There is an important U.S. government-sponsored banking system that most people know nothing about. Created by an act of Congress in 1932, the Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLBs) issue bonds that investors perceive as having government backing, and then use the proceeds to make loans to their members: namely, 6,800 commercial banks, credit unions, insurance companies and savings associations. As the name suggests, the mission of the (currently 11) regional, cooperatively owned FHLBs is “to support mortgage lending and related community investment.” But, since the system was founded, its role as an intermediary has changed dramatically.
With assets of roughly $1 trillion, it turns out that the FHLBs—which operate mostly out of the public eye—have been an important source of regulatory arbitrage twice over the past decade. In the first episode—the 2007-09 financial crisis—they partly supplanted the role of the Federal Reserve as the lender of last resort. In the second, the FHLBs became intermediaries between a class of lenders (money market mutual funds) and borrowers (banks), following regulatory changes designed in part to alter the original relationship between these lenders and borrowers. The FHLBs’ new role creates an implicit federal guarantee that increases taxpayers’ risk of loss.
In this post, we highlight these episodes of regulatory arbitrage as unforeseen consequences of a complex financial system and regulatory framework, in combination with the malleability and opaqueness of the FHLB system.… Read More
Debt causes fragility. When banks lack equity funding, even a small adverse shock can put the financial system at risk. Fire sales can undermine the supply of credit to healthy firms, precipitating a decline in economic activity. The failure of key institutions can threaten the payments system. Authorities naturally respond by increasing required levels of equity finance, ensuring that intermediaries can weather severe conditions without damaging others.
Readers of this blog know that we are strong supporters of higher capital requirements: if forced to pick a number, we might choose a leverage ratio requirement in the range of 15% of total exposure (see here), roughly twice recent levels for the largest U.S. banks. But as socially desirable as high levels of equity finance might be, the fact is that they are privately costly. As a result, rather than limit threats to the financial system, higher capital requirements for banks have the potential to shift risky activities beyond the regulatory perimeter into non-bank intermediaries (see, for example here).
Has the increase of capital requirements since the financial crisis pushed risk-taking beyond the regulated banking system? So far, the answer is no. However, in some jurisdictions, especially the United States, the framework for containing systemic risk arising from non-bank financial institutions remains inadequate…. Read More
In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2009, the U.S. Congress created the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC – pronounced “F-Sock”)—a panel of the heads of the U.S. regulatory agencies—“to identify risks to the financial stability of the United States”; “to promote market discipline” by eliminating expectations of government bailouts; and “to respond to emerging threats” to financial stability.
Despite these complex and critical objectives, the law limited FSOC’s authority to the designation of: (1) specific nonbanks as systemically important financial intermediaries (SIFIs), and; (2) critical payments, clearance and settlement firms as financial market utilities (FMUs). Nonbank SIFIs are then supervised by the Federal Reserve, which imposes stricter scrutiny on them (as it does for large banks), while FMUs are jointly overseen by the Fed and the relevant market regulators.
At the peak of its activity in 2013-14, the FSOC designated four nonbanks as SIFIs: AIG, GE Capital, MetLife, and Prudential Insurance. Following the Council’s October 16 rescission of the Prudential designation, there are no longer any nonbank SIFIs. Not only that, but by making a future designation highly unlikely, Treasury and FSOC have undermined the deterrence effect of the FSOC’s SIFI authority. In short, by taking the sock out of FSOC, recent actions seriously weaken the post-crisis apparatus for securing U.S. (and global) financial stability. In the remainder of this post we review the Treasury’s revised approach to SIFI designation in the context of the Prudential rescission…. Read More
This month, in the guise of supporting community banks, the U.S. Senate passed a bill (S.2155) that eases regulation of large banks. We share the critics’ views that this wide-ranging dilution of existing regulation will reduce the resilience of the U.S. financial system.
In its best known and most publicized feature, the Senate bill raises the asset size threshold that Dodd-Frank established for subjecting a bank to strict scrutiny (such as the imposition of stress tests, liquidity requirements, and resolution plans) from $50 billion to $250 billion. In this post, we examine the role of asset size in determining the systemic importance of a financial intermediary. It turns out that (aside from the very largest institutions, where it does in fact dominate) balance sheet size is not a terribly useful indicator of the vulnerability a bank creates. We conclude that Congress should ease the strict oversight burden on institutions that pose little threat to the financial system without raising the Dodd-Frank threshold dramatically.
Judge makes an elegant proposal for accomplishing this. For institutions with assets between $100 billion and $250 billion, Congress should just flip the default. Rather than obliging the Fed to prove a mid-sized bank’s riskiness, give the bank the opportunity to prove it is safe. This approach gives institutions the incentive to limit the systemic risk they create in ways that they can verify. It also sharply reduces the risk of litigation by banks that the Fed deems risky... Read More
Shortly after Lehman failed in 2008, investors began to flee from money market mutual funds (MMMFs). To halt the run, the U.S. Treasury guaranteed all $3.8 trillion in outstanding MMMF liabilities. That rescue created enduring moral hazard: the expectation that a future crisis will lead to another bailout.
Aside from their legal form as mutual funds, MMMFs functioned much like banks engaged in the transformation of liquidity, credit and (to some extent) maturity. Similar to banks that redeem deposits at face value, they promised investors a fixed share value of $1 (a “buck”) on demand. Unlike depositories, however, MMMFs had no capital, no deposit insurance, and—at least officially—no access to the lender of last resort. So, when the Reserve Primary Fund “broke the buck” (by failing to redeem at the $1 par value) in September 2008, MMMF investors panicked.
Somewhat surprisingly, it took until 2014 for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to resolve political conflicts and introduce significant rule changes for MMMFs (see our earlier posts here and here). The SEC now requires that institutional prime MMMFs—which (like Reserve Primary) frequently invest in short-term corporate liabilities—operate like other mutual funds with a floating net asset value (NAV). The same rule applies to institutional municipal MMMFs. Retail MMMFs, as well as those investing in federal government (and agency) securities, are exempt.
In light of a recent legislative proposal to water it down, in this post we review the impact of the SEC’s 2014 reform. To highlight our conclusions: (1) it did not go far enough to reduce run risk; (2) aside from temporary dislocations, it has not raised nonfinancial sector funding costs by more than would be accounted for by reducing the implicit taxpayer guarantee for MMMFs; and (3) reversing the floating-NAV requirement would weaken the safety of the U.S. financial system.... Read More
In response to the financial crisis of 2007-2009, Congress created the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), a committee of the chiefs of the U.S. regulatory agencies, chaired by the Treasury Secretary, to monitor and secure the stability of the financial system. Critical to this task is the FSOC’s authority to designate nonbanks as “systemically important financial institutions” (SIFIs).
On November 17, the U.S. Treasury issued a report assessing the FSOC’s designation process. Treasury calls on the FSOC to adopt a strategy that prioritizes the regulation of activities or functions—affecting whole sectors of the financial industry—over regulation based on entity or legal form (such as the designation authority). For the most part, we find this sensible, as this focus reduces the scope for regulatory arbitrage that an entities-only approach may foster (see here).
However, we doubt that activities-based regulation alone will be sufficient to limit systemic risk. Our overall conclusion is that the Treasury’s approach sets the bar for FSOC designation too high, diminishing its deterrence effect on undesignated nonbanks. In the end, a sensible focus on both entities and activities is needed to fulfill one of FSOC’s key objectives—to restore market discipline. Adopting the Treasury’s proposed framework will not meet the goal, set out in the President’s Core Principles for Regulating the U.S. Financial system (see Executive Order 13772), of preventing taxpayer-funded bailouts.... Read More
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. Read More
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.... Read More
More than six years after the Dodd-Frank Act passed in July 2010, the controversy over how to end “too big to fail” (TBTF) remains a key focus of financial reform. Indeed, TBTF—which led to the troubling bailouts of financial behemoths in the crisis of 2007-2009—is still one of the biggest challenges in reducing the probability and severity of financial crises. By focusing on the largest, most complex, most interconnected financial intermediaries, Dodd-Frank gave officials a range of crisis prevention and management tools. These include the power to designate specific institutions as systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs), a broadening of Fed supervision, the authority to impose stress tests and living wills, and (with the FDIC’s “Orderly Liquidation Authority”) the ability to facilitate the resolution of a troubled SIFI. But, while Dodd-Frank has likely made the U.S. financial system safer than it was, it does not go far enough in reducing the risk of financial crises or in ensuring credibility of the resolution mechanism (see our earlier commentary here, here and here). It also is exceedingly complex.
Against this background, we welcome the work of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and their recently announced Minneapolis Plan to End Too Big to Fail (the Plan). While the Plan raises issues that require further consideration—including the potential for regulatory arbitrage and the calibration of the tools on which it relies—it is straightforward, based on sound principles, and focuses on cost-effective tools. In this sense, the Plan represents a big step forward... Read More
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... Read More
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: Read More
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... Read More
Walter Wriston, Citicorp’s chief for nearly two decades until 1984, used to argue that banks’ didn’t need much, if any, capital. The global financial crisis put that view to rest. Today, we know that if banks are going to be able to absorb large unforeseen losses that would otherwise threaten financial stability, they need to finance themselves with equity, not just debt.
But how much capital do banks need to have to ensure the financial system is safe? Even after the financial crisis, answers to this question range widely, making it the single most contentious source of debate among bankers, regulators, and academics... Read More
A central lesson of the 2007-09 financial crisis is that we should be much more worried about financial intermediation performed outside the banking system. Even if banks are resilient, with capital buffers sufficient to withstand all but the largest shocks, other parts of the financial system can make it fragile. Indeed, making the banks safe may simply shift risk-taking elsewhere... Read More
The SEC has finally acted. On July 23, the SEC issued 859 pages of new rules for the operation of some money market funds. (You can find a mercifully short description here.) To summarize our reaction: we are underwhelmed! It is hard to see how the new rules will reduce systemic risk in any meaningful way... Read More