April 06, 2016

Mervyn King, for bank regulators to use the expected, as a direct proxy for the unexpected was, and is, radically dumb

Sir, John Plender, March 3, reviewed Mervyn King’s book “The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy" And in doing so Plender writes that King argues that in a world of what economists now call “radical uncertainty”, it is not always possible to compute the expected utility of any action. There is simply no way of identifying the probabilities of all future events and no set of economist’s equations that describe people’s attempts to cope with that uncertainty.”

And according to Plender, King proposes a “central bankerly pawnbroking” facility to supply “liquidity, or emergency money, within a framework that eliminates the incentive for bank runs… That would displace what King regards as a flawed risk-weighted capital regime ill-suited to addressing radical uncertainty.”

And John Kay ends his discussion of King’s book with: “There is a world of difference between low-probability events drawn from the tail of a known statistical distribution and extreme events that happen but had not previously been imagined”, “The enduring certainty of radical uncertainty”, April 6.

Hold it there has all that really anything to do with the current risk weighted capital requirements for banks? Absolutely not!

What happened was that since the regulators did not know how to estimate the unexpected losses, those that bank capital is foremost to safeguard agains, they went out and used the expected credit risks. And since those risk were already cleared for by banks, with interest rates and the size of exposures, credit risks, when also used to set capital requirements, were given too much consideration.

And, for the umpteenth time: any risk, even if perfectly perceived leads to wrong actions if excessively considered.

And Plender also wrote about King arguing: “Banks satisfied investors’ desperate search for income by creating increasingly complex and risky financial products based chiefly on mortgage debt. Bank balance sheets grew explosively as property lending ballooned. At the same time, the capital of banks shrank as they took on more risk.

Again that is not really so! The increasingly complex and risky financial products chosen were entirely based on that these could be argued to be very safe, and therefore require banks to hold less capital. For instance mortgage debt would never ever have exploded as it did, if instead of receiving a 35 percent risk weight, it had the 100 percent risk weight assigned to “risky” SMEs and entrepreneurs.

And Plender also wrote about King arguing: “They were trapped by what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma. If they retreated from riskier lending and trading strategies while reducing their borrowings, a decline in short-term profits relative to their competitors would have caused staff to defect in pursuit of higher bonuses elsewhere and prompted calls for the chief executive’s head.”

Those “short tem profits” are not some absolute profits, but returns on equity, and so banks, searching for the highest profits, naturally favored those exposures that provided the highest expected risk adjusted returns on equity, in other words those that could be most leveraged.

Sir, I have no respect for a regulator like Mervyn King. He and all his colleagues decided to regulate banks without defining their purpose. Had they done so they would have known, that the most important social purpose of banks is to allocate credit efficiently to the real economy.

Now our banks do not finance the riskier future they just refinance the, for the short time being, safer past.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.” John Augustus Shedd, 1850-1926 

I can understand journalists covering the reputation of old friends… but is that really their role and duty? “Without fear and without favor”… Hah!

@PerKurowski ©