Bank Capital and Stress Tests: The Foundation of a Thriving Economy

We submitted this statement to the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit of the Committee on Financial Services of the U.S. House of Representatives for its hearing on July 17, 2018.

We appreciate the opportunity to submit the following statement on the occasion of the hearing entitled “Examining Capital Regimes for Financial Institutions.” We welcome the Subcommittee’s further examination of the existing regulatory approach for prudentially regulated financial institutions.

We are academic experts in financial regulation with extensive knowledge of the financial industry. Our experience includes working with private sector financial institutions, government agencies and international organizations. In our view, a strong and resilient financial system is an essential foundation of a thriving economy. The welfare of every modern society depends on it. The bedrock of this foundation is that banks’ capital buffers are sufficient to withstand significant stress without recourse to public funds. Furthermore, it is our considered view that the benefits of raising U.S. capital requirements from their current modest levels clearly outweigh the costs.

To explain this conclusion, we start with a definition of bank capital, including a discussion of its importance as a mechanism for self-insurance. We then turn to capital regulation and a discussion of stress testing….

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Understanding Bank Capital: A Primer

Over the past 40 years, U.S. capital markets have grown much faster than banks, so that banks’ share of credit to the private nonfinancial sector has dropped from 55% to 34% (see BIS statistics here).  Nevertheless, banks remain a critical part of the financial system. They operate the payments system, supply credit, and serve as agents and catalysts for a wide range of other financial transactions. As a result, their well-being remains a key concern. A resilient banking system is, above all, one that has sufficient capital to weather the loan defaults and declines in asset values that will inevitably come.

In this primer, we explain the nature of bank capital, highlighting its role as a form of self-insurance providing both a buffer against unforeseen losses and an incentive to manage risk-taking. We describe some of the challenges in measuring capital and briefly discuss a range of approaches for setting capital requirements. While we do not know the optimal level of capital that banks (or other intermediaries) should be required to hold, we suggest a practical approach for setting requirements that would promote the safety of the financial system without diminishing its efficiency....

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Improving U.S. Healthcare and Coverage

We see health as a basic human right. Every society should provide medical care for its citizens at the level it can afford. And, while the United States has made some progress in improving access to care, the results do not justify the costs. So, while we agree with President Trump’s statement that the U.S. health care system should be cheaper, better and universal, the question is how to get there.

In this post, we start by setting the stage: where matters stand today and why they are unacceptable. This leads us to the real question: where can and should we go? As economists, we are genuinely partial to market-based solutions that allow individuals to make tradeoffs between quality and price, while competition pushes suppliers to contain costs. But, in the case of health care, we are skeptical that such a solution can be made workable. This leads us to propose a gradual lowering of the age at which people become eligible for Medicare, while promoting supplier competition....

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Making Finance Work For Households

Last week, our friend, Harvard Professor John Y. Campbell, delivered the American Economic Association’s 2016 Ely Lecture, the group’s most prominent invited lecture. His topic—a central challenge for policymakers and practitioners alike—is how to make modern finance work better for consumers who lack understanding of the opportunities and risks they face. Professor Campbell discussed how we can take the lessons from behavioral finance and household finance—a relatively new field that he helped establish—to help households manage the choices that they face. The ultimate goal is to foster decisions consistent with economic rationality (hence his title, “Restoring Rational Choice: The Challenge of Consumer Finance”) while minimizing the costs of government intervention.

We take this opportunity to highlight a few important points from Professor Campbell’s presentation (text here and webcast here)...

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Making driving safe

The home page for the Google Self-Driving Car Project contains the following:

Imagine if everyone could get around easily and safely, regardless of their ability to drive. […] Aging or visually impaired loved ones wouldn't have to give up their independence. Time spent commuting could be time spent doing what you want to do. Deaths from traffic accidents—over 1.2 million worldwide every year—could be reduced dramatically, especially since 94% of accidents in the U.S. involve human error.

In some walks of life, we can reduce risks by changing human behavior. In the case of automobiles, we train and license people to make them drive more safely. We also fine and incarcerate them when they don't...

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Financial Innovation and Risk Management

In 2013, Robert Shiller shared the Nobel Prize for Economics with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen for their research on asset pricing. While Shiller is known as a critic of the efficient markets hypothesis and as a proponent of behavioral finance, less appreciated is his work on advancing financial technology to help societies manage fundamental economic risks.

At a time when the recent crisis has given financial innovation a bad name, Shiller’s contrarian message is that well-designed financial instruments and markets are an enormous boon to social welfare. We agree.

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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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Do U.S. Households Benefit from the Great Moderation?

Something odd has happened to the U.S. economy over the past 30 years. Aggregate income (measured by real GDP) has become more stable (even including the 2007-2009 Great Recession). But, at the household level, the volatility of income has gone up. Put differently, families face greater income risk than in the past despite generally fewer or smaller economy-wide wobbles. What should we make of this?

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Central Clearing Parties: What they are and why we need them - Part 3

The CCP Advantage: Incentive and Means to Control Counterparty Risks

The case of the insurance giant, AIG, highlights the information and incentives problems that CCPs can address. In the run-up to the financial crisis, AIG’s London-based Financial Products Group managed to sell enormous amounts of credit risk insurance without the liquid resources necessary to cover potential cash calls. By end-June 2008, AIG had taken on $446 billion in notional credit risk exposure as a seller of credit risk protection via credit default swaps (CDS).

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