December 31, 2013

My New Year’s wish for FT. Wake up to what the risk-weighted capital requirements for banks really signify.

Sir, if banks could measure and price risks perfectly, then there would be no need for bank capital, as all expected losses and capital cost would be covered. But, since the measuring and pricing of risk is by nature imperfect, there will always be “unexpected losses”, and so regulators need to impose capital requirements for banks.

Unfortunately, the regulators decided that the “unexpected losses” would occur mainly in assets perceived as “risky”, probably because they confuse “unexpected” with ex-ante perceived risk, or because they only concerned themselves with individual banks; while I contend instead that the kind of “unexpected” which could threaten the stability of our whole banking system, is most likely to be found in the “absolutely safe” category.

And, requiring banks to reserve more for “unexpected losses” on “risky” than on “infallible” assets, allows banks to earn much higher risk-adjusted return on equity on the latter.

And, by allowing so, the regulators introduced a distortion that makes it impossible for banks to allocate credit efficiently in the real economy.

Tom Braithwaite ends his December 31 New Year’s “Reasons [for the banks] to be cheerful, despite the threat in the shadows” with “Even as regulators tighten the screws on the banks they seem unsure as to how much they want to police their shadow risks”.

If I could have a New Year’s wish about something that FT could do in 2014, then that would be to notice more how these regulations which discriminate based on ex ante perceived risks, really “tighten the screws” on the access to bank credit for all those ex ante perceived as riskier.

And, consequentially, to notice how that increases inequality, and hinders the banks from taking those risks that could help our young to have a future… those risks that generations before us took through the banks, so that we would all have a future. 

And all for nothing, because at the end of the day, what those regulations guarantees, is that our banks are going to end up gasping for oxygen, in some dangerously overpopulated “safe-havens”.