February 24, 2021

High & Low Finance: Where Banks Are Big, Rules Seem More Rigid

At least that is the way it seems to be shaking out as countries develop new rules on bank capital.

In countries where the financial sector is not an overwhelming presence in the economy, banks seem to be faring better in their lobbying efforts to keep rules relatively gentle.

But the toughest rules in Europe seem to be coming in Britain and Switzerland, the two countries with the largest financial sectors — relative to the size of their economies — left in the world.

That attitude is in sharp contrast to the one that seems to prevail in much of continental Europe. There, regulators seem to be trying to water down at least some of the Basel III standards adopted around the world; France in particular seems to have encouraged its banks to minimize write-offs on Greek debt. Many European banks missed a chance to recapitalize before the sovereign debt mess made that impossible, at least for now. They are hoping to muddle through.

In the United States, which has the largest financial sector but also a huge economy, the picture is not as clear. But it appears regulators are well on the way to much stricter capital rules for all banks, and even harsher rules for the biggest banks.

If that is the way it ends up, it will be a complete reversal of the picture before the financial disaster of 2008.

Then Britain boasted of its “light touch” regulation, an attitude that was said to contrast with the enforcement approach prevalent in the United States. The American financial sector was mounting a big deregulation campaign, saying American institutions were at an international disadvantage that was hurting the United States by moving financial activity to other countries.

Then came the Lehman Brothers collapse.

Countries felt forced to bail out their banks. It was a manageable burden for the United States, but it was a closer call for Britain. The real casualties were Ireland and Iceland, which had seemed to prosper because of rapidly growing financial industries. Basically, the banks bankrupted the countries.

In Britain this week, a commission appointed to set new banking rules issued its final report, which was endorsed by the government and seems likely to go into effect. The new rules seek to “ring fence” really important banking activities to protect them from losses elsewhere in the enterprise, and they set capital standards that seem to be higher than those mandated in the new Basel III rules. In some ways, the reasons the banks needed help in 2008 are less important than the reasons the failures threatened to be so devastating. Those particular mistakes will not be made again anytime soon, and probably not at all. We won’t see Triple-A mortgage-backed securities where no one took the trouble to review the mortgages before the paper was sold.

But one of these days many banks will make some big mistake, and they are likely to do it in a group. That was true of the loans to Latin American countries that precipitated the crisis of 20 years ago, and it was true of foolish real estate lending decades before that.

It would be nice if regulators could prevent those huge errors without also preventing banks from taking reasonable risks. But that will not be easy, and we should not have a financial system dependent on regulator wisdom.

The British commission, led by Sir John Vickers, an Oxford economist, instead calls for a system that will not be a public disaster if the banks do blow it again. That is one of the crucial points to be considered in reviewing regulatory approaches.

The commission does a good job of laying out what failed. First, the banks had too little equity capital in relation to the risks they were running. All those equity percentages that banks brag about are ratios of capital to “risk-weighted assets,” not overall assets. That makes sense in principle, but assets deemed to be low risk — like AAA mortgage securities — turned out to be high risk.

As the Vickers commission put it, “the supposed ‘risk weights’ turned out to be unreliable measures of risk: they were going down when risk was in fact going up.”

Floyd Norris comments on finance and the economy at nytimes.com/economix

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=331d9eb08d90032a9629f5ed849b35d9

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