U.S. banking regulation resembles a cat-and-mouse game of industry change and regulatory response. Often, a crisis or industry innovation will lead to a new regulatory regime. Past regulatory regimes have included geographic restrictions, activity restrictions, disclosure mandates, risk management rules, and capital requirements. But the recently enacted Dodd-Frank Act introduced a new strain of banking-industry supervision: regulation by hypothetical. Regulation by hypothetical refers to rules that require banks to predict future crises and weaknesses. Those predictions—which by definition are speculative—become the basis for regulatory intervention. Two illustrative instances of this regulation were codified in Dodd-Frank: stress tests and living wills. They are two pillars on which Dodd-Frank builds to manage risk in systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs).  As I argue in my forthcoming article, regulation by hypothetical in Dodd-Frank should be abandoned for three reasons: it relies on a faulty premise, tasks an agency with a conflicted mission, and likely exacerbates the moral hazards involved with governmental sponsorship of private institutions. Because of these weaknesses, the regulation-by-hypothetical regime must be either abandoned (my first choice) or strengthened. One way to strengthen these hypothetical scenarios would be to conduct financial war games.
Archive for the ‘Financial Crisis’ Category
Last week, James Kwak (UConn law professor, co-author of 13 Bankers and White House Burning, and blogger at the Baseline Scenario) provided a nice writeup of some of the key issues I identify in my paper, Understanding the Failures of Market Discipline, recently posted to SSRN. But I wanted to take a few words to provide a slightly more detailed explanation of my work.
“Market discipline”—the notion that short-term creditors (such as bank depositors) can efficiently identify and rein in bank risk—has been a central pillar of banking regulation since the 1980s. Obviously, market discipline did not prevent the buildup of bank risk that caused the recent financial crisis, but the general consensus has been that this failure was due to structural impediments to the effective operation of market discipline—such as misaligned incentives, a lack of transparency, or moral hazard caused by implicit guarantees—rather than any problems with the concept itself. As a result, a major point of emphasis in financial regulatory reform efforts has been to improve and strengthen market discipline.
EU proposal for a regulation on structural measures improving the resilience of EU credit institutions
1. On 29 January 2014 the European Commission published a proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council “on structural measures improving the resilience of EU credit institutions”. This proposed legislation is the EU’s equivalent of Volcker and Vickers. It was initiated by the Liikanen report published on 2 October 2012 but the legislative proposal departs in a number of ways from the report’s conclusions. There are two significant departures: the legislative proposal contains a Volcker-style prohibition, which also departs from the individual EU Member States’ approach, and, although the proposal contains provisions which mirror the Vickers “ring-fencing” approach they are not, in direct contradiction to Liikanen’s recommendation, mandatory.
Capitalism is abundant in contradictions that result in the production of crises. During such crises capital goes through devaluations that give rise to unemployment, bankruptcies and income inequality. The ability of a nation to resist the forces of devaluation depends on the array of institutional or spatio-temporal fixes it possesses, which can buffer the effects of the crisis, switch the crisis to other nations or defer its effects to the future. Corporate governance configurations in a given social order can function as institutional or spatio-temporal fixes provided they are positioned within an appropriate institutional environment that can give rise to beneficial complementarities.
In the paper, Bank Capital and Financial Stability: An Economic Tradeoff or a Faustian Bargain?, forthcoming in the Annual Review of Financial Economics, I review the literature on the relationship between bank capital and stability. Higher capital contributes positively to financial stability. On this issue, there seems to be little disagreement. There is, however, disagreement in the literature on whether the high leverage in banking serves a socially-useful economic purpose, and whether regulators should permit banks to operate with such high leverage despite its pernicious effect on bank stability, and this disagreement seems at least as strong as that over the causes of the subprime crisis (Lo (2012)). Some of the disagreement over higher capital requirements is between those who emphasize the potential benefits of this in terms of reducing systemic risk and those who believe that sufficiently high capital requirements will generate various costs (e.g., lower lending and liquidity creation and the migration of key financial intermediation services to the unregulated sector).
Investors, borrowers, financial institutions, and the economy were not the only casualties of the financial crisis. Regulators were casualties too, and the SEC was one of the hardest hit. Two Harris Polls—one conducted in 2007 before the financial crisis and the other in 2009 after much of the damage had been done—tell the story. Between 2007 and 2009, favorable ratings of the SEC dropped from 71% to 29%, while the percentage of the public rating it fair or poor rose from 25% to 72%. “By a wide margin,” the Harris organization stated, “[this was] the biggest change in an agency’s ratings since these questions were first asked in 2000.” Indeed, the SEC’s 29% positive rating was a full 15 points worse than even the second-lowest rated agency in the survey. Congress attacked the Commission as well, as when Long Island Representative Gary Ackerman burst out in a hearing, “Whose job is it to protect the investors? Because I wanna tell them that they suck at it.” And the press was also merciless, as when reporter Charlie Gasparino urged, “the SEC should be disbanded.”
The primary function of corporate governance in the United States has been to address the managerial agency cost problem that afflicts publicly traded companies with dispersed share ownership. Berle and Means threw the spotlight on this type of agency cost problem—using different nomenclature—in their famous 1932 book The Modern Corporation and Private Property. Nevertheless, it was only in the 1970s that the now ubiquitous corporate governance movement began. Why did the corporate governance movement gain momentum in the U.S. when it did? And given its belated arrival, why did it flourish during ensuing decades?
In our paper, How Does Corporate Governance Affect Bank Capitalization Strategies?, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we examine how corporate governance and executive compensation affect bank capitalization strategies for an international sample of banks over the 2003-2011 period.
We find that ‘good’ corporate governance—or corporate governance that causes the bank to act in the interests of bank shareholders—engenders lower levels of bank capital. Specifically, we find that bank boards of intermediate size (big enough to escape capture by management, but small enough to avoid free rider problems within the board), separation of the CEO and chairman of the board roles, and an absence of anti-takeover provisions lead to lower capitalization rates. ‘Good’ corporate governance thus may be bad for bank stability and potentially entail high social costs. This disadvantage of ‘good’ corporate governance has be balanced with presumed benefits in terms of restricting management’s ability to perform less badly in other areas—for instance, by shirking or acquiring perks—at the expense of bank shareholders.
Nearly a decade ago, the United States Supreme Court in Dura Pharmaceuticals Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 345 (2005), emphasized that a securities fraud suit is not an investor’s insurance policy against market losses. As courts continue to address the fallout from the financial crisis that began in 2007, the court’s admonition is alive and well, and frequently appearing in decisions addressing claims under § 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and common law claims involving structured products such as mortgage-backed securities. Just recently, two federal courts observed in the § 10(b) context that “[t]he securities laws are not an insurance policy for investments gone wrong, inexperience, bad luck, poor choices, or unexpected market events,” nor are they “a prophylaxis against the normal risks attendant to speculation and investment in the financial markets.”
Five years after the failure of Lehman Brothers, asset price bubbles remain in forefront of the public imagination. Commentators see potential bubbles from Bitcoin to Chinese real estate. Three articles in this week’s edition of the Economist examine whether bubble are afflicting various economies and markets. This year’s Nobel prizes in economics brought to the forefront questions of market efficiency and whether bubbles exist.
My new book, Law, Bubbles, and Financial Regulation, looks at the often overlooked legal dimensions of bubbles. The book examines how market frenzies and regulatory interact in powerful and often destructive ways. (You can read the first chapter of the book, published by Routledge in November, here). Feedback between market and legal dynamics leads to a pernicious outcome: financial regulation can fail when it is needed the most. The dynamics of asset price bubbles weaken financial regulation just as financial markets begin to overheat and the risk of crisis spikes. At the same time, the failure of financial regulations adds further fuel to a bubble.
The book examines the interaction of bubbles and financial regulation through the history of over three centuries of financial frenzies and crises. This perspective reveals that law is crucial to the story of bubbles and that the legal history of the current global crisis has many forerunners. Bubbles involve more than irrational exuberance or low interest rates. Financial law and legal change play critical roles in the severity and consequences of bubbles. The book explores the ways in which bubbles lead to the failure of financial regulation by outlining five dynamics, which it collectively labels the “Regulatory Instability Hypothesis” (with apologies to Hyman Minsky). These five dynamics include: