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Posts Tagged ‘financial regulation’

Ten years on

Ten years ago (on 9 August 2007), the French bank BNP Paribas sparked international concern when it admitted that it didn’t know what many of its investments in the US sub-prime property market were worth and froze three of its hedge funds. This kicked off the financial crisis and the beginning of the credit crunch.

In September 2007 there was a run on the Northern Rock bank in the UK, forcing the Bank of England to provide emergency funding. Northern Rock was eventually nationalised in February 2008. In July 2008, the US financial authorities had to provide emergency assistance to America’s two largest mortgage lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Then in September 2008, the financial crisis really took hold. The US bank, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy, sending shock waves around the global economy. In the UK, Lloyds TSB announced that it was taking over the UK’s largest mortgage lender, Halifax Bank Of Scotland (HBOS), after a run on HBOS shares.

Later in the month, Fortis, the huge Belgian banking, finance and insurance company, was partly nationalised to prevent its bankruptcy. Also the UK government was forced to take control of mortgage-lender, Bradford & Bingley’s, mortgages and loans, with the rest of the business sold to Santander.

Early in October 2008, trading was suspended in the main Icelandic banks. Later in the month, the UK government announced a £37 billion rescue package for Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Lloyds TSB and HBOS. Then in November it partially nationalised RBS by taking a 58% share in the bank. Meanwhile various other rescue packages and emergency loans to the banking sector were taking place in other parts of the world. See here for a timeline of the financial crisis.

So, ten years on from the start of the crisis, have the lessons of the crisis been learnt. Could a similar crisis occur again?

The following articles look at this question and the answers are mixed.

On the positive side, banks are much more highly capitalised than they were ten years ago. Moves by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in its Basel III regulatory framework have ensured that banks are much more highly capitalised and operate with higher levels of liquidity. What is more, banks are generally more cautious about investing in highly complex and risky collateralised assets.

On the negative side, increased flexibility in labour markets, although helping to keep unemployment down, has allowed a huge squeeze on real wages as austerity measures have dampened the economy. What is more, household debt is rising to possibly unsustainable levels. Over the past year, unsecured debt (e.g. personal loans and credit card debt) have risen by 10% and yet (nominal) household incomes have risen by only 1.5%. While record low interest rates make such loans relatively affordable, when interest rates do eventually start to rise, this could put a huge strain on household finances. But if households start to rein in their borrowing, this would put downward pressure on aggregate demand and jeopardise economic growth.

Articles
The crisis: 10 years in three chart BBC News, Simon Jack (9/8/17)
Darling: ‘Alarm bells ringing’ for UK economy BBC News (9/8/17)
Alistair Darling warns against ‘complacency’ 10 years on from financial crisis The Telegraph (9/8/17)
A decade after the financial crisis consumers are still worried Independent, Kate Hughes (9/8/17)
Bankers still do not understand complex reasons behind financial crash, senior politician warns Independent, Ashley Cowburn (9/8/17)
We let the 2007 financial crisis go to waste The Guardian, Torsten Bell (9/8/17)
Bank of England warns of complacency over big rise in personal debt The Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/7/17)
On the 10th anniversary of the global financial meltdown, here’s what’s changed USA Today, Kim Hjelmgaard (8/8/17)
Financial crisis: Ten years ago today the tremors started Irish Times (9/8/17)
If We Are Racing to the Pre-Crisis Bubble, Here Are 12 Charts To Watch Bloomberg, Sid Verma (9/8/17)

Videos
The financial crisis ten years ago to the day Euronews (9/8/17)
Ten years later: What really sparked the financial crisis Sky News, Adam Parsons (9/8/17)
Bank of England warns on household debt Channel 4 News, Siobhan Kennedy (25/7/17)

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by ‘collateralised debt obligations (CDOs)’.
  2. What part did CDOs play in the financial crisis of 2007–8?
  3. In what ways is the current financial situation similar to that in 2007–8?
  4. In what ways is it different?
  5. Explain the Basel III banking regulations.
  6. To what extent has the Bank of England exceeded the minimum Basel III requirements?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘stress testing’ the banks? Does this ensure that there can never be a repeat of the financial crisis?
  8. Why is it desirable for central banks eventually to raise interest rates to a level of around 2–3%? Why might it be difficult for central banks to do that?
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Does a shrinking banking sector balance sheet signal the end for credit cycles?

Following the financial crisis, all sectors of the economy continue to repair their balance sheets. As well as households, non-financial corporations and government, this is true of the banking sector. In part, the repairing and rebalancing of their balance sheets is being brought about by regulatory pressures. The objective is to make banks more resilient to shocks and less susceptible to financial distress.

The need for banks to repair and rebalance their balance sheets is significant because of their systemic importance to the modern-day economy. Financial institutions that are systemically important to national economies are know as SIFIs (systemically important financial institutions) while those of systemic importance to the global economy are know as G-SIFIs or G-SIBs (global systemically important banks). The increasing importance of financial institutions to economic activity is known as financialisation.

One way of measuring the degree of financialisation here in the UK is to consider the aggregate size of the balance sheet of resident UK banks and building societies (including foreign subsidiaries operating here). The chart shows that the balance sheet grew from £2.6 trillion in 1998 Q1 to £8.5 trillion in 2010 Q1. Another way of looking at this is to consider this growth relative to GDP. This reveals that the aggregate balance sheet of banks and building societies grew over this period from 3 times annual GDP to a staggering 5.6 times GDP. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

But, now consider the aggregate banking balance sheet in the 2010s. This reveals a shrinking balance sheet. At the end of the second quarter of this year (2014 Q2) it had fallen back to £7.1 trillion or 4 times GDP. As a share of GDP, this was the smallest the aggregate balance sheet had been since 2005 Q1.

Does a shrinking balance sheet matter? This is where the analysis becomes tricky and open to debate. If the smaller size is consistent with a more stable financial system then undoubtedly that is a good thing. But, size is not that all matters. The composition of the balance sheet matters too. This requires an analysis of, among other things, the liquidity of assets (i.e. assets that can be readily turned in a given amount of cash), the reliability of the income flow from assets and the resources available to withstand periods of slow economic growth, including recessions, or periods of financial difficulty.

As we have identified before (see Financialisation: Banks and the economy after the crisis), the financial crisis could herald new norms for the banking system with important implications for the economy. If so, we may need to become accustomed to consistently lower flows of credit and not to the levels that we saw prior to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. However, an alternative view is that we are merely experiencing a pause before the next expansionary phase of the credit cycle. This is consistent with the financial instability hypothesis (see Keeping a Minsky-eye on credit) which argues that credit cycles are an integral part of modern financialised economies. Only time will tell which view will turn out to be right.

Articles
‘Cleaning up bank balance sheets is key’ Irish Examiner, John Walsh (10/10/14)
More action needed at European banks: Fitch Courier Mail, (17/10/14)
Bank lending to small businesses falls by £400m The Telegraph, Rebecca Burn-Callander (20/10/14)
Bank lending to SMEs falls by £400m SME insider, Lindsey Kennedy (21/10/14)
Record world debt could trigger new financial crisis, Geneva report warns The Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/10/14)
RBS shares jump as bank’s bad debts improve The Guardian, Jill Treanor (30/10/14)

Data
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Questions

  1. Using examples, demonstrate your understanding of financialisation.
  2. Draw up a list of the alternative ways in which we might measure financialisation.
  3. What factors are likely to explain the recent reduction in the aggregate balance sheet of resident banks and building societies in the UK?
  4. How might we go about assessing whether the aggregate level of lending by financial institutions is sustainable?
  5. How might we go about assessing whether the level of lending by individual financial institutions is sustainable?
  6. How would reduced flows of credit be expected to impact on the economy both in the short term and in the longer term?
  7. Are credit cycles inevitable?
  8. Of what significance are credit cycles in explaining the business cycle?
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Financialisation: Banks and the economy after the crisis

In the blogs The capital adequacy of UK banks and A co-operative or a plc? we focus on how British banks continue to look to repair their balance sheets. To do so, banks need to ‘re-balance’ their balance sheets. This may involve them holding more reserves and equity capital and/or a less risky and more liquid profile of assets. The objective is to make banks more resilient to shocks and less susceptible to financial distress.

This will take time and even then the behaviour of banks ought to look like quite different from that before the financial crisis. All of this means that we will need to learn to live with new banking norms which could have fundamental consequences for economic behaviour and activity.

The increasing importance of financial institutions to economic activity is known as financialisation. It is not perhaps the nicest word, but, in one way or another, we all experience it. I am writing this blog in a coffee shop in Leicester having paid for my coffee and croissant by a debit card. I take it for granted that I can use electronic money in this way. Later I am going shopping and I will perhaps use my credit card. I take this short term credit for granted too. On walking down from Leicester railway station to the coffee shop I walked past several estate agents advertising properties for sale. The potential buyers are likely to need a mortgage. In town, there are several construction sites as Leicester’s regeneration continues. These projects need financing and such projects often depend on loans secured from financial institutions.

We should not perhaps expect economic relationships to look as they did before the financial crisis. The chart shows how levels of net lending by financial institutions to households have dramatically fallen since the financial crisis. (Click here for PowerPoint of chart.)

Net lending measures the amount of lending by financial institutions after deducting repayments. These dramatically smaller flows of credit do matter for the economy and they do affect important macroeconomic relationships.

Consider the consumption function. The consumption function is a model of the determinants of consumer spending. It is conventional wisdom that if we measure the growth of consumer spending over any reasonably long period of time it will basically reflect the growth in disposable income. This is less true in the short run and this is largely because of the financial system. We use the financial system to borrow and to save. It allow us to smooth our consumption profile making spending rather less variable. We can save during periods when income growth is strong and borrow when income growth is weak or income levels are actually falling. All of this means that in the short term consumption is less sensitive to changes in disposable income that it would otherwise be.

The financial crisis means new norms for the banking system and, hence, for the economy. One manifestation of this is that credit is much harder to come by. In terms of our consumption function this might mean consumption being more sensitive to income changes that it would otherwise be. In other words, consumption is potentially more volatile as a result of the financial crisis. But, the point is more general. All spending activity, whether by households or firms, is likely to be more sensitive to economic and financial conditions than before. For example, firms’ capital spending will be more sensitive to their current financial health and crucially to their flows of profits.

We can expect particular markets and sectors to be especially affected by new financial norms. An obvious example is the housing market which is very closely tied to the mortgage market. But, any market or sector that traditionally is dependent on financial institutions for finance will be affected. This may include, for example, small and medium-sized enterprises or perhaps organsiations that invest heavily in R&D. It is my view that economists are still struggling to understand what the financial crisis means for the economy, for particular sectors of the economy and for the determination of key economic relationships, such as consumer spending and capital spending. What is for sure, is that these are incredibly exciting times to study economics and to be an economist.

Data
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England

Articles
Cut in net lending to non-financial firms raises credit worries Herald Scotland, Mark Williamson (25/5/13)
Loans to business continue to shrink despite Funding for Lending Scheme Wales Online, Chris Kelsey (3/6/13)
Factbox – Capital shortfalls for five UK banks, mutuals Standard Chartered News (20/6/13)
UK banks ordered to plug £27.1bn capital shortfall The Guardian, Jill Treanor (20/6/13)
Barclays, Co-op, Nationwide, RBS and Lloyds responsible for higher-than-expected capital shortfall of £27.1bn The Telegraph, Harry Wilson (20/6/13)
UK banks need to plug £27bn capital hole, says PRA BBC News (20/6/13)
Barclays and Nationwide forced to strengthen BBC News, Robert Peston (20/6/13)
Five Banks Must Raise $21 Billion in Fresh Capital: BOE Bloomberg, Ben Moshinsky (20/6/13)
Co-operative Bank to list on stock market in rescue deal The Guardian, Jill Treanor (17/6/13)
Troubled Co-operative Bank unveils rescue plan to plug £1.5bn hole in balance sheet Independent, Nick Goodway (17/6/13)
Co-op Bank announces plan to plug £1.5bn hole Which?(17/6/13)
The Co-operative Bank and the challenge of finding co-op capital The Guardian, Andrew Bibby (13/6/13)
Co-op Bank seeks to fill £1.5bn capital hole Sky News (17/6/13)
Central banks told to head for exit Financial Times, Claire Jones (23/6/13)
Stimulating growth threatens stability, central banks warn The Guardian (23/6/13)

BIS Press Release and Report
Making the most of borrowed time: repair and reform the only way to growth, says BIS in 83rd Annual Report BIS Press Release (23/6/13)
83rd BIS Annual Report 2012/2013 Bank for International Settlements (23/6/13)

Questions

  1. What is meant by equity capital?
  2. How can banks increase the liquidity of their assets?
  3. Explain how Basel III is intended to increase the financial resilence of banks.
  4. What do you understand by the term ‘financialisation’? Use examples to illustrate this concept.
  5. How might we expect the financial crisis to affect the detemination of spending by economic agents?
  6. Using an appropriate diagram, explain how a reduction in capital spending could affect economic activity? Would this be just a short-term effect?
  7. What does it mean if we describe households as consumption-smoothers? How can households smooth their spending?
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Liability for LIBOR

Barclays’ Chief Executive, Bob Diamond, has resigned following revelations that Barclays staff had been involved in rigging the LIBOR in the period 2005–9, including the financial crisis of 2007–9.

So what is the LIBOR; how is it set; what were the reasons for Barclays (and other banks, as will soon be revealed) attempting to manipulate the rate; and what were the consequences?

The LIBOR, or London interbank offered rate, is the average of what banks report that they would have to pay to borrow from one another in the inter-bank market. Separate LIBORs are calculated for 15 different lending periods: overnight, one week, one month, two months, three months, six months, etc. The rates are set daily as the average of submissions made to Thomson Reuters by some 15 to 20 banks (a poll overseen by the British Bankers’ Association). Thomson Reuters then publishes the LIBORs, along with all of the submissions from individual banks which are used to calculate it.

Many interest rates around the world are based on LIBORs, or their European counterpart, EURIBORs. They include bond rates, mortgage rates, overdraft rates, etc. Trillions of dollars worth of such assets are benchmarked to the LIBORs. Thus manipulating LIBORs by even 1 basis point (0.01%) can result in millions of dollars worth of gains (or losses) to banks.

The charge, made by the Financial Services Authority, is that Barclays staff deliberately under- or overstated the rate at which the bank would have to borrow. For example, when interbank loans were drying up in the autumn of 2008, Barclays staff were accused of deliberately understating the rate at which they would have to borrow in order to persuade markets that the bank was facing less difficulty than it really was and thereby boost confidence in the bank. In other words they were accused of trying to manipulate LIBORs down by lying.

As it was the LIBORs were rising well above bank rate. The spread for the one-month LIBOR was around 1 to 1.2% above Bank Rate. Today it is around 0.1 to 0.15% above Bank Rate. Without lying by staff in Barclays, RBS and probably other banks too, the spread in 2008 may have been quite a bit higher still.

The following articles look at the issue, its impact at the time and the aftermath today.

Articles
A Libor primer The Globe and Mail, Kevin Carmichael (3/7/12)
60 second guide to Libor Which? (3/7/12)
Explaining the Libor interest rate mess CNN Money (3/7/12)
Fixing Libor Financial Times (27/6/12)
LIBOR in the News: What it is, Why it’s Important Technorati, John Sollars (2/7/12)
Libor rigging ‘was institutionalised at major UK bank’ The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (1/7/12)
Barclays ‘attempted to manipulate interest rates’ BBC News, Robert Peston (27/6/12)
The Libor Conspiracy: Were the Bank of England and Whitehall in on it? Independent, Oliver Wright, James Moore , Nigel Morris (4/7/12)
Fixing LIBOR The Economist (10/3/12)
Cleaning up LIBOR? The Economist (14/5/12)
Eagle fried The Economist, Schumpeter (27/6/12)
Barclays looks like the victim Financial Post, Terence Corcoran (3/7/12)
Inconvenient truths about Libor BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/7/12)
Timeline: Barclays’ widening Libor-fixing scandal BBC News (5/7/12)
The elusive truth about Barclays’ lie BBC News, Robert Peston (4/7/12)
Rate Fixing Scandal Is International: EU’s Almunia CNBC, Shai Ahmed (4/7/12)
Bank-Bonus Culture to Blame for Barclays Scandal The Daily Beast, Alex Klein (3/7/12)
Libor scandal ‘damaging’ for City BBC Today Programme, Andrew Lilico and Mark Boleat (5/7/12)

Data
Libor rate fixing: see each bank’s submissions Guardian Data Blog, Simon Rogers (3/7/12)
Sterling interbank rates Bank of England

Questions

  1. Using data from the Bank of England (see link above), chart two or three LIBOR rates against Bank rate from 2007 to the present day.
  2. For what reason would individuals and firms lose from banks manipulating LIBOR rates?
  3. Why would LIBOR manipulation be more ‘effective’ if banks colluded in their submissions about their interest rates?
  4. Why might the Bank of England and the government have been quite keen for the LIBOR to have been manipulated downwards in 2008?
  5. To what extent was the LIBOR rigging scandal an example of the problem of asymmetric information?
  6. In the light of the LIBOR rigging scandal, should universal banks be split into separate investment and retail banks, rather than erecting some firewall around their retail banking arm?
  7. What are the arguments for and against making attempts to manipulate LIBOR rates a criminal offences?
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Global solutions to global financial problems?

Paul Volcker was Chair of the US Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987. He was also Chair of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board under President Barack Obama from February 2009 to January 2011. In the webcast and articles below, he reflects on the current state of the world financial system – from regulation, to the euro crisis, to world imbalances, to the system of floating exchange rates.

He argues that global financial systems are vulnerable to breakdowns. What is needed is reform to the system, and for that there needs to be consensus by politicians, regulators and central banks.

But, in the absence of international consensus on some key points, reform will be greatly weakened, if not aborted. The freedom of money, financial markets and people to move – and thus to escape regulation and taxation – might be an acceptable, even constructive, brake on excessive official intervention, but not if a deregulatory race to the bottom prevents adoption of needed ethical and prudential standards.

Perhaps most important is a coherent, consistent approach to dealing with the imminent failure of “systemically important” institutions. Taxpayers and governments alike are tired of bailing out creditors for fear of the destructive contagious effects of failure – even as bailouts encourage excessive risk-taking.

According to Volcker, countries must be prepared to surrender some sovereignty. Policies must be co-ordinated internationally and there must be stronger regulation by international bodies, such as the IMF and stronger concerted action by global organisations, such as the G20.

Left to their own devices, in an era of floating exchange rates, countries may pursue policies that exacerbate global imbalances.

Not so long ago, we were comforted by theorising that floating exchange rates would mediate international adjustments in a timely and orderly way. But, in the real world, many countries, particularly but not limited to small, open economies, simply find it impractical or undesirable to permit their currency to float.

We are left with the certainty, however awkward, that active participation in an open world economy requires some surrender of economic sovereignty. Or, to put the point more positively, it requires a willingness to co-ordinate policies more effectively.

Webcast
Volcker Urges Global Monetary System Overhaul BloombergBusinessweek (31/5/12)

Articles
Is global financial reform possible? Guardian, Paul Volcker (6/6/12)
Volcker Urges Global Financial System Overhaul After Crisis BloombergBusinessweek, Robyn Meredith and Shamim Adam (31/5/12)

Questions

  1. What reforms, according to Volcker, need to be implemented in order for the euro to function effectively without crises?
  2. What can the USA do to ease the euro crisis?
  3. What are Volcker’s views on the regulation of the US banking system?
  4. How are incentive structures in banks related to speculative activities?
  5. Should banks be allowed to fail?
  6. What financial imbalances exist between countries?
  7. What international monetary reforms are required?
  8. What light can game theory shed on the difficulty of achieving global policy co-ordination?
  9. Is an international system of floating exchange rates appropriate given the size of international financial flows?
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Reflections of the Old Lady’s Governor

On 2 May 2012, Sir Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, gave the BBC Today Prgramme’s public lecture. In it, he reflected on the causes and aftermath of the banking crisis of 2007/8.

He said that the main cause of the banking crisis was the risky behaviour of the banks themselves – behaviour that they had been allowed to get away with becuase regulation was too light. The cause was not one of inappropriate fiscal and monetary policy.

According to Dr King, there had been no classical macroeconomic boom and bust. True there had been a bust, but there was no preceding boom. Economic growth had not been unsustainable in the sense of being persistently above the potential rate. In other words, the output gap had been close to zero. As Mervyn King puts it

Let me start by pointing out what did not go wrong. In the five years before the onset of the crisis, across the industrialised world growth was steady and both unemployment and inflation were low and stable. Whether in this country, the United States or Europe, there was no unsustainable boom like that seen in the 1980s; this was a bust without a boom.

In terms of monetary policy, inflation had been on track and interest rates were not too low. And as for fiscal policy, government borrowing had been within the Golden Rule, whereby, over the cycle, the goverment borrowed only to invest and kept a current budget balance. Indeed, the period of the late 1990s and early to mid 2000s had become known as the Great Moderation.

So what went wrong? Again in the words of Dr King:

In a nutshell, our banking and financial system overextended itself. That left it fragile and vulnerable to a sudden loss of confidence.

The most obvious symptom was that banks were lending too much. Strikingly, most of that increase in lending wasn’t to families or businesses, but to other parts of the financial system. To finance this, banks were borrowing large amounts themselves. And this was their Achilles’ heel. By the end of 2006, some banks had borrowed as much as £50 for every pound provided by their own shareholders. So even a small piece of bad news about the value of its assets would wipe out much of a bank’s capital, and leave depositors scurrying for the door. What made the situation worse was that the fortunes of banks had become closely tied together through transactions in complex and obscure financial instruments. So it was difficult to know which banks were safe and which weren’t. The result was an increasingly fragile banking system.

But doesn’t his imply that regulation of the banking system had failed? And if so why? And have things now been fixed – so that banks will no longer run the risk of failure? Dr King addresses this issue and others in his speech and also in his interview the next day for the Today Programme, also linked to below.

Podcasts
The Today Programme Lecture BBC Radio 4, Sir Mervyn King (2/5/12) (Transcript of speech)
Also on YouTube at Governor’s Today Programme lecture, 2 May 2012
Sir Mervyn King: The full interview BBC Today Programme, Sir Mervyn King talks to Evan Davis (3/5/12)
Sir Mervyn King analysis ‘verging on delusional’ BBC Today Programme, Dylan Grice and Ngaire Woods (3/5/12)

Articles
Sir Mervyn King rejects criticism for crisis BBC News (3/5/12)
The boom and bust of Mervyn King BBC News, Robert Peston (3/5/12)
Sir Mervyn King admits BoE failed over financial crisis The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (3/5/12)
Sir Mervyn King admits: we did too little to warn of economic crisis Guardian, Larry Elliott (2/5/12)
King Says BOE Will Risk Unpopularity to Prevent Crises Bloomberg, Jennifer Ryan and Scott Hamilton (3/5/12)

Data
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD (See Annex Tables 1, 10, 14, 18, 27, 28, 32, 33, 61 and 62)
Statistical Interactive Database Bank of England (See for example, A Money and Lending: counterparts to changes in M4, alternative presentation > Seasonally adjusted > Public sector contribution > PSNCR)

Questions

  1. Why was the period of the late 1990s and early to mid 2000s described as the Great Moderation?
  2. Chart the size of the output gap, the rate of inflation and public-sector deficits as a percentage of GDP in the UK and other major economies from 1995 to 2007. Is this evidence of the Great Moderation?
  3. To what extent would evidence of house prices, consumer debt, bank lending and the balance of trade deficit suggest that there was indeed a boom from the mid 1990s to 2007?
  4. What, according to Dr King were the main causes of the credit crunch?
  5. What, with hindsight, should the Bank of England have done differently?
  6. What UK body was responsible for regulating banks in the run up to the credit crunch? Why might its regulation be described as ‘light touch’?
  7. In what sense was there a moral hazard in central banks being willing to bail out banks?
  8. What banking reforms have taken place or will take place in the near future? Will they address the problems identified by Dr King and prevent another banking crisis ever occurring again?
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Saving the eurozone? Saving the world? (Part D)

The meeting of EU leaders on night of Thursday/Friday 8/9 December was the latest in a succession of such meetings designed to solve the eurozone’s problems (see also, Part A, Part B and Part C in this series of posts from earlier this year).

Headlines in the British press have all been about David Cameron’s veto to a change in the Treaty of Lisbon, which sets the rules of the operation of the EU and its institutions. Given this veto, the 17 members of the eurozone and the remaining 9 non-eurozone members have agreed to proceed instead with inter-governmental agreements about tightening the rules governing the operation of the eurozone.

In this news item we are not looking at the politics of the UK’s veto or the implications for the relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU. Instead, we focus on what was agreed and whether it will provide the solution to the eurozone’s woes: to fiscal harmonisation; to stimulating economic growth; to bailing out severely indebted countries, such as Italy; and to recapitalising banks so as to protect them from sovereign debt problems and the private debt problems that are likely to rise as the eurozone heads for recession.

The rules on fiscal harmonisation represent a return to something very similar to the Stability and Growth Pact, but with automatic and tougher penalties built in for any country breaking the rules. What is more, eurozone member countries will have to submit their national budgets to the European Commission for approval.

The agreement has generally been well received – stock markets rose in eurozone countries on the Friday by around 2%. But the consensus of commentators is that whilst the agreement might prove a necessary condition for rescuing the euro, it will not be a sufficient condition. Expect a Part E (and more) to this series!

Meanwhile the following articles provide a selection of reactions from around the world to the latest agreement

EU leaders announce new fiscal agreement Southeast European Times, Svetla Dimitrova (9/12/11)
Eurozone crisis: What if the euro collapses? BBC News (9/12/11)
New European Treaty Won’t Solve Current Liquidity Crisis Huffington Post, Bonnie Kavoussi (9/12/11)
UK alone as EU agrees fiscal deal BBC News (9/12/11)
A good deal for the UK – or the euro? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (9/12/11)
European leaders strengthen firewall Financial Times, Joshua Chaffin and Alan Beattie (9/12/11)
EU leaders push for tough rules in new treaty DW-World, Bernd Riegert (9/12/11)
German Vision Prevails as Leaders Agree on Fiscal Pact The New York Times, Steven Erlanger and Stephen Castle (9/12/11)
European Union leaders agree to forge new fiscal pact; Britain the only holdout The Washington Post, Anthony Faiola (9/12/11)
The new rules by EU leaders Irish Independent (10/12/11)
More uncertainty seen in wake of EU summit Deseret News (9/12/11)
EU president unveils raft of crisis-fighting measures The News (Pakistan) (10/12/11)
No rave reviews The Economist, Buttonwood (9/12/11)
Beware the Merkozy recipe The Economist (10/12/11)
Europe blunders into a blind, and dangerous, alley Guardian, Larry Elliott, (9/12/11)
As the dust settles, a cold new Europe with Germany in charge will emerge Guardian, Ian Traynor, (9/12/11)
Euro zone agreement only partial solution – IMF Reuters, Tova Cohen and Ari Rabinovitch (11/12/11)
Celebration Succumbs to Concern for Euro Zone New York Times, Liz Alderman (12/12/11)
In graphics: The eurozone’s crisis BBC News

Questions

  1. How do the latest proposals for fiscal harmonisation differ from the Stability and Growth Pact?
  2. How might a Keynesian criticise the agreement?
  3. What is the role of (a) the IMF and (b) the ECB in the agreement?
  4. Do you agree that the agreement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for solving the eurozone’s problems?
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New bonus caps: how will banks react?

We have covered the issue of bank bonuses in previous blogs. See for example: Banking on bonuses? Not for much longer (November 2009); “We want our money back and we’re going to get it” (President Obama) (January 2010); and Payback time (Updated April 2010). But the issue has not been resolved. Despite public outrage around the world over the behaviour of banks that caused the credit crunch and about banks having to be bailed out with ‘taxpayers money’ and, as a result, people facing tax rises and cuts in public-sector services and jobs, bankers’ pay and bonuses are soaring once more. The individuals who caused the global economic crisis seem immune to the effects of their actions. But are things about to change?

The Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) has confirmed tough new guidelines on bank bonuses applying to all banks operating in the EU. The CEBS’s prime purpose in recommending restricting bonuses is to reduce the incentive for excessive and dangerous risk taking. As it states in paragraph 1 of the Guidelines on Remuneration Policies and Practices:

Whilst institutions’ remuneration policies were not the direct cause of this crisis, their drawbacks, nonetheless, contributed to its gravity and scale. It was generally recognized that excessive remuneration in the financial sector fuelled a risk appetite that was disproportionate to the loss-absorption capacity of institutions and of the financial sector as a whole.

The guidelines include deferring 40–60% of bonuses for three to five years; paying a maximum of 50% of bonuses in cash (the remainder having to be in shares); setting a maximum bonus level as a percentage of an individual’s basic pay; appointing remuneration committees that are truly independent; publishing the pay and bonuses of all senior managers and ‘risk takers’. Although they are only recommendations, it is expected that bank regulators across the EU will implement them in full.

So will they be effective in curbing the pay and bonuses of top bank staff? Will they curb excessive risk taking? Or will banks simply find ways around the regulations? The following articles discuss these issues

Articles
Bankers’ bonuses to face strict limits in Europe BBC News, Hugh Pym (10/12/10)
Bankers’ bonuses to face strict limits in Europe BBC News (10/12/10)
Europe set to link banking bonuses to basic salaries The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (10/12/10)
Some bankers may escape EU cash bonus limit moneycontrol.com (India) (11/12/10)
Banks to sidestep bonus crackdown by raising salaries Guardian, Jill Treanor (10/12/10)
Bonuses: When bank jobs pay Guardian (11/12/10)
Bank bonuses (portal page) Financial Times

Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS)
CEBS home page
CEBS has today published its Guidelines on Remuneration Policies and Practices (CP42) CEBS news release (10/12/10)
Guidelines on Remuneration Policies and Practices (10/12/10)

Questions

  1. What are main objectives of the CEBS guidelines?
  2. Assess the arguments used by the banking industry in criticising the guidelines.
  3. In what ways can the banks get around these new regulations (assuming the guidelines are accepted by EU banking regulators)?
  4. What conditions would have to met for a remuneration committee to be truly independent?
  5. How likely is it that countries outside the EU will adopt similar regulations? How could they be persuaded to do so?
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Basel III – tough new regulations, or letting banks off lightly?

Under the Basel II arrangements, banks were required to maintain particular capital adequacy ratios (CARs). These were to ensure that banks had sufficient capital to allow them to meet all demands from depositors and to cover losses if a borrower defaulted on payment. Basel II, it was (wrongly) thought would ensure that the banking system could not collapse.

There were three key ratios. The first was an overall minimum CAR of 8%, measured as Tier 1 capital plus Tier 2 capital as a percentage of total risk-weighted assets. As Economics 7th edition page 509 explains:

Tier 1 capital includes bank reserves (from retained profits) and ordinary share capital, where dividends to shareholders vary with the amount of profit the bank makes. Such capital thus places no burden on banks in times of losses as no dividend need be paid. What is more, unlike depositors, shareholders cannot ask for their money back. Tier 2 capital consists largely of preference shares. These pay a fixed rate of interest and thus do continue to place a burden on the bank even when losses are made (unless the bank goes out of business).

Risk-weighted assets are the value of assets, where each type of asset is multiplied by a risk factor. Under the internationally agreed Basel II accord, cash and government bonds have a risk factor of zero and are thus not included. Inter-bank lending between the major banks has a risk factor of 0.2 and is thus included at only 20 per cent of its value; residential mortgages have a risk factor of 0.35; personal loans, credit-card debt and overdrafts have a risk factor of 1; loans to companies carry a risk factor of 0.2, 0.5, 1 or 1.5, depending on the credit rating of the company. Thus the greater the average risk factor of a bank’s assets, the greater will be the value of its risk weighted assets, and the lower will be its CAR.

The second CAR was that Tier 1 capital should be at least 4% of risk weighted assets.

The third CAR was that equity capital (i.e. money raised from the issue of ordinary shares) should be at least 2% of risk weighted assets. This is known as the ‘core capital ratio’.

Before 2008, it was thought by most commentators that these capital adequacy ratios were sufficiently high. But then the banking crisis erupted. Banks were too exposed to sub-prime debt (i.e. debt that was excessively risky, such as mortgages on property at a time when property prices were rapidly declining). Much of this debt was disguised by being bundled up with other securities in what were known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs). On 15 September 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy: the largest bankruptcy in history, with Lehmans owing $613 billion. Although its assets had a book value of $639, these were insufficiently liquid to enable Lehmans to meet the demands of its creditors.

The collapse of Lehmans sent shock waves around the world. Banks across the globe came under tremendous pressure. Many held too much sub-prime debt and had insufficient capital to meet creditors’ demands. As a result, they had to be bailed out by their governments. Clearly the Basel II regulations were too lax.

For several months there have been discussions about new tighter regulations and, on 12 September 2010, central bankers from the major countries met in Basel, Switzerland, and agreed the Basel III regulations. Although the overall CAR (Tier 1 and 2) was kept at 8%, the Tier 1 ratio was raised from 4% to 6% and the core Tier 1 ratio was raised from 2% to 4.5%, to be phased in by 2015. In addition there were two ‘buffers’ introduced.

As well as having to maintain a core Tier 1 ratio of 4.5%, banks would also have to hold a ‘conservation buffer’ of 2.5%. “The purpose of the conservation buffer is to ensure that banks maintain a buffer of capital that can be used to absorb losses during periods of financial and economic stress. While banks are allowed to draw on the buffer during such periods of stress, the closer their regulatory capital ratios approach the minimum requirement, the greater the constraints on earnings distributions.” In effect, then, the core Tier 1 ratio will rise from 2% to 7% (i.e. 4.5% minimum plus a buffer of 2.5%).

The other buffer is a ‘countercyclical buffer’. This will be “within a range of 0% – 2.5% of common equity or other fully loss absorbing capital and will be implemented according to national circumstances.” The idea of this buffer is to allow banks to withstand volatility in the global economy. It will be phased in between 2016 and 2019.

The Basel III agreement will still need to be ratified by the G20 countries meeting at Seoul on 10 and 11 November this year. That meeting will also consider other elements of bank regulation.

So will these extra capital requirements be sufficient to allow banks to withstand any future crisis? The following articles discuss this question.

Articles
Global bankers agree new capital reserve rules BBC News (12/9/10)
Q&A: Basel rules on bank capital – who cares? BBC News, Laurence Knight (13/9/10)
Basel III and Sound Banking New American, Charles Scaliger (17/9/10)
Wishy-washy rules might come back to haunt regulators Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (18/9/10)
Basel III proposal released Newsweek, Joel Schectman (17/9/10)
New Bank Rules May Not Prevent More Meltdowns FXstreet, Henrik Arnt (16/9/10)
Basel III CBS Money Watch, Mark Thoma (14/9/10)
Basel III: To lend or not to lend Investment Week, Martin Morris (16/9/10)
Taming the banks The Economist (16/9/10)
Basel’s buttress The Economist (16/9/10)
Do new bank-capital requirements pose a risk to growth? The Economist, guest contributions
Myners: New rules ‘ignore bank liquidity’ BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston and Lord Myners (18/9/10)

Official press releases and documents
Group of Governors and Heads of Supervision announces higher global minimum capital standards Bank for International Settlements Press Release (12/9/10)
The Basel iii Accord Basel iii Compliance Professionals Association (BiiiCPA)
Details of the new capital requirements Bank for International Settlements
Details of the phase-in arrangements Bank for International Settlements

Questions

  1. What impact will a higher capital adequacy ratio have on banks’ behaviour?
  2. For what reasons may the Basel III regulations be considered too lax?
  3. When there is an increase in deposits into the banking sector, banks can increase loans by a multiple of this. This bank deposits multiplier is the inverse of the liquidity ratio. Is there a similar bank capital multiplier and, if so, what determines its size?
  4. Why will Basel III be phased in over a number of years? Is this too long?
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A stressful time for banks

In the aftermath of the credit crunch and the recession, many banks had to be bailed out by central banks and some, such as Northern Rock and RBS, were wholly or partially nationalised. Tougher regulations to ensure greater liquidity and higher proportions of capital to total liabilities have been put in place and further regulation is being planned in many countries.

So are banks now able to withstand future shocks?

In recent months, new threats to banks have emerged. The first is the prospect of a double-dip recession as many countries tighten fiscal policy in order to claw down debts and as consumer and business confidence falls. The second is the concern about banks’ exposure to sovereign debt: i.e. their holding of government bonds and other securities. If there is a risk that countries might default on their debts, then banks would suffer and confidence in the banking system could plummet, triggering a further banking crisis. With worries that countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland might have problems in servicing their debt, and with the downgrading of these countries by rating agencies, this second problem has become more acute for banks with large exposure to the debt of these and similar countries.

To help get a measure of the extent of the problem and, hopefully, to reassure markets, the Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) has been conducting ‘stress tests’ on European banks. On 24 July, it published its findings. The following articles look at these tests and the findings and assess whether the tests were rigorous enough.

Articles
Bank balance: EU stress tests explained Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins, Emily Cadman and Steve Bernard (13/7/10)
Seven EU banks fail stress test healthchecks BBC News, Robert Peston (23/7/10)
Interactive: EU stress test results by bank Financial Times, Emily Cadman, Steve Bernard, Johanna Kassel and Patrick Jenkin (23/7/10)
Q&A: What are the European bank stress tests for? BBC News (23/7/10)
Europe’s Stress-Free Stress Test Fails to Make the Grade Der Spiegel (26/7/10)
A test cynically calibrated to fix the result Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau (25/7/10)
Europe confronts banking gremlins Financial Times (23/7/10)
Leading article: Stressful times continue Independent (26/7/10)
Europe’s banking check-up Aljazeera, Samah El-Shahat (26/7/10)
Finance: Stressed but blessed Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (25/7/10)
Were stress test rigorous enough? BBC Today Programme, Ben Shore (24/7/10)
Banks’ stress test ‘very wooly’ BBC Today Programme, Peter Hahn and Graham Turner(24/7/10)
Stress test whitewash of European banks World Socialist Web Site, Stefan Steinberg (26/7/10)
Stress tests: Not many dead BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (23/7/10)
Not much stress, not much test Reuters, Laurence Copeland (23/7/10)
Stress-testing Europe’s banks won’t stave off a deflationary vortex Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (18/7/10)
European banking shares rise after stress tests BBC News (26/7/10)
Euro banks pass test, gold falls CommodityOnline, Geena Paul (26/7/10)

Report
2010 EU-wide Stress Testing: portal page to documents CEBS

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by a bank stress test?
  2. What particular scenarios were tested for in the European bank stress tests?
  3. Assess whether the tests were appropriate? Were they too easy to pass?
  4. What effect did the results of the stress tests have on gold prices? Explain why (see final article above).
  5. What stresses are banks likely to face in the coming months? If they run into difficulties as a result, what would be the likely reaction of central banks? Would there be a moral hazard here? Explain.
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