Reckless Regs

In a 9/24/09 WSJ op-ed, Jeffrey Friedman, editor of the Critical Review journal, makes the case that the causes of the banking crisis lie more with reckless regulation than reckless bankers. Mr. Friedman notes that several studies suggest that “bank executives were simply ignorant of the risks their institutions were taking – not that they were deliberately courting disaster because of their pay packages.” He notes that “bank CEOs held about 10 times as much of their banks’ stock as they were typically paid per year, ” and that several high profile CEOs lost $500 million and more.

So what role did reckless regulation play in the debacle? In 2001, financial regulators in the U.S. amended international banking rules regarding mortgage backed securities (MBS). These “recourse rule” changes allowed banks to maintain less of a capital risk cushion for MBS than that needed for holding individual mortgages and commercial loans. By 2007, the rest of the G-20 countries implemented the same rules. Thus regulators created a profit opportunity for investment banks.

If banks had been out to take additional risk to maximize profit, Friedman argues, they would have bought far more lower rated packages of MBS. But they didn’t. Many opted for the least risky MBS packages, rated AAA, which provided lower profits. Reassured by the AAA rating, Citigroup brought all of the MBS packages it could. Doubtful of the underlying soundness of these financial products, J.P. Morgan Chase didn’t. In this competition, J.P.Morgan Chase emerged strong from the crisis while Citigroup is a taxpayer supported financial house of cards.

Friedman argues that capitalism is a competition of predictions about which procedures will bring profits. “Regulations homogenize,” he states, promoting a herd behavior on competitors in the market. The investment banking herd, prodded by regulatory ideas of what constitutes prudent banking, ran off the cliff. After this disastrous experiment in regulating capital allocation at banking institutions, the G-20 now wants to write rules on what should be prudent compensation practices in the banking industry.

The responsibility for the crisis is certainly shared by the regulators. Friedman neglects to mention the lobbying by the financial industry during the nineties to loosen up the recourse rules. Friedman contends that the purchasing of AAA rated MBS packages was a desire for safety. In 2001, Marty Rosenblatt, a well recognized expert on securitization, wrote an analysis of the rule changes on the capital requirements for banks. Rather than a desire for safety, as Friedman contends, purchases of AAA and AA rated MBS packages enabled banks to multiply the leverage of their capital by five times. Instead of requiring banks to hold 8 cents in capital for every $1 of risk, banks had to hold only 1.6 cents, a leverage of 60 to 1, or $1 of capital to $60 of risk. This highly leveraged capital to risk ratio dwarfs the high ratios of the late 1920’s, whose high leverages brought on the stock market implosion of 1929.

Why would the the Federal Reserve and other U.S. banking regulators adopt such a lax captial requirement? Because they were using historical data of losses on mortgage securitizations when lending requirements were stricter. Shortly after financial regulators loosened captial requirements for banks, the regulators at the U.S. mortgage giants, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, began relaxing lending standards for mortage holders in order to promote President Bush’s “ownership society” in the aftermath of 9/11. This uncoordinated confluence of regulatory changes laid the foundations for the crisis. The imprint of financial rule makers certainly conveyed a sense of sound and prudent financial standards. Investment banks discarded their internal risk management rules to take advantage of the opportunity to make large profits from the securitization boom.

Some, like Friedman, will lay most of the blame on the regulators while some place it at the feet of the investment banks who chose to ignore principles derived from decades of risk management experience. Investment bankers lay some of the responsibility on the “pressure” of savings, particularly savings accumulated in a rapidly industrializing Asia, chasing the higher yields of MBS. The demand for these financial products became a strong persuasion to bankers who scrambled to put financial packages together to meet the demand. To meet that demand, investment bankers reached out to mortgage brokers, who met the demand of the investment bankers by selling mortgages to people who really weren’t good mortgage risks. Those people simply took advantage of an opportunity to buy a house, to ride the wave of escalating property values.

This larger story is too often left out by op-ed writers. It is the gestalt of regulation, profit seeking capital markets and opportunistic savers and consumers that is responsible for the financial crisis. Each of these components are necessary to a well functioning market. Probably the one flaw common to each of these “players” was the decision to ignore an old maxim, “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

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