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
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…. 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
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
“We’re really only at 1% of what is possible, and probably even less than that. […] We should be building great things that don’t exist.” Larry Page, Google I/O 2013 Keynote
With the summer coming to an end, professors everywhere are greeting a new group of students. So, our thoughts turn to the opportunities and challenges that those interested in finance will face over the course of their careers.
Like many important activities, finance is constantly evolving, so the “facts” that students learn in classes today will almost certainly change rapidly. With that in mind, we always strive to find a set of core principles that will endure, so that students can build a career based both on a set of specialized skills and on a broad capacity to imagine where finance and the financial system are heading... 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
Some days the tone of the financial news matches that of the sports page. Adversaries appear to be locked in an epic battle, with the official sector setting regulations in an attempt to keep the system safe on one side, and financiers pushing for rules that ensure profitability on the other. The skirmish over the level of large bank capital requirements and the clash over whether municipal bonds can be used to meet liquidity requirements are just two recent examples. (See our earlier posts here and here.)
Following the day-to-day struggle can make it hard to see who is winning. But if history is any guide, the financiers will prevail—to the benefit of their owners and managers—at the expense of systemic fragility.
Can we change this? Can we create a system with greater balance between the authorities and the institutions? 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
Economists and policymakers are on a quest. They are looking for the elixir that will protect their economies from financial crises. Their strategy is to find an indicator that provides an early warning of collapse, and then respond with preventative measures.
We think the approach of waiting for warnings is seriously flawed. The necessary information may never be in our grasp. And even if it were, our ability to respond rapidly and effectively is far from clear. Rather than treating the symptoms of illness after they start to develop, we believe the better strategy is early immunization: the more resilient the financial system, the less reliance we will have on faulty or nonexistent warnings... Read More
Among its numerous, innovations Basel III proposes that national authorities use countercyclical capital buffers to temper booms in credit growth and asset prices. [...]
Will it work? Is such a system either practical or desirable? Our view is that regardless of how theoretically attractive, making such time-varying capital regulation discretionary is unlikely to work in practice. Rules would serve us all much better. Read More
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... Read More
In a recent speech, Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo criticized the use of banks’ internal models for determining capital adequacy. There are several reasons to be dissatisfied with the internal ratings-based (IRB) approach, starting with the complexity and opacity that Governor Tarullo highlights. Our uppermost concern is the lack of consistent results across banks. That is, given the same portfolio of assets, different banks’ models yield very different estimates of required capital. These model-driven differences undermine both the trust in banks’ reported capital ratios and their usefulness. Read More