Finreg I: Bank capital and original sin
I have always flattered myself that I would someday die either in prison or with a rope around my neck. So I was excited when The Epicurean Dealmaker invited me to write about financial regulation and crosspost at a site called The New Decembrists. But my views on the topic have grown both more vehement and more distant from the terms of the current debate (such as it is), and I’m having a hard time expressing myself. So I’ll ask readers’ indulgence, go slowly, and start from the beginning. This will be the first long post of a series.
Banks are not financial intermediaries. Their role is not, as the storybooks pretend, to serve as a nexus between savers with capital and entrepreneurs in need of capital for economically valuable projects. Savers do transfer funds to banks, and banks do transfer funds to borrowers. But transfers of funds are related to the provision of capital like nightfall is related to lovemaking. Passion and moonlight are often found together, yes, and there are reasons for that. But the two are very distinct phenomena. They are connected more by coincidence than essence.
The essence of capital provision is bearing economic risk. The flow of funds is like the flow of urine: important, even essential, as one learns when the prostate malfunctions. But “liquidity”, as they say, takes care of itself when the body is healthy. In financial arrangements, whenever capital is amply provided — whenever there is a party clearly both willing and able to bear the risks of an enterprise — there is no trouble getting cash from people who can be certain of its repayment. Always when people claim there is a dearth of “liquidity”, they are really pointing to an absence of capital and expressing disagreement with potential funders about the risks of a venture. Before the Fed swooped in to provide, 2007-vintage CDOs were “illiquid” because the private parties asked to make markets in them or lend against them perceived those activities as horribly risky at the prices their owners desired. There was never an absence of money. There was an absence of willingness to bear risk, an absence of capital for very questionable projects.
No economic risk is borne by insured bank depositors. We have recently learned that very little economic risk is borne by the allegedly uninsured creditors of large banks, and even equityholders — preferred and common — have much of the risk of ownership blunted for them in a crisis by terrified governments. The vast, vast majority of bank capital is therefore provided by the state. Prior to last September, uninsured creditors of US banks were providing some capital. Though they relied upon and profited from a “too big to fail” option when buying bonds of megabanks, there was some uncertainty about whether the government would come ultimately come through. So creditors bore some risk. During the crisis, private creditors wanted out of bearing any of the risk of large banks. Banks were illiquid because private parties viewed them as very probably insolvent, and were unsure that the state would save them.
The US banking system was recapitalized by precisely three words: “no more Lehmans”. All the money we shelled out, the TARP, the Fed’s exploding balance sheet, the offered-but-untapped “Capital Assistance Program”, mattered only insofar as they made the three magic words credible. At this moment the Fed and the Treasury are crowing about how banks are now able to “raise private capital” and about “how TARP is being repaid” and “losses on TARP investments will be much less than anticipated”. That is all subterfuge and sleight-of-hand, flows of urine while the beast lumbers on. The US government has persuaded markets that it stands behind its large banks, that despite no legal right to such protection, all creditors will be made whole and equityholders will live to fluctuate another day. Banks have raised almost no private capital, in an economic sense. They have attracted liquidity on the understanding that the government continues to bear the downside risk.
It’s unfair to say that the government now supplies all large bank capital. Stockholders still suffer price volatility and there is some uncertainty that the government will remain politically capable of being so generous. But the vast majority of large-bank economic capital is now supplied by the state, regardless of the private identities and legal forms associated with bank funding arrangements. So long as the political consensus to support them is strong, American megabanks are in fact exceedingly well capitalized, as the US dollar risk-bearing capacity of their public guarantors is infinite. But that is not a good thing.
No iron law of economics ensures that those who bear the risk of an enterprise enjoy the fruit of its successes. Governments have the power to absorb the downside of formally private enterprises (and the libertarian so principled as to refuse a bail-out is very rare indeed). But they have no automatic ability to collect profits or capture gains from organizations that they economically capitalize, but do not legally own. Bearing the downside risk of a project with no claim on the upside is the circumstance of the writer of an option. Private parties who write options, either explicitly or implicitly via credit arrangements, demand to be paid handsomely for accepting one-sided risk. Governments do not. Banks pay deposit insurance premia, but only on a fraction of the liabilities the government guarantees and in a manner that does not discriminate between the prudent and reckless (which creates a public subsidy to recklessness). When governments have lent to banks during the crisis, they have lent at well below the rates even untroubled, creditworthy nonfinancial borrowers could obtain on the market, so that the implicit option premia embedded in credit spreads were somewhere between negligible and negative. Governments paid banks for the privilege of insuring their risks, or to put it more accurately, they acknowledged that they had already insured bank risks and found ways of paying out claims via subsidies sufficiently hidden as to be politically palatable.
As we think about how to regulate banks going forward, we must first be clear about what we are doing. We are negotiating the terms of options that the government will offer to bank stakeholders. It is important to understand that, for both practical and philosophical reasons. As long as the state substantially bears the downside risks of the financial system, by virtue of explicit legal arrangements or de facto political realities, philosophical arguments for deregulation are incoherent. Deregulation is equivalent to a blank check from the state. If you are philosophically in favor of free market capitalism, you must be in favor of very radical changes in the structure of banking, towards a system under which the state would have no obligation to intervene, and would in fact not intervene, to support bank stakeholders even when their enterprise threaten to collapse. The “resolution regimes” currently proposed do not restore “free market” incentives, because those proposals codify rather than forbid state assumption of risk and losses in the event of a crisis. A free market resolution regime would allocate losses among private stakeholders only, and prevent any loss-shifting to the government. For the moment, such a regime, and the structural changes to the banking system that would be required to make it credible, are politically beyond the pale.
So, the options written by government to bank stakeholders will remain in place. All that remains, then, is to negotiate the terms of those options. Framing bank regulation in terms of option contracts underlines a reality that is tragic but true: options are zero-sum games. One party’s benefit is another party’s cost. Very deeply, there is no confluence of interest we can seek between our best and brightest financiers and the public good. Terms that are good for banks are bad for taxpayers. Negotiating the terms of an option with a wealth-seeking counterparty is an inherently adversarial affair. When President Obama is on the phone with Jamie Dimon, do you think he keeps that in mind? A fact of life that our President seems not to enjoy is that while sometimes there are miscommunications that can be resolved via open exchange, sometimes there are genuine conflicts of interest that must simply be fought out. Bank regulation, alas, is much more the latter.
There are indirect as well as direct effects of option contracts, so maybe I’ve framed things too harshly. After all, we allow and encourage formal derivatives exchanges because, even though the derivative contracts themselves are zero-sum, they permit businesses to insure against risks, and that insurance can enable real wealth creation that might not have otherwise occurred. We claim that derivatives markets make indirect positive contributions to the real economy, despite the fact that their direct effect is simply to shuffle money between participants. Banking also just shuffles money around, but we generally think that it enables important business activity. So one might argue that banks and the public have a common interest after all, and smart regulation to evolve could from a more consensual process. But, one would be wrong. We all have a stake in the existence of a payments system, and banks provide one, but managing that is a largely riskless activity, conceptually separable from the lending and investing function of banks. We would also like our economic capital to be allocated productively. But the effect of writing a more bank-friendly options contract is to reduce the penalties for poor capital allocation while enhancing the payoffs to big, long-shot risks. Banks destroy Main Street wealth and create Wall Street crises by making foolish and indiscriminate use of the capital entrusted to them. If we desire a better banking system, we must limit the degree to which private stakeholders can expect to be made whole by the state. With respect to regulation, what’s good for Goldman Sachs is quite opposed to what is good for America. The point of regulating is to align public and private interests by imposing costly limitations on how banks can behave. Indirect considerations of public welfare reinforce rather than reduce the degree to which bank regulation is zero-sum, a fight that pits the health of the real economy against the distributional interests of bank stakeholders.
However, there is some light in the bleakness. Once we understand that we are negotiating option contracts, we can look to some guidance from the private sector. Option-like private contracts are negotiated all the time, and the issues that surround managing them are well understood. A compare-and-contrast of public sector bank regulation and private sector contracts will prove informative. That will be the subject of our next installment.
Acknowledgments: To be acknowledged by me is like being kissed by a putrescent semi-decapitated halitotic zombie creature. Nevertheless, I failed to weave many links into the above, and my thinking on these issues owes a lot to a bunch of people who are smarter and better smelling than me, so I feel duty bound to mention them. In particular, it was Winterspeak and Mencius Moldbug who fully disabused me of the notion that banks are intermediaries between private parties, which pushed me to think more deeply about the meaning of bank capital, and capital in general. Others who have the misfortune of having influenced my thinking on these issues include supercommenter JKH, Economics of Contempt, Wonkess, The Epicurean Dealmaker, James Kwak, Mike Konczal, and John Hempton. (I’m sure there are more I’ve missed: count yourselves lucky!) But the views expressed above are my own, and all of the people I’ve mentioned are far too sensible lend them any credence.