Regulation

Free Riding in Finance: A Primer

Many features of our financial system—institutions like banks and insurance companies, as well as the configuration of securities markets—are a consequence of legal conventions (the rules about property rights and taxes) and the costs associated with obtaining and verifying information. When we teach money and banking, three concepts are key to understanding the structure of finance: adverse selection, moral hazard, and free riding. The first two arise from asymmetric information, either before (adverse selection) or after (moral hazard) making a financial arrangement (see our earlier primers here and here).

This primer is about the third concept: free riding. Free riding is tied to the concept of a public good, so we start there. Then, we offer three examples where free riding plays a key role in the organization of finance: credit ratings; schemes like the Madoff scandal; and efforts to secure financial stability more broadly....

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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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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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Revisiting Market Liquidity: The Case of U.S. Corporate Bonds

Prior to the financial crisis of 2007-2009, many people took market liquidity for granted. So, when the ability to convert assets into cash eroded, the issue became one of survival for some intermediaries. Today, both investors and regulators are focusing on “the ability to rapidly execute sizable securities transactions at a low cost and with a limited price impact” (see Fischer). And there has been an intense debate about whether post-crisis regulations themselves have diminished the supply of liquidity (see our earlier post)...

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Monetary Policy and Financial Stability

In June 2015, a committee of Federal Reserve Bank Presidents conducted a “macroprudential tabletop exercise”—a kind of wargame—to determine what tools to use should risks to financial stability arise in an environment when growth and inflation are stable. The conventional wisdom—widely supported in policy pronouncements and in a range of academic studies—is that the appropriate tools are prudential (capital and liquidity requirements, stress tests, margin requirements, supervisory guidance and the like). Yet, in the exercise, the policymakers found these tools more unwieldy and less effective than anticipated. As a result, “monetary policy came more quickly to the fore as a financial stability tool than might have been thought.”

This naturally leads us to ask whether there are circumstances when central bankers should employ monetary policy tools to address financial stability concerns. Making the case for or against use of monetary policy to secure financial stability is usually based on assessing the costs and benefits of a policy that "leans against the wind" (LAW) of financial imbalances...

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The World of ETFs

The first U.S. exchange-traded fund (ETF)—the SPY based on the S&P500—began trading in 1993. Since then, the number of such funds has grown dramatically, so that by mid-2016 there were more than 1,600 ETFs on U.S. exchanges valued at roughly $2.2 trillion. This means that ETFs are now roughly one-sixth the size of open-end mutual funds. And, with this ETF growth has come a broadening in their scope and character. Today, there are ETFs that include less liquid assets such as corporate bonds and emerging market equities, and there are funds that provide inverse or leveraged exposure to the underlying assets.

Given these trends, it is no surprise that ETFs have attracted regulators’ attention (see, for example, here and here). Should they be concerned? Is this a consumer protection issue? Do ETFs contribute to systemic risk? Or, is their design stabilizing? Might financial stability even be served by the conversion of all open-end mutual funds into ETFs? ...

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The Map is the Message: Regional Feds versus Euro-area NCBs

Some time ago, we wrote about how the Fed and the ECB’s governance and communication were converging. Our focus was on the policy, governance and communications framework, including the 2% inflation objective, the voting rotation, post-meeting press conference, prompt publication of meeting minutes, and the like.

But important differences are built into the legal design of these two systems. Perhaps the most important one is the contrasting roles of the regional Federal Reserve Banks and that of the National Central Banks (NCBs)...

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The Scandal is What's Legal

If you haven’t seen The Big Short, you should. The acting is superb and the story enlightening: a few brilliant outcasts each discover just how big the holes are that eventually bury the U.S. financial system in the crisis of 2007-2009. If you’re like most people we know, you’ll walk away delighted by the movie and disturbed by the reality it captures. [Full disclosure: one of us joined a panel organized by the film’s economic consultant to view and discuss it with the director.]

But we're not film critics, The moviealong with some misleading criticismprompts us to clarify what we view as the prime causes of the financial crisis. The financial corruption depicted in the movie is deeply troubling (we've written about fraud and conflicts of interest in finance here and here). But what made the U.S. financial system so fragile a decade ago, and what made the crisis so deep, were practices that were completely legal. The scandal is that we still haven't addressed these properly....

 

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How the Fed tightened

Back in August, we explained the mechanics of how the Fed can tighten policy in today’s world of abundant bank reserves. Now that the first policy tightening under the new framework is behind us, we can review how the Fed did it, if there were any surprises, and what trials still lie ahead.

So far, the new process has been extraordinarily smooth – a tribute to planning by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and to years of testing by the Market Desk of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY). But it’s still very early in the game, so uncertainties and challenges surely remain.

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Market liquidity and financial stability

Everyone seems to be worried about market liquidity – the ability to buy or sell a large quantity of an asset with little or no price impact. Some observers complain that post-crisis financial regulation has reduced market liquidity by forcing traditional market makers – say, in corporate bonds – to withdraw. Others focus on episodes of sudden, unforeseen loss of liquidity – for example, in the equity and Treasury markets – suggesting that structural changes (such as the spread of high-frequency algorithmic trading) are now a source of fragility. We’ve written about these issues before (here and here).

But it is worth taking a step back to ask exactly what it is that we care about. The answer turns out to be complex, so working out remedies will be a big challenge...

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How big should central bank balance sheets be?

In 2007, the Fed’s balance sheet was less than $1 trillion. Today, it is nearly $4.5 trillion. The U.S. experience is far from unique. Since 2007, global central bank balance sheets have nearly tripled to more than $22 trillion as of mid-2014. And, the increase is split evenly between advanced and emerging market economies (EMEs).

So what’s the right size? The answer depends on the policy goals and the nature of the financial system. In the case of the Fed, we expect that it will be able to achieve its long-term objectives with fewer than half of its current assets...

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Liquidity Regulation

Ever since Bagehot, central banks acting as lenders of last resort have tried to distinguish banks that are illiquid, who should be eligible for a loan, from banks that are insolvent, who should not. The challenge persists. As one analyst put it recently: “Liquidity and solvency are the heavenly twins of banking, frequently indistinguishable. An illiquid bank can rapidly become insolvent, and an insolvent bank illiquid.” The lesson is that the appropriate level of a bank’s capital and the liquidity of its assets are necessarily related.

Forged in the crucible of the financial crisis, Basel III took this lesson to heart, creating a new regime for liquidity regulation to supplement the capital rules that were originally developed 30 years before.

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Form vs. Function: Regulating Money Market Funds

Following the collapse of Lehman in 2008, a run on U.S. prime money market mutual funds (MMMFs) was halted only when the U.S. Treasury provided a blanket guarantee. (Prime MMMFs typically invest in corporate debt, including the debt of intermediaries.) Shortly thereafter, the Federal Reserve added emergency machinery (the “Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility”) to encourage depositories to acquire illiquid assets from MMMFs...
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Capital regulation: it’s complicated!

Many people criticize the way in which bank capital regulation is done.  They know that banks can and do game complicated regulatory rules, a form of regulatory arbitrage. One focus of their criticism is risk weighting – the idea that banks should hold capital commensurate with the riskiness of their assets.  The more risky the loans and securities a bank holds, the bigger the capital buffers should be to ensure that banks and the banking system are robust. 

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