December 08, 2017

The Basel Committee’s bank regulators being replaced by an algorithm could be the best that could happen.

Sir, I refer to Gillian Tett’s “Self-driving finance could turn into a runaway train”, December 8.

Well human-driven banks are now not doing so well either. 

Any algorithm currently making credit decisions for a bank would do so based on maximizing risk-adjusted returns on equity, based on perceived risks of assets and on regulatory bank capital requirements regulations.

Where would it get the risk perceptions? Currently credit ratings… Who knows if in the future algorithms would also take over the credit rating functions… if these have not already done so?

Where would it get the capital requirements? Currently it get those from the Basel Committee’s standardized risk weights, or if the algorithm works for a sophisticated bank, from its own risk models.

So, if the algorithm does its job well, and works for a sophisticated banks, it would seem that in order to obtain the highest risk adjusted return on equity, its priority has to be creating the risk model that minimizes the capital requirement.

And if it works for a bank that uses the standardized risk weights, then it is clear it would not waste its time with what carries a 100% risk weight, like an entrepreneur, but concentrate entirely on those with much lower risk weights, sovereign 0%, AAA rated 20%, residential mortgages 35%.

So, with the risk weighted capital requirements it is clear that whether the banker is a human or an algorithm, we can forget about savvy loan officers… they will all be equity minimizers.

Of course, an entrepreneur can always offer to pay sufficiently high interest rates to overcome the regulatory handicap. But, would doing so not make him even more risky? With current regulatory risk aversion we should cry for the future real economy of our children.

Sir, in 2003, at the World Bank’s Executive Board (before Nassim Nicholas Taleb had appeared on the scene to discuss fragility) I stated: "A mixture of thousand solutions, many of them inadequate, may lead to a flexible world that can bend with the storms. A world obsessed with Best Practices may calcify its structure and break with any small wind."

So, I guess you can you imagine how much I fret us humans falling into the hands of a final conquering algorithm.

Or having to suffer the consequences of the systemic risks resulting from banks using fewer and fewer human bankers… with probably higher bonuses to the remainders.

By the way since the replaced bankers used to pay taxes, will we at least be able to tax those algorithms?

But, come to think of it, if an algorithm substituted for bank regulators that could be great news. I mean any half-decent algorithm would be able to figure out that what is really risky for our bank system is not what is perceived as risky but what is perceived as safe.

And any half-decent algorithm would also require an answer to the question of “What is the purpose of banks?” And I suppose no regulator would dare tell it, “Only to make the maximum risk adjusted returns on equity”