Why the Volcker Rule won’t solve the problem of Too Big To Fail

The Volcker Rule was originally proposed to end the problem of banks needing taxpayer bailouts. Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, proposed that commercial banks using customer deposits to trade — a practice known as proprietary trading — played a key role in the financial crisis that began in 2007.

Five former Secretaries of the Treasury — W. Michael Blumenthal, Nicholas Brady, Paul O’Neill, George Shultz, and John Snow — endorsed the Volcker Rule in an open letter to the Wall Street Journal, writing that banks “should not engage in essentially speculative activity unrelated to essential bank services.”

The Volcker Rule was signed into law as part of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in July of 2010, but its implementation has been delayed until yesterday when it finally received approval from the five (!) regulatory agencies that will enforce it — the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

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Sparkassen — A De Facto Glass-Steagall?

Ed Miliband has a very good idea to break the British lending freeze:

Ed Miliband is to make his firmest commitment to a regional-based economic policy when he proposes a network of banks around the country responsible for providing capital to businesses in their locality.

The proposals, due to be unveiled in a speech to the British chambers of commerce, mark a further attempt to map out a different industrial policy, some of which has echoes of plans for a revival of city regions set out by the coalition adviser Lord Heseltine.

Miliband will say it is time to stop tinkering with the banks and recognise a wholly new system is needed.

He will say: “We do not just need a single investment serving the country. We need a regional banking system serving each and every region of the country. Regional banks with a mission to serve that region and that region alone, not banks that are likely to say no but banks that know your region and your business; not banks that you mistrust, but banks you can come to trust.”

I would not support politicians interfering with the financial sector if the British financial sector was a successful model. But the country is still hurting from its utter failure in 2008. Back then, Ed Miliband’s predecessor Gordon chose to bail out the banking system. Had the financial sector been allowed to fail, then a new model would have been forced to emerge. But that wasn’t the case. Now, politicians must take responsibility for putting the banking system on a life support system. The current government’s attempts at reform have not succeeded in revitalising the economy.

Miliband’s idea approximates the German model of Sparkassen — publicly owned regional banks:

Supporters of the local banks claim that in 2011 total loans by the Sparkassen stood at €322bn (£280bn), whereas the total loan stock of Germany’s large commercial banks was only €177bn (£153.5bn). Like Britain’s large banks, Germany’s large commercial banks cut credit during the financial crisis; lending fell by 10% between 2006 and the middle of 2011. In contrast, the Sparkassen increased lending by 17%.

On the surface, regionalisation may be helpful in that British banks have become over-centralised and disconnected from the interests of their local customers. This may be one factor that can explain why local, small and new businesses are struggling to get credit.

But this is an even better idea than Miliband may realise. Why? Because so long as the regional banks behave solely as depository and business investment institutions, and not as investment banks, insurance brokers, hedge funds, shadow banks, or proprietary traders, or any of the other highly interconnective and risky activities favoured by today’s supermarket banks — then such a system acts as de facto Glass-Steagall-style separation between the riskier privately-owned national and international-level commercial banks, and the regional level business investment and savings banks.

Such a system also echoes the recommendation made by Nassim Taleb, to nationalise the parts of the banking system that act as a public utility, and deregulate the rest so it is free to gamble, speculate, succeed and fail without significantly destabilising business lending, public savings, and the wider economy.

Save Our Bonuses!

With the British economy in a worse depression than the 1930s , bank lending to businesses severely depressed, and unemployment still high, a sane finance minister’s main concern might be resuscitating growth.

Prime Minister David Cameron And Chancellor George Osborne Ahead Of A Critical Week At The Leveson Inquiry

George Osborne’s main concern, however, are the poor suffering bankers:

Chancellor George Osborne flies to Brussels later determined to water down the European Parliament’s proposals to curb bankers’ bonuses.

But EU finance minsters in the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (Ecofin) are expected to approve last week’s proposals.

They include limiting bonuses to 100% of a banker’s annual salary, or to 200% if shareholders approve.

The City of London fears the rules will drive away talent and restrict growth.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson has dismissed the idea as “self-defeating”. London is the EU’s largest financial centre.

On Monday, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said: “We continue to have real concerns on the proposals. We are in discussions with other member states.”

But Mr Osborne’s bargaining power may be weakened further by Switzerland’s recent decision to cap bonuses paid to bankers and give shareholders binding powers over executive pay.

Now, I couldn’t care less about bonuses or pay in a free industry where success and failure are determined meritocratically. It is none of my business. If a successful business wants to pay its employees bonuses, then that is that business’s prerogative. If it wants to pay such huge bonuses that it puts itself out of business, then that is that business’s prerogative.

But the British financial sector is the diametrical opposite of a successful industry. It is a forlorn bowlegged blithering misshapen mess. The banks were bailed out by the taxpayer. They do not exist on the merits of their own behaviour. Two of the biggest are still owned by the taxpayer.  So I — as a taxpayer and as a British citizen — have an inherent personal interest in the behaviour of these banks and their employees.

In an ideal world, I would have let the banks go to the wall. The fact that the financial system is still on life support almost five years after the crisis began tells a great story. It’s not just that I don’t believe in bailing out failed and fragile corporations (although I do believe that this is immoral cronyism). The excessive interconnectivity built up over years prior to the crisis means that the pre-existing financial structure is extremely fragile. Sooner or later, without dismantling the fragilities (something that patently has not happened, as the global financial system today is as big and corrupt and interconnective as ever), the system will break again. (Obviously in a no-bank-bailout world, other action would have been required. Once the financial system had been allowed to fail, depositors would have to be bailed out, and a new financial system would have to be seeded and capitalised.)

But we do not live in an ideal world. We have inherited a broken system where the bankers (and not solely the ones whose banks are owned by the taxpayer — all banks benefit from the implicit liquidity guarantees of central banks) are living on taxpayer largesse. That gives the taxpayer the right to dictate terms to the banking sector.

Unfortunately, this measure (like many such measures dreamed up arbitrarily by bureaucrats) is rather pointless as it can be so very easily gamed by inflating salaries. And it will do nothing to address financial sustainability, as it does not address the problem that led to the 2008 liquidity panic — excessive balance sheet interconnectivity (much less the broader problems of moral hazard, ponzification, and the current weakened lending conditions).

But, if it is a step toward a Glass-Steagall-style separation of retail and investment banking — a solution which would actually address a real problem, and one advocated in the Vickers report — then perhaps that is a good thing. Certainly, it is not worth picking a fight over. The only priority Osborne should have right now is creating conditions in which the private sector can grow sustainably. Unlimiting the bonuses of the High Priests of High Finance has nothing whatever to do with that.

Too Big To Jail Is Here To Stay

Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General who claimed that prosecuting banks for crimes poses a risk to the financial sector and so corrupt bankers are “too big to jail” has lost his job:

MARTIN SMITH: You gave a speech before the New York Bar Association. And in that speech, you made a reference to losing sleep at night, worrying about what a lawsuit might result in at a large financial institution.

LANNY BREUER: Right.

MARTIN SMITH: Is that really the job of a prosecutor, to worry about anything other than simply pursuing justice?

LANNY BREUER: Well, I think I am pursuing justice. And I think the entire responsibility of the department is to pursue justice. But in any given case, I think I and prosecutors around the country, being responsible, should speak to regulators, should speak to experts, because if I bring a case against institution A, and as a result of bringing that case, there’s some huge economic effect — if it creates a ripple effect so that suddenly, counterparties and other financial institutions or other companies that had nothing to do with this are affected badly — it’s a factor we need to know and understand.

But the man who put him there, and who is ultimately responsible for the policy — the Attorney General himself — is here to stay.

eric-holder

Simon Johnson notes:

Attorney General Eric Holder expressed similar views in the context of discussing why more severe charges weren’t brought against Zurich-based UBS AG last year for manipulating the London interbank offered rate. And Neil Barofsky, a onetime senior prosecutor and former inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program that administered the bank bailouts, provided a scathing assessment of Justice Department policy.

The Justice Department likes to quote Thomas Jefferson: “The most sacred of the duties of government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens,” a line that appears in its latest budget documents.

This sentiment is hardly consistent with saying that some companies have characteristics that put them above the law. Jefferson himself was very worried about the concentrated power of financiers — he would have seen today’s problems much more clearly than do Holder and Breuer.

Fundamentally, Obama’s continued support for Holder illustrates that Obama is still committed to the policy of holding financiers to a lesser standard of justice than other citizens.

The continued failure to implement even the Volcker rule — let alone a Glass-Steagall-style separation between retail and investment banking — illustrates that Obama is committed to letting bailed-out banks continue to operate in the risky manner that led to the crisis. So does the total failure to ensure a level playing field for retail investors in a market now totally dominated by algorithms.

The big banks continue to ride roughshod over the American people with the complicity of the political class. Too Big to Jail is an affront to the Constitution, an affront to the Bill of Rights, an affront to those like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Lysander Spooner, Frederick Douglas and all those who at various times crusaded to make equality before the law a reality in America.

The only sensible way forward is that lawbreakers on Wall Street must be prosecuted in the same way as other lawbreakers. That means that Eric Holder and all others associated with Too Big To Jail must lose their jobs.

But I doubt that will happen any time soon.

The Absurdity of Sandy Weill

I’m suggesting the big banks be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk, the depositors won’t be at risk and the leverage will be something reasonable.

This from the guy who provided the impetus and the funds to end Glass-Steagall? Totally absurd — akin to Joe Stalin renouncing Marxism-Leninism and the gulag archipelago on his deathbed.

Glass-Steagall’s separation between depository and speculative institutions — especially during the Bretton Woods period — was a relatively robust system; there was never a large-scale banking calamity of the nature of 2008 or 1929 under its regime. Certainly, it had its imperfections — above all else that it never prevented bankers like Weill from chipping away at it up to the point of repeal — but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Glass-Steagall presided over a period of growth and stability.

While the data tends to show that the end of Bretton Woods in 1971 was the real catalyst of the financialisation, globalisation, deindustrialisation and debt buildup that ultimately flung the US into a depressionary deleveraging trap, the end of Glass-Steagall was profound.

Depositors’ funds became a medium for the creation of the huge and sprawling shadow banking and derivatives webs.

The blowout growth in shadow banking was presaged by the end of Glass-Steagall in 1999:

And the slow contractionary deleveraging of shadow banking has been a significant force in keeping the economy depressed since 2008. Any contrition on the part of Weill for his role in repealing Glass-Steagall might as well be an attempt to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s like trying to uninvent the atom bomb after Hiroshima. Weill was the guy who — above anyone else — was responsible for the damage done.

Coming out and claiming that reimposing Glass-Steagall would fix the problem is inadequate. If he wants to be taken seriously he should match every dollar he spent trying to get Glass-Steagall repealed with new lobbying funds to reimpose a separation between banks that accept deposits and the shadow banking and derivatives casinos.

Beyond that, I think that this is very telling. The financial institutions will do anything to avoid the ultimate free market solution — the disorderly liquidation of the system they created via default cascade. If high-ranking members of the financial elite are willing to talk about reimposing Glass-Steagall, they must be seriously concerned that the system they built is getting dangerously close to self-destruction.

UK Banks Want to Charge Customers for Accounts

This is nuts. UK banks want to charge customers for the privilege of handing over their money and letting banks gamble it in the global derivatives casino.

From the Telegraph:

A groundswell of support for change is understood to be gathering among the authorities. The Treasury’s advisers on the Independent Commission on Banking and the Office of Fair Trading are said to be also backing the proposals, alongside the treasury select committee and financial regulators.

Britain is the only country in Europe to operate a “free-in-credit” model of current account banking. Instead of levying fees on an account, lenders make their money through “stealth charges” on overdrafts and cross-selling of other products. Only India and Australia run equivalent models.

Regulators and officials want to reform the system to boost competition by making it easier to compare rival accounts. They also believe so-called “free banking” encourages mis-selling of financial products, exposes banks to compensation risks and lets customers down.

So the impression that bankers and regulators have seems to be that banks are doing customers a favour by holding onto their money and occasionally losing it all buying junk securities.

Nope. In a free market, banks that tried to charge customers for the privilege would be laughed out of the marketplace. Banks — by their very definition as intermediaries — generate profits from making good investments, not by charging customers for the privilege of holding their money.

Unfortunately this isn’t a free market, and banks can (and probably will) co-ordinate with each other to keep the market uncompetitive. Barriers to entry make it difficult to impossible for new players to enter the market and dislodge the status quo.

As the Office of Fair Trading noted in their must-read 2010 report:

New entrants to the retail banking sector face significant challenges in attracting customers and expanding their market shares, an OFT review has found.

The review of barriers to entry, expansion and exit in retail banking, published today, was launched in May 2010 to identify any obstacles blocking firms from entering the sector or from successfully competing against existing firms, as well as factors preventing inefficient firms from exiting the market and being replaced by more efficient ones.

Two words: banking cartel. Need I say more?

Anyway, I know what I will do with my money if my bank insists on charging me for the privilege of gambling my money: close my account, and find a bank that won’t charge. Even given the current barriers to entry, the opportunity to undercut the bigger players will be too good an opportunity to miss. And I’m sure lots of other people will do the same. Given that some parts of the UK banking industry (especially the Spanish-owned parts, and especially Banco Santander) are already looking shaky, does the UK banking industry really want customers pulling their money en mass?

Can Banking Regulation Prevent Stupidity?

In the wake of J.P. Morgan’s epic speculatory fail a whole lot of commentators are talking about regulation. And yes — this was speculation — if Dimon gets to call these activities “hedging portfolio risk“, then I have the right to go to Vegas, play the Martingale roulette system, and happily call it “hedging portfolio risk” too, because hey — the Martingale system always wins in theory.

From Bloomberg:

The Volcker rule, part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, was inspired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. It’s supposed to stop federally insured banks from making speculative bets for their own profit — leaving taxpayers to bail them out when things go wrong.

As we have said, banks have both explicit and implicit federal guarantees, so the market doesn’t impose the same discipline on them as, say, hedge funds. For this reason, the Volcker rule should be as airtight as possible.

Proponents of regulation point to the period of relative financial stability between the enactment of Glass-Steagall and its repeal. But let’s not confuse Glass-Steagall with what’s on the table today. It’s a totally different ball game.

To be honest, I think the Volcker rule is extremely unlikely to be effective, mostly because megabanks can bullshit their way around the definitional divide between proprietary trading and hedging. If anything, I think the last few days have proven the ineffectiveness, as opposed to the necessity of the Volcker rule. Definitions are fuzzy enough for this to continue. And whatever is put in place will be loopholed through by teams of Ivy League lawyers. What is the difference between hedging and speculation, for example? In my mind it’s very clear — hedging is betting to counterbalance specific and explicit risks, for example buying puts on a held equity. In the mind of Jamie Dimon, hedging is a fuzzy form of speculative betting to guard against more general externalities. I know that I am technically right, and Dimon is technically wrong, but I am also fairly certain that Dimon and his ilk can bend regulators into accepting his definition.

What we really need is a system that enforced the Volcker principle:

As Matt Yglesias notes:

Once bank lawyers finish finding loopholes in the detailed provisions, whatever they prove to be, the rule will probably have little meaningful impact.

The problem with principles-based regulation in this context is that you might fear that banks will use their political influence to get regulators to engage in a lot of forebearance. The problem with rules-based regulation in this context is that it’s really hard to turn a principle into a rule.

And I fear that nothing short of a return to Glass-Steagall — the explicit and categorical separation of investment and retail banking — will even come close to enforcing the Volcker principle.

Going even further, I am not even sure that Glass-Steagall will assure an end to this kind of hyper-risky activities that lead to crashes and bailouts.

The benefits of the Glass-Steagall era (particularly the high-growth 1950s and 1960s) were not solely derived from banking regulation. America was a very different place. There was a gold exchange standard that limited credit creation beyond the economy’s productive capacity (which as a Bank of England study recently found is correlated with financial and banking stability). But beyond that, America was creditor to the world, and an industrial powerhouse. And I’m sure Paul Krugman would hastily point out that tax revenues on the richest were as high as 90% (although it must be noted that this made no difference whatever for tax revenues). And we should not forget that it was that world that give birth to this one.

Anyone who worked in finance in the decade before Glass-Steagall was repealed knows that prior to Gramm-Leach-Bliley the megabanks just took their hyper-leveraged activities offshore (primarily to London where no such regulations existed). The big problem (at least in my mind) with Glass-Steagall is that it didn’t prevent the financial-industrial complex from gaining the power to loophole and lobby Glass-Steagall out of existence, and incorporate a new regime of hyper-leverage, convoluted shadow banking intermediation, and a multi-quadrillion-dollar derivatives web (and more importantly a taxpayer-funded safety net for when it all goes wrong: heads I win, tails you lose).

I fear that the only answer to the dastardly combination of hyper-risk and huge bailouts is to let the junkies eat dirt the next time the system comes crashing down. You can’t keep bailing out hyper-fragile systems and expect them to just fix themselves. The answer to stupidity is not the moral hazard of bailouts, it is the educational lesson of failure. You screw up, you take more care next time. If you’re bailed out, you just don’t care. Corzine affirms it; Iksil affrims it; Adoboli affirms it. And there will be more names. Which chump is next? If you’re trading for a TBTF bank right now — especially if your trading pattern involves making large bets for small profits (picking up nickels in front of steamrollers) — it could be you. 

I fear that the only effective regulation was that advocated way back before Gramm-Leach-Blilely by Warren G and Nate Dogg:

We regulate any stealing off this property. And we’re damn good too. But you can’t be any geek off [Wall] street, gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean, earn your keep.

In other words, the next time the fragilista algos and arbitrageurs come clawing to the taxpayer looking for a bailout, the taxpayer must kick them off the teat.

UPDATE:

Some commenters on Zero Hedge have made the point that this is not a matter of stupidity so much as it is one of systemic and purposeful looting. Although I see lots of evidence of real stupidity (as I described yesterday), even if I am wrong, I know that to get access to the bailout stream banks have to blow up and put themselves into a liquidity crisis, and even if they think that is an easy way to free cash it’s still pretty stupid because eventually — if not this time then next time — they will end up in bankruptcy court. It would be like someone with diabetes stopping their medication to get attention…