Recently, Amar Bhide, one of the economists and thinkers I admire most, published an op-ed in the New York Times I disagreed with rather strongly. Many of Amar’s points are entirely unobjectionable, e.g., we can’t count on regulators to guard against excessive risk-taking. Yet his solution struck me as unlikely to succeed:
Relying on the Fed and other central banks to counter panics is dangerous brinkmanship. A lender of last resort ought not to be a first line of defense. Rather, we need to take away the reason for any depositor to fear losing money through an explicit, comprehensive government guarantee. The government stands behind all paper currency regardless of whose wallet, till or safe it sits in. Why not also make all short-term deposits, which function much like currency, the explicit liability of the government?
Guaranteeing all bank accounts would pave the way for reinstating interest-rate caps, ending the competition for fickle yield-chasers that helps set off credit booms and busts. (Banks vie with one another to attract wholesale depositors by paying higher rates, and are then impelled to take greater risks to be able to pay the higher rates.) Stringent limits on the activities of banks would be even more crucial. If people thought that losses were likely to be unbearable, guarantees would be useless.
Banks must therefore be restricted to those activities, like making traditional loans and simple hedging operations, that a regulator of average education and intelligence can monitor. If the average examiner can’t understand it, it shouldn’t be allowed. Giant banks that are mega-receptacles for hot deposits would have to cease opaque activities that regulators cannot realistically examine and that top executives cannot control. Tighter regulation would drastically reduce the assets in money-market mutual funds and even put many out of business. Other, more mysterious denizens of the shadow banking world, from tender option bonds to asset-backed commercial paper, would also shrivel.
These radical, 1930s-style measures may seem a pipe dream. But we now have the worst of all worlds: panics, followed by emergency interventions by central banks, and vague but implicit guarantees to lure back deposits. Since the 2008 financial crisis, governments and central bankers have been seriously overstretched. The next time a panic starts, markets may just not believe that the Treasury and Fed have the resources to stop it.
But what if even the stringent restrictions Amar has in mind can be foiled? Ashwin Parameswaran raises that possibility:
Amar Bhide’s idea essentially seeks to turn back the clock and forbid much of the innovation that has taken place in the last few decades. In particular, derivatives businesses will be forbidden for deposit-taking banks. This is a radical idea and one that is a significant improvement on the current status quo. But it is not enough to mitigate the moral hazard problem. To illustrate why this is the case, let me take an example of how as a banker, I would construct such a payoff within a “narrow banking”-like mandate. Let us assume that banks can only take deposits and make loans to corporations and households. They cannot hedge their loans or engage in any activities related to financial market positions even as market makers, and they cannot carry any off balance-sheet exposures, commitments etc. Although this would seem to be a sufficiently narrow mandate to prevent rent extraction, it is not. Banks can simply lend to other firms that take on negatively skewed bets. You may counter that banks should only be allowed to lend to real economy firms. But do we expect regulators to audit not only the banks under their watch but also the firms to whom they lend money? In the first post on this blog, I outlined how the synthetic super-senior CDO tranche was the quintessential rent-extraction product of the derivatives revolution. But at its core, the super-senior tranche is simply a severely negatively skewed bond – a product that pays a small positive spread in good times and loses you all your money in bad times. There is no shortage of ways in which such a negatively skewed payoff can be constructed by simple structured bank loans.
What the synthetic OTC derivatives revolution made possible was for the banking system to structure such payoffs in an essentially infinite amount without even going through the trouble of making new loans or mortgages – all that was needed was a derivatives counterparty. Without derivatives, banks would have to lend money to generate such a payoff – this only makes it a little harder to extract rents but it still does not change the essence of the problem. Even more crucially, the potential for such rent extraction is unlimited compared to other avenues for extracting rent. If the state pays a higher price for an agricultural crop compared to the market, at least the losses suffered by the taxpayer are limited by physical constraints such as arable land available. But when the rent extraction opportunity goes hand in hand with the very process that creates credit and broad money, the potential for rent extraction is virtually unlimited.
Even if we assume that rent extraction can be controlled by more stringent regulations, there remains one problem. There is simply no way that incumbent large banks, especially those with a large OTC derivatives franchise, can shed their derivatives business and still remain solvent. The best indication of how hard it is to unwind complex derivatives portfolios was the experience of Warren Buffett in unwinding the derivatives portfolio which he inherited from the General Re acquisition. As Buffett notes, unwinding the portfolio of a relatively minor player in the derivative market under benign market conditions and no internal financial pressure took years and cost him $404 million. If we asked any of the large banks, let alone all of them at once, to do the same in the current fragile market conditions the cost of doing so will comfortably bankrupt the entire banking sector. The modern TBTF bank with its huge OTC derivatives business is akin to a suicide bomber with his finger on the button that is holding us hostage – this is the reason why regulators handle them with kid gloves.
Ashwin’s preferred solution is to allow public deposit accounts, an idea we’ve championed in the past. Yet his vision goes much further than mine — and I am increasingly convinced that he is right.
The “regulate and insure” model ignores the ability of banks to arbitrage any regulatory framework. But the status quo is also unacceptable. However the system is sufficiently levered and fragile that allowing market forces to operate or simply forcing a drastic structural change upon incumbent banks by regulatory fiat implies an almost certain collapse of the incumbent banks. Creating a public deposit option is the first step in implementing a sustainable transition to a resilient financial system, one in which instead of shackling incumbent banks we separate them from the risk-free depository system.
What I find particularly interesting about this conversation is that it doesn’t map onto the left-right divide, in part because many in the U.S. center-left are convinced that Dodd-Frank represents progress towards a more sustainable financial system while many advocates for a public deposit option are convinced that most regulatory efforts are futile, and indeed that they tend to exacerbate the sector’s underlying flaws.