The Corner

Regulation & the Financial Markets

To suggest that there doesn’t need to be some sort of regulatory response (and I don’t include “no change” as a regulatory response) to the financial mess is, to say the least, unwise. The question is the form that it should take. Before the Congress and the Obama administration pile any further in, and on, they would do well to ponder this article from the New York Times by Niall Ferguson:

[T]he continental Europeans — who supposedly have much better-regulated financial sectors than the United States — have even worse problems in their banking sector than we do. The German government likes to wag its finger disapprovingly at the “Anglo Saxon” financial model, but last year average bank leverage was four times higher in Germany than in the United States. Schadenfreude will be in order when the German banking crisis strikes…

 

…The reality is that crises are more often caused by bad regulation than by deregulation. For one thing, both the international rules governing bank-capital adequacy so elaborately codified in the Basel I and Basel II accords and the national rules administered by the Securities and Exchange Commission failed miserably. It was the Basel system of weighting assets by their supposed riskiness that essentially allowed the Enronization of banks’ balance sheets, so that (for example) the ratio of Citigroup’s tangible on- and off-balance-sheet assets to its common equity reached a staggering 56 to 1 last year. The good health of Canada’s banks is due to better regulation. Simply by capping leverage at 20 to 1, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions spared Canada the need for bank bailouts.

 

The biggest blunder of all had nothing to do with deregulation. For some reason, the Federal Reserve convinced itself that it could focus exclusively on the prices of consumer goods instead of taking asset prices into account when setting monetary policy. In July 2004, the federal funds rate was just 1.25 percent, at a time when urban property prices were rising at an annual rate of 17 percent. Negative real interest rates at this time were arguably the single most important cause of the property bubble.

All of these were sins of commission, not omission, by Washington, and some at least were not unrelated to the very considerable political contributions and lobbying expenditures of the financial sector. Taxpayers, therefore, should beware. It is more than a little convenient for America’s political class to blame deregulation for this financial crisis and the resulting excesses of the free market. Not only does that neatly pass the buck, but it also creates a justification for . . . more regulation. The old Latin question is highly apposite here: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Who regulates the regulators? Until that question is answered, calls for more regulation are symptoms of the very disease they purport to cure.

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