Friday, December 16, 2011

Regulation and the EU crisis

The current spat between the UK and France over whose economy is in worse shape is like two people, one with both arms broken and the other with both legs broken, arguing about who is in better condition to play a game of tennis. All they are achieving is to focus attention on the fact that both of them are not in a fit condition. In doing so, to mix metaphors, they are both placing each other further into the firing line. As it is, the firing line is already broadening:

Bank of America Corp., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc. had their credit grades cut by Fitch Ratings as the impact of financial regulation and market turmoil weighed on the industry.
The lenders’ long-term issuer default ratings were cut one level to A from A+, Fitch said yesterday in a statement. Barclays Plc, based in London, Credit Suisse Group AG, Deutsche Bank AG and BNP Paribas SA also had their grades lowered.
[and] Credit ratings of the world’s biggest lenders have come under pressure amid weak economic growth and doubts about whether European regulators have done enough to end the sovereign-debt crisis. Lenders in the region must raise about 114.7 billion euros ($149 billion) in capital to help address the turmoil, the European Banking Authority said last week.
Fitch downgraded Barclays and Zurich-based Credit Suisse to A from AA-, while lowering France’s BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank to A+ from AA-. Fitch corrected an earlier version of its statement to announce that Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank was cut one level instead of two. Morgan Stanley’s long-term issuer default rating was affirmed at A.
And, of course, sitting underneath all of this is sovereign debt exposure. In 2008, I wrote a post which clearly lays the blame for this debacle in the right place; the banking regulators. I used a Bank of England paper on the impacts of the Basel accord framework (from the Bank for International Settlements, BIS) to highlight the problems the regulators were causing; in particular the idea that risk could be identified and codified by a group of experts. This is what I had to say about the first Basel Accord:

So here we have a determination of risk which assumes that, for example, OECD based banks are safe. We now see that this is not the case, and many of the banks in the OECD would, without government support, now be bankrupt. We also see that lending into government securities is also 'safe' but, as I have argued elsewhere in this blog, countries such as the UK are extremely unsafe at present.

So here we have the essential problem. A bunch of very smart people got together and said that they were able to determine levels of risk. Their conclusions have been shown to be wrong. In particular, OECD banks have demonstrably been shown to be, in a very large number of cases, unsound. I will reiterate this point once again - they were wrong.

Another point in the Basel I accord was that it creates a perverse incentive to lend to governments. Investing in government debt means that money is not being invested into potentially wealth creating investments in the private sector. It also virtually guarantees that government will have access to credit, regardless of whether the governments are acting responsibly or irresponsibly. Such guaranteed provision will almost certainly have been a factor in the growth in Western government / OECD debt. However, it would be impossible to prove one way or another.
 For Basel II, I had the following to say (the quote is from the BoE paper):

Another interesting feature of Basel II is that the accord put the credit rating agencies centre stage in the assessment of risk:
Under the standardised approach banks will slot assets into weighting bands according to ratings from ligible rating agencies (ie recognised by national
supervisors in accordance with specified criteria).
The BoE paper acknowledges that the rating agencies may be no better than the banks at assessing risk, but fails to acknowledge that there is a central conflict of interest - that the ratings agencies are paid for conducting the rating by the banks themselves. The importance of the poor preformance of these ratings in the current financial crisis can not be overstated. However, they were critical to the entire Basel II system:
Exposures to borrowers without a credit rating will be placed in an unrated band that will carry a 100% weight (ie 8% capital charge), but regulators are requested to review the default experience of the particular market (and individual bank) to decide whether this is sufficient. Undrawn facilities to corporates of less than one year, which currentlycarry a zero weight, will be weighted at 20%.
At the heart of all of this regulation is an unfounded belief that, somehow, there are a bunch of people with sufficient wisdom to determine risk, and therefore create a system in which risk of failure is abolished. Such a point view can only do one thing - create complacency. It creates a situation where, provided you meet the rules, you must be sound.
So here we are, years later, with banks having gorged on mountains of 'safe' sovereign debt (as a note, in some financial jurisdictions, they continued to ask banks to report based upon Basel I), and the ratings agencies playing 'catchup' with reality in their issuance of downgrades. Just to add to this wonderful array of regulation, the Basel III accords, a response to the crisis, are now about to be implemented and will require banks to hold larger capital buffers (see here for a summary from BIS). Although market pressures were already leading to banks increasing their buffers, the impact will be for banks to conserve capital to meet the new requirements with implementation of the rules in 2013. In light of the problems of 2008, this might seems like a good idea, but is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Or if I can stretch the metaphor, slamming the stable door shut whilst the horse is half way out of the door.

What really worries me however is the tweaking of the principles of Basel II into the overall structure of the Basel II accords (see full document here, note 1). For example, the new accord places greater emphasis on stress testing, but remember this:

When the European Banking Authority (EBA) published the results of ‘stress tests’ on 90 banks across 21 countries in the EU in July 2011, Franco-Belgian bank Dexia was given a clean bill of health. Barely three months later, however, Dexia needed a €4bn bailout package. The bank had been unable to raise the cash it needed on the financial markets, largely due to concerns about its ability to withstand losses on its €3.4bn exposure to Greece.

Also, for the external rating of assets, they seek to mitigate what they call 'cliff effects' (which I have understood to be 'falling off'), but the ratings agencies are still front and centre alongside the bank's internal risk assessment. The internal risk assessments are seen as an additional check:

Finally, the proposal will seek to reduce to the extent possible reliance by credit institutions on external credit ratings by: a) requiring that all banks' investment decisions are based not only on ratings but also on their own internal credit opinion, and b) that banks with a material number of exposures in a given portfolio develop internal ratings for that portfolio instead of relying on external ratings for the calculation of their capital requirements.

Just to add to the interest and conflicts of interest, for example Moody Analytics boasts that their systems are used by the major banks in supporting Basel I, II and III:

We also provide an integrated economic capital solution for Pillar II ICAAP requirements, as well as an internal rating framework with proprietary and customizable models and scorecards. Additionally, we also provide solutions that allow you to allocate and price risk more effectively and to integrate risk management into the business at the point of origination, increasing operational efficiency and optimizing risk and return, which will be critical in a world with higher capital requirements. Our products are complemented with comprehensive analysis and stress testing tools and expert advisory, implementation and customization services to assist you in all phases of your project.
This will be the same organisation that has, in recent times, been an exemplar of effectiveness in spotting high risk assets, as well as objectivity. For those of you unfamiliar with Moody's I pulled this story up from the WSJ to illustrate the point:

Yuri Yoshizawa, managing director of global structured credit, intends to leave the Moody's Corp. unit at the end of June, a person familiar with the situation said Friday. This person said Ms. Yoshizawa made the decision to step down. She couldn't be reached for comment.

The operation overseen by Ms. Yoshizawa was criticized as an example of what went wrong when rating firms analyzed CDOs and other mortgage-related deals before the worst of the financial crisis. Lawmakers and other critics say ratings firms like Moody's awarded their highest ratings to questionable mortgage bonds in order to win business from issuers of the bonds.

Collateralized debt obligations were among the hardest-hit investments during the crisis, causing tens of billions of dollars in losses for investors, many of whom were attracted to their high ratings.
At a Senate hearing last April, Ms. Yoshizawa was prodded about the back-and-forth between analysts and bond issuers as the analysts worked on ratings for new bonds. "There was always pressure from banks," she said, noting that the relationship could get contentious and "very abusive."

Emails between Ms. Yoshizawa and Moody's colleagues emerged during the investigation by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a panel formed to explore the causes of the crisis.

An October 2007 email showed that the firm's market share in CDOs had fallen to 94% from more than 98%. In her reply, Ms. Yoshizawa asked colleagues to "take a look at the deals we didn't rate … to double check the information and to let me know any of the 'stories.' "

Some critics cite the email as an example of pressure on Moody's analysts to win business. Ms. Yoshizawa told lawmakers last year that she couldn't recall ever removing an analyst from a transaction as it was being rated because of arm-twisting by banks, though she said future deals might be assigned to a different analyst.
So here we have the situation. Banking regulations determined that OECD sovereign debt was safe, banks gorged on the debt, and the debt was not safe. As Basel was adapted, it placed ever greater influence in the hands of ratings agencies who have a track record of being hopeless at assessing risk, have chronic conflicts of interest, and who only manage to downgrade assets at the point at which they are about to collapse (if not after they have collapsed). On top of this, the internal risk assessment looms large. It is hardly inspiring of confidence.

Most worrying is that, those who are determining policy think that this is all a good idea. Now that really does present a worrying picture.......

Note 1: I have not read the whole document (not an easy read, but interesting in places), but summaries can be found elsewhere.


  1. Thanks for spelling this out again Cynicus. I've increasingly seen other parts of your analysis echoed elsewhere in the last year, but I've not seen other commentators pointing out the systematic effects of the wrong sort of regulation - diverting investment towards consumption, bolstering the illusion that risk had been eliminated and it was 'different ths time', helping the bubble last longer and grow even bigger than it would otherwise have been.
    Am I right in recalling that you have previously argued that regulation should focus on disclosure?

  2. Have people read about the proposed permanent European Stability Mechanism?

    Among other things it can demand any amount of funds from Euro member countries, and the body and its managers are free from any form of governmental or legal challenge!

  3. Surely the essence of Government Debt is simply that banks are to respect these gangsters who can simply expropriate the private sector to meet obligations, so the banks are essentially co-opted into acting as a gangster's moll.

    It is the arbitrary nature of Government that is being rewarded by its monopoly on force implicit in its ability to seize assets from legal owners. It is therefore Leviathan that is being rewarded rather than the Lockean Order

  4. A Merry Christmas and as Happy a New Year as events permit to Cynicus and to other posters. Please keep the posts coming, Cynicus!

    I've just seen a post about government credit ratings on the Viable Opposition blog, which others may find interesting:

  5. The defining feature of the post-crisis reform movement seems to be the array of influences, chief among the new institutional structures, which are driving the financial markets regime toward greater centralization.


You are more than welcome to comment on the posts, but please try to stay on topic....I will publish all comments, excepting spam and bad language, and my moderation of the comments is just to exclude these.

Please allow up to two days for the comment to appear.

I have had a request for an email address for the site and have created the following:


I have ommitted the @ symbol to avoid spam....

For general purposes I would suggest using the comment form, but will occasionally look at this email account. Please be clear what is for publication and what is not, though I will also not guarantee publishing of email comments, unlike the comments through the form! Thanks.