January 11, 2017

Risk weighted capital requirements for banks caused the animal spirits of hyenas to substitute for those of lions.

Sir. We had a crisis, which resulted directly from the distorted incentives for the allocation of credit to the real economy that the risk weighted capital requirements for banks caused. If anyone doubts that, just consider that Basel II, of 2004, allowed banks to leverage equity a mindboggling 62.5 to 1 with private sector assets, as long as these assets had an AAA to AA rating. If they did not posses a credit rating then a 12.5 to 1 leverage was the max.

True, FDIC and the Fed did not allow USA’s commercial banks to follow these Basel II rules initially, but the SEC did allow the investment banks to do so, as were European banks allowed to do. That set off the most voracious appetite ever for AAA rated assets, and the markets, understandably, set out to satisfy that demand, in any which way it could, even if by means of fraudulent behavior. Because that is what markets do!

To top it up, with Basel I of 1988, the regulators had risk-weighted Sovereigns with zero percent, and consequentially banks were allowed to build up huge exposures against little capital for sovereigns such like Greece.

And then we had Central Banks, Fed, by means of QEs, injecting the mother of all liquidity in the markets, and again, by foremost buying up sovereign debt, mostly benefitting governments, and indirectly those who already owned assets like stocks.

Sir, the can of the crisis was simply kicked down the road; and the regulations that make banks earn higher risk adjusted returns on equity when financing the “safer” past and present than when financing the “riskier” future kept in place. Our grandchildren will hold us accountable for this.

Martin Wolf nonetheless gives a very positive review of Obama’s eight years of economic policy, “How Obama rebuilt the economy” January 11. How come?

The truth is that Wolf does not get it yet! Here he writes of “a broader post-crisis loss of animal spirits” without being able to understand that those risk weighted capital requirements for banks that I referred to, pre and post crisis, what they have done is to substitute the spirits of hyenas for the spirits of lions.