economics

January 17, 2010

Fed Lays Out Case for Continued Role in Banking Supervision

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 6:04 am
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-The Fed noted that the shadow banking system and firms not under its own supervision were among the biggest drivers of the financial crisis. “These firms…were instead subject to consolidated supervision under statutory or regulatory schemes that were far less comprehensive than that applicable to bank holding companies,” the letter said.

The shadow banking system or the shadow financial system consists of non-bank financial institutions that play an increasingly critical role in lending businesses the money necessary to operate.

Shadow banking institutions are typically intermediaries between investors and borrowers. For example, an institutional investor like a pension fund may be willing to lend money, while a corporation may be searching for funds to borrow. The shadow banking institution will channel funds from the investor(s) to the corporation, profiting either from fees or from the difference in interest rates between what it pays the investor(s) and what it receives from the borrower.

By definition, shadow institutions do not accept deposits like a depository bank and therefore are not subject to the same regulations. Familiar examples of shadow institutions included Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Other complex legal entities comprising the system include hedge funds, SIVs, conduits, money funds, monolines, investment banks, and other non-bank financial institutions.

Risks or vulnerability

Shadow institutions are not subject to the same safety and soundness regulations as depository banks, meaning they do not have to keep as much money in the proverbial vault relative to what they borrow and lend. In other words, they can have a very high level of financial leverage, with a high ratio of debt relative to the liquid assets available to pay immediate claims. High leverage magnifies profits during boom periods and losses during downturns.

Shadow institutions like investment banks borrowed from investors in short-term, liquid markets (such as the money market and commercial paper markets), meaning that they would have to frequently repay and borrow again from these investors. On the other hand, they used the funds to lend to corporations or to invest in longer-term, less liquid (i.e., harder to sell) assets. In many cases, the long-term assets purchased were the mortgage-backed securities sometimes called “toxic assets” or “legacy assets” in the press. These assets declined significantly in value as housing prices declined and foreclosures increased during 2007-2009.

In the case of investment banks, this reliance on short-term financing required them to return frequently to investors in the capital markets to refinance their operations. When the housing market began to deteriorate and the ability to obtain funds from investors through investments such as mortgage-backed securities declined, these investment banks were unable to fund themselves. Investor refusal or inability to provide funds via the short-term markets was a primary cause of the failure of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers during 2008.

In technical terms, these institutions are subject to market risk, credit risk and especially liquidity risk, since their liabilities are short-term while their assets are more long term and illiquid. This creates a potential problem in that they are not depositary institutions and do not have direct or indirect access to the support of their central bank in its role as lender of last resort. Therefore, during periods of market illiquidity, they could go bankrupt if unable to refinance their short-term liabilities. They were also highly leveraged. This meant that disruptions in credit markets would make them subject to rapid deleveraging, meaning they would have to pay off their debts by selling their long-term assets. [3]

The securitization markets frequently tapped by the shadow banking system started to close down in the spring of 2007 and nearly shut-down in the fall of 2008. More than a third of the private credit markets thus became unavailable as a source of funds.[4] In February 2009, Ben Bernanke stated that securitization markets remained effectively shut, with the exception of conforming mortgages, which could be sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.[5]

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stated that the “combined effect of these factors was a financial system vulnerable to self-reinforcing asset price and credit cycles.”[

Bubbles and the Banks- By PAUL KRUGMAN

A lot of the public debate has been about protecting borrowers. Indeed, a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency to help stop deceptive lending practices is a very good idea. And better consumer protection might have limited the overall size of the housing bubble.

But consumer protection, while it might have blocked many subprime loans, wouldn’t have prevented the sharply rising rate of delinquency on conventional, plain-vanilla mortgages. And it certainly wouldn’t have prevented the monstrous boom and bust in commercial real estate.

Reform, in other words, probably can’t prevent either bad loans or bubbles. But it can do a great deal to ensure that bubbles don’t collapse the financial system when they burst.

Bear in mind that the implosion of the 1990s stock bubble, while nasty — households took a $5 trillion hit — didn’t provoke a financial crisis. So what was different about the housing bubble that followed?

The short answer is that while the stock bubble created a lot of risk, that risk was fairly widely diffused across the economy. By contrast, the risks created by the housing bubble were strongly concentrated in the financial sector. As a result, the collapse of the housing bubble threatened to bring down the nation’s banks. And banks play a special role in the economy. If they can’t function, the wheels of commerce as a whole grind to a halt.

Why did the bankers take on so much risk? Because it was in their self-interest to do so. By increasing leverage — that is, by making risky investments with borrowed money — banks could increase their short-term profits. And these short-term profits, in turn, were reflected in immense personal bonuses. If the concentration of risk in the banking sector increased the danger of a systemwide financial crisis, well, that wasn’t the bankers’ problem.

Of course, that conflict of interest is the reason we have bank regulation. But in the years before the crisis, the rules were relaxed — and, even more important, regulators failed to expand the rules to cover the growing “shadow” banking system, consisting of institutions like Lehman Brothers that performed banklike functions even though they didn’t offer conventional bank deposits.

The result was a financial industry that was hugely profitable as long as housing prices were going up — finance accounted for more than a third of total U.S. profits as the bubble was inflating — but was brought to the edge of collapse once the bubble burst. It took government aid on an immense scale, and the promise of even more aid if needed, to pull the industry back from the brink.

And here’s the thing: Since that aid came with few strings — in particular, no major banks were nationalized even though some clearly wouldn’t have survived without government help — there’s every incentive for bankers to engage in a repeat performance. After all, it’s now clear that they’re living in a heads-they-win, tails-taxpayers-lose world.

The test for reform, then, is whether it reduces bankers’ incentives and ability to concentrate risk going forward.

Transparency is part of the answer. Before the crisis, hardly anyone realized just how much risk the banks were taking on. More disclosure, especially with regard to complex financial derivatives, would clearly help.

Beyond that, an important aspect of reform should be new rules limiting bank leverage. I’ll be delving into proposed legislation in future columns, but here’s what I can say about the financial reform bill the House passed — with zero Republican votes — last month: Its limits on leverage look O.K. Not great, but O.K. It would, however, be all too easy for those rules to get weakened to the point where they wouldn’t do the job. A few tweaks in the fine print and banks would be free to play the same game all over again.

And reform really should take on the financial industry’s compensation practices. If Congress can’t legislate away the financial rewards for excessive risk-taking, it can at least try to tax them.

Let me conclude with a political note. The main reason for reform is to serve the nation. If we don’t get major financial reform now, we’re laying the foundations for the next crisis. But there are also political reasons to act.

For there’s a populist rage building in this country, and President Obama’s kid-gloves treatment of the bankers has put Democrats on the wrong side of this rage. If Congressional Democrats don’t take a tough line with the banks in the months ahead, they will pay a big price in November.

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