Where Do We Go from Here? Part I

In my June 24 and 29 blog entries, I made a few very modest suggestions for financial regulatory reform: a 9/11 Commission type of study of the causes of the financial crisis (and ensuing depression); a plan for rotating financial regulatory staff among the different financial regulatory agencies; the creation of a financial intelligence and contingency planning capability in the Federal Reserve; knitting the state banking and insurance regulators into a national "early warning" system of financial danger signs; financing financial regulatory agencies out of congressional appropriations rather than fees paid by the regulated firms. To this I now add another suggestion of modest reform: rather than create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, just move the consumer protection divisions in the Federal Reserve and the other banking agencies to the Federal Trade Commission, consolidating them in a new Financial Regulation Division of the commission.

But the momentum for more-radical reform is powerful, and flat-out opposition unlikely to be effective regardless of its merit. So let me address in a constructive spirit what seem to me the far-reaching reform proposals that deserve serious consideration. These are: (1) gearing banks' capital requirements to the different phases of the business cycle; (2) making the Federal Reserve the systemic-risk regulator for the entire financial sector; (3) separating out commercial banking, mortgage banking, and money-market funds from other financial institutions, and making them safe; (4) regulating the compensation of top management of financial institutions that pose systemic risk; and (5) tightening regulation of derivatives, including credit-default swaps. I discuss the first three reforms in this first part of a two-part entry, and the other two reforms in Part II.

There are many high-risk industries, ranging from airlines to restaurants, but only one--the banking industry, broadly defined as it must be to include all other financial intermediaries--poses systemic risk in the sense that widespread failures of firms in the industry can turn a recession into a depression. Banking, as I keep emphasizing, is inherently risky. It involves the lending of borrowed capital; and creating a spread between the interest paid for the rental of the borrowed capital and the interest charged for lending that capital requires the bank to charge a higher interest rate than it pays, and to do that it must take a risk that the loan will not be repaid. In short, the bank's capital is at risk. One way to limit that risk is to place a low ceiling on the ratio of borrowed capital (debt) to owned capital (equity), the latter acting as a cushion against losses from defaults of loans made by the bank.

The tendency is for the ratio of debt to equity to rise in boom periods. The reason is that in a boom, values tend to be rising (house values for example), and this reduces defaults and so increases the market value of a bank's loan portfolio and other assets. (Defaults decline because in a rising market a borrower who has trouble paying off his loans can sell the house or other collateral for the loan at a profit and thus avoid defaulting, or refinance the loan because the collateral securing it has risen in value.) In addition, loan quality declines in a boom because there is greater demand for loans, for in a boom borrowers and lenders alike believe that rising values will prevent default even if the borrower is not creditworthy in the usual sense. 

The problem is that the factors that drive up the market value of bank assets, and reduce loan quality, during a boom set the stage for catastrophe during a bust, at least a bust of the severity of the present one. A fall in the value of houses or other collateral precipitates defaults, aggravated by the declining loan quality during the bust; and with the market value of the banks' assets thus falling, their debt to equity ratio soars because debt is a fixed liability. (If at time t-boom a bank assets are worth $100, its debt is $90, and its equity therefore $10, at time t-bust its assets might be worth $90, its debt will still be $90, and its equity therefore will be $0.)

The solution is to require the bank to reduce its debt-equity ratio during booms. Banks will resist this solution because it will reduce their profits. Not that banks are indifferent to risk, but they are less sensitive to it than the regulatory authorities are (or should be) because to an individual bank the systemic component of risk is an "external" cost, as economists say. That is, it is a cost imposed on persons and firms with which the bank has no contractual relations (think of the millions of persons who have lost their jobs in this depression, without having been employed by or had any other contractual relation with any financial firm), rather than only felt by the firm that incurs it.

This reform of the capital structure of regulated banks could easily be implemented by the federal agencies that regulate banks, mainly the Federal Reserve, the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Office of Thrift Supervision. There is thus no need to constitute the Federal Reserve the systemic-risk regulator, so far as systemic risks created by banks is concerned, at least if the Office of Thrift Supervision, which appears to have performed incompetently in the case of Countrywide and Washington Mutual, is either reformed or merged into the Federal Reserve. The concern rather is with nonbanks that might create systemic risk, as the investment banks and broker-dealers did in the current financial crisis--Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and others. The first two have disappeared and most of the others have become bank holding companies, which has brought them under the regulatory supervision of the Fed. That leaves hedge funds, industrial loan companies (such as GE Capital, a financial company that is part of a nonfinancial company, General Electric), money-market funds, and perhaps forms of financial institution not yet invented. Hedge funds and money-market funds are under the actual or (in the case of hedge funds) potential regulatory control of the Securities and Exchange Commission, but perhaps rather than requiring the SEC to think about systemic risk the Fed should be given authority to determine that any financial institution poses systemic risk that requires additional regulation.

Presented by

Richard A. Posner

Richard Posner is an author and federal appeals court judge. He has written more than 2500 published judicial opinions and continues to teach at the University of Chicago Law School. More

Richard A. Posner worked for several years in Washington during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. He worked for Justice William J. Brennan, Jr, the Solicitor General of the U.S., Thurgood Marshall, and as general counsel of President Johnson's Task Force on Communications Policy. Posner entered law teaching in 1968 at Stanford and became professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School in 1969. He was appointed Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 1981 and served as Chief Judge from 1993 to 2000. He has written more than 2500 published judicial opinions and continues to teach at the University of Chicago Law School. His academic work has covered a broad range, with particular emphasis on the application of economics to law. His most recent books are How Judges Think (2008), Law and Literature (3d ed. 2009), A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression (2009). He has received the Thomas C. Schelling Award for scholarly contributions that have had an impact on public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Henry J. Friendly Medal from the American Law Institute.

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