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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Easing of the Basel III rules - a test case on conflicts of interest?

A lot has been written over the past few weeks regarding the easing of the Basel III banking rules, which we've been meaning to cover but didn't get round to doing.

The specifics and details have been well covered so instead we'll look at some of motivations behind the changes. In our view, the change provides an interesting insight into the potential conflicts between monetary policy and financial supervision – something we have discussed at length with regards to the ECB being turned into the single financial supervisor for the eurozone (see also Felix Salmon’s blog for a wider discussion of this issue).

The changes, which are fairly technical and complex, focus on easing the burden of banks in creating what is known as the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR). This is essentially a liquidity buffer which banks will be required to hold to ensure that they have enough cash (or cash like assets) on hand in a crisis to cover themselves for 30 days. The time frame in which the banks must have this buffer in place has now been increased by 4 years as well.

Again we won’t go into the detail of whether this change undermines the attempts to make banks safer but we would highlight that many banks already meet the adjusted standards, albeit with significant support from central banks (a point we’ll expand on in second) – given the on-going banking troubles in Europe and the US this is naturally a concern.

Monetary policy vs. financial regulation

More interesting from our perspective is the motivation for this change. As Bank of England Governor Mervyn King said:
“Most banks are completely overflowing with liquid assets…[Which] reflects the way in which central banks around the world have expanded balance sheets to provide economic stimulus. That won’t always be the case in the future.”

“Since we attach great importance to try to make sure that banks can indeed finance a recovery, it does not make sense to impose a requirement on banks that might damage the recovery.”
So it seems that the ultimate motivation for the move is to make it easier for central banks to remove themselves from non-standard monetary policy measures (such as QE or the LTRO) without fearing a massive drop in lending.

Clearly, both these concerns fall into the realm of monetary policy, rather than supervision or regulation. Obviously, a collapse in bank lending would be bad for everyone, so the measures are tied to some notion of short term financial stability, but surely these comprehensive Basel III regulations – which will set the basis for financial regulation over the next decade or more – should be taking a much more long term view than this. There are very real concerns that in the long term this could hamper the safety of banks and their ability to withstand future crises without taxpayer help.

A further motivation for the changes seems to be an attempt to encourage demand for a wider variety of assets by allowing them to be held as part of the LCR. Again this is all well and good, but it is the job of monetary policy to manage such demands and should not become ingrained in long term regulation. It is hard not to see this as a sop to the current crisis and immediate economic problems. (On the other hand we would note that this does help ease concerns that the requirements for banks to hold more sovereign debt would worsen the sovereign-banking-loop, although again increasing the risk on banks’ balance sheets is not a desirable trade-off.)

As mentioned above, the easing of regulations may make it much easier for central banks to exit their non-standard monetary policy measures without causing market distortions. The lack of a clear exit strategy is something which we have continuously warned of within regards to greater ECB intervention and the problem still applies. Obviously, finding the best way out is important but not at the expense of a safer banking system. Furthermore, taking such substantial action, such as that seen during the crisis, should not be done lightly and altering regulations to ease the potential problems or side effects of such actions could lead to a situation where the final cost of such actions are not fully considered. It is not hard to imagine similar pressure being applied to the ECB’s monetary policy, particularly if the eurozone crisis escalates again, while easing supervision would provide an easy out rather than managing the imperfect one size fits all monetary policy.

We must note that these regulations are produced by the Basel Committee and the BIS, not the ECB, so it is far from certain that the ECB will act in a similar way (although many of the central bankers involved do overlap). Additionally, the ECB will not be directly responsible for regulation but supervision, although there is substantial flexibility within this bracket and the people involved will still have a large say on regulation at the European Banking Authority (EBA). 

Our main point is that there will be very similar pressures and very similar powerful lobbies, which seem to have had a substantial impact here. This of particular concern for the ECB, where the Chinese walls could well prove insufficient, with the ultimate power for both supervision and monetary policy residing with the Governing Council.

We would suggest the previously mostly theoretical conflict of interest between financial supervision/ regulation and monetary policy just got a little bit more real.

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