19 Oct 2008

Debunking the Latest Deregulation Myth

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The Wall Street Journal responds to the latest attempt by the left to pin the credit crisis on a lack of regulation.

In an attempt to fill out Mr. Obama’s talking points, the press corps has now fingered a 2004 change in SEC net capital rules. In fact, then-SEC Chairman William Donaldson’s reform was anything but deregulation. A regulatory failure, yes, and a cautionary tale for those who think new regulation will solve everything.

The 2004 change won unanimous approval from SEC commissioners and Democrat Annette Nazareth, who ran the market regulation division at the time. Rather than deregulation, it was a breathtaking regulatory leap for an agency that had traditionally focused on protecting individual investors. Under the new program, the SEC would not simply monitor broker-dealers to ensure that client accounts were safe. The commission staff would collect new data from the parent companies of brokerages and require new monthly and quarterly reports. Firms were supposed to provide detailed explanations of internal risk models.

Before approving the rule at an April 2004 meeting, several commissioners wondered if the SEC staff was up to the task. Apparently not. It’s clear from a recording of that meeting that the commission expected investment banks to employ more debt. This was no unintended consequence but the inevitable result of adopting the so-called Basel II banking standards. The SEC was supposed to apply these standards created for commercial banks to investment banks, but with additional measures to ensure liquidity.

Was Basel II a libertarian plot cooked up at the Cato Institute? Not quite. It was the product of years of effort by the world’s major central banks, intended to avoid crises such as the U.S. savings and loan disaster. Basel embraced the theory that a common set of global banking standards and more intensive study of the risks of particular assets would yield both more efficient use of capital and a more stable financial system.

We now know it did not create stable investment banks, but the SEC could be forgiven for thinking that if it was good enough for the world’s central bankers, it was good enough for the commission. As Ms. Nazareth said of the SEC’s new approach, “It’s largely modeled after Federal Reserve-type supervision and I can’t imagine anyone would question that kind of approach.” Few did. Swiss banking regulators are only now raising mandatory capital ratios above those permitted under Basel II.

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Columbia Business School Professor Charles W. Calomiris joins in the demolition of the same contention.

As for the evils of deregulation, exactly which measures are they referring to? Financial deregulation for the past three decades consisted of the removal of deposit interest-rate ceilings, the relaxation of branching powers, and allowing commercial banks to enter underwriting and insurance and other financial activities. Wasn’t the ability for commercial and investment banks to merge (the result of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed part of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act) a major stabilizer to the financial system this past year? Indeed, it allowed Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch to be acquired by J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America, and allowed Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to convert to bank holding companies to help shore up their positions during the mid-September bear runs on their stocks.

Even more to the point, subprime lending, securitization and dealing in swaps were all activities that banks and other financial institutions have had the ability to engage in all along. There is no connection between any of these and deregulation. On the contrary, it was the ever-growing Basel Committee rules for measuring bank risk and allocating capital to absorb that risk (just try reading the Basel standards if you don’t believe me) that failed miserably. The Basel rules outsourced the measurement of risk to ratings agencies or to the modelers within the banks themselves. Incentives were not properly aligned, as those that measured risk profited from underestimating it and earned large fees for doing so.

That ineffectual, Rube Goldberg apparatus was, of course, the direct result of the politicization of prudential regulation by the Basel Committee, which was itself the direct consequence of pursuing “international coordination” among countries, which produced rules that work politically but not economically. International cooperation, in case you haven’t heard, is exactly what the French and the Germans now say was missing in the past few years.

So why blame deregulation and small government? The social psychologist Gustav Jahoda says that unreasonable beliefs often arise in circumstances where people lack control and need to believe in something to get them through a highly stressful situation. And a fellow named Machiavelli might help us to understand a different reason for simplistic explanations.

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