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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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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Ending Too Big to Fail: Resolution Edition

The failure of Lehman on September 15, 2008, signaled the most intense phase of the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, fueling a run on a broad array of intermediaries. Following Congress’ approval of TARP funding that was used mostly to recapitalize U.S. financial firms, the mantra of U.S. regulators became “…we will not pull a Lehman” (Financial Crisis Inquiry Report, page 380). Thereafter, to ensure that another large institution did not fail, policymakers chose bailouts to contain the crisis. As a result, today we still have intermediaries that are too big to fail.  

The autumn 2008 experience convinced many observers of the need for a robust resolution regime in which financial behemoths could be re-organized quickly without risk of contagion or crisis. The question was, and remains, how to do it. Dodd-Frank provided a two-pronged answer: the FDIC would first rely on the bankruptcy code (Title I), and second, on a resolution temporarily funded (if necessary) by government resources (Title II). The second piece is commonly known as Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), which is funded by the Orderly Liquidation Fund (OLF).

In response to dissatisfaction with parts of this solution, Congress and the President are working on refinements. Last month, the House passed a bipartisan revision of the bankruptcy code (Financial Institutions Bankruptcy Act, or FIBA) that would expedite the resolution of adequately structured intermediaries. And, on April 21, President Trump ordered a Treasury review of OLA, expressing concern that the OLF authorization to use government funds “may encourage excessive risk taking by creditors, counterparties, and shareholders of financial companies.”

This post considers FIBA and how it fits in with the existing Dodd-Frank resolution mechanism....

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Regulating Wall Street: The Financial CHOICE Act and Systemic Risk

With the shift in power in Washington, among other things, the people newly in charge are taking aim at financial sector regulation. High on their agenda is repeal of much of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, the most far-reaching financial regulatory reform since the 1930s. The prime objective of Dodd-Frank is to prevent a wholesale collapse of financial intermediation and the widespread damage that comes with it. That is, the new regulatory framework seeks to reduce systemic risk, by which we mean that it lowers the likelihood that the financial system will become undercapitalized and vulnerable in a manner that threatens the economy as a whole.

The Financial CHOICE Act proposed last year by the House Financial Services Committee is the most prominent proposal to ease various regulatory burdens imposed by Dodd-Frank. The CHOICE Act is complex, containing provisions that would alter many aspects of Dodd-Frank, including capital requirements, stress tests, resolution mechanisms, and more. This month, more than a dozen faculty of the NYU Stern School of Business (including one of us) and the NYU School of Law published a comprehensive study contrasting the differences between the CHOICE Act and Dodd-Frank.

Regulating Wall Street: CHOICE Act vs. Dodd-Frank considers the impact both on financial safety and on efficiency. In some cases, the CHOICE Act would slash inefficient regulation in a manner that would not foster systemic risk. At the same time, the book highlights the key flaw of the CHOICE Actthe failure to address systemic risk properly....

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Dodd-Frank, the CHOICE Act and Small Banks

Critics of the Dodd-Frank Act argue that the new regulatory regime has weakened small banks (see, for example, Peirce, Robinson, and Stratmann). This criticism is echoed in the Financial CHOICE Act—proposed by House Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling—that would largely scrap the current oversight of large systemic intermediaries in part to reduce the regulatory burden on “community financial institutions” (those with fewer than $10 billion in assets).

We share the goal of ensuring that regulation is cost effective for small banks that pose no threat to the financial system. However, we do not believe that the Dodd-Frank oversight regime of the largest, interconnected, complex intermediaries is a principal driver of the challenges facing most small banks.

Instead, we note that the decline of small banks has been going on for more than 30 years, decades before the Dodd-Frank Act became law in 2010...

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Better capitalized banks lend more and lend better

Many people seem to think that when authorities increase capital requirements, banks lend less. The advocates of this view go on to argue that, since credit is essential for economic growth, we should not impose overly tough constraints on banks. Put another way, a number of people believe that we have gone too far in making the financial system safe and the cost is lower growth and employment.

Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin appears to share the view that financial regulation has restrained the supply of credit: in a recent interview, he is quoted as saying “The number one problem with Dodd-Frank is that it’s way too complicated and cuts back lending.” One interpretation of this is that Secretary-designate Mnuchin will support proposals like House Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling’s Financial CHOICE Act to allow banks to opt for a simple capital standard as an alternative to strict regulatory scrutiny.

Our reaction to this is three-fold. First, for most banks, which are very small and pose little threat to the financial system, a shift toward simpler capital requirements—so long as they are high enough—may be both effective and efficient; for the largest, most systemic intermediaries, higher capital requirements should still be accompanied by strict oversight. Second, we see no evidence that higher bank capital is associated with lower lending. In fact, quite the opposite. Third, given that the 2007-09 financial crisis was the result of too much borrowing—and that over-borrowing is a leading indicator of financial crises—it follows that not all reductions in lending are bad. We take each of these points in turn...

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How risky are the big U.S. banks?

Readers of this blog know that we are great fans of the Stern Volatility Lab’s estimates of systemic risk. Like many observers, including leading regulators, we find market-value rather than book-value measures of bank equity more useful for timely monitoring of systemic risk created by individual intermediaries. Equity prices are available in real time, rapidly incorporate bank-specific and economy-wide information, and are forward-looking. This makes them particularly helpful in assessing the impact of big events, like this summer’s Brexit referendum (see our earlier post).

So, based as it is on market indicators of bank risk, not surprisingly we share the recent assessment of Sarin and Summers (expressed in their September 2016 Brookings paper) that the increase of book capital in the banking system since the financial crisis ought not give rise to regulatory complacency. We have argued repeatedly for raising capital requirements (see, for example, here) and, like those authors, believe that we need mechanisms for the virtually automatic recapitalization of banks in a crisis (see here). 

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Too Big to Fail: MetLife v. FSOC

Last week, a Federal District Court overturned the Financial Stability Oversight Council’s (FSOC) designation of MetLife—the nation’s largest insurer by assets—as a systemically important financial intermediary (SIFI). Until the Court unseals this decision, we won’t know why. If the ruling is based on narrow grounds that the FSOC can readily address, it will have little impact on long-run prospects for U.S. financial stability.

However, if the Court has materially raised the hurdle to SIFI designation—and if its ruling holds up on appeal—“too big to fail” nonbanks could again loom large in future financial crises, making them both more likely and more damaging...

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Dodd-Frank: Five Years After

On July 21, 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (hereafter, DF), the most sweeping financial regulatory reform in the United States since the 1930s. DF explicitly aims to limit systemic risk, allow for the safe resolution of the largest intermediaries, submit risky nonbanks to greater scrutiny, and reform derivatives trading.

How to celebrate its fifth birthday? Well, if you are like us, it will be a sober affair, reflecting serious worries about the continued vulnerability of the financial system.

Let’s have a look at the most noteworthy accomplishments and the biggest failings so far. Starting with the successes, here are our top five:

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Regulatory quakes and tremors

If there were a regulatory Richter scale that measured the shaking of the financial system, the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act would register about 8, while the 2011 Basel III framework might be a bit above 7.  (For reference, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was a 7.8). Fortunately, this shaking is mostly for the better – helping to make the financial system more resilient in the long run.

The new “Bailout Prevention Act” of Senators Vitter and Warren also might be an 8 on the shaking scale, but it would be a true disaster, because it undermines the Fed’s role as crisis lender of last resort. In contrast, the Senate Banking Committee’s new discussion draft of a “Financial Regulatory Improvement Act of 2015” is probably a 2 or a 3. If enacted, it will be “felt slightly by some people” but probably won't do much damage...

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In Search of Better Credit Assessments

July 21, 2014 was the fourth birthday of the Dodd–Frank Act (DFA). It is maturing faster than a human, but slower than a dog. Of the nearly 400 rules that DFA requires regulators to write, just over half have been completed. At the end of August, the SEC finished another one – regarding credit rating agencies (CRAs). The result makes us wonder what took so long...

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The SEC is in the Wrong Business

A recent open letter from an SEC Commissioner reminded us of several absurdities of the U.S. financial regulatory apparatus. The Commissioner railed against the Treasury Office of Financial Research (OFR) report on Asset Management and Financial Stability. At the request of the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), the OFR sought to analyze activities in the asset management industry that could pose risks to the broader financial system...
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A note on the lender of last resort

With the publication of former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s book Stress Test comes a reconsideration of the many aspects of government intervention during the years of the financial crisis. Should banks have been nationalized? Should the fiscal stimulus have been larger? Should underwater households have received mortgage assistance? 
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