The major congressional response to the Financial Crisis was the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, putting many restrictions on U.S. financial institutions in hopes of ending “too big to fail.” The problem is that the new regulations often apply to the many low risk, traditional, main street banks which did not cause the financial crisis. The new regulations hamper the ability of these smaller banks to lend money to their regular customers, thereby slowing down the economic growth we need for full recovery from the recession. Thomas Hoenig, Vice Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, has recently made some common sense recommendations for alleviating this problem.
He proposes to provide relief for financial institutions which meet the following criteria:
Banks that hold zero trading assets or liabilities.
Banks that hold no derivative positions other than interest rate swaps and foreign exchange derivatives.
Banks whose total value of all derivative exposures is less than $3 billion.
Banks which have a ratio of equity-to-assets of at least 10%. Most community banks meet this criteria and the number is within reach for those which do not.
Of more than 6500 commercial banks, only about 400 do not meet the first three criteria. None of the banks with more than $100 billion in total assets meet these criteria. Banks which qualify could receive relief such as:
Exemptions from Basel capital standards and risk-weighted asset calculations.
Allowing for examiner judgment in eliminating requirements to refer “all possible or apparent fair lending violations to Justice” if judged to be de-minimis or inadvertent.
Exemptions from appraisal and stress test requirements.
Allowing an 18-month examination cycle as opposed to the current 12-month cycle.
Mr. Hoenig’s conclusion: “For the vast majority of commercial banks that stick to traditional banking activities, and conduct their activities in a safe and sound manner with sufficient capital reserves, the regulatory burden would be eased. For the small handful of firms that have elected to expand their activities beyond commercial banking, the additional regulatory burden is theirs to bear.”
The Financial Crisis in 2008 was one of the most disruptive events in U.S. history. It is crucial that we understand what caused it so that we can recover from it more fully and avoid a recurrence. My favorite books about the crisis are: The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure by John Allison, President of the CATO Institute and former CEO of the large financial services company, BB&T; Bull By the Horns by Sheila Bair, Chair of the FDIC from 2006-2011; and Hidden in Plain Sight by Peter Wallison, an economics policy scholar at AEI and former member of the FCIC. Not surprisingly, these three very well informed individuals have somewhat different points of view.
Mr. Wallison says that the government’s affordable housing policies caused the financial crisis by essentially requiring the GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to acquire increasingly large numbers of subprime mortgages. The financial power of the GSEs forced private lenders to lower their own lending standards in order to compete (this last assertion is in dispute). When the resulting housing bubble burst, large numbers of subprime mortgages defaulted causing huge losses for both GSEs and private financial institutions alike.
Ms. Bair says that “the subprime lending abuses could have been avoided if the Federal Reserve Board had simply used the authority it had since 1994 under the Home Ownership Equity Protection Act to promulgate mortgage lending standards across the board.” In March 2007 she testified strongly in favor of the Fed issuing an anti-predatory lending regulation under HOEPA and was rebuffed by the Fed. As FDIC Chair she constantly urged, largely without success, that other federal agencies use their regulatory powers to curtail the abuses of private lenders.
Mr. Allison agrees with Mr. Wallison that “the whole origination market relaxed its standards to compete with Freddie and Fannie.” However he goes on to say that “the investment banks (including Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers) magnified the misallocation of credit to the housing market. They created a series of financial innovations (CDOs, derivatives, etc.) that leveraged an already overleveraged product. … Investment bankers unquestionably made irrational decisions based on pragmatic, short-term thinking. … Those who made these mistakes should have been fired and their companies allowed to fail.”
Can these disparate points of view be melded into a coherent framework for the financial crisis which suggests a way forward from where we are today? I will attempt to do this in my next post.
“If stupidity got us into this mess, why can’t stupidity get us out?”
Will Rogers, 1879 – 1935
The Financial Crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession, from which we are still slowly emerging, is the greatest shock to our fiscal and economic health since the Great Depression of the 1930s. There are many explanations available for what happened, the most believable ones being written by the major participants themselves. My favorite reference for these events is the book, “Bull by the Horns,” written by the former Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Sheila Bair, who held this post from 2006 – 2011. Ms. Bair could see the crisis coming. She interacted with all of the prime players but was too late on the scene, and with too little clout, to have a major effect on the outcome. Another persuasive account is provided by Richard Kovacevich, Chairman Emeritus of Wells Fargo, in a recent speech, “The Financial Crisis: Why the Conventional Wisdom Has It All Wrong.” According to Mr. Kovacevich:
Forcing all large banks to take TARP funds, in October 2008, even if they didn’t want or need the funds, was one of the worst economic decisions in the history of the U.S.
If Bear Stearns had been allowed to go bankrupt in March 2008, Lehman Brothers would have been sold and the subsequent financial crisis greatly reduced. A total of just 20 financial institutions caused the crisis, half investment banks and half savings and loans, yet 6000 commercial banks are being punished by Dodd-Frank.
Dodd-Frank does not address the major causes of the recent crisis and offers few approaches to prevent the next one.
Since regulatory agencies are not capable of using the authority they already have to prevent failures, we need a regulatory system which limits the damage of failures. In case of failure, all creditors, other than insured depositors, should take a “haircut”.
Requiring excessive levels of capital will only cause financial institutions to take on greater risks. If equity and long term debt, at both the bank and bank holding company levels, is required to be maintained at 30% of assets, it is unlikely that the FDIC will ever incur losses.
The quasi-private/public agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need to be abolished.
The Glass-Steagall Act, passed in 1933 and repealed in 1999, should not be reinstated because investment banking is far less risky than commercial banking, and therefore the two forms of banking need not be separated.
There are three warning signs when a financial institution is approaching the danger zone: concentration of risk, inadequate liquidity and significant exposure to capital markets. Competent regulators, not Dodd-Frank, are needed to address these risks.
Recoveries from past recessions have been much more vigorous than our anemic 2.2% rate of GDP growth for the past five years. Mr. Kovacevich believes that because of the Dodd-Frank legislation, and the current monetary policies of the Federal Reserve, the bottom 25% of Americans on the economic ladder have restricted access to mortgages and personal loans. This is inhibiting economic growth and contributing significantly to the inequality gap.