April 19, 2017

Why do bank credit’ surpluses and deficits not attract the same concerns as does trade’s surpluses and deficits?

Sir, Martin Wolf writes: “What is frightening about the trade agenda of the administration is that it manages to be both irrelevant and damaging. A relevant agenda would focus on the imbalances in savings and investment across the world economy” “Dealing with America’s trade follies” April 19.

Of course Wolf, like IMF among others, is right to be concerned with growing trade protectionism. What I can’t understand is why he, and IMF among most others, is not at all concerned with the consequences of financial protectionism?

I ask because the risk weighted capital requirements for banks are just like any other sort of tariff. It benefits some, and hurts other… in all it dangerously distorts the allocation of bank credit to the real economy, for no good purpose at all, as it does not promote financial stability, much the contrary.

In November 2004 FT published a letter titled “Basel just a mutual admiration club of firefighters seeking to avoid crisis” In it I wrote: “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.”

Of course there I was referring to the fact that the Basel Committee had decreed that the sovereigns were safer than the private sectors on which usually the sovereign depended.

Could the problem be that Wolf does not understand that allowing banks to leverage their equity (and the societal support they receive) differently for different assets distorts?

Or is it that Wolf, and the IMF, also belong to that admiration club and therefore dare or cannot breakup with its own groupthink?

PS. If I am obsessed with the risk weighted capital requirements for banks, which I am, then Martin Wolf must be just as obsessed with his “macroeconomic imbalances”.