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Tower of Basel

"Bart Naylor" "Financial policy reform"With a simple albeit ambitious decision, Wall Street regulators have a way to all but guarantee that there will be no more financial sector bailouts: require substantial at-risk equity investment.

On Monday, October 22, federal banking regulators will close the public comment period for proposed reforms of so-called capital requirements. Capital rules are the shorthand for the proportional amount of shareholder money that banks must add to any of its loans and other activities. This money joins borrowed money from depositors and other creditors to the bank. Together, stockholder and depositor money is loaned to businesses, home buyers, and other bank clients. If a client can’t repay the whole loan, that loss should come out of the pocket of the stock investor, not the depositor or taxpayer.

Going into the financial crisis, large banks had effectively loaned out $33 for every $1 in stockholder money. When the housing bubble burst, when complex special purpose vehicles exploded, when speculation deals vaporized, that $1 in shareholder investment was not nearly enough to keep these large banks solvent. American taxpayers were forced to invest $700 billion into bank capital accounts through the bailout, with the Federal Reserve shoveling trillions more in cheap credit for the banks.

In order to avoid a repeat of this disaster, the required investment from shareholders must be substantially increased.

Federal bank regulators now propose to improve the capital rules, as part of harmonizing with an accord negotiated in Basel, Switzerland. The regulators’ proposal spans 1,000 pages. The text contains more mathematical formulas than a calculus textbook. By comparison, the Volcker Rule, designed to terminate high risk bank speculation and much maligned for its complexity, is a Reader’s Digest at 300 pages.

These 1,000 of pages represent a lot of trees, both literally and figuratively, but the regulators fail to evince a view of the forest. Most problematic, the regulators essentially leave basic capital levels untouched, at about the same 33-1 level that prevailed during the crash. That upsets leading Washington policy-makers, both Republican and Democrat.

On Oct. 17, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and David Vitter (R-La.) fired a letter to the regulators declaring that capital requirements must be strengthened. There is “bipartisan consensus among members of the Senate Banking Committee that it is appropriate to require banks to fund themselves with equity sufficient to withstand sufficient economic shocks,” the senators wrote.

Earlier this month, two dozen former regulators, both Republican and Democrat, led by former FDIC Chair Sheila Bair, and Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker called for investor capital equal to 16 percent of the bank’s activities. Sitting FDIC Vice Chair Thomas Hoenig agrees that capital should be substantially higher than currently proposed. Other experts, such as MIT economist Simon Johnson and Stanford professor Anat Admati, call for 20 percent at-risk investment. Admati emphasizes that high capital won’t sit idly in a cookie jar, such as a rainy day fund. Other firms finance themselves entirely with at-risk equity capital, such as the computer company, Apple Inc.

With sound capital, the regulators can dispense with the second major problem with their proposal, namely risk-weighting. This counterproductive exercise allows banks to hold less capital for some activity. If implemented, JP Morgan would need less investor capital for a loan to a faltering big bank like Bank of America than a loan to a profitable, growing company like Apple Inc. Absurd.

The risk-weighting rules are complex, a “tower of Basel,” according to Bank of England director Andrew Haldane. In effect, the weights become “central planners’ determination of risks, which creates its own adverse incentives for banks making asset choices,” according to the FDIC’s Hoenig.

Banks want simplicity? Here you go: In Public Citizen’s comment letter, we call for a strict capital requirement of 20 percent, with no hall passes for risk weighting.

Bartlett Naylor is Public Citizen’s financial advocate. Follow him on Twitter @BartNaylor.