August 07, 2015

Bank regulators suffer “pre-dread-risk”, an exaggerated sense of fear and insecurity anticipating catastrophic events.

Sir, you know, and John Plender knows that over the years, with more than a thousand letters, I have warned that current capital requirements doom banks to dangerously overpopulate “safe havens” and equally dangerously under-explore the “riskier” but surely more productive bays where SMEs and entrepreneurs reside. And the regulators, as the safest of all safe havens, designated the infallible sovereigns… their paymasters.

In November 2004 FT published a letter where I said: “We wonder how many Basel propositions it will take before they start realizing the damage they are doing by favoring so much bank lending to the public sector. In some developing countries, access to credit for the private sector is all but gone, and the banks are up to the hilt in public credits.”

And now John Plender writes about “a shortage of so-called safe assets… a stampede into sovereign bonds with negligible or negative yields — Even a modest move in the direction of historic interest rate norms could pose a threat to solvency [of] banks whose balance sheets are stuffed with sovereign debt” “Why bullish markets did nothing for bearish boards”, August 6.

An in the discussion Plender mentions that “OECD economists [have] identified flawed incentive structures as part of the reason for divergent perceptions of risk… equity-related incentives and performance-related pay…earnings per share and total shareholder return, [which] are manipulable by management.”

And Plender also brings forward “economists at the Basel-based Bank for International Settlements believe that low interest rates beget yet lower rates because they cause bubbles, followed by central bank bailouts. Their worry is that we risk trapping ourselves in a cycle of financial imbalances and busts.”

But Plender, in true FT tradition, does not say one single word about the perverse manipulation of credit markets carried out by bank regulators.

Plender mentions Andrew Haldane putting “particular emphasis on the phenomenon of “dread risk”, a term used by psychologists to describe an exaggerated sense of fear and insecurity in the wake of catastrophic events.

But, does not requiring banks to have 500% more capital when they lend to “the risky” than when they lend to “the safe”, evidence the mother of all exaggerated sense of fear and insecurity… in this case anticipating catastrophic events… a sort of pre-dread risk?

Because, that is exactly what regulators showed when, with Basel II, they required bank to hold 8 percent in capital when lending to a “risky” SME or entrepreneur, but only 1.6 against AAA rated assets… and allowed zero capital when lending to infallible sovereigns.

PS. The OECD’s Business and Finance Outlook 2015 also similarly ignores the effects of the risk-averse bank capital requirements. When referring to the “reduced bank lending [which have] affected SMEs in particular” it shamelessly limits itself to stating “credit sources tend to dry up more rapidly for small companies than for large companies during economic downturns”.