December 15, 2018

Even the best central bankers can mess it up, royally

Sir, Tim Harford writes: “A flint-hearted technocrat can at times deliver better results for everyone. In the early 1980s, Fed chair Paul Volcker demonstrated the basic idea that inflation could be crushed by a sufficiently badass central banker.” “Stop sniping at central banks and set clear targets” December 16.

Indeed, and Paul Volcker was a hero of mine too, that is until I realized his role as the facilitator of the risk weighted capital requirements for banks.

In his book “Keeping at it”, penned together with Christine Harper, Paul Volcker writes: “The Europeans, as a group, firmly insisted upon a “risk-based” approach, seemingly more sophisticated because it calculated assets based on how risky they seemed to be. They felt it was common sense that certain kind of assets –certainly including domestic government bonds but also home mortgages and other sovereign debt- shouldn’t require much if any capital. Commercial loans, by contrast, would have strict and high capital requirements, whatever the credit rating might be…. At the end of a European tour in September in 1986, at an informal dinner with the Bank of England’s then governor Robin Leigh-Pemberton… without a lot of forethought, I suggested to him that if it was necessary to reach agreement, I’d try to sell the risk-based approach to my US colleagues.”

And that was that! In that moment, accepting the European nonsense that what bankers perceive as risky is more dangerous to our bank systems than what banker perceive as safe, Paul Volcker, a central banker, helped condemn us to suffer especially severe bank crisis, resulting from especially large exposures, to what was especially perceived as safe, against especially little capital. I thank him not!

Harford opines “The health of our democracies demands that our politicians start taking responsibility again”

Absolutely! And with respect to bank regulations that requires the politicians to ask for explanations like: Why do you risk weigh the assets based on their perceived risk and not on their risk based on how bankers perceive their risk? Have you never heard about conditional probabilities?

PS. The Basel Committee document that provides an explanation on the portfolio invariant risk weighted capital requirements does not make any sense to me, but perhaps Tim Harford understands it. If so could you please ask him to explain it to us?