic function....

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China: Deleveraging is Hard to Do

For the first time in nearly three decades, Moody’s recently downgraded the long-term sovereign debt of China, lowering its rating from Aa3 to A1. As is frequently true in such cases, the adjustment was overdue. Since China’s massive fiscal stimulus in 2008, the government has experienced a surge in contingent liabilities, as its (implicit and explicit) guarantees fueled an extraordinary credit boom that continues today.

While the need to foster financial discipline is obvious, the process will be precarious. Ning Zhu, the author of China’s Guaranteed Bubble, has compared the scaling back of state guarantees to defusing a bomb. China’s guarantees have distorted incentives and risk taking for so many years that stepping back and allowing market forces to operate will inevitably impose large, unanticipated losses on many people and businesses. Financial history is replete with failed policy efforts to address credit-fueled asset price booms, such as the current one in China’s real estate. There is no safe mechanism for economy-wide deleveraging.

China’s policymakers are clearly aware of the dangers they face and are making serious efforts to address them. This year, authorities have initiated a new crackdown aimed at reducing the systemic risks that have been stoked by the credit boom. This post focuses on that policy effort, including the background causes and what will be needed (aside from good fortune) to make it work....

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Regulating the Credit Rating Agencies? Less Would be More

Guest post by Prof. Lawrence J. White, Robert Kavesh Professor in Economics, NYU Stern School of Business

The major credit rating agencies (CRAs)—Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s (S&P), and Fitch—contributed significantly to the financial crisis of 2007-09. Their excessively high initial ratings of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) helped fuel the bubble of mortgage finance that ultimately burst, with near catastrophic consequences for the U.S. financial sector.

These disastrous failings motivated the post-crisis urge to tighten regulation of the CRAs. It’s not hard to share the (metaphorical) desire—reflected in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010—to grab them by the lapels and shout “Do a better job!” 

There is, however, a better way, albeit one that is less intuitive and possibly less gratifying: namely, eliminate—or at least greatly reduce—the regulation of the CRAs. This would encourage entry into the credit rating business, stimulate innovation and, eventually, improve the efficiency of capital markets....

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How to Ensure the Crisis Provision of Safe Assets

Changes in financial regulation are having a profound impact on the demand for safe assets—assets with a fixed nominal value that may be converted at all times without loss into the means of payment. Not only is demand for safe assets on the rise, but the ability of the private sector to produce them is being constrained by new rules that limit the extent and nature of things like securitizations.

So far, the fallout from increased demand and constrained supply looks reasonably benign. But for several years now, broad financial conditions have been very calm, with measures of financial volatility and stress at or near long-term lows. What will happen when the financial system comes under stress again? What if there is a drop in risk tolerance (or a surge in risk awareness) and a flight to safety that causes a jump in the demand for safe assets or a plunge in the supply? Or, as in 2008, what will happen if both materialize at the same time? We need to be ready.

As we will explain in more detail, central banks in advanced economies can satisfy the heightened need for safe assets under stress (as well as the precautionary demand in normal times) by offering commercial banks committed lines of credit for a fee against collateral, as the central banks in Australia and South Africa currently do. In our view, this mechanism for ensuring sufficient supply of safe assets in a crisis has important advantages compared to one in which the central bank operates perpetually—in good times and bad—with a very large balance sheet.

To see how this would work, we start with an explanation of post-crisis liquidity regulation....

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The Treasury's Missed Opportunity

Last week, the U.S. Treasury published the first of four reports designed to implement the seven core principles for regulating the U.S. financial system announced in President Trump’s Executive Order 13772 (February 3, 2017).

Seven years after the passage of Dodd-Frank, it’s entirely appropriate to take stock of the changes it wrought, whether they have been effective, and whether in certain cases they went too far or in others not far enough. President Trump’s stated principles provide an attractive basis for making the financial system both more cost-effective and safer. And much of the Treasury report focuses on welcome proposals to reduce the unwarranted compliance burden imposed by a range of regulations and supervisory actions on small and medium-sized depositories that—if adequately capitalized—pose no threat to the financial system. We hope these will be viewed universally as “motherhood and apple pie.”

Unfortunately, at least when considering the largest banks, our conclusion is that adopting the Treasury’s recommendations would sacrifice resilience to achieve cost reductions, yet with little prospect for boosting economic growth. Put simply, implementation of the Treasury plan would reduce regulation of the most systemic intermediaries, and in so doing, unacceptably reduce the resilience of the U.S. financial system....

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Fintech, Central Banking and Digital Currency

How will financial innovation alter the role of central banks? As the structure of banking and finance changes, what will happen to the mechanisms and frameworks for setting monetary and financial policy? Over the past several decades, with the development of inflation targeting, central banks have delivered price stability. And, improved prudential policies are making the financial system more resilient. Will fintech—ranging from the use of electronic platforms to algorithm-driven transactions that supplant the traditional provision and implementation of financial services—change any of this?

This is a very broad topic, some of which we have written about in previous posts. This post considers an innovation suggested by Barrdear and Kumhof at the Bank of England: that central banks should offer universal, unlimited access to deposit accounts. What would this “central bank digital currency” mean for the financial system? Does it make sense for central banks to compete with commercial banks in providing deposit accounts?

We doubt it. It is not an accident that—at virtually every central bank—only commercial banks today have interest-bearing deposits. Changing this would pose a risk of destabilizing the financial system....

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